The Great American Read or
What is that book doing on the list,
and where is my favorite?
If you want to start a fight, make a list of great books, then step back while every reader on Earth disagrees with you.
When the Great American Read was announced, I couldn’t wait to see the list. I love lists of great books. It turned out, however, that these weren’t great books, but favorite books. That is a major distinction. Great books or influential books would include the Koran, The Wealth of Nations, Das Kapital, and a raft of works everybody has heard of, but few have read. That list would not include Fifty Shades of Grey or The Martian.
It reminded me of a collection called Best Remembered Poems which included a selection of Purple Cow poems but did not contain Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress. Popularity and quality are different categories.
As I worked my way deeper into the GAR, I found that the original list of 100 came from a group of readers carefully selected for diversity. That’s all very twenty-first century, but it is likely to find oddball books as well as good ones.
Not that I am complaining. If I made a list of my 100 favorite books, no one would else like all of them either. That’s just the nature of the game.
The GAR people ask, “Which book is your favorite?” I read the list and didn’t find my favorites. A Wizard of Earthsea wasn’t there, which was criminal, but not surprising. Kidnapped wasn’t there, nor was anything else by Robert Louis Stevenson. That was surprising. What about Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?
As a side note, in 2014 The Guardian did a list of the 100 best novels and Kidnapped came in number 24.
So I looked at the list and started to make notes.
There were 8 books I had read and liked — Tom Sawyer, The Call of the Wild, The Count of Monte Cristo, Dune, The Hunt for Red October, The Lord of the Rings, Siddhartha, and The Sun Also Rises. None of these were my favorites, and only Tom Sawyer and Siddhartha would be runners-up for that title.
I won’t identify those I didn’t read or didn’t like, but . . .
There were 4 I read but didn’t like.
There were 4 I read part way through and tossed.
There were 3 I knew enough about to avoid.
There were 2 I read, but found them to be nothing special.
There were 8 I had not read, but I had read other books by the same author. This included authors I had liked and ones I had disliked.
There were 3 which were on my to-read list. I subsequently read one of these and demoted it to nothing special.
There was also one book — Moby Dick — that I read as a child in an abridged version, and plan to read in its entirety when I have a spare decade.
Looking at my tally, you might think I’m picky. That’s probably true, but there are a thousand books in my read-and-liked category that weren’t on this list. I just don’t seem to read what everybody else reads.
How about you? There is a reply button at the top of the post.
The original question was, what is your favorite. For me, out of this list, it would be The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The Lord of the Rings beats it for scope, The Sun Also Rises beats it for gravitas, but it seems to me the only way to choose from such a varied list is to judge a book on how well it does what it sets out to do. For that, TS beats them all.
If I didn’t have to choose from their hundred, I think I would choose The Old Man and the Sea.