A Look Into: America’s Top 10 Books Based on “The Great American Read”

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.

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Why You Need to Read: Battle Royale: The Novel

 

Battle Royale: The Novel

By: Koushun Takami

Translated by: Yuji Oniki

Published: April 1999 (Japan); February 26, 2003 (in English)

Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopian/Horror

 

PLEASE NOTE: The following contains spoilers from this novel. You have been warned.

Shuya took a moment to think before he received his black day pack, and he did the same as he approached Fumiyo Fujiyoshi’s corpse, shutting his eyes. He wanted to remove the knife from her forehead but decided against it.

            When he stepped out of the classroom, he felt a pang of regret, wishing he had removed it for her.

            40 STUDENTS REMAINING(Chapter 6).

 

The Most Dangerous Game (1924) by Richard Connell and Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding are two of the many required readings for schools in the United States and in other countries. Their plots are straightforward: protagonist(s) ends up on an island in which they have to survive on and survive from the individual(s) who are trying to kill him/them. Then, on September 1, 2009, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins was published with a movie deal in the works. After the movie was released in 2012, a few critics of “independent” and “foreign” movies were mentioning Battle Royale. Some fans of the movie accused Suzanne Collins of “stealing” the concept of Battle Royale for The Hunger Games. And, that’s not true. Adults (and children) killing each other for no reason happen all the time, sadly.

It is said that the author, Koushun Takami, read Lord of the Flies and found it to be good, but “outdated.” Inspired by other books and action movies, Takami wrote Battle Royale.The text is an expansion to Golding’s book in that there are both male and female students, there are 42 of them, there are more point-of-view chapters from many of those characters, and the deaths are plentiful and gruesome!

In addition to the 42 students and two teachers, there is the “Team Leader.” While we don’t get the P.O.V.s of all of the characters, we gain both the personalities and the upbringings of all of them. And, since this is a novel about adolescents in a dystopian society, it’s not a spoiler to let you know that some of these students do NOT come from good homes. Plus, multiple P.O.V.s means that the readers will learn the reasons the students either participate, or don’t participate in the “program.”

The plot of Battle Royale is straightforward: an entire class of Japanese students are abducted and forced to participate in a deadly game of manhunt. Each student is given a duffel bad with supplies and a random weapon. All of the students are set loose on an island and the “game” remains active until one student is left alive. Additionally, someone must die every 24 hours, or a detonation device goes off, killing ALL OF THEM!

The narrative goes from 1st person to 3rd person over and over again. This is done when more than one student is around to comprehend the mood of the story. Plus, we learn the backstory of several of the students and we learn why, or why not, each of them participates in the “game.” Some of these students are damaged, some are entitled, and the rest are scared.

The style is action-paced with students dying throughout the “game” in numerous ways. Takami’s tone reflects what he’s attempting to pull off: a cringe-worthy and addictive story of kids who are forced to take part in what their broken society wants them to, without their—or their families’—consent.

The appeal—like any other story of this sort—was originally controversial. It turned out Takami was worried that his novel would be classified as “dark” and “violent,” and he waited two years to have it published! At first, critics in Japan were disturbed by the violence. Afterwards, it became both popular and a best seller. The quick-paced plot and the storyline and believable characters intrigued the public. Takami gave his readers something that William Golding did not: female characters. Battle Royale reminds readers that everyone has a dark and lethal side within themselves.

Almost immediately after Battle Royale’s publication, a movie was ordered and released in 2000. Directed by the late Kinji Fukasaku, the movie matches the pace of the book, and the death of the characters. The film adaptation was a success in Japan and was going through “the undergrounds” outside of its home country. You can watch it on Netflix. Of course, the movie has been called “one of my favorites” by Quentin Tarentino, and is labeled as “the story ripped off by The Hunger Games, which (again) is not true, but more on that another time (Read: “It All Started with…Lord of the Flies). There is a manga adaptation that I have NOT read, but will eventually, but the movie will NOT let you down!

I enjoyed this novel because the author took the concept of “fighting to the death” to a whole different level. Unlike The Hunger Games, the location is deserted, so the characters are allowed to reside inside the buildings. Similar to Lord of the Flies, the characters, these adolescents, run amok due to their emotional state. And, let’s not forget the influence from The Most Dangerous Game! A handful of these students are hunting down their classmates! Battle Royale is an update and an expansion to our school assigned readings. But, keep in mind you’ll need to read those three stories in order to appreciate this import from Japan.

My final rating: Enjoy It!