A Great Nation Deserves a Great Read

The NEA Launches a New Literary Initiative -- The Big Read

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Central High School English teacher Carolyn Axt; Dr. Anne-Imelda Radice, Director, Institute of Museum and Library Services; Harper Lee biographer Charles J. Shields; and Mrs. Laura Bush

NEA Chairman Dana Gioia moderates a panel (left to right: Central High School English teacher Carolyn Axt; Dr. Anne-Imelda Radice, Director, Institute of Museum and Library Services; Harper Lee biographer Charles J. Shields; and Mrs. Laura Bush) discussing Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird during an event at the Barnum Museum on April 16, 2007 celebrating the Big Read. Photo by Carl David LaBianca

According to the NEA's 2004 report Reading at Risk, even Oprah's legions of loyal readers have not been enough to stem the steady decline in reading in the United States. Based on the 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, Reading at Risk states that while 56.9 percent of Americans read any literature in 1982, 20 years later only 46.7 percent of Americans were still reading literature. Furthermore, when asked if they read any books at all, only 56.6 percent of Americans said yes. This decline matters, according to the NEA's newly released The Arts and Civic Engagement study. Americans who are engaged in the arts, including literary reading, are also actively engaged in their communities -- including volunteer efforts -- at a rate that is at least twice that of nonreaders.

There is no instant cure for aliteracy -- knowing how to read, but choosing not to -- but the NEA has developed the Big Read to help reverse this trend by making reading irresistible. Launched as a pilot program of 10 communities in 2006, the Big Read is modeled after the highly successful cityread programs popularized by cities such as Seattle and Chicago. While many communities nation-wide have followed in these cities' pioneering footsteps, a high percentage of these programs eventually fizzled due to the enormous demands the programs place on community resources, including fundraising, the design of attractive events, development of educational materials, and publicity campaigns. Still, these communitywide reads proved the best model for stimulating literary reading in tandem with community interaction, so the NEA stepped in to develop a model program that would alleviate some of the burden for local communities.

The Big Read launched nationally this spring with 72 communities hosting a Big Read -- from the nation's capital to tiny, rural Enterprise, Oregon, to Miami, Florida's metropolis. Bridgeport, Connecticut, which applied for a project grant with neighboring cities Norwalk, Shelton, and Stamford, was one of four Big Read programs in Connecticut. "The Big Read has been a phenomenal success throughout our four communities," stated Bridgeport Mayor John M. Fabrizi. "Not only has this initiative brought the joy of reading to the forefront, it has forged unique partnerships between community organizations that would never have occurred otherwise. We are already making plans for next year's Big Read celebration!"

Mrs. Laura Bush, honorary chair of the Big Read, echoed Mayor Fabrizi's sentiments during her visit to Bridgeport for a Big Read event celebrating To Kill a Mockingbird. In her opening remarks Mrs. Bush said, "Bridgeport is restoring [its] tight-knit sense of community through the Big Read. At the library, in schools, in government offices, at work, in civic groups, and in book clubs, citizens from every walk of life have come together by reading the same good book. And they're having fun together by bringing this good book to life."

The following pages profile several communities that have hosted Big Reads from January to June 2007. Although these communities all read and discussed dif- ferent novels, designed different calendars of events, and offered different strategies for getting back to reading, each proved that the Big Read is truly a Big Idea.