Deborah Yaffe

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The envelope, please. . .

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 18 2018 01:00PM

When midnight strikes on the west coast tonight, something momentous will take place: Voting will close in PBS’s Great American Read competition.


OK, it’s not really that momentous. In fact, if you ask me, the GAR has been pretty silly all along – from the “statistically representative survey” used to draw up the pool of one hundred nominees (how did they account for the roughly one-quarter of Americans who don’t read books?) to the vote-every-day-if-you-feel-like-it policy, which will inevitably privilege authors with small but passionate fan bases over those with broader but less intense support.


From a blog post that Channel 13 published last week, we have some clue about which books remain in the running . Apparently, at this point, the top ten contenders are, in alphabetical order:


Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White

The Chronicles of Narnia (series), by C.S. Lewis

Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë

Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

The Lord of the Rings (series), by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Outlander series, by Diana Gabaldon

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee


Although I’ve only read about half the books on the full list, I’m clearly picking wisely – or at least lining up with majority taste -- since I’ve read every one of these top ten vote-getters. (OK, not all the Outlander books. But cut me a break -- they’re long. . .) And color me relieved that neither Fifty Shades of Grey nor The Da Vinci Code seems likely to win the top prize. National embarrassment averted!


PBS plans to announce the results of the voting next Tuesday, and my crystal ball is notoriously cloudy. That said, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that Pride and Prejudice hasn’t got a prayer of winning.


Obviously, I’m not talking about which book deserves to win. That’s debatable, and probably unresolvable: Is, say, Jane Eyre a better book than The Lord of the Rings? They’re so different that the question doesn’t even make sense, in my humble opinion.


But looking at the top-ten list, a few patterns are readily discernible, and they don’t bode well for Our Jane.


Most obviously, seven of the top ten novels were written less than a century ago – Gone with the Wind (1936), The Lord of the Rings (1937-49), Charlotte’s Web (1952), The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56), To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), the Outlander series (1990-present), and the Harry Potter series(1997-2007).


Pride and Prejudice (1813) is easily the oldest book on the list, beating out Jane Eyre (1847) and Little Women (1868-69) by decades. The great American reading public clearly prefers its novels set in semi-contemporary times, or at least employing a semi-contemporary vocabulary.


Half the books on the list -- The Chronicles of Narnia, Gone with the Wind, the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings, and the Outlander series -- are also sweeping historical sagas and/or good-against-evil fantasy epics. They’re books with dozens of characters and countless plot twists, books that stuff their appendices with maps and family trees, or spawn companion volumes sorting out the many strands of backstory. “Three or four families in a country village” they ain’t.


And arguably, six or seven of the ten are books that most readers encounter before the age of thirteen. Charlotte’s Web, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Harry Potter series, and Little Women are classed as children’s literature; The Lord of the Rings – and perhaps also Gone With the Wind -- is a favorite of bookish kids everywhere; and To Kill a Mockingbird is required reading in middle schools across the land.


This doesn’t mean they aren’t great books – I love them all! -- but it does mean that they’ve burrowed into the souls of their readers in a way that books encountered later in life can’t often match. Our memories of the books we loved as children come pre-wrapped in wistfulness.


It’s true that a subset of readers encounters Pride and Prejudice in early adolescence. It’s the first Austen novel many Janeites read, and they often pick it up around the age of twelve or thirteen. Still, it’s my impression that P&P isn’t a book that most readers associate with their child-selves, perhaps because its preoccupations -- marriage and money -- are so adult.


In sum: P&P is a nineteenth-century classic of domestic fiction on adult themes. It’s up against a list dominated by twentieth-century epics and gems of children’s literature. Its presence in the top ten is surprising enough; a victory would be downright astonishing.


For what it’s worth, my money is on The Lord of the Rings -- which, as it happens, won the BBC’s 2003 version of this competition.


Although admittedly, Pride and Prejudice came in second.



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