Did the PBS Great American Read Give an Accurate Portrait of American Readers?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 30, 2018

I’m a lifelong bookworm, so I loved watching the 8-part PBS special, The Great American Read. I tried to get my bookworm friends to watch the show too, but few were interested. Especially, after I told them how the voting was conducted. Fans were allowed to vote once a day for months. My friends felt the results would be skewed by ballot stuffers. And even I thought the votes would mostly be from young people who loved computers. However, the show itself interviewed a wide diversity of readers, which was inspiring. I don’t think the value of the show was about which book won the popularity poll, but showing how important reading is to so many people, young and old.

The results were announced 10/23/18. I’ve read 46 of the 100 books. It is a good list, but with several titles I thought suspicious. Are these 100 books really the favorite books Americans are reading in 2018? I wondered if there was any way I could verify their numbers against other numbers. One idea I had was to use Google’s Ngram that’s based on references in books and magazines. Unfortunately, their data only goes to 2008. Here’s the Top 5 PBS Great American Reads:

Great American Read Top 5

On the finale-night, my guess for the top five turned out to be the same order I found on Google Ngram. It turns out that To Kill a Mockingbird was always #1 in the PBS’s daily totals. It was always the clear favorite. What really surprised me was the order of the next four books. Outlander series came in as #2. Harry Potter was #3, Pride and Prejudice #4, and Lord of the Rings #5.

Was there any way I could replicate that order in other data? I then used Google Trends to track the last 90 days, roughly the time of the voting.

Google Trends PBS Great American Read

It’s hard to tell, but I think the order is Potter, Mockingbird, Rings, Prejudice, Outlander. The current search results on Google as of today is:

  1. Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling (48,300,000)
  2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (14,400,000)
  3. Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien (10,400,000)
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (5,230,000)
  5. Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon (5,000,000)

Could it be that fans voted for Mockingbird because they thought it was the best book even though they actually loved Harry Potter more? Harper Lee’s classic is one of my favorites too, and if I had to pick a “significant” book it might have been the one I voted for too. I didn’t vote because I love too many books.

Here are Google search result numbers for the next 20 books:

  • Gone with the Wind (9,280,000)
  • Charlotte’s Web (849,000)
  • Little Women (3,570,000)
  • Chronicles of Narnia (3,270,000)
  • Jane Eyre (3,410,000)
  • Anne of Green Gables (1,080,000)
  • Grapes of Wrath (1,980,000)
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (3,360,000)
  • Book Thief (1,260,000)
  • Great Gatsby (10,700,000)
  • The Help (2,160,000)
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (4,380,000)
  • 1984 (24,700,000)
  • And Then There Were None (2,200,000)
  • Atlas Shrugged (1,210,000)
  • Wuthering Heights (1,920,000)
  • Lonesome Dove (300,000)
  • Pillars of the Earth (701,000)
  • The Stand (114,000,000)
  • Rebecca (1,600,000)

My current favorite novel is The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, and it has 6,620,000 Google search returns. It didn’t even make the Top 100 of the PBS list, yet if we used Google search returns, it would come in #4. The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov came in #49 and has 2,100,000 Google search returns. None of my favorite genre SF novels made the Top 100. But of course, most of my favorite SF books were popular in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Using Google search returns relates somewhat, but also tells us that it doesn’t really correlate with the PBS poll. My assumption, popularity is hard to measure. I actually think the enthusiasm of the PBS’s Great American Read voters reflects the current tastes of America’s most passionate/fanatical readers. Even though they allowed ballot stuffing, all the voters were allowed the same chance to stuff the ballot for their favorite book. Thus the PBS poll represents the Top 100 books that fanatical readers would pick in 2018.

All eight episodes are currently available to view online. And they are still worth watching. I loved feeling the enthusiasm young people showed for reading. I loved hearing from popular writers talk about the books they loved. For example, George R. R. Martin campaigned for The Lord of the Rings. But what really choked me up and made me misty-eyed were the testimonials by readers about why they loved to read.

JWH

8 thoughts on “Did the PBS Great American Read Give an Accurate Portrait of American Readers?”

  1. Yes, what matters most is the love of reading – you have to get them hooked and whatever book works the magic for the reader is the right one.

    Good to know that all the PBS episodes are accessible online. I have not watched them all, but I did see the one with George R. R. Martin. I love that guy. I’m not a fantasy/sci-fi fan, but I’ve read some of his stuff and he’s good – I think Fevre Dream is his best. I’m a history nut, especially Middle Ages Europe. I just finished reading (again) The Wars of the Roses by Alison Weir because I wanted to freshen up on that era to understand what was going on in BBC’s The Hollow Crown series (excellent – Cumberbatch as Richard III, doesn’t get any better than that). When Martin was asked what was his inspiration for the Game of Thrones books, he answered “The Wars of the Roses.” I wanted to hug him.

    1. Now I have to read “The War of the Roses.”

      I wish I could have gotten my friends to watch this series. I’m sure they would have seen interviews like the one you saw of Martin and found a huggable moment too.

  2. I’m always on the lookout for Good Books. But, I’m a reader who likes quirky books like the ones written by Jack Vance. Or P.G. Wodehouse. Too many of the books in the PBS project are too vanilla for me.

    1. Have you read A Confederacy of Dunces? That’s a quirky book. And I would think everyone should find the Harry Potter books charming. Looking over the whole list, not many were humorous like Wodehouse, except A Confederacy of Dunces and maybe Catch-22.

  3. Yes, I’ve read A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES. Loved it. Read CATCH-22. Humorous, but dark. I enjoyed the Harry Potter books, but I liked the early books better than the bloated later volumes.

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