Since its establishment by Congress in 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts has nearly half a century of supporting the arts through financial assistance of more than $4 billion via partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders and philanthropists throughout the United States.
In 2007, the NEA launched a specific push to revitalize the study and celebration of literature with its campaign, The Big Read. The campaign, managed by Arts Midwest, provides competitive grants to support innovative reading programs in selected communities. In each case, communities will select one book as a central focus for programming, book discussions and other activities.
There are 36 selections from literature in The Big Read library, chosen by a group of experts.
"From more than 500 titles suggested by a variety of sources (including the public, Big Read grantees, past Big Read panelists, NEA staff, and notable book lists), the NEA and Arts Midwest narrow the list based on criteria such as diversity of genre, diversity and stature of authors, and a focus on living authors and contemporary work," reads the selection criteria section at the NEA website, www.neabigread.org.
"Reading committee members representing a range of voices from the field (including librarians, students, teachers, writers, booksellers, and publishers) then read and score each book based on criteria such as the universal appeal of themes, capacity to incite lively and deep discussion, and a focus on expanding the range of voices and stories currently represented in The Big Read library."
The Pioneer Library System has been onboard for The Big Read since inception and has participated each year since, either as an NEA-funded Big Read or on its own with donations from state and local organizations under the program title "PLS Big Read."
NEA has funded four Big Read projects for PLS: The Grapes of Wrath in 2007; Bless Me, Ultima in 2008; The Maltese Falcon in 2010, and Old School in 2013. PLS Big Reads produced with state and local funding include: To Kill a Mockingbird in 2009; The Things They Carried in 2011, The Joy Luck Club in 2012, and True Grit in 2014.
The NEA added three new titles in 2012, including Charles Portis' "True Grit." With the Oklahoma setting and a different theme from what has been in other PLS Big Reads, it was a natural selection for the library system.
"True Grit" becomes the second book with Oklahoma ties used by PLS in a Big Read. The first edition of the yearly event in 2007 focused on "The Grapes of Wrath," the John Steinbeck classic.