Great American Reads: How Many Have You Read?

This summer, The Great American Read series on PBS will narrow down America's favorite novel from 100 to 1.

Great American Reads

Beginning on May 22, the PBS series The Great American Read, hosted by Meredith Vieira, will delve into the favorite novels of readers all across the country. This begins with a list of a hundred books, created via a national survey, which spans works both classic and contemporary. The series will include interviews with readers and writers, and will explore what’s made these books endure so much in the hearts and minds of those who have encountered them. Over the course of eight episodes, viewers will have the opportunity to vote on their favorite novels from the list. Here’s a look at some of the highlights from the list–perhaps this will be the perfect time to explore something you’ve never tried before, or revisit a book you’ve always loved.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

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Generations of readers have savored Betty Smith’s beloved 1943 book, which tells the story of a girl coming of age in Brooklyn in the early years of the 20th century. Smith’s novel is a moving story of a family and offers a glimpse of a particular moment in a city’s history.

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Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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The setting of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s award-winning novel spans multiple continents, telling a story that explores questions of race, nationality, and identity. The two characters at the heart of the book follow wildly different paths after falling in love in Lagos in their youth, resulting in a sharply observed and provocative take on the contemporary world.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

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Agatha Christie’s mystery novels are among the best-selling books of all time. And Then There Were None is one of her most ingenious mysteries, following a group of strangers who arrive on a remote island, only to learn that someone is intent on taking each of their lives.

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

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In telling the story of an orphan who arrives in a rural community and makes unexpected connections with the people she encounters there, Lucy Maud Montgomery established a fictional world that led to a host of subsequent novels, along with numerous film and television adaptations. It’s also made its setting, Prince Edward Island, a tourist destination for many years.

Beloved by Toni MorrisonBELOVED

Toni Morrison’s harrowing 1987 novel powerfully explores the physical and mental toll of slavery, blending harrowing realism with a glimpse of the otherworldly to create a deftly told modern classic. Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, one of a number of honors that this novel has received.

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

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Few novels have become as synonymous with adolescent unrest as this 1951 novel by reclusive author J. D. Salinger. In telling the story of one angry young man’s visit to New York City, and his conflicted relationships with nearly everyone in his life, Salinger created a character with an enduring life on and off the page.

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel

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Some authors venture into history for their stories; in the case of Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear, only prehistory would do. Auel’s novel is set during the time when Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals coexisted tens of thousands of years ago, and was the first of several books of Auel’s to explore this prehistoric setting.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

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In the right hands, the epistolary novel can be powerfully insightful into the psychology and personal evolution of a character. Such is the case with Alice Walker’s award-winning 1982 novel, which follows its protagonist Celie from an abusive relationship in a racist society through her awareness that a better life is possible.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

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While the title of Mark Haddon’s novel evokes the mysteries of Sherlock Holmes, and Haddon’s protagonist must uncover the truth behind a mysterious death (in this case, a dog), this is not exactly a typical whodunit. Instead, it brings the reader into the mind of its fifteen-year-old narrator, evoking his particular way of viewing the world.

The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown

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Dan Brown’s 2003 novel was his second book with symbologist Robert Langdon as its hero—in this case, unraveling a long-running conspiracy even as he avoided a mysterious organization’s efforts to stop him. It soon became a massive hit, leading to several sequels and a film adaptation.

Fifty Shades of Grey (series) by E L James

E L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, about the BDSM relationship that develops between a young woman and a rich business owner, became a surprise phenomenon after the first volume was published in 2011. More recently, James has been revisiting the trilogy, creating companion volumes told from an alternate point of view.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

The novels and essays of Marilynne Robinson powerfully explore personal connections, the nature of family, and a host of grand metaphysical questions. Her novel Gilead is structured as an aging reverend’s remembrance of his own life, the bonds he’s made along the way, and legacy he’s left for his young son.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is a brilliantly structured novel that initially presents itself as the story of a loving, seemingly perfect couple—and then reveals the layers of loathing and deception that lurk just below the surface. Throw in an intriguing mystery and a succession of memorably flawed characters and you have a decidedly gripping read.

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

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Since its publication in 1936, Margaret Mitchell’s novel of one woman’s struggle to succeed in Georgia before, during, and after the Civil War has attracted a significant number of dedicated readers. Its 1939 film adaptation has also contributed to its popularity—though, given the novel’s setting and focus, it’s also attracted significant controversies over the years.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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Much of John Steinbeck’s fiction immerses the reader in the lives of working-class Americans—and, given that Steinbeck wrote during the Great Depression, that makes for some harrowing stories. His epic The Grapes of Wrath follows the fortunes of the Joad family as they seek to survive in an increasingly harsh world, with little reprieve in sight.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

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One of the most popular authors of his day, Charles Dickens’s novels have had a remarkable staying power long after his death. Great Expectations is one of his best-known works, and possesses a host of literary images and characters that have embedded themselves in the minds of many a reader.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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In telling the story of a doomed, ambitious man and the milieu surrounding him in the early 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald created characters and motifs that would endure long after his novel’s publication. Fitzgerald’s innovative prose and precise delineation of the bleak underside of Jazz Age excess made for a work that continues to enthrall readers today.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Whether she’s taking the reader into history or exploring the unsettling aspects of a potential future, Margaret Atwood is always compelling with the stories she tells. In her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, she describes an unsettling society in which a totalitarian religious state has emerged, decimating the rights of women.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

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Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help became an unexpected success after its release in 2009, leading to an award-winning film adaptation two years later. Stockett’s novel explores the racial and gender dynamics of 1960s Mississippi from the perspectives of several women, providing a resonant story for many readers.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

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In telling the story of a young woman summoned to work for a brooding and isolated man living in an isolated and sprawling home, Charlotte Brontë helped reshape aspects of fiction. Jane Eyre tells the story of a growing connection two people, but doesn’t stint on the Gothic atmosphere; the result is a timeless and compelling narrative.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

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Amy Tan’s 1989 novel explored the lives of several generations of Chinese-American women living in San Francisco. Tan’s empathic style gives the reader a sense of the complex dynamics between mothers and daughters, explores the weight of history, and sparks unexpected connections as the narrative progresses.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

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Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones is a particularly successful example of the time-honored tradition of novels exploring life after death. The book’s protagonist is a teenage girl who spends much of the book watching the aftermath of her murder from the confines of the afterlife, exploring questions of guilt and the power of the everyday along the way.

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

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In his novel Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden revisited a tumultuous period in Japanese history—namely, the period before, during, and after the Second World War. He did so from the perspective of a woman working as a geisha, exploring how her fortunes shifted with those of the nation.

The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks

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One of the most popular romances in recent memory—and the source for a 2004 film adaptation—was Nicholas Sparks’s first novel, 1996’s The Notebook. Sparks’s novel focused on a lifelong romance between two people, and the obstacles that each must overcome, including a gulf in class and the arrival of World War II.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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Among the most recognizable settings in fiction is Macondo, the Colombian town in which García Márquez’s novel is set. This sprawling novel is set across multiple generations, and explores societal changes over the course of many decades, including shifts in technology and the presence of American imperialism.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon 

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First published in 1991, Diana Gabaldon’s novel Outlander tells the story of a nurse transported through time, from World War II-era Scotland to the 18th century, where an unlikely romance ensues. Since its publication, Gabaldon has written numerous novels revisiting these characters and deepening their world; a television adaptation debuted in 2014.

The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton

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S. E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders was published when its author was just 18, and it’s had a lasting place on many a bookshelf ever since. The Outsiders explores the conflict between two gangs of teenagers in Tulsa in the 1960s. A beloved film adaptation, released in 1983, bolstered this novel’s reputation.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

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Some novels meticulously revisit history, with the aim of giving readers a tactile sense of what the past was like. Such is the case with Ken Follett’s massive historical novel The Pillars of the Earth, which encompasses several decades of life in an English town, over the course of which the residents build a cathedral.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

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Jane Austen’s classic novel of social mores and the evolution of a personal ethos has impressed readers ever since its 1813 publication. Protagonist Elizabeth Bennet remains one of the world’s best-known fictional characters. The novel’s enduring influence can be seen in books by Helen Fielding (Bridget Jones’s Diary) and Curtis Sittenfeld (Eligible).

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

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Daphne du Maurier’s fiction abounds with mystery and atmosphere, and her 1938 novel Rebecca is a perfect demonstration of her literary talents. The plot, in which the narrator becomes romantically involved with a wealthy man with many secrets, abounds with a Gothic sense of mystery and menace—and a host of memorable characters.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

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Stark and powerful, Ernest Hemingway’s fiction has had a significant influence on American literature—and his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises occupies a prime place in his bibliography. In describing the disparate lives of a group of expatriate Americans living in Europe in the 1920s, Hemingway memorably incorporated everything from Parisian cafe life to bullfighting.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

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Zora Neale Hurston had a fascinating life: she was an acclaimed novelist, as well as anthropologist and folklorist whose research spanned multiple nations. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston impressively conveys her characters’ everyday lives and provides a tremendous sense of the complex dynamics of their settings.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

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In his debut novel, Chinua Achebe explored questions of masculinity, destiny, and colonialism—all while giving the narrative the heft of the greatest tragedies. Things Fall Apart tells the story of Okonkwo, a respected member of his community, and the series of events that—as the title suggests—lead to his downfall.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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Harper Lee’s acclaimed debut novel drew on her own memories of growing up in Depression-era Alabama. Lee explored questions of coming of age, the nature of justice, and the horrors of racism over the course of the novel, which abounds with some of the best-known characters in American fiction.

Watchers by Dean Koontz

WATCHERS

Dean Koontz’s long career writing horror and suspense has included an array of unsettling figures and tales of menace. The protagonist of his 1987 novel Watchers befriends a dog with enhanced intelligence, which puts them into conflict with another genetically modified creature, as well as a government conspiracy.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

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With her acclaimed first novel, 2000’s White Teeth, Zadie Smith made a huge impression on the literary world. The novel explores the interconnected lives of three London families, each with a distinct background; along the way, it explores the relationships between parents and children, and abounds with sharp dialogue and bold ideas.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

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Emily Brontë only wrote one novel, but it was one that would go on to be decidedly influential in the years following its publication in 1847. Wuthering Heights tells the story of two star-crossed lovers, Heathcliff and Cathy, and the social and logistical obstacles that they encounter over the course of their lives.


Featured Image: Kalamurzing/Shutterstock.com

About Tobias Carroll

Tobias Carroll

TOBIAS CARROLL is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. His writing has been published by Bookforum, Men’s Journal, Tin House, Hazlitt, and Rolling Stone. He is the author of the collection Transitory and the novel Reel. He’s on Twitter at @TobiasCarroll.

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