In one of the more memorable episodes of the classic TV sitcom “Friends,” Joey and Chandler square off against Rachel and Monica in a “Jeopardy!”-style trivia contest to see who knows more about the other team.
When asked what Rachel claims is her favorite movie, the guys correctly answer “Dangerous Liaisons.” The follow-up question is what really is Rachel’s favorite movie, and the guys are right again … “Weekend at Bernie’s.”
It is the type of petty crime of which many of us are guilty — the inability to admit that our tastes are allowed to cover a wide spectrum in movies, television, dining experiences, recording artists, vacation spots … just about any category.
Honest, I can watch “American Pickers” and “Masterpiece Mystery!” in the same day and not feel the slightest bit guilty. Heck, throw in some cheesy biscuits from Red Lobster … and, well, that’s a party.
Perhaps because it is so deeply entrenched, though, this notion of hiding behind the cover of an “acceptable” choice hits close to the bone when it comes to books.
The concept of being “well-read” pre-dates any modern medium. Anyone who has ever sat in an English Lit course as a college freshman knows that when the professor asks students for their favorite writers, more will respond with Shakespeare or Joyce than actually have read either.
It’s this dichotomy that should make an upcoming series on Southern Oregon Public Television rewarding to watch. “The Great American Read,” which premieres at 8 p.m., Tuesday, May 22, is a summer-long event that will unscientifically choose “America’s best-loved” novels.
Chosen in a nationwide survey, the 100 finalists include the titles you’d expect to find — “1984,” “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “100 years of Solitude” — and will be voted upon by the PBS-viewing audience as the series continues through October.
Viewers will learn about the authors as well as the books, and the usual PBS assortment of scholars and famous people will be on hand to offer pertinent and/or pity comments as to …
Wait a minute, hold your horses, back up the truck, everybody out of the pool — let’s rewind the videotape for a second:
… “1984,” “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “100 years of Solitude” …
I don’t mean to get Ernie’s voice Muppeting in your brain for the rest of the day, but … one of these things is not like the others.
You have a dystopian novel about a battle-plagued world and a leadership that manipulates the thought processes of its subjects. And you have a generational saga of a family and a way of life that are doomed through the repetition of history.
And that’s just “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
I suppose it will be (and should be) said that the book series by E.L. James doesn’t belong on a list that includes “Heart of Darkness,” “Invisible Man” and “Pride & Prejudice” … but is it truly the worst offender on this Top 100?
“Moby-Dick” made the cut, and anyone who has been ordered to read “Moby-Dick” will tell you that — while it has a great storyline and has become a world-class metaphor — the novel itself is a slog … even if you skip the parts about the history of whaling.
“War and Peace” (all 1,225 pages of it) is among the nominated, although it’d be a much better read if it were simply called “War.”
And then there’s “The Notebook,” by Nicholas Sparks, the glop-maestro who has compared his own works to those of Shakespeare, Hemingway and the Greek tragedians.
Sparks’ “masterpiece” shares the stage with other novels whose popularity might well be attributed to the film version. Others of a similar vein in the Top 100 include “The Hunger Games,” “Gone Girl,” “Jurassic Park,” “The Martian,” “The Help,” “Ready Player One” and “The Hunt For Red October.”
This isn’t such a bad thing (well, the inclusion of the “Twilight” series is). If the current television version of “The Handmaid’s Tale” gets more people to read Margaret Atwood’s classic … well, that’s a good thing.
Again, though, this is a list for “best-loved” books — and it’s certainly likely that more book clubs have shared “Flowers in the Attic,” “White Teeth” or even (sigh) “The Da Vinci Code” than have discussed having read “The Pilgrim’s Progress” over the last month.
There’s even a new film called “Book Club” about to hit theaters wherein the lives of four women of a certain age are changed when they decide to read, yep, “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Doubtful that the same movie would be made if they were going to read “The Grapes of Wrath.”
Lists are intriguing for all sorts of reasons, particularly so for the juxtapositions they create. The Great American Reads nominees are listed alphabetically by title, which (for instance) puts “Atlas Shrugged” smack between “Another Country” and “Beloved.” Now there’s a dinner table conversation you’d want to hear — Ayn Rand seated between James Baldwin and Toni Morrison.
The mix of titles from popular culture with those long-admired as “classic literature” might stop some “well-read” folks in their tracks. But the PBS series isn’t designed to find the greatest American novel; those behind the series state they want to “get the country reading and passionately talking about books.”
That’s a worthy goal and, besides, it’s fun. On the website for the series, you can even make a checklist (pbs.org/the-great-american-read/quiz) of those in the Top 100 that you’ve read.
How many of them you’ll admit to others that you’ve read is up to you.
Mail Tribune senior designer Robert Galvin, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, says his favorite novel is “Brave New World” ... but it’s really “Louisiana Power & Light.”