The notion of the Great American Novel is deeply ingrained in American culture. The term “Great American Novel” simultaneously describes historic novels from American authors that accurately captured a time period of American culture and idealizes the goal of producing or discovering such a work oneself. Authors want to write it. Readers want to discover it. (Copyeditors want to copyedit it.)

Ironically, the books that might be labeled as the Great American Novel are typically books that many Americans have never read. If you consider yourself an avid reader (as I consider myself), and you reflexively felt a little bit of painful truth in that statement, then you may be interested in my proposed solution to this problem called “The Great American Novel Challenge.”

In short, the goal of this challenge is to read and review 13 novels you have previously not read. The novels must qualify as candidates for the title of the Great American Novel. After completing this challenge, you can claim with confidence that you have attempted to read the Great American Novel. There are 13 official rules for anyone wishing to participate in The Great American Novel Challenge:

  1. Seek out the 13 novels you consider to be contenders for the title of the Great American Novel. This rule is intended to allow for a broad range of books while also picking a number with some significance for American culture: There were 13 original colonies that eventually became American states.
  2. The authors of these books must be American. Because immigration is a huge part of American culture, this can include authors who immigrated to America and were American citizens for much of their lives.
  3. Pick at most two books from any decade. Most lists of this sort will have serious clumping in the 1930′s or the 1960′s. This rule is intended to subvert that, at least partially. We’re seeking diversity!
  4. Choose only one book per author. This rule is also intended to improve the diversity of the experience because America is a pretty darn diverse place.
  5. Select only fictional novels. Do not pick histories, abriged summaries, biographies, poetry, manifestos, etc.
  6. Choose only books you have not previously read. You can pick books that you were supposed to have read in high school, but you didn’t actually read or you can’t remember reading. (My own high school English teachers are probably flabbergasted at the thought of me starting a challenge like this.) The point here is to broaden your own experiences. Besides, the Great American Novel is really more of a search or a journey than a book or a thing.
  7. Post a review on your blog on the 4th of every month from July 4, 2009 up to and including July 4, 2010. Thus, your first book review would be posted July 4, 2009. It would be followed by your second book review on August 4, 2009, your third book review on September 4, 2009, and so on. It seems like an appropriate timeline for finding the Great American Novel.
  8. Do not disclose your list publicly; each book must be a surprise announced no more than one month ahead of time. Plus, this will give you the ability to allow your early selections to influence your later selections. Keep the goal in mind as you progress through the challenge and remember that you’ve only got thirteen selections to make.
  9. Your posted review must explain how you feel the novel has contributed to American literature and culture. There are no length or formatting requirements for these reviews. In fact, this is the only real content requirement. I believe the Great American Novel is one that captures and explains a weird little piece of the American experience that all Americans notice, even if it is so tacit that we never speak about it. You may have your own definition or understanding of the Great American Novel, and that’s perfectly fine as long as you explain what it is and how you feel the book you chose fits or doesn’t fit it.
  10. You must actually read the novel you choose. This is a pretty basic rule, and it is implied by the other rules. However, sometimes rules like this are stronger when you actually write them out. This is not high school. There is no test; there is no grade. If you choose to accept this challenge, then the only thing you have at stake is pride. Of course, Americans are a proud people from time to time.
  11. Post a final review of your thirteen month experience searching for the Great American Novel no earlier than July 5, 2010 and no later than August 4, 2010. As a part of this review, try include a list of the books you wished you could have read during the challenge and why. Talk about what you learned and which books you would re-read. You may also wish to pick a single novel that you thinks is *the* Great American Novel.
  12. If you post a book review on your blog on July 4, 2009, then you have formally accepted this challenge. Everyone will know if you don’t live up to it. If you accept this challenge, then your pride is on the line. Can you actually read thirteen candidate Great American Novels in thirteen months?
  13. In one of the thirteen months of this challenge, you must break these rules. What can I say? Americans like to break rules. You get to pick which month and which rules, so be creative in how you choose to do it. Don’t forget to explain how you broke the rules and why.

Do not take this challenge lightly. Reading and reviewing 13 books in 13 months is not easy. Only 37% of Americans read more than 10 books per year. It may even be the case that one in four Americans don’t read at all. Do not be discouraged by these numbers! Take the challenge seriously, but set your goals high and see what happens! I believe the challenge will be extremely rewarding even if we all fail halfway through. If you leave a comment on this post or link to it with a trackback or pingback, then I will post a summary of all the participating blogs. Our posts will also encourage one another to keep reading, writing, and posting.

Finally, I would urge those of you wishing to participate in this challenge to spread the word. There’s more than a month before the challenge begins, so you have plenty of time to pick your first book, read it, and post a review on the 4th of July. The more people participating, the more likely we will all be able to complete the challenge.