When the Great American Read was announced, I was excited to see PBS uncover literature in American and let the country decide what the nation’s favorite book is. Based upon a survey, they broke down America’s top 100 books and are narrowing it down to one. The show, as hosted by Meredith Vieira, started on May 22, with a two-hour kickoff episode introducing the books. This will be followed with five themed episodes and a finale in the fall to announce the results of the voting. I streamed the episode the day after it aired, and decide to live tweet the process!
Anyways, because of my live-tweeting and the general position I hold as I walk through life as a bookish person, I have thoughts on this list and what PBS is trying to accomplish. So, I’m going to hit it with some list analysis.
What’s on the List?
The Great American Read list could be chopped up into several categories, with the largest two being contemporary literature and classic literature. Many of the novels on the list are what we would consider to be classics such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, To Kill a Mockingbird, Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, and so many others (like honestly most of the list)
However, there are a surprising amount of contemporary works that (in my opinion) are probably going to become classics such as The Book Thief, Americanah, and The Martian. Which honestly, I’m glad that there are so many contemporary novels on the list because it shows that American readers aren’t just stuck on the classics, and that they’ll read books that are either recently published or have been published in the last 10 or 20 years and stuck around. I tend to read contemporary lit over classic lit, so I’m glad that there’s some of that on the list; however, I like knowing that the classics are always going to be accessible to me when I choose to read them.
My favorite subsect of the list is obviously going to be children’s/young adult literature. That’s what I read the most of, and what I like to study in an academic context so I’m here for those being included on the list. Again, here there is a good list of contemporary and classic works. Jason Reynold’s Ghost (which I checked out from my local library this morning), John Green’s Looking for Alaska, and of course The Book Thief are great additions to the list. On the classic side of things, I love Charlotte’s Web, The Outsiders, and Anne of Green Gables. I think the best thing about the children’s literature subsect of The Great American Read list is that it shows the dominance that books we’ve read as children can have on our memories and our habits as readers, and that there is a space for these books for adult readers as well as young readers.
To explore the whole list, check it out at PBS.org
What Didn’t Make the List?
After having watched the kickoff episode, I’ve seen a lot of commentary both on social media (the official hashtag is #GreatReadPBS) and on the PBS website which is inviting readers to share their stories about Great Reads. A large part of the commentary has been suggesting books that should have been on the list but weren’t. From Willa Cather (which I totally agree about) to Ray Bradbury, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, and many others, there are many people out there who feel like their favorite authors or favorite books were slighted.
Similarly, there were a few books that I felt belonged on the list that I was surprised were left off. First and foremost is Little House on the Prairie (and the rest of the series) by Laura Ingalls Wilder. If you couldn’t tell from my blog posts about Wilder’s works, Little House on the Prairie was one of the books that stuck out most to me from my childhood and it’s the quintessential pioneer story that still holds a special place in American literature. Additionally, I wish that the Oz books by L. Frank Baum has made it on the list. Who doesn’t love The Wizard of Oz? Plus, it’s well enough known for people to make Oz jokes when I tell them I’m from Kansas.
Finally, I’m most surprised that there wasn’t anything by Dr. Seuss on the list. I wouldn’t have thought much of this if it weren’t for the fact that I watched this Jimmy Kimmel video the other day.
Clearly, this is a slightly ridiculous video and meant to criticize, which doesn’t work well in context of this PBS show (because The Great American Read is all about the readers), but with so many people only thinking of Dr. Seuss, I would think that there would be at least one of his books on the list. However, he may have been excluded because the list simply doesn’t include any picture books, but I’d still make an argument for Seuss’s inclusion regardless.
Is there something that you think should have made it on the list but wasn’t? Let me know in the comments!
Criticism of the List
As with any list, this one has its critics. Considering most of the list is composed of books written by white men, that’d be one of my biggest critiques (but that’s just a critique of our patriarchal society as well). The biggest book I’ve seen complaints about being on the list is Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, and I’ve got to say—I agree. I don’t think that this book fits well with the rest of the books on the list (even others that fall in the category of contemporary reads). For me that’s the one thing that clearly stands out as not belonging. Even if I don’t care for some of the other books, I’ll acknowledge that they fit on the list—Fifty Shades of Grey just doesn’t.
For more about the debate over the list, check out this great article from the School Library Journal: “’Fifty Shades’ Notwithstanding, Librarians Embrace the Great American Read”
What is an “American Read” Anyways?
Here’s where I’m going to tell you why I love the Harry Potter series, but I don’t think that it should be our Great American Read.
Harry Potter definitely has a place as one of the most well-loved book series of all times, and I can understand how it appeared on this list given its popularity. However, I don’t think Harry Potter is an “American” read, because that’s limiting the reach and success that this book has had. Harry Potter is instead a global read. It’s more than that, it’s a global phenomenon. I think it’s as simple as that. Furthermore, I feel the same way about the inclusion of Lord of the Rings and even The Chronicles of Narnia on this list because of their global success and the reach that they’ve had they don’t fell American.
I’m not saying that the Great American Read should be written by an American author, and I am thrilled that there is authorial diversity on this list (in fact I think there could be more), but I think the book should be something that has uniquely impacted America, rather than something that has impacted the entire world.
However, it’s also interesting that the Great American Read is supposed to be “America’s favorite book” when in fact I think those two things may not be found in the same book (although they could be, we’ll just have to wait for the finale I guess).
My Great American Read(s)
Drumroll, please. If you’ve made it this far, it’s time to find out what my Great American Read(s) are from PBS’s list.
My Top Two:
- Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
I read this book as a kid and loved it. Loved it so much that I reread it multiple times and the copy that my sisters and I shared was sort of starting to fall apart. I showed pigs and was involved with agriculture so I felt somewhat of an identification with Fern. Plus, I really wanted to swing on that rope. Plus, last summer I read an E.B. White biography that was phenomenal and I loved the insight that it provided to his life.
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I can tell you where I was when I started reading this book for the first time—in the backseat of my parent’s old suburban in the Dillons parking lot in Salina, Kansas. My older sister was a sophomore in high school and was reading the book for class. I’d run out of books to read, so she let me borrow this one from her. I was 13. Since then, I’ve read the book myself for class, gotten my own copy, read and reread the book, and read (and loved) Go Set a Watchman. This book is for me, the Great American Read because it is a quintessential American read because of what it meant at the time of its publication and what it continues to mean. So, this is the book I’m voting for.
You can vote for To Kill a Mockingbird at PBS.org or using #VOTEMockingbird. I’d encourage you to vote for this book, but at the end of the day you should vote for whichever book you think is the Great American Read.
My Runner Ups:
- The Giver by Lois Lowry
- The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
- Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery.
Books that I think could be my Great American Read if they ran this same kind of thing like 20 or 30 years in the future:
- Looking for Alaska by John Green
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Plain and simple, I love both of these books and they both hold a special place in my heart and on my bookshelf (even if Looking for Alaska isn’t my favorite John Green book). However, because they were published more recently, they just don’t hold the weight for me that the books above do. I could easily vote for either of these books, but just not today. I need them to age with me; whereas, the others had aged before they ever got to me
Books that I want to read from PBS’s list that I haven’t read yet:
- 1984 by George Orwell
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- Bless me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
- The Help by Kathryn Stockett
- The Color Purple by Alice Walker
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
- White Teeth by Zadie Smith
- Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
- Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
- The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
- Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
This list of books for me is the most genius part of what PBS is trying to accomplish here. Because sure, they want to narrow down which book is the Great American Read; however, they also just want to get people to read any of these books. I don’t read a lot of classics, so for me the whole top 100 list basically works as a ready-made reading list. Other’s might not have read some of the contemporary works or children’s/young adult works that I love so well. Besides giving people an opportunity for people to champion their favorite books, PBS is offering an opportunity for millions of Americans to read and discuss literature.
I’m in love with the Great American Read, so here are some resources from PBS!
- Great American Reads book list
- Share your Great American Reads story
- Vote here for The Great American Read
- A list of the hashtags to be used in voting on social media
- How Many Books Have You Read From the List of 100 (Quiz)
- The Great American Read Book List Personality Quiz (I’m Atticus Finch)
- Watch the Great American Read!
- Check out the Great American Read Book Club on Facebook
As always, you can contact me here if you have any questions, comments, or concerns! I’d love to hear from you.