PBS’ Great American Read: A Question Necessary to Ask But Impossible to Answer

How do we define “the best” anything? Should we only call something “the best” if it is everyone’s favorite? Or is it the best if scholars and experts say it is?

There’s a classic rock station in the New York area that I really love – Q1043 – that has an annual countdown the week of Thanksgiving that polls their audience to try and narrow down the 1,043 best classic rock songs of all time. The listeners get to listen to pick their top ten classic rock songs of all time, and the song that’s selected the most is considered the best. But the surprising (or not surprising) thing is that every year, the countdown gets the same result. Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” consistently wins by a wide margin.

But the issue is – how much personal bias makes up the audience selection? When they vote, are they picking the best, or are they picking their favorite?

GAR 1

A program aired last week on PBS with a simple question – what’s America’s favorite book? The Great American Read, hosted by Meredith Vierra, presented a list of 100 books to be voted upon by readers and PBS viewers in an attempt to narrow down what book Americans love more than any other. To see the list of 100 books selected, click here.

Accompanying many books, people were selected to speak about the book’s influence and impact on their everyday life. Some of these people were celebrities, and it was interesting to hear what they had to say; Seth Myers loves Catch 22, George Lopez explains how Siddartha changed his life, Venus Williams credits The Chronicles of Narnia as an inspiration. Will Wheaton showed up to talk about how much he loves Dune. Neil DeGrasse Tyson touts Gulliver’s Travels as his favorite novel.

If the series were just a list of readers explaining how these books changed their lives, things would be so simple.  But defining “the best” book or “the absolute national favorite” is a slippery slope.

For those wondering how the books were selected, this is from the PBS website:

PBS and the producers worked with the public opinion polling service “YouGov” to conduct a demographically and statistically representative survey asking Americans to name their most-loved novel. Approximately 7,200 people participated. … The results were tallied and organized based on our selection criteria and overseen by an advisory panel of 13 literary industry professionals.”

When there are only 100 entries from the entire literary canon, you’ve got to set some ground rules. Maybe have only one book or series by author. That seems reasonable, right? The Q1043 contest I mentioned above benefits from having over 1000 songs, and they don’t have that problem – they can have twenty songs by Led Zeppelin or the Beatles and it makes sense because there are so many entries. But when you’ve only got 100 entries that go back through literary history all the way back to 1615? One book per author seems reasonable, right? Well, the thing is, it causes some problems.

GAR 3

In the pantheon of American classics, there are some that are called “The Great American Novel,” meaning that they so wonderfully capture the national zeitgeist and have so much literary merit that they are considered the peak of American Literature. Foremost among the Great American Novels is Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a story about a young boy who runs away with a slave and goes on an epic journey along the Mississippi river. Author Ernest Hemingway famously said “All modern American literature comes from Huckleberry Finn.

The issue is this: in selecting one book from Mark Twain, PBS selected The Adventures of Tom Sawyer over Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This ruffled some feathers. Rightfully so.

As someone who is in the definite minority that prefers The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I do have to admit that Huck Finn is objectively better in just about every measurement of quality – literary legacy, social influence, narrative cohesion, staying power, you name it. Tom Sawyer is a fun and amusing bildungsroman (for my non-pretentious readers, that means “Coming-of-age story”), and that’s fine. But Huckleberry Finn is a bonafide epic that challenged slavery and racism. Plus it manages to stay relevant across all this time by constantly being challenged and banned from schools because of its use of the N-word. More than any of its competitors, yes, including Great Gatsby and Moby Dick, this is the book that is most rightfully called “The Great American Novel.” There are many that are called great american novels, but Huckleberry Finn is the Great American Novel. I’m glad to see that I wasn’t the only one upset about this, but, like, come on PBS! The fact that this program bills itself as specifically “American” and Huck Finn didn’t make the list is concerning.

The program cited its reasons for selecting Tom Sawyer as that it depicted racism, used American vernacular, and created uniquely American characters – to which I say, “Um… Have you heard of Huckleberry Finn?”

So yeah, according to PBS’ Great American Read, Ready Player One, Twilight, and Fifty Shades of Grey are better books than Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Um. Yikes.

GAR 4

Also – and this is far less of an issue – there are plenty of Stephen King books that are worth a spot on the list. Over his long career, Stephen King has become synonymous with great horror storytelling, so you’d assume the King selection to reflect that, right? But PBS selected The Stand, which isn’t exactly horror. Sure, The Stand is one of King’s best books, but King is the #1 name associated with horror fiction, so shouldn’t the one book of his reflect that? The Stand is hardly horror – it’s definitely post-apocalyptic and definitely fantasy, but maybe not horror. Is it his best book? Maybe. But does The Stand deserve King’s spot more than It or Carrie or The Shining? It’s difficult to say.

And I’ll admit to not having read nearly as much Vonnegut as I should – but why did they pick The Sirens of Titan? Most people aren’t familiar with that book. Not Slaughterhouse Five? Not Cat’s Cradle? Doesn’t that seem odd?

GAR 2Anyone can complain about what books did and/or didn’t make the list for days upon days. But the thing is, the real metric of asking the audience to vote ensures that it won’t be based on an esoteric literary quality – but something more important. This is to decide what books are so wonderfully readable that they inspire people to read. For better or for worse, it’s not going to be Moby-Dick or Heart of Darkness or War and Peace. These books aren’t going to turn non-readers into readers – that is what I think will decide this poll. And so what if Crime and Punishment loses to Ready Player One or The Picture of Dorian Gray loses to Fifty Shades of Grey? It’s important to remember that this isn’t about influence on literature, or “literary merit” or something elitist like that. but rather, influence on people. And that’s why the winner is almost certainly going to be Harry Potter. No question about it. And I wholeheartedly agree; I wouldn’t read as much as I do now if not for Harry Potter – it’s so impactful for people my age, and just as beloved by people who are older and younger. When the Great American Read’s finale airs in the fall, it will no doubt be revealed as America’s favorite book.

GAR 6

That’s where I had thought about ending the post, but while I’m here, there are a few tiny things that I need to nitpick.

Regarding A Game of Thrones – because of course – they refer to the series of novels by George R.R. Martin as the “Game of Thrones” series. A Game of Thrones is the name of the first book in the series, and Game of Thrones is the name of the better-known adaptation, but the series they’re referring to is called A Song of Ice and Fire. They don’t call Lord of the Rings the “Fellowship of the Ring series” or call the Alex Cross series the “Along Came A Spider series.”

Rebecca by Daphne Du Marier is a book that a lot of people really love, but when it came time for the program to cover it, they were talking about books that were used in controversial contexts, so the only background viewers got on Rebecca was that at one point it was used by Nazis to encrypt secret codes. I haven’t read Rebecca yet, but I feel like it probably deserves more of a description.

Dracula didn’t make the list – Twilight did.

Also, during their presentation of The Stand, they’re trying to explain how Stephen King is the master of the horror genre. This is the picture they use for him:

GAR 5

Wow. I’m uncomfortable.

Sarah Jessica Parker showed up to praise Things Fall Apart by Achebe, and she revealed that she folds the corners of the pages to mark her place – and I shouted at my TV “You’re a monster!”

The voting to determine which book is America’s favorite can be found here.

Let me conclude by posing a few questions:

  • Will you vote? If so, which books will you vote for?
  • Are there any books that you are disappointed aren’t on the list?
  • Any books that you’re mad are on the list?
  • Which book do you think will win and why do you think it’s Harry Potter?

10 thoughts on “PBS’ Great American Read: A Question Necessary to Ask But Impossible to Answer

  1. Great post, Andrew. I am surprised at some of the books that made the list. Some are books I studied in school, and have been around for ever. However, others are relatively new, like The Martian. I would not think that such as the latter would have had time to make such an impact. It makes me question exactly how “representative” the selection actually was.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah there are A LOT of questions about the selection. We know that people were polled and we know that a small panel of “experts” and “scholars” were consulted, but that makes you wonder if there was some choice all the experts wanted and the population didn’t vote for – or vice versa.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I was stunned by the omission of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and instead the inclusion of Tom Sawyer. Yes, the “N” word is used, but it is used as authentic dialect by certain characters. Twain was the first American author to use dialect and the vernacular in his realistic fiction. The irony is that the book is definitely socially conscious and anti-slavery. And Twain was a ardent and outspoken foe of slavery. I taught high school and would have some parents, specifically African-American, who would not let their children read this book. I tried to explain that by using dialect, Twain wrote as people spoke at that time. That was not an endorsement of racism; instead it exposed racism as one of our greatest social ills. However, this important point was lost in the rhetoric of those who could not get past the use of the “N” word. I can understand why some parents who were not aware of Twain’s first major use of dialect and vernacular and choosing to write authentically. However, PBS has to be aware of Twain’s purpose and the fact that almost every other list of great American books has The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at the top of the list. To omit it cannot be excused by ignorance but rather by political correctness. Shame on you PBS.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your wonderful comment, Liz! And I couldn’t agree more. As I mentioned, what baffles me is that during the program, the reasons they cited for selecting Tom Sawyer – because it was the first novel that was quintessentially American and addressed racism at the time. The absurdity of that obviously comes from the fact that Huckleberry Finn does this to a much greater degree. I love both books, but in terms of influence, there is no contest. Huckleberry Finn actually remains relevant in the American dialogue about race; Tom Sawyer doesn’t.

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  3. It is evident that “the great American novel,” Huck Finn is omitted because of one word, the forbidden n-word. Yet the Gr. Am. Read includes Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” That was the title as published in the US in the early 1940s, but the novel was first published in Britain, as “Ten Little N-rs.” The Christie book is included, probably because no one knew the British title.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Hugh, thank you for your comment. I read And Then There Were None for the first time this summer and that was when I found out about the title. I was curious about how the book would be titled or remembered if it had been an American author. Difficult to say.
      Thanks again for reading!

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  4. I can’t believe that Tom Sawyer was picked over The Adventures of Huck Finn a book that not only enbodies the country and its horrid history. Maybe that’s why this novel upsets people so much is because it can get under your skin. It shows the prejudice that was alive then and still now. So sad it was left out of this vote. It could of helped or at least shown that we haven’t changed much.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The Great American Reads represents almost everything I dislike about such lists. The underlying elitism that allows some hidden board of experts to decide the options from which the Great Unwashed are allowed to choose effectively controls the process’s outcome. We are treated as though we are incapable or unwilling to be widely read. We are treated like children on Library Day in elementary school. I for one didn’t color within the lines then and I won’t now. This rebelliousness lies at the core of what it means to be an American, I believe. Where did my particular streak of rebelliousness begin? Where else but with the greatest American Read? It began with the most dramatic statement about the power of personal rebellion, Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twin.

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