The Big Read

Restoring Reading To the Heart of American Life

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NEA Literature Director David Kipen holds up the second page of a letter written by Harper Lee

NEA Literature Director David Kipen holds up the second page of a letter written by Harper Lee to the citizens of Starkville, Mississippi, who were reading her book as part of the Big Read. Photo by Nancy Jacobs

The Big Read ranks as the most ambitious national literary initiative since the Federal Writers Project shut its doors in 1939. Developed in response to the NEA's Reading at Risk study, which documented the alarming national decline in literary reading among all age groups, the Big Read serves as the literature component of American Masterpieces.

The idea is to help restore reading to the heart of American life through what are sometimes called one-city, one-book programs. Communities apply to the NEA for Big Read grants, and the strongest applicants receive a matching grant based on the size of the community. They also receive reader's and teacher's guides and educational CDs of a caliber that most might never manage on their own.

By the end of 2007, nearly 200 cities and towns will have hosted Big Reads. Before 2008 is out, 400 more willbe able to make the same claim. The program also will go international, incorporating reciprocal Big Reads between the Russian cities of Saratov and Ivanova and American communities reading Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

Personally, I'll never forget my first Big Read experience, touching down in Topeka, Kansas, to check in on its encounter with Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. A visibly moved librarian pulled me aside, marveling at not just the biggest, but the most ethnically diverse turnout the library had ever seen. In a city notorious for the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, this clued me in to the Big Read's secret shadow goal: to get the country reading again, sure, but also to bring communities together by giving Americans something more interesting to talk about together than the weather.

One final note: Here at the NEA, we take it as absolute gospel that the most successful projects are those that are done in partnership. I know without a doubt that without our partners, we simply couldn't make the Big Read happen. So many thanks to the Institute of Museum and Library Services -- our lead federal partner, Arts Midwest, The Boeing Company, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Community Foundations of America.

David Kipen
NEA Director of Literature