This was a far cry from a quiet conversation around a library table -- a series of which are being held in West Hollywood to discuss Rudolfo Anaya's "Bless Me, Ultima." Nor was it much like the walking tour of San Francisco speak-easies for "The Great Gatsby," or the chalk art festival in Pomona that included "To Kill a Mockingbird" as a theme.
Developed by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Big Read funds projects nationwide in an effort, NEA literature director David Kipen explains, "to restore reading to the heart of American life."
Kipen, a tall man with a wide smile, was previously book critic at the San Francisco Chronicle; his enthusiasm seems better suited to his current role.
In addition to his duties in Washington, he has traveled the country -- once, in a Big Read-branded Ford hybrid -- visiting as many Big Read celebrations as he can.
"No two Big Reads are alike," he says. "It's kind of unavoidable -- and rather stirring to behold."
While the projects are diverse, there is a clear structure. Each year, communities nationwide choose from the Big Read's list of books, map out projects and submit a formal grant application.
Generally libraries or municipalities apply, but the program is flexible. In New England, a hospital -- UMass Memorial Health Care Center -- took note of research that shows readers live longer lives; this spring, they'll do a Big Read with "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer."
The grants, which range from $2,500 to $20,000, are small. This means that more communities can participate. The process also calls for a funding match, so each grantee should have twice that amount for programming.
In addition to money, the Big Read provides training and resources. Grantees are brought together for an annual orientation, and are given readers' guides with accompanying audio CDs, bookmarks and other materials.
And then, they're off: to set up a Russian potluck for Tolstoy, an exhibit of vintage soldier's uniforms for Hemingway, or to lock in those sled dogs.
The dogs made several appearances as part of the Huntington Library's Big Read project. The Huntington holds the largest archive of Jack London papers, so "The Call of the Wild" was a perfect fit. The library put many London items on exhibit, including his Klondike diary, a first edition of "The Call of the Wild" and an original manuscript of "White Fang."
The connection to its collection is only part of the reason the Huntington chose "The Call of the Wild." The hope was that London's adventure tale would appeal to boys and young men, constituencies that have low reading rates, according to NEA reports.
"This is all about reaching out to nonreaders and readers at risk," says Sue Hodson, the Huntington project's director.
"We want to get the people who wouldn't necessarily think to pick up a book," Kipen adds. "And to do that, you've got to have a little pizazz."
Ultimately, the Huntington's monthlong project, one of Southern California's most ambitious, reached 24,353 people through 95 events. More than two dozen partners -- public libraries and commercial bookstores, the Boy Scouts and the Humane Society -- contributed to activities around "The Call of the Wild."