The release of a list of 100 best-liked novels in advance of “The Great American Read” series that launches Tuesday has generated its share of controversy — as do most things these days — but is producing a positive in our culture.
That’s in renewing and maintaining interest in reading. Because those individuals who are passionate about the choices on the list submitted by authors, critics, scholars and celebrities should be just as interested in checking out other great selections both on and off the list.
“The Great American Read” will last eight episodes, while voting on the single best-loved of novels will culminate with an announcement on Oct. 23. Scanning the list, readers will find that many of the choices aren’t strictly American — taking the first spot, for example, is George Orwell’s dystopian future classic “1984,” first published in England in 1949.
These choices, however, represent the best of great literature with which we became familiar in school and into adulthood. Not like the experience of my poor English teacher back in 11th grade, who in response to an assignment to read and and discuss a British novel, was bombarded with a couple of dozen book reports on Orwell’s “Animal Farm” (1945) and “The Time Machine” (1895) by H.G. Wells.
Why? Because they were brief and could be knocked off in a weekend — provided the class devoted even that much time to the project. But even at that, our teacher was lucky the bulk of the student critiques weren’t based on the Classics Illustrated comic book versions of those stories — I think.
Whether it’s Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (1818, 37th on the list) or Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” (1869, 95th), these works generated beyond our shores have every right to be under consideration as such true Americana as Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876, sixth). Debate focuses on the need to include more reading for young adults, and while Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” (2012, 43rd) may not be wholly appropriate for that age group, the choices were the product of thoughtful consideration of which books have influenced or continue to impress readers in the new century. Why else would it contain the entire series of the “Game of Thrones” books by George R.R. Martin or “Fifty Shades of Grey” from E.L. James?
Voting for the best American novel will be tricky for those readers dazzled by the sheer variety of what appears on “The Great American Read” list. That is, unless they’re totally passionate about Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” (1936, 44th). Additionally, making a choice is difficult due to the reader’s own preference for genre fiction, such as romance, mysteries, fantasy, etc., and their willingness to try something in another category of fiction.
And no doubt the final selection of America’s favorite novel will be questioned for all kinds of reasons, echoing the same protests that greeted the American Film Institute’s decision two decades ago to place Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” (1941) at the top of its list of cinema classics.
Nevertheless, for those folks who enjoy a good read, following the program and its discussion of those works on the list sounds fun. And with summertime beckoning (or already here following our all-too-brief transition from winter), there’s no better time to check it all out and read some of the choices on the list. Or more importantly, just read, whether it’s this newspaper or the latest vacation-at-the-beach paperback or e-book that’s trending out there.
In the interim, I will be reading up on an American author whose star rose fast, stayed aloft for a number of years and then fell before his own passing. Louis Bromfield, born in 1896 in Mansfield, Ohio, won the Pulitzer Prize for his third novel, “Early Autumn” (1926), and continued to produce bestsellers well into the 1940s, a number of them made into movies (the best-known of them, “The Rains Came” from 1939, starred Tyrone Power and Myrna Loy). He was a member of the Rio Grande College Board of Trustees from 1944 to 1951.
Becoming a devotee of a return to the farm movement when the nation became more mechanized during and after World War II, Bromfield’s work increasingly reflected his passion — exemplified by the devotion to his home, Malabar Farm near Mansfield — and his popularity faded. All but forgotten since his death in 1956, Bromfield’s works may not speak to succeeding generations, but as a century nears since his first novels were published, a rediscovery of his literary skills is not entirely out of order.
In a conversation with Ohio Valley Publishing Editor Beth Sergent about the destruction of the historical marker for the Lambert Lands near Vinton, Beth informed me similar memorials for the site of the old Lakin State Hospital between Point Pleasant and Mason were apparently taken from the scene and have never been retrieved.
Taking into account the evident disregard that caused the Lambert Lands marker to become split into pieces, this is disheartening news. You can tell me that vandalism is a fact of life not here but everywhere, and that I’m tilting at windmills, but it’s still unacceptable. Simply my opinion.
Kevin Kelly, who was affiliated with Ohio Valley Publishing for 21 years, resides in Vinton, Ohio.
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