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

How Old Do You Need To Be To Avoid Climate Change Disasters?

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 18, 2015

Using the Life Expectancy Calculator at the Social Security Administration website, here’s what they predict for me:

My life expectancy

If I live another twenty years it will be 2035. Many predictions about the future use the years 2020, 2025, 2030, 2050 and 2100 as landmarks. I doubt I’ll make it to 2050, when I’d turn 99. Most of the current political discussion about climate change suggest making fixes by 2030 or 2050, but scientists are saying that’s too late. More than likely, the rest of the 21st century will be filled with climate change disasters.

My friend Connell and I were wondering this morning if we will die before the shit hits the fan.

Do most climate change deniers feel they will just avoid the issue by dying sooner than the eco-apocalypse? Won’t most older people checkout before things get bad? But when will things get bad? If it’s in the 2020s, then you need to be well into your 70s to feel statistically safe. If it’s the 2030s, then you need to be like me, in your 60s. If it’s not until the 2050s, you can be in your 40s. If it’s not until 2100, then you have to start sticking your head in the sand at age 15.

Yesterday I read, “The Siege of Miami” by Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the influential book, The Sixth Extinction. Is Miami the next New Orleans? What would happen if Miami is the next eco-catastrophe and it happens before 2030? What if rising oceans destroys South Florida’s fresh water and millions of people have to move north? Of course, the wetter it gets in Miami, the wetter it will be in other coastal cities, like New York City.

At some point even the disciples of Donald Trump will have to admit that those pesky scientists were right about climate change. The choice then will be to do something heroic or immigrate. Will folks living on higher ground want to ban immigrants from coastal regions? If you think Syrians and Mexicans pose a problem, wait until climate change refuges start moving in.

If people secretly think climate change disasters won’t hit until the 22nd century, 21st century folk are willing to wait and do nothing. What I’m asking is: What if you’re too young to avoid the suffering? What if the ball drops where you live well before 2100, or even 2030.

Connell and I think we might avoid the start of terrible events by only living another twenty years. But what if you’re in your thirties and have two little kids? You aren’t old enough, and that’s not saying anything about your children.

Should old Republicans be allowed to make decisions about climate change? Their philosophy is, “I’ve got mine and I’m going to keep it.” If Republican leaders are allowed to ignore climate change, can they be held responsible if they are wrong? If you read the article about Miami, Florida politicians are going well beyond denying climate change, they want to legalize denial. And it’s obvious why. If they admit Florida has a problem, property values will sink long before Florida will. Who’d want to retire in a flooding state?

That’s why I believe if you’re a certain age, I’m wonder if your inaction is due to thinking you won’t live long enough to suffer. How ethical is it to make a mess and then die to avoid cleaning it up?

Essay #989 – Table of Contents