Beyond The Great American Read

If you weren’t following PBS’s The Great American Read, it’s worth catching up: this eight-part series discussed America’s best-loved novels as users voted for their favorite books. Some of us at eNotes even wrote about our personal choices for The Great American Read.

Just this week, we learned which book was voted as America’s #1 favorite book: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. And no wonder—to quote host Meredith Vieira, the book “is a mirror of who we are in all our complexity. It shows us at our worst, and it ends tragically. But it also offers a way forward.”

To Kill A Mockingbird is well known for the challenging themes it presents throughout the novel. Now, this may be because we’re huge book lovers here at eNotes—but we wanted so many of the books to win! To celebrate TKAM’s win and encourage more reading, we’re showcasing some of the other books from the original 100 that touch on similar themes.

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Prejudice and Tolerance

#4: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Unsurprisingly, prejudice reappears again and again as an important theme in Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth continually makes hasty decisions, misreads others, and literally pre-judges others according to her own prescribed moral values—until someone else snaps her out of it, that is.

#72: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

A story of self-discovery and identity, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison asks serious questions about race and prejudice as well as broader questions about who we think we are and what we can do in the face of injustice.

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Guilt and Innocence

#19: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Christie’s classic murder mystery invites the reader to join each of the characters in questioning who is innocent and who is guilty. She further complicates the question by writing moral ambiguities into the story at every turn.

#64: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Crime and Punishment examines of the psyche of the guilty. The novel asks the question, “Could someone get away with murder?” and then follows Raskolnikov as his guilt steadily drives him into deeper levels of mental instability.

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Knowledge and Ignorance

#18: 1984 by George Orwell

This dystopian novel follows an employee of the Ministry of Truth, a branch of the all-powerful government that edits historical documents and withholds information from the public. Although he works for the very branch that obscures reality, Winston of 1984 craves to learn the objective truth.

#34: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Another dystopian tale, The Handmaid’s Tale first toys with the theme of knowledge and ignorance by being told by unreliable narrator and protagonist, Offred. As a member of the lowest class—literally a “walking womb”—Offred is kept uninformed of real news, and as a woman, she is not allowed to read or write.

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Courage and Cowardice

#50: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy’s ambitious novel explores myriad characters through times of, you guessed it, war and peace. Each character grapples with battling cowardice in order to find courage amidst the chaos of a country at war.

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Loss of Innocence

#43: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has long captivated the imagination of readers. While popularized as an exploration of science gone awry, Shelley’s novel does much more: it explores how a dream of a better tomorrow can be corrupted by pride and ambition, resulting in a loss of innocence and, tragically, life.

#83: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

A ship’s commander for a trading company, Marlow travels deeper and deeper into Africa. He becomes appalled by the living conditions for black slaves and, as he travels deeper inland, becomes more suspect of everything he encounters. By the end of the novel, Marlow is changed.