Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Great American Read

In the midst of dark times, with hatred and murder and natural disasters seeming to come from all sides, talking about books might seem frivolous. And then I think about 9/11.

I was right here in New York that day. I did not lose a loved one or a home but it will be part of me forever. In the following days, I repeatedly saw and heard this quoted: “In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” That is the beginning of the Divine Comedy.

Seven centuries later, Dante’s words still live. Anyone remember the politics of Florence that sent him into exile?  No? I thought so.

In that spirit, I am writing about PBS's recent Great Books project, a nationwide conversation, via a television series, plus  online and live events, about the books we love. Famous and not famous people shared the titles that changed their lives and campaigned for their favorites to be selected as America’s most loved book.  Completing the package, Meredith Vieira warmly hosted and there were delightful, stylish, animated illustrations.

Some choices seem obvious. George RR Martin said, “If you are one of the six people who hasn’t read Lord of the Rings, what are you waiting for?” 

 And Gillian Flynn says she’s always liked to see what’s hiding under the rock. No surprise that her favorite is And Then There Were None. But others? 

George Washington’s favorite book, we are told, was Don Quixote, a satirical comedy. Not the first quality that comes to mind when thinking of our first president.

 And that quintessential New Yorker, Sarah Jessica Parker, urged us to vote for Things Fall Apart, the acclaimed novel of 1890’s Nigerian culture under pressure from colonialism. Would you have pegged Venus Williams favorite as the Chronicles  of Narnia?

Astrophysicist Neal DeGrasse Tyson says, “In childhood, now, and probably forever, Gulliver’s Travels.”  Think about that one and then enjoy the “Wow. I get it!” moment. A smart young girl from a tough neighborhood in Chicago talked movingly about how Hermione Granger got her through her childhood. 

 And a young woman with piercings (!)  said Pride and Prejudice’s heroine Elizabeth Bennet taught her, “Keep doing  you.”

Actress Ming NaWen’s love for The  Joy Luck Club might seem obvious, but she reminded us that  the stories of Chinese-American mothers and daughters crosses all boundaries.  Suave, middle-aged Harvard scholar and public tv host, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  told us that “the perfect novel” was Their Eyes Were Watching God, the moving tale of an impoverished young African-American girl. It was funny when Shaquille O’Neal said, ”Vote for Alex Cross, or else!” but who would have guessed that Alex Cross’s creator, James Patterson loves A Hundred Years of Solitude?  (Come on. No one would have guessed that.)

Speaking straight from their hearts, the children of Brooklin, Maine, EB White’s home, discuss how Charlotte’s Web made an unlovable and scary creature, a spider, the hero, reminding us that there is more to friendship than appearance. We never outgrow that lesson, do we?

What was finally voted American’s most loved book?  You’ll have to go find it yourself and you can, right here: https://www.pbs.org/the-great-american-read/watch/grand-finale/

But I recommend watching the whole series. It starts with what and why, and even, if. books matter. And it has answers. https://www.pbs.org/the-great-american-read/resources/downloads/

 If you read books, share them, write them, talk about them, recommend them, you might change a life. And you never know when or why that magic shows up.  Does the book  reflect someone’s life and thus validates it?  Does it say you are not alone? Open a door to another life? Another world? Introduce a friend as real - or more real!-  than the ones in your real life? 

Books remain that light in the dark forest of our lives.

And if that light in the dark woods happens to come from a street lamp with a mythical creature standing under it ?  Well, go along for the adventure! In George RR Martin’s words, “What are you waiting for?”