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From The Wall Street Journal:
When the novelist Philip Roth died in May, the obituaries and tributes agreed that he was (to quote a few choice descriptions) “towering,” “pre-eminent” and a “giant of the American novel.” In the opinion of those who create the official narrative of American literature—the critics who write about it, the professors who teach it, the publishers who sell it—there was no one bigger than Roth. The one question few stopped to ask—and maybe an obituary was not the place to ask it—is whether the reading public agreed. Is Philip Roth in fact one of America’s favorite novelists? Can such a thing even be measured?
As it turns out, it can—and he isn’t. We know this thanks to “The Great American Read,” a new initiative from PBS, which set out to produce a list of America’s 100 favorite works of fiction. The alphabetical list (the books aren’t ranked) was released this spring, based on a poll of more than 7,000 American readers. The results of the poll were winnowed down by an advisory panel of “literary industry professionals” using a few rules: The books had to be published (though not necessarily written) in English, with a series like “Harry Potter” counted as one title, and there could be no more than one book per author.
This month, a companion volume called “The Book of Books” will be published, with pithy one-page essays discussing the background and significance of each of the chosen hundred. Starting in September, PBS will broadcast a Great American Read series, hosted by Meredith Vieira and featuring interviews with celebrities, literary and otherwise. All of this will culminate in October with the announcement of America’s favorite novel, as determined by online voting.
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If Americans don’t love the books that are usually supposed to constitute American literature, then what do we love? One answer the Great American Read list provides is that we love the books we read as children or teenagers. A few venerable children’s classics retain a stubborn foothold in the memory of readers: “ Tom Sawyer, ” “The Call of the Wild.” But these are not the books most of us actually grow up reading today. We are more likely to cut our teeth on children’s fantasy titles, which make a strong showing on the list, especially when they come from Britain: “Harry Potter,” of course, but also the Narnia books, “The Lord of the Rings” and the founder of the genre, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”
Alongside these early favorites are the accessible literary works that feature on many a middle school syllabus, often as the first “grown-up” books we read: Harper Lee’s courtroom drama “To Kill a Mockingbird,” John Knowles’s boarding-school story “A Separate Peace,” John Steinbeck’s Depression-era saga “The Grapes of Wrath.” Perhaps there is a similar touch of nostalgia involved in the choice of more challenging classics like “Moby-Dick” and “Heart of Darkness,” which are often read in high school or college and then not opened again.
But other categories stand out that have nothing to do with school. The Great American Read list is heavy on genre writing: science fiction (“Jurassic Park,” “Ready Player One”), mysteries and thrillers (“The Da Vinci Code,” “Gone Girl”), and other best sellers (“Lonesome Dove,” “The Help,” “The Clan of the Cave Bear”). Such books get little respect from critics and are seldom taught in classrooms, but they are the ones that people remember and love. Certainly, they far outweigh contemporary literary fiction on the top 100 list, though a few such titles do make an appearance— Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Junot Díaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”
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Beyond statistics, however, there are also literary insights that can be deduced from the Great American Read list. For one thing, it seems clear that American readers don’t care very much about good prose. “The Da Vinci Code” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” are regularly cited as examples of terrible writing, but both were mega-best sellers, and both find a place among the top 100. This is not simply a matter of readers preferring genre writing to literary writing. Rather, it appears that, in any genre, readers prefer strictly functional prose to stylistic elegance or idiosyncrasy. Isaac Asimov is on the top 100 list, but not Philip K. Dick ; James Patterson’s Alex Cross mysteries and Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None,” but not Elmore Leonard or Raymond Chandler.
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Perhaps, for many readers, it does not make much difference whether a story is told in print on a page or images on a screen. The narrative itself is what matters. In fact, the Great American Read list confirms that there is a great hunger in our culture for grand, mythic narratives. The adoration of the Harry Potter books, like the nearly scriptural status of the Star Wars movies, involves more than just fandom. These are comprehensive universes, complete with their own laws and histories, heroes and villains, morals and meanings. They serve the purpose that was once served by epic poems like “The Iliad” or “The Odyssey,” or even by biblical stories: They dramatize the spiritual truths and longings that shape our world.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal