How’s your summer reading going?
With social media running amok, and cold, heartless, political divisiveness invading our television sets, the likes to which we’ve never seen before-there’s no better feeling than cracking open the covers of a new book and getting far away from the maddening crowd.
In case you haven’t noticed, PBS has launched a new series, “The Great American Read” , in which they have surveyed Americans readers, asking them their favorite novel.
The series returns on September 11 with seven new episodes, culminating in the finale on October 23, where America’s Favorite Novel will be announced, following months of the public voting.
And for those who think reading books has become obsolete and gone the way of public pay phones and video rental stores, surveys have shown, thankfully, that not to be the case.
According to a Gallup Poll , more than one in three (35 percent) are heavy readers, reading 11 or more books in the past year, while close to half (48 percent) read between one and 10 and just 16 percent read none.
Additionally, among those who read at least one book last year, the vast majority say they most often read printed books, at 73 percent. About one in five most often read electronic books, while only 6 percent mostly experienced books in audio form.
And why wouldn’t book reading still be in vogue?
Ever since the 18th century, particularly Victorian literature, novels had replaced poetry and drama, as it began to depict the lives of the middle class, and downtrodden, struggling with their morality and circumstances.
Small wonder, then, that Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) is often hailed as the first novel. The story of the shipwrecked sailor on an un-inhabited island on the Coast of America, Crusoe survives by self-reliance and hard work, embodiments of the Protestant work ethic, common themes that began to run through a number of narratives at the time.
On the other side of the Atlantic, American writers like Mark Twain (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884) and Saul Bellow (The Adventures of Augie March, 1953) would expand upon Defoe’s picaresque, that is, a series of loosely connected episodes.
Set in a Southern antebellum society, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a biting satire on racist attitudes, among people and places along the Mississippi River and the hypocrisy of a civilized society.
The Adventures of Augie March depicts a poor Jewish boy in Chicago during the Great Depression, lacking any ambition, but through a series of comical episodes of steps and missteps, succeeds nonetheless. The novel explores some misguided assumptions about the typical American success story and what is the better path toward happiness.
Scholars have pointed out that the works of Samuel Richardson (Clarissa, 1748), Daniel Defoe, and Henry Fielding (Tom Jones, 1749), reflect the evolving society, a reading public (with greater literacy rates), a greater sense of scientific discovery, calls for democratic reforms with growing economic independence, and a strong Protestant ethic.
"The novel," Miriam Bailin, Associate Professor in the Department of English at Washington University in St Louis, argues, " can't be separated from its material history as well as its expanded readership in all classes. Paper got cheaper, modes of printing got faster, and sales were not by subscription as in the past but distributed increasingly by booksellers and made available to borrow from proprietary libraries (kind of like Blockbuster was for movies). "
Making books more affordable for a growing reading public was certainly the brainchild of Sir Walter Scott (who published three-volume novels) and made them affordable to the general public by making them available for purchase in monthly installments.
Sub-climaxes, or serial novels, leaving the public on the edge of their seat until the next installment was ingeniously employed with great success by Charles Dickens, when he published ``Pickwick Papers'' in 19 monthly installments in 1836-37. In England, the periodic installments cost a mere shilling, making fiction affordable to a new class of readers.
George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope and William Makepeace Thackeray also published novels in serial form; as did Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Henry James in America.
The 19th century, of course, ushered in the age of industrialization. Literature began to follow suit with works of realism with characters who weren’t necessarily heroes but depicted the challenges they faced in a cold, unsympathetic world, such as "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a seminal work, many argue, which lit the match that sparked the American Civil War.
The 20th century is largely carved up into two phases of literature--modern literature (1900-1945) and contemporary literature (1945 to the present), also referred to as postmodern with characters questioning the existence of God, challenging the political and social conventions of the age, and the supremacy of the human reason on a variety of topics from the Great Depression to Hiroshima, the morality of war, up through communism and racism.
As Alfred Bendixen so succinctly wrote in the Blackwell Companion to the American Novel "In the last 20 years, the literary landscape has been enriched by the work of African-Americans, Latina/a, and Asian American writers who have moved the novel into a fuller engagement with some of the basic contradictions at the heart of American democracy, the conflict between the ideals of the society devoted to freedom, equality, opportunity, and the realities."
To get a sense of the reading tastes of book lovers, I reached out to some individuals, to ask them their all-time favorite novel. What follows is a list of responses.
- "A tie between All The Kings Men" (Robert Penn Warren) and The Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison)."
—Dean Baquet, Executive Editor of The New York Times
- "Gone With The Wind" (Margaret Mitchell) and "Debt of Honor" (Tom Clancy).
—Kellyanne Conway, American pollster, political consultant, and Counselor to President Donald Trump.
- "It would be a tie between Proust and Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. But then there is Don Quixote, War and Peace, much of Jane Austen, Middlemarch, and Joyce’s Ulysses. For USA, the choices have to include Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn, and several by Faulkner. ‘’
—Harold Bloom, American literary critic and Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University.
- "Lonesome Dove (Larry McMurtry). But this was hard to say. His characters are so real you weep for them. I know I sound a little purple but I mean it.”
—Rick Bragg, author, journalist, former New York Times reporter, and currently a writing professor at the University of Alabama. He also writes a column for Southern Living.
- “The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald). I re-read it every summer, along with his stories: Winter Dreams and Rich Boy.”
—Jill Abramson, former New York Times Executive Editor and currently Senior Lecturer in Harvard's English Department
- "The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoevsky); second would be American Pastoral (Phillip Roth)
—Alan Dershowitz, American lawyer, legal analyst, and Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.
- “Impossible question but probably Dickens Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens) followed by A Fine Balance ( Rohinton Mistry). American novel would be Angle of Repose ( Wallace Stegner).”
—Anne Sebba, British biographer, writer, lecturer and journalist.
- "Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain).”
—James McPherson, American Civil War historian and Professor of American History (Emeritus) at Princeton University.
- “The Great Gatsby" (F. Scott Fitzgerald).
Chris Matthews, political commentator and talk show host for Hardball with Chris Matthews, on MSNBC.
- “The Great Gatsby” (F. Scott Fitzgerald).
—Pat Buchanan, political commentator, author, and syndicated columnist.
- "The Scarlet Letter (Nathaniel Hawthorne). The novel that defines what America is"
—John Sutherland, Newspaper columnist and author. Currently, an Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London.
- "Charlotte's Web"( E.B. White).
—Sarah Lyall, journalist, former New York Times London correspondent, and currently a writer at large for the Times.
- "Favorite American novel is Moby Dick (Herman Melville).”
—Niall Ferguson, British historian, political commentator, and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.
- "Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell). No contest. "
—Sally Quinn, author, journalist, who writes about religion at The Washington Post.
- "Moby Dick (Herman Melville) and Middlemarch (George Eliot).
—Stephen Greenblatt, Author, American Shakespearean and literary historian at Harvard University.
- "In addition to The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald), A Separate Peace (John Knowles), Charlotte's Web (E.B. White), The Shipping News (E. Annie Proulx) and The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen).
—Amy Walter, American political analyst, and national editor of The Cook Political Report.
- "The Blue Flower (Penelope Fitzgerald).”
—Thomas Pavel, literary theorist, critic, and novelist currently teaching at the University of Chicago.
Facts about Novels and Novelists
- The pop song, topping the charts in the U.K and U.S., "Total Eclipse of the Heart," (1983) written by Jim Steinman and sung by Bonnie Tyler was inspired by Emily Brontë 's Wuthering Heights.
- Charles Dickens slept facing north, believing it would improve his writing.
- The coining of the word “cliff-hanger” is credited to Thomas Hardy. In the novel, " A Pair of Blue Eyes," published in Tinsley's Magazine, Hardy depicts one of the protagonists, Henry Knight, as hanging off a cliff.
- Edith Wharton was the first woman awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
- “All’s Well That Ends Well,” was the original title for Leo Tolstoy's epic novel before settling on “War and Peace.”
- Mary Shelley experienced a number of dark and foreboding events leading up to the publication of Frankenstein (1818), her Gothic masterpiece of horror that may have added an extra layer of darkness to her writing: "Her father disowned her after she became pregnant out of wedlock, her first child was premature and died shortly after birth, her elopement with Percy Shelley basically made her an outcast in society, her half-sister committed suicide (as did Percy Shelley's first wife, to whom he was married when he was starting his relationship with Mary)"; this according to Ashley Carlson, Associate Professor of English at the University of Montana Western
- The earliest recorded use of the word "baseball" in an English novel is in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey written in 1798-1799.
- George Orwell's Animal Farm was banned in the Eastern Bloc countries until the collapse of communism in 1989.
- The Starbucks Coffee chain derived its name from Herman Melville's novel, Moby Dick. Starbuck is a crew member on the ship.
- In addition to Ernest Hemingway committing suicide by a gun shot, so did his physician father, while his sister, Marcelline, and brother, Leicester, committed suicide by drug overdoses.
- When it was published in 1925, The Great Gatsby sold a disappointing 21,000 copies, less than half of sales for ``This Side of Paradise’’ and ``The Beautiful and Dammed,'' It wasn’t until April 24, 1960 that The New York Times wrote: ``It is probably safe now to say that it [The Great Gatsby] is a classic of twentieth-century American fiction.’’
- Arthur Conan Doyle was a trained ophthalmologist and opened up a practice on upper Wimpole Street in London. With no patients, not one, he had plenty of time to write short stories, about a detective, Sherlock Holmes, based on Doyle's time in medical school where the autopsy of a body or corpse was conducted like a thorough investigation. His stories were originally published by Strand Magazine.
- In 1993, Toni Morrison became the first African American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
July 26, 2018