National Endowment for the Arts Launches The Big Read

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On May 9, at Carnegie Hall in New York City, Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), announced a new national reading program, The Big Read, designed to revitalize the role of reading in American public culture. NEA is launching The Big Read in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

"The Big Read aims to revive literary reading in America," Gioia said. "We want people of all ages across the country to enjoy the social aspects of reading and the enthusiasm that's generated by discussing a good book in a library, with a neighbor, a classmate, or a co-worker."

The seed for The Big Read was initially sown in 2004 when NEA released its report, "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America." The report documented a dramatic decline in literary reading -- among all age groups, ethnic groups, and education levels. NEA hopes to reverse trend with The Big Read, which will provide citizens in more than 100 communities in all 50 states an inviting opportunity to read and discuss great books.

The NEA is inviting "communities to read and discuss the dilemmas, conflicts, and hopes found in great books." The books chosen for the Big Read are all modern American classics that have been "used successfully in city reads programs and book clubs across the country." As the foundation of their programming, communities will choose one novel from an ever-expanding list of books with support materials developed by the NEA.

The initial books chosen for the Big Read are:

  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • My Ántonia by Willa Cather
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

A distinguished group of artists, authors, critics, educators, and librarians have formed a Readers Circle to develop a more comprehensive list of books for The Big Read. Some charter members of the Readers Circle are Dr. James Billington, Librarian of Congress; Pico Iyer, writer; Jim Lehrer, journalist; Azar Nafisi, author; Marilyn Nelson, Connecticut state poet laureate; song writer Aimee Mann; and Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl.

The NEA invites cities and communities across the country to take part in the Big Read through an RFP process. The Arts Endowment will award grants generally ranging from $10,000 to $20,000 to 100 communities to conduct month-long community-based programs that encourage citizens to read for pleasure and enlightenment. Each selected city or town is required to produce a comprehensive community-wide read that involves collaborations with libraries, schools, local government, and the private sector. Each community will develop a program of activities related to its chosen novel, such as a keynote session, special events, and book discussions aimed at a diverse range of audiences.

In addition to direct grants, the NEA offers each community a library of resources. These materials include reader's and teacher's guides for each novel; CDs for each book with commentary from renowned literary figures and educators; an online organizer's guide for running a successful Big Read Program, and a comprehensive website. In addition, the NEA has produced promotional materials to encourage broad participation, including television public service announcements, and radio programming.

More information and details about how an organization can submit a proposal to join the Big Read are available at