Elizabeth: The Great American Read

Way back in the Dark Ages, when I graduated from High School, my English teacher gave me a copy of the book Shrinklits, by Maurice Sagoff.

“From Antigone to Lolita, from Beowulf to The Hobbit. The world’s greatest literature is summarized in Maurice Sagoff’s hilarious light verse. The result-70 intoxicating distillations of the classics everyone has been taking far too seriously for far too long.”

It was a small but very entertaining paperback that still has a spot on my bookshelves.  My favorite bit, taken from the amusing distillation of Beowulf is:

Monster Grendel’s tastes are plainish.

Breakfast? Just a couple Danish.

Not only were the story distillations fun, they really gave a good feel for each of the stories and caused me to read several of them (Beowulf, I’m looking at you) that I might not have picked up otherwise.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago when I encountered The Book of Books during a trip to the local Big Box store.  The book is a companion piece to the PBS series, The Great American Read which is airing its final episode as I’m typing this post.

The eight-part series celebrates America’s 100 best-loved novels, profiling their authors and the impact the books have had on our culture.  I’m not quite sure how they determined the list of 100 books, but readers were able to vote for their favorite of the 100, with the #1 favorite revealed during tonight’s show.  You can see the ranked list here, if you’re curious.  I won’t spoil the results for those who may be watching the series and haven’t quite gotten to the end.

I may have a few quibbles with the 100 books that wound up on the list – it’s heavy on fantasy, science fiction, and “literary” titles, with only two representing the romance genre:  Fifty Shades and The Notebook (what?) – but the list definitely had a number of books that are high on my own favorites list.

The Book of Books itself is a bit like a modern-day version of Shrinklits, hold the light verse.  There are two pages for each book talking about the plot, its context, etc., giving just enough information to whet one’s interest, without spoiling the stories for those who haven’t read them.  I only saw one of the broadcast shows (excluding the finale) – apparently the one I caught was the “dystopian fiction” episode, or as they called it, “Other Worlds.  It was fun hearing people talk about their favorite books and what made them a favorite, but I don’t know that I’ll be rushing out to read a lot of those specific titles.  I will go back and watch the “What We Do For Love” episode though – I’m thinking that sounds much more like my style, since it includes favorites like Anne of Green Gables and Pride and Prejudice.

While I definitely had a favorite out of the list of 100 – a title I had in mind before I ever saw the list – none of the hundred titles would be one I would reach for if I was running out of a burning library and only had a chance to grab a single book.  That, hands down, would be Loretta Chase’s Captives of the Night.

So, if you could only grab one book, what would it be?  Is it one of America’s 100 best-loved novels or something else?

Oh, and in case you’re curious, my top pick from the 100 wound up at #43.

6 thoughts on “Elizabeth: The Great American Read

  1. I don’t get how *The Lovely Bones* could be a “best-loved” book. It’s a great book, but it’s not a fun book, not a lovable book. It deserves a place on a list somewhere, but I don’t think I’ll ever read it again. I often think I should, to refresh my memory, then I get this shiver down my back and think, no, not today.

    I have a compendium book-o-books in my bathroom that covers genre (SFF? just SF?) from the 1890s, and I often think I should read some of those books.

    (-: I have belong to a group of fans who have written haiku in honor of each of Lois McMaster Bujold’s books. I do love those summaries, but I think they are a little circular — you have to know the story in order to appreciate the haiku.

    • Michaeline, I love the idea of the fan haiku for LMB. That sounds delightful.

      As for the books on the list, a number of them felt like those “stories you should read”, rather than “stories I read over and over again because I love the characters or the story is comforting/feel-good”. Maybe I should start my own list of “Top 100 Feel-Good Stories”. LOL.

      • I vote yes, please, to a list of “Top 100 Feel-Good Stories.” A treasure trove of books to read over and over again for great characters or a comforting story is exactly what I need!

        And come to think of it, LMB’s Wide Green World/Sharing Knife fantasy might well be my current burning library choice. It’s really one big book split into four manageable chunks, so I’m cheating a bit, but I’d try to rescue the whole story 😉

        • Yeah, on the “first thing I’d buy with the insurance money” list would be all of the Bujolds. Especially the duology of Shards of Honor and Barrayar, and the Komarr/A Civil Campaign pairing. Mother and son romance! After that, all the Pratchetts, and Pride and Prejudice (plus the BBC DVDs). And of course all the Crusies!

          I read P&P in high school — I don’t think it was assigned, but it was recommended, and I didn’t care for it much at that point. Too much to imagine, and I didn’t have the visual vocabulary to get what she was saying at that point. Not to mention the social maturity. Oh, I was a late-bloomer there!

  2. The one that takes me right back is To Kill A Mockingbird. I was assigned the book as an exam text when I was 16 and living in small-town Derbyshire. Hardly any of my class had been outside the UK, and if we had it was likely on a package holiday to Spain. I doubt anyone in our class could have found the US on the map, let alone understood the world of TKAM. I learned to discuss it as an academic exercise and parroted all the right lines, but the book didn’t mean much to me until I read it again years later.

    Which leaves me feeling very sorry for any American students who were assigned incomprehensible English authors as exam study texts 😉

    • I don’t remember being assigned any incomprehensible English authors, so all is good there. I also don’t remember a thing about TKAM from when I was forced to read it so maybe it’s time for me to give it another try. I know there was a resurgence of interest in it a short while back when her other “undiscovered” novel was discovered and published.

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