Friday, June 27, 2008

Highlights from the Big Read 2008

Enjoy photo highlights from the city read of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby for The Big Read - D.C. 2008.  The Big Read - D.C. 2009 will take place April 23 - May 23, 2009.  More information will be posted on this blog site.  Photo credits:  Wedonna L. Morris (Kickoff event), Maresha Tadesse, Michon Boston.

Friday, May 30, 2008

And the winner is....Big Read - D.C.
High School Essay contest

photo: Left-Right: Dr. Anne Ashmore-Hudson (Chair, DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities), Donald Murray (Chair, Humanities Council of Washington, DC), Sharon Adams, Joy Ford Austin (Humanities Council of Washington, DC), Jamilla Coleman (PEN/Faulkner Writers In Schools)
Sharon Adams (3rd from the left), a junior at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School won first prize in the Big Read - D.C. high school essay contest, Secrets, Goals and Dreams, organized by PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools. Sharon read her winning essay, "Secrets: The Vital Flaws," at the Big Read - D.C.'s closing event for the city read of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. The reading was followed by a standing ovation and applause inside the Langston Room at Busboys and Poets.

Sharon received the $300 first prize. Runners-up Jasmine Igbedion (Banneker Academic High School) and Marsha Casey (Cardoza High School) each received $150 dollars. Information about the 2009 Big Read - D.C. essay contest will be announced in January 2009.

Secrets: The Vital Flaws
by Sharonda Adams

Secrets have a way of overshadowing the lives of their owners and changing their destiny. They develop an unconscious duty to protect them and hide their contents from everybody. A fear of instant vulnerability is instilled in one’s mind at the very thought of the secret being exposed. Trying to obtain discreet and mysterious traits that will make the task of concealing this clandestine simple, a flaw in who we really are or more in particular who I really am develops.

My secret ultimately has nothing to do with me directly but affects my thought and opinions of myself. It has corrupted my ability to go certain places and watch certain things. I have been taunted and broken by its contents but in a way it has made me stronger. Growing up as a child there were times when I questioned my mother of my fathers whereabouts and because of my age and failure to truly understand the situation, I was often ignored. With my younger brother being named after my father hearing my mother call his name would create an indescribable excitement in me as I ran towards her voice yelling "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!" only to be disappointed by the presence of my brother. So what is my secret?Only time will tell.

In the Great Gatsby Tom Buchanan was engaged in an affair with Myrtle Wilson despite that fact that they were both married. Myrtle was a citizen of the Valley of the Ashes which was a depressing gloomy area that constantly rained ashes. Over looked by the billboard of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg's faded eyes, the devastating scenery reminds me of God watching over his struggling children with pain in his eyes. Tom Buchanan lived in East Egg as a wealthy first class citizen with a wife who truly loved him. Myrtle was secretly unhappy with the circumstances of her marriage and fell in love with Tom. Be that as it may there's still a quiet voice that whispers it was the things Tom's money could buy that created that affection and adoration. Both Tom and Myrtle had significant others in which they truly cared about but the thrill of living a double life ultimately made their attraction stronger. In the end it was Myrtle who was killed all because of a secret that got out. Myrtle's secret predetermined her destiny.

My secret doesn't involve the appalling content of adultery but it tends to get the same looks of shame from the public's eyes. All of my efforts to rise above my denial of embarrassment fail me every time. Should I really live my life hiding the horrible truths of a drug addicted father? Should it all even affect me so deeply that there is a piece of me missing? I live and breathe for the satisfaction of knowing one day he will change. It hurts to hear him say I love you because I already know it. I constantly question if I'm the one who is supposed to be broken by his struggles when I have my own. My secret is hidden because I'm not strong enough to be open about it. I keep it in the depths of my soul and refuse to ever let it be spoken to anybody who could possibly destroy me. My secret has developed an immortal determination in me that burns like a flame, constantly reminding me that one mistake can ruin it all. Everything I've worked to build and even those in progress. Everyday is a new fight because I'm battling what I've come from and where it is that I want to go. I'm constantly reminded of my father every time I walk past that street corner inhabited by those zombies who live another day just to poison them selves. I become the faded billboard eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg except my eyes are filled with tears and my look of disappointment doesn't instill the fear of God in them. My secret is the reason why I sing. It brings out the best in me because I live to outshine it. I live to taunt it. In my defeat in have victory over the only thing that can break me down. My father. My heart. My soul. Through my pain I bring joy and that's genuinely what make me unique from all of the rest.

Holding a secret in your heart can bring you closer to your wishes. Gatsby would stare out over the ocean at that green light in East Egg because he knew Daisy was over there. With the help of Nick, Gatsby and Daisy's love was rekindled. Gatsby had undying love for Daisy that he held unto and was crushed when he found out she was married. Despite the fact Daisy was married she continued to see him. Due to a secret Tom and Myrtle held, Gatsby’s life was influenced in a twist of fate. After being told it was Gatsby who killed Myrtle, George shot and killed him instantly, taking his own life in the end.

"When your heart becomes the grave of your secrets, that desire of yours will be gained more quickly. The prophet said that anyone who keeps secret his inmost thought will soon attain the object of his desire. When seeds are buried in the earth, their inward secrets become the flourishing garden" Rumi Daylight: A Daybook of Spiritual Guidance. My secret has been buried into the deepest part of me and will grow into my success. It will flourish into my triumph and my little secret that I was so ashamed of, will be the root of it all.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Great Gatsby and The War of Ideas

The Big Read – D.C. aims to prove that there’s more to the story than just the city book and certainly THE GREAT GATSBY is no exception.

Little did we know THE GREAT GATSBY was one of many titles that introduced the paperback book to the American publishing scene. This cultural and consumer phenomenon was launched by none other than the United States Armed Services.

Between 1943 and 1947 nearly 123 million copies of 1,322 titles of these flat, wide, and very packetable paperbacks were distributed to U.S. Armed Forces around the world according to John Y. Cole of the Library of Congress’ Center for the Book in his Introduction to a collection of essays for Books In Action The Armed Services Editions, released in 1984.

The Council of Books in Wartime was a consortium of trade book publishers, librarians, and booksellers formed in 1942 to contribute to the “war effort of the United Peoples” through books during World War II. This “war effort” was also part of the “war of ideas” in Europe. These paperback books not only made their way into the hands of soldiers and U.S. military personnel overseas, but also nationals in Europe especially occupied Europe to counteract the Nazi propaganda and censorship – a response to the book burnings that began in 1933.

The U.S. wartime campaign launched the “war of ideas” with slogans like “The Nazis Burned These Books: But Free Americans Can Still Read Them” and “Books are Weapons.”
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s traveling exhibit, “Fighting the Fires of Hate” explores this era which includes a list of banned authors.

At the time of its Armed Services Edition reprint, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY appeared to be coming out of a publishing slump – not a best seller.  It’s not surprising to find it among known and lesser-known titles (as of today) reprinted by the Council of Books in Wartime. Also noted - it appears no books authored by African American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American writers prior to 1943 were part of the Armed Services Editions reprints. This blog welcomes feedback or more information about the Armed Services Editions.

Here’s a partial list of titles from the Armed Services Editions project (a full list is available in the Library of Congress document mentioned earlier. * = Big Read title):

BENEFIELD, BARRY. The Chicken-Wagon Family
BENSON, SALLY. Meet Me in St. Louis
BURROUGHS, EDGAR RICE. Tarzan of the Apes
CAIN, JAMES M. The Postman Always Rings Twice
CATHER, WILLA. My Antonia*
DINESEN, ISAK. Winter's Tales
FITZGERALD, F. SCOTT. The Diamond as Big as the Ritz and Other Stories
GOODMAN, JACK. The Fireside Book of Dog Stories
GOODMAN, JACK, and ALAN GREEN. How to Do Practically Anything
GREENE, GRAHAM. The Ministry of Fear
HEYWARD, Du BOSE. Star Spangled Virgin
JACKSON, CHARLES. The Lost Weekend
LONDON, JACK. The Call of the Wild*
MAUGHAM, W. SOMERSET. The Razor's Edge
PORTER, KATHERINE ANNE. Selected Short Stories
STEINBECK, JOHN. The Grapes of Wrath*
THURBER, JAMES, and E. B. WHITE. Is Sex Necessary?
TUCKER, SOPHIE. Some of These Days
TWAIN, MARK. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer*
VIDAL, GORE. Williwaw
WELLS, H. G. The War of the Worlds

Thursday, May 8, 2008

First Lady Laura Bush to serve as Honorary Chair for The Big Read - D.C.

The day of the kickoff (April 24), the Humanities Council of Washington, DC received a phone call from The White House that First Lady Laura Bush would serve as honorary chair for the city read of F. Scott Fitzgerald's THE GREAT GATSBY aka The Big Read - D.C. 2008. As a former teacher and librarian, Mrs. Bush has demonstrated her passion for all things related to books and reading through numerous initiatives.

Her commitment to advocating reading as a lifelong learning tool is close to our hearts at the Humanities Council, said Joy Ford Austin, Executive Director, Humanities Council.

Mrs. Bush currently serves as the national chair for the Big Read.

Read more about it in the media release and her letter.
We are happy to have Mrs. Bush to be part of our Big Read story for 2008.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Great Gatsby [student] Essay Contest: Secrets, Goals and Dreams

This year the PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools essay contest for the Big Read - D.C. is accepting BOTH written and video essays based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Give them 3 minutes (video/digital) or 1,000 words.

The deadline is Monday, May 12th. First prize is $300 to both the best essay and best video. $100 for runners-ups in each format.

The contest is open to all high school students in grades 10-12 in Washington, D.C. public or public charter high schools.
For the contest, students are asked to write a 1,000-word essay, or produce a 3-minute video that answers one of the following questions:

Question 1: Dishonesty is an underlying theme in Gatsby: Many characters in the novel have secrets about who they really are, where they come from, who they really love, even about crimes and misdeeds they have committed. Think about secrets that you or people in your life have had. These don’t have to be terrible or upsetting secrets, just things that are kept private for whatever reason. Write about the way one secret or personal fact has changed you in some way—either forced you to learn a lesson, helped you grow to become a better person, or helped you see the world in a different light.

Question 2: Although Jay Gatsby’s life comes to a tragic end, many of his goals and dreams seem genuine and true. Look at Gatsby’s “Schedule,”in Chapter IX. Then write about self-improvement goals you have set for yourself—the goals themselves and the changes you hope will come from acting on the goals. Are there certain “resolves”or “rules” you try to live by? What are they, and how have they changed as you grow older? Be sure to write briefly about what one or some of these goals are and then how they have (or will hopefully) change you.

Contest Guidelines:
  • The contest is open to all high school students in grades 10-12 in Washington, D.C. public or public charter high schools.
  • Written essay must be typed.
  • Video essays must be burned onto a CD or DVD.
  • The contest will run from now until May 12, 2008.
  • All entries must be RECEIVED BY May 12 at 5:00 PM
  • All entries must be clearly marked with your name and specifiy which essay question you're answering.
  • Please write your name school, email address, and telephone number on a sheet of paper separate from your entry.
Mail or hand-deliver Entries to PEN/Faulkner Foundation Writers in Schools Program
ATTN: Jamilla Coleman, Coordinator
201 East Capitol Street, SE
Washington, DC 20003
Questions? Call 202-898-9061

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Prohibition Years: Speakeasy Locations in DC

Kim Roberts is the author of "Jazz Age Scandals of the Rich and Scandalous!" The tour, commissioned by the Humanities Council of Washington DC for The Big Read, can be taken on your own using the self-guided tour brochure available online (click on the link for the PDF). There are also some spaces available for Kim's guided tours on April 26 and May 10, from 10:30 to 12:30. To reserve, please email or by calling 202-387-8391.

Kim writes:
While researching The Big Read DC tour this year, I knew right away that one of my themes would have to be Prohibition. The Prohibition laws started in DC in 1917, three years before they went countrywide, so the city was seen as a national model by Temperance organizations.

I wanted to add some former speakeasy locations to the tour, but soon found out how hard it was to find them with any certainty. In 1930, an anti-Prohibition group called The Crusaders published a map of 934 locations that had been raided in the prior seven-month period (934! And those were only the ones where the law had been enforced! There were probably over 2,000 in total). But the map, when I found a copy in the Library of Congress, was woefully lacking in details. Only the major streets were shown, and there were no exact addresses. I found some presumed speakeasy addresses from newspaper articles and oral histories taken many years after Prohibition ended, but these kinds of testimonies, dependent on fading memories, are notoriously faulty. Most researchers will only trust such sources if they can verify them with at least one other citation.

I could document enforcement and advocacy: I knew, for example, the exact location of the Anti-Saloon League of the District of Columbia (805 15th Street NW, in the Woodward Building). But somehow that was not quite as sexy.

So I turned my attention to private clubs. My favorite among the ones I found was the Gaslight Club, a legal organization located at 1020 16th St. NW. They developed a clever set-up for drinking members: to access the bar on the building's third floor, you had to enter through a faked men's bathroom. Then you had to turn a faucet handle to open a sliding panel that would admit you into the bar.

Many speakeasies were in private homes. There's one I found mentioned in a few places, so I believe the stories are trustworthy. It was in the living room of a third floor apartment on K Street. I knew the chances of this building still standing were poor, but like a dutiful researcher I went down there to see for myself. Much to my delight, I found it still exists--the original, intact, low-rise brick building, overshadowed by its high-rise neighbors. And (with strange appropriateness) it operates today as a strip club, Archibald's Gentleman's Club, at 1520 K St. NW.

The most famous of all the speakeasies was further down on K Street. The "Little Green House" at 1625 K was the headquarters of the notorious Ohio Gang. Cronies of President Warren G. Harding set themselves up in business there, with a combination speakeasy, gambling house, and brothel, operated by lobbyist Howard Mannington. This was said to be the place to arrange everything from protection from bootleggers, to the purchase of pardons and paroles, to appointments to Federal office.

The speakeasy that finally ended up on the tour (at stop number three), was another private club in the 1920s. The building still stands, and still operates as a club--but it is a public establishment now, offering an array of mixed drinks and live music. So raise a glass of booze at MCCXXIII Club, 1223 Connecticut Ave. NW, to the 18th Amendment, which made alcohol illegal across the US in January 1920, and--more importantly!--the 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition in December 1933.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Gatsby in Annapolis

During the Big Read orientation in Minneapolis, we met our Annapolis neighbors who are currently hosting their own city read of THE GREAT GATSBY just down US 50 East. Being the home of the Naval Academy and St. Johns College (3rd oldest in the U.S.), the Annapolis Big Read has engaged Naval Midshipmen in the book and a Gatsby Croquet Match on the campus of St. Johns (April 20, 2008). Festivities end April 30. Seems as if there's an opening on their calendar the night of our kick off for THE BIG READ - D.C. on April 24th.

If you want to get a head start on your Gatsby, check out Annapolis Alive! Big Read.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Swankiest Party on Public Radio

A few months ago, Andy Shallal, owner of Busboys and Poets, brought to my attention a radio show about The Great Gatsby on NPR. That show was PRI's Studio 360, a syndicated radio guide to pop culture and the arts. Studio 360 can be heard Saturdays and Sundays (repeat) on WAMU FM. And if you didn't get a chance to hear authors like Jonathan Franzen and others gab about Gatsby, here's your chance. It's a great webpage with audio bits and links to help you brush up on your Gatsby before April 24th.

The Great Gatsby was one of the "American Icon" features recorded in April 2007.

Listen to a clip:

Or visit the Studio 360 webpage for The Great Gatsby. A great resource.
Michon Boston
Project Director
The Big Read - D.C.
for the Humanities Council of Washington, DC

P.S. 25 days to go before the kickoff April 24! You're invited! Reply at or call 202-387-8391.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Countdown Begins

38 Days to Go for The Big Read - D.C.

The Big Read - D.C. kicks off Thursday, April 24, 2008 (6 PM) at the John A. Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. Afterwards, enjoy a month of Big Read activities and events from performances to walking tours, readings, films, and an opportunity to learn The Charleston - 2008 is the 85th anniversary.

Time to pick up your copy of The Great Gatsby at the DC Public Library, Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Busboys and Poets and other local bookstores.

What does this book mean to readers today? See the following New York Times article (February 17, 2008):
"Gatsby's Green Light Beckons a New Set of Strivers"

Monday, March 3, 2008

Big Read - D.C. Public Informational Meeting March 8

The Big Read - D.C.
Public informational session.
Saturday, March 8 @ 2 PM at the MLK, Jr. Library
(901 G Street, NW)

The Big Read - D.C.'s success depends on people like you:

  • Volunteer for to help out at a Big Read event;

  • Promote the Big Read - D.C. to your friends, associates, community;
  • Form your own book discussion group. Attend events together and share your thoughts about The Great Gatsby.

    For information call 202-387-8391 or email

Sunday, February 10, 2008

What does THE GREAT GATSBY mean to Washington, DC?

I invited our Big Read - D.C. intern, Abdul Ali, to submit his impressions of The Great Gatsby as the city book for The Big Read – D.C. 2008 and set the tone for what this book means to the Washington, D.C. community.

Michon Boston
Project Director, The Big Read - D.C. 2008

The Big Read-D.C. selection for 2008 is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It is considered by many to be a masterpiece. Many of us may have read this novel in high school, perhaps rereading it in college. Like all masterpieces, they remain relevant to the particulars of the human condition. Reading Gatsby is our way of keeping the conversation going among multiple generations of readers and the author.

The novel highlights the excesses of the 1920s, the music of the period, the First World War, upward mobility, and a scandalous love triangle. You may ask, but what does this have to do with Washington D.C.? Incidentally, this is the birthplace of the illustrious Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, a major player of this time period also known as the "Jazz Age." As the nation’s capital, there are endless scandals of men who failed in love and life.

At the heart of the novel is its tension between the haves and the have-nots, the measures that some of us take to reinvent ourselves. This novel invites us to examine our attitudes as it relates to how we see ourselves in relation to others. Moreover, how should we define ourselves? Are money, social rank, race, and gender accurate measures?

Finally, The Great Gatsby survives as a mirror to what our society looked liked during the 1920s. We might take this opportunity to note the differences (or similarities) of today’s society. Has any real change happened? In reading Gatsby as a city, what can be gleaned? Many of us adore The Great Gatsby for its lush language and ability to transport us to one of our nation’s most fabled cities during a time like no other. Still, we invite you to travel with us, in our time, so that we may together discover what makes this novel great and our own in 2008.

Abdul Ali is an intern for the Big Read D.C. 2008. He is a writer living in the District and a senior at Howard University studying English and Theatre.
photo credit: Charleston at the Capitol; Library of Congress