Big Read, A Critical Review

by Dante DeAmicis

 The Big Read has begun. As a bibliophile I am not impressed although its origin is interesting. The money comes from the National Endowment for the Arts as a matching funds grant. The NEA farms out the selection of the book list and awarding of grants to “artsmidwest.org.” Lake County’s Department of Education is running Lake’s Big Read in connection with the Literacy Task Force. Strangely, although a long list of non profits are also eligible to apply for a Big Read grant, school districts do not qualify.

Arts Midwest developed a process to select a short list of novels and a little poetry. Each grant recipient creates their own process to select one book off the list and start receiving program materials to create activities for the school year. Lake County decided that “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan was just the fuel to fire up our sluggish reading practices. This was Lake County’s second selection since the program began in 2006.

Officially the national program begins this month but Lake is waiting until October to kick theirs off.  According to the National Big Read site, some other recipients are rolling out events for September. Oddly, a majority of these locales have selected “True Grit” from the short list. Fast on the draw I guess. Our Ed Department is trying for a flashy start with an October 5th Joy Luck Club book launch at the Tallman Hotel. It appears to be pitched to educators.

The whole Big Read list is a head scratcher. Does anyone think many of these anointed titles would have been listed by precocious 7th to 12th graders? I recall “Soul On Ice” by Eldridge Cleaver was hot with my grade school peers. We won’t see something that relevant showing up on a government reading list unless it’s a “Banned Book” list. Consider such a list a worthy substitute for the Big Read List.

I know I’m being grumpy but it’s because of the inherent thinness of fiction compared to non fiction. Ideas and concepts are few and far between in novels and obscure in poetry. Themes of any density or currency tend to be absent amid the filler of fiction. It’s hard to talk meaningfully about nothing.

Officially, eligible books don’t have to be novels and collections of poetry or short stories. The Big Read list is a “literature” selection. Literature refers more to a style than a genre. My Webster defines the term as “Imaginative or creative writing, especially of recognized artistic value.” When writers in the sciences or humanities wish to sell books to the general public they employ many literary devices. By using conversational language and minimizing professional jargon they can reach the same people that fiction authors appeal to. The difference is substance in the same literary package.

This isn’t a complaint from some fringe group demanding that their canon be enshrined instead of a more top-down filtered one. Look around a bookstore (or a book catalog) and see what is worth thinking or talking about. If reading books is not promoted through works that are both concise, meaty, and compelling then the effort will fail.

Looking around my library, which has been dubbed “a meth lab” by the City, I see several possibilities to compile rip-your-eyeballs-out reading lists. How about a “Civil Liberties” or a “Transition/Sustainability” list? In spite of literacy boosters best efforts to turn the written word into safe and proper fare for coffee klatches, I think their goal should be to wake people up, clue them in, and motivate them to actually do something while they still can.

We have been given the best hook to snag attention by the Department of Homeland Security’s attempt to cage our library records. Bingo. I give you the “Homeland Security Book Review Club.” Trouble making readers will meet to discuss and write up their reviews of annoying books, sending the reviews to the media and a copy to Homeland Security “for their files.” The Club’s motto: “If they’re not interested in it, then we’re not interested in it.” When reading was popular it was also dangerous.

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