What does summer mean to you? For me, it’s long been a time to revel in books. As an elementary school student, it was almost a game. How many books could I rack up over the summer? There were prizes at my local library and grade school for reading a certain number of books but what I remember most from those summers was the excitement of visiting the library with my mom and brother to amass a new horde of books to tear into and the peace of sitting on my bed in my room turning page after page after page. Years later, the chore of summer reading for the next year’s English class could never compete with the illicit joy of a mystery, bestseller, or truly ANY BOOK NOT SELECTED BY THE SCHOOL BOARD specifically to pique the interests of the local youth. (No shade to my teachers. They picked good and interesting things to read; my contrariness just got in the way.) Now I tend to read weightier, so called “literary fiction” during the summer simply because of my teaching schedule during the school year (with an ample dose of mysteries as well, per my usual).
PBS kicked off their homage to summer reading with the new series The Great American Read, hosted by Meredith Viera. The series strikes at the intersection of assigned summer reading and beach reads as it begins with a list of 100 books and asks viewers to vote as often as they like from now until the fall as a way to determine America’s favorite book. These kind of book lists can often be problematic, skewing too white and male for one thing, while often failing to delineate their criteria for selection (what makes something a “Great American Read”?). There seems to be an admirable effort to make the list inclusive (although we can always do better on those fronts) while people’s favorites will inevitably be left off the list (The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton? The Awakening by Kate Chopin? Kindred by Octavia Butler? The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros?) PBS manages to sidestep some of these snags by using people’s votes to compile the list of the initial 100 (the academic in me would love to know the sample size and details of how they collected this data), making the endeavor a more democratic process. As many times as I thought, “Yes, I absolutely must go and find a copy of that this moment,” (Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya and Another Country by James Baldwin) there were several books on the list I don’t care to read and probably never will.
Based on the numerous encouragements sprinkled throughout the program to vote, read the books, and join a book club, as well as several nods to the importance of reading to kids, what the program encourages just as much as reading is dialogue—dialogue about the power of reading, the fun of reading, and the sense of discovery in finding yet another book to love.
- Visual style- Let’s face it, people reading tend not to make for compelling visuals. There were a number of smart choices made to break up the talking heads and bookstore/library shots. First was the screen-filling shot of all 100 book covers with what I can only describe as witness-protection-level blurring of their covers until they were revealed. Second was the animation used for classic texts like Pride and Prejudice, Moby Dick, and The Color Purple, among others, to provide visuals for voiceover plot summary.
- Unbridled Book Love in Expected and Unexpected Places- Danny Boy O’Connor discussing The Outsiders was pure loveliness. Confession: I’d never heard of Danny Boy before but the fact that he’s creating a house museum for the book/movie in Tulsa, Oklahoma, testified to his passion for the novels and S.E. Hinton’s impact on him and so many other readers. Later, Gabrielle Union spoke beautifully about not finding herself as a black woman represented on local bookshelves growing up and the importance of her mother supplementing those shelves with books like The Color Purple, particularly in the aftermath of her sexual assault. Finally, John Green make a thoughtful argument for The Catcher in the Rye as a foundational text in YA literature and how different the experience of reading it can be as an adolescent versus as an adult.
- Pace- I appreciate, too, that PBS varied the amount of time devoted to each book to keep the pacing fairly brisk. Breezing through all 100 books, albeit in two hours, is no small task.
What intrigues the most, though, is where the show goes from here. Now that all 100 books have been revealed and discussed (or at least mentioned), will there be just one final show where the winner is announced, or does PBS have more extensive plans? Will they do more specialized lists in future, such as the Great American Mystery? In the meantime, you can check out the list and vote for your favorite at: pbs.org/greatamericanread. I’ve been voting for Jane Eyre and Beloved— I can’t choose just one (the only way books are like potato chips).