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September 08, 2006


Well, here goes. My ten books. (I might add some commentary explaining why I chose each one, and make it a blog post -- it was a very interesting exercise.) There's a huge gaping hole here -- the immigrant experiece, which only Chuzzlewit addresses. But the immigrant experiences are all so different, according to where people came from, that I felt I couldn't even begin. You'd need a list of thirty books to even start.

Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
Charles Dickens Martin Chuzzlewit
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
H.D. Thoreau, Walden
William Faulkner, Light in August
Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Donald Westlake, (any of the Dortmunder series)
Shelby Foote, The Civil War

Fantastic! Exactly what I was hoping for. And - not surprisingly - I haven't read some of these. I'd love to read your comments on each of them, Dale.

OK - who wants to go next? (Are we agreed that these are mostly going to be novels and poetry?)

I'm not sure I can come up with ten, but off the top of my head I'd echo Dale on Twain, Whitman, and Thoreau. I've not read Faulkner's Light in August but agree something by him should be on the list. (I was thinking Absalom, Absalom as a good corrective to the kind of Gone With the Wind stereotype foreigners sometimes have about the American south since Absalom and GWTW were published in the same year, I believe.)

The first book that popped to mind, though, was William Least Heat Moon's PrairyErth: there absolutely must be something on the list that speaks of the American heartland.

Then again, there should be more women on the list, so here's nominating Willa Cather's O Pioneers!.

Oh! God, I can't believe I left out Beverly Cleary. (Of course, what would I take *off* my list, to make room?) But, say Ramona the Pest. (Okay, yeah, that makes two Oregonians. Sue me.)

I saw I was short on women, yeah, Lorianne. But the women I thought of seemed all to inhabit atypical American spaces -- Sarah Orne Jewett, Kate Chopin, Emily Dickinson, Ursula Leguin -- wonderful writers, but they won't tell you much about mainstream America.

And, speaking of Least Heat Moon, his Riverhorse would be a strong contender, too.

Explaining the unexplainable? Maybe these would help a little bit: Philip Roth's "American Pastoral" and "Sabbath's Theater" and Thomas Frank's "One Market Under God" and "What's The Matter With Kansas?".

I'll limit myself to three.

Philip Roth's The Human Stain, in addition to being a great novel, is an incisive view into America's problem of identity politics. Roth shows how frightening a place America can be for people who, for one reason or another, find themselves at the mercy of public morals. If the folks in Sweden finally give him the you-know-what, it won't be a moment too soon.

Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club (which I'm currently reading) is subtitled "A Story of Ideas in America." It does a fine job of explaining how some of America's good ideas (especially the one now called "pragmatism") came to life. Menand does this by telling the very interesting stories of the lives of four men: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey. He makes a wonderful case for the uniqueness of the American experiment, and helps me understand why so many people (myself included) have chosen to be a part of it.

I think one important thing to understand about America is that an "American" might not look or sound "American" (whatever that might mean to a foreigner). The American novelist Vladimir Nabokov is a good example of this (among millions). I'd recommend his hilarious novel Pnin, which captures the absurdities and joys of the American liberal arts college from the point of view of an immigrant. It's a book Nabokov could not have written were it not for the life that coming to America made possible for him. And it's short: you could read the whole thing in two days.

I'm coming up with ideas in dribs & drabs: now you see how I design course reading lists, one text at a time!

Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun would address racism & the American dream. And can we find a place for Jack Kerouac? On the Road seems quintessentially American to me, but perhaps that's my own particular (and thoroughly American) fascination with the open road.

No one's mentioned a quintessential self-made American man like Ben Franklin. As much as his Autobiography would provide a great snapshot of American optimism, I'm thinking a text like Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass would give a truer sense of a real Representative Man (to borrow a phrase from Emerson, another dead white guy no one's mentioned). I don't think we can talk about the "American experience" without talking about race, so I'm glad to see Invisible Man on Dale's list; how interesting it would be to read Douglass alongside Ellison alongside, say, Malcolm X...

Okay, I'm getting carried away, and I'm sure other titles will come to mind as I continue stewing this.

William Carlos Williams, The Doctor Stories
Toni Morrison, Beloved
Mark Twain, Roughing It
William Kennedy, Ironweed
May Swenson, Nature
Ai, Cruelty/Killing Floor
Charles Reznikoff, Testimony
Brian Swann, ed., Coming to Light: Contemporary Translations of Native Literatures of North America
Bruce Weigl, Song of Napalm
Barry Lopez, Field Notes

Some inspired choices here.

What about Steinbeck? Can we leave out The Grapes of Wrath? I'd prefer Willa Cather's My Antonia to O Pioneers, I think. Nothing by Mailer? Saul Bellow? even Salinger? I'm with Lorrianne on including Kerouac.

Grapes of Wrath was in my first-draft list, but I took it out for some reason. I didn't think the point was to list favorite works or even necessarily great works, though most of the items i my list fit one or other of those categories. I forgot about children's lirerature, though. (When I left my comment, only the first three comments were visible.)

Beth, I'm curious to know why you prefer My Antonia over O Pioneers? I know others share your preference, but Antonia didn't resonate with me the way Pioneers did. Perhaps it merits a re-read.

Another book that I'd love to see on this list is Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, which explores the post-WWII experience of a Native American soldier. In addition to expanding the notion of "America" to include Native Americans, Ceremony grapples with America's military might and the kind of environmental havoc it has involved, with part of the book centering around the atomic tests done in the western American desert, where "only" Native Americans and Mormons like Terry Tempest Williams's family were presumed to live.

So, come to think of it, Williams' Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place might be a good addition to the list, which might have to be expanded to the Top 100 books about America...

the known world: edward p jones
the adventures of huckleberry finn: mark twain
leaves of grass: walt whitman
intruder in the dust: william faulkner
the wasteland: ts elliot

Nabokov's "Pnin", definitely, as well as "Lolita". Carson McCullers "The Member of the Wedding". Kerouac, absolutely. And Ginsberg's "Howl". Arthur Miller "Death of a Salesman" and other plays of his. Norman Mailer, yes. What about cartoonists? Steinberg, Schulz, Thurber,

Ok here is my list....

1. Howard Zinn...The People's History of the United States
2. Sinclair Lewis...It Can't Happen Here
3. Sinclair Lewis...The Jungle
4. Allen Ginsburg....Howl
5. Walt Whitman...Leaves of Grass
6. John Steinbeck...The Grapes of Wrath
7. Luis J. Rodriguez..Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA
8. The Boyscout Handbook
9. The Betty Crocker Cookbook
10. Anne Winters.... The Displaced of Capital

These lists are always fun to read and to write. Ask me the same question after lunch and my list might be different. I just realized I left out Studs Terkel, Jane Jacobs, Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost and Herbert Asbury

Might the country’s longest standing best seller accurately say something about who America is? And hasn’t that been, year after year after year, for so long that they no longer include it on the lists, and second only to the Bible, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, assumed by most to be the sacred tome on capitalism and being an American? (I happen to think the vast majority of readers actually completely up-end the meaning of the book, as my adult son pointed out to me.)

Otherwise, the two I would pick, from where I sit today, to best describe America, or at least to best expose a large dark side we tend to deny, are:

1. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, (which I just finished listening to), and
2. The Working Poor: Invisible In America, by David K. Shipler

And for some rather phenomenally disturbing insight, involving a couple of our largest cities:
Hands To Work: Three Women Navigate the World of Welfare Deadlines and Work Rules, by LynNell Hancock

My reasons are too many (and probably too rant-ish) to post here, or at least, are much too wordy, but they can be read at my own site.

I like this idea. Thanks, Beth.

The books that have been suggested provide a wonderful historical overview of American literature, as well as an almost nostalgic portrait of America's social history, but to me they're like offering the photograph of a child as evidence of what the adult has become: Unless you know the subject already, it's almost impossible to imagine who he/she might be today, as much as 40-50 years (or more!) later.

So to provide a more accurate sense of a specific time and place, especially when that time is now and that place is the powerful and ever-mutating U.S. (may I assume you're not referring to Canada, Mexico, or Central and Latin American countries when you use the word "America"?), I think it's more helpful to recommend contemporary or near-contemporary works. I'd consider books like Stephen Wright's GOING NATIVE, Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD (available 9/26), Chuck Palahniuk's FIGHT CLUB (or better yet, the film by David Fincher), Kate Braverman's FRANTIC TRANSMISSIONS TO AND FROM LOS ANGELES, and/or maybe Braverman's THE INCANTATION OF FRIDA K., Neal Stephenson's CRYPTONOMICON, John Edgar Wideman's TWO CITIES: A LOVE STORY, etc. While none of these is necessarily great literature (except perhaps McCarthy's), or destined to become a classic, or even representative of its author's best work (except, again, McCarthy's), together they should give any foreigner (and many a native) a good idea of what they're up against when they're trying to figure out "America."

Oh, and I just remembered Harold Bloom's THE AMERICAN RELIGION, which is almost essential reading for this purpose.

Oooh, I'm seeing some great additions. How could I have forgotten Ginsberg's Howl or Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which is denigrated as a work of "sentimental fiction" because it spotlights 19th attitudes toward domesticity.

Fred, I love you for adding Betty Crocker's cookbook: of course! And Natalie, I'd echo anything by Thurber: he's from my hometown (Columbus, OH), you know, so I feel a particular kinship.

Do we have anything here that points to the suburban experience? If there's anything "uniquely American" in America, I'm afraid suburbia would qualify.

"Do we have anything here that points to the suburban experience?"

Not exactly suburban, but the first book I thought of when I read this post was Continental Drift by Russell Banks. The dual storyline of an American family from the northeast trying to find a better life among the strip malls of Florida and that of Hatian immigrants making there way to the same promise land of Florida seem to sum up the American condition.

I am glad to hear someone mentioned Studs Terkel. He's a hero.

I've been thinking about this for two days. I fist came up with a list of American writers who have influenced me over the years. One of them was Russell Banks' "Continental Drift".

But then I thought, though the suggestions of books above are wonderful, why must an interpretation and understanding of America always be best by Americans themselves? I find that very often outside opinions and views are either not welcome or simply waived off as insignificant. "They just can't understand us," I've read in so many places. There are people like me who are in the middle, for whom America is a great part, but who are also not wholly American. One of the new global mongrels. What about books by people from outside the States who have made a strong effort to understand it or who have been deeply formed by it? Here is my list (not all exceptional books, but which have had strong effect on me):

"America"- Jean Baudrillard. This will bound to rub a lot of Americans the wrong way, but it is insightful and keenly rational. A lot of wisdom and perceptiveness here.

"A Turn In the South"- V.S. Naipaul. Ascerbic and often tending to look for the bad in things, it nonetheless views with a new eye.

"A Walk in the Woods"- A hilarious account of an ex-patriot American returning to America after years away going for a walk along the Appalachian Trail.

"Break the Mirror"- Poems by the wandering Japanese poet Nanao Sakaki, a close friend of Gary Snyder. He was very deeply influenced by America and its different mindset to Japan's. Rather than explaining how America influenced him, he lives it, in his life and his poems.

"America is In the Heart"- Carlos Bulosan. One of the first Asian-American writers he tells of the hardship of trying to be recognized as an American. His experience is very close to that of my Filipino-American paternal grandfather.

"Interperter of Maladies"- Jhumpa Lahiri. She tells of the lives of present day American immigrants through some of these short stories.

"The Middleman and Other Stories"- Bharati Mukherjee. Mukherjee herself was an immigrant in several countries. Her short stories delve into the lives of people like herself.

"The Global Soul"- Pico Iyer. An Indian-American, Iyer, like me, doesn't know where he belongs. America is made up of people who have lost their cultural certainty, the newer the immigrant generation the more confusing.

"Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee"- Dee Brown. Many Americans would argue that Native Americans are very much Americans, but I maintain that they are a foreign culture in their own land (I was shocked when I first returned to the States after growing up in Japan and met a Siuslaw Indian who became a very close friend. His mannerisms, joking style, even sense of nature and respect were so similar to Japanese people that it made me wonder if the Bering Land Bridge connected the peoples in more ways than just a historical migration. Most Americans today know very little about Native American culture or world views or even daily life. This book definitely opens the eyes. A more modern version of Native American life today would be ""The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" by Sherman Alexie (movie, "Smoke Signals").

Man, that was hard coming up with this list! Can we go to comic books now? Now THEY really tell a lot about America! My favorite was the Spider Man series. I couldn't stand "Archie". Completely had nothing to do with the world I was living in.

Some good lists. What would I add? Melville's Moby Dick, Hawthorne's Sleepy Hollow, Poe's The Telltale Heart, and Crane's The Red Badge of Courage.

And then there are those who would have to be included, if you like them or not, as they are so clearly "American," such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

My two personal choices; Kerouac's On the Road and Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America.

In the humor category, since Westlake has already been mentioned, anything by Carl Hiaasen.

And finally, something by Robertson Davies (Canadians count, right?) ;)

BTW, Beth, during my last weekly pilgrimage to our local Borders, your book was displayed on the front table. Imagine that! (And yes, I bought a copy!) Good stuff. I'll be offering discussions on it soon.

I was glad to see two mentions of Donald Westlake, a master at creating believable and entertaining American dialogue... and also Carl Hiaasen, whose farcical tales are bolstered by a strong ecological ethos.

I'm also a Russell Banks fan.

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