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The American Experience, By The Book

America By The Book

Just in time for this week's presidential election, here’s a list of ten books that I think help to explain 'The American Experience.'

This is list of personal favorites and by no means an authoritative list - it varies widely in styles, genres, and publication dates, but what unites these stories is that each one captures a particular moment in time or singular voice that is distinctly American. Whether reading these stories as an American or as an outsider, each one communicates a powerful spectrum of perspectives. In these books are truths that are not always pleasant, convenient, or easy to swallow - but they are important because they remind us how far we have come and how far we still have to go as a nation.

1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

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This classic book is a serious morality tale wrapped in the guise of a downriver adventure. At the very heart of Huck Finn is the title character’s struggle to reconcile the mainstream racism of his generation with the basic truths of humanity coming of age in his heart. Why is this essential Americana? Because, in Huck Finn Twain holds up a mirror to American hypocrisy and takes on the great sin of the history of The United States (slavery) without (miraculously!) coming off as preachy. 

2. Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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This may very well be the most important book of 2015 / 2016. Written ostensibly as a letter to his teenage son, Between the World and Me is author Ta-Nehisi Coates’ powerful memoir of growing up as a black man in America. This slim book is a hard-hitting, deeply personal, non-fiction read, full of blunt condemnations of a system that has, for centuries, marginalized millions of African Americans. This book will change the way you see the African American experience.

3. Beach Music by Pat Conroy

In early 2016, America lost a literary lion when Pat Conroy passed away suddenly. Better known for the best sellers The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides, Beach Music is an essential American story because it is a love letter to the golden age of American post WWII prosperity. The language of this sprawling, Southern family saga is poetry posing as prose, and contained within the book’s pages is a colorful cast of American characters who display the great diaspora of the nation and the family units that make up it’s people.

4. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

For those of you wondering how in the world Donald Trump could appeal to such a significant portion of the American populace, there are plenty of clues in this book. Another recent, best selling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy tells the story of a young man coming to age in the industrial ‘Rust Belt’ of America, part of the shrinking culture of blue collar working class whites. Vance’s book tells the story of growing up in a volatile home, a dying town, and as a part of a threatened way of life. This is a timely and touching that helps to shatter the prejudice that comes with stereotyping others.

5. On The Road by Jack Kerouac

Everybody has heard of On The Road, but many less have actually read this groundbreaking 1957 novel. An icon of the Beat generation, On The Road blurs the lines between memoir and fiction, documenting a group of friends traveling on a wild jazz- and sex- and drugged-fueled road trip across America. Once controversial, now considered a classic, this book is a celebration of freedom, of driving the roads of America, of youth, and of the universal quest to find meaning.

6. Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck

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Like On The Road, Travels with Charley is the story of an ambitious road trip that criss crosses the vast American nation. Unlike On The Road, Charley features no illicit drugs or sex, but, instead, the observations and insights of author John Steinbeck as he drives along the highways and byways of the good ole USA with his standard poodle Charley. After writing fiction about the American experience for decades (East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath), this book is Steinbeck’s non-fiction(ish) account of what it was like to hit the road and reengage with the people and country he loved so well.

7. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

This Pulitzer Prize winning novel is a sweet, hilarious, and challenging; the fictional story of Oscar De León, a chubby, comic book obsessed Dominican boy growing up in New Jersey. Featuring several styles, several narrators, and quite a bit of ‘Spanglish,’ Diaz’s novel is part immigrant memoir, part magical realism, and part coming of age story. In reading this book, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll get illuminating glimpses into what it means to grow up in one place, but to also ‘be from’ somewhere else.

8. A Good Man is Hard To Find by Flannery O’Connor

This collection of stories by Flannery O’Connor’s is absolutely perfect. Each of the book’s ten tales thrusts the reader into a scene populated by characters so real, so Southern, so utterly American, that it’s hard to believe it was published over 70 years ago. At times contemplative, at other times brutally violent - this book portrays an American South haunted by racial inequality and possessed by strange and incongruous religious spirits. A Good Man Is Hard To Find deserves to be read and reread.

9. One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

Best known for his travel books recounting his travels in the US, Britain, Australia, and along the Appalachian Trail, author Bill Bryson has spent much of his life on the move. But, in the this book, Bryson settles in one particular moment in America’s history: that eventful summer of 1927 when Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, Babe Ruth hit 60 homeruns, Sacco and Vanzetti went on trial, and The Jazz Singer became the first ‘talking’ motion picture. Far more than a collection of facts, One Summer is a fascinating and humorous snapshot of America during one of it’s most adventurous, most innovative, and most prosperous periods.

10. Beloved by Toni Morrison

A masterpiece of American fiction, Beloved is a story of slavery and freedom. It is a story of a mother and her daughter. It is also, both figuratively and literally, a ghost story. Described by The New York Times as “one of the best works of American fiction from 1981 to 2006,” Beloved received the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 and was later adapted into a movie starring Oprah Winfrey. When asked why Morrison had chosen to write Beloved, the author replied that because, “there [existed] no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall [honoring the millions of Africans brought to America as slaves]...this book had to.”