Reading: At Risk 

Memphians, get with the program.

According to a report entitled Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, issued by the National Endowment for the Arts, reading in America — literary reading, in the form of novels, short stories, poetry, and plays — is declining dramatically. That goes for every age group, and in the past 20 years, it's meant a loss of 20 million potential readers. What's more, the overall rate of decline is increasing, tripling since 1992. The steepest drop: readers 18 to 24 years of age.

"This report documents a national crisis," Dana Gioia, chairman of the NEA, said when the survey was released three years ago.

"America can no longer take active and engaged literacy for granted," Gioia went on to say. "As more Americans lose this capability, our nation becomes less informed, active, and independent minded. These are not qualities that a free, innovative, or productive society can afford to lose. No single factor caused this problem. No single solution can solve it. But it cannot be ignored and must be addressed."

The NEA, in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services and in cooperation with the organization Arts Midwest, is doing its part to address the problem. The NEA is calling it "The Big Read," and in this the program's inaugural year, Rhodes College is doing its part too. Rhodes is among the more than 100 recipients nationwide of a grant from the NEA to conduct a Big Read locally. The idea is to get everybody — students and adults, school groups and book clubs — to read one book and talk about it.

From the list of 12 titles recommended by a "Readers Circle" of writers, scholars, librarians, critics, and publishing professionals assembled by the NEA, a committee at Rhodes has selected Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. That book, according to Cathy Palmer, of Rhodes' Office of College Relations and coordinator of the Big Read, will not only enhance student learning and provide for discussion. It will fit nicely into the college's developing digital archive of the civil rights movement in Memphis, "Crossroads to Freedom."

The big kick-off for Memphis' Big Read is Tuesday, October 2nd, on the Rhodes College campus. Shelby County mayor A C Wharton will be there. Free copies of To Kill a Mockingbird, plus free bookmarks, reading guides, teacher guides, and audio CDs (all provided by the NEA) will be available. Participants can also sign up for community book groups. But that's not all. On October 9th, panelists will discuss race relations in the context of To Kill a Mockingbird at Cypress Middle School. A "Family Night," with a focus on kids' activities and parenting tips, will take place on October 25th at the Hollywood Community Center. And on November 8th, Theatre Memphis will stage an event inspired by Harper Lee's enduring look at childhood and racial tensions in the segregated South.

But first, the Big Read needs readers.

According to Palmer, "We need people to participate. We're tying to reach out to the whole community — yes, absolutely everybody! Schools. Book clubs. Bookstores. Other colleges. We want people to start reading again, get their own book groups started, get conversations going. We'll keep track of the numbers that show up at these events and the materials given away, and then we'll report back to the NEA. We'll hand out evaluation cards with questions such as how often you read, what kind of reading you do, in addition to general demographic questions."

Is Rhodes hoping to make the Big Read an annual event?

"Every year, we hope," Palmer says. "It's our goal. And so far, so good."

"The Big Read Kick-off" will be at the Crain Reception Hall of the Bryan Campus Life Center at Rhodes College on Tuesday, October 2nd, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. For more information on that event and other Big Read programs in Memphis over the next several weeks, contact Cathy Palmer at 843-3958 or at palmerc@rhodes.edu. For background information on the Big Read, go to the National Endowment for the Arts' Web site at www.neabigread.org.

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