I have already written about The Great American Read, the program set up by PBS to determine Americans’ favorite novel (here). In my last post, I discussed the odd choices the selectors made with respect to some of the authors. This time, to balance things out a little, I’m going to talk about the books that were excellently chosen, some of which I wouldn’t have expected to see in a list chosen by the public like this. I’m not saying which books I’m voting for (truth to tell, I haven’t decided yet, and may split my votes over several books and several days), but I do want to highlight some of the books that will probably get my votes.
Some of them are obvious. I’ve only loved Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, since I was a child, and passed that love on to my daughter (one year I planned an Alice in Wonderland party for her, and we had a blast). The absurdity of the whole book, the inside jokes, the bizarre characters, the poems (which of course I memorized; I can still rattle off “You Are Old, Father Williams” after many decades), all of it tickled my imagination as a child and still does (try The Annotated Alice, if you want to get all the inside jokes and the references).
I have long contended that The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is one of the Great American Novels (I realize there are people who disagree with me, but I believe they just haven’t read it in the right mood yet). Such a short book, but so gorgeously written! You could just sit there and read and reread certain passages just to savor the beautiful language (one of the ways to tell, in my opinion, if a book is beautifully written, is to read the opening paragraphs and the closing ones, and if they sing, you know you’ve got something special in your hands), and the themes of rich and poor, of self-creation and the American Dream, are still powerful today (there are many people in public life, for instance, who could be described as the sort of “careless people” Daisy and Tom Buchanan were, and if you’ve read the book, you know what I’m talking about).
But I also confess to a deep love for Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, which I am gobsmacked to find on this list, not because it’s not a great book (it’s a wonderful book), but because I think most people haven’t read it and know nothing more of it than the opening section set in Lilliput. Which is a shame, because the other worlds Gulliver finds himself shipwrecked in are at least as impressive as Lilliput and provide the same satirical thrusts within seeming fantasy, and the last portion of the book, where Gulliver visits the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos (horses and human beings, respectively), is heartbreaking as well as biting. This, like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, is one of those books people think they know without ever having read it, and that’s a real shame.
For different reasons, I’m surprised and delighted to see The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, on this list. I don’t care if anyone wants to say it’s not great literature, because if you look at some of the other books on the list (which I will not go into now; that may be another post), it’s very clear that a book doesn’t need to be great literature to be included here. The fact is, the book (the first of a trilogy — well, it’s technically more than a trilogy but that’s because Adams regrettably kept adding books to the group, when he really should have stopped with Life, The Universe, and Everything, the third book and a natural ending point) is brilliant and funny, science fiction meeting Monty Python, containing warped ideas about the nature of human intelligence and the purpose of the earth, with unforgettable characters and a plot that never goes where you expect it to. A fast read and a funny one, The Hitchhiker’s Guide probably won’t win this contest, but if its inclusion on the list means more people read it, I can only cheer.
Having The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan, on the list is a wonderful thing. While her body of work since then has certainly been impressive, I confess I still have a special place in my heart for The Joy Luck Club. Not only is it an #OwnVoices book, and not only are the characters varied and vividly drawn, but the structure of the book, with the alternating stories from mothers in China and in America and daughters in America (and, at the very end, in China), works brilliantly with the book’s theme of mothers and daughters and the strains of being immigrants and first generation Americans. If you haven’t read Joy Luck yet, let this be encouragement to get around to it.
In a way, the inclusion of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice seems an obvious choice (how many movie versions of this book have there been? Not to mention all the spinoffs, including a murder mystery version by the late great P. D. James, and various books focusing on different characters who were given short shrift by Austen), though I would be hard-pressed to find an Austen book I didn’t like or want to vote for. On the other hand, there’s something about the 19th century language and style of sentences Austen uses which take some getting used to for modern readers (as I discovered in a recent book group discussion of Persuasion, which is one of my all-time favorite Austen books), and I like the idea that people who might not otherwise actually READ Pride and Prejudice might pick the book up as a result of this publicity. The more readers she gets, the better, as far as I’m concerned.
I’m sure Armistead Maupin, writing the first book in the Tales of the City series, never expected his books to be considered almost historical novels, but now, decades after they were written and first became popular, they are a vivid, detailed picture of a particular time and place which has changed a great deal since: San Francisco in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, as AIDS began to make itself felt in the gay community. The stories were originally serialized in newspapers before being collected into books, a la Charles DIckens, but they don’t feel disjointed. There’s an almost soap-opera quality to the way the characters interact with each other over the course of the series, but that doesn’t matter because the characters, straight, gay, bisexual and transgender, are all so real and alive that you care about their relationships and about them. It’s wonderful to see these books included on the Great American Reads list, whether or not they get enough votes to “win.”