Using ‘The Great American Read’ as a 21st Century Reading List

Books Education Entertainment

In the past week, many of us saw The Great American Read on PBS, hosted by Meredith Viera. Last month, GeekMom Anika Dane covered the announcement of the 100 books that made it onto the list, a list filled with books that are beloved by Americans. The show’s premise is for people to vote for their favorite book or series that made it onto the list, and they will reveal the winning book/series in a few months. For me, though, it isn’t about the voting or the winner. It is about the list itself, the discovery of what is on there, and the book recommendations that I can act on, right now.

There were plenty of expected books and book series on the list, such as Harry Potter, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Moby Dick. But there were also many books on the list that surprised me for a variety of reasons, such as Fifty Shades of Grey, The Da Vinci Code, and Ready Player One. I know these books are enjoyed by many, but they seemed less “classic” to me, I suppose. But perhaps that isn’t what The Great American Read is all about.

What I was most impressed by, though, is just how many books on the list I had never heard of. There were plenty that I knew were monumental or beloved but just hadn’t gotten around to reading yet, such as The Help, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Wuthering Heights. But there were so many that I hadn’t heard of, such as The Intuitionist, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Americanah. Books that had touched and moved and changed the life of people. Of fellow Americans. And I had no idea. What was I missing? Would they move me too? I felt a calling to read many of these books that had, up until now, escaped my notice.

I have previously read 27 of the 100 books on The Great American Read book list, plus half of two others that I just couldn’t get through (The Alchemist and Foundation, believe it or not). Some I’ve read many times (I’m in the middle of re-reading Jane Eyre as we speak, and Pride and Prejudice is always a faithful friend). The rest, usually just once. And not all were memorable. I plan to re-read The Great Gatsby, for example. But I love lists like this, because they concentrate, all in one place, interesting literature that is important to people. Most people will not like all of the books, but everyone will like something.

In college, as an American Studies major I read plenty of books that gave glimpses into the life led by people across the spectrum of society. But I realized it was time to revise my “to read” list. To create a 21st century reading list for myself, to read books that are meaningful to others, to learn more about how others experience life and society, both now and in the past. Women, people of color, autistics, immigrants, queer folk, survivors of abuse, and other marginalized groups are represented in this list. You can never know exactly what it’s like to see life and society through someone else’s eyes, even with books, but it’s important to never stop trying.

I’ll still skip over a few of the books on the list (I can’t do horror, for example), but I intend to read as many of the rest as I can, especially the ones I haven’t read before. My husband Rory has agreed to be my reading buddy, forming a book club of two. I think we’ll have tea. And scones. And audiobooks on long road trips.

At the top of my list of books from this list to read are:

Which books from The Great American Read are you going to dive into first? Which ones were you inspired to read after hearing how they moved others? This is the perfect opportunity to learn more about your fellow Americans while also learning about yourself.

Check out Anika’s post for more details about the list, or check out the The Great American Read website on PBS, and be sure to watch the special if you haven’t yet! Vote if you like, but, most importantly, keep reading. There are even a number of books and series on the list that are great for families to share!

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