Back when my younger brother and I were adventurous, tow-headed boys who lived near the ocean, one of the year’s most anticipated moments came the summer week my mother would bring out the same book and read it to us — snippets at a time — every night as we listened from our beds.
It was called “Dory Boy,” a “tween-age book” by Joan Talmage Weiss that told the story of Danny, an adventurous tow-headed boy who lived near the ocean. I don’t remember many details. Danny learned the family fishing business over the course of a summer that would be filled with the sort of twists and turns that could enthrall tween-agers … but, really, that wasn’t the point.
There were very few books in our home when we were kids (“Dory Boy” came to our home for free after we had spent a certain amount of money at the grocery store), but here was a story all our own — featuring a kid who looked like us and lived in a town like ours — and, each summer, our mother would read to us ... even after my brother and I knew exactly what was to happen next, and long after we could just read “Dory Boy” ourselves.
That’s family, of course … but it’s also the power of books.
Back in May, I wrote in this space about the start of “The Great American Read” — a summerlong endeavor by PBS that presented a list of 100 favorite books the public could read, discuss and vote on to ultimately decide which title would be chosen, well, The Great American Read.
This was not a search for The Great American Novel — that unicorn of literature that all would agree was the best our society could produce.
Philip Roth, no stranger to self-confidence, actually wrote a book called “The Great American Novel,” which detailed the lost history of a communist baseball league. But the book itself — while definitely American and a novel — was not anyone’s definition of great.
More successful, largely because of its tongue-in-cheek approach, was Jincy Willett’s “Winner of the National Book Award” — which did not capture that prize, but was a wickedly funny tale about the pretentions of those who practice the written word as to those who simply enjoy reading.
Neither Roth’s nor Willett’s novels made it to the list of the Top 100 for the Great American Read — which returns to Southern Oregon Public Television screens at 8 p.m. Tuesday on a weekly basis until the winner is crowned on Oct. 23.
After Tuesday’s re-introduction to the series, the following weeks focus on themes drawn from the books on the list, as well as the collected experience of what it means to read:
— Sept. 18: “Who Am I?” examines how novels can teach us about finding our place in the world;
— Sept. 25: “Heroes” takes a deeper look at the complexities and relatable aspects of literary protagonists;
— Oct. 2: “Villains and Monsters” heads to the dark side to revisit the evil deeds that make some bad characters so good;
— Oct. 9: “What We Do For Love” has nothing to do with “A Chorus Line,” but does detail memorable romances;
— Oct. 16: “Other Worlds” explores the places novels take us through the imagination of their authors.
The PBS series has been particularly tight-lipped about how the voting has gone since May. We know that far more than 2 million votes have been cast … and that a preliminary list of the Top 40 vote-getters has been released.
As befitting the name of the series, among those in the higher echelon are titles that you’d expect — “The Catcher in the Rye,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “The Great Gatsby,” for instance — and more contemporary books such as “The Help,” “The Hunger Games” and (yikes!) “The Da Vinci Code.”
A great many of the Top 40 vote-getters are books that adults fell in love with as children and no doubt have passed along to later generations: “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “Charlotte’s Web,” “Little Women” and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”
The Harry Potter series has generated a great deal of support, as have the collected tales of Narnia, the Lord of the Rings, and the Outlander books.
Discussion groups have formed to analyze (and debate) the choices on the full list of 100, and some PBS affiliates have created offshoot diversions of their own that tie into the program.
KQED in San Francisco, for instance, has created one of those personality tests that are a trusty time-waster; in this case, answering a series of questions reveals “Which Iconic Novel You Are.”
Always up for a way to waste time, I took the survey and got this response:
“You possess a keen skepticism of authority, and the way it can abuse its power.”
Me? Surely they mean that guy who writes the Sunday column in the Mail Tribune.
“You refuse to step foot in a house equipped with Amazon Alexa or Google Home Assistant.”
Well, I can’t argue with that one.
“It’s not paranoia if shadowy totalitarians are really out to get you.”
This is easily explainable: I was living in Ashland when I took the survey.
The book chosen for me? … “1984,” which is indeed among the Top 40 titles thus far in The Great American Read.
If you’re going to be associated with a book, that’s not such a bad choice these days … although a part of me wishes I could still relate to “Dory Boy.”
Senior designer Robert Galvin, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, also writes the “Get Off My Lawn” column for Sunday’s Mail Tribune. (But don’t tell him that.)