The Big Read: When Communities Read Together

Via The New York Times

Seven women and two men sat on chairs scattered about in a room, reading silently.

Apart from the whir of a fan overhead, the only noise was the sound of pages turning. It was, in other words, a perfectly ordinary scene in a small-town library — except that everyone was holding the same slim volume, “The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick.

The library, in Caldwell, N.J., was kicking off its version of the Big Read, a program funded by the National Endowment for the Arts to promote literature in American culture.

More than 200 communities participate in the Big Read or similar programs, modeled after “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book,” a project launched in Washington in 1998. They function like book clubs on steroids, making mass purchases of a book and developing programs on related themes. But unlike book clubs, they look far and wide to draw in readers, especially among young people.

The featured work must be fiction, under 300 pages, available in paperback, appropriate for middle school-aged children and adaptable to programming, Ms. Campbell said.

Big Read titles range from classics like “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck and “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee to lesser-known works like Ms. Ozick’s “The Shawl” or “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. “One of the joys of this project has been exploding the idea of some great canon of American literature,” said David Kipen, a former newspaper book critic and essayist who manages the N.E.A. program.

While the goal is to get reluctant or lapsed readers to pick up a literary book, community-building is nearly as important, Mr. Kipen said.

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