Sunday, October 19, 2014

American Books One Might Want to Get to Before Others

I have a new friend from England, C. C admits to being woefully underread when it comes to "American Classics."

C wanted a list of American books I thought were worth reading, so I made one. I stuck to ten novels. Here's my list:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird: Harper Lee wrote one of those books you can never unread. It's simply the truest American story ever told.
  • The crying of Lot 49: Thomas Pynchon's shortest novel isn't his best, but it's the best to get to know this writer and see if you want to try out heftier tomes like Gravity's Rainbow and V., which is my personal favorite.
  • On the Road: Kerouac beats Thompson when it comes to writing about the American Dream. I think I've read everything by Kerouac, and I like Lonesome Traveler more than On the Road, but you have to start at the beginning.
  • Lolita: Nabokov wrote possibly the best novel of the 20th century, called himself an American novelist, and the book takes place in the US, so don't try to tell me this doesn't count. If you can read, you have to read this.
  • The Sun Also Rises: Fucking Hemingway had to write this one first. I think it's his best book, and I think the way the Lost Generation felt might be the way this one does in a lot of ways. Anyway, I think it's timeless.
  • Sea Wolf: Jack London wrote the greatest sea adventure ever written, according to Carl Sandburg. How he's more famous for his dog books, I'll never understand. Anyway, this book is about a poet trapped on a ship with Nietzsche, and supposedly the captain is based on a real guy who used to go to one of my favorite bars on the planet: Heinhold's First and Last Chance Saloon.
  • Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer: You have to read one or both. It's mandatory. Race, youth, class, yeah, Mark Twain had it all.
  • The Catcher in the Rye: They make people read this one too young. Then they bury you with criticism about it. I think I've read this book four times. Each time, I get something different and hate my teachers more. 
  • Moby Dick: Melville's better book might be White Jacket, some people say, but I never read White Jacket more than once. Moby Dick is possibly the greatest novel ever written and is experimental by even today's standards. If you say it's slow, watch a YouTube video instead. Yes, when I read this the first time as a young man, I struggled through some of it, but argh, thank god I did. 
  • A Movable Feast: I feel a little guilty putting Papa on here twice. I'm not really a Hemingway freak, but this book has so much going for it. Wonder what it was like in Paris after the war? Read this. Gertrude Stein is in it. I love this book.

On a personal note:

  • Legend of Greystoke: When it comes to prolific sci-fi writers, Edgar Rice Burroughs is, in my opinion, the best. I know, Lovecraft. Yeah, Lovecraft is wonderful, and everyone should read at least the Mountains of Madness, but I had to cut him because Edgar Rice Burroughs is just a better writer in the end.

Canadian Honorable Mentions:

  • Yann Martel: Life of Pi and Virgil and Beatrice.
  • Douglas Coupland: Microserfs, Girlfriend in a Coma, Life after God, Generation X
  • Margaret Attwood: Handmaid's Tale

White guys I wanted to put on this list but didn't make it:

  • Truman Capote
  • Cormac McCarthy
  • William Faulkner
  • Thomas Wolfe
  • Henry Miller
  • Others already mentioned and even more I don't want to.

Women I should have put on this list:

  • Zora Neal Hurston
  • Toni Morrison
  • Kate Chopin

Black guys I should have put on this list:

  • Chester Himes
  • Ralph Ellison
  • Richard Wright
  • Ishmael Reed
  • Amiri Baraka
Anyway, that's my list. The last thing is, I think Howl should be mandatory American reading. It's a book of poetry, but I didn't want to leave this post without explicitly mentioning HOWL by Alan Ginsberg. I'll have to find C. a copy somewhere.

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