The Great American Read and other book lists

For a reader and lover of lists, the Great American Read is a double delight. The upcoming eight-part PBS series will feature the 100 novels apparently most loved by Americans. It premieres May 22 on WTTW.

The list is already online at www.pbs.org/the-great-american-read, where you can take a quiz to see how many of the books you’ve read. The series finale will announce the results of a nationwide vote to choose America’s favorite novel.

At first I was confused that books by non-American writers are on the list. Turns out the Great American Read means the 100 English-language novels the 7,200 choosers loved most, not novels by Americans. The quiz is simply a form for checking off books you’ve read. I checked off 53 titles and noted a few others I might want to read. Not all — these are the greatest hits, not necessarily the greatest literature.

The Great American Read comes along when I’ve been in a reading funk, getting through as many novels as ever but feeling excited by few of them. I long for a high like the first time I read To Kill a Mockingbird or a Jane Austen novel or Gaudy Night.

The last time I felt lukewarm about what I’d been reading, I decided to choose the next books according to a theme. The choice of the theme American historical fiction was a good one: I enjoyed many of the novels while learning more about US history. (More on that in another post.) Since checking off the last novel on that reading list a while ago, however, I’ve been picking novels randomly with no theme or thread from one to another.

I recently read the first part of Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England and didn’t like the male perspective. I tried a contemporary novel recommended by a friend and found it shallow. I started to reread P. D. James’s Adam Dagleish series in order of publication and wasn’t engaged enough to continue past the first two books.

I’ve thought about tackling unread classics; about studying the development of the mystery novel by reading the all-time bests in chronological order; about choosing only female authors for the next year or so. I haven’t made up my mind yet, but regardless of which direction I go, I’ll need a reading list. Here are some sites I’ve looked at for reading lists.

LISTS OF THE BEST: There are lots of online lists of “books to read before you die,” “books you should have read in college,” “most important books,” and the like. Writing on medium.com, Joel Patrick saved us some effort by consolidating eight best-book lists to determine the 100 most-recommended novels: https://medium.com/world-literature/creating-the-ultimate-list-100-books-to-read-before-you-die-45f1b722b2e5. If you still want to consult other lists, bookriot.com’s selection of the 10 best top-100-books lists might help you choose which sites to look at: https://bookriot.com/2013/07/10/the-10-best-top-100-book-lists.

CLASSICS: See the previous paragraph.

FEMALE AUTHORS: List Challenges shows 102 great novels by female authors (www.listchallenges.com/102greatestbooksfemaleauthors) and Feminista’s 100 best 20th-century novels by women (www.listchallenges.com/feminista-100-best-novels-by-women).

MYSTERIES: On Library Thing you can find the top mystery and crime novels chosen by the Mystery Writers of America (www.librarything.com/bookaward/The+Top+100+Mystery+Novels+of+All+Time+Mystery+Writers+of+America) and an equivalent list by its British counterpart, the UK Crime Writers’ Association (www.librarything.com/bookaward/Top+100+Crime+Novels+of+All+Time+-+UK+Crime+Writers%27+Association).

IF YOU LIKE: Maybe you’re not looking for the best novels picked by literati but novels that suit your taste. Sites that recommend books based on what you’ve liked include goodreads (www.goodreads.com/list/tag/read-alikes) and BookBrowse (www.bookbrowse.com/read-alikes).

While I was writing this, a New York Times guide called “Tap Your Inner Reader” arrived in my inbox. It opens with: “When you work at The New York Times Book Review, you discover two things pretty quickly: 1) There are a lot of passionate readers out there, and 2) Most of them have no idea what to read next.” Rather than specific book recommendations, it has tips to help figure out what type of reader you are, such as whether you prefer entertainment or information, plot or ideas, characters or gorgeous language, classics or what everyone is talking about: www.nytimes.com/guides/year-of-living-better/how-to-tap-your-inner-reader?campaignId=7WWW8&tp=i-H43-A3-BHi-1aNTWO-1y-30sSc-1c-1aMe8P-9ND8p (available to subscribers).

I could go on, but it may be time for me to switch from making lists of books to choosing a list to start reading from. You can google “[your interest] novels” yourself and find lists.

As for the Great American Read, it seems to have a serious purpose even though the premise of picking the No. 1 novel by popular vote is frivolous. Episodes will examine themes across the books, looking for “what these 100 different books have to say about our diverse nation.”

All of us viewers will be able to vote for the best-loved novel. Before the series begins, it would be hard for me to choose between Pride & Prejudice or To Kill a Mockingbird. If we’re thinking about effect on American culture, though, there’s no contest; To Kill a Mockingbird would be the winner. We’ll see whether the series offers us criteria for voting other than which book is our personal favorite.

*****

ANTI-TRUMP QUOTATIONS: 12TH IN A SERIES

In America today, it’s all Trump, all the time. We’re collectively addicted to him. The nonstop scandals and outrages suck us in; they amount to Trump porn. . . . But we have to figure out how to spare bandwidth for genocide in Myanmar, opioids in America and so on.”

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof

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  • Hi Marianne -- really enjoying your blog, and thought your story about The Great American Read was very interesting. I wanted to let you know that WTTW has a whole dedicated site devoted to the series, with lots of continually updated new content, a lot of it local! It's at wttw.com/read -- perhaps your readers might like to know about it, too. Pay us a visit and enjoy!

  • Thanks. Good stuff there.

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