Considering the Great American Read

Kenny Brechner -- April 26th, 2018

PBS’s The Great American Read is an interesting beast. Of course any platform with broad reach whose reason for being is to explore and share the power of reading requires our promotional love and respect. Absolutely! Also, let us recognize at the outset that any top 100 books list will by necessity have grievous omissions and will please some people more than others. Yet here among our book industry selves it is still well worth considering the enterprise more critically.

The use of YouGov to conduct “a demographically and statistically representative survey asking Americans to name their most-loved novel” obviously provided a populist backbone to the building of the basic list from which 100 titles were culled. The philosophy of The Great American Reads top 100 list is built around the concept of a book being “most-loved” in a strictly utilitarian sense, meaning the most loved books by the most readers. It is hard to imagine a book being more loved than Mrs. Dalloway by its devoted readers, but one can see why it isn’t on the list from a volume perspective. The 13 industry experts who whittled the survey results down to 100, along with their ability to insert one book from the longer list for possible inclusion, allowed for them to insert a smidge of critical, rather than populist, perspective, but their primary task seems to have been to provide a chronologically and demographically balanced result in keeping with the most-loved guiding principle.

The result is interesting, though odd at points. It is hard to imagine what would happen if Fifty Shades of Grey were to win, for example. Its presence shows the list’s weighting toward contemporary rather than historical lovedness. If historical sales had been considered then equally ludicrous, but forgotten, blockbusters like Valley of the Dolls and Bridges of Madison County would have appeared on the list. That such books are forgotten argues, perhaps, for a more nuanced perspective on inclusion than simple current popularity and demographic and chronological base touching.

To me the main omissions come from there being too few modern children’s books and too few books that evoke exceptional love from a smaller sampling of devoted readers. This lessens the opportunity for discovery of literary treasures and the opportunity for increasing adult readers for modern children’s books not named Harry Potter or already part of the popular imagination. Another worrisome, and related, aspect is the number of books included that have movie versions, potentially allowing participation based on a movie rather than a book.*

The competitive goal of the Great American Read, choosing one winner from among the list of 100, the idea of a country having a single most-loved book, is itself a bit dubious and reminiscent of reality television standards of having a single winner of a contest, rather than in keeping with the fact that most big readers have at least several favorite books. The only-one-winner element does give The Hunger Games a leg up, I suppose.

In any case the kids’ books on the list reflect giant popular series such as Harry Potter, Narnia, and The Hunger Games, along with some classics like Anne of Green Gables, The Call of the Wild, and personal favorite Where the Red Fern Grows. Other than Twilight, they are all good books by critical standards, and show chronological and demographic balance, but they do not represent anything like what a survey of contemporary YA readers would have produced. In the end the list is too familiar and too aimed at touching demographic bases. It requires too little of its participants. Discovery comes from pushing people out of the familiar, and the list is too steeped in generalized familiarity. Sure, It is filled with many great books, but one still feels aspects of lost opportunity.

In the interests of discovery please share below the books whose omission from this list galls you to the quick.

I’ll start. There are many stark omissions, of course, Isabella Allende and Gabriel Garcia Márquez to go with my Virginia Woolf example. This can’t be helped, but my thoughts go to books which are both perfect exemplars of a genre and completely original, such as Right Ho Jeeves, The Haunting of Hill House, The Loved One, Half Bad, and Harriet the Spy are big misses. If I could pick one adult book to add it would be Three Men in a Boat, the a most amiable book ever! My one kids’ book would be the Bartimaeus Trilogy, such a fascinating reinvention of our world and an exploration of class issues along with its originality, taut suspense and delightful characters. And you?

*This concern was shared with me by a customer.

13 thoughts on “Considering the Great American Read

  1. Mris

    Fahrenheit 451. It was my vote before I even looked at the list, then I looked through the whole list and couldn’t find it. Then I used the search function and couldn’t find it. I was shocked! Like, there must be some mistake because 50 Shades of Grey is on this list, but not Fahrenheit 451!! Of all books, they are leaving out the book about censorship. I got mad and decided the whole thing was malarkey, lol…

  2. Candi Rhymes

    Thank you for commenting on this strange beast of a list. With respect to adult literature alone, aside from no Woolf, there’s also no Joyce, no Faulkner, no Lawrence, no Huxley, no Kerouac, no Styron, no Nabokov. I guess I should be thrilled Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Melville made the list, but I’m not. We are now in opposite world where Nicolas Sparks is a literary giant and E.L. James has replaced Henry James as one of the greatest novelists in the English Language. America now chooses its most-cherished books the way it chooses its presidents. And sadly, PBS is now an accomplice where it was once a witness. I’m just sorry commentary similar to yours wasn’t launched on a larger scale, say, in The New York Times.

  3. Margaret Humanick

    Where is The Bonfire of the Vanities on the Great American read list? Were the liberal judges unable to vote for this novel by Tom Wolfe because he told the truth in his novel? It is a better novel than 80% of those on the list and I read 64 of the novels listed.

  4. William D

    Some of the books seem like a headscratcher – “The Mind Invaders”, and some other novels with a very limited amount of ratings on Goodreads (as a single metric) seems to not exactly channel ‘the Great American Read’.

    I’ve read roughly a third of the books on the list. A lot of great novels on there, though, I’m pleased “The Sun Also Rises” was the Hemingway chosen, as it’s probably one of my favorites in the list and will get my vote. The Stand as King’s book is probably also the best choice.

    Things I think are near misses or omitted:

    YA: The Devil’s Arithmetic, Holes, Harriet the Spy, Matilda or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Lord of the Flies, A Wrinkle in Time

    SF/F: Nothing by Heinlein, surprisingly, and no Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451? Ender’s Game is an obvious miss, as is something by Philip K Dick. And very surprised American Gods isn’t on the list.

    Popular Fiction: No Cloud Atlas or Bone Clocks? All The Light We Cannot See, Infinite Jest, Life of Pi, Kite Runner?

  5. wurdnurd

    I have no problem with 50 Shades or Twilight being on the list; while not considered “GREAT LITERATURE,” they are deeply popular and impacted contemporary culture in a very specific way. I take much bigger issue with an obscure title by a deeply problematic author being on this list (Dave Hunt’s The Mind Invaders). A book that has fewer than 100 reviews on Goodreads, has only 15 reviews on Amazon and is in only 25 libraries IN THE WORLD (according to WorldCat). I genuinely don’t care how much the estate of Dave Hunt paid to sponsor the placement of this title on the list, but it absolutely does not belong on here. The list claims to be “100 best-loved novels,” and this title, by any definition of the term, does not qualify.
    Other SF/Fantasy authors who would better serve the program to be included: Ray Bradbury, Philip K Dick, Tamora Pierce, Mercedes Lackey, Marion Zimmer Bradley (especially if you’re looking for problematic authors), Anne McCaffrey, Piers Anthony, Christopher Moore, NK Jemisin….I could keep going…

  6. Bryndis Rubin

    Everyone seems to have their noses out of joint about the inclusion of Fifty Shades and Twilight. Remember– this is a demographically representative survey of Americans. That includes people who read for enjoyment, not for ‘checking the box’ on literary greats. I’ll mention two of the Five Laws of Library Science: every reader his/her book, every book its reader. So if Twilight is what readers want, that is what they want. The literary snob in me needs to be told to give it a rest and respect others’ viewpoints. (This is very akin to our recent political climate, isn’t it?) As long as people are reading, who cares what they read?

  7. Jeff Pope

    Modernist experimental fiction seems to be completely left off the list so we have no Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, Lessing, Pynchon, Barth or even Wallace. Why Vonnegut’s “Sirens of Titan” rather than “Cat’s Cradle” or “Slaughterhouse Five”?
    While I agree Michael Chabon should have been included, if I were to add one book, it would be T.C. Boyle’s “Worlds End.”

  8. Hannah C

    I’m not bothered by the inclusion of pulpy contemporary hits like Fifty Shades or Twilight, since those are certainly loved by many Americans (though not me). I did raise an eyebrow when I saw The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan on the list, though. Is it really a widely read and loved book, or was it just included to add something historically influential to balance all the contemporary pulp?

    I agree that Harriet the Spy ought to have made the list, and possibly also The Phantom Tollbooth. As for adult books, I would have chosen East of Eden over Grapes of Wrath (assuming we can only have one book per author), and agree that Kavalier & Clay would have been a worthy addition. A Visit from the Goon Squad would have been a good choice as well.

  9. Carol B. Chittenden

    Well there are certainly a number of ringers in the list. But then there are people who vote for different political leaders from the ones I choose too. Among the unfortunate omissions in the adult titles is Empire Falls, by Richard Russo. From what I think of as “all ages,” I was happy to see both Charlotte’s Web and The Giver. However, Bridge to Terabithia is a gap, as is Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. (What those two beautifully crafted stories have to say to contemporary woes!)

    But I can’t emphasize enough that the idea that there is ONE book that somehow represents all of us, or that we all should read, is as silly as “Great Square Inches in Art” or “The Ideal Molecule.” Even 100 books begs the question, even as it implies that the others are somehow losers.

  10. Jill Porco

    I agree about there not being enough children’s books on the list. There are also not enough graphic now on the list. (And I’m not much of a graphic novel reader either!) . The Little House on the Prairie series is omitted to my chagrin. Picking one book from this series is easy–On the Banks of Plum Creek. I would have picked a Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot novel for Agatha Christie rather than a play–And then, there were none.

  11. VickeyB

    I was “galled to the quick” by the inclusion of both “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Twilight.” In fact, I was so put off, I decided not to watch the The Great American Read at all. Those two series are NOT “great” books by any rating system.

    I was shocked by the exclusion of “All the Light We Cannot See,” Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winner. “A Gentleman In Moscow” by Amor Towles, and “People of the Book” by Geraldine Brooks are also egregious exclusions.

  12. Susan Savory

    I was surprised by the inclusion of a few obscure (to my mind) titles – Dona Barbara, Bless Me, Ultima, Mind Invaders – and a few titles that, while popular, are not exactly “GREAT” reads – Fifty Shades and Twilight, for example. Some authors are represented by surprising books – Colson Whitehead with the Intuitionist instead of Underground railroad, for example.

    There are children’s titles whose exclusion seems unforgivable – From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler, Harriet the Spy, Wind in the Willows, Freak the Mighty, Skellig.

    And – I miss, and would have included, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and incredibly Close, and just about anything from Michael Chabon – Kavalier & Clay, Wonder Boys or Moonglow.

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