The Big Read

At the upcoming National Book Festival—September 22 and 23—I’ll be introducing Marilynne Robinson. Thinking about what I might say, I couldn’t help but recall my visit to Kansas City a couple of years ago, when her great novel, Housekeeping, was chosen for a city-wide “Big Read” program. Since it’s a demanding book, as well as a beautiful one, the library wanted someone to talk about its themes and meanings. That someone turned out to be me.

I loved Kansas City, and was pleased to return to the library there when I was out promoting my book, On Conan Doyle. But I haven’t heard much recently about the National Endowment for the Arts’ “Big Read” program. You’ll recall that the NEA prepared readers’ guides and teaching packets, as well as CDs, for a couple of dozen notable works—and, in years past, these were given away at the National Book Festival. But are cities still doing “Big Reads”? I hope so.

Has your town ever participated in such an enterprise, no matter what it was called? That is, has the town chosen a particular month to celebrate and discuss some classic of American literature? Or even some relatively recent best-seller? I think a number of colleges ask all their incoming first-year students to read the same book—in years past, the book would often be, and perhaps still is, James McBride’s The Color of Water or Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran.

I’ve never been a book-club kind of guy myself, and yet I hope that “Big Read” programs are continuing. Do you think they are a good idea? A way to bring a community together? What books do you think would make good “Big Read” selections? Please share your thoughts.

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