“Other Worlds,” the final themed episode of PBS’ The Great American Read—a new eight-part series that explores and celebrates the power of reading, told through the prism of America’s 100 favorite novels—brought us on a journey to some extraordinary lands, both real and imagined, enchanting and terrifying, last night.
In spotlighting a selection of the most beloved works of science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction—which featured contributions from George R.R. Martin, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Wil Wheaton, Venus Williams, Kevin Young, and more—”Other Worlds” considered what books like Dune, The Lord of the Rings, and One Hundred Years of Solitude tell us about our own world, and how they can help us better understand real life and present day concerns.
As we do the day after each week’s themed episode airs, we looked back through our Classic Reviews Archive to show you what the critics first wrote about some of the books that have, for decades now, transported readers to fantastical places.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice…
“Macondo oozes, reeks and burns even when it is most tantalizing and entertaining. It is a place flooded with lies and liars and yet it spills over with reality. Lovers in this novel can idealize each other into bodiless spirits, howl with pleasure in their hammocks or, as in one case, smear themselves with peach jam and roll naked on the front porch. The hero can lead a Quixotic expedition across the jungle, but although his goal is never reached, the language describing his quest is pungent with life.
“It is not easy to describe the techniques and themes of the book without making it sound absurdly complicated, labored and almost impossible to read. In fact, it is none of these things. Though concocted of quirks, ancient mysteries, family secrets and peculiar contradictions, it makes sense and gives pleasure in dozens of immediate ways.
“…to isolate details, even good ones, from this novel is to do it particular injustice. Márquez creates a continuum, a web of connections and relationships. However bizarre or grotesque some particulars may be, the larger effect is one of great gusto and good humor and, even more, of sanity and compassion. The author seems to be letting his people half-dream and half-remember their own story and what is best, he is wise enough not to offer excuses for the way they do it. No excuse is really necessary. For Macondo is no never-never land. Its inhabitants do suffer, grow old and die, but in their own way.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
“This is the book that answers ‘The Great Question, The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.’ The answer, as it happens, is ‘forty-two.’ Since the largest computer ever built (known as Deep Thought) takes seven-and-a-half million years to come up with the answer, the disappointment of the original questioners is perhaps understandable. They are even more disappointed when they learn that the only way to understand the answer is to phrase the question a little more specifically. For this, an even bigger computer and another ten million years are required. It turns out that this computer…
“But that is telling the story in chronological order, a narrative trick that Douglas Adams (who once wrote discontinuity for Monty Python’s Flying Circus) is never guilty of. He prefers to tell his stories backward, sideway and even inside out if that will help anyone, which it probably won’t. Suffice it to say that the hero of this novel is a perfectly ordinary Englishman named Arthur Dent whose house is about to be knocked down to make room for a bypass. Dent has a friend named Ford Prefect who looks like a perfectly ordinary Englishman but who actually comes ‘from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse and not from Guilford as he usually claimed.’ He is, in fact, a ‘roving researcher’ for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is just what it sounds like – a compendium of useful information that outsells even the Encyclopedia Galactica. (Where else can you discover six important reasons for carrying a towel when traveling between the stars?)
“Humorous science fiction novels have notoriously limited audiences; they tend to be full of ‘in’ jokes understandable only to those who read everything from Jules Verne to Harlan Ellison. The Hitchhiker’s Guide is a delightful exception, being written for anyone who can understand the thrill that might come to a crew of interstellar explorers who discover a mysterious planet, dead for five million years, and then hear on their ‘sub etha’ radio a ghostly voice, hollow, reedy, insubstantial: ‘Greetings to you. … This is a recorded announcement, as I’m afraid we’re all out at the moment…’”
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Run for your life from any man who tells you that money is evil.
That sentence is the leper’s bell of an approaching looter.
“The news about this book seems to me to be that any ordinarily sensible head could not possibly take it seriously, and that, apparently, a good many do. Somebody has called it: ‘Excruciatingly awful.’ I find it a remarkably silly book. It is certainly a bumptious one. Its story is preposterous. It reports the final stages of a final conflict (locale: chiefly the United States, some indefinite years hence) between the harried ranks of free enterprise and the ‘looters.’ These are proponents of proscriptive taxes, government ownership, labor, etc., etc. The mischief here is that the author, dodging into fiction, nevertheless counts on your reading it as political reality. ‘This,’ she is saying in effect, ‘is how things really are. These are the real issues, the real sides. Only your blindness keeps you from seeing it, which, happily, I have come to rescue you from.’
Since a great many of us dislike much that Miss Rand dislikes, quite as heartily as she does, many incline to take her at her word. It is the more persuasive, in some quarters, because the author deals wholly in the blackest blacks and the whitest whites. In this fiction everything, everybody, is either all good or all bad, without any of those intermediate shades which, in life, complicate reality and perplex the eye that seeks to probe it truly. This kind of simplifying pattern, of course, gives charm to most primitive storyknown as: The War between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. In modern dress, it is a class war. Both sides to it are caricatures.”
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men, doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
“Seventeen years ago there appeared, without any fanfare, a book called The Hobbit which, in my opinion, is one of the best children’s stories of this century. In The Fellowship of the Ring, which is the first volume of a trilogy, J. R. R. Tolkien continues the imaginative history of the imaginary world to which he introduced us in his earlier book but in a manner suited to adults, to those, that is, between the ages of 12 and 70. For anyone who likes the genre to which it belongs, the Heroic Quest, I cannot imagine a more wonderful Christmas present. All Quests are concerned with some numinous Object, the Waters of Life, the Grail, buried treasure etc.; normally this is a good Object which it is the Hero’s task to find or to rescue from the Enemy, but the Ring of Mr. Tolkien’s story was made by the Enemy and is so dangerous that even the good cannot use it without being corrupted.
The first thing that one asks is that the adventure should be various and exciting; in this respect Mr. Tolkien’s invention is unflagging, and, on the primitive level of wanting to know what happens next, The Fellowship of the Ring is at least as good as The Thirty-Nine Steps. Of any imaginary world the reader demands that it seem real, and the standard of realism demanded today is much stricter than in the time, say, of Malory. Mr. Tolkien is fortunate in possessing an amazing gift for naming and a wonderfully exact eye for description; by the time one has finished his book one knows the histories of Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves and the landscape they inhabit as well as one knows one’s own childhood.
Lastly, if one is to take a tale of this kind seriously, one must feel that, however superficially unlike the world we live in its characters and events may be, it nevertheless holds up the mirror to the only nature we know, our own; in this, too, Mr. Tolkien has succeeded superbly, and what happened in the year of the Shire 1418 in the Third Age of Middle Earth is not only fascinating in A. D. 1954 but also a warning and an inspiration. No fiction I have read in the last five years has given me more joy than The Fellowship of the Ring.”
“In The Return of the King, Frodo Baggins fulfills his Quest, the realm of Sauron is ended forever, the Third Age is over and J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings complete. I rarely remember a book about which I have had such violent arguments. Nobody seems to have a moderate opinion: either, like myself, people find it a masterpiece of its genre or they cannot abide it, and among the hostile there are some, I must confess, for whose literary judgment I have great respect. A few of these may have been put off by the first forty pages of the first chapter of the first volume in which the daily life of the hobbits is described; this is light comedy and light comedy is not Mr. Tolkien’s forte. In most cases, however, the objection must go far deeper. I can only suppose that some people object to Heroic Quests and Imaginary Worlds on principle; such, they feel, cannot be anything but light ‘escapist’ reading. That a man like Mr. Tolkien, the English philologist who teaches at Oxford, should lavish such incredible pains upon a genre which is, for them, trifling by definition, is, therefore, very shocking.
“If, as I believe, Mr. Tolkien has succeeded more completely than any previous writer in this genre in using the traditional properties of the Quest, the heroic journey, the Numinous Object, the conflict between Good and Evil while at the same time satisfying our sense of historical and social reality, it should be possible to show how he has succeeded. To begin with, no previous writer has, to my knowledge, created an imaginary world and a feigned history in such detail. By the time the reader has finished the trilogy, including the appendices to this last volume, he knows as much about Tolkien’s Middle Earth, its landscape, its fauna and flora, its peoples, their languages, their history, their cultural habits, as, outside his special field, he knows about the actual world.
Mr. Tolkien’s world may not be the same as our own: it includes, for example, elves, beings who know good and evil but have not fallen, and, though not physically indestructible, do not suffer natural death. It is afflicted by Sauron, an incarnate of absolute evil, and creatures like Shelob, the monster spider, or the orcs who are corrupt past hope of redemption. But it is a world of intelligible law, not mere wish; the reader’s sense of the credible is never violated.
“The demands made on the writer’s powers in an epic as long as The Lord of the Rings are enormous and increase as the tale proceeds-the battles have to get more spectacular, the situations more critical, the adventures more thrilling-but I can only say that Mr. Tolkien has proved equal to them. From the appendices readers will get tantalizing glimpses of the First and Second Ages. The legends of these are, I understand, already written and I hope that, as soon as the publishers have seen The Lord of the Rings into a paper-back edition, they will not keep Mr. Tolkien’s growing army of fans waiting too long.”
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Going outside is highly overrated.
“It might not sound like much, but if you’re the right age, the feeling of nostalgia can be almost overwhelming. Those arcade games, and those fond memories, are the subject of Ernest Cline’s unapologetically nerdy debut novel, Ready Player One. The narrative takes place 30 years into the future, but—to quote Lou Reed’s song ‘Down at the Arcade’—’its heart’s in 1984.’
Set in Oklahoma in 2044, Cline’s novel follows Wade Watts, a chubby, unpopular high-schooler who spends all his free time in the OASIS, a virtual-reality online game that’s become something like Second Life on steroids. The country has fallen into near-total collapse, with the majority of Americans living in abject poverty and dodging violent criminals on every corner. ‘I never wanted to return to the real world,’ Wade says. ‘Because the real world sucked.’
There’s no doubt that Cline had a very specific audience in mind, but don’t let the 1980s-intensive subject matter put you off. Ready Player One is ridiculously fun and large-hearted, and you don’t have to remember the Reagan administration to love it.
“I never thought I could be on the edge of my seat while reading about a session of the arcade game Joust, but the author’s energetic, deeply felt narrative makes it almost impossible to stop turning the pages. Cline is that rare writer who can translate his own dorky enthusiasms into prose that’s both hilarious and compassionate. It’s more fun than a day at the arcade—you’ll wish you could make it go on and on just by inserting more quarters.”
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
It’s like I told you last night son. The earth is mostly just a boneyard. But pretty in the sunlight.
“Lonesome Dove is Larry McMurtry’s loftiest novel, a wondrous work, drowned in love, melancholy, and yet, ultimately, exultant.
In Lonesome Dove, as in all of his previous stories, McMurtry lays the hope and despair of ordinary people’s lives side by side. He celebrates a world abundant with calamity and a human spirit wistful but prevailing.
McMurtry’s backdrop is America’s 19th-Century West, a post-Civil War land of cowboys, cattle, sagebrush and myth. That’s hardly a surprise: Today’s West has long been his homeland and the source of his genius. His novels, which include The Last Picture Show and Moving On, have been chronicles of the modern-day frontier, ruminations on how the Old West is slowly—but inexorably—being swallowed by a more mechanical, less romantic civilization. In Lonesome Dove, the chronicler of today’s West turns to yesterday’s West to drink, as it were, directly from his source.
McMurtry’s characters are as attached to the land as they ever will be to each other. The inhabitants of Lonesome Dove, the Texas city from which this story rises, have been born spang into the hands of the land, to wander it and learn the sadness of it until, eventually, it hands them back. ‘The earth,’ remarks Gus McCrae, the novel’s central character, ‘is mostly just a boneyard. But pretty in the sunlight.’
McMurtry has produced a compelling and memorable epic without sacrificing the fine detail with which he has always worked. This is his strongest, most cogent narrative to date. And that is its triumph.
Gus, white-haired and well-read, is an intellectual on horseback. His partner in the Hat Creek Cattle Co. is Woodrow Call, not as interested in women or conversation as his confederate. Both are aging Texas Rangers, no longer in service, but still possessing all their Rangering skills.
Together, they lead the men of their cattle company plus an assortment of colorful cowhands whom they pick up en route on a laborious drive north, pushing 3,000 head toward the untested and unknown reaches of Montana. On the way, they encounter the wrath of nature: hailstorms, dust storms, snowstorms, swollen rivers, water moccasins, locusts and, of course, Indians. The story is reminiscent of a number of Westerns. The deftness with which it is told is not.
Throughout this masterful work, there is hope and an understated sense of gratitude. As one cowhand puts it neatly, near death and facing the amputation of his gangrenous leg, ‘It’s a fine world, though rich in hardships at times.’
At the end of the journey, no riches wait. The journey is riches enough.”
The Great America Read TV Schedule
“Who Am I?”
Tuesday, September 18, 8:00-9:00 p.m. ET
Explore the ways that America’s best-loved novels answer the age-old question, “Who Am I?” From life lessons to spiritual journeys, these books help us understand our own identities and find our place in the world.
Tuesday, September 25, 8:00-9:00 p.m. ET
Follow the trials and tribulations of some of literature’s favorite heroes. From Katniss Everdeen to Don Quixote, examine how the everyday hero and the anti-hero find their inner strength, overcome challenges and rise to the occasion.
“Villains and Monsters”
Tuesday, October 2, 8:00-9:00 p.m. ET
Learn why literature’s most notorious villains began behaving badly. Many weren’t born evil, but became that way when faced with some of the same choices we make every day. See what these villains can teach us about our own dark impulses.
“What We Do For Love”
Tuesday, October 9, 8:00-9:00 p.m. ET
Fall in love with some of literature’s most beautiful romances and explore the many forms of love, from family to passion to the unrequited type. Learn how America’s best-loved novels reflect the things we do for love.
Tuesday, October 16, 8:00-9:00 p.m. ET
Take a magical journey to another world through some of America’s best-loved novels. From Middle Earth to Lilliput, the trials and tribulations of these alternate universes help us to better understand our own world.
Tuesday, October 23, 8:00-9:00 p.m. ET
America’s best-loved novel is revealed.