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A uniquely portable magic - PBS's 'The Great American Read'

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“A book is a dream you hold in your hands.” – Neil Gaiman

PBS is underway on its quest to determine America’s favorite book.

“The Great American Read” is a months-long TV series airing on PBS. It’s an effort to celebrate and explore the joy of reading by way of an expert-curated list of American’s best-loved novels. It’s about how and why these beloved works were created … and why we feel the connections to them we do.

Eight episodes in total will air, hosted by Meredith Vieira. The initial two-hour episode debuted on May 22 at 8 p.m. and will be available via rebroadcast and streaming. Subsequent episodes will play out over the coming weeks, exploring shared themes in some of the books on the list; the finale – with the announcement of the winning book – will air in October. Celebrities and authors and other notables will weigh in along the way, literary authorities and passionate enthusiasts – all in the interest of sharing their love of reading.

And of course, the audience will be asked to weigh in as well. “The Great American Read” is a multi-platform experience. Readers are asked to weigh in with their own votes, through social media and other online means (voting opened with the premiere of the first episode, so start your engines). Visit for even more details.

But how to come up with a list from which to start? How to determine a representative list of America’s favorite books?

Through a public opinion polling service – one that ultimately canvassed over 7,000 people – the producers were able to assemble a consider amount of data about people’s most-loved books. From there, a panel of experts was put together to narrow things down to the final 100 by way of the GAR selection criteria.

1) Only fiction was considered.

2) Each author was limited to a single title on the list to help ensure variety.

3) Books published as a series were counted as a whole for the same reason.

4) They didn’t have to be written by Americans, just published in English.

And from there, the GAR 100 List was born.

It’s all part of Public Broadcasting’s aim to connect with, well … the public. Specifically, to bring everyone together with the shared goal of celebrating reading. It’s an effort to inspire passionate conversation about books – so let’s get on board, America!

PBS Vice President of Programming and Development (and Maine native) Bill Gardner recently took the time to talk to The Maine Edge about “The Great American Read,” what it means to undertake such a project and why it’s important to PBS to do just that.

“We’re constantly looking to activate local stations,” Gardner said. “And a project like this is a great multi-platform opportunity to do just that. Major projects of this scale mean that we take full advantage of our capabilities. We’re talking about 350-plus stations, social media … it’s a chance to maximize our connection.”

PBS has very specific ideas about what it means when it says “The Great American Read,” according to Gardner.

“We didn’t want this to be the ‘Greatest American Novel,’” he said. “We just wanted to engage with people and find the books that genuinely matter to them.”

That meant consistently sticking to the criteria set forth in the selection process.

“A lot of these books are fairly close [in terms of votes],” Gardner said. “One author, one book was important; doing otherwise kind of defeats the purpose. The advisory panel was there primarily to help break ties, determine a book’s cultural significance.

“But really, the panel had a light touch,” he continued. “We really let the public choose. We only asked that one question - ‘What’s your most loved book?’ We didn’t want to steer the responses.”

Those responses led to a final list of 100 books. It is a wide-ranging, free-wheeling collection, with the oldest dating from the 17th century and the newest published in 2016. Classic novels line up alongside contemporary offerings, all equals because each one is someone’s most-loved book.

“We’re so excited to engage in this literary way,” said Gardner. “We want people to be excited about reading. We want to hear what books are important to you and why.”

You can tell PBS what you think from now until October; you can vote online and on social media via hashtag through the summer, while the fall will see SMS and toll-free voting.

“We want people to participate as they read,” Gardner said. “We want them to tweet, we want them to go on Facebook and our websites. We want people to share their perspectives; the ideal outcome for this whole thing is if we get that conversation started.”

Some of that conversation will be driven by the thematic groupings with which “The Great American Read” will sort the books over the course of the various episodes, which will in turn allow for more structured discussion.

“The themes allow us to do deeper dives on some of the books. There’s one episode called ‘Who am I?’ that’s about identity. We’re doing one focusing on heroes, another one called ‘Villains & Monsters.’ It lets us dig into particularly influential books, authors, genres … what people gravitate towards. Not everything is in one box, of course, but it’s great as an organizing principle.”

As for the voting itself?

“People will be able to cast their votes for books right up through October 23,” said Gardner. “And don’t worry – we have governors in place. There will be no gaming the system; it’s the same group that handles ‘American Idol’ voting. And the winner will be revealed on the last episode.

“But really – you shouldn’t worry about the vote totals,” he added. “It’s all about participating.”

Choosing to recognize only fiction for “The Great American Read” was an interesting choice for PBS, but that focus has some real advantages, according to Gardner.

“Using fiction was the best way to present different perspectives,” he said. “Fiction allows for a breadth of offerings and inspires literacy. It’s a chance to put forward many stories told many ways about many things. This sort of list always needs a limiting factor like this.”

Of course, even on a list of 100 books, there are going to be questions about relative worthiness. Why did this book get selected? Why didn’t this one get picked? It’s a complicated question, Gardner says – one that will be interesting to see play out.

“I was definitely pleased to see some books there,” he said. “But there were some authors, I was surprised to see they didn’t make it. I myself don’t have a single book – I feel like there are different books that love at different times in your life for different reasons. The novel you love at 15 is going to be different than the one you love at 25 and 40 and so on.

“There were a couple of big surprises for me, though,” he continued. “There was no Cormac McCarthy on the list, no Faulkner, no Saul Bellow – I would have expected to see them on a list like this.”

But all is not lost if your own personal most-loved book didn’t make the cut. PBS is inviting those wishing to plead their beloved’s case to use the hashtag #GreatReadWish and tell them why they’re mistaken – perhaps the leading candidates for redemption might yet make an appearance on “The Great American Read.”

Ultimately, though, “The Great American Read” is a way for PBS to engage with their audience in a real, tangible way.

“It’s about conversation,” said Gardner. “It’s about getting people excited. There will be engagement on the website and through social media, sure, but we’re also looking to connect through live events held by local affiliates. It’s all about local participation.”

(Speaking of local participation, I might have heard rumblings about a bookseller and noted enthusiast located right in downtown Bangor who possibly contributed his expertise to the conversation about a certain best-selling literary icon. No spoilers, though…)

In short, “The Great American Read” is the search for just that: our most loved book.

“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” – Italo Calvino

“A word after a word after a word is power.” - Margaret Atwood


The GAR 100

When Stephen King wrote that “Books are a uniquely portable magic,” he was expressing an inherent understanding shared by book lovers the world over.

A list like this one is always great fun to see. It’s marvelous to learn what books are closest to the hearts of your fellow bibliophiles. The blend of classic and contemporary, the mixture of literary and commercial fiction – it’s a veritable smorgasbord of sentences.

There’s something for everyone on this list, and even if your favorite isn’t here, there’s no doubt that at least one of these books has had an impact on you.

The variety is particularly exciting; I consider myself to be a pretty well-read guy and I’ve only read about two-thirds of these. It’s a wonderful opportunity to engage on a large scale with your fellow book lovers, to be part of a massive literary conversation.

Read. Vote. Share.

“1984,” George Orwell

“A Confederacy of Dunces,” John Kennedy Toole

“A Prayer For Owen Meany,” John Irving

“A Separate Peace,” John Knowles

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” Betty Smith

“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” Mark Twain

“The Alchemist,” Paulo Coelho

“Alex Cross Mysteries” (series), James Patterson

“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” Lewis Carroll

“Americanah,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“And Then There Were None,” Agatha Christie

“Anne of Green Gables,” Lucy Maud Montgomery

“Another Country,” James Baldwin

“Atlas Shrugged,” Ayn Rand

“Beloved,” Toni Morrison

“Bless Me,” Ultima Rudolfo Anaya

“The Book Thief,” Markus Zusak

“The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao,” Junot Díaz

“The Call Of The Wild,” Jack London

“Catch-22,” Joseph Heller

“The Catcher in the Rye,” J.D. Salinger

“Charlotte's Web,” E. B. White

“The Chronicles of Narnia” (series), C.S. Lewis

“Clan of the Cave Bear,” Jean M. Auel

“Coldest Winter Ever,” Sister Souljah

“The Color Purple,” Alice Walker

“The Count of Monte Cristo,” Alexandre Dumas

“Crime and Punishment,” Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” Mark Haddon

“The Da Vinci Code,” Dan Brown

“Don Quixote,” Miguel de Cervantes

“Doña Bárbára,” Rómulo Gallegos

“Dune,” Frank Herbert

“Fifty Shades Of Grey” (series), E. L. James

“Flowers In The Attic,” V.C. Andrews

“Foundation” (series), Isaac Asimov

“Frankenstein,” Mary Shelley

“Game of Thrones” (series), George R. R. Martin

“Ghost,” Jason Reynolds

“Gilead,” Marilynne Robinson

“The Giver,” Lois Lowry

“The Godfather,” Mario Puzo

“Gone Girl,” Gillian Flynn

“Gone with the Wind,” Margaret Mitchell

“The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck

“Great Expectations,” Charles Dickens

“The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Gulliver's Travels,” Jonathan Swift

“The Handmaid’s Tale,” Margaret Atwood

“Harry Potter” (series), J.K. Rowling

“Hatchet” (series), Gary Paulsen

“Heart Of Darkness,” Joseph Conrad

“The Help,” Kathryn Stockett

“The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy,” Douglas Adams

“The Hunger Games” (series), Suzanne Collins

“The Hunt For Red October,” Tom Clancy

“The Intuitionist,” Colson Whitehead

“Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison

“Jane Eyre,” Charlotte Brontë

“The Joy Luck Club,” Amy Tan

“Jurassic Park,” Michael Crichton

“Left Behind” (series), Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins

“The Little Prince,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

“Little Women,” Louisa May Alcott

“Lonesome Dove,” Larry McMurtry

“Looking for Alaska,” John Green

“The Lord of the Rings” (series), J.R.R. Tolkien

“The Lovely Bones,” Alice Sebold

“The Martian,” Andy Weir

“Memoirs of a Geisha,” Arthur Golden

“Mind Invaders,” Dave Hunt

“Moby-Dick,” Herman Melville

“The Notebook,” Nicholas Sparks

“One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Gabriel García Márquez

“Outlander” (series), Diana Gabaldon

“The Outsiders,” S. E. Hinton

“The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Oscar Wilde

“The Pilgrim's Progress,” John Bunyan

“The Pillars of The Earth,” Ken Follett

“Pride and Prejudice,” Jane Austen

“Ready Player One,” Ernest Cline

“Rebecca,” Daphne du Maurier

“The Shack,” William P. Young

“Siddhartha,” Hermann Hesse

“The Sirens Of Titan,” Kurt Vonnegut

“The Stand,” Stephen King

“The Sun Also Rises,” Ernest Hemingway

“Swan Song,” Robert R. McCammon

“Tales of The City” (series), Armistead Maupin

“Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Zora Neale Hurston

“Things Fall Apart,” Chinua Achebe

“This Present Darkness,” Frank. E. Peretti

“To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee

“The Twilight Saga” (series), Stephenie Meyer

“War and Peace,” Leo Tolstoy

“Watchers,” Dean Koontz

“The Wheel of Time” (series), Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

“Where the Red Fern Grows,” Wilson Rawls

“White Teeth,” Zadie Smith

“Wuthering Heights,” Emily Brontë

Last modified on Tuesday, 22 May 2018 15:51


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