You may have heard of the PBS series, The Great American Read, in which a list of 100 books are presented to be chosen by Americans as their “favorite novel.” The Field Library, among many others, has a display showcasing various books on the list for people to peruse and vote for. There are three ways to vote, on the website, posting the hashtag on Facebook or Twitter, or texting the hashtag of the particular book to a particular number. The list is here.
I am not, at the moment, going to talk about the books on the list which I think shouldn’t be there if we’re talking about “great” books; that may be the subject of another post later on. Right now I would like to talk about some of the head-scratching selections of books by authors who are (and should be) on the list.
The selection process is a bit opaque; the website claims that the initial list came from a statistically representative sampling of American readers, and then it was narrowed down by professionals. The criteria used are here. I can understand wanting to limit an author to one book, but I do have some issues with the books this group has chosen in a couple of instances.
Let’s start with Mark Twain. No question in my mind he should be on this list; he’s one of the greatest American writers. But why would you choose The Adventures of Tom Sawyer over The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? I realize there are issues about the language in Huckleberry Finn, but as a novel, it’s a much deeper, more powerful book than Tom Sawyer, which is a lightweight boy-coming-of-age story.
Then we have Charles Dickens, another author who absolutely should be listed here. And I’m sure a case could be made for Great Expectations as the book to be representative of his work, but I have a feeling it’s included because a lot of high schools have made it required reading (not that they should; it’s long been my argument that high school kids don’t have the life experience that would make Great Expectations come alive for them), and not because it’s really Dickens’ best or even most representative book. My personal favorite would be Bleak House, a towering examination of the British legal system, the vast gap between rich and poor, with suspense, mystery, and all the wonderful characters you expect to find in Dickens’ work. But if Bleak House is too long and too little known (a shame!), why wouldn’t you choose Oliver Twist, or A Tale of Two Cities, both of which are incredibly memorable and both of which have given phrases to our culture that are still used (“Please, sir, could I have some more?” , and “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” respectively)? It seems completely arbitrary to me.
But the worst, in my opinion, is the choice of The Sirens of Titan for Kurt Vonnegut. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read The Sirens of Titan and enjoyed it, and there are memorable scenes in that book, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of his earlier works and not as good as his later (sometimes) better known books. Wouldn’t you think Slaughterhouse Five would be the choice? A best-selling, best known book by Vonnegut, it’s much more representative of the things people love about his work. And if you’re being a hipster and deliberately not choosing Slaughterhouse Five because it’s so famous, I can think of two other Vonnegut books off the top of my head which are better reads and more moving than The Sirens of Titan. Specifically, Mother Night, a short but powerful book about an American who impersonates a Nazi in World War II Germany while secretly acting as an American spy, and what happens to him when he’s hiding out under a false identity in New York after the war (the book has a lot of good stuff in it, but the real takeaway is that we become what we pretend to be, so we should be careful what we pretend to be; tell me that’s not a good moral for this day and age!), or, if that’s not off the wall enough, Cat’s Cradle, a book about the end of the world, caused not by nuclear war but by the existence of a substance called Ice 9, an anti-war book (like so many of Vonnegut’s) absurd and funny and tragic at the same time.
Of course, I’m not finished going through the list and reacting to it, so keep watching this blog for more (I might even rant about the books that I believe should NOT be on the list no matter what).