The Big Read Blog (Archive)

The Handshake Deal

March 13, 2008
Washington, DC

At least once every 75 years or so, the federal government does something right for American literature.

In 1935, the New Deal's Works Progress Administration recognized that scribblers, no less than stonemasons and bridgebuilders, needed work, and created the Federal Writers Project (FWP) to "hold up a mirror to America." In 2006, the National Endowment for the Arts founded The Big Read, a nationwide initiative using one-city, one-book programs to restore reading to the heart of American life. With luck -- and maybe an assist from the modest proposal below -- by 2075 there may still be an audience, not just for great books but for newspapers, which taught me how to read.

The Great Depression and the New Deal seem much on people's minds of late, and for alarmingly more than the predictable anniversary-related reasons. Bookstores this month are making room for Nick Taylor's American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work. This fall they'll stock the FWP-inspired State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America by Sean Wilsey and Matt Weiland. And this week several arms of the Library of Congress, including the indispensable Center for the Book and the American Folklife Center, will host a 75th-anniversary celebration and exploration of the New Deal. (For more on this event, go to http://www.loc.gov/folklife/newdeal/index.html)

For any writer, though, the crowning glory of the New Deal will always be the American Guides, a series of travel books to all 50 states, many cities, and any number of deserts, rivers, and other wonders. In Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck called the American Guides "the most comprehensive account of the United States ever got together, and nothing since has even approached it."

I bring all this up because I just got back from a long drive through Big Reads in Worcester, Mass.; Owednsoro, Ky.; and Terre Haute, Ind. Good citizenship and great readership made common cause all along the way. The weather even held up until I got caught in a brainstorm driving through Massachusetts: It suddenly hit me that Mapquest.com is pretty good for getting you from A to B, but, for points between, you might as well be locked in the trunk. There's no provision for discovering any of America's inexhaustible shunpike literature and history -- precisely the lore in which the American Guides abound.

With that in mind, I'm callingfor the creation of a free, route-based, readily searchable online repository of all the text and photography from every last American Guide, with the Center for the Book's literary maps to all 50 states thrown in for good measure. Copyright law here should prove less of a headache than usual, considering that the American taxpayer already paid for this priceless treasure house a lifetime ago.

As for the expense of digitization and organization, Mapquest itself is rumored to have a spare shekel or two lying around. Their website's "Avoid Toll Roads" option has become a boon to motorists everywhere, but a "Seek Out Literary Birthplaces" link would have a charm all its own to advertisers as well as drivers. Readers of Zora Neale Hurston's indestructible Their Eyes Were Watching God -- the focus of thriving Big Reads from Milwaukee to Louisiana, and in 11 other cities and towns around the country just this spring -- might possibly enjoy a Florida vacation even more if they had Hurston herself in the back seat, pointing out the sights.

I bring up Hurston especially because this Friday at 5 o'clock, I mean to shake the hand of 91-year-old Stetson Kennedy, who worked with her on the Florida Writers Project back when, as he remembers, lighting one of her ever-present cigarettes could have gotten them both lynched. In my travels for The Big Read, I've already shaken the hand of a man one handshake removed from Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. I shook the hand of the great American novelist Charles Portis, who hasn't granted an interview since Big Read author Harper Lee was cheerfully chatting up the press on behalf of her first novel.

Most important, I've hugged the Hartford, Conn., librarian who e-mailed me last week about a man in his twenties who "had never read a book, but decided to pick up The Maltese Falcon because everybody else was reading it...'Look how much I read,' he told [the librarian] proudly. He left work saying that he was going home to finish reading the book tonight."

That may not quite be the New Deal. But at a time when writers make headlines by lying, but can't even get reviewed for telling the truth, The Big Read is a sweet deal just the same. I look forward to meeting one of the last survivors of the Federal Writers Project this Friday and shaking on it.