Sean Combs has greatly influenced American culture: He taught us it’s cool to change your name about five times, he was the ultimate Bad Boy, he gave us Danity Kane for goodness sake. Most importantly, he proudly professed the importance of voting. While his “Vote or Die!” campaign was intended for politics, there’s no reason we can’t use it for choosing America’s greatest read.
This summer PBS has premiered an eight-part series, The Great American Read, which will determine the great U.S. of A.’s favorite literary tale. The program promotes literacy across the country (yay!!) while touching on individual stories of literary impact.
This is clearly an opportunity to invoke Diddy’s mantra, except the consequences for not participating aren’t quite so severe.
One of the best things about this literary adventure is that the top 100 were chosen by regular human beings — not snobby critics whose opinions you just can’t agree with. These novels were picked via a survey of about 7,200 people across the country. The criteria were small, allowing for any fictional novel that’s been published in English.
The Great American Read launched on May 11, with the other seven episodes airing throughout the summer. Readers can vote once a day, every day for their top pick of these 100 books until October.
One moving aspect about this series is the stories that celebrities and everyday book-lovers share about a book that affected their lives. Gabrielle Union spoke of the impact The Color Purple had on her after she was raped at 19, how it allowed her to survive. A pastor in middle America discussed how A Prayer for Owen Meany spoke to him and inspired him to start a church for the middle class and homeless. The series is proof that reading matters and that it changes peoples’ lives.
As I thought about which book I would vote for, I realized this decision could not be made easily. It got me thinking about those books that affected my life the most, the novels I wish were on the list, and the ones whose magic I can’t wait to uncover.
Books I want to read
I’ve read only 13 of the 100 books on the list, but you can guarantee my own list has grown by about six times that figure after watching the premier. There are many classics on this list that I’ve been planning to read for some time now (Gone with the Wind, A Game of Thrones, Heart of Darkness, and Pride and Prejudice just to name a few). This series gave me a lot of new names that many “best of” lists miss. Here are my top three choices that I’m dying to read next.
Another Country by James Baldwin
Another Country tells the story of a black jazz musician in 1950s New York who has a tumultuous relationship with a white woman and eventually meets his greatest enemy: himself. The book explores interracial relationships, homosexuality, and extramarital affairs — all taboo themes at the time.
I love a good NYC read, especially one that speaks to prejudices and struggles in the world. James Baldwin is a classic, and his 1962 stunner deserves a place on my bookshelf.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Maybe this 1958 novel struck me because it reminds me of four-flame novel Homegoing; regardless, it seems like excellent literature for Big Little Lit. Things Fall Apart regales us with two stories: that of Ibo, a strong village man in Nigeria, and one set in the modern world after European missionaries arrive. I’m sure these stories provide an interesting compare and contrast and teach us that our histories live with us.
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
I frequent the topic of immigration when picking out a new read (The Patriots, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, etc.); its complexities and variances from my own life intrigue me. So no wonder I want to experience The Joy Luck Club. Set in 1949, Tan gives us a tale of four Chinese women who have recently immigrated to San Francisco. The group bonds over frequent gatherings of dim sum and mahjong and the struggles they face with their American-born daughters. I’m not sure if this will bring tears or laughter, but I’m excited to find out.
Book I wish were on the list
I’ve read a lot of books in my time, and there are certainly quite a few that I wish had made this list, especially in place of such painful literature as The Catcher in the Rye (don’t get me started). One novel sticks out though for playing an important role in my coming-of-age.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
I’m proud to be a feminist, but it took reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel to truly know what that means and to hop on board. Its heroine, Hester Prynne, is every single woman. Maybe you haven’t had an affair or had a baby out of wedlock, but you’ve been shamed and judged for mistakes or certain decisions you’ve made and simply for being who you are. Our private affairs have leaked to others, and we’ve all felt stigmatized for something along the way. And yes, we’ve all been guilty of some girl-on-girl crime too.
Reading about this theme of shame and judgment as a 17-year-old young woman was powerful, and the feelings this book evoked have stuck with me for the past nine years. I know other women, and certainly men too, have been moved by The Scarlet Letter, so I was surprised to not see it on the list. In Big Little Lit’s eyes, it’s easily in the top five.
“Let men tremble to win the hand of woman, unless they win along with it the utmost passion of her heart!” — The Scarlet Letter
Despite the all-star reads on this list, one truly stands the test of time, and everyone who reads it, remembers when it first crossed their path — just as I do.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby changed how I view classic literature. It showed me the power of timeless literature and how important it is to get swept up in the language of another period. It was the first classic that, while I was reading it at 16 years old, I could fully understand why it had been held so dear to Americans.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece is the epitome of great metaphor usage and character development. It’s all about that green light at the end of the dock. Details and literary devices aside, though, I’m voting for the The Great Gatsby because no other book on the list better captures the American spirit at a specific point in time. We were rowdy, fun, and lavish in the 20s, and that clearly comes across on Gatsby‘s pages. He transports you to another time and place, makes you sympathetic toward characters who might not deserve it, and has you yearning for answers. The Great Gatsby wins on so many levels and has affected so many of us here in the States, and that’s why I firmly believe it’s the great American read.
“I hope she’ll be a fool — that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” — The Great Gatsby
Vote now for your pick of the greatest American read. You have 100 splendid options to choose from. Comment below for your vote!