The Big Read Blog (Archive)

The Big Read Blog Enters a New Year - Complete with Resolutions

January 4, 2007
San Francisco, CA

Happy New Year from the California desk of the Big Read! I'm newly ensconced here for a few days, drumming up Big Read applications in a few hard-to-reach corners of the country, looking in on the pilot program for The Big Read in Corrections, and hosing down the occasional office brushfire with a 3,000-foot hose -- spraying what I hope is water, not kerosene. Leave that for Montag in Fahrenheit 451.

Next week I fly and drive to Marfa, Texas, which to hear Big Read organizer Alice Jennings tell it is even, shall we say, cozier, than anticipated. Notwithstanding its reputation as an arts mecca whose Lannan Foundation writers-in-residence cabins have hosted the likes of Infinite Jest novelist David Foster Wallace, it's still a tiny town where driving to the airport at 5 in the morning will apparently put me at risk of caroming off quadrupeds I've never even heard of. Marfa is apparently taking to Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima like a Californian to somebody else's water, so this trip shapes up as another real treat, of which you can expect to hear more soon.

After Marfa I head to the Bay Area for, among other things, a mite more Big Read outreach. Outreach, for those as unfamiliar with this term of art as I was two years ago, is the delicate practice of encouraging cities and towns still unenlightened about the Big Read to jump in the pool, especially with our February 12 application drawing ever nigh. (As Jacques-Yves Cousteau used to say, see bottom.)

Also in San Francisco, my old colleagues at the National Book Critics Circle are hosting their annual award nominations announcement West of the Hudson River for the first time at 6 pm on Saturday, January 12, inside storied City Lights Bookstore at Columbus Avenue and Broadway. Joining me will be Big Read author Amy Tan, poet, painter, City Lights proprietor and all-around living landmark Lawrence Ferlinghetti, his fellow writer-publisher-activist Dave Eggers, and more West Coast writers than New York can shake a dismissive finger at.

Mark Twain. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

In between catching up with old friends, I'm newly tasked to begin some fruitful conversations about how the NEA can help restore book reviewing to its rightful place at the heart of American thought. With that in mind, I'd like to inaugurate a regular feature of the Big Read Blog, namely to spotlight the one old book review that arguably put each Big Read author or book on the literary map to stay. Contrary to partisans on either side of the old argument, the writers we love are both born and made, and the ones who make them have almost always been book reviewers.

Since I'm still sawing away at my Twain reader's guide, the first review I'll feature is novelist William Dean Howells' reputation-making unsigned notice in the December 1869 number of the Atlantic Monthly for Twain's The Innocents Abroad, savorable online thanks to the University of Virginia Library. Howells wrote, "There is an amount of pure human nature in the book, that rarely gets into literature...we think [Twain] is...quite worthy of the company of the best." (A tip of the Big Read Blog chapeau to Ron Powers' exemplary life of Twain for the referral.)

So screamed Mark Twain's comet across the sky, with a national reach it never had before, never to dim again. I hope you enjoy this all-important footnote to Twain's rise because, coming to this space, there'll be discussions of a watershed review or two for all 21 Big Read books in the new year. That, along with much else and more of it, as the Big Read phenomenon gets called up from its record-smashing Triple-A season last year and reaches the bigs in 2008. See you here again in a couple of days, drop me a line at bigreadblog@arts.gov, and please apply for a 2008-9 Big Read at www.neabigread.org/application_process.php...