When Harper Lee’s surprise second book, Go Set a Watchman, was announced earlier this year, lots of questions popped up. Was the release of the book in line with the aging author’s wishes? Should it be released at all, given that some felt Lee was unfit to give her consent? And would the book be any good, particularly by Lee’s standards?
One question that should come to mind about Go Set a Watchman is one that wouldn’t have been relevant when Lee released her seminal novel To Kill A Mockingbird in 1960: Will anyone read the darn thing?
In response to declining rates of literary reading in this country, especially among young people, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) launched The Big Read in 2006. Local organizations can apply to the grant program to fund discussion events about a single book. The idea is to get communities like Charlottesville reading classic works of literature like Lee’s novel, and to encourage people to discuss and engage with them.
Charlottesville’s Jefferson-Madison Regional Library (JMRL) has been participating in The Big Read for nine years. Event organizer Sarah Hamfeldt said participation has grown every year, with 5,000 people showing up for last year’s month-long festivities and more expected to attend the 80 events that’ll be held throughout March this year.
“We’ve had a lot of great feedback and been able to expand into the schools more,” Hamfeldt said. “We’ve been able to reach a more diverse age group as the years have gone by.”
Charlottesville readers have come together to engage with mostly classics in those years, including To Kill a Mockingbird. Last year’s selection, the western True Grit, marked a bit of a departure from the tried and true, but Hamfeldt said it was successful as well. The local library is going with another outside-the-box selection this year, 2003’s The Namesake, in which Jhumpa Lahiri chronicles an Indian family that moves to the United States to start a new life.
JMRL has already started planting the book around town, with copies available for check-out at the library as well as in coffee shops and book swap baskets at businesses like ACAC’s Downtown and Seminole Square locations. The first gathering to celebrate The Big Read went down on February 28 at the Pavilion, and events will continue throughout the month, with concerts, film, potluck dinners and a scavenger hunt on the docket.
Hamfeldt said many of the events will celebrate the community of individuals featured in The Namesake. “We’ve gotten great support from the Indian-American community in town,” she said.
The library relies on book clubs for much of its participation, but it’s also looking to push literature out to those who aren’t in the habit of getting together to talk about books. Hamfeldt said JMRL has held events that feature art by the incarcerated, and hosted meet-ups at bars to attract young adults—for whom the library is about as exciting as surfing the Internet on dial-up. Rural communities are also on Hamfeldt’s radar, though she said it can be hard to program in those areas.
Whatever the level of The Big Read’s saturation, there’s indeed something romantic about an entire community reading the same novel behind closed doors and emerging to discuss it around the water cooler and in bars like they would the latest episode of “The Voice.” If you run in the circles of, say, JMRL director John Halliday, that’s just the kind of result you can expect from the program.
“I’ve read all of the books for The Big Read, and this is one of my favorites,” Halliday said. “And I’ve discussed it informally with other people that have read it.”
Those results may not be typical. Despite the NEA’s best efforts, there’s apparently been no lasting change to American’s engagement with literary fiction over the years. The association’s 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts showed adults’ rates of reading novels, short stories, poetry and plays were the same as they were in 2002 at about 47 percent, down from a peak of 50 percent in 2008.
The one bit of comforting news is that more than half of American adults read at least one work of fiction or nonfiction not required for work or school per year. And the NEA is nowhere near giving up on The Big Read, according to spokesperson Elizabeth Auclair.
“When our first grants were given in 2006, we started with 10 organizations,” she said. “We are now all over the country.”
Since that initial year, The Big Read has partnered with more than 34,000 organizations nationwide, and 77 communities are currently involved in the program. Whether that means more people are likely to pick up a copy of Go Set a Watchman, unfortunately, is anyone’s guess.
What book do you recommend for The Big Read? Tell us about it in the comments.