The Big Read Kicks off Oct. 1

Communications Director

Kristin Farley
(865) 215-2589

400 Main St., Room 691
Knoxville, TN 37902

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The Big Read Kicks off Oct. 1

Posted: 09/28/2010
YWCA Knoxville, in partnership with the Knox County Public Library and 21 other community partners, invites East Tennessee to join in The Big Read, a community reading program featuring Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. This year, the program spans four counties: Knox, Blount, Anderson and Sevier - and the whole region is invited to participate in the biggest read around.

The Big Read

The Big Read kicks off on Friday, October 1, 5:00-6:30 p.m. on downtown Knoxville's Market Square with jazz from Kelle Jolly and Emily Mathis, cards on the lawn and a short presentation at 6 p.m. from the YWCA. Giveaways include 100 copies of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Reader's Guides, Audio Guides and Big Read schedules. Following the event, make your First Friday rounds, where you'll find more juke joints, including fabulous costumes, blues and banjo music, and special offers. Jazz Age and Harlem Renaissance attire is encouraged. 

Throughout the month-long program, special Their Eyes Were Watching God themed events will be offered throughout the region, from lectures such as "American English Dialects: What Do Others Think About the Way YOU Speak?" and "Hurston: Imagery, Culture, and History of the 1930s", exhibits including David Bates' haunting The Katrina Paintings, and a Community Leader Panel Discussion, where interested readers can catch a thought-provoking book discussion led by a panel of community leaders including Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett as well as other area mayors, business leaders, nonprofit executives, and exemplary high school students, moderated by Knox County Schools Superintendent Dr. James McIntyre. There will also be discussion groups located across the region.

The online book club, "Blog the Book," will continue again this year. Their Eyes Were Watching God will be broken up into an easy-to-follow reading schedule, with online guides, locals reading the book, who will post their thoughts, questions, and reactions in an open, online forum. The public is invited to read along with them, and join in the conversation.

The goal of The Big Read is to encourage reluctant readers to pick up a good book with the support of the entire community. The trend in reading literature had been in a steady decline since the early 1980s. However, the tide is turning. Evidence of a resurgence in literary reading was published by the National Endowment of the Arts report "Reading on the Rise," which cites an increase of 16.6 million new adult readers of literature since 2002. The 7% upswing in readers could be attributed to The Big Read as well as other national programs focusing on reading such as Oprah's Book Club.

For more information about The Big Read in East Tennessee, call Sara Baker at 523-6126 or go to For more information about The Big Read nationally please visit


First published amid controversy in 1937, then rescued from obscurity four decades later, the novel narrates Janie Crawford's ripening from a vibrant, but voiceless, teenage girl into a woman with her finger on the trigger of her own destiny. Hurston's conviction that black culture is valuable, unique, and worthy of preservation comes through in Their Eyes Were Watching God via its harmonious blend of folklore and black idiom. In Janie Mae Crawford, Hurston rejects nineteenth and early twentieth-century stereotypes for women and creates a protagonist who, though silenced for most of her life, ultimately finds her own voice.


Born in 1891, Hurston grew up in Eatonville, Florida, the first all-black incorporated town in the U.S. She worked her way through school, supporting herself with a variety of jobs from manicurist to maid. As the only black scholar at Barnard College, she studied anthropology. Her lifelong passion to collect, record, and broadcast the everyday idiomatic communication of her people would inform four novels, two collections of folklore, an autobiography, and dozens of stories, articles, plays, and essays.

Despite her novels' initial success, Hurston struggled for financial security; once, she even pawned her typewriter. The largest royalty any of her books ever earned was $943.75. Since most of her books were published during the Depression, she paid her bills through story and essay sales, book advances, and two Works Progress Administration jobs with the Federal Writers' Project. By the 1950s, she could no longer support herself by writing. After a stroke in 1959, she reluctantly entered a welfare home, where she died penniless, and was buried in an unmarked grave.

A decade later, writer Alice Walker was researching a story on voodoo and came across Hurston's Mules and Men, which ultimately led Walker to Their Eyes Were Watching God--the book she regards as the most important of her life. Posing as Hurston's niece, Walker traveled to Eatonville, found the cemetery where Hurston was buried, and commissioned a proper stone to mark Hurston's grave.


The Big Read is an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services and Arts Midwest.

The National Endowment for the Arts is a public agency dedicated to supporting excellence in the arts - both new and established - bringing the arts to all Americans, and providing leadership in arts education. Established by Congress in 1965 as an independent agency of the federal government, the Arts Endowment is the nation's largest annual funder of the arts, bringing great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner cities, and military bases. For more information, please visit