PBS is hosting a multiple part series this Fall on America’s 100 “best loved” novels. They did a nationwide survey asking Americans to name their favorite book and narrowed the responses to 100 fiction titles.
As a result of this monumental survey, they chose 100 books and are encouraging Americans to read them and vote for their favorite on their website.
In May, they had a 2 hour kick-off special (which can be watched here).
The aim of the series is “to get the country reading and passionately talking about books.” This aim has been successful as far as I can see, because I have had many library users come in and ask for titles from the list. After watching the kick-off episode, I have half a dozen books to add to my (already lengthy) to be read list.
I am always amazed at how people want to be told what to read: the popularity of celebrity book clubs is a powerful testament to this. There is an undeniable allure to making your way through a list of “best” books. What makes the Great American Read different, in my view, is that it is not touting the quality of the literature represented (50 Shades of Gray and Da Vinci Code are on the list), but rather the quality of the reading experience. These are books people loved, ostensibly for the joy reading gave them.
Of course, the classics are on the list as well. Pride and Prejudice is surely a favorite of many despite being over 200 years old.
The series kickoff features various people—famous and not so famous—evangelizing for their favorite book. Indeed, the premise of the series seems to be to advocate for your favorite book to get it votes. The first book I remember anyone trying to sell me on was Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews. That was over 30 years ago, and, surprisingly, that title is on this list.
Many of the favorites mentioned in the kick off special are favorites because they speak to the identity of their readers. When Chicanos read Bless Me, Ultima, I imagine it speaks to them differently than it would speak to me. One of my favorites is Gone with the Wind, but I imagine I would feel very differently about it if I were African American.
One identity we all have shared though is that of being a young person. The most interesting segment in the kick-off special featured young adult author John Green talking about Catcher in the Rye. He said how reading the book as an adult, he recognized how vulnerable Holden Caulfield was, how he was searching for a place in the world he may not find. This reminded me of the saying “you never cross the same river twice.” You never read the same book twice, because you are a different person the next time you read it. I hope the Great American read encourages us to reread the books we loved as young people to see what they can tell us now.
We own almost all of these titles—so check them out and vote for your favorite.