‘The Great American Read’—What Is it?


[Laura Cavers is the the Readers Advisory at New Canaan Library.]

Welcome back from summer travels! So have you seen PBS’s “The Great American Read?” Have you watched it? Have you cast your vote? I haven’t, and I don’t blame you if you have not, because there are so many books to love. 

Laura Cavers, readers’ advisor librarian. Contributed

So what exactly is “The Great American Read?” After a launched in May, the weekly series will begin again on Sept. 11 and end on Oct. 23, and asks us to vote for our favorite book. This sounds like fun, but, being a reader, it is hard to choose which book to vote for. 

To narrow down the process, the PBS producers surveyed thousands of Americans (plus literary editors) beforehand and, from those results, created what you may have already heard about, The Top 100 Books of America. I ask you: can the best, loved books be reduced to a list of only 100? As a librarian in a town that loves to read, I say “Absolutely not!”

But I kept an open mind and downloaded the list from the PBS website and dove in like I was taking one of those magazine tests to see how “book savvy” I am and where do I need “ literary improvement.” Seriously, my librarian reputation is on the line. 

I started checking off books that I have read, some of which might be considered modern classics: To Kill a Mockingbird, Frankenstein, Lonesome Dove, The Help, Charlotte’s Web, Memoirs of a Geisha plus others. My full count: a mere 47—OK, a little less than half. This concerns me. I thought I would have checked off more. 

I went back to the list and put a star beside those that I want to—or have always meant to read—but haven’t yet: Dune, Clan of the Cave Bear, Siddhartha, Pillars of the Earth, Outlander. The list is long: 26 or so. The stars are a nice reminder to seek these books out again.

Now on to the Read-Before-I-Die titles: War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Atlas Shrugged and a few others—holding at 7. Deep and historical, you can’t pass on these tomes; a few are over 800 pages, which is why I have shirked away from them all these years. To dive in is the best cure so I vow to read one this year, but it has to be over the holidays. Too many new books are coming out this fall.

And then, and I am ashamed to admit, there are titles on the list that I have never heard of: Ghost, This Present Darkness and Bless Me, Ultima plus 9 other titles.

My score, in the end, doesn’t matter. And I say this because there are so many wonderful books missing from the list: Fahrenheit 451, Slaughterhouse Five, Brave New World and A Gentleman In Moscow. I could go on. Why did those stories, and many, many others, miss the mark? Many beloved writing masters are not even mentioned, such as Michener, Camus, Pirsig, and Capote. Where is Roth? Proulx? Mailer? Allende? The list makes me feel like I have been promised a big bowl of ice cream, and with a spoon in hand, I find just a single dollop of confection at the bottom. 

I may sound disappointed, and I am, because my heartfelt favorite book is not on the list. And heartfelt favorite are the operative words. Reading is a unique personal experience between a book and the reader. Whether sitting in an armchair by the fire, in bed just before lights out, or commuting on the train or plane—it is just you and the book. All the emotions, thoughts, despair, heartache or joy that is experienced from the story is safely stored inside of you. And, a bonus is that you don’t have to share those thoughts and feelings with anyone. What you take away is your own and that is what creates ones deep devotion to a loved book.

Overall, I am finding The Top 100 Books in America is a great conversation starter and, if anything, the list is a solid example of how generous and rich the publishing world is and has been. There is no end to satisfying reads for each individual taste: stories of heroic adventure, romance, epic historical sagas, ditsy beach reads, calculated mysteries, psychological drama, plus more. There is a book out there for everyone.

I can’t imagine which title America will finally choose as “Top Book.” But I am curious. Voting ends Oct. 18 at midnight and the big reveal will happen during the series’ final episode on Oct. 23.

In case you want to know, my favorite book is Lassie Come Home by Eric Knight. I was eight or nine years old when I read it and it was the first book that made me think outside of my own being. I became so absorbed in Lassie and her journey home that I suspended my suburban childhood world and climbed every hill and sloshed through every bog along with the determined collie wishing her to find her way home. I read while walking to school, sometimes finding myself in the middle of a crosswalk, cars beeping. I couldn’t put that book down until Lassie finally limped into her fenced yard to the surprised arms of Timmy who thought she was dead. Knight’s book was my introduction to the rich world of hopes and dreams and adventure through stories. 

 Is your favorite book among the top 100 list? If so, vote at pbs.org/greatamericanread. Lassie Come Home is not on the list, so I can’t, but I vote openly with this shout out to you and so can you. Come to the library, we’ll display your vote. Or respond to this article with the title of your most favorite book of all time. Together we’ll create New Canaan’s Top 100 Books Plus More.

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