A Reality Show for Books? Yes, Please!

by Terri Frank
published in Reading

On May 22, PBS launched a new television series called The Great American Read.  The goal is to discover the country’s most loved book. Following a nationwide survey of Americans, an advisory panel assembled an initial list of 100 possibilities. Over the next five months, the list will be whittled down via viewer voting until only one book remains. The format is similar to Survivor or American Idol.

Select Your Contenders

The series’ 100 List offers an excellent opportunity to reinvigorate your reading life. This is your chance to read those paragons of fiction your English class skipped. The series’ companion website even offers a quiz to test how well-read you are.

Of course,  classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and Gulliver’s Travels made the cut, but if the classics of yore aren’t your thing, the 100 List is chock full of contemporary novels, too. Ghost, released in August 2016, is a middle grade novel by Jason Reynolds about a middle school sprinter. There’s also Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah (often credited as the first urban fiction novel), and even Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James.

When reviewing the 100 List, keep in mind– The Great American Read is not a writing contest.  It’s more of a popularity contest. That is, what books have Americans read and liked? Only fiction books were accepted, but an author could hail from any nation as long as their book was published in English.

Read and Connect

At DIYMFA, we preach reading with purpose and building your community. The Great American Read offers opportunities for both. You might approach the 100 List as a comparative tool for your current work in progress. If you’re writing science fiction, read all the sci-fi books on the list (Dune or Foundation anyone?).

Another method is to choose books based on an upcoming episode. To make the list more manageable, books will be grouped and discussed by theme. A few of the themes announced so far are:

  • What We Do for Love
  • Heroes
  • Villains and Monsters
  • Other Worlds
  • Who Am I?

The American Library Association offers some insightful questions to ponder while reading novels from each theme. With upcoming episodes serving as de facto deadlines, you’ll have built-in motivation to finish your selections. Nationwide discussions in bookstores, libraries and online will provide meaningful, interactive community for readers and writers.

Vote for the Finalists

The Great American Read website says viewers will be able to vote by several methods. At first, viewers will vote by logging on to the PBS website, visiting Facebook, or using a hashtag on Twitter. Voting options will expand to include phone lines and text messaging near the series’ conclusion.

Origins and Alternative Lists

In 1996, Oprah Winfrey launched Oprah’s Book Club to get people reading again. Similar to The Great American Read, the medium of television allowed readers, authors and celebrities to connect with books in a new way. You can find a list of Oprah’s Book Club picks here.  Many people are unaware that she’s reinvented her book club for the digital age. Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 is currently reading An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.

Librarian Nancy Pearl conceived  “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book” in 1998. She chose The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks and held book clubs around the city. The idea spread worldwide and continues to this day. You can search for a “One Book, One Community” program in your area via the Library of Congress. There is also The Big Read begun by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006 and the Great Books Foundation that traces its nationwide discussion groups all the way back to 1930’s Chicago.

At the turn of the millennium, Modern Library polled readers about their favorite books published during the twentieth century. The 100 Best Nonfiction Books and the 100 Best Novels lists are still available for you to peruse.

Finally, our Canadian word nerds will be familiar with “Canada Reads” — a book reality show that’s been airing there on radio since 2002 and on television since 2010. Celebrities defend their assigned book at a rousing roundtable debate to keep it from being “voted off the shelf.”

Americans can’t see the live debates unless they live near the border and get Canadian television. However, you can find taped episodes on YouTube. The list of past winners is, of course, available to all and a great way to discover Canadian authors.

Whether you tune in to The Great American Read or choose books from another mentioned list, it should be a fantastic summer for reading–and talking about–books.

Terri Frank is a professional librarian and holds a Master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Michigan. When she’s not working in a library, she’s probably visiting a library with her husband and two kids. Her current writing projects include a novel about a tuberculosis sanitorium.

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