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A Program That Encourages You to Play Along: PBS' 'The Great American Read'
September 11, 2018  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

If any campaign can cross party lines this summer, it should be the one PBS has launched: It wants us to read books.

The Great American Read, at 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday (check local listings), identifies America’s 100 “best-loved novels,” as selected by a nationwide research outfit.

Tuesday’s special runs down the list, with commentary by famous and non-famous fans of various nominees, and invites viewers to vote for their favorites.

You can vote once a week, for the same or different books. The winner will be announced in September.

Between now and then, PBS is encouraging and organizing events that encourage reading in general – not just of these 100 books but of all books.

As television-sponsored promotions go, this one zips right to the top of the list. The opening line of Tuesday’s introductory episode says it all and says it well: The person who reads lives a thousand lives. The person who does not lives one.

The list itself is clearly intended to be inclusive, not just falling back on the usual famous books from the proverbial “dead white guys.” It includes classics, from Don Quixote through Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby and Great Expectations, but it also includes young adult tales like Charlotte’s Web and the Harry Potter series. 

It includes several books currently popular because of their TV or movie adaptations, including Game of Thrones, Outlander, and Jurassic Park.

It also includes several books like Fifty Shades of Grey that, frankly, are likely to disappear once their pop-culture hot moment has passed.

The idea is not to identify the 100 best books, however, but the 100 that Americans in 2018 most want to read.

That will inevitably lead to some wry responses, like how come The Godfather is on a list that does not include either On The Road or The Scarlet Letter?

Half the fun of lists like this, naturally, is finding points of disagreement, and if few people would want to read every book here, it contains the core of a solid all-time reading list, from Crime and Punishment to Pride and Prejudice.

If you also want to read the Twilight series, please do.

All this said, it has to be noted that Tuesday’s show itself isn’t as lively as you’d like it to be, through no fault of host Meredith Vieira.

The interviews with various commentators, from George R.R. Martin (below) extolling Lord of the Rings to John Green explaining how Mark Twain was the first writer to find an American rather than a British voice, are consistently fascinating.

Martin makes a strongly convincing case that the last line of The Great Gatsby is the best last line of any book ever.

If James Patterson still doesn’t convince you to read A Hundred Years of Solitude, Venus Williams explains beautifully why The Chronicles of Narnia meant so much to her.

The show’s problem is that after every five or so books it cuts back to Vieira, who explains again what The Great American Read is about. She encourages all of us to read and to tell our friends to read, and then to go on the PBS website and vote.

Nothing wrong with the message. But after the sixth or seventh time, it starts to have the same downside as a pledge drive. However necessary the interruptions, they are still interruptions. It’s like reading a book and the kids coming into the room every five minutes to ask where their socks are or if they can finish the Nutella.

That doesn’t diminish at all the value of the campaign, and PBS deserves nothing but praise for pointing us toward books. It’s worth watching the show just to see the list and start dissecting it for surprise inclusions and exclusions.

And in the end, while PBS may declare a winner, it really isn’t a competition. Read a book, and you’ve won.

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RE:"Rules" set up by PBS. One can vote "once a day,every day for every one of your favorite novels on the list. Voting closes 12 midnight PT on Oct. 18th." Evidently,one can vote for each book,all of them, but individually,once a day. Books that receive the most votes will be announced Oct. 23.
Dunno. For one thing,a book here is a novel. Non-fiction takes up most of my time. The "fun" I receive from reading a biography,a political narrative(e.g. "Fear"),books on pop/jazz histories, don't count.
The current 100 List is made from voting for all novels that began last May. There are "classic" and "literary" genres,which are as helpful to me as "indie" music. "The Handmaid's Tale" is "literary",but "1984" is "classical".
Open your blue book,pen only,proper spacing,no talking-spit out that gum,now,Mister-begin.
Sep 11, 2018   |  Reply
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