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Big Read program aims to encourage reading



February 1, 2010 — The National Endowment for the Arts noted in 2004 that Americans interest in literary reading had sharply declined in all groups, especially among young people.

The Big Read hopes to change that trend.

With the support of 25 partners — including The Albany Herald — The Big Read arrives in Albany today at 6:30 p.m. with a Kick-Off Gala Celebration at the Albany Municipal Auditorium. Southern Arts Jazz Ensemble will provide the music.

Albany State University, in partnership with the Dougherty County Library, received a $20,000 grant from NEA for the monthlong celebration. More than 800 grants have been awarded to American cities to host Big Reads since the program began in 2007.

Free events, book discussions and a movie screening of “A Lesson Before Dying” at Carmike Cinemas’ Wynnsong 16 are all part of the festivities. Ernest J. Gaines’ “A Lesson Before Dying” is the book Albany and Dougherty County citizens will be focusing on this month. “A Lesson Before Dying” was published in 1993.

“It’s been a pleasure to plan this,” said Albany Big Read co-director James L. Hill, who is ASU’s chair of the Department of English and modern languages and mass communications. “We started in September and October. We bought 1,350 books and they’re all gone. We have them in the schools — Albany State, Darton College, Albany Technical College and public middle schools and high schools.”

Students in the Dougherty County School System are reading “A Lesson Before Dying,” with at least one class at each school reading the novel. Parents in the school system needed to sign a permission slip in order to read the book, which follows in the tradition of famous 1960s novels Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”

“Reading is so fundamental to all of learning that the Dougherty County School System is proud to partner with Albany State University, the Dougherty County Public Library and the national sponsors of the Big Read program to encourage all members of our society to read more,” said R.D. Harter, DCSS public information director. “This year’s selection by Ernest Gaines features a tragic story presented with vivid imagery and realistic characters. Although our curriculum staff says the selection is suited for mature readers, it is a classic novel by a Southern author.”

Press material states that “A Lesson Before Dying” is a 256-page novel about an uneducated black man named Jefferson, who is accused of murdering a white storekeeper in the fictional town of Bayonne, La., during the 1940s. The story also includes college-educated Grant Wiggins, a teacher at a plantation school. Jefferson and Grant form a friendship that changes their lives.

“I don’t know whether he’s innocent or guilty,” Gaines said in an interview as part of the press materials. “The point of the story is how two men would grow to become real men. Jefferson, with only a few months to live; Grant with another 40 years or more to live — what will they do with that time? Neither one is going anywhere in life. Grant wants to get away. Jefferson is just there, doing whatever people want him to do. He never argues, he never questions anything. I wanted the story to be about how both men develop.”

The point of The Big Read is to motivate Dougherty County residents to start reading again, especially reading for pleasure and literary classics.

“People used to read for pleasure and very few of them do anyone,” Hill said. “The schools are striving against that, but as students progress and get older into high school they get engrossed in the visual and all of that impacts their lives. It’s a constant struggle for teachers to fight for the literacy acquisition of students. Reading and writing is a lot like any other skill, it you don’t practice it, it atrophies on you.”

Hill hopes that The Big Read will connect the community around the activity of reading “A Lesson Before Dying.”

“We hope in this case that we’ll be able to redirect interest in reading and through these monthlong activities, we can break some of the barriers that exist in this city and county,” said the 46-year Hill. “We’re hopeful that people are able to at least read the book and if we’re able to do that, that will be an accomplishment in and of itself. One of the things that the NEA recognized in its research was that there wasn’t just a decline in reading, but a decline in literary reading, good books; classic novels.”

A reception with food will follow tonight’s kick-off, Hill said.

By, Ethan Fowler

Read original article HERE!




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