Folks, The Great American Read is happening. PBS made us a list, based on the nominates of the people, and now we, the people, are meant to figure out which one of them is the best by the method of “voting for a book every day”.
Obviously, this is catnip to the person who writes these things (me) – this is my three favorite things (weird polls, popularity contests, and books) thrown together and then broadcast on PBS. I’ve been holding off on writing it for awhile, but I can wait no longer. You all simply must know where I stand. So here’s the first fifty, with the next fifty coming next week. You’re welcome.
George Orwell – 1984
WHY IT WILL WIN: Because people like having their worst fears confirmed, and a picture of a world that ours represents more and more with every passing year is an easy thing to be impressed by the prescience of.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because people don’t like to have their worst fears confirmed, and a picture of a world that ours represents more and more with every passing year is an easy thing to be horrified by the prescience of.
John Kennedy Toole – A Confederacy of Dunces
WHY IT WILL WIN: Because it’s funny and enables the kind of double-handed combination of self-importance (wouldn’t it be great to move through the world behaving that way because you’re so much better than these sheep) and self-righteousness (that you’re not that unselfaware egomaniacal jerk).
WHY IT WON’T WIN: It’s tough to take for people that aren’t on that wavelength.
John Irving – A Prayer for Owen Meany
WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s a spirtual-literature “classic”, and people love books about people who are touched by god or whatever.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Well, The Tin Drum isn’t here, and it’s a re-write of The Tin Drum, so maybe there will be some kind of protest. Oh, and like so many of these books, if the voter isn’t here for an allegory/parable about listening to god’s calling or whatever, it’s not going to work for that voter.
John Knowles – A Separate Peace
WHY IT WILL WIN: As an attempt to create a naturalist post-war novel, it’s top-rate. It’s unlike most other war-survivor books (as are most of the war-survivor books that are on this list), and I’m always primed for people to come back and try to take another stab at naturalism.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Well, because naturalism is weird. As an attempt to write literature based on the scientific method and strict observation, A Separate Peace largely fails, even if it succeeds as a book, and is therefore pretty hard to evaluate, as well as hard to recommend people who don’t, say, have any grounding in what “naturalism” is.
Betty Smith – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
WHY IT WILL WIN: Because a book that values pragmatism and clear-eyed examination and thought about your circumstances, but don’t sacrifice your desire to be the thing you want to be is an incredible book for any person in any time and place. There are a lot of books about somehow being superhuman in order to escape the bounds of an unfair world, and there should be a lot more of them about being a human to do the same.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: It’s a book referenced more than it’s read, and a lot of people have to read it (like, for school) when they’re too young to really get what it’s doing. It’s probably a great book for a young person to read with the right guidance (or with no guidance), but it’s not often given proper guidance, and so ends up in the “I was forced through this and didn’t like it, but I guess I learned what ‘symbolism’ was” pile.
Mark Twain – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s got everything. It’s a funny adventure story and a useful look at a time and place created by a genuine actual genius who has a masterful grasp of his craft, setting and characters.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: I mean, it’s not even the best Mark Twain novel. It’s not even the second best Mark Twain novel.
Paulo Coelho – The Alchemist
WHY IT WILL WIN: The Campbellian hero’s journey (here called the “Personal Legend”) is a durable, widely-popular notion, and The Alchemist is probably the best novel to directly follow the form.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: It’s less satisfying as a hero story than, say, The Odyssey (which is not on the list, for reasons that I guess I’ll never understand) or Don Quixote, and it’s another one that is burned on the woodpile of misguided education.
James Patterson – Alex Cross Mysteries (series)
WHY IT WILL WIN: At 25 staggeringly-successful volumes and counting, airports would not be the same without this one. He’s figured out the formula for being a writer that tonnes of people that don’t ordinarily read enjoy greatly.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Leaving aside the fact that information on how many of these books he actually, you know, wrote himself (he’s the credited author, but his policy of using ghostwriters is pretty well-established), there’s the fact that his books aren’t particularly well-regarded, by reason of them being pretty awful.
Lewis Carroll – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
WHY IT WILL WIN: Because a bunch of people have spent a bunch of years granting this book a bunch of extra cool because blah blah blah drugs blah blah moral philosophy blah. This happened despite the fact that L.C. just wanted to write stories for his child girlfriend about how much he hated math.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: It’s true that it’s remembered very fondly, and might actually have a pretty clear shot at the title here, but it’s a wildly uneven picaresque with a fusty tone, and the speculations about it are often more entertaining than the actual book itself, and “entertaining” is liable to be the king here in this popularity contest.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah
WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s one of the most praised and well-respected books of the past few years, and it’s a real triumph of skill and execution by a very talented writer.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: It’s pretty heady, especially in the company it’s in on the list here, and it’s entirely possible that its relative-newness could count against it among people who are looking for a “classic.”
Agatha Christie – And Then There Were None
WHY IT WILL WIN: Mysteries are big business, not to mention wildly popular, and It’s the mysteriest mystery that ever mystery’d, by the mysteryest of mystery madams.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: It doesn’t really push all the buttons that a more “modern” mystery would. It also has a very unfortunate history of its title, which might not matter to the voting, but might also be enough to keep it out of the top spot.
Lucy Maud Montgomery – Anne of Green Gables
WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s a tough-to-dislike story that’s unique despite a whole boatload of imitators. It means the entire world to a bunch of people of all sorts of walks of life. There’s a significant portion of the world who wants to be plucky and Canadian and significantly touch somebody on the wrist in a way that signifies a deep and undying love. As an autobiographical aside: due to a confluence of influential people and events in my life, this is the book I have started the largest number of times without finishing.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: It’s a polite Canadian growing-up story, and I don’t know how far a book can go on sheer Canadian pluck.
James Baldwin – Another Country
WHY IT WILL WIN: James Baldwin was a tremendously influential thinker and writer of the lives of a number of out-groups to which he also belonged, and his prose is as vivid and beautiful as it could possibly be.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Well, it’s the like fifth-best James Baldwin book, and third most well-known, and also the whole book is about the aftermath of the main character’s suicide (I’d say spoiler alert, but that shit happens right away), which is the kind of high-concept tough sell that doesn’t do well in popularity contests.
Ayn Rand – Atlas Shrugged
WHY IT WILL WIN: Because people have a bottomless appetite for stories about how awesome awesome people are.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because it’s unreadable, and the people who have the aforementioned bottomless appetite are almost universally deeply unpleasant people, and no one wants to willingly associate themselves with them.
Toni Morrison – Beloved
WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s pretty-well unimpeachable, widely-regarded (and rightly so) as a stone-cold classic, and packs more human meaning into its words than just about any other book on the list.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because it’s slow and weird, and lots of people don’t like slow, weird books, and that’s a shame for them. That said, this is one that I think might actually have a pretty fair shot. I’m not sure how much of an objection there can actually be here.
Rudolfo Anaya – Bless Me, Ultima
WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s a tremendous novel that codifies (for a bunch of people) the chicano experience (it is, in fact, the thing I think of when I think of “the chicano experience”), and is therefore a tremendously important book for a bunch of people.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: It’s one of like six million coming-of-age stories here, and it’s not the most popular. Boo.
Marcus Zusak – The Book Thief
WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s a story about a little girl who steals books to fight the nazis. What could be more crowd-pleasing/uplifting than that?
WHY IT WON’T WIN: It’s maudlin and kind of ridiculous, after all that.
Junot Diaz – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s a unique, well-constructed roman a clef that examines a culture that it is helpful to take a look at.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Ain’t nobody giving prizes to Junot Diaz in 2018.
Jack London – The Call of the Wild
WHY IT WILL WIN: There’s a real preponderance of young adult adventure books here, and for my money you can’t do better than The Call of the Wild.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because I’m literally the only one who thinks that way.
Joseph Heller – Catch-22
WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s nothing less than the greatest anti-war novel ever written. It’s exciting, it’s gut-wrenching, and it’s funny as hell. It makes a grand argument for satire as a tool of the sane against the insane.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because satire is commonly misunderstood, and because it’s hard for a lot of people to reconcile the fact that it’s funny with the fact that it isn’t only funny.
JD Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye
WHY IT WILL WIN: We were all young once, and half of us were young men.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because we all stop being young eventually, quite frankly. Or because everyone is a phony.
EB White – Charlotte’s Web
WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s a lovely little story about a spider that creates compassion and empathy for a pig, said pig standing in for the recipient of compassion and empathy that we should strive to find in everything
WHY IT WON’T WIN: I don’t have any of this data in front of me, but I’m given to believe that most people think of the movie before the book (which is probably also a detrimental side effect for many of these, unfortunately). I’m trying not to ruminate overmuch here, either, but I also wonder if it’s going to help or hurt CW that it’s “children’s” literature.
CS Lewis – The Chronicles of Narnia
WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s a perennially-beloved series that also doubles as a useful biblical allegory.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because about half of it as actually great, and the other half is dry as dust. I’d like to imagine that we live in a world where the casual discarding of Susan is a major drawback also, but we don’t. Hell, it’d probably just make the thing more popular.
Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear
WHY IT WILL WIN: Oh it won’t. It’s porn again. This time it’s porn disguising itself as anthropology. It was – for reasons that I cannot sufficiently explain – wildly popular upon its publication. I’m going to guess the reason is “porn” though.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because it’s awful, and any historical value it may present is not for its content, but for its existence – its cycle of popularity and acclaim is deeply weird, and will present something useful for people to study in future generations.
Sister Souljah – The Coldest Winter Ever
WHY IT WILL WIN: If ever there was a time to remember the work of a woman who was performatively attacked by a sitting president, now is that time.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: It’s great for what it is, but I was surprised to see it here in the first place, so I think it probably doesn’t have much of an actual chance.
Alice Walker – The Color Purple
WHY IT WILL WIN: This is another one that’s pretty well synonymous with “The Great American Novel”, such as it is. It’s praised to the rafters and more-or-less without major flaw.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Whatever the reason ends up being, I’m sure it’ll be depressing. I mean, it’s not my favorite book here, but I definitely can’t answer the question easily.
Alexandre Dumas – The Count of Monte Cristo
WHY IT WILL WIN: The fear of being wrongfully-imprisoned is all but universal, and there’s nothing Americans love more than a revenge tale.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because it’s still a work in translation that had been published serially, which means that in most forms it’s super-padded and weirdly-worded. For a much shorter, less-translated, less-padded version of the same story, please consider the far-superior The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Crime and Punishment
WHY IT WILL WIN: Any novel that is beloved among serious students of moral philosophy and dudebros alike is a novel with not only legs, but serious staying power.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Well, we wouldn’t want to raise ire by suggesting that people who commit crimes in Russia might someday face consequences, would we?
Mark Haddon – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
WHY IT WILL WIN: Because it’s an entirely non-controversial book that’s just challenging enough to get credit for being challenging, with a non-neurotypical protagonist. Oh, and it exists in both a YA form and an adult form, which is cute. It’s unclear if both or just one of them are nominated.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: It might have had a better shot ten or fifteen years ago. Now it reads as being kind of gimmicky, albeit admirable in its attempt.
Dan Brown – The Da Vinci Code
WHY IT WILL WIN: We live in a conspiracy-theory heavy time, and there’s something reassuring about the idea that someone out there, even something as evil as Dan Brown’s read on the Catholic church, is on the ball enough to be orchestrating huge cover-up operations. It really makes one feel that at least somebody is behind all this nonsense.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: It might win if this were a contest about product placement, or if everyone who voted on it was recently hit in the head with a bat, or if everyone who voted had only read one book in their lives, but I don’t think that’s the case.
Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote
WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s the first novel! It holds up surprisingly well, even after several hundred years and in translation, which is no small feat. A lot of people love it, because it’s very easy to love.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because it’s several hundred years old and Spanish, and as readable as it actually is, people don’t, y’know, read it.
Romulo Gallegos – Dona Barbara
WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s an excellent work of regionalist literature, and the jewel of Venezuelan novels.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because it’s a ninety-year-old Venezuelan novel.
Frank Herbert – Dune
WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s more-or-less the science fiction Lord of the Rings, in terms of archetype and influence. It’s got everything you could want out of space opera, which a lot of people like.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: It’s very long, very weird, and, even though this doesn’t have much to do with the actual content of this book itself, it has the absolute largest drop between “quality of the first installment” and “quality of the sequels,” which does tarnish it a bit.
EL James – Fifty Shades of Grey
WHY IT WILL WIN: Because people love porn. And, against all odds or decency, it is wildly successful porn. I wouldn’t have thought it was well-regarded enough to be nominated here in the first place, but well, here you have it. So I guess anything is possible.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because it’s porn? Because it’s porn that started out as fanfiction? I’ll get to this book’s parent in part 2, but honestly? There’s no way this wins, right?
VC Andrews – Flowers in the Attic
WHY IT WILL WIN: Honestly, because it is also porn. Weird historical overwrought teenager-friendly emotionally-driven porn. But still porn. Not the last time for porn, either.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because it’s almost hilariously terrible.
Isaac Asimov – Foundation (series)
WHY IT WILL WIN: Of all the great ideas to come from science fiction, psychohistory might actually be the best of them, and as an exploration of what people are and how they get where they’re going (metaphorically speaking), it’s as good as they come.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because there are six goddamn books in this trilogy, and he should have left well enough a-goddamn-lone.
Mary Shelley – Frankenstein
WHY IT WILL WIN: It invented science fiction, and did an awful lot to leave a mark on the modern conception of horror, as well as bringing humanism to the idea of a “ghost” story, which was famously the original challenge set upon at the dinner party where it was first incubated.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because most people reduce it to its film versions, and also because the book is frightfully hard to get through if you’re not pretty dead-set on doing so.
George RR Martin – A Song of Ice and Fire (Series)
WHY IT WILL WIN: Because people can’t get enough of this particular sword opera. They prize the realism (when it comes to rape and murder but not dragons) and the complex political machinations (which are left over from when it was a book about the War of the Roses)
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because it’s so goddamn long, and it isn’t finished.
Jason Reynolds – Ghost
WHY IT WILL WIN: Because it’s the newest book on the list, and therefore will be fresh in everyone’s mind at the time of voting.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Some books are nominated in series, some are not (see also: Anne of Double G’s, The Giver (saints be praised), et al) Why is that? I don’t know. I suspect conspiracy. The same conspiracy that’s keeping this book out of the top spot.
Marilynne Robinson – Gilead
WHY IT WILL WIN: Well hell. It won every other award on the planet, why not this one?
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Good as it is, it’s a pretty out-there fictional-memoir-journal thing that can be a little hard to get started on.
Lois Lowry – The Giver
WHY IT WILL WIN: Dystopias are big business, and this was a YA dystopia before there were nearly as many of those (there were still a bunch though – I was a young person when this one came out). Also it’s quite good if you pretend it doesn’t have sequels.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: I think people expect something a bit more…kinetic out of YA dystopias these days, and it may also suffer the hit of people having been forced to read it in school.
Mario Puzo – The Godfather
WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s the basis for one of the contenders for “greatest movie ever made” and all that.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: The movie took all the best parts, and at least one of the parts that the movie didn’t take is, notably, a disturbingly long-reaching plotline about the size of one of the characters’ vagina. It ends in her marrying the doctor responsible for her vagina ensmallment. Read more about it here. Oh, also, the book is pretty bad.
Gillian Flynn – Gone Girl
WHY IT WILL WIN: It was a very recent genuine actual bona-fide bookselling sensation for grownups, which means it has the benefit off a whole bunch of people reading it, which can’t hurt. Also see above w/r/t the threat of false imprisonment.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: It’s deeply pessimistic, and while it was wildly popular and is as well-constructed as any of its contemporaries, I don’t get the impression that it’s taken as seriously. Basically, I’m having a hard time figuring out who thinks this book is their “favorite,” although its place here prompts me to concede that obviously it is someone’s.
Margaret Mitchell – Gone With the Wind
WHY IT WILL WIN: Because we love to remember the majesty and glory of the slave-era South, we surely do.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because it’s long and boring, same as a bunch of these other ones.
John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath
WHY IT WILL WIN: Because it’s the greatest work of literary fiction ever written by an American.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because everyone is still sad about the turtle.
Charles Dickens – Great Expectations
WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s definitely the best book with “Great” in the title on this list. That’s got to give it something, right?
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Is it too cheap to be the millionth person to make a joke about it not living up to its title, do you think? It’s just that there are so many of these books, see. I suppose it’s not as lazy as jokes about Canadians, and I have a nonzero number of those in here.
Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby
WHY IT WILL WIN: Because people love – love – this book. Even the ones who had to read it for school. I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: It’s the worst book with “Great” in the title on this list.
Jonathan Swift – Gulliver’s Travels
WHY IT WILL WIN: Fans of the Lilliputians story as told everywhere else will be thrilled to know that there’s three more chapters. This mirrors what Neil Degrasse Tyson said on the tv show itself. Anyway, it’s very funny and an allegory that isn’t also really dumb, so it’s got a lot going for it.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because the parts that aren’t about the Lilliputians are harder to parse, and because it’s more fun for a lot of people to argue about the real-world analogues of the allegorical elements than to actually appreciate the book, which isn’t going to give it much by way of legs in the voting process.
Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale
WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s currently a very successful tv show, and its often lauded for its prescience and social currency.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: It’s Canadian. Ewwwwww.
J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter (series)
WHY IT WILL WIN: It was a once-in-a-generation epoch-defining success. There are people who were raised to adulthood on these books, who are now (or will be soon) having children to raise on these books. It’s entered a stratum of the culture left to precious few other things (The Beatles, Star Wars, that kind of thing). If it’s not the best-constructed or best-written or whatever of these books, it’s definitely an argument for that not being the thing that matters.
WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because it’s a book about wizards aimed at children and we can’t have that now, can we?