National Endowment of the Arts - The Big Read

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is The Big Read?

The Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) designed to restore reading to the center of American culture. Managed by Arts Midwest, The Big Read provides competitive grants to support innovative reading programs in selected communities.

Through The Big Read, selected communities come together to read, discuss, and celebrate one of 36 selections from U.S. and world literature. In addition, The Big Read provides comprehensive information about the authors and their works in the Our Books section of The Big Read website.

Big Read grantees comprise a variety of nonprofit organizations, including but not limited to arts, culture, and science organizations; boys & girls clubs; colleges and universities; festivals; foundations; libraries; media outlets; municipalities; and YMCAs. Each community's Big Read includes a kick-off event to launch the program; activities devoted specifically to its Big Read selection (e.g., panel discussions, lectures, public readings); events using the book as a point of departure (e.g., film screenings, theatrical readings, exhibits); and book discussions in diverse locations aimed at a wide range of audiences.

Including the 2014-2015 grants, the NEA has funded more than 1,100 Big Read programs, providing more than $16 million in grants. In addition, as of August 2013, organizations have leveraged more than $32 million in local funding to support their Big Read programs.

2. Why did the NEA create The Big Read?

The Big Read was created in response to the 2004 National Endowment for the Arts report Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, which identified a critical decline in literary reading. The study showed that literary reading was declining among all age groups, with the steepest decline in the youngest age groups.

A 2007 follow-up report, To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence, indicated that not only were Americans reading less, they were also reading less well, and these declines in reading have civic, social, and economic implications. To Read or Not To Read assembled data on reading trends from more than two dozen sources, including federal agencies, universities, foundations, and associations.

The 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts revealed that more than half of American adults read a work of literature or a book (fiction or nonfiction) not required for work or school. However, adults' rates of literary reading (novels or short stories, poetry, and plays) dropped back to 2002 levels (from 50 percent in 2008 to 47 percent in 2012). The NEA will continue to work to reengage American readers by awarding grants for local Big Read projects and by improving access to the art of literature as well as educational materials that help readers to connect with great works of literature.

3. How can I apply for The Big Read?

Visit the Application Process page to learn more about the grant opportunity.

4. How are the community organizations selected to participate in The Big Read?

The application and guidelines for The Big Read, developed by the National Endowment for the Arts and Arts Midwest, are distributed nationwide to arts, cultural, literary, and civic organizations, such as libraries, museums, and local arts agencies. Organizations chosen to receive a Big Read grant are selected by a panel of experts who review the proposed project for artistic excellence and merit. Competitive applications demonstrate strong literary programming, experience in building strong local partnerships, reaching and engaging new and diverse audiences, working with educators, involving local and state public officials, and working with media.

5. What do community organizations receive if they are selected to participate in The Big Read?

Selected organizations receive grants ranging from $2,500 to $20,000 to support their Big Read projects. In addition, the NEA creates high-quality digital educational materials for each reading selection:

Big Read grantees have access to the following educational and promotional materials:

  • Reader's guides contain an introduction to the featured book or poet, historical context, background on the writer, information about related works, and discussion questions. Reader's guides also are available in Spanish for many Big Read titles.
  • Teacher's guides contain lesson plans and other resources geared toward middle and high school students. The guides can be used in the classroom or by the school library media specialist. Teacher's guides adhere to National Council of Teachers of English standards.
  • Media for each selection includes audio commentary with renowned artists, educators, and public figures such as Robert Redford, Colin Powell, and Mary-Louise Parker, and select Big Read authors such as Tim O'Brien and Julie Otsuka.

Big Read grant recipients also receive publicity materials such as banners and bookmarks.

Prior to starting their projects, Big Read organizations participate in a series of online activities to prepare them to host and promote The Big Read in their communities. Online presentations include working with community partners and developing a public relations strategy, as well as book discussions and question-and-answer sessions on working with publishers and involving schools. Participants are also encouraged to exchange ideas about their selected Big Read titles with both new and returning grantees.

Big Read grantees also have access to a comprehensive Big Read website, which includes a virtual organizer's guide for running a successful Big Read program and downloadable public relations templates and design elements.

6. I'm not a grantee. Can I obtain copies of the Reader's, Teacher's, or audio material?

Yes, the full content of all these materials is available free-of-charge in the Our Books section.

7. How do you select the featured works for The Big Read?

The Big Read library was initially created through a Readers Circle—a distinguished group of writers, scholars, librarians, critics, artists, and publishing professionals—who helped select Big Read books for American communities to share.

New books added to The Big Read library are chosen by a reading committee. From more than 500 titles suggested by a variety of sources (including the public, Big Read grantees, past Big Read panelists, NEA staff, and notable book lists), the NEA and Arts Midwest narrow the list based on criteria such as diversity of genre, diversity and stature of authors, and a focus on living authors and contemporary work. Reading committee members representing a range of voices from the field (including librarians, students, teachers, writers, booksellers, and publishers) then read and score each book based on criteria such as the universal appeal of themes, capacity to incite lively and deep discussion, and a focus on expanding the range of voices and stories currently represented in The Big Read library.

The reading committee for the new 2014-2015 titles included: Dan Brady (poetry editor of Barrelhouse), Sherry DeBoer (executive director of the South Dakota Humanities Council), Ed Bok Lee (poet and professor at Metropolitan State University), Stephen Sparks (literature buyer for independent bookstore Green Apple Books), and Annie Tully (director of One Book, One Chicago at Chicago Public Library).

The complete catalogue of Big Read titles is available on the Our Books page.

8. Does The Big Read include poetry?

The Big Read catalogue includes the great American poets Emily Dickinson, Robinson Jeffers, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Edgar Allan Poe. The educational materials for Dickinson, Jeffers, and Longfellow were created, in part, with support from the Poetry Foundation. The application process for Big Read projects featuring these poets is the same as for all other Big Read titles.

9. Is there an international component to The Big Read?

The Big Read catalogue includes three titles of outstanding world literature: Sun, Stone, and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories, edited by Jorge H. Hernandez; The Thief and the Dogs by Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz; and The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Russian author Leo Tolstoy. The application process for these titles is the same as for all other Big Read books. Organizations that apply for one of these international Big Read selections should explore local resources that will illuminate the literature and culture of the relevant country.

The Big Read

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