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What’s the Big Read?

July 9, 2009 by Reader's Connection

The Big Read is “The largest reading program in American history . . . designed to unite communities through great reading.” Those words were spoken by Dana Gioia, who was Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) at the time and who introduces the compact discs. The program is sort of like One Book One City, but it’s nationwide and offers a choice of books.

Our library isn’t sponsoring any discussions in this series, but community groups in our area can make use of CD’s from the library and materials such as reader’s guides and discussion questions that are available at The Big Read website.

An Introduction to Housekeeping

I should say right off that I’m not planning any book discussions, and that I had profound personal reasons for seeking out the CD, An Introduction to Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.

I had just read Housekeeping, Robinson’s first novel (1980), and I needed a hand to hold. What was that? I shivered. Had Robinson invented a new genre? In which a lake is the main character? Wuthering Heights had come pretty close–I’d always thought that the wild moors in Emily Bronte’s novel held dominance over Catherine and Heathcliff–but at least I remember those characters. Poor Ruth and Lucille, the orphaned sisters in Housekeeping, are forever on the verge of disappearing into the fog, and had just about done so when I set down the book.

GileadThe novel is one long meditation on human identity, on our transient place in the universe, and I found it helpful to listen to The Big Read’s treatment of it. (Robinson’s next novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winner Gilead, came 24 years later and was religious in tone.)

These CD’s aren’t scholarly outlines. Don’t try to use them as you might use a Cliffs Notes, to learn about everything  that happens in a book. They are just conversation starters. A few passages are read (by actress Annette Bening, in the case of Housekeeping) and some speakers–authors, critics, musicians–comment on aspects of the book. You may wonder why musicians are included among the speakers; but enthusiasm seems to have been the main credential established by the NEA–and it’s interesting to hear singer-songwriter Aimee Mann mention that she was three years old when her mother left her. She brings this up while lamenting Ruth and Lucille’s predicament, in the midst of a debate of sorts as to whether their aunt Sylvie is mentally ill. (I hadn’t known, before listening to the CD, that there was any debate.)

The most consoling commentary on the CD is offered by Marilynne Robinson. Whenever possible, The Big Read includes spoken word by the authors of its books.

An Introduction to the Maltese FalconThis only applies to living authors, of course (funding cuts have cost the NEA some of its powers), so Dashiell Hammett (d. 1961) doesn’t speak on An Introduction to the Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

You do get to hear from his granddaughter, Julie Rivett, though, and from critics and authors and biographers–including Joe Gores, who was once a private eye himself. I thought I should listen to a Big Read CD about a book I had read a long time ago, and this one was fun.

So if you’re thinking of organizing a book discussion, here’s a list of The Big Read CD’s owned by the library. And don’t forget The Big Read website, if you’re looking for materials to help you organize your discussions.


A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

Old School by Tobias Wolff

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick

The Thief and the Dogs by Naguib Mahfouz

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

1 comment »

  1. Thanks so much for your shout-out about The Big Read audio guides. I know our Big Read program and audio teams work really hard on these guides. I think you already know this, but just in case you don’t, the audio guides are also available for streaming from The Big Read Web site. I’m looking forward to the next round of Big Reads kicking off in September.

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