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A Black man with a gray beard wearing a gray suit posing next to an Asian woman with dark hair wearing a purple dress.

Ned Doffoney with Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club, at a Big Read book discussion in Fresno, California. Photo by Roberta Barton/Fresno County Public Library

In 2004 the National Endowment for the Arts report Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America detailed an overall decline in the amount that adults and youth were reading, with the greatest decline being amongst young children. In an attempt to help remedy this depressing fact, the NEA created the Big Read initiative in 2006. Building on the ideas from existing “City Reads” programs, NEA Big Read was designed to be a national reading program.

The mission of NEA Big Read is to broaden our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book. Managed by regional arts organization Arts Midwest, this initiative offers grants to support innovative community reading programs designed around a single book. The Big Read grantees include a wide variety of nonprofit organizations, each hosting events and activities specifically designed for their Big Read selection, such as lectures, panel discussions, and film screenings, aimed at a wide range of audiences.

The NEA Big Read library offers a wide variety of books, differing in genre, authorial stature, and content, with new titles added on a regular basis New books are selected by a reading committee made up of librarians, students, teachers, writers, booksellers, and publishers, focusing on expanding the voices and stories currently represented in the NEA Big Read library. In 2008, the NEA partnered with Mexico’s Fondo de Cultura Económica to produce an anthology of Mexican short stories especially for NEA Big Read—Sun, Stone, and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories—in both English and Spanish. Edited by writer Jorge F. Hernández, the anthology includes some of the finest 20th-century Mexican writers, such as Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Rosario Castellanos, and Juan Rulfo. It was the Big Read’s first foray into short fiction.

The NEA website offers information on the books and activities that communities have presented over the years, as well as audio and video interviews with authors and experts on the books. Since the program's start, more than 1,700 grants totaling more than $23 million have been awarded to communities across the United States, reaching every Congressional district. More than 5.7 million Americans have attended an NEA Big Read event since 2006.