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

The Impact of the Like Button

PBS Frontline for 2/18/14 aired the documentary Generation Like about how teens are using the Internet to be liked, and how corporations are using this mass movement to their advantage.  To be honest, the report claims teens are quite savvy about how they are being manipulated by marketing gurus and feel they are playing the system right back at them.  At best it’s a symbiotic relationship.  The funny thing is the documentary makers asked many teens to define “selling out” and they couldn’t, yet corporations have a new mantra, “your consumer is your new marketer.”  This show is about the need to be liked, the need to sell, and how society is changing when everyone is selling themselves.

facebook_like_button_big1

I found Generation Like quite amazing, especially as a 62 year old guy who knows damn little about modern teens.  The change in teens thriving on the internet is as profound as the baby boomers experienced in the psychedelic sixties.  I’m curious how representative this report on teen life is to the average teen, and luckily at the PBS Frontline page provides some statistics at “What Are Teens Doing Online?

Even though Frontline does a fantastic job of covering the topic, I was left with many questions.  Is this melding of marketing to teens wanting to be liked while they struggle to find their identities an American phenomenon, or is it worldwide?  What impact does it have for kids who don’t get hundreds of likes, and what does it mean for popular kids with hundreds of likes to know that some kids gets millions of likes?  Has popularity ever been so quantified?  Is this the start of a hive culture?  And can a hive culture work when all the individuals are promoting themselves?  Are we at the start of a cultural transformation or a fad that will go away? 

Many of the teens talked about their talent, but weren’t specific as to what that was.  Others, like the 13 year old Baby Scumbag was quite aware of what got hits, and was expecting to make money.  If Hollywood was a driving force for fame in the 20th century, the Internet in the 21st century will be many magnitudes more forceful.  And these kids want more than 15 minutes.

I remember the pressure to be liked as a teen, or even to be popular, but it was nothing like this.  I was happy to have one or two good friends, and pleased when others knew my name and said hi.  From the outside looking in, it appears these teens feel like struggling actors trying to get noticed.  How is that changing the nature of friendship?  On the other hand, many of the teens profiled, helped each other in real life to create their internet lives, so they are still socializing in the old way.   

This documentary is the tiniest tip of the iceberg at exploring the new online world.  I barely know how to use Facebook.  I have a Twitter account, but I only use it to remember what I’ve read online.  And most of the other social media sites this film explored I’m clueless as how to use and what they do.  Will adults slowly absorb this Like Culture?  I do blog, and I do get Likes, but not many.  But then I don’t crave them like the teens in this show.  The show ended with this wonderful visual.  A young girl is all animated while producing her video for YouTube, but when she turns off the camera, she sighs, deflates, looks very bored, and the film ends with the sound of her fingernails clicking distractedly on the camera.  Will being on for the Internet become a kind of social crack, and normal life a kind of lonely withdrawal?

You can watch the entire film here.  See I’m doing the same thing as the teens.  I’m marketing for PBS, and liking their show.

JWH – 2/19/14