On Tuesday, May 22 PBS aired a new show about novels called The Great American Read. They compiled a list of 100 of “America’s favorite books” and you can vote online to pick which book is America’s all-time favorite novel. There are classics of American lit such as Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird. I was happy to see some of my favorite books like A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and White Teeth by Zadie Smith on the list. All are books I would recommend to anyone.
Still, it was disheartening that there we no books on the list by some of my favorite authors like Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Sinclair Lewis, M. Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh. I was not happy that books that made the list include The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks, the Twilight Series as well as the 50 Shades of Grey series, which seems like a Cinderella story with S and M thrown in. If you really like these books, that’s great but I don’t you should compare them to 100 Years of Solitude or Catch-22, both which made the list.
When I first heard about the series, I was hoping it was going to talk about the concept of “The Great American Novel”. This idea that there is one book that encapsulates American life is a fascinating one. I don’t hear people talk about The Great French Novel or the Great Canadian Novel. I have the feeling that it was a tool to help publishers hype their books. Certainly on the top of the list for my choice of The Great American Read Novel would be Sinclair Lewis’ novels Babbit and Main Street. I don’t think that one book alone can capture the entire American experience. I always thought that To Kill a Mockingbird was the Great American Novel about race, but so too is Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. The Great American Novel about politics might be All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren or Advise and Consent by Allen Drury. Of course, the GAN about money is The Great Gatsby and the GAN about adolescence has to Cather in the Rye. Other books that might fit the category of GAN would Revolutionary Road, A Separate Peace, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Beloved.
I really enjoyed watching the first two episodes of the Great American Read. It opened my eyes up to books I never thought of reading such as The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tam and
Call of the Wild by Jack London. Wil Wheaton made an eloquent plea to read Frank Herbert’s Dune. I am also excited that even though the show turns great pieces of literature into a beauty pageant or March Madness bracket, it got people talking about books, which is a good thing. As long as 50 Shades of Grey or the Twilight Series doesn’t win, I’ll be happy. May the odds for your favorite book’s favor.