By Will Gruy
In 2004 the National Endowment for the Arts issued a report called Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America. The report found that literary reading in the United States was on a steep decline, especially among youth. In order to counteract this trend the NEA created an initiative called The Big Read. The NEA says that, “The Big Read gives communities the opportunity to come together to read, discuss, and celebrate one of 30 selections from American and world literature.” The NEA has sponsored over 500 Big Reads.
John Cabot University is the first overseas American University to receive a National Endowment for the Arts grant for a Big Read. According to John Cabot the Big Read Rome is, “a series of events to take place in October 2009 that will encourage English language speakers in Rome to read and discuss Harper Lee's novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Some of the events include: a keynote address from Professor Charles J. Shields, author of “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee,” film screenings in the Aula Magna, a Rome English Theater performance of their own adaptation of the text, book groups and teacher workshops. In addition there is also a class being taught this semester by Professor Carlos Dews specifically on the life and work of Harper Lee. The Big Read Rome is sponsored in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts with assistance from Arts Midwest and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
To Kill a Mockingbird was chosen because it is an American classic with themes that apply directly to many issues in contemporary society: both American and European. Big Read Rome Program Coordinator Graziella Zabatta said, “Harper Lee’s novel is about racism, but more specifically about racism though the eyes of an innocent child, Scout.” The book was chosen with the hope that returning to race issues of the past will cause readers to re-evaluate racial issues of today.
The Big Read will be stretching its arms far beyond the JCU community. Involvement includes the American Overseas School of Rome, St. Georges, The Swiss School of Rome, The International School of Naples, a handful of Italian high schools and several English speaking book groups. JCU students who participate will have the opportunity to lead discussion groups at the university or even at an Italian high school.