Notebook: Great American Read-a-long

From Ann Kjellberg, Book Post Editor

Detail from one of eight “travel posters” based on a few of America’s hundred “most loved” books, as collected by “The Great American Read.”

This Tuesday the enormous PBS book virtual party, “The Great American Read,” will arrive at its mighty crescendo when it unveils its #1 Best Loved American Novel in its final episode, filmed before a live audience and airing at 8 p.m. (EST). You can see the current top ten (seven of them are by women!) here. Television host and impresario Meredith Vieira has silkily presided over the series since its opening foray last spring, which, in a one-and-a-half-hour kick-off bustling with authors, movie stars, comedians, athletes, and plenty of normal readers-on-the-street, disclosed a batch of books judged through an elaborately egalitarian survey to be the hundred most-loved.  The list was pleasingly eclectic, with books for every palate, though as Adam Kirsch noted in the Wall Street Journal it did lean, perhaps unsurprisingly, toward things we probably read before we were twenty (Fifty Shades of Gray excepted).

We were encouraged to read the books over the summer, and then the series regrouped with seven episodes this fall exploring some common themes, with ongoing enjoinders to vote early and often online, via text message, hashtag sharing, or toll-free telephone number (!) for our top pick. Viewers could vote up to once a day; voting closed last Thursday. Something that interested us about this project was its apparent success, in the spirit we are striving for here at Book Post, at reaching out of the TV and into reading communities across America.  The producer Jane Root, who has a storied history at the Discovery Channel and the BBC, where she executed a similar though more modestly scaled project for a British audience in 2003, told me that part of the secret there was PBS’s vast network of local stations, from the mightiest to the most tiny, which, with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, seeded programs in local libraries and schools and bookstores. A little nosing around revealed lots of enthusiasm in the book-purveying world: our own October partner bookshop Books & Books reported robust interest among customers, and librarians were parlaying the series from viewing parties into ongoing “lookalike” reading lists for readers who were discovering new enthusiasms.

But more current to the moment were the efforts to integrate the audience into the proceedings through electronic participation.  The regular enjoinders to vote, not once but a lot, to post your thoughts to social media and to PBS, with the host regularly referencing the latest feedback, seem part and parcel with our new ways of coming together electronically. Technology allows us to participate communally on a vast scale, but we labor with how to accomplish that while holding on to a sense of human connection. Strikingly, fiction embodies that very conundrum: the speakers on the show referred again and again to how fiction allows them to feel the emotions of others far removed from them, to experience stories and settings beyond what they would otherwise know, and conversely to convey the local truths of their lives to a bigger world. The show’s impulse toward intimacy, however strained sometimes, with the starlet leaning forward in her chair clutching a book and entreating us to read it, was embedded in the material.

As Root explained to me, the heart their strategy was the decision to seek not the best book, but the most loved one.  Discussion of what it means for a book to be “good” was left on the table. What matters is that means something to you. The appeal to the heart, both in fiction itself and in the premise of the program, brought in, by the close of voting, 4.5 million votes and half a million followers on social media.  Root and her colleagues were honestly startled by the scale of the response and by the intimacy of the exchanges among the show’s 130,000 Facebook followers—posting about remembering lost family and friends through books, raising children, changing their opinions, seeking advice, all through books. As Root said, “reading a book is an emotional experience that you want to share.”  I wonder if we in the critical professions lose sight of this dimension of reading sometimes.

Buzzfeed also announced this week that they were starting a book club, which, alongside “The Great American Read” juggernaut, got us thinking about book clubs and people reading together. There was comment on the commercial dimensions of Buzzfeed’s decision: like all news outlets they are searching for new sources of revenue; their book club, which is a collaboration with Amazon, brings them into the “e-commerce space” and also allows for potentially lucrative data-sharing. Book Clubs have been around since Book of the Month club was created in 1926 in order to help people who live far from a bookstore to get books, but from the beginning there was a “discovery” element: people are looking for a conversation about what to read, a conversation that stands in for the one they might have in a bookstore.  When Book of the Month Club was revived in 2016, the interactive element, like that in “The Great American Read,” was brought to the fore: Book of the Month Club now has hundreds of thousands of followers on social  media, and, as helmed by the electronically savvy critic and blogger Maris Kreizman, searches like Root for stories “that transport you, give you thrills and tug at your heartstrings."

A parallel phenomenon is the vitality of the in-person book club.  Gatherings of people to read books together “irl,” as the kids say, picked up steam in the late eighties, and Oprah’s TV book club gave them a big boost in 1996. Our partner Books & Books tells me that they have fifteen to twenty book clubs meeting right now in their group of stores, including a Classics Book Club, a French Reading Group, a mystery reading group, a couples reading and dinner group, and a Young Adult group, among others. They are launching a new Cuban literature club next month with Florida International University. They also host seasonal Book Club Mixers to stir up interest.  Books & Books tells me their book clubs are stronger than ever, notwithstanding the growth of digital book buying and communication. The outfit Book the Writer takes the human element a step further and invites book groups to bring writers into their own living rooms.

Discovery is about finding what you like, but also about finding your crowd, a place where people respond to your tastes and are receptive to your ideas and impressions. In the annals of magazine publishing, people often talk about how The New Yorker built a large audience in the fifties and sixties among people who had newly acquired, sometimes modest, means and wanted to find a way to participate in informed conversation. Social media now responds, or tries to respond, to some of these impulses. The tone of Buzzfeed’s book section suggests that its book club will aim to speak to a certain young, cosmopolitan, sceptical-but-curious readership and the people who want to be a part of that.  There are now companies that will send you a book with a box of other goodies, based on your and their understanding of your place as a consumer. That sounds great to us, if it helps you have fun with books, and find some ease and pleasure in your day.

There is a conundrum in the midst of all this, a conundrum about reading: it is solitary, but something we want to share. When you finish a book, you have been through something, you want to talk about it, with other people who have also been through it, you have ideas about it that only others who have read the book will understand. The need to find books you like is also about community: who am I, what speaks to me, where can I find more of that? It is powerful that we are led to come together to read. It speaks to the nature of reading—how it awakens empathy and curiosity and discovery.  The impulse seems vital enough to manifest itself through huge crowds and numbers, as in “The Great American Read.” “The Great American Read” offers an America that we do not see much these days: an America where we are curious about each other and affectionate and ready to learn. Perhaps through reading we can find this America again.

Book Post too strives to bring American readers together around books and ideas, sending subscribers across the land two juicy book reviews a week to their in boxes.  Help us to make this happen by subscribing, here.