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L.A. groups to get funds for 'Big Read'

The NEA grants will be used to host book-related events. Selections will include 'The Maltese Falcon.'

June 16, 2008|Nicky Loomis | Times Staff Writer

The National Endowment for the Arts announced today that more than 200 organizations nationwide will receive grants totaling $2.8 million to host "The Big Read," an initiative meant to restore reading in American culture.

Nineteen California organizations will get grants totaling $287,000.

Organizations in the Los Angeles area receiving grants include the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, the PEN Center USA in Culver City, the Will & Company theater ensemble in Hollywood and the Norwalk branch of the Los Angeles County Public Library.

In 2004, the NEA released a report, "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America," concluding that fewer than half of American adults are reading literature, with the steepest rate of decline occurring in the youngest age group.

A follow-up was conducted in 2007, "To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence," reporting that not only are Americans reading less, but they are also reading less well, and this in turn is affecting civic, social and economic situations.

Big Read Director David Kipen said that according to the study, more than half of the people polled couldn't list a book they had read in the last year for fun.

"Bad as the numbers are across the board, they're worse for teenagers," Kipen said. "We're heading in the direction that no civilized republic wants to go in."

In response to the alarming figures, the Big Read was introduced in 2006.

A total of 208 grantees, including libraries, arts groups, colleges and municipalities, will host Big Read celebrations from September to next June.

Big Read books are selected by a readers circle of librarians, artists, writers, scholars and publishing professionals who suggest titles for communities to share.

The reading list consists of 22 classic and contemporary books from American and world literature, including Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Jack London's "The Call of the Wild."

Four books were added in May -- Louise Erdrich's "Love Medicine," Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" and Thornton Wilder's "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" and "Our Town" -- as well as a collection of poetry by Edgar Allan Poe.

Each community's Big Read includes a kickoff celebration with activities devoted specifically to the book chosen. The program seeks to facilitate a cross-generational conversation between people from all walks of life, Kipen said.

"I've seen three generations in a single family talking about a book," said Kipen, who was previously a book reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle.

The L.A. Department of Cultural Affairs will receive $20,000 to support a Big Read of "The Maltese Falcon," the classic American private-eye novel by Dashiell Hammett.

In its pilot year, the department will kick off the Big Read celebration in November, partnering with the L.A. Conservancy to offer a film noir tour of the city, including a stop at the Warner Bros. back lot, where the movie version of "The Maltese Falcon" (1941) was filmed, said grant director Andrew Kasdin. Book groups will also be conducted for students in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Will & Company, a nonprofit theater ensemble based in Los Angeles, will receive $20,000 to support a Big Read of "Bless Me, Ultima," the classic Chicano work by Rudolfo Anaya that tells the tale of a young boy who grapples with faith, identity and death as he comes of age in New Mexico.

Will & Company plans to adapt the book into a theatrical form. The organization will hold Big Read residencies in schools and senior centers around Los Angeles, taking chapters from the book and turning them into scenes.

"Name a classic piece, we've made a play out of it," said artistic director Colin Cox.

Last year, the company adapted John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" for the Big Read celebration. Cox and managing director Sam Robinson chose "Bless Me, Ultima," because they wanted to tie themes from the book to the city.

"How many people are reading and then talking about it?" Cox said. "That's what literature is supposed to be doing. It's vital to the artistic world."

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nicole.loomis@latimes.com

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