LearnEnglishwith Us!Start Learning!
Recently, PBS ran a series called The Great American Read in which viewers were invited to select America’s best-loved novel. It was a fascinating exploration of America’s reading habits. A public opinion survey was conducted of favorite novels (and series of novels), then a select group of 13 literary professionals was brought in to establish basic rules for determining the final list of top 100 books. From that list came the selection of an all-time favorite.
Thankfully, PBS took its time with the survey. The series, along with the discussions and debates, ran from May to October. Since summer is the most popular time for people to read, it was decided that people who wanted to read some of the books on the list should be given the time to catch up on some literary treasures that they might have missed.
Not all the books on the list were written by Americans, and many of them were fairly recent best-sellers. The object was to select America’s favorite, and not necessarily the best, after all. This meant that the final outcome was quite unpredictable. If enough people read a book over the summer that entertained them, it was certainly possible that scholars and college professors would be appalled at the results.
I confess that I had never heard of some of the books on the final 100. 2007’s The Shack by William P. Young was described as an inspirational mystery. I am a science fiction fan, but the 1989 novel Mind Invaders by Dave Hunt was new to me. Likewise, 1987’s horror fantasy Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon. But that’s the point of The Great American Read, isn’t it? People sharing their passion for books, giving us each an opportunity to discover something new. The complete list of the top 100 can be found here.
In August, after most of the summer had passed, the list was narrowed to 40 books. This list had an unmistakable pedigree. Classics like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations shared the stage with immensely popular page-turners like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth. You might not have read all of these books, but you likely had heard of most of them. And if you haven’t read, say, The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s novel of African Americans working in white households in the Deep South of the 1960s, well…you should.
Not all of these books will be taught in Literature classes, at least not yet, but they clearly had an impact on Americans who like to curl up with a good story. Harry Potter is here. So is Katniss Evergreen, the heroine of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. There really is something for everyone in the final 40, for all reading levels, too! You can find the list here.
As a committed reader, it’s hard not to be disappointed that some titles never made either list. I have always argued that Raymond Chandler is one of the finest writers that America ever produced. The Big Sleep, in which Chandler introduced the world to private detective Raymond Chandler somehow should have been included. And speaking of detectives, where in the world is Sherlock Holmes? Surely The Hound of the Baskervilles deserves to be recognized, right? The fun of lists like The Great American Read is the debates they produce.
Now I have a confession to make. When this survey was first announced, and throughout the six months of the search for America’s favorite book, I knew which book would be selected. I didn’t have any prior knowledge of the outcome. I don’t work for PBS or any of its affiliates. I just knew which book I believed would take the prize because I’m an American of a certain age and I know the one novel which has had the greatest impact on Americans throughout my lifetime. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was the inevitable choice.
Set in the Deep South of the 1930s, the 1960 novel tells the story of widowed small-town lawyer Atticus Finch and his two children, Scout and Jem. Young girl Scout learns the meaning of racism and injustice as her father defends a black man unjustly accused of raping a white woman. To Kill a Mockingbird is the most widely read book ever to tackle the subject of racial prejudice, and Atticus Finch is the most enduring symbol of tolerance and wisdom in American literature.
I could spend hours writing about Lee’s narrative skill and the vividness of her characters, many of whom were based on figures from her past. What really matters, though, is that Americans selected the most quintessentially American novel ever written as their favorite.
Have you read it? What’s your favorite book?
For more language learning advice, free resources, and information about how we can help you reach your language goals, select the most relevant newsletter(s) for you and sign up below.