July 16, 2015

The Big Read

The Big Read, a community project orchestrated by Ball State faculty, will use Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" to explore censorship in the digital age.

Bo Chang realizes art censorship has been going on for centuries. But what the assistant professor of adult and community education finds intriguing is when the censorship occurs not at the hands of a governmental agency but by consumers themselves.

She points to the seemingly ubiquitous influence of technology, especially social media, which gives users the ability to filter out topics and ideas. Whether people realize it or not, there are many ways in which idea sharing is on the decline. That's not to say technology is evil, Chang says, but that it should be handled with care.

So when she saw an opportunity to coordinate a community-wide exploration of censorship, centered on Ray Bradbury's classic 1953 novel "Fahrenheit 451," Chang embraced the challenge. She secured a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to stage a nearly yearlong, Muncie-wide version of The Big Read.

"It will be great to look at how technology benefits people but how it can also be harmful," Chang says. "Controversial topics may be discussed, but we're hopeful everyone will express their ideas related to a topic in the book."

A story for everyone

The Big Read programs have been held in more than 1,100 communities since the project started in 2006. The goal is to encourage a diverse group of people within a community to read a book, then engage in discussion and participate in other program-related events.

"These organizations, including Ball State University, are creating valuable opportunities for their communities to share wonderful stories and characters, and to have meaningful conversations."

Jane Chu,
chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts

Chang specifically homed in on Bradbury's oft-banned "Fahrenheit 451," as the novel presents a dystopian, futuristic America where all books are banned and where large-screen, interactive television has become the epicenter of society. In this inverted world, where firemen start fires instead of extinguishing them, books are burned, not read, and the lessons of the past are lost forever. Literature is preserved only in the memories of a few men and women, fugitives from the law, living off the grid.

Jon Eller, the director of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at IUPUI, will moderate a kickoff discussion from 4 to 5 p.m. Sept. 22 in the L.A. Pittenger Student Center, Cardinal Halls A and B.

Chang is also planning a series of 10 roundtable discussions, one public forum and one keynote session in Muncie. An arts competition, set for February 2016, invites participants to read the book, then reflect on the novel via an artistic piece, be it an interpretive dance, music composition, or other artwork such as a painting or sculpture.

NEA funding fuels project

The university is one of 75 groups around the country to receive NEA grant funding for projects that will occur from September 2015 to June 2016.

More than $1 million is shared across the organizations, including Ball State's $15,000 grant. This is a one-to-one matching grant, which will also receive financial or in-kind support from Ball State, Muncie Public Library, and Muncie Action Plan.

The Big Read

Follow The Big Read's events.

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Or read the NEA's reader's guide for "Fahrenheit 451"

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For more information on the project, contact Bo Chang.

Department of Educational Studies Chairwoman Jayne R. Beilke says the group is pleased to further community outreach activities through The Big Read.

"The learning community will consist of Ball State faculty and students, nonprofit youth-serving community agencies, public libraries and others. 'Fahrenheit 451' is a very timely book during this period of national examination over access to information."

NEA Chairwoman Jane Chu says The Big Read is a powerful example of how the arts bring communities together.

"These organizations, including Ball State University, are creating valuable opportunities for their communities to share wonderful stories and characters, and to have meaningful conversations," Chu says.

As an educator who's devoted her life to adult and community education, Chang says The Big Read was an opportunity she couldn't pass up.

"I personally like this book a lot," Chang says. "It’s quite interesting. And the topics discussed in the book, especially the role technology plays in our lives, will make it very easy for people to participate in the discussions."

But most importantly, Chang says, the goal of the community support of one book is "to really fall in love with reading. We want that more than anything."