PBS, with help from celebrities and authors, aims to find ‘The Great American Read’

Lauren Graham is one of the celebrities who will share their favorite American novels on the upcoming PBS show, "The Great American Read."
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

PBS has enlisted the help of several celebrities to determine “The Great American Read” in an upcoming competition series, the network announced Wednesday.

The network’s eight-part show will begin with a two-hour special on May 22. Throughout the series, stars such as Gayle King, Lauren Graham and Diane Lane will discuss their favorite American novels. Nonfiction books and poetry and short story collections will not be considered for the list.

The series will also feature authors, including Junot Díaz, John Irving, George R.R. Martin and Margaret Atwood (who is Canadian). The featured books will be drawn from a list of 100 American novels “chosen from a demographically representative national survey.” The list of books has not yet been made public but is expected to be announced in the spring before the show’s debut.

PBS said a 13-member advisory panel was asked to “minimally influence” the list to “break ties and maximize the variety.”


The series “will journey across America to uncover illuminating details and new reflections, sometimes from unlikely sources, about some of the titles on the top 100 book list, revealing the story behind the story from multiple perspectives,” PBS said.

Episodes of the show will focus on particular themes, including “Villains & Monsters” and “Heroes,” along with some more vague concepts such as “Who Am I?” and “Other Worlds.”

Viewers will be able to vote for their favorite novels beginning with the show’s premiere, and voting will continue until the final episode in October. Book fans will initially be able to vote on the show’s website and via hashtag on Facebook and Instagram; later in the series, telephone and text message voting will be available.

PBS is doubling down on the multimedia aspect of the show. Much of the program will be focused on the Internet, with a full slate of “social media integration.”


But an actual book will be associated with the program too. “The Great American Read: The Book of Books” will be published by Black Dog & Leventhal in August.

“The Great American Read” seems influenced by “The Big Read,” a 2003 BBC television program that sought to determine the best British novel of all time. (The National Endowment for the Arts launched an in-person, non-television program with the same name in 2006.) The BBC series also employed celebrities to discuss their favorite books and ended with J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” beating out Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” for the top honor.