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An invitation to read 'Gatsby'

The Baltimore Sun

A novel whose author has a tenuous connection to Annapolis might help connect people living in the city and get them more involved in their community.

That's the premise of a citywide literacy program being formally announced tomorrow. Annapolitans will be invited to read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald this spring as part of the Big Read, an initiative sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Annapolis Alive!, the city's 300th anniversary planning committee, will get a $40,000 grant to promote the book and plan related events through April.

Executive Director Chuck Weikel said Fitzgerald's 1925 masterpiece will allow readers to discuss a variety of cultural issues, explore difficult topics and examine the city as it was in the 1920s.

"Great Gatsby is a book with very American themes: the American dream, the effect of wealth of individuals ... how new money and old money shape people and how it affects how you relate to your community," Weikel said.

The book is one of a dozen approved by the NEA for this year's program; organizers in each community chose the book their residents will read. It didn't hurt that Fitzgerald was a descendant of and named after Francis Scott Key, a 1796 graduate of St. John's College in Annapolis.

Officials from St. John's, public schools in Annapolis and the county library system met with Annapolis Alive! officials last week to determine how they'll be involved.

"Literacy is a natural fit with St. John's being the 'Great Books' school," said Mark Lindley, a 1967 St. John's graduate and member of the college's Board of Visitors and Governors.

The college, which hosts an annual croquet match between the Johnnies and U.S. Naval Academy's midshipmen, will be the site for the Big Read's culminating event in April. Students already dress with 1920s flair for the event, and the theme will be expanded to incorporate more from the book.

Lindley and Weikel also expect to hold a panel discussion, featuring local professors and other experts discussing class and race as they apply to Fitzgerald's book and life in Annapolis.

The city might also coordinate events with the Humanities Council of Washington and Annapolis Royal, Canada, where residents will be reading the same book.

The popularity of regional book clubs has been growing since 1998, when Washington state's Center for the Book initiated "One Book" projects.

According to the Library of Congress, Baltimore City and Carroll and Frederick counties sponsored programs in recent years.

And another city by a bay just wrapped its third "One Book, One City" program. About 10,000 San Francisco residents read The Hummingbird's Daughter in 2006.

"We love the idea of creating a civic dialogue," said Marcia Schneider, a spokeswoman for San Francisco Public Library. "It's been really good for us. It takes some effort to get the funding, but it's worth it."

NEA's program was created in response to a 2004 survey it conducted, which found that less than half of American adults read literature.

A total of 117 communities are participating in the NEA program this fall. The organization hopes to reach 400 communities in 2008, with about 200 participating at the same time as Annapolis.

In addition to the grant, each community gets materials to help promote the project, including 10,000 readers' guides and 500 audio CDs.

Weikel envisions an annual book selection for Annapolis. He points to statistics that show readers are 2 1/2 times as likely to volunteer in their communities - and creating new readers might foster a great sense of community.

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