‘The Great American Read,’ a PBS miniseries celebrating America’s 100 best-loved novels, returns Sept. 11.
Meredith Vieira is trying to make it through “A Game of Thrones.”
The former “Today” show personality, now hosting the eight-part PBS series “The Great American Read,” admits she’s struggled to keep straight the complicated names and maps from the George R. R. Martin epic after a friend challenged her to read it. After all, she told Moneyish, fantasy books are “just not my thing” — and it’s hard to retain much plot if you fall asleep reading it.
“I have come so close to watching it (the HBO series) just so I can tell him, ‘Well, yeah, I read it,’ and I’ll know enough about the plot,” she said. “But then I can’t — I was raised a good Catholic girl, so I can’t do that.”
This latest chapter in Vieira’s storied broadcast career takes an inventory of the 100 best-loved novels as determined by a “demographically and statistically representative” survey of about 7,200 Americans. Titles include “A Game of Thrones”; “The Great Gatsby”; “Invisible Man”; “Gone Girl”; “Charlotte’s Web”; “Don Quixote”; the Harry Potter series; and, of course, “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
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Throughout the miniseries, which premiered May 22 and returns Sept. 11, Vieira guides viewers through the themes and impact of these works with input from celebrities, authors and other luminaries. The show also urges viewers to read the books and vote for their favorites — “one vote for each book per voting method every day” — via “The Great American Read” website, social media hashtags and text messages. Readers had cast nearly two million votes by late July, according to a PBS press release; the Oct. 23 finale will crown one winner “America’s best-loved novel.”
“(The goal) was to remind people of something special in their lives that maybe they have let go by the wayside a little bit,” Vieira said. “And that is a love of literature, and the joy of reading, and of having conversations with people that don’t end in swear words or stomping out, but real discussions about characters and places that you love that change the way you feel about things, or that ignite passions in you.”
While the voting component serves as “a great hook,” she added, the show is “more about just getting people back into the tent of reading for the joy for reading, and remembering what a great pleasure it is, and how much you can learn from books.”
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Vieira herself has read about 33 of the 100, which include an early favorite of hers, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” That book’s exploration of racism and bigotry, she said, helped shape her sense of right and wrong as a teen growing up in Rumford, R.I. “To see that there was real evil in our country, and yet real heroes like Atticus Finch, who stood his ground and stood up to intolerance and taught his children to do that — that to me was such a moral lesson of how you live your life,” she said.
The former “60 Minutes” correspondent laments that her novel-reading declined after her teenage years, as she began to consume more newspapers, magazines and nonfiction, and “kind of forgot what a joy a novel can be.” (Nearly a quarter of U.S. adults haven’t read a book in part or in full over the past year, according to Pew Research Center.)
So what advice can she offer busy, working adults yearning to carve out time to read for fun? “My greatest pleasure always, when I think of reading books, is getting into bed with a book with either a glass of wine or a cup of tea or whatever it is, and allowing yourself that time alone to just be you and the book. It’s a very personal relationship,” she said.
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“If you just get yourself to do that … If you can pick something that you’ve been told is great, or you’ve always wanted to read, or you’ve read and you have a wonderful feeling about it … it’s like a friend grabbing you back and saying, ‘I’m here. I never left you. You might’ve left me, but I never left you,’” she added. “It’s like an enveloping kind of warm, fuzzy feeling.”
As for the rise of celebrity book clubs — including the sales-boosting picks curated by women like Reese Witherspoon and Oprah Winfrey — Vieira declared that “anything that gets people reading is great” and suggested celeb book-club helmers “might be onto something.” “It’s not the only way I would get my choices determined for me,” she added. “I think it’s great to talk to librarians, it’s great to go into bookstores, it’s great to talk to your friends. I love reading the New York Times Book Review — there’s all kinds of ways you can get ideas about books, and the more the merrier.”
Vieira expressed an interest in reading “Fear,” journalist Bob Woodward’s just-released Trump administration exposé; President Trump dismissed the book as “discredited” and called on Washington to “change libel laws” amid controversy over the Watergate sleuth’s unfavorable portrait. Asked more broadly what journalists can do to weather today’s increasingly anti-media sentiment, Vieira suggested they simply keep “doing their job.”
“Getting at the truth is a very difficult thing to do, but it is the job of the media to cut through and to allow the public to know what’s going on … We can’t not do our job,” she said. “To back off or to respond with ugly rhetoric of our own — that doesn’t get you anywhere. I just think you get up every day, and you put your shoes on, and you grab your reporter’s notebook and pen … and you just go and fight the fight. And remember who you’re doing it for — you’re doing it for the people. You’re their watchdog.”
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