Book Chat: The Great American Read

  • Posted on: 24 September 2018
  • By: Michelle Brightwell

Humans have always felt the need to share stories. They began telling tales as soon as they developed the capacity for speech. Early civilizations would gather at holy places, around their campfires, to listen and memorize the stories shared with them by the elders and religious leaders of their communities.  Stories were told to communicate their knowledge and experience to other members of their communities – they told stories to warn of danger, to teach how to hunt, explain away terrifying natural events and share the wonder of nature. We have always felt the need to share stories. Sharing experiences and other worlds are as important to humans now as they were in prehistory. Stories bring us together and help us give meaning and make sense of our lives.

“Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.” -- Neil Gaiman, View from the Cheap Seats

The need to know, to have answers, to understand why something happened, is a very human need. It’s one of the reasons that we seek out stories, whether written or performed. We read about other people in order to share in their experience – we can learn from the hero of a story, despite the struggles they face. And through reading about the experiences of others, we learn empathy for others. We read to escape from whatever we might be dealing with in our daily lives. We read for fun and entertainment. We read to understand people and places that we have never seen ourselves. We read fiction to better understand the human condition.

Over this last summer, PBS embarked upon a national campaign encouraging Americans to be engaged with and talking about books. They’re asking the question "What is America’s favorite book?" and to that, we’re countering with “What is Madison County’s favorite book?” We encourage you to vote in the national poll AND the Madison County Poll. The Great American Read is exploring and celebrating the power of reading, told through the prism of America’s 100 best-loved novels. It is investigating how and why writers create their fictional worlds, how we as readers are affected by these stories, and what these 100 different books have to say about our diverse nation and our shared human experience.