My post last week was all about search terms – what people search to find my blog. And I mentioned how many searches would align with a specific post. And while I was compiling that, I noticed that a handful of people were searching for information regarding PBS’ Great American Read series. Many people were curious – as I was – about why Adventures of Tom Sawyer was selected over Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Great American Read finale is coming up on Tuesday the 23rd, and that’s the day that plausibly, all the votes will be tallied and we’ll find out what “America’s favorite book” is. With that in mind, I thought this was the perfect time to look back at what the series aimed to do – and equally important, predict a winner.
The series launched with a two-hour episode in late May, introducing the list and prompting the audience to vote. It was an aspirational list for me, and I got around to reading many books on the list that I hadn’t read before – The Handmaid’s Tale, Catch-22, And Then There Were None, and Jurassic Park – and all of them were great. Even though I haven’t read everything, I do think that the list is rather well curated and that every book on the list deserves to be there.
The voting has been going on throughout the summer, and will continue throughout this week. You can vote for every book once every day. I think it’s worth casting votes even at this point, but frankly, the voting might as well be over. There’s already a winner. There’s no chance.
Unless I’m severly under-estimating the age of the viewers, Harry Potter is going to win in a landslide. I do think that it could be To Kill a Mockingbird or Great Gatsby, but at the same time, I doubt that.
So, for better or worse, here is what I think the top 10 will be:
- Harry Potter
- To Kill a Mockingbird
- The Great Gatsby
- Lord of the Rings
- Nineteen Eighty-Four
- The Stand
- Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire)
- The Alchemist
- The Hunger Games
- And Then There Were None
And I think close behind that you’ll see Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Fifty Shades of Grey, Beloved, Twilight, and The Godfather, perhaps, shortly after that.
But honestly, the entire outcome is subjective, just as the entire list was subjective at the outset. There are books that made the list that I imagine relatively few of the voting Americans have read; there are the more obscure books like The Coldest Winter Ever and Clan of the Cave Bear, to those literary classics which most people would lie about having read, like Don Quixote, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Gulliver’s Travels, or, most especially, Moby-Dick. These books might reflect or correlate with specific American qualities, but I just don’t see them being a favorite among readers, or being more appreciated than other books that didn’t make the list.
(Perhaps this is a political thing to say, but I figure the Great American Read probably works like the electoral college. It isn’t exactly perfect democracy, and there might be some kind of interrupting force between whichever book gets the most votes and the actual result. That’s why probably relatively few Americans have read Don Quixote or Crime and Punishment but they still ended up on the list over something Americans are likely to have actually read like maybe The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo or Lord of the Flies or The Poisonwood Bible. There was a panel of literary experts who were surveyed and had just as much input as the masses of everyday readers that were surveyed. Who’s to say that the final result won’t be this way? Who’s to say Harry Potter won’t win in a landslide and then the literary experts will just overturn the decision and say “No, Great Gatsby must be America’s favorite.”)
But the thing is, it doesn’t matter which book wins, because all of them are American favorites. America is equal parts The Great Gatsby and The Notebook. Equal parts Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Equal parts The Stand and Siddartha and Fifty Shades of Grey and To Kill a Mockingbird and Wheel of Time and Frankenstein and – if you don’t mind my write-in, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
The point of this series – no matter what the commercials claim – isn’t a popularity contest to find America’s best book – it’s a celebration of America’s best-loved books. People can mock or look down on something like Ready Player One or Harry Potter or Fifty Shades of Grey – or they can call Moby-Dick or Beloved or Heart of Darkness pretentious – but either way, these are books Americans love. Yes, even Fifty Shades of Grey, yes, even Atlas Shrugged, and yes, even James Patterson. The Great American Read has been a project propelled by empathy among readers: considering stories, and why we love them.