PBS’s List of ‘America’s 100 Favorite Novels’ Shouldn’t Leave You at a Loss for Words

The president doesn’t have to read. He’s the president. He can do or not do what he wants.

For the rest of us, reading is a really, really good way to make our minds great again.

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‘Great American Read’ host Meredith Vieira in an empty Library of Congress room.

That’s what PBS thinks, too, which is why it’s launching The Great American Read, Tuesday night at 8 p.m. ET.

PBS has selected “America’s 100 favorite novels” and is encouraging viewers to read or re-read some of them over the summer and vote for their own favorites.

More on the list in the minute. First we should acknowledge that encouraging people to read isn’t a novel idea. So to speak. What’s refreshing is getting this kind of high-profile prompt from a major broadcast television network.

Do we need further evidence why we need to keep funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting?

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Reading isn’t a liberal or conservative pastime, a truism underscored by the inclusion on the PBS list of both Atlas Shrugged and The Grapes of Wrath, in addition to dozens of more or less apolitical books that just tell a transporting story.

Reading is simply a ticket to a smarter, happier, richer, more engaged life that taps into the marvelous realm of the imagination.

Sure, television and the movies and social media videos do that, too. But spinning a story with the well-crafted written word makes the reader create his or her own images and sounds, which can be so much more nuanced, layered, exotic and enticing than the single image someone else provides on a screen.

Whether we’re talking about Twilight or The Great Gatsby, admit it: The character in your head lost dimension when you saw an actor portray him on the screen — no matter how good the actor was.

In any case, the unveiling of The Great American Read doesn’t suggest Americans don’t read any more. We read all the time, every time we check out our phones and iPads or sit down at the computer screen.

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That’s okay. It’s more okay if we also sometimes break away to read something like The Color Purple or Pride and Prejudice.

As for the PBS list itself, the only certainty is that everyone who knows a book from a refrigerator will want to know why X was included and Y was not.

One of my first questions was how come The Catcher In the Rye is there, as it should be, and On The Road, which also should be, is not.

One of my second questions involves my strong suspicion that Fifty Shades of Grey, which is on the list, will prove somewhat less enduring than, say, Don Quixote. More likely, I see Fifty Shades dwindling to a footnote once its hot pop culture moment has passed.

On the other hand, I understand why it’s there. This is America’s 100 favorite novels in 2018, not the 100 best novels of all time.

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Ming-Na Wen with her first choice, ‘The Help.’

In the larger philosophical picture, I’m guessing PBS has paid heed to an argument that’s been disquieting the academic world for the last half century: Should “literature” be overwhelmingly defined by what some wry folks a while back capsulized as “dead white guys”?

The argument isn’t that Hemingway was bad, though I personally think he’s overrated. It’s more that appreciating the full sweep of literature requires also reading James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. Or The Help.

PBS’s diversity push extends to including novels aimed at young adults or pre-adults. Besides Twilight, The Chronicles of Narnia is here and so is Clan of the Cave Bear and The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland.

If you’re wondering, Peter Pan is not.

What may prompt a few grumbles are the books whose presence seems promoted by the popularity of movie or TV adaptations.

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George R.R. Martin.

Mario Puzo’s The Godfather became a great movie. As a novel, it was a potboiler. Conversely, George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones was already a favorite series of books before it became a TV phenomenon, and this list would no more have excluded J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series than Geico would fire the gekko.

So Outlander and Gone Girl are here, right next to good old Moby Dick, and making room for them did indeed crowd out a few of those dead white guys. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter didn’t make the list, nor did Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or Stendahl’s The Red and the Black, standard inclusions for decades on almost every college English major’s reading list.

In a similar spirit, genres ignored by most of those English departments get some inclusion here: V.C. Andrews’s Gothic classic Flowers in the Attic, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. No Elmore Leonard, though.

PBS does draw the line this side of Danielle Steele and the ultra-popular romance crowd, instead going for quirky faves like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the revered A Hundred Years of Solitude — a book that to me, I would add gratuitously, was more interminable than a cricket match.

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If you disagree, PBS would love you to vote for it over the summer. Or vote for Harry Potter or something else. The network plans another special in the fall to announce which novel got the most votes. The favorite among favorites.

No, PBS doesn’t really see reading and writing as competitive sports with winners and losers. It’s just a fun way to give the whole Great American Read thing another dimension and more legs.

On a tangential note, the same earnest and admirable instinct that motivated PBS to dream up the whole idea in the first place also makes Tuesday’s special flow a little less smoothly than one might wish.

While the comments on various books from famous and non-famous people are fascinating, the special cuts every few minutes to host Meredith Vieira, who reiterates that reading is good and everyone should vote.

After seven or eight of these breaks, the words “pledge drive” become harder to avoid.

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That does not, however, diminish the value of this project or the potential pleasure from reading some or all of these books. Or reading any books.

We like to think the human species can do things no other species can do. Here’s another place where we prove it.

Written by

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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