A reading list for our times:
Back in 2018 I ran out of gas – the current government had gotten on my last nerve, and my refuge, reading and writing about what I read, sort of failed me for awhile. I went back into playing music (still very much doing that – working on a solo album right now with the aid of my sons, former members of the band Doco) which gives me a lot of solace. Bought what is probably my last instrument – a bucket list buy, a Rickenbacker 4003 bass. I’ve owned and played lots of basses – started with a 1968 Vox Sidewinder, moved on to a 1969 Fender Telecaster bass (yes, it had the psychedelic flowers on it), then on to a Gibson EB-3 with slot neck tuners, then a few more I won’t list (I realize the only people still reading at this point are other musicians, well, bass players like me, anyway, but I don’t care because talking about this stuff makes me happy and that’s what we’re all trying to find these days – stuff to talk about that gives us a little happiness). At some point we’ll talk strings, guys. And we can talk guitar collections, too, if you like.
But not today.
Today I give you the benefit of my nerdy expertise as an English professor and slightly known lit fiction author. This list is mostly “serious” work, but future lists will talk about music books and cozy mystery (think Dorothy Sayers, Margery, of course, Agatha, Caroline Graham, M. C. Beaton, etc.) so there’ll be plenty to consider for your own private Decameron.
So in 2018 I made up a reading list. I wanted to choose books that gave me a sense of what America was, or thought it was, or pretended to be. I had planned my return to blogging by talking about these books individually (or maybe in groups of 2 or 3).
To the list, then. I went looking for America (whatever that is) via literature. Here’s what I found:
What Unites Us – Dan Rather – blowing sunshine – or smoking it. You gotta love ol’ Dan for wanting America to be more than it is….
John Smith’s America – there are various editions of this – any is fine – mostly lies, anyway, but it’s good to meet one of the earliest myth makers….
Autobiography – Benjamin Franklin – full of aphorisms and fiction but quite enjoyable
The Last of the Mohicans – James Fenimore Cooper – slow and plodding but so full of unintentionally great thoughts about the idea of America
The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne – like the poor, the Religious Right has always been with us…
Billy Budd and other Stories – Herman Melville – the real jewel is “Bartleby the Scrivener” – a great, great story about what it means to make one’s job one’s life…
The Rise of Silas Lapham – William Dean Howells – best known as the editor of The Atlantic and early supporter of both Mark Twain and Stephen Crane (far greater writers), this novel is about how Americans think about themselves, money, and themselves as how much money they have…it is fantastic….
My Antonia – Willa Cather – as fine an example of what happens when a country sees itself as a “melting pot” when it – well, isn’t…lovely, lovely, elegiac book….
The Mysterious Stranger and Other Stories – Mark Twain – No, not Huckleberry Finn – the story of America is in “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg” and the title story of this collection…
Maggie A Girl of the Streets – Stephen Crane – Red Badge of Courage gets all the love but this is as insightful into how America eats its young as any book I know…
White Fang – Jack London – might give pause to those thinking that moving back to the rural environs is the answer…
Sister Carrie – Theodore Dreiser – Dreiser is an awful writer (well, better than Upton Sinclair, but that’s like saying solid shit is better than diarrhea) – some would argue for An American Tragedy, but this book illustrates how America treats women as well as any book by a man can do….
Barren Ground – Ellen Glasgow – as good a book about the South’s inability to mend itself as there is – better than Faulkner or O’Connor in that Glasgow doesn’t feel the need to drown ideas in gothic myth or inscrutable language….
Main Street and Babbitt – Sinclair Lewis – no one understands the narrowness, anti-intellectualism, and self-satisfaction of Americans better than Lewis. One should really read both books back to back – they are a summary of why in spite of every advantage we were bound to face the struggles we face.
Laughing Boy – Olive La Farge – a book that tries hard (perhaps misguidedly) to make American readers understand the Native American people we displaced and destroyed to build – whatever it is we have built. This book, by the way, beat Look Homeward, Angel, A Farewell to Arms, and The Sound and the Fury for the Pulitzer Prize for 1930.
Winesburg, Ohio – Sherwood Anderson – a quietly great book, it is about Americans as humans – quirky, loving, not quite as aware as they should be. I dearly love it.
Tobacco Road – a terrible, wonderful book about the South – as mean spirited as possible, and so full of truth if anyone Southern is honest that it hurts…
The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck – if there is a Great American Novel, this is it.
House Made of Dawn – N. Scott Momaday – if you want to understand the Native American Mind, read this book. You probably won’t understand the Native American Mind, but you’ll know that’s on you, not on Momaday. And you’ll respect the Native American Mind – which is the important thing.
Trout Fishing in America – Richard Brautigan – because part of being an American should be reading a book that ends with the word “mayonnaise.”
The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon – my generation, which kinda sorta includes Pynchon, thought we’d change the world – or at least America. What Pynchon puts out there for us is the inverse – the world – or maybe, America – changing us.
As I said at the beginning, this is not an easy list (the term “light”is an example of what we call irony). But this is an important set of books because all have at one time or other been solid members of the “canon” of American lit.
If part of this seclusion we’re all in is thinking about who we are and who we want/don’t want to be – then trying a few of the books on this list might help you gain some insight.
I’ll be back soon to talk about some/all of these books in more detail. Meanwhile.