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First Lady and Arts Endowment Strive to Get Americans Reading

Two years ago, the U.S. agency that oversees federal funding for the arts published the results of a survey showing that less than half of the adult U.S. population reads literature – a decline of 10 percent in 20 years. To reverse that trend, the

"I hope that ‘The Big Read’ allows us to promote a good novel with at least as much effectiveness as Hollywood promotes a bad film,” Gioia says. He also wants people to talk about novels the way they talk about the latest movie. That’s why “The Big Read” is a community program, centered around one literary classic.

"Individuals don’t sign up. Communities do,” the NEA chairman says. “What we are really trying to do is create a situation in a community for about a month, no matter where you are, you’ll hear about the book, you’ll see things advertising the book, you’ll hear the book discussed, you’ll meet other people who are reading it. We feel this kind of creates the proper context for people to be invited into reading.”

That’s exactly what happened last year in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, one of ten cities chosen to participate in a pilot demonstration of the Big Read.

"We were looking at how we could reach people that normally wouldn’t read, so we had books in bars and all of those kinds of things,” says Sherry DeBoer, Deputy Director of South Dakota’s state humanities council, adding “everybody was talking about it,” even ministers during their sermons. “It” was To Kill a Mockingbird, which the city of Sioux Falls read last year when it took part in the Big Read pilot.

"DeBoer says more than 30,000 people participated or attended events which ranged from talks with the actress who played Scout in the 1962 film version of the novel and with a biographer of author Harper Lee, to a dramatic presentation of the famous trial scene featuring Sioux Falls attorneys, followed by a panel discussion led by a state supreme court justice. “They discussed controversial legal cases and the tough ethical choices that are faced in the context of the book,” she says. “The lawyers in Sioux Falls really embraced rereading this book.”

Other communities chose to read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, or Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The National Endowment for the Arts provided readers’ and teachers’ guides; CDs with commentary from renowned artists, educators and public figures; publicity materials and grant money to support community programming.

“The idea,” Dana Gioia says, “is to take literature off the bookshelf and put it onto Main Street. A community which reads is a community which understands both itself and the diversity of others better. Because of that reading is fundamental to a free society.”

Officials at the National Endowment for the Arts plan to expand the Big Read’s list of books and hope to have more than 120 U.S. communities participating by next January. There is also talk of developing reading exchanges with book-loving communities in other nations.