Mark Athitakis Newsletter #9

The Great American Read, ghost stories, the critic as punching bag.

Front Matter

I wrote a piece for the Washington Post earlier this week about The Great American Read, PBS’ summerlong effort to encourage viewers---and U.S. citizens en masse---to get excited about reading by voting for their favorite novel. I’ve kept the program at arm’s length during its run, and being asked to write about it forced me to ask why. Some of it was old-fashioned snobbery, I suppose---if The Shack and Dean Koontz novels are what we need to agree on to create an American literary culture, maybe we shouldn’t bother trying to agree.

I also had a sense that the final tally reflected some insincerity---that viewers weren’t celebrating their favorite book so much as what they would like people to think they’d ID as their favorite book. I see a bit of that in the elevation of To Kill a Mockingbird to the top spot. It ticks all the right boxes: it has a literary reputation, broad appeal (people criticize it, but few actively hate it), and addresses racism in a comfortable, curriculum-sanctioned way. (It’s interesting that ones that are more provocative on the subject sank to the bottom of the tally---White Teeth, Things Fall Apart, Another Country, The Intuitionist, even, arguably, Gilead.)

But I can only let myself get so cynical about these things. Anything that promotes reading is fine by me. And thinking about the list as I was writing about it, I reminded myself that reading is often an aspirational act. I do think that most people (even we critics) get into overly familiar reading habits, but we generally come to books from a position of acknowledging our ignorance, wanting to better understand something about the world around us. Maybe a lot of people who voted for Mockingbird don’t really love it and would rather read Koontz instead. But at least they had a sense of where literary value is better attributed.

More than anything, though, I just wanted to push against the vote’s tacit message that reading books is something that you do when you’re in high school and then set aside. A few of the commenters to the story have taken me to task by saying, effectively, that the great books are what we read in high school, so QED, PBS got it right. (I also got lectured about the recession for reasons I’m not clear about; I don’t begrudge a person who’s working three jobs, but I’ll just note that if you have any leisure time to speak of, reading is the cheapest leisure-time activity around.)

But there’s no reason why our consensus favorites need to be those high-school classics. Breaking out of that rut and finding new, more grown-up consensus titles would require a more dynamic reading culture than the country currently has, so in the meantime all I can really advocate for is what I did in the story---read out of your comfort zone. Every so often I come across those “reading challenge” bingo-cards that encourage people to read different types of books, but I can’t bring myself to do anything even that programmatic. I have my own blind spots, to be sure. But I do occasionally do what I prescribe in the article, picking out a book that catches my attention just because---it’s how I came to Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, one of my favorite books I read this year. I got to experience the pleasant kind of embarrassment that comes with learning that some surprisingly good writer is in fact a very well-known good author. If PBS does a nonfiction list, I may even put it at the top of my list.

Concierge Desk

Three books I would like to have seen in the Great American Read:

  1. Philip Roth, Sabbath’s Theater. It’s a disappointment that Roth was absent from the final list---as Adam Kirsch pointed out in a smart piece about the list for the Wall Street Journal, most of the 20th century white male giants like Roth, Updike, and Bellow didn’t make it in. If progress means losing Updike’s relentlessly priapic men, OK, fine, though I will miss Moses Herzog’s lyrical epistolary gassing. But almost as a dare, I’d like to see the country reckon with Mickey Sabbath’s black-hearted id, candid in its fury and distaste.

  2. Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony. As I noted in the article, PBS inexplicably omitted Native American writers from its list. I caught up with Silko’s 1977 debut novel about a year or so back and was struck by how cannily it merged the earthbound and mystical, and the way its mysticism has a kind of rage in it, reckoning with war and death in a way few other novels do.

  3. Stewart O’Nan, Last Night at the Lobster. Class and work tend to be third-rail subjects in American fiction, except as satire. So I admire O’Nan’s 2007 novel not just for taking on the subject---the title refers to a Red Lobster restaurant that’s about to close for good---but for not treating it as something to be exploited for laughs or presented through postmodernism’s funhouse mirror. Just a plainspoken story about shift workers and patrons, and how their roles reveal their character.

The Concierge Desk takes requests. Drop me a line with a few words about the kind of book you’re looking for at Please let me know if you’d like your name used or not.

What I’m Reading, Essay Dept.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editor David Shribman’s “Dispatch From Squirrel Hill” has been rightly much-shared in the wake of the last Saturday’s massacre, a sober assessment of how the Jewish community around the Tree of Life Synagogue was affected. Annette Gordon-Reed’s review of a set of books on Martin Luther King is a critique of the rigidity of the image that’s been created for King since his death, and how it sands down his most relevant provocations. Parul Sehgal’s speedy trip through the American ghost story is beautifully turned from sentence to sentence. (“Literature — the top-shelf, award-winning stuff — is positively ectoplasmic these days, crawling with hauntings, haints and wraiths of every stripe and disposition.”) Anne Elizabeth Moore, in an excerpt from her new book, Sweet Little Cunt, discusses how cartoonist Julie Doucet’s iconoclasm represented the best of the genuine 90s counterculture (not the flannel-clad, “It’s just like punk rock---except it’s cars!” version); Jami Attenberg was among her grateful appreciators. Bill Wyman defends Elton John, not unpersuasively.

End Notes

Nobody writes pop songs about critics—-not because of fear of retribution, I imagine, but because they’re hardly worth the effort to make fun of. But it’s memorable when they do…

Thanks for reading. Send correspondence to mathitak@gmail.comBuy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.