What ‘The Great American Read’ reveals
It’s called "The Great American Read" — an upcoming eight-part series on PBS that examines and celebrates America’s 100 best-loved novels — and it debuts, in earnest, next month. The novels were chosen through a nationwide survey conducted by the public opinion polling service YouGov, which surveyed about 7,200 participants.
The resulting list, tallied and organized based on predetermined criteria — more on that in a moment — is interesting for a number of reasons. It spans a broad range of titles, authors, time periods and countries of origin. It features books dating back to the 17th century and books that are just a couple of years old.
It includes historical fiction, romantic stories, 20th century American classics, thrillers, young adult novels, science fiction, fantasy and everything in between.
To whittle down all of the responses into a list of 100 novels, the advisory panel followed these guidelines, according to "The Great American Read" website:
Each author was limited to one title on the list (to keep the list varied).
Books published in series or featuring ongoing characters counted as one eligible entry on the list (e.g. the Harry Potter series or Lord of the Rings) to increase variety.
Books could be from anywhere in the world as long as they were published in English.
Only fiction could be included in the poll.
Each advisory panel member was permitted to select one book for discussion and possible inclusion on the top 100 list from the longer list of survey results.
Now that the top 100 books have been compiled and announced, voting is currently underway to find America’s favorite novel. There are a number of ways to vote, including the use of specified hashtags on Twitter and Facebook, you can vote by text message or on the website itself.
So, can we talk about the top 100 list? Because I’ve got a few observations.
For starters, it’s far more diverse than I ever expected it to be. Given the criteria of the contest and the history of publishing in the 600-or-so years since the Gutenberg press rolled into town, I suspected that the list would include fewer women and authors of color. I was pleasantly surprised to see this was most certainly not the case. From Toni Morrison and James Baldwin to Junot Díaz and Chinua Achebe, this list is just about as “inclusive” as one could hope.
It includes New Mexico’s own literary godfather, Rudolfo Anaya, as well as Sister Souljah. The list includes nearly every book you had to read in high school, except for Shakespeare — because Bill didn’t write novels, he wrote plays. So he didn’t make the list at all.
But there’s something else. Adam Kirsch, writing recently for The Wall Street Journal, noted that the overwhelming majority of these novels have one thing in common: they are driven by plot more than they are “style.” Americans, it seems, value a good story over flowery or complex writing; one example The Wall Street Journal cited was the great American novelist, Philip Roth. Roth, who won the Pulitzer Prize for “American Pastoral” — while widely regarded as a master of the form — did not make the list. Neither did William Faulkner, Norman Mailer or Saul Bellow.
But the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series did.
I obviously don’t know how the top spots will shake out when the voting closes in October. But, as much as I’d like to see “The Great Gatsby” or “Invisible Man” or “Another Country” fare well, here’s a prediction: I’d bet the Harry Potter series comes in near the very top.
— Originally Published in the Las Cruces Sun-News, 08/16/18