“The Great American Read” is an eight-part television and online series designed to spark a national conversation about reading and the books they’ve selected. Hosted by Meredith Vieira, the series features 100 books that have inspired, moved, and shaped us. The goal is for viewers to read the books and vote from the list of 100, advocating for their favorite read.
“The Great American Read” premieres Tuesday, May 22 at 8/7c on PBS stations. Voting will be open through the summer and into the fall, when seven new episodes of the series will air as the quest to find America’s most beloved book moves into high gear.
The authors listed below wrote books that have been nominated for this year’s “The Great American Read.” All of them are people of color who deserve recognition for the breadth of their literary masterpieces in spite of the challenges they’ve faced to achieve that success. We should all make a point to expand our reading lists to include more diverse authors, and these books can help you to do just that.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This bestselling novel about love and identity follows two young people, Ifemelu and Obinze, as they embark on life-changing journeys. Ifemelu and Obinze are deeply in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for a better life. The beautiful Ifemelu heads for America, where she learns what it means to be black in a white country. Though Obinze hoped to follow her, he is not allowed into the United States, so he resorts to living a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Fifteen years after being separated, they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria, and reignite their passion – for each other and for their homeland.
Baldwin’s 1962 novel Another Country takes readers on a passionate journey through Greenwich Village, Harlem, France, and other locales, exploring the depths of emotion and sexuality through the depiction of interracial couples and extramarital affairs. Using a third-person narrator, the book begins by following the complicated life of a jazz drummer named Rufus Scott. It spirals outward from there to demonstrate the power of relationships strained by love, loss, and race. In a small set of friends, Baldwin imbues the best and worst intentions of liberal America in the early 1970s.
Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel paints a spectacular potrait of a woman, Sethe, who can’t escape her dark past. Sethe was born a slave and though she escaped to Ohio eighteen years ago, her mind is still not free. She is still held captive by memories of the farm where so many unspeakable things happened long ago, and by the memory of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved. When a mysterious teenage girl who calls herself Beloved appears in Sethe’s life, her past and present intertwine, uncovering secrets that she has been keeping to herself all these years.
This national bestseller tells the story of ghetto-born Winter: the young, wealthy daughter of a prominent Brooklyn drug-dealing family. Winter is smart and confidently sexy – two qualities she uses to get what she wants, in a neighborhood that she knows like the back of her hand. When her life takes a turn for the worse and her family is torn apart, Winter must rely solely on herself and use her skills to persevere and stay on top. Sister Souljah’s voice is unforgettable, and so is this cautionary tale protesting drugs and violence among young African-Americans in the inner city.
The Color Purple is the story of two resilient sisters whose strong bond is never destroyed across time and distance. One sister, Nettie, is a missionary in Africa and the other, Celie, is a child wife living in the South in the early 1900s. Though their lives diverge for over 30 years, communication through letters keeps the girls in each other’s lives. Compassionate and deeply compelling, this classic novel of American literature is rich with passion, pain, inspiration, and an indomitable love of life.
When Ghost was a very little boy, his father chased him and his mother through their apartment, then down the street, with a loaded gun, aiming to kill. Ever since then, Ghost hasn’t been able to stop running. When the track Coach at school meets Ghost, he sees something in him – something special. If Ghost stays on track, he could be the best sprinter in the city. Can Ghost harness his raw talent for speed, or will his past finally catch up to him?
This debut novel by the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Underground Railroad takes place in an unnamed city similar to 1930s and 40s era New York City. It follows Lila Mae Watson, the first black female elevator inspector in the history of the elevator department. She’s an Intuitionist, which means that she can sense the elevator’s maintenance problems, rather than physically examining the elevator as the more traditional Empiricists do. When there’s an elevator accident at the Fanny Briggs Memorial Building, Lila Mae is blamed. In an attempt to investigate the crash, she becomes involved in the search for notebooks that could unearth a secret and change her life forever.
This book remained on the bestseller list for sixteen weeks, won the National Book Award for fiction, and established Ralph Ellison as one of the key writers of the century. It’s narrated by a nameless man growing up in a black community in the South, trying to receive an education in a racially divided world that refuses to see him as a human being. When he’s unjustly expelled from the college he’s attending, he moves to New York and becomes the chief spokesman of the Harlem branch of “the Brotherhood”, determined to use his invisibility to his own advantage once and for all.
A Novel (Penguin Orange Collection)
In 1949, four Chinese women immigrated to San Francisco in hope of making better lives for themselves. To stay close to one another, they began meeting to eat dim sum, play mahjong, and talk. All the women had bonded together over suffering incredible loss – they called themselves the Joy Luck Club. Amy Tan’s powerful debut novel, now widely regarded as a classic, examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between these four women and their American-born daughters.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Written in 1967, this brilliant, bestselling novel that tells the multi-generational story of the Buendia family, whose patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía, founds the town of Macondo, a fictitious town in the country of Colombia. For years the town is solitary and unconnected to the outside world, until one day when it’s exposed to the government of newly-independent Colombia. From then on, Macondo will never be the same, and neither will the Buendías family. This book chronicles the irreconcilable conflict between the desire for solitude and the need for love in rich, imaginative prose that has come to define an entire genre known as “magical realism.”
Zora Neale Hurston
Undoubtedly one of the most important books of the twentieth century, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a Southern love story set in the 30s. The novel begins with main character Janie Crawford, a mixed African-American woman in her early forties, as she tells her life story to her best friend, Pheoby Watson. Janie describes her emotional growth and maturity through three marriages, and the struggles she’s faced as a woman of color. Regarded as a seminal work in both African-American literature and women’s literature, this book is a must-read for everyone.
Things Fall Apart tells two overlapping stories that center around Okonkwo, a “strong man” of an Ibo village in Nigeria. The first story traces Okonkwo’s fall from grace with the tribal world in which he lives, and in its classical purity of line and economical beauty it provides us with a powerful fable about the immemorial conflict between the individual and society. The second story revolves around the destruction of Okonkwo’s world through the arrival of aggressive European missionaries. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a crucial read because it illuminates the modern African experience as seen from within.
Zadie Smith’s dazzling debut follows the lives of two unlikely friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, who met while serving in World War II. Now it’s 1975, and Archie and Samad have families of their own in North London, and though it’s many years later, their riotous and tortured histories are intertwined. White Teeth is a richly imagined, uproariously funny novel that exposes London’s cultural status in the 70s, taking on big themes such as faith, race, gender, history, and the comedy of daily existence.