What Makes a “Great American Read,” Anyway?

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Want to get Americans fired up? Show them a list of “the best” anything. The best colleges. The best burgers. The best movies. Or in this case, the best books. PBS recently announced America’s 100 best-loved novels, as chosen in a public opinion survey. The survey was the first step in The Great American Read, a new PBS series that celebrates reading with a nationwide conversation about America’s most beloved books. The second step, apparently, was everyone talking loudly about the list.

“WHAT!”
“YES!”
“But where is…?”

In the bookstore, we’ve been hearing quite a lot of chatter about the list, which makes sense given that we’re surrounded by book-lovers all day. More opinions are forthcoming: Hosted by Meredith Vieira, the show, which premieres this Tuesday, May 22, 2018, at 8 EST / 7 CST on PBS, will feature celebrities, authors, and other notable public figures. Voting for a winner also begins Tuesday via the PBS website and social media.

After Tuesday’s kickoff episode, the series will then pause for the summer — giving people time to read and vote — and pick up again in the fall for a series of episodes leading up to the announcement of the novel voted America’s favorite.

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How many have you read? Take the quiz. PBS producers used polling service YouGov to conduct a survey, in which 7,200 people participated. Once the results were tallied, an advisory panel of 13 literary industry professionals helped sort them out according to survey criteria and narrow them to 100.

What can we expect from the show? Here’s a little Q&A with Linda Wei, Chair of the PBS Digital Media Advisory Council and Director of Digital Strategies for Nashville Public Television. Wei is also the Emmy-winning producer of A Word on Words, Nashville’s own literary interview show hosted by authors JT Ellison and Mary Laura Philpott.

BBC did a similar show several years ago called “The Big Read.” What, if anything, had to change about this concept to translate the show from a British one to an American one?

IMG_9808LW: Well, first, there was the name change. But this really is a different series, reimagined to inspire an American audience to choose books that resonate with them. Also, the British version was 15 years ago and the world has changed a lot since then. The Great American Read includes extensive digital and social media campaigns. Instead of an online message board, viewers can talk about their favorite books on Facebook and Twitter with their own communities. There’s a national conversation on Facebook via the official The Great American Read page, book club group and watch page.

When the 100 books were announced, we saw responses on Twitter ranging from “I KNEW IT!” by people who saw their favorite books on the list to sentiments along the lines of “literature is over” by people who didn’t. Were you surprised at how spirited the public response was?

LW: Yes and no. I knew it would be a little controversial. I admit to being a little put off by a couple of titles when I first saw the list. But the more I looked over the list, the more I fell in love with it. It’s a great mix of literary classics and contemporary popular reads. It wouldn’t surprise me if it’s an accurate representation of what America loves to read and is currently reading. The “spirited” conversation is fascinating to me, because I was not expecting passions to run so high! I’m just happy to see that everyone will have a book on this list that they love. You probably don’t love all 100 of these books, but you aren’t supposed to. Instead, a piece of this list should speak to everyone in America — and I think that’s quite wonderful.

Do you think this is a particularly American trait, getting all excited over a list, especially if there’s any sort of perceived ranking? (Consider the adult alumni who get into squabbles in Facebook comments every year when the lists of “best” colleges and universities come out.)

LW: Kind of like a competitive nature? That’s an interesting question. I’ve always thought it was human nature to gravitate towards what is perceived as the best. I didn’t think about it being a particularly American trait.

I think we are conditioned to see a list and automatically assume it means “best of.” And I think when you see PBS associated with the list, you also assume that it’s a PBS-curated list. But this is not purporting to be a list of best-written books. It’s not a list of the 100 most important books, or the 100 best-selling books. This is a list of 100 most-loved novels as determined by a demographically and statistically representative public opinion survey. PBS and The Great American Read producers tallied the results, but the titles on this list came from the American public.

But really, this series is asking for that response to come out. We want viewers to actively campaign for their favorite book. We want fans to persuade other viewers to vote their way, or perhaps create new fans in the process. How exciting is that? Let’s not get carried away, but I absolutely want to see some squabbling!

We’ll do our best to squabble a bit. Which of the well-known participants in the series are you most excited about?

LW: I cannot help but be thrilled to see Margaret Atwood on this list for The Handmaid’s Tale, Nashville’s very first pick for Nashville Reads. Putting this brilliant author in a jail cell for A Word on Words is a highlight of my career and I will take every opportunity to mention it when I can to anyone who will listen.

I’m also excited to see Diana Gabaldon, George RR Martin, Gabrielle Union, Bill T. Jones, Walter Isaacson, Wil Wheaton, and Ming-Na Wen involved with The Great American Read. That’s just a fraction of the people featured on the show and it’s fun to see so many people in different professions talk passionately about their favorite book.

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Margaret Atwood behind bars for an episode of A Word on Words.

Fill in the blank: If everyone in this country picked up a book and read it today, we’d ____________.

LW: . . . all know what it’s like to live in someone else’s shoes.

What do you hope will come from this series?

LW: Several things! Just like with A Word on Words, I hope this series inspires people to pick up a book. Whether it’s to read a new title or pick up an old favorite, I hope it gets people reading. The Great American Read is a great excuse to have a meaningful conversation.

If we may ask: What book are you voting for?

LW: My answer to “What’s your favorite novel?” changes all the time, but when I first found out about this project, I chose Memoirs of a Geisha because it was the first book that made me physically cry. I remember having to pause and put the book down because I couldn’t see the words anymore — my vision was blurred from my tears. It was the first book to have that effect on me and that surprised me. What’s funny is that I can’t remember what in the book made me cry, but that feeling of having an emotional reaction has stuck with me all this time.

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Not surprisingly, your Parnassus booksellers have opinions. Katherine’s voting for Hatchet by Gary Paulsen; Steve picks The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; Keltie chooses Gilead by Marilynne Robinson; and Andy’s going with The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Here at Parnassus, we’re excited to see Americans celebrating and discussing books, even if everyone doesn’t agree on which books to celebrate. (Hey, we’re used to it . . . You know where else you can find Jane Eyre, Harry Potter, and Beloved alongside Fifty Shades of Grey? A bookstore stock-list. Or a library.) Read what makes you happy, folks. And come check out our Great American Read display as you get ready to vote for your favorite novel!

A version of this piece also runs today at BookPage.