The Big Read-Along: Reconsidering the American Dream

Photo courtesy of the Fox River Grove Memorial Library

Big Read Hero courtesy Fox River Grove Memorial Library

Nov 8, 2023




Free. Live on YouTube

Our statewide book groups start here!

More than 15 libraries, nonprofits, and community groups across Illinois are hosting free book groups for this year's NEA Big Read: Reconsidering the American Dream. Join a book group near you and attend the read-along to start exploring themes of class, migration, and belonging with your fellow readers.

Book group hosts will facilitate this launch event in-person wherever you read. We'll kick things off with a short virtual screening hosted on our YouTube channel before beginning our first readings together. Your local host may have even more special activities in store – find a book group near you and sign up to attend!

When we read together, we broaden our imaginations and understanding of our world, our neighbors, and ourselves. Illinois Humanities is thrilled to read alongside you!

What we're reading

This year's NEA Big Read program features two titles about the "American dream," class, and inequality: Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh, and Infinite Country by Patricia Engel.

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth
Heartland book cover

A finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the Chicago Tribune Literary Prize, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth is a “deeply humane memoir that crackles with clarifying insight” (New York Times Book Review). Sarah Smarsh shares stories of her family in rural Kansas and her childhood in the 1980s and ’90s while offering “an unsentimental tribute to the working-class people Smarsh knows—the farmers, office clerks, trash collectors, waitresses—whose labor is often invisible or disdained” (NPR). “If you’re working toward a deeper understanding of our ruptured country, then Sarah Smarsh’s memoir and examination of poverty in the American heartland is an essential read” (Refinery29). “What this book offers is a tour through the messy and changed reality of the American Dream, and a love letter to the unruly but still beautiful place [Smarsh] called home (Boston Globe). It is “an important book for this moment” (

Infinite Country
Infinite Country Book Cover

In Infinite Country, award-winning author Patricia Engel tells the powerful tale of a family divided. Set in Colombia and the United States and told through the shifting perspectives of each family member, Engel examines the beauty and cruelty of life in the diaspora, crafting “a breathtaking story of the unimaginable prices paid for a better life” (Esquire). With “meticulously rendered descriptions of Andean landscapes and mythology” (New York Times Book Review), Infinite Country is “at once a sweeping love story and tragic drama” (Elle), “forcefully examin[ing] what unites a family beyond the divisions borders and policies forge” (Los Angeles Review of Books). Through the intimacies of one family’s story, Engel “challenges us to consider that the United States has always been a place of borders” (Harvard Review of Books). “Told by a chorus of voices and perspectives, this is as much an all-American story as it is a global one” (Booklist).