Discovering America’s Favorite Novel | PBS Announces The Great American Read

On Friday, April 20, at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) introduced The Great American Read, an eight-part multiplatform series that will culminate in what PBS calls the first-ever national vote for America’s favorite novel. The series, created for PBS by the independent television production company Nutopia, will premiere on May 22 with a two-hour episode introducing 100 top titles chosen in a national survey. Conducted by the Internet-based market research and data analytics firm YouGov and tapping 7,000 Americans distributed equitably by age, gender, region, and ethnicity, the survey aimed to discover not the best but the best-loved novels. The list that resulted embraces classics, popular titles, and YA works in equal measure.

Announcement of the list was kicked off by Emmy Award–winning journalist Meredith Vieira, who will host the series. Other announcers included Morgan Library director Colin B. Bailey, former NFL player and writer Chris Kluwe, actresses Diane Lane and Ming-Na wen, novelist Armistead Maupin (whose Tales of the City made the list), and American Booksellers Association CEO Oren J. Teicher, as well as Gayle Osterberg, director of communications at the Library of Congress, and 2007 LJ Mover & Shaker Janie Hermann, Princeton Public Library, NJ. Met with cheers and the occasional murmur of surprise, the list ranged from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved to Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. In the final compilation, authors could only be represented by one title, and series (e.g., The Lord of the Rings) counted as a single entry.

The two-hour opener will initiate a summer-long discussion involving book clubs, public libraries, bookstores, schools, community events, and social media; to facilitate the discussion, PBS Digital will make available an interactive website, interactive video content, social shares features, and more. The aim is to get people reading, talking about, and then voting for their favorite novel at or on Facebook and Twitter via the hashtag #GreatReadPBS. In the fall, the series will return with six shows divvying up the list by theme (from heroes to villains to other worlds) before a finale announcing America’s top pick. During the fall, viewers will also be able to vote toll-free by phone call or SMS texting. Viewers can vote daily, keeping them involved and allowing for changes in opinion.

Throughout the series, authors, celebrities, and everyday readers will be seen discussing their favorites. The premiere, which was screened in part at the Morgan Library launch, includes Ming-Na wen discussing Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, an immigrant story for everyone that reminds us to appreciate “not what we’ve achieved but what we’ve become,” and Harry Potter enthusiast Eliyannah Amirah Yisrael. Hailing from Chicago’s South Side, Yisrael, who calls Hermione Granger her long-lost twin because of their shared love of reading, is so Potter potty that she created the popular African American web series Hermione Granger and the Quarter Life Crisis. As she explains, the slur mudblood, used in the books by some wizards to scorn others born of nonwizarding parents, is J.K. Rowling’s way of “teach[ing] against oppression.”

In the end, the creators of The Great American Read envision a national conversation about great novels and about what makes them great. Already, said Jane Root, founder and CEO of Nutopia, the 100-strong list offers “a picture of America that’s so varied and so wonderful,” and she imagined that discussion will highlight not just shared reading tastes but differences by region and other variables. She also expressed hope that people will be encouraged “to read books they have not read before.” Concluded Vieira, “We live in fractured times, and books bring us together.” Indeed, any book list that asks us to consider both John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey is a list that truly crosses boundaries.


Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.

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