The Not so Great American Read

Ask professional basketball fans to name the best player ever and chances are LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan would appear at the top of that list.  Meanwhile, Wilt Chamberlain, who put basketball on the map, recedes further into oblivion.  People who remember him playing are dying off; footage of him playing is usually in blurry black and white film clips.

Too often people don’t consider history before they were born.  This pitfall can be seen with PBS’s The Great American Read, an eight-part series which encourages viewers to vote for their favorite book of all time based on a pre-selected list of 100 books.

Last week in the opening episode, host Meredith Vieira informed the audience that the list was based on a survey by YouGov that accounted for “gender, ethnicity, age, and region.”

It is that pre-selected list that is problem-some.

Here are some eye-openers about the Yelp-ized list.

While 16 out of the 100 books were published before the 20th century, 18 were published in the 21st century, seven in the past nine years (one from 2016).

Many recent titles were made into movies including the Twilight and Hunger Games series.   So, did those who listed these books actually read them or did they just see the films?

The most dubious selection:  Fifty Shades of Gray.

Surely, the producers could have set some ground rules for the list such as a book has to have been published at least 50 years ago to ensure the title has lasting power.

While Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer made the list, the more adult The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn did not, though it is often referred to as the greatest American novel ever written.

One could argue that as long as people read, it doesn’t matter what the book is.  But it actually does.

If all we wanted was to get people reading, they already do that via tweets, Yahoo headlines, and Facebook posts.   However, the physical act of looking at words is not the same as reading well written books that require concentration and often re-reading, works whose authors took time to craft.

The Pew Research Center survey in January revealed that 24% of all U.S. adults did not read a book in any format in the past year.

Usually the only opportunity for people to read classic books is when a teacher assigns one for a class.  And even then, too many young people bypass the actual text for websites which provide short summaries of chapters.

On the show, many people interviewed said that a book meant something special to them because a character or situation mirrored their lives. Women gravitated towards books written by women about women.

However, one does not have to find a book that is an exact replication of one’s life in order to find it relatable.

When I first read To Kill a Mockingbird, I connected with Atticus Finch even though I was 15 years old, not a father and not from the South.  It was his moral core that resonated with me.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I was with Maya Angelou emotionally when she described the pain she felt when a dentist refused to treat her because she was black even though I am not African-American, female, and have not felt the indignities of racism.

If we all just choose to read books written by people with the same race, religion, and age, we are just like those who only watch and hear programs that espouse their own political views.

Not long ago, Angelenos participated in a Big Read of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  Such a city-wide undertaking united people in the goal of reading the one book.

And that is truly the power of a writer when you can see yourself in an Oliver Twist or a Ma Joad, a person unlike you who is human like you.


Angelou U.S. Stamp Quotes Another Writer

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”   Screenwriters James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck wrote this famous line for the John Ford directed 1962 film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” starring John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart.

Such a sentiment was most recently on display when the United States Postal Service (USPS) unveiled its Maya Angelou stamp on Tuesday with First Lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey in attendance. On it is a quote: “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”

Unfortunately, those are not Angelou’s words.

The Washington Post broke the story on Monday after contacting the correct author, children’s book writer Joan Walsh Anglund. Here is the original quote as it appeared in her 1967 collection of poetry “A Cup of Sun”: “A bird does not sing because he has an answer. He sings because he has a song.”

Besides the change in pronoun gender, the correct quote has proper punctuation; the USPS’s version requires either a semi-colon or period to avoid being a run-on sentence.

Google the quote and Anglund’s name nary surfaces with most sources including Brainyquote attributing the words to Angelou.

Before laying blame completely on the dubious USPS fact checkers, the misquote was often used when introducing Angelou at public appearances without a word of clarification by her, so admirers naturally assumed it was hers.

As a teacher who has his students study her works, I was hoping to discover an explanation why Angelou never cleared that up. As of yet, I have been unable to find a reason.

Another quotation controversy occurred in 2013 when the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C. had to be revised less than two years after officially opening because one of the quotes inscribed was shortened resulting in a different connotation.

Here is what King said in a 1968 sermon:

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other things will not matter.”

Here is what was originally inscribed on the memorial:

“I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

Among the critics who took umbrage with the abbreviated version was none other than Maya Angelou.

I had a similar experience happen to me. When the College Board released a report on the teaching profession in 2006, a large quote appeared on the front page attributed to a former IBM CEO.   Except that he never said those words.

The quote came from my book, The $100,000 Teacher, verbatim without a single modified word. I guess quoting an executive from a large corporation carried more gravitas than a classroom teacher even though the subject was teaching and not computers.

No telling if the USPS plans on correcting its mistake or at the very least offering a public apology to the 89-year-old writer who has taken the high road with her graciousness about the blunder, telling the Post “I love her [Angelou] and all she’s done.”

The whole brouhaha could have been avoided in the first place if instead of using a 16-word quote that is not even her own, the postal folks selected the title from one of her best known poems that also embodies Angelou: Phenomenal Woman.