Boston's "Big Dig" took a very long time and loads of money, and it had at least one tragic consequence. Expectations are more sanguine for the "Big Read" - a national literary project supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and designed to bring reading back "to the center of American culture," says a press release from the Vermont Arts Council this week. The VAC is one of 117 organizations across the country to receive a grant - $18,000 - to carry out community-based programs over the next few months, based on a single book: The Maltese Falcon. The arts council chose Dashiell Hammett's 1930 detective novel because "it is a thriller, a love story, and a dark, dry comedy." It's also an opportunity for fans of the 1941 movie version, starring Humphrey Bogart and the inimitable Peter Lorre, to check out the source.
Vermont's Big Read kick-off, October 21 at 2 p.m. in Montpelier City Hall, will formally announce the VAC's rather grand, multimedia plan. Not surprisingly, the project will involve schools, libraries and social-service organizations. In addition, Lost Nation Theater will present dramatic readings of the book every Tuesday between October 30 and November 27; these will be videotaped by Montpelier's Onion River Community Access Media and broadcast on public-access stations across the state in January through March next year. If you can't wait for the TV to read to you, feel free to attend the taping sessions at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library and add your gasps and chuckles where appropriate.
VAC Executive Director Alex Aldrich has another, ulterior motive for choosing the Hammett classic: "using the serial broadcast format as an opportunity to introduce . . . Vermont authors who write mysteries and thrillers." Archer Mayor devotees might suggest starting with the Newfane author's latest, titled simply Chat, or any of his previous 17 novels. (And incidentally, with his new release Mayor has announced the creation of a publishing company called AMPress. Its mission is to repackage the first dozen books in his Joe Gunther series in trade paperback form.)
Though Harry Potter junkies and other avid readers no doubt find it incomprehensible, fewer than half of American adults enjoy reading on a regular basis, according to a 2004 survey by the NEA. And never mind reading for pleasure: Thousands can't read at all. In Vermont, organizations such as the Children's Literacy Foundation (CLIF) and the Vermont Humanities Council have been combating illiteracy for years. The "one book, one community" idea is not new, either; the VHC has led just such a program statewide since 2003. This year's "Vermont Reads" book is Counting on Grace by Elizabeth Winthrop. Residents who want to nominate the 2008 volume can email their suggestion to firstname.lastname@example.org.