Tonight, Tuesday, October 23, 2018, PBS will announce, based on votes, which book is “America’s Best-Loved Book.” The series and the vote were announced last spring, and the last few weeks have given viewers and readers a brief in-depth look into each book. The 100 books were categorized based on theme, not genre, which makes it for a more relevant look into the books. Now, PBS has reached the end of the series, viewers have reached the end of voting, and American readers will know which book was selected as “America’s Best-Loved Book.”
Twelve days ago, the Top 10 Books, based on voting were announced. Here they are, not listed by vote rank:
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling Little Women by Louisa May Alcott The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen Outlander (series) by Diana Gabaldon To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Take a look at the way I listed PBS’ Top 10 Books. Have you noticed anything? The column to the left has a list of books that can be categorized under the “fantasy” genre; and, the column to the right has a list of books that can be categorized as “historical” fiction. What does this say about America’s taste in literature? What does it say about the notions surrounding fantasy literature?
First, the historical fiction books; two novels take place (before,) during (and after) the American Civil War, two novels are about society in England during the 1800s, and one novel is about segregation in the United States during The Great Depression. All of these novels give readers insight into the social dissonance occurring during certain moments in human history. People have either read one or more of these books for school, or saw the film adaptation at some point in the lives. Their stories are familiar by all, and well loved by readers.
Now, for the fantasy books, all of which have at least one media adaptation whether or not it’s movie or television. Lewis, Tolkien and Rowling are from Britain, and E.B. White—not to be confused with T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King—and Diana Gabaldon are from the United States. Each of these fantasy novels (and series) falls under different subgenres. Charlotte’s Web and The Chronicles of Narnia are for children and have talking animals, which comes from Aesop’s Fables; Harry Potter is a bildungsroman series that follows Harry Potter and his friends and schoolmates as they learn about magic and prepare to fight against the evil wizard, Lord Voldemort; and, The Lord of the Rings and Outlander are fantasy novels that make up a larger compendium of books set in the world the characters reside in, Middle-earth and 18th Century Scotland, respectively.
It’s interesting how fantasy fiction is beloved enough to keep the genre growing and going. Fantasy and fairy stories are not only for children—read Tolkien’s essay, On Fairy Stories—but also they are not enjoyed by all children. Children who grew up reading fantasy and fairy tales grow up and write stories of the same genre as adults. And, some of those stories are for adult readers. The author determines the audience whom his/her/their story is read; and yet, two of the fantasy books in the Top 10 are fantasy stories for adults. The Lord of the Rings takes place in a fantasy world, and in Outlander, the protagonist time travels to the past by means of supernatural elements.
Fantasy has been an established literary genre since the publication of both The Chronicles of Narnia (1950) and The Lord of the Rings (1954). Lewis and Tolkien are recognized as being two of the authors who helped solidify the genre. Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871), and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and its sequels, respectively, which were a few of the early fantasy books in which the fantasy genre emerged. All of the mentioned books were popular enough for media adaptations, and those films brought more attention to the books. Harry Potter brought fantasy to a towering level that no one saw coming. Fantasy literature is an established, recognized, and read genre. Hence, the books that made it into “The Great American Read” Top 10 List.
Do I believe any of the fantasy novels in the Top 10 will be chosen as “America’s Best-Loved Book”? No, I do not, but not due to the reason you may or may not believe. While I am an enthusiastic reader of the fantasy (and other speculative fiction) genre, I—like everyone else—had to read certain books as a student in grade school and in college. And, I enjoyed reading some of those books for my English classes. I was able to relate to the characters and comprehend the social issues mentioned throughout each novel. Some of the themes found in those novels still resonate in today’s society. I’m not saying that that isn’t the case with the fantasy books in the Top 10, but one novel calls out “America” to me whenever I think about the title. And, that book is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
First published in 1960, during the American Civil Rights Movement, To Kill a Mockingbird follows Scout and her family who are living in Alabama during The Great Depression. This coming-of-age novel illustrates the loss of innocence Scout and her brother, Jem, experience when their father, Atticus—a lawyer, defends a disabled black man accused of raping a white woman. This Pulitzer Prize winning novel has been said to be a literary response to the murder of Emmett Till, a 14 year-old boy from Chicago who was brutally lynched after being accused of whistling at a white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi on August 28, 1955. Emmett Till’s murder sparked outrage nationwide, and was the event that would eventually lead to the start Civil Rights Movement.
Over 60 years later, To Kill a Mockingbird remains on school reading lists and is listed as an “American Classic.” Personally, I believe this novel has just as many life lessons and memorable characters such as Aslan from Narnia, Gandalf from Middle-earth, Professor Dumbledore from Hogwarts, and Charlotte from Zuckerman’s Farm. As someone who grew up during the publication of the Harry Potter books while old enough to read To Kill a Mockingbird, I found the former books to be enjoyable and the latter book to be more thought provoking as I continue living in a changing United States.
Harper Lee does not shy away from the issues of race and class in her novel. In addition, she was not afraid of including the harsh reality of life that her child characters had to witness and to endure. To Kill a Mockingbird continues to teach readers of all ages that judging people based on their traits and not their appearances or their living situation is essential to being a good person. Yes, there are people who harm the innocent and get away with it, but treating people the way they deserve to be treated—with respect—goes a long way.
PBS’ “The Great American Read” allowed denizens in the U.S. to review what many people read and enjoy. The great thing about the special was that all genres of literature were considered. Furthermore, the special gave insight into which books, many which remain on school reading lists, are and remain popular by readers and non-readers alike.