Right because Anne McAllister was wondering, I went searching. Where exactly did the list of top 100 books come from and did it have anything to do with the National Endowment for the Arts?
It is a bit like trying to play a game of Chinese whispers.
The list as far as I can determine comes from the 2007 World Book Day poll of top 100 books after people were allowed to nominate 10. You can see the full list and the telegraph article here.
It would appear that someone did it as meme and it has circulated basically unchanged except for the intro.
There were/are two Big Reads. The UK Big Read happened in 2003 and was sponsored by the BBC and the govenrment and was aimed at finding the nation's favourite book. In 2003, LOTR came out top.
The Big Read in the US is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. It is the largest Federal programme since WPA and you can read about its aims here. It mainly revolves around trying to get communities to read for pleasure and to read more literature. This is an ongoing project and appears to be based primarily in the Midwest. They do have a list of books which includes Steinbeck, Hemingway, Willa Cather etc. Communities read one book and discuss that book.
I do not know where or how the two things became combined, but still contend the list was worthwhile...and fun.