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The Big Read hits the road

Jacklondonsquare

For two weeks in September, The Big Read's red hybrid will be traversing the country, fostering a literary life wherever it may. Actually, it's not the car that'll be fostering literature (although since it says "The Big Read" in bright letters on the side, it is promoting reading) -- it'll be National Endowment for the Arts Director of Literature David Kipen, the tall guy behind the wheel.

Kipen has posted a map of his itinerary so far. He's leaving Washington, D.C., making his way south and west to New Orleans, crisscrossing Texas, coming out to see the Pacific, then heading back east via Nevada, Colorado and Wisconsin. In each of his scheduled stops, he'll be joining in on events celebrating local Big Read projects, in which communities read one book together.

The funny thing is, each city seems to have picked an atypical book. In San Francisco, they're reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," (set in New York), while Winston-Salem, N.C., is reading John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" (set in California). Kipen will learn about dog sledding in Colorado, where they're reading "The Call of the Wild" by Jack London (set in Canada's Yukon territory).

Kipen has asked for hints: where to eat, landmarks to see, generous and/or literary resting places or stops along the way.  We think, while he's in San Francisco, he should head across the bay to Oakland and visit Jack London Square (it's closer than Canada). While there, he should take some pictures to share with the folks in Colorado.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo by George Kelly via Flickr

 
Comments () | Archives (5)

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How does David Kipen driving around in a car help to promote literature exactly? Seriously. What does Kipen's presence at these events actually do to get people reading? This is a waste of taxpayers' money and it cheapens the NEA. This is supposed to be a PUBLIC organization, and the Big Read bog doesn't even enable comments. What hypocrisy. Instead of handing Kipen wads of cash to blow in hotel rooms and restaurants, why not give it to more artists and organizers who are working to get communities talking and writing about literature? Or why not help those writers (perhaps a few of the people who have been axed because of recent newspaper cuts) who are just barely getting by?

I've been to a Big Read and here's what Mr. Kipen brought - passion and joy and deep understanding about our book, Fahrenheit 451. He got people to care about it, and to want to read more. Money well spent, not wasted.

Do you know anything about the program, Ed? Have you ever been to a Big Read? I'm proud to have my tax dollars go to a reading initiative that gets whole towns (and cities) reading and excited about books. Mr. Kipen is the head of the Big Read and that's why he's out driving around in the name of literature. What have you done lately, Ed, to get a kid to open a book?

Well, you uninformed and anonymous coward, there's a little thing I do called The Bat Segundo Show that has, based on email feedback, helped numerous writers get their books out to the public (at the rate of about 100 shows a year), managed to get my listeners to pick up a book they didn't know about (many of whom aren't hardcore readers), and used the Internet to galvanize reader momentum. Not that I need to boast, but one kid wrote in a year ago and told me that he was in a troubled state, but that he had found my site and it had helped him to get his life on track. I'm tremendously flattered that anything I do could possibly help another person. You see, pal, THAT'S who I am, and you're nothing.

Mr. Kipen's "passion, joy, and deep understanding," based on a recent event at New York that I reported on, involves not listening to anyone but the sound of his own voice and anyone who can further his own solipsistic ends. He is a frustrated ex-critic. And while I'm sure much of his intent is noble, it involves keeping NEA funds in the hands of the few, rather than the many. It involves safe choices, condescending to an audience, and failing to understand that they are much smarter than he gives them credit for. I happen to believe that the American public can find passion and joy in books that are meatier than CALL OF THE WILD and other well-written books cadged from an antediluvian high-school curriculum. It is clear that you and Mr. Kipen do not share my faith in the intelligence and potential of the American people.

Gentlepeople, let's not resort to name-calling.

Ed, your bona-fides aside, I think that a road trip for The Big Read is a neat idea. The NEA is literally getting out of Washington to talk to the people who are doing these community-wide reading projects. To talk to the readers and organizers, engender enthusiasm, find out what's working and what isn't, and spur plans to do it again -- what's wrong with that?

The Big Read is "designed to restore reading to the center of American culture" -- quite a mission, and I think perhaps one that no cultural institution could achieve on its own. But certainly getting out into America fits with that mission.

I just spent some time on the Big Read's website, and they've recently announced grants for the next year's worth of Big Read projects totaling $2.8 million, going to 208 organizations nationwide. That doesn't sound to me like "keeping NEA funds in the hands of the few."

Carolyn: I did not use ad hominem in my last comment. I was pointing to the salient fact that "readmeandweep" refused to use her real name and chose to impugn me without checking up on my credentials. Therefore, she is quite legitimately an "uninformed and anonymous coward."

But you do ask a very good question. One I believe that's worth answering. To this effect, here's a complete listing of the $2.8 million in grants:

http://www.arts.gov/national/bigread/press/bigread2009b.html

This money is mostly going to libraries to support promotional events, often as much as $20,000 (!), that are designed to get the word out on a particular book. In other words, the money is going to awareness events that may not be nearly as effective as simply augmenting resources -- i.e., buying books or disseminating them to the public -- that get people reading. All I'm asking is this: Instead of canapes, gratis cocktails, and money floating into the pockets of library events organizers, why isn't this money going to purchasing more books? Why isn't it going to expanding library hours? Why isn't it going to handing free copies of CALL OF THE WILD into the hands of the people?

According to Nicky Loomis in a Los Angeles Times article from June 16, 2008, Will & Company is receiving $20,000 to adapt Rudolfo Anaya's BLESS ME, ULTIMA into theatrical form. While I'm all for theater, does this really translate into getting more people to read the book? Is this really the panacea to the Reading at Risk report? What hard evidence does the NEA have that this $2.8 million will actually get more people reading?

Why isn't anybody following the money? Is there accountability? These are the questions that we -- and especially the Los Angeles Times -- need to start asking.


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