This particular election has been all positive – no misleading ads, no maps blotched in red and blue. And the results will be televised tomorrow evening during the eight o’clock hour.
Although frustrated by next month’s election, I am pumped by this month’s slate of candidates – they are all books! In May, PBS invited America to choose its best-loved novel. A polling company advised by a literary board placed 100 novels on the ballot of The Great American Read.
The resulting PBS reading list is unlike the lists of classics, Pulitzer Prize winners, and bestsellers I usually encounter. Despite my teaching background, I have never been particularly impressed with reading lists, too often considered compulsory.
Reading lists rarely allow for the personal experience reading truly is. As often happens when someone describes a book in glowing terms – said book casts scant light into my world. Many a bestseller has disappointed me, while a dusty volume lying askew on an almost-out-of-reach shelf has me turning pages at a fever pitch.
I need to experience the books I read. I walked up the mountain with Heidi; identified with Meg March, the eldest Little Women sister; planned a Bobbsey Twins parade down the lane, all in childhood preludes to later great reads. Years ago, I became quite emotionally involved with the Jews gallantly resisting Nazis bent on destroying the Warsaw ghetto. Tempted to read, I did not trust myself with Mila 18 at school and had to rush home each day to check on my book “friends.”
And just recently I spent a couple of intense days laughing and crying with A Man Named Ove, the quintessential grumpy old man with a reluctant heart of gold. What a read! For as long as I can recall, I become completely engulfed in stories and settings and the lives of characters who jump right off the pages into my life.
Nothing I ever heard from my students or from anyone else, for that matter, saddened me more than the utterance: “I hate to read!” My oft-repeated reply: “Then you haven’t read the right book!” never adequately expressed my fervent desire the hater would soon stumble upon a book about a hobby or a hero or a plot that would turn the whole situation around.
Julia Donaldson describes the experience I wish for every person: I opened a book and in I strode/now nobody can find me/I’ve left my chair, my house, my road/my town and my world behind me. / I opened a book and made some friends/I shared their tears and laughter/and followed their road with its bumps and bends/to the happily ever after.
I think sometimes we try to force the act of reading too early. It is better to read to the children on our laps or crowded around us until they are ready to take over – in their own good time. I also think we make reading a chore by presenting a book as a set of quizzes and homework assignments based on predetermined learning points instead of offering a choice of titles and accepting personal reactions. It most surely requires a teacher of the special type to guide students through a meaningful common reading experience.
I probably passed through the finger-under-each-word and moving-my-lips stages of reading way back when. Nowadays my reading enjoyment involves a recliner, a warm blanket, and a book with paper pages to turn, although I am almost as happy swiping the screen of my Kindle.
Unfortunately, some kids grow into adults who have never found pleasure in the physicality of reading. Perhaps a book on tape would remove such barriers. Websites and technological advances have made that avenue readily available. Putting my purist instincts aside, I do understand there is more than one way to “read” a book. I myself became totally mesmerized a few years ago by a recording of The Pearl I played for my tutoring group. What a moving experience it was to hear that stirring oral rendition of Steinbeck’s novella.
So back to The Great American Read list of 100 books. As lists go, there is a lightness, a freshness about this one. It is truly representative, not heavy on any one theme or era, compiled when 7200 just-plain-folks suggested a motley range of characters including Tom Sawyer, Moby Dick, Harry Potter, and The Godfather. It is the kind of list that associates “You must read this book!” with pleasure rather than drudgery.
During the recent two-month voting period, I have savored the accompanying TV episodes when devotees – some celebrities, some regular people – gave “campaign speeches” about experiences with their favorite books. However, I myself have not voted. I mean, how could I possibly choose between The Book Thief and the Little Prince? My prediction is that the designation of America’s most beloved book will come down to a tight race between Charlotte’s Web and To Kill a Mockingbird, which I personally consider the finest American novel ever written.
Regardless of the final choice, Julia Donaldson hits upon the real importance of this PBS project: I finished my book and out I came/my chair and my house are just the same/but I have a book inside me.
Please excuse me now as I step back into my current read. I cannot wait to finish The Train to Crystal City, although it is actually already inside me.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.