The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What’s the best American novel? A PBS vote is a revealing look at our (limited) taste.


The votes are in and it’s official: We loved our childhoods. Or at least those moments in our childhoods when we could escape adult supervision and read a book.

That’s the clear takeaway from the final tally of PBS’s The Great American Read, which aspired to name the country’s favorite novel from a curated list of 100 titles. Approximately 4 million people cast votes, and those voters ­appear to have been moved most by the novels they read in their youth: The winner, announced last week, was Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” that freshman-English staple of racism and coming-of-age. Many of the top 25 titles are the books we read when we first reckoned with our feelings about family (“Little Women,” “Charlotte’s Web”), friendship (“Anne of Green Gables,” “Charlotte’s Web”), and loss (“The Great Gatsby,” “Charlotte’s Web”). Or they’re proven tweenage fantasy go-tos like Narnia, Middle Earth and Hogwarts.

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. At No. 16 is Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help,” a tale of white noblesse oblige toward black maids in the South that ought to have a front-cover blurb screaming “Problematic!” in bold print. At No. 20 is Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” a Baby Huey of a novel that always bumbles onto lists like this because there’s no shortage of Rand ­acolytes eager to preach her free-market gospel — even among PBS viewers.

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But I don’t intend to be one of those spinach-for-dessert killjoys who will tell you that your favorite book growing up is somehow less literary, or that your passion for it is illegitimate. Scanning the list, I recalled a desultory summer I spent visiting extended family in rural Greece when I was 15. A language gap, plus endless miles of craggy hills and dusty sheep fields, had me craving escape, so I seized on the two English-language books that were available — Stephen King’s “The Stand” (No. 24) and Tom Clancy’s “The Hunt for Red October” (No. 59) — and gulped them down in a matter of days.

Neither would crack my personal Top 100 now, but they’ve stuck with me more than a lot of allegedly “stunning” and “lapidary” novels I read two years ago. Certain books discovered while growing up can be as jolting as a first kiss or first heartbreak, and PBS’s list sparked my recall of the first novel I read because I thought it would impress a girl (John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” No. 26), the first novel that asked me to think like a grown-up (George Orwell’s “1984,” No. 18), or that helped me feel less lonely in a new city fresh out of college (Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City,” No. 74).

But if we treat books mainly as mementos of our own experiences, like yearbook photos, we diminish our capacity to see them as ways to understand that of others. It’s revealing that you have to go pretty far down the final tally to find a work in translation — “The Little Prince,” No. 36 — and further still to find one by a non-North American or European author — “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” No. 54. Titles that speak to African, Middle Eastern and Asian lives drifted toward the bottom of the list. And, embarrassingly for something called the Great American Read, Native American writers are entirely absent.

That aversion to broad reading may also be why there are so few outright funny books on the list, besides “Catch-22” (No. 47) or “A Confederacy of Dunces” (No. 58). Comedy is subjective and often abrasive, which is all the more reason to include it — the strength of books like Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout” or Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” is how confidently they unsettle pieties about race and religion in American life. (Though not a novel, Roz Chast’s “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” is our great modern comic classic because it manages not just to make us laugh but face a parent’s death head-on.)

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One of the Great American Read’s stated purposes is to “get the country reading.” There’s plenty of evidence that we’re not — recent studies from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pew Research Center show that only about half of Americans read a book for pleasure in the past year, and about one-fourth of Americans didn’t read a book at all. America has a reading problem, and no doubt screens and eroding spare time play a part. But I’d like to propose that culturally we also have a problem with what we perceive reading to be. We’ve been attuned to think — and PBS’s study confirms this — that books’ chief value are as rites of passage. As we get older — and if not jaded, then comfortable with our routines — those of us who still read often allow our habits to become determined by algorithms. Instead of windows, books become mirrors.

So rather than press a particular book in your hand that I think the Great American Read missed, I’ll suggest this: Remember the jolt delivered by the first great book you read, and recognize that you can still feel it. Go to a bookstore or library and pull out a book as randomly as you’re comfortable doing, something that seems interesting but also radiates unfamiliarity. It would be not unlike the feeling you had when you were 8, or 12, or 18, and found yourself shocked by a book. It’s not a feeling that shut down after you got your diploma. You can have it today. You can chase it right now.

Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”

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