Earlier this year, the Orem Library was selected as the only library in Utah to partner with PBS and the American Library Association as an official Great American Read site. This fall, instead of focusing on one book for our annual Orem Reads program series, we will be reading and discussing many novels drawn from PBS’s Great American Read list of 100 titles. We’ll explore heroes, fantasy worlds, love, villains and monsters, and books that help us understand more about ourselves.
What’s the Great American Read?
The Great American Read is a joint program from PBS and the American Library Association with the goal of finding America’s best loved book. The eight-part television series explores and celebrates the power of reading, told through the prism of America’s 100 best-loved novels.
How was the list of 100 books made?
PBS worked with “YouGov” to conduct a demographically and statistically representative survey asking Americans to name their most-loved novel, over seven thousand people participated. The results were narrowed down to the top 100 by a panel of publishers, librarians, and educators.
What’s the television series about?
The Great American Read television series features entertaining and informative documentary segments, with compelling testimonials from celebrities, authors, notable Americans and book lovers across the country. Episodes will air on Tuesday evenings beginning September 11 at 8/7c.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Lord of the Flies matters to me because it was one of the books that opened my eyes to the way literature works. It helped me see that books can have layers of meaning, and forced me to read notes and criticism for the first time. But more importantly, it forced me to look inward and figure out what it meant to me personally. Looking inward made me think differently about the world around me, and my place in it.
A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
I was a new mom in a new home in a new town. I was where I wanted to be, doing what I wanted to do, but I was also lonely and surrounded by toddlers. On a spring day, walking through the parking lot of our public library after storytime, I had a thought. Maybe a neighborhood book group. For a natural introvert, that took courage. As I visited with neighbors, I found a shared interest and excitement for the idea. First meeting was at my house and my choice of book to read. Yikes! A visit with an old friend and A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute was chosen. It was a great choice. My love of strong smart women, other cultures/countries, the heroic human spirit, and historical fiction made this story a top favorite for me. Looking back, I realize that evening was my introduction to many smart, strong women that lived in my new neighborhood and are now part of my timeline. The book group met once a month for 20 years.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
This book helped shape my childhood. I received it as a gift and read it 13 times cover to cover that year. It taught me you can travel anywhere you want in a book.
Watership Down by Richard Adams
My mother first read Richard Adams’ Watership Down to me when I was ten, and the feeling of absolute enthrallment has only gotten stronger every time I have revisited this book. I love getting to know the different characters of Hazel, Kehaar, Blackberry, etc., and following the ups and downs of their journey, but I especially find myself drawn to the mythology of El-ahrairah, the Black Rabbit of Inlé, and Lord Frith, and the idea that within such a lowly, ordinary group of creatures could be such a profound mythological belief system with so much truth, beauty, and complexity. It is a beautifully written story with many insights to teach us about ourselves and the way we treat each other and those we perceive as our enemies.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
This book taught me to perceive the holiness of the everyday, the transcendent beauty of the common.
Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake
When I was in junior high, I stole my brother’s battered copy of Titus Groan. It was so far beyond my reading abilities that I had to carry around a notebook and dictionary to define the new words I came across. The book recounts the various doings—good and evil—of the inhabitants of crumbling, labyrinthine Castle Gormenghast. It was my first conscious encounter with beautiful writing, original symbology, and uniquely motivated characters. It was also the first time I met characters whom I found simultaneously repulsive and admirable, funny and horrifying. To this day, they remain some of my favorite.
Desiree by Annemarie Selinko
I was always a big reader. When my mom ran errands, I begged to be dropped off at the library so I could read books. One day, when I was about nine years old, I wandered out of the Children’s Reading Room and over to General Fiction. There were so many more books there! I randomly pulled books off the shelf and read the covers until I came to Desiree. I was intrigued by a 14-year-old girl who was engaged to Napoleon. I checked it out and read it—TWICE. I’m not sure I understood what it meant to be engaged and I know I did not know what a mistress was, but I was fascinated by this romantic view into history. I credit this book with creating a deep desire to explore history and to know stuff. Desiree kindled my love of historical fiction, romance, and reading.
The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale
This was the first book where I became completely engrossed in the world, and understood what it was to truly connect with and invest in characters. I re-read it every couple of years.
And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer
This book was written by a librarian in Xenia, Ohio when she was in her 80s. It follows a bookclub from 1868 to 1932. It goes to show that it is never too late to do something new.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Steinbeck presents the idea that good and evil reside within each of us, and each of us personally decides which of these dualities we will embrace.
Ideas Have Consequences by Richard M. Weaver
Is there any ultimate truth? If not, what is the purpose of living? Weaver raises the importance of these questions and tries to give positive answers. He argues that there is an ultimate truth and people should spend their lives seeking it. Shared truth makes it possible for people to live in harmonious social relationships. Is truth created by the individual? If so, it dies with that individual. Is truth universal, existing outside an individual’s wants and desires? If so, the individual has a duty to understand and live according to it. This truth also survives the death of the individual, as this truth is universal and not dependent upon a particular individual and his will. How we perceive the world and live our lives is largely dependent upon our ideas. In other words, Ideas Have Consequences.
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
Though several American novels compete in my mind for the honor of being a great, or the greatest, American read, it is Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, published in 1946, that rises above them all for me. Warren was a poet who also wrote a few novels, with this one, for me, best hitting the sweet spot between a plot and character driven page-turner and a work of prose poetry that gives rhythm, and a full sensory bouquet, to the driving momentum of the prose. This novel isn’t only, or even principally, about a corrupted politician in a southern state. For me, the novel is more about the story and philosophical evolution of its narrator, Jack Burden, and his journey from a rather nihilistic spectator with a jaded sense of humor to someone who, pushed by love and loss, arrives to a greater empathy and responsibility. Lastly, this novel is fun to read. There is nothing stodgy or preachy about it. When I read it a second time, I often read the same paragraph, or page, or sentence, two or three times, so that I could luxuriate in the poetry of the chosen words and how they were placed, and in the sensations, feelings, thoughts the language evoked. The sentences as sentences are worth the savoring, and these are but the portals into the larger created worlds of the characters and places and their stories.
Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath
In 1988, when I was an angsty teenager, I caught Kurt Loder talking on MTV about the Bangles’ new tape, Everything; one song stood out to me—”The Bell Jar.” The next day in English class, we started reading poetry—and one of the poems was by Sylvia Plath. It was like the universe reached out and said, “You must read Sylvia Plath.” So I checked out Plath’s Collected Poems. I didn’t understand all of the poems. Not even most of them. But they shaped me. They made me question my assumptions, notice small details in the world around me, recognize myth. Begin to see how women are influenced by society. They caused me to fall in love with the mysterious and life-changing writing that is poetry. And loving poetry has influenced, strengthened, and yes, even saved my life more than once.
The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley
I think it was the fact that the people in behaved like real people in spite of their magical powers. The princess is unpopular and awkward, and people make mistakes even if they are royalty.
The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas
This book is an excellent story of the Roman soldier who won the Savior’s robe after tossing dice for it at the foot of the cross. It almost immediately changed his life and the story of how that happens and the turmoil and eventual peace he experiences is remarkable.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
When I was fourteen, I picked up A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and learned to care about people whose world was very different from mine. I was intrigued that Francie loved reading like I did, and found myself taking refuge with her on the fire escape, to read, to observe, and to imagine. Francie’s life was vastly different from mine—she was poor, raised in a dysfunctional family in a harsh slum—and yet Ms. Smith’s writing made me care about Francie and her family and friends. They were real people to me. The strong Nolan women matched the strength of my grandmother and mother. I felt compassion and empathy for them and knew that being poor or a little eccentric didn’t make them any less worthy of respect and kindness. My understanding of the concept of “universal” was born with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I realized we of the human family are much more alike than we are different.