The Results Are In…These Are America’s “Most-Beloved” Novels, Says PBS
More than 4 million people voted, securing top honors for Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in the Great American Read initiative
The results are in: Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, a seminal exploration of racial discrimination in a small Southern town as seen through the eyes of six-year-old Scout Finch, is officially America's "best-loved novel."
PBS’ Great American Read initiative, which launched in May as a nationwide celebration of reading, has concluded with more than 4.3 million votes cast on an eclectic list of 100 books ranging from The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic portrait of Jazz Age opulence, to The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s polarizing, genre-bending bestseller, and The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold’s intimate account of a 14-year-old murder victim’s afterlife.
Host Meredith Vieira revealed the knock-out winner during a one-hour grand finale special that aired Tuesday night. As Vieira noted, the 1960 classic led the race from week one and never yielded its first-place status over five months of voting. According to USA Today's Jocelyn McClurg, Mockingbird received a total of 242,275 votes.
Diana Gabaldon's fantastical time travel series Outlander finished second, while J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series rounded out the top three. A comprehensive ranking of the top 100 is available on the Great American Read's website.
According to the National Endowment for the Arts, Lee's book was inspired by events from her own childhood, which was spent growing up white in Monroeville, Alabama, during the 1930s. The future author watched as her father unsuccessfully defended a black man and his son accused of murder; the Scottsboro Boys’ trial, in which nine African-American teenagers were falsely accused of raping two white women onboard a train, was also unfurling in the national consciousness at the time.
Mockingbird centers on its own rape trial, which finds Tom Robinson, a black man, falsely accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman. The story is told from the point-of-view of Scout, daughter of defense lawyer Atticus Finch, and traces the abrupt end of her and her older brother Jem's childhood idealism.
In the aftermath of Lee's death in 2016, Nathan Heller explained in Vogue that the novel holds broad appeal despite, or perhaps because of, its combination of "three unlikely, even discordant, elements: a wistful, winsome story of childhood self-realization; a sharply observed social portrait of small-town Alabama; and a wise gaze toward what someone once called the long moral arc of the universe."
Interestingly enough, Alison Flood writes for the Guardian, half of the frontrunners in the quest to find the great American novel weren’t actually American. As the Great American Read entered its last week of voting, the masterminds behind the project offered a sneak peek of the top 10 contenders that revealed five were by British authors.
Representing two of the top 10’s more traditional British tomes are Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen. Brontë’s Jane Eyre, a coming-of-age novel that finds its eponymous heroine overcoming an abuse-filled childhood to embark on an ill-fated romance with the brooding Mr. Rochester, placed tenth, while Austen’s comparatively lighthearted Pride and Prejudice grabbed the fourth spot. The remaining three British authors who finished in the top 10 created some of the world's most-beloved fantasy series: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings finished fifth, Rowling’s Harry Potter series came in third and C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia placed ninth.
On the American side, stand-alone novels led the pack. There’s Mockingbird, which, of course, topped the list (Lee’s lost novel, Go Set a Watchman, need not be addressed), then in quick succession, Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War epic Gone with the Wind in sixth place, E.B. White’s anthropomorphic Charlotte’s Web in seventh, and Louisa May Alcott’s sisterhood-centric Little Women in eighth.
The final honoree on the top ten list may have come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with the hit TV show Outlander and its eight source novels, all authored by American writer Diana Gabaldon. The series finds Claire Randall, a nurse visiting the Scottish Highlands with her husband Frank soon after the conclusion of World War II, transported back in time to 1743. Stranded in the past, she falls in love with a warrior named Jamie Fraser and becomes caught up in bloody Jacobite risings.
Gabaldon, who is one of only two living authors included in the top 10 (alongside Rowling), discussed her work in a PBS special entitled “Other Worlds” last Tuesday. A former science professor, Gabaldon decided to try her hand at historical fiction back in 1988. She published her first Outlander novel three years later.
“Seems easier to look things up than to make them up,” Gabaldon explained modestly, “and if I turn out to have no imagination, I can steal things from the historical record.”
“Other Worlds” is one of eight TV specials featured in the Great American Read campaign. According to a press release, the multi-platform initiative centered on narrowing down the list of America’s 100 favorite novels, which were selected through a national survey conducted by YouGov, but also included live public events and the aforementioned TV productions. Five of the eight explored recurring themes seen across the list: questions of personal identity, as represented by “Who Am I?,” “Heroes,” “Villains and Monsters,” “What We Do For Love” and “Other Worlds.”
Preliminary voting results revealed an array of fascinating insights on the nation’s reading habits. As WOUB Digital points out, individual state rankings reflected voters’ regional pride. In Louisiana, for example, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces nabbed a spot in the top 10, likely because the picaresque novel’s protagonist, as well as the author himself, called the region home. In Puerto Rico, the top 10 varied significantly from the nation as a whole, with Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Rómulo Gallegos’ Doña Bárbara and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude emerging on top.
According to the final tally, Lee held the number one spot in every state except North Carolina, which opted for Outlander (the series’ fictional Fraser's Ridge is set in the state), and Wyoming, which went for Lord of the Rings.
Lucy Maud Montgomery's coming-of-age novel Anne of Green Gables just missed making the top 10, coming in at number 11. At the other end of the spectrum, Venezuelan author Rómulo Gallegos’ Doña Bárbara received recognition as America's 100th best-loved novel.
A thorough exploration of the final rankings reveals plenty of insights for book lovers. E.L. James’ erotic Fifty Shades of Grey series, for instance, finished 86th—just above Kurt Vonnegut's 1959 comic science fiction novel, The Sirens of Titan.
If you find this (or any of the other rankings) surprising, perhaps it's worth revisiting the titles on the list. After all, a survey of the "top 100" is designed to capture a wide variety of tastes. And this list, which ranges in genres and ideas—from Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Atlas Shrugged to Dostoyevsky’s hefty Crime and Punishment and Robert Jordan’s fantastical Wheel of Time series—certainly does the job.