The NEA Big Read Gets a Makeover
When author Kelly Link was a kid, she owned a pet boa constrictor named “Baby.” Celeste Ng had dreams of becoming an astronaut and Kao Kalia Yang loved reading Little House on the Prairie. Before they became writers, Ron Carlson was a fry cook, Emily St. John Mandel was a professional dancer, and Yu Hua was a dentist who wasn’t too fond of the inside of anyone’s mouth. Alejandro Zambra records himself reading his entire books aloud (he’s lucky they’re short); Claudia Rankine wrote a play performed on a bus ride through the South Bronx; Joy Harjo plays the ukulele; and Kevin Young, on occasion, watches Judge Judy on CBS. Books by these authors will soon be added to the NEA Big Read as part of a new vision for the program to celebrate its tenth anniversary, as well as the NEA’s 50th anniversary. Can you imagine what fun communities around the country will have chatting with them?
Among the exciting new titles are two books in translation, three collections of poetry, and two books published by nonprofit presses (a first). The characters we’ll come to know are strange, intimate, provocative, funny, big-hearted, chilling, lost, reticent and hardworking. The books transport us to China in the 1940s, to a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand or a North Dakota Native-American reservation in the 1980s, to somewhere around the Great Lakes 25 years in the future. We witness the birth of a child, teenage angst, mid-life crises, and the nostalgia of the old. We read of racism, violence, recovery, revenge, survival, faith, and justice. Families struggle and learn and support each other. There are secrets and mysteries. There are meditations on the details of our daily lives. And there are ghosts and wizards and aliens.
As we set out to celebrate the Big Read’s whopping success over these last ten years, we thought it wise to also examine its elements to ensure that it fits within the NEA’s mission to nurture and promote contemporary literature. We love that the program reaches millions of people and all types of audiences, from reluctant readers to avid booklovers. We have photos of people reading our titles in all sorts of places—at the gym, in bars, in parks, even in space (nope, not making that one up). And we’ve read the most heartwarming stories of folks from all sides of an issue coming together through the shared space of a book and listening to each other’s stories, particularly when the author can visit and enliven audiences. We wanted to build on this success while offering a selection of books that is contemporary, diverse, and relevant to our times.
I’m often asked to recommend books. Makes sense given my position, but it’s not an easy question to answer if I don’t know the person well. There are certain books that one could argue everyone should read, but that can be tricky without appearing haughty. This is a big country. We Americans are a wildly disparate lot. We’re also living in a fast-paced world with immediate gratification and unfathomable choices. The competition for our attention is fiercer than ever, diminishing our patience for reading a poem or story that may unfold slowly (even deliciously so). We may know the benefits of reading for pleasure—it reduces stress, slows dementia, heightens empathy, improves students’ test scores, makes us more active and aware citizens—but still we may sheepishly admit that, if we read at all, it’s one or two books a year on vacation. Imagine the pressure of recommending a book to someone knowing that’s the only book that will be read that year.
Well, that’s just what the NEA literature staff did imagine when we set out to update the list of Big Read books. How did we get here? It wasn’t easy. Why these books and not [fill in the blank]? That’s a good question. Tell us about [fill in the blank], won’t you? We’re all ears.
We knew we weren’t looking for the “best” books. (How and why, as a society, we define what’s “best” is a “whole ’nother story,” as my grandmother used to say.) And we didn’t want to stick with just bestsellers and award-winners, for that would be too limiting. We also knew we wouldn’t please everyone with every selection; the range of choices was as important as the individual books. Finally, we knew to view this whole endeavor as an experiment, that we’d invite feedback and revisit the list of books each year.
Thus began our big book hunt. We asked for suggestions from, among others, hundreds of NEA grantees. The NEA literature staff took out hundreds of books from the library, and browsed hundreds more online. The husband of one of our staff members even checked out 75 books for us when we maxed out our own library cards. I should have taken a photo of how many books I got into the trunk of my little Honda, and how much fun my kids had pushing the books back through the library’s return chute. Eventually, we selected books to send to an outside reading committee for a final vote and viola … we have a new NEA Big Read library.
The act of reading is “not solitary, but deeply collective,” writes Matthew Stadler in Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century (Milkweed Editions, 2016). “We might be alone with a book, but the book fills our heads with other voices and puts thoughts into conversation.” The way we see it, the NEA Big Read helps extend these conversations by allowing us to connect with those we see every day but may not talk to—at the grocery store or at a ball game or waiting for a train. Former NEA Chairman Dana Gioia knew the value of community reading when he had the vision to launch the initiative ten years ago. I’m grateful for his determination to see the Big Read flourish, as I am of the many others who’ve championed its cause over the years: NEA Big Read managers David Kipen, Sarah Mroczkowski, Michael Holtmann, and Eleanor Billington; the good folks at Arts Midwest who facilitate the grants process; and the many organizations that have received Big Read grants.
“Give ’em something to talk about,” my grandmother also used to … no wait, that was Bonnie Raitt. The slightly different message of her song aside, it’s one of our guiding principles for the NEA Big Read, for in addition to reading a book, you can find deep enjoyment in debating its merits, discussing its themes, and hearing what others have to say about it. That’s one of the wonderful things about a group of people reading one book—connecting. But even better, you might find that you simply love reading many of these books that you wouldn’t have initially thought to pick up. Then we’ll all be able to start recommending books again with ease. Wouldn’t that be something.