The Critic and The Great American Read

Last spring, when I heard about PBS’s The Great American Read where Americans would vote for their favorite books from a list of 100 titles, selected via a survey of Americans across race, gender, and class lines, I was unduly excited. Large-scale book events like this make me happy.

After the 90-minute special that launched The Great American Read back in May, I voted nearly every day for my favorites: The Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice, Dune, Jane Eyre, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Invisible Man. Of course, I wanted The Lord of the Rings to win, but I was neither surprised nor disappointed when, at the end of October when the results of months of voting were announced, To Kill a Mockingbird was the winner. The Lord of the Rings came in fifth, and Pride and Prejudice was fourth.

What else didn’t surprise me? This article by Mark Athitakis from The Washington Post: “What’s the Best American Novel? A PBS Vote is a Revealing Look at Our (Limited) Taste”. Because, really, what highbrow newspaperman can resist the urge toward snobbishness when a list of books chosen by ‘Average Americans’ receives a little attention?

Athitakis begins benignly enough, mentioning the power of the literature we experience when we are young, and how it stays with us the rest of our lives. But then he moves into the sort of snobbery I’ve come to expect when ‘serious’ publications discuss America’s reading tastes:

“On one level, this is an utterly charming result: It’s a tribute to literature that books we read early on can be so powerful and memorable. (I’m making an educated guess about who watched and voted; 85 percent of PBS prime-time viewers are 50 and older.)

But on another level: Has anybody around here read a novel since high school? Evidence of that in the list’s upper reaches is scarce and dispiriting…”

While it’s true that most Americans encounter To Kill a Mockingbird in high school, this does not mean that Harper Lee’s masterpiece is unworthy of being called a ‘great book’. I’d say it means the opposite: the fact this  story about a child encountering racism and violence her little Southern town in the 1930s resonates so deeply with teenagers that it echoes in their minds years later is not a sign of juvenile tastes. It is a sign of this book’s power.

Unless, of course, I’m totally off base and the books my teachers taught in school are utterly juvenile. You know. To Kill a Mockingbird. Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet. Elie Wiesel’s Night

Aside from his not-so-subtle snobbishness, Athitakis seems to have missed the point of The Great American Read. The point of the vote was not to find America’s best novel but to find America’s best-loved novel. Humans are story-loving beings. Whether it’s office gossip, a blockbuster movie, or the latest novel from our favorite author, we can’t help but get caught up in a narrative. I rolled my eyes at Twilight‘s inclusion in the top 100, but I can’t deny it was incredibly popular when it came out, and that for many young readers, it might have been their gateway to the wider bookish world.

When writers like Athitakis bemoans the fact that an average of half of all Americans did not buy a book last year (though the Pew survey he cites clearly shows the average of Americans who read zero books was closer to 25%) and then go on to belittle the average person’s ‘limited’ tastes, they do not aid the literary cause. Mocking a person’s taste makes them cling to their beloved thing all the more, making them less willing to try what you’re offering. If you call The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter “proven tweenage fantasy go-tos“, I am far less likely to seek out the book you’ve recommended. I know what gifts LotR and Harry Potter have given me. I am not convinced that Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint will provide the same value.

I will give Athitakis credit where it is due, though. He wants people to read a broader variety of books. Among his criticisms of PBS’s list of top 100 novels was the dearth of translated fiction and works by minorities. That’s on all of us. As a culture, we need to be more inclusive and read more books by people whose lives are different from our own. This is how we build empathy and understanding. But Athitakis uses condescension to make his point, where The Great American Read promoted its titles through the enthusiasm of the people they interviewed, whether they were six-year-olds describing Charlotte’s Web or Will Wheaton reading a favorite passage from Dune.

Though the series made a big deal about voting for our favorite books, The Great American Read‘s primary goal was to get people to read and talk about books. Thanks to it, I have added several titles to my own TBR- books I wouldn’t have considered reading until I heard about the sweeping scale of Larry McMurtry’s Western epic, Lonesome Dove. Nor had I considered reading Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club until Ming-Na Wen gave it a glowing review it in The Great American Read‘s spring launch. Enthusiasm is what encourages people to try new things, not condescension.

I doubt such articles as Athitakis’s will ever disappear from literary criticism. It’s all too easy for very well-read people to climb onto a pedestal and decry the “limited” tastes of the masses. Fortunately for the rest of us, The Great American Read and other sites like offer enthusiasm and an infectious love of the materials they discuss. I thoroughly enjoyed The Great American Read and its aims. I liked scrolling through that long list of books every morning in search of my favorites, and I loved being introduced to titles I had never considered. That was the whole point of it, after all. To be excited about books and broaden our literary horizons. There is nothing ‘limited’ about that.

4 thoughts on “The Critic and The Great American Read

  1. Actually, I do think To Kill a Mockingbird had an advantage in that it is taught in schools and thus more people are familiar with it and can vote for it. That’s not to say it isn’t a good book. It is and most people I know who had to read it in school loved it. But it’s going to garner more votes than something like Jason Reynolds’ Ghost (because more recently published and targeted to middle grade readers) or Bless Me, Ultima (seemingly read in schools only regionally) or Gone with Wind (too long to be assigned in school or for some people to want to read).

    I think the lack of diversity in the top books also could potentially reflect what we are assigned in schools. It is true that people read less as they advance through school. And many people actually haven’t read a book since high school (I’ve met a lot). If people are less familiar with diverse books, it is probably in part because they weren’t assigned very many in school. The good news is, this is easily fixable by assigning more diverse books.

  2. To Kill a Mockingbird does have an advantage in being a commonly assigned book (though Outlander definitely would not be, and I can’t see that Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings would often be assigned reading), and thus familiar to a majority of Americans. But that doesn’t make it or its audience juvenile, as Athitakis seems to suggest in the article, as it is often the case that the things we encounter early in life make the most impact, and therefore become favorites.

    What frustrates me about articles like this one is that you have critics who both bemoan the (apparent) decline of reading in the US, and then, when a book does become popular, those critics demean the average person’s taste in books, as though doing so will encourage the average person to pick up a book instead of the TV remote. I wish I could make those critics read Ursula K. Le Guin’s article from Harper’s Magazine (Feb. 2008), “Staying Awake: Notes on the alleged decline of reading”, where she addresses the low rate of general readership, both now and in the past, as well as the social function of books as compared to the publishing industry’s commodification of story.

    I agree that the list could have been more diverse. Our general lack of diversity of reading material is appalling, given the multi-cultural nature of the US. I can see some flicker of change, though, as educators address the Western canon to see what works by dead white mean can be set aside for women writers or writers from around the world. I think it is noteworthy, though, that in the final list for The Great American Read, 7 out of the top 10 books were written by women.

  3. Oh, definitely I see what you’re saying! I expected the top three books to be LotR, Harry Potter, and To Kill a Mockingbird (in some order). I have no clue where Outlander came from, unless the audience who watches the show really overlaps with people who watch PBS. And there’s certainly no reason to be snobbish about any of the picks just because they’re marketed towards children or because they’re popular!

    However, I admit I find the argument against popular literature just incredibly funny anymore because it’s sooo old. Literary critics have been bemoaning the popularity of LotR since it was published. Basically, no one cares. We’re all still reading it and loving it. So, you know, that guy can complain all he wants. I’ll be rereading LotR. 😉

  4. Absolutely. 🙂 I feel like I should reread LotR every time a literary snob brings up Portnoy’s Complaint, which I have no desire to ever read. But if I did that, I would be doing nothing but rereading LotR! Although that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world…

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