A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to overhear and advertisement for PBS’ new show, The Great American Read, hosted by Meredith Vieira. I’ll link the trailer at the bottom, but for those unfamiliar, PBS polled thousands of people to come up with a list of 100 novels that Americans have cherished throughout the years. Over the summer months, viewers are encouraged to vote for their favorite novel on the list, and from what I understand, the book with the most votes will be announced in October as “The Great American Read.” I would have preferred a bracket-style format myself, but beggars can’t be choosers. At any rate, the show provides a decent look at some of the most influential books in America.
Since I’m a giant book nerd (it’s probable that I’ll be going back to school to study literature at the graduate level) I decided to have some fun with this. I’ve made it my mission to read every book on this list, from start to finish, with no other books in between. I MAY simultaneously read a non-fiction book or two for my own self-development, but those don’t count. Each week, I’ll post an update, and as I finish each book, I’ll post a corresponding review. As I go, I’ll rank each title from best to worst, and by the end, the random list of 100 will have best-to-worst rankings to go with it. Lastly, I would LOVE for anyone reading this to join along, so make sure to drop a comment below if you’re interested. I’ll set up a Facebook group if I get enough traction. I’ll get into the specifics of my process in a minute, but for now, take a look at the list yourself and see if this is anything you might be interested in.
The Selection Process
Before I started, I went through and counted how many books on the list I’d read before. I checked in at a lowly 20, which is kinda pathetic but also very exciting. There are lots of new books to explore, and you’ll never hear me complaining about that.
My initial thought was to space the re-reads out every fifth book, avoiding having to re-read them all in one mass at the end and increasing the likelihood I finish this out. However, I ended up going a much-nerdier, but more fun route. I enlisted the help of my mother, a seventh grade English teacher and bibliophile in her own right, and together we drafted the list–literally. We printed it out and alternated picks to determine reading order. I chose The Lord of the Rings first, and she chose The Book Thief immediately after. We did this a total of 50 times, and what resulted is a rather fun way to attack this reading project together. At the tail end, we were each afforded the opportunity to “revise” one of our picks. I abstained, but my mom swapped Frankenstein with A Game of Thrones. More on that later. Other than that, the list is pretty straightforward–should you find yourself interested enough to join, this is the order you should follow.
A Couple Caveats
It’s important to note that we didn’t just draft our favorites or the books we hadn’t yet read. We tried to strike a balance between the heavy hitters and the beach reads, more for our own sanity than anything else. This is why you’ll see something like War and Peace followed by something mindless, like Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey. We made the pact to get through them all, and we tried to craft the list in an order that would give us the best chance of doing so.
On book series: Most times, we are only reading the first book in the series. Lord of the Rings counts as a single work, so we’ll go through all three parts of that. In the case of The Chronicles of Narnia, we’ve both read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe so many times that we decided to just pick one at random. With things like The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire, book one is book done.
One, final, thing I should mention: Our printer had a mishap and we were missing three books and didn’t realize it until it came time to do the final 10. The Pillars of the Earth, A Separate Peace, and The Sun Also Rises may have been drafted earlier, but we screwed up, so they’re lodged near the end. Don’t get offended if one of those is your favorite.
I’ve done enough rambling, so I’ll just post the order now. Books I have previously read will be denoted with a *, and books my mother previously read will be marked with a +. Odd numbered picks are mine, even numbered picks are hers.
- LORD OF THE RINGS- This was a relatively easy choice for me at #1. I’d just finished The Hobbit for the second time and was planning to move on to this next anyway, so I was thrilled to see it as a selectable item. We’re going to read all three parts, since it is technically one giant novel.
- THE BOOK THIEF+ – My mom has read this book a few times, and taught it–she selected it with her first pick because “It’s so good that I want you to read it as soon as possible.” Admittedly, I’ve heard good things, so we’ll see how it goes.
- CATCH 22- This was another easy pick. Not only is Catch 22 a novel I’ve been meaning to read since high school, but my college roommate raved about it every successive year I knew him in an attempt to get me to read it. It’s probably time.
- A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN- Is this a kid’s book? I don’t even know. Why it was drafted this high, I’m not sure. But it’s cool. All part of the process.
- ANOTHER COUNTRY- “Sonny’s Blues” is one of my favorite short stories of all time, but I’ve never read anything else of Baldwin’s. It’s time to change that.
- LOOKING FOR ALASKA- Mom: “My kids are always telling me I need to read John Green.” Okay… it can’t possibly be the worst romance-y novel on the list.
- GONE GIRL- I missed this one when it swept the nation in 2012 and I wanted to jump on it before it gets too dated.
- A GAME OF THRONES*- One of my personal favorites, Mom initially picked this one late, but moved it up at the tail end of the draft on her one “do-over” pick. It sent Frankenstein down about 60 places, which I’m totally okay with.
- THE DA VINCI CODE- I read Angels and Demons a few years ago (and reviewed it here). The Da Vinci Code is supposed to be even better, so this was a natural fit as my last top-ten pick.
- A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY- I don’t know much about this book, but it seems like one of those “not-quite classics” in the canonical sense but one everyone should have read by now nonetheless. I think my mom likes some of John Irving’s other work, so this makes sense.
- SWAN SONG- I know a couple things about this book. 1) It’s massive, and 2) It’s scary. LET ME HAVE IT.
- THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD- Zora Neale Hurston has been in the news recently for that interview with the last Middle Passage survivor, but this is often regarded as her best work, and, I think, a solid pick by my mom at #12.
- THE SIRENS OF TITAN- I grew up in Indiana. I haven’t read a single Vonnegut book, despite how hard Slaughterhouse Five was pushed in my high school. I’m taking this opportunity to see what the hype is about.
- THIS PRESENT DARKNESS+- “This was really good; I just don’t remember it,” says Mom. Personally, I’m a huge fan of Peretti’s YA books, Hangman’s Curse and Nightmare Academy, so hopefully his adult fiction is just as good.
- THE CATCHER IN THE RYE+*- I often tell people that The Catcher in the Rye is my second-favorite novel of all time, behind Stephen King’s IT. To be fair, I haven’t read it since I was 17; I picked it early to see if I still feel the same way.
- ATLAS SHRUGGED- I don’t know much, other than this book is huge and Ayn Rand supposedly has some wacky political ideas. I’m looking forward to it, but I would have preferred to save the 1000+ page slog for a little later.
- AND THEN THERE WERE NONE+- This will be my first Agatha Christie book ever. Apparently everyone loves this one, but I’ll be the judge of that.
- CHARLOTTE’S WEB+*- I’ve written extensively about my love for Charlotte’s Web over a number of different platforms. (I even included it in this post way back in the day.) It could certainly take the spot as “most influential to me,” but it’ll be interesting to see where it ranks once everything is said and done.
- THE GODFATHER- People have been telling me I need to see the movies for years, and I’ve always insisted that I read the book first. I’m comin’ for ya, Brando & Pacino.
- TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD+*- “I think you’ll appreciate it more now than you did in high school,” says my mother, completely unaware of my level of appreciation for this book in high school.
- THE MARTIAN- See number 7.
- BLESS ME, ULTIMA- I’ve never heard of this book, but mom said it was something she’s wanted to read for a while. Works for me.
- FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC+- “Hey, mom, this is a horror book, right?” “I think so.” “Dope.”
- THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME- I think we both had a fair amount of curiosity about this title, and its spot on the TGAR pilot episode makes it that much more interesting.
- ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE- Another book I’ve been meaning to read for a while, I figured it’d be a good way to celebrate the quarter mark by reading the most celebrated Columbian novel ever written.
- GRAPES OF WRATH- I hope this one will be a treat for both of us. We each love Steinbeck in our own regard, but The Grapes of Wrath has somehow slipped past both of us.
- THE LOVELY BONES+- I’ve been fascinated with this ever since heard “I was 14 years old when I was murdered” on the movie trailer back in 2009. Never saw it for the same reasons I haven’t seen The Godfather.
- ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND- I think I’ve seen parts of the Disney adaptation? At any rate, Carroll’s seminal work is supposed to be absolutely wild, and it’ll give us another buffer after trudging through the Depression Era.
- THE OUTSIDERS+*- Like Charlotte’s Web, The Outsiders has had a pretty significant impact on my life, and my relationship with my mother for that matter. We both love it. I picked it here as a mid-list treat.
- THE PILGRIM’S PROGRESS+- I’ve never heard of this, but my mom assured me it’s brilliant. Good enough for me.
- DUNE- Neither of us read tons of sci-fi, but it can’t hurt to check out this one.
- THE HELP+- Not sure how this scooted its way up so high since my mom has already read it, but it’s critically acclaimed and had a pretty big movie made after it, so it has to be somewhat good.
- FIFTY SHADES OF GREY- Me: “We have to read it sometime.” Mom: “I know. Get it over with.”
- THE CALL OF THE WILD+- It was a mutual decision that we wanted something rewarding after my previous pick.
- THE ALCHEMIST- I’ve always heard of this book’s greatness. Time to see for myself.
- THE COLOR PURPLE+- Mom picked it, but I might be more excited. I’ve heard nothing but praise for this book for the last six years of my life, and I need to read more African-American fiction anyway.
- THE INTUITIONIST- Colson Whitehead actually came to my school to promote The Underground Railroad in 2017, and I was stupid enough to miss it. Reading his debut novel is my attempt at making up for it.
- THE HANDMAID’S TAIL+- Glad to see this one picked here. I’ve been wanting to watch the Hulu series for a while now, but, as you might have guessed, was waiting to read the book.
- INVISIBLE MAN- I know this one is a classic. I need to read more classics.
- WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS*-My parents got this for my brother as a Christmas gift one year. Somehow, I’m the only one who read it. I remember crying toward the end, but not much else.
- SIDDHARTHA- For much longer than I’m proud to admit, I thought this book was an autobiographical account of Buddha. I guess not. We’ll give it a whirl here.
- MOBY DICK+- Similarly to 50 Shades, we knew “We gotta read it some time.” I want to say we might skimp on the whaling parts, but the completionist in me probably won’t stand for it.
- GHOST- I looked up the summary of this book thinking it was going to be scary only to find out it’s a YA book about track. Regardless, it sounded interesting, and YA is probably the best choice after 1000 pages of Melville.
- AMERICANAH- I recall reading “The Thing Around Your Neck” in the Spring of last year and really liking it. It’ll be nice to see what Adichie can do with a few hundred pages to work with. Honestly, I’m not sure why I wasn’t the one to pick this one, and why I didn’t do so earlier.
- THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER- Apparently, this novel is as polarizing as it gets. On one hand, it gave us Tom Clancy. On the other, the book was apparently so bad that it only got a second printing after Ronald Regan gave it his seal of approval.
- THE GREAT GATSBY+*- Classic. This one’s just for fun.
- THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY- This is kind of like Dune, for me. I picked it in the top 50 to help develop my sci-fi knowledge.
- A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES- In short–I’d heard of this beforehand, but my mom had not. Neither of us has any idea what we’re getting into.
- LEFT BEHIND+- The Left Behind film adaptation is singlehandedly responsible for making me spend the last 15 years of my life wondering if I’m really going to Heaven. The book will probably confuse me more.
- GONE WITH THE WIND- A fitting pick to round out the first half. I’ve heard this novel has aged rather poorly, but it did give us the oft-quoted line: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Hard not to feel that way about this one.
- READY PLAYER ONE- I knew about this book before all the movie press but never got around to reading it. My cousin claims that it’s stupendous; I’m hoping that catching it post-Gone With the Wind will help win it some favors. It’s going to be tough to get my mom to enjoy a book about video games, anyway.
- THE JOY LUCK CLUB+- Up until about five seconds ago, I thought this was a book about a book club. Apparently, it’s about mahjongg. At least now I know why my mom got addicted to that game a few years back…
- THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY- I’ve been fascinated with this story ever since I saw it depicted in the film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but I’ve put off reading the source material until now.
- THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER+- One of Mom’s favorites; she teaches it sometimes, I think. I read Huck Finn in high school, and I made several attempts to read this one as a child but never could get into it. I guess I have no choice now.
- THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO- For reasons I can’t explain, I always get this book confused with Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game”. Don’t ask–it’s a me thing. Obviously, I’m wrong, but I’m excited to see what this one is really about nonetheless.
- HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE*- I’ve probably read this seven times or so–I always start it with the intention of re-reading the entire Harry Potter series, but I usually burn out in the middle of book three. This one’s a classic, though. Mom hasn’t read it yet because she’s “seen all the movies.”
- GILEAD- We googled the plot synopsis of this pretty early on and tabled it until now.
- HEART OF DARKNESS- Another book I’m surprised neither of us got to, but I know its importance in comparative literature. If I’m ever going to continue my studies, I better familiarize myself with this book.
- MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA- I’ll be honest–I picked this on title alone. I have no clue what it’s about or WTF a “Geisha” is.
- LONESOME DOVE- Kinda the same as the above entry, except I didn’t pick this one.
- WATCHERS- Since the last two were complete shots in the dark, I figured I’d ground us with someone I knew was sure to give us something enjoyable: Dean Koontz.
- WHITE TEETH- Fun fact: Zadie Smith also visited my school, in 2015. I didn’t know who she was so I skipped the event. *Kicks self*
- ALEX CROSS #1: ALONG CAME A SPIDER- I don’t like James Patterson because he doesn’t write his own books, but I feel confident that he probably wrote this one on his own and everyone raves about how good this series is. I give it one book.
- WAR AND PEACE- See Moby Dick. This one might be more enriching, though.
- THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR- I chose this on title alone, but a quick google search told me I should have chosen it earlier. It’s set in the freakin’ Ice Age. I’m pumped.
- HATCHET- I read parts of this when I was in fourth grade. All my friends loved it, but it bored me to tears. I’m kind of surprised my mom hasn’t taught this at school, but I guess she hasn’t read it either, so we’re going blindly into the woods, together.
- 1984*- I did a summer reading project over this book in high school. I remember liking it, but I think I’ll like it a lot more now that there isn’t any sort of grade attached to it.
- FRANKENSTEIN*- Originally #8 until Mom swapped it with A Game of Thrones, I’m totally content not to get to this one for a while. I’ve read it twice, and even taken a college speech class centered on the text. I’m Frankensteined out.
- THE NOTEBOOK- My placement for this book was 100% intentional, and could only be one-upped by 50 Shades of Grey.
- THE LITTLE PRINCE- Not to be confused with Machiavelli’s The Prince, … actually, that’s all I have to say about this book.
- OUTLANDER- Cool cover. Catchy name. Number 71.
- LITTLE WOMEN+- It was at this point that mom said, “We might as well start getting the rest of those literary classics out of the way.”
- MIND INVADERS- To which I said, “Nope, this book has a cool title.”
- THE STAND*- I read this over spring break this year (2018). It’s a bit soon for my liking to start it again, but hopefully after completing 75 other books in the interim I’ll be okay. And I’m excited for my mom to enter the world of Stephen King.
- ANNE OF GREEN GABLES- Neither of us were thrilled about this one, so we’re just gonna rip the band-aid off here.
- THINGS FALL APART*- I read this in school and loved it. It was my first real taste of African literature, and I’m excited to read it again for pleasure.
- THE EYE OF THE WORLD- I’ve had this book on my bookshelf for a couple years now; the problem is, I haven’t touched it because I didn’t want to commit to a 20+ book series. Checking it out on this list will prohibit me from doing so.
- THE SHACK+- My mom was right in the middle of the mania when this book swept the nation a few years ago, and that’s probably why I never touched it. I don’t usually read Christian fiction, but this has some promise, so I’ve heard.
- CRIME AND PUNISHMENT- I really wish the list would have included The Brothers Karamazov instead, but this will be my first exposure to Dostoevsky nonetheless and that’s good enough for me.
- THE CHRONICILES OF NARNIA+*- After something so dense, we decided to go light. I believe we agreed on The Last Battle because it’s my favorite and Mom never made it that far into the series.
- DON QUIXOTE- I watched the movie of this in Spanish class once. All I remember is someone shouting “DON QUIXOTE DE LA MANCHA!”
- THE HUNGER GAMES*- I enjoyed this book in seventh grade, but I highly doubt I’ll enjoy it now. Ugh.
- JANE EYRE+*- Come to find out, my mother and I share a mutual love for this book. Should be refreshing after slogging through The Hunger Games.
- TWILIGHT+*- I’m looking forward to revisiting this after a decade of experience under my belt–but only slightly. I might need a constant supply of bourbon as I do so.
- GREAT EXPECTATIONS- Oddly enough, I’ve gone 22 years of my life without picking up the first Dickens book. I’ve always been a bit intimidated, but we’ll see how this goes.
- BELOVED*- I read this for the first time last semester, and it screwed me up. Badly. It’s draining, but necessary. My professor said it’s 100x better the second time around. Let’s hope she’s right.
- GULLIVER’S TRAVELS- This is collected in one of my literary anthologies from college. I’ve been meaning to get to it for a while. Hopefully it’ll bring some laughs after Beloved rips our hearts out.
- WUTHERING HEIGHTS+- “If you loved Jane Eyre, you’ll love this one,” says my mother.
- THE FOUNDATION SERIES: FOUNDATION- Asimov is supposed to be a pioneer of the field, and that’s about the extent of my knowledge.
- THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH- Around this point, we realized we were missing a couple from our list. It just so happens that both of us wanted to check this one out, so it made it an easy selection at 90, despite the fact that it likely would have gone much earlier.
- THE GIVER*- I loathed this book in eighth grade. HATED IT. I refused to let it be our finisher, so I took it here.
- REBECCA- Honestly, neither of us has any idea what this book is.
- THE SUN ALSO RISES- Hemingway is probably a safe bet this late in the game, right?
- THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO*- Had I not read it earlier this year, this probably would have been my #3 selection. Evidently, Mom didn’t feel the same way.
- PRIDE AND PREJUDICE- I read Persuasion a couple years ago. Didn’t hate it. I expect this one to be much better.
- TALES OF THE CITY- “Not A Tale of Two Cities?” “No, just pick the book.”
- THE COLDEST WINTER EVER- Intriguing title, but I’ll admit my fear of tongues-on-flagpoles in cold climes dissuaded me from picking this one for a long time.
- A SEPARATE PEACE*- I read this as a sophomore in high school and left that class completely convinced it was the worst book in existence. Something tells me that isn’t the case, but I’m glad to see it so low on the list in case I was right after all.
- DONA BARBARA- This was my final pick. I knew Jurassic Park was good, and I wanted to end on something I knew I’d like. Hence, Dona Barbara in this slot.
- JURASSIC PARK*- You know.
So there you have it. Here’s our list, in all its glory. From here, check the Blogroll page of my site to watch the fun unfold. I’ll be doing the updating solo–my mom will be reading along with me, but she’s more or less done with the site. I may pull a quote or two from her if they’re particulalry funny or poignant. I’m already in the middle of The Fellowship of the Ring, so let the games begin!
ONE MORE THING
I’ve always wanted to create content on Youtube, and I just launched a YouTube channel to serve as a companion to this site! You can find that here. If reading the updates isn’t your thing, maybe you’ll keep up with me through video!
Don’t be afraid to join me on this journey, and make sure to let me know if/when you do! Reading is always made better when you have people to disucss it with, so don’t be shy! Start today, and leave a comment with your email address below to make sure you don’t miss out on anything!
“The Great American Read” trailer: http://www.pbs.org/the-great-american-read/watch/