The Big Read

I did something I never do this past Saturday: I attended a workshop. For myself.

I received a flyer in the mail while we were in Idaho about The Big Read, a program that has been set up by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to help promote reading. They were searching for people who were willing to become Book Ambassadors for their upcoming event.

In a rare spark of self-betterment, I decided to go. I don’t normally do things like this, so this was a huge step in becoming what some might call “a better person.” Really, considering the subject matter and the fact that I had the day off, what else was I supposed to do?

The Big Read Sioux Falls involves a effort to get as many people as possible to read the same book at the same time, hopefully spurring conversation, creating a buzz about reading and literature, and fostering a community that will eventually continue reading on their own. Something similar has been done in the past with the One Book South Dakota program (last year the group promoted The Work of Wolves by Kent Myers; this year it’s Gilead by Marilynne Robinson,) so there’s a precedent for the concept to get some attention.

On a broader level, The Big Read is being brought to ten areas, Sioux Falls being one of them, with the purpose of choosing one of four books to study, celebrate, and embrace: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury; The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston; or To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. South Dakota picked To Kill a Mockingbird, and considering the friendship between Harper Lee and Truman Capote – a friendship close enough that Lee modeled Mockingbird’s Dill off of Capote – and the sudden popularity of both Capote’s and Lee’s work since the release of Capote to theatres, the selection seems more timely than ever.

I won’t go into the actual workshop – it was by no means boring, but it’s not exactly the best subject matter to keep someone awake with. There are a few comments, however, on the subject of reading that I picked up during the workshop.

— Less than ½ of the adult American population reads literature, and only slightly more than 1/3 of males.
— The percentage of the U.S. adult population reading any books has declined by 7% over the past decade.
— Reading has declined in nearly every demographic group: young adults, whites, African Americans, Hispanics, etc.
— I was the only male out of the forty-plus that attended either one of the meetings.

That last one wasn’t about reading, but it’s pretty sad that no guys are interested in supporting literature in this city. Maybe they didn’t know. Unfortunately, I suspect that they didn’t care.

Needless to say, the act of reading is being threatened, and I, for one, am glad to see programs like The Big Read and One Book South Dakota being promoted. Books have become almost taboo; they’re becoming more and more shaming, as if reading a smart book makes you too intelligent, too out of touch with what’s on cable television and in the tabloids. Too liberal, too soft, too big for your britches. Of course, this is what’s bringing the intelligence level of our nation down. This is what’s going to ruin a great democracy and slowly force us to rethink all of our values as we become more and more numb to what’s happening outside our living rooms.

But I digress.

The purpose behind the workshop was to encourage each of us to start book groups. Here’s the funny thing – I don’t care much for book groups. Actually, more specifically, I’ve never been in a book group and I know that I’m not the type of person who should be leading a book group. My schedule is pretty random, and my interest in forcing constructive comments out of a group of adults that may or may not have read the book in question is quite small.

However, I do appreciate this idea and I would like to help support it. I will be reading To Kill a Mockingbird this February for a March review in Prime, and I will be willing to join a book group if the situation is right and presents itself. They’ve been talking about starting a Books N’ Bars book club, and I guess I’d be pretty stupid not to join that one.

So, with all of that, I say this: March is the time for The Big Read. South Dakota has 400 new copies of TKAM circulating through its libraries, so go read the damned book. Forget everything you remember from your sophomore high school lit class. It’s a good book, and you’d be doing yourself a favor by re-reading it without the constraints of organized book reports weighing you down.

This was lovingly handwritten on January 30th, 2006