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NEA launches big book push

National program enlists celebs to promote reading

Can the federal government replicate the Oprah Book Club?

That’s the big question for the Big Read, a National Endowment for the Arts program aimed at getting more Americans reading that bowed Tuesday.

Program, which combines grassroots activism with entertainment-world glitz, will use TV spots, movie-theater ads and celeb endorsements to convince Americans to buy tomes.

More than a dozen exhibitor ads are planned, as well as a host of local TV and radio commercials. In one ad Robert Redford flacks for “The Great Gatsby”; in another, Robert Duvall pushes “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“It’s not a national book club,” said NEA chief Dana Gioia at launch at Carnegie Hall, but “a program that aims to restore reading to the center of American life.”

Effort will involve encouraging libraries and civic groups to choose from a list of NEA-supplied books, with the org awarding grants of up to $20,000 to 100 cities or communities that successfully implement the program.

In a sense it’s a national version of One Book, One City, a program that has seeded cities with book clubs and hit L.A. most recently with Walter Mosley’s “Little Scarlet” last year.

Program grew out of “Reading at Risk,” a 2004 NEA report that found the number of Americans who say they read at least one book per year has dwindled to just over 50%.

But some observers noted the Big Read’s tint was decidedly literary and seemed more aimed at promoting eat-your-vegetables titles, with books by authors such as Zora Neale Hurston and F. Scott Fitzgerald on the initial list.

The report, while based on good intentions, sometimes conflated literary taste with literacy, also overlooking new forms of reading in digital venues like MySpace.com.

NEA aims to bring on 100 communities by next year and has convened a panel to add a new book each month.

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