TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD voted the #1 “Great American Read”: What do you think?

To Kill a Mockingbird Cover.JPGPBS recently undertook a weeks-long process involving polls and interviews to try and discover the top 100 most-loved books in America, a project they called “The Great American Read.” Now the results are in, with To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee occupying the top spot.

I find this project so fascinating because it’s not out to find the “best” book, per se–and I’m not convinced there is such a thing, anyway–but rather to find which books have been most well-loved and influential in Americans’ lives.

The list was dominated by books that are common on high school and middle school reading lists, including Jane Eyre (#10), 1984 (#18), Call of the Wild (#37), and War and Peace (#50).

There were plenty of newer and YA-oriented finalists too, including the Harry Potter series (#3), The Book Thief (#14), The Da Vinci Code (#33), The Hunger Games (#40), and the Twilight saga (#73).

twilight coverFinally, I was delighted to see the volume of sci-fi and fantasy novels on the list. I wasn’t surprised to see 1984 or the Lord of the Rings trilogy (#5), but I was surprised that the Outlander series (#2!!! wow), Game of Thrones (#48), and Ready Player One (#76) were all so well-loved. Further proof that despite these genres’ reputation as niche, fringe, geeky, and weird, they are in fact extremely popular and influential.

It was especially interesting to digest these results after writing yesterday’s rant about “canon” and why I think it’s silly to think of certain books as universal. I was struck by how few books I’ve read on this list, not just the ones by men (which was my main point yesterday) but also the ones by women: I think I’ve read maybe 25% of this list, and that’s being generous. I’ve never even read To Kill a Mockingbird. 

I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. Again, I’d much prefer to read to my own interests (life is short) and there are a great deal of books on that list that don’t look appealing to me. But it was interesting.

I would also love to see a Venn diagram of sorts about who voted for what. Could we cross-reference how many people voted for Atlas Shrugged (#20) and also, say, Their Eyes Were Watching God (#51) or The Notebook (#56)? I’m always interested in the range of people’s tastes and this seems like a treasure trove of data in that regard.

A big thank you to pop culture writer and podcaster Linda Holmes, whose tweets this morning brought this list to my attention.

So, what do you think about these results? Did some surprise you or even shock you? Did some make you roll your eyes? (As much as I try to reserve judgment about others’ tastes, there were definitely a few of those for me.) Did others delight you?

I want to hear about it, so please leave your thoughts in the comments.

Why I read women (or, why “universal” literature is bunk)

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If you’ve spent any time on my blog–if so, thank you! –I think you’ll soon realize how few books by men I seek out, read, and write about. Scanning back a few months, the last two books by men that I’ve mentioned were Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan (in September) and November Road by Lou Berney, in a Friday Bookbag all the way back at the beginning of August.

It’s not that there aren’t books by men that I enjoy. To discount the artistic ability of nearly half the population would be absurd, right? (Ha.) It’s that, for me, reading is personal. I have always read what I want to read, and I want to read about women.

Luckily, at least in this regard, I grew up homeschooled. (The only formal schooling I got before college was one hellish year in kindergarten.) While the experience was a mixed bag, one thing I remain grateful for was that my mother did not insist I read classics, leaving me instead to read…well, everything else.

Before starting this blog, I ran a YA book blog titled “Bibliophilia – Maggie’s Bookshelf” (clearly, I’m not particularly creative with blog names) from 2009-2013 or so. I took it down some time ago–it was full of embarrassing coming-of-age content that I no longer wanted to broadcast to the web–but the experience was profound. It was my first exposure to ARCs, reviews, the ins and outs of publishing, and most importantly, the incredible diversity of books that are out there if you’re willing to find them.

Once, both for that blog and for my own enjoyment, I read 365 books in a year. It’s a great fun fact.

And yet I’ve never read Moby Dick. I’ve never read Lord of the Flies or 1984 or Lolita or Steinbeck or Twain or Dostoyevsky or any of the dozens more defining books of the English-language canon.

It’s not something I’m proud of, per se, because canons exist to create common ground, and no reader is an island. I may not have read Moby Dick but I have read countless other books by authors who care a lot about Moby Dick. To be so unfamiliar with their source material is a loss, not a gain.

But I still don’t know if I’ll ever read Moby Dick, because I value fun–or at the very least, human connection–in what I read, and Moby Dick strikes me as neither fun nor about the kind of humans I care for, although perhaps I would be interested in the whale. If that makes me a bad reader, so be it.

There is also, quite simply, so much else to read.

I once began a college essay with “I have never been fond of feminism as a way of being.” It was an essay for an English literature class; an essay on Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, no less. It’s an essay I look back on with a fair amount of embarrassment, but also, strangely, delight.

Because earlier that same year, I devoured Mockingjay, hunting an elusive release day copy at every bookstore in town. I would soon be introduced to Tris of Divergent. I already loved the kooky, Southern Belle-esque feminine wiles of Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves, about a schizophrenic biracial girl who returns to a Lovecraftian Texas town to fight monsters. I was enthralled by Gemma Doyle, Libba Bray’s Victorian witchy badass who has a vulnerable side, too. I was addicted to Philippa Gregory’s “historical,” smutty novels about the women of Tudor England. Which is to say nothing of Katsa or Lauren Olamina or Offred, or–heaven help me–Bella Swan, or Merricat and Constance of We Have Always Lived in the Castle itself, or the dozens of other intense, prickly, complex heroines who have profoundly shaped my life.

I am delighted by my crappy college essay because it has the broken-clock quality of understanding that feminism, to me, is not a way of being, at least not in any cohesive sense. It is merely–and perhaps that is the wrong word–merely the acknowledgment that the lives of women and nonbinary people are not second-rate. (Revolutionarily.)

Their stories aren’t second-rate, either, something I must have understood already, based on my tastes. Based, as well, on my analysis of Jackson’s creepy, idiosyncratic, lovely novel about two sisters, an uncle, and a sugar bowl. I still think that analysis is quite good; I found that novel to be deadly serious, and still do, just as I find the lives of young girls everywhere to be deadly serious.

If I were to assemble a personal canon, here are the novels I would place most prominently within it:

  • The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
  • History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
  • Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
  • Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
  • and, yes, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.

It is not the canon. It is a canon, and I am always re-shaping it. It is a key to my heart and also, somehow, my heart itself. I encourage you to develop your own.

My life is not second-rate. My experiences are not second-rate. And neither of the stories of other oft-forgottens, especially the stories of Black women, Indigenous women, and other women of color. I am always reading–devouring–stories that affirm that truth, however frivolous they seem. (In fact, the more frivolous, the better.) This is an act of self-love and an act of love for the universe.

It is not that I find the male literary canon to be irrelevant. It is that it is a treasure that already has a home and a prominent shelf to itself.

And I am looking to find treasures of my own.