The Big Read

Is your community participating in The Big Read, an initiative by the National Endowment for the Arts “to revitalize the role of literature in American popular culture and bring the transformative power of literature into the lives of its citizens.” Lincoln, Neb., doesn’t seem to be, though we also have One Book, One Lincoln going on (five books are right now under consideration for 2009, one of which is Eggers’s great What is the What), and, I think, “Nebraska Reads” which I just won’t bother linking to for no reason.

At any rate, I neither disparage nor envy the organizers of these mass book clubs their job of being as placating, patriotic, and politically careful as possible in choosing books. But at least on the national level, Dana Gioia, et al., have thrown us a few curveballs. Like Tobias Wolff’s Old School, or the poetry of Robinson Jeffers. Robinson Jeffers? Participating communities got to choose among a short set of books/authors when asking for promotional funds, and what does it mean that only L.A. and Chicago—that is, certain organizations in L.A. and Chicago—chose Robinson Jeffers? Maybe I’m coming down too hard on Mr. Jeffers, who is, I should add, a native Pittsburgher that ran off, as Gertrude Stein did, to California as early as he could.

I’m a little sad for Terre Haute, Ind., and Fish Creek, Wisc., for having to read My Ántonia (which the Big Read Web site spells Ãntonia) instead of, say, The Professor’s House. Though at least it’s not O Pioneers!. I think Fahrenheit 411 was chosen by more communities than any other book, which is another shame as I remember that book being pretty lousy with respect to its characterization of women. And I completely envy Lynchburg, Va., et al., for getting to read The Maltese Falcon. There’s something hilarious and wonderful about a community of small-town folks reading Dashiell Hammett together. It might be the perfect public-book-club book.

Oh, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is on the list! Longfellow! Not Whitman, Longfellow! And even better: Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo is one of the people signed up to read him. I guess someone has to read Longfellow these days, but does it have to be all those poor animals?

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