‘Fifty Shades’ Notwithstanding, Librarians Embrace the Great American Read

By Kathy Ishizuka on June 21, 2018

Any booklist is bound to be picked apart. So it’s no surprise that librarians have opinions about the 100 best-loved novels named in “The Great American Read” (TGAR), the PBS campaign to promote a multi-platform discussion of books and reading, culminating in the selection of “America’s best-loved novel” by public vote this fall. 

“White man stodgy” was one comment about the list that was offered at a round-table convening of local librarians at the Manhattan offices of WNET, a member station of PBS serving the New York metropolitan area, in April. Harry Potter? A librarian remarked on the presence of the J.K. Rowling books on the TGAR roster. A terrific series, to be sure, but that was published 20 years ago.

“The list strikes me as a somewhat uneasy mashup of very recent popular fiction and the books people remember reading in high school,” commented Lauren Gilbert, head of community services at Sachem Public Library in Holbrook, NY, by email. “This is probably an accurate reflection of most Americans’ reading habits. They read ‘literature’ when it was assigned, and since then, they read the popular book everyone is talking about (e.g. Fifty Shades of Grey).”

The list is, in fact, a popularity contest. Nearly 8,000 Americans were asked to name their favorite novel in a demographically representative survey commissioned by PBS. “The goal is the best loved novel. Not the most respected, most studied in schools, or the best written,” says Jasmine Wilson, WNET’s associate producer of community engagement.

Thus far, the books have sparked lively debate, she says. And that’s a good thing.


Inspired by a decade-old English series that culminated in a fight to the finish between Pride and Prejudice and The Lord of the Rings (the Tolkien fantasy won), TGAR is intended to encourage the discovery of new books and inspire the re-reading of old favorites, says Wilson, in a national discussion about reading.

The Facebook page for the campaign has 39,000+ followers to date, and there are 6700+ fans on the TGAR Instagram. “[The initiative] provides great insight into what people think about reading,” she says. During the summer, the public is encouraged to read the books and vote on their favorites. In September 2018, the TV series (which debuts in May) will return to explore the nominated books and related literary themes, from love and heroes and villains to what it means to be an American, including interviews with authors Jason Reynolds, John Green, and George R.R. Martin, among others. “America’s Best-Loved Novel” will be revealed on October 23.

While librarians at the WNET event expressed their feelings about the titles, they got down to the business at hand and exchanged a range of ideas for how libraries could engage “The Great American Read” with their patrons, from related book displays and a March-Madness style bracket to TGAR selfie booths.  

New York area librarians met at WNET to share ideas about The Great American Read.


“Some books on the list have been banned from libraries—it’s something we’re very aware of,” says Wilson. Controversy can be a selling point; one group at WNET proposed a display of “Disreputable Books,” with the intriguing tagline “books people don’t want you to read.”

Others wanted to invite patrons to pick the list apart. Encourage young readers to think in pairs, was one idea. Why is this book on the list? Why is this one not?

“I do hear of pushing back against the list and I feel them,” says Jhanika Miller, library information supervisor at the Ulmer Park Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, who notes the absence of graphic novels among the top 100. “Honestly, our stacks are the problem.” Miller, who attended the WNET convening, recommends libraries work with PBS and “Fight for the titles that are diverse, well written.”

Gilbert, who also contributed at the WNET event, says “I would hope [the list] wouldn’t result in too much hand-wringing among librarians, or anyone, no matter the outcome, and that we can all just enjoy what I hope will be a national conversation about books and reading. As a librarian, I purchase and recommend titles without judgment, based on a patron’s expressed preferences and reading history.”

WNET has established partnerships with several New York branches, according to Wilson.

“If you have someone come into your library and ask for a library card [in connection with “The Great American Read”], please let us know,” Chris Czajka, WNET’s director of community engagement, told the librarians. “We’ll come down with a camera crew and a bunch of balloons.”


Kathy Ishizuka (kishizuka@mediasourceinc.com@kishizuka on Twitter) is the Executive Editor of  School Library Journal.