Summer Reading List: The American Classics
What better way to close out the month of July, having just passed America's 241st birthday, than to read some of the nation's classic pieces of literature? And hopefully, if it's not too grand an ambition, to try to better come to grips with what this country is about, its temperament, its conscience. Its national character, if such a thing is even possible. Especially at a time like this, when things seem so fractured and uncertain, so beyond repair.
I think it might be a good idea to remind ourselves of the essential value of this grand democratic experiment, to try and find something worth salvaging beneath the horrors that seem almost common place now, not just in the past few years but those which seem interwoven in our history—the political corruption, the generations of systematic oppression, the violent expansion first westward and then global on industrial military scales. I know I'm not speaking just for myself when I say that my childhood and young adulthood were shaped in many ways by a whirlwind of 24-hour news coverage, showcasing political scandals, national tragedies, multiple wars, economic downturns, and, quite frankly, apocalyptic levels of dread.
The question quickly becomes less strictly American and more broadly human when one glimpses the depths of the issues we're faced with, the greed, the base cruelty, and the splitting apart of neighbors and countrymen into identity brackets and tribal factions stoked into bloody ideological warfare against one another. Can we find the binding ingredient in these old stories? The thing that makes our differences strengthening to the whole rather than the elements that break us apart? It seems this is a trend that's taking place across the entire planet, so it isn't just us or rather it isn't just us anymore. Even as our global influence diminishes, our political and social climate still seems moves outward across the world in shock waves—in the forms of populism, isolationism, xenophobia, clumsy economic policies.
Luckily in the American canon we have some truly amazing pieces of literature to work with to this end, as it's such a young country, with barely any real past so, like its western deserts, or the overgrown jungles of the south, or the crashing waves off the northeastern coast, it seems almost primordial, biblical, bubbling over with chaotic potential made of the raw material of human drama. And when read with modern eyes, these stories move us into a different time with an America suffering from its own political and social issues. In this way we are dislocated from the stress and noise of our particular slice of history and we can better glimpse human beings and their essential nature. The things about ourselves that have always been there, the universal realities of our country, our species.
This list is comprised of books I've read this summer, plan to read, or am currently reading. I tried to organize them roughly by the time they were written:
The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
I never really gave Hawthorne much mind, until of course I got into Melville (one of my new favorite authors of all time). The two of them were apparently very good friends, possibly more but the jury's out on that one given this love affair would've had to have transpired over 150 years ago now. So when I saw a used Library of America copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne's collected novels, I decided to pick it up. The one I'm most interested in reading is The House of Seven Gables, a house which actually exists in Salem, Massachusetts, and in the context of the novel was built on land that was wrongly seized from a victim of the Witch Trials. And like any Gothic novel worth its salt, the sins of the past come to bear down mercilessly on the present. In this case on the Pyncheon family, who were not only real but are apparently the ancestors of author Thomas Pynchon. Which, in and of itself, is basically enough to get me to read this book, as at various time I have been and out-and-out Pynchon fanatic.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
What can I say? It's the beast, the leviathan itself. This is the American Bible. It's one of those classics that you hear so much about that it gets lost in the nearly religious edification. People feel way too obligated to "get it", to the point that many prospective readers end up alienated and hating it. But I promise, it is worth the effort. I'm in the middle of it right now and I love it. The language is so sweeping and grand, the narrative so layered, I find myself excited for any chance to crack it open and read. It's a book about the beauty and terror of the unknown, the mystical and deadly forces of nature. The swirling and bubbling foam of the sea is our universe, the whale gliding through it is our dread and our wonder.
I remember once reading an interview with Bret Easton Ellis in which he described reading The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (also on this list). He said he was more drawn into it than any series he could find on Netflix, so much so that it was the first thing he did every morning as he drank his coffee. This is exactly how I feel about Moby Dick and if you're looking for a testament to the lasting strength of the novel as an art form, against film, against TV, video games, dicking around on social media, look no further. It exercises every strength that I know the written word to possess, and some I didn't. It moves with a roaring power that is never exhausted. I didn't know, that at 25, books could still affect me like this.
Pierre, or the Ambiguities by Herman Melville
I haven't read this one yet but Melville, who wrote Moby Dick mind you, described it as his "Kraken". A more difficult and complex novel, of a decidedly darker tone, filled with more all-encompassing dread and an eventual spiral into depravity. This novel was so experimental, and for some way ahead of its time, anticipating modernism, for others its pure trash, that the papers at the time panned the novel and called Melville insane. For all of these reason, I cannot wait to finish Moby Dick and move onto this one. Even if it is a failure, passion is passion, better to go down with a bang than a whimper.
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Honestly Bret Easton Ellis's praise of the novel, plus a passing interest I've had in Age of Innocence (mainly due to the Martin Scorsese adaptation), was enough to sell me on this. The deal was really sealed when I opened a copy of it to a random page and read a few paragraphs, her perfection on a sentence level could go toe-to-toe with Conrad.
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
A tight 157-page character study, reguarded by some as one of the most perfect novels ever written. I hear it's tight, engrossing, and could be, and often is, read in a single sitting. I plan to bring it with me when I travel to Texas next week, to have as a short reprieve in the middle of the mammoth-sized Moby Dick.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Jane Austen with consequences. An ill-fated forbidden love affair set against the soulless social structures of the Gilded Age, and in 1920 it was the first Pulitzer Prize awarded to a female author. I hear it's her best, so I plan to read Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth, and cap my Wharton kick off with this gem as the finale.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
This is the one that started the classics kick earlier in the summer, along with Flannery O'Connor. It's sort of Faulkner's gateway novel, the one you read in school, or maybe on your own volition due to its place as an American classic, then move on to The Sound and the Fury or Light in August. I started this way back in high school, never finished it, then got back into Faulkner in college with The Sound and the Fury and his short stories. The thing that always brings me back to Faulkner is his clear influence on Cormac McCarthy, who I'll read for awhile and then move into Faulkner afterwards. He really is one of the greatest authors of all time, his mastery over the English language is spellbinding. He's easily my favorite of his generation, maybe of his century, forget Hemingway, forget Fitzgerald, Faulkner is the master. And, while this isn't my favorite of his books, it is excellent and, all things considered, a very quick read.
Absalom! Absalom! by William Faulkner
The pinnacle of Faulkner's style, his grandest and most difficult novel. I can't wait to get into this one, it's a story that takes place in before, during, and after the Civil War, and which apparently gives Ulysses a run for its money in sheer stream-of-consciousness experimentation. With that, and a heavy-handed biblical reference as a title, what's not to love?
Light in August by William Faulkner
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
Native Son by Richard Wright
Sad to say I never read this in school. But I rediscovered Richard Wright earlier this year with Black Boy and got obsessed with his writing for a spell. I've been meaning to read this one since, probably, May.
A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor
It's Flannery O'Connor, that's about all that needs to be said. And not only that but this is easily one of my favorite short story collections of all time. Hilarious and tragic in equal measure, in an almost bait-and-switch type fashion. She'll have you laughing right up until reality sets in and you're not.
The Violent Bear it Away by Flannery O'Connor
Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy
The first time I ever set foot in Arizona, it was stepping out of my best friend's Jeep with a bag over my shoulder and a copy of All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy in my hand. I had it with me as we drove across West Texas and into New Mexico, seeing Albuquerque and its mountains for the very first time, the I-14 winding through its picturesque hills, and passing across the desert and into the mythic West.
The book was set in 1949 and was about a young cowboy and his best friend, who ride south and cross the Mexican border in search of romance and adventure, only to have their illusions violently shattered by the harsh realities of the landscape. I read it during the drive and in the hotels. I continued to work through it on the plane back to Dallas, leaving Brandon at college in Phoenix, and returning to home alone, just like the main character John Grady Cole does at the end, and finished it in my bedroom.
The room still arranged as it was in high school, me still the same age that I was in high school for a few months more, but everything had changed utterly, as I passed out of childhood and into the adult world. There would be some crushing blows and some rude awakenings. If only I'd taken McCarthy's tale more seriously, rather than reading it and marveling at the Loony Tunes looking landscapes and cactus out the passenger-side window. Maybe it would have prepared me. But probably not, nothing ever does.
All the Pretty Horses was the first in McCarthy's Border Trilogy. I never read the other two, of which The Crossing is said to be the best, and it's my goal this summer to do so.
Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy
Part 3 in the Border Trilogy. The protagonists from the two previous novels both feature in this one. And the title is a reference to the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. With that, and McCarthy's previous work in mind, you can bet this is recipe for a ruthless and searching examination of the human spirit. As the romance and myth of the American West fall away, like scales from the reader's eyes.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
There, There by Tommy Orange
I promised myself I'd read something published in the last ten years this summer, more likely Fall at this point, I'm a bit backed up in my schedule, and this seems to be the lucky candidate. I've heard great things about it and I'm happy to see a novel by a Native American author about reservation life getting mainstream attention. The continued mistreatment of Native Americans in this country is a strange dark secret, a sin so clear and visible that it fades into the background and is avoided almost en mass.