Ask any person, let alone a writer, to name the one piece of writing that best describes this country of ours, and you'll get varying answers. It's an impossible task, really. We all have different perspectives and experiences and therefore will come up with a range of selections. As author Rebecca Makkai puts it: "The problem of the Great American Novel: How do you write about a country, a population, without writing about a collective experience? But how can any narrative about America be collective? To talk about Americans as one entity would be to lie profoundly. (And to present an Everyman narrator who's supposed to be all of us... Well, a lot of white men have tried that. Maybe they're still trying, but I've moved on.)"
It's an impossible task, but we—and the 12 authors we asked—decided to tackle it anyway. And so, ahead you'll find books that touch on the history that defines this country and the people that helped shape it. You'll discover books that are ever-important to read in our current political times and others written centuries ago but that feel very relevant to today. There's no such thing as a singular Great American Novel, but here are some well-worth reading anyway.
Citizen by Claudia Rankine
Part lyric, part investigation, part collective document, Citizen starkly, beautifully engages how the identity of "American" has always depended upon, and been tainted by, subjugation and violence. Whether Citizen kicks down the door of your ignorance, reflects, and validates your own underreported experience, or both, it's a singular and profound work of American art.—Chelsey Johnson, author of Stray City
Rez Life by David Treuer
The son of an Ojibwe mother and an immigrant, Jewish, Holocaust-survivor father wrote this gripping hybrid of memoir, research, and reportage. This may be a book rooted in the Ojibwe of Minnesota, but in its riveting detail, Rez Life's reach radiates far beyond to tell a story that repeats all over the present-day United States: a story of invasion, theft, and government deception, but also of fierce resilience, survival, and self-determination. It's a bracing, contemporary, illuminating corrective to how shockingly little most non-native Americans know about the people indigenous to (and still very much present in) what we now call America.—Johnson
Those Who Work, Those Who Don't by Jennifer Sherman
Jennifer Sherman's book is an academic work written in 2009 and was recommended to me by a missionary in 2016, while I was embedded with a bunch of Baptist ministers in rural Illinois. Consequently, I was skeptical about the book. But in the past two years, I've read it three times. The book is very well-written, with none of the stiff forced prose that often weighs down academic works. Instead, it's a riveting analysis of the year Sherman spent living in "Golden Valley," a rural logging town in Northern California. The book offers a clear-eyed analysis on the issues that divide us as Americans and explains with precision, the logic of poverty, race, class, and faith. And her insight rings more true and more resonant with every passing year of this administration. This book represents America as we are, and in doing so offers us a vision of how to have the conversations we so desperately need.—Lyz Lenz, author of the forthcoming God Land
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera
Early this year, I reread, for the first time since college, Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Kundera is a Czech-born writer, who went into exile in France. Kundera insists his books be read as French literature, but the content of this book is very heavily influenced by Soviet politics. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera writes a fable that is part non-fiction, part fairy tale, part malarial dream which examines the systems and powers that would gaslight us, that would change our stories."The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting," he writes. I think of that often in our fake news, post-fact world, that would rewrite the story of starving women and children as terrorists marching toward our border, and an orange demigod as our Lord and Savior. There is also a lot of sex in this book, which is pure Kundera. He, like a lot of Great Literary Men, love to write about weird sex that often makes me feel like they've actually never had any. When I reread this book, my first impulse was to push the obsession with sex and nudity aside as just that. But in my rereading, I've noticed how women in the stories find power and pleasure through remove and distance from the men. In one story, a woman, Marketa, caught in a spiral of jealousy, images her husband headless: "The minute she severed the head from his body, she felt the new and intoxicated touch of freedom. The anonymity of their bodies was sudden paradise, paradise regained." The book is full of problems, resistance, cruelty, laughter, memory, power, and anger. And I find this book more illuminating about my own country at this particular moment than anything I've ever read by an American.—Lenz
We Cast A Shadow by Maurice Ruffin
I've been thinking hard about Maurice Ruffin's new book, We Cast a Shadow, this year. Beyond being one of the most audaciously imaginative books I've read in a long time, Maurice is really demanding we think about the debt we leave our children by not reckoning with the mess of race and power in this country. It's a crucial offering to anyone thinking about what's beneath the scabs of America.—Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
I know this is a weird choice: It's not an American novel, it was published 200 years ago, and the classic movie version is so embedded in our minds it obliterates all memories of the book. But Frankenstein (written by Mary Shelley on a dare from her male colleagues when she was 18) is a novel about otherness, about longing to be loved when the world sees us as vile, and how we treat people not like ourselves. The book's gothic torment, its multilayered agony, its unflinching depiction of disgust, and its character's desire to be considered human instead of monster, feels very much of this time.—Andrea Kleine, author of Eden
The Warmth Of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
Before I read this book, I knew what The Great Migration was, but only in general terms, even though it's part of my own family history. I'm so grateful this amazing book taught me so much about how The Great Migration shaped America. The Warmth of Other Suns is about the history of this country, from the political to the personal, and in reading it, you discover so much of why America looks the way it does now, and most of all, the unbelievable strength and courage of so many black Americans.—Jasmine Guillory, author of The Proposal
Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
Finding a book that "best represents America" is impossible. Which America? Whose America? That caveat in place, when thinking about a certain kind of obliterating white sameness, a devotion to a particular kind of hypocritical boosterist conformity, and total subservience to the most rapacious forms of capitalism, I think about Sinclair Lewis, a social realist who was derided by some critics of his time as a too-broad satirist whose work was bitter and packed with caricatures. But you can hear some of the very same sentiments expressed in Babbitt, or Elmer Gantry, or Main Street, on the news today when they interview the voters and politicians of America. There are a million Americas that have very little to do with the pre-WWII communities of Sinclair Lewis. But it feels like the modes of thinking he described still have an outsize effect.—Lydia Kiesling, author of The Golden State
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
Julie Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic is a remarkable experiment in the tug between the collective and the individual. You see it in the narrative structure itself—the telling veers between the plural first and singular third and singular first—but also in the scope of the many stories being told. This book is about Japanese-American immigrants (specifically, "picture brides" of the early 20th century), collectively and singularly, over decades and ultimately across generations. It's a story without a main character (and, in fact, you could argue there are no characters at all). It is a novel without a plot, and yet it's riveting. It's an indictment of some of the most shameful moments of our history, and a paean to immigrant forbearance. I can't think of a more American book.—Rebecca Makkai, author of The Great Believers
Heavy by Kiese Laymon
Generational lies are often portrayed as American truths so that we might swallow them with ease—so that we might live amid discord with comfort. And truth, the kind that might reveal the hands holding the nooses choking the life out of people on the underside of power, is a destination we can arrive at only by way of a reckoning. Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon is a reckoning with the best and worst of contemporary American life in the South. It is an exorcism of the many ghosts that haunt Laymon's present: anti-blackness, body shaming, sexism, rape culture, rigid masculinities, and much else. His lyrical, affective prose is honest about American lies and, as a result, will move readers forward to a more loving future.—Darnell Moore, author of No Ashes in the Fire
Heavy by Kiese Laymon
As a black man, son of the South, and a product of a working-class family, it should serve as no surprise that I do not have a pristine image of America. I have heard the mythology surrounding this nation my entire life, but even in the beauty of many of its citizens, it is a country founded in theft from its original inhabitants whose expansion was impossible without the exploitation of black bodies. It is also a country that recently elected an audacious bigot whose idiocy was overlooked because his contempt for otherness was too alluring a draw for a white electorate. We so often talk about the beauty of America, but so many dare not shine that same light on its ugliness and the impact that ugliness has on its nonwhite inhabitants.
Understanding this, I appreciate writers like Kiese Laymon, who, through his brilliant, honest, brave new memoir Heavy: An American Memoir, pulls no punches about how this country harms a great number of us. His mother, a single parent in Mississippi completing her postdoctoral work, forced excellence (which ultimately sounds more like respectability) upon Kiese in the name of saving him. As you read Heavy, you are forced to grapple with the toll—both emotional and physical—that push for excellence has on Kiese, and by extension, many black children in America. It is not an easy read, but it is a stunning one because one thing this country needs more of is a reflection of its true self. Kiese shared his life with nuance, with urgency, and with a level of thoughtfulness not typically found. I cannot stress enough that everyone should read this book.—Michael Arceneaux, author of I Can't Date Jesus
Becoming by Michelle Obama
What could be more American than the stirring story of a girl from the South Side of Chicago who grew up to be the First Lady of the United States? This story is remarkable not just for its unflinching account of the hard work and tough truths underpinning the American Dream, but also for its lush sentences and fast-paced storytelling. A love letter to the hardworking men and women who some folks call "the strivers," this breathtaking memoir is not only "how I got over," it's a roadmap for anyone who wants to "go high," so high that you can fly.—Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage
A People's Future of the United States edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams
"You know what this country is?" asks Khadija Singh, in Omar El Akkad's "Riverbed." "This country is a man trying to describe a burning building without using the word fire."
"Riverbed" is one of the stories—or, we might say, fire incantations—collected in Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams' forthcoming A People's Future of the United States. This book is a writhing, furious bag of words, genres, bleeding organs, weapons, and howls thrown at the misery of our world. LaValle and Adams are inspired by Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States, but in the place of Zinn's orientation to the "data" omitted by dominant histories, LaValle and Adams give us the "speculative data" of our possible futures.—Jordy Rosenberg, author of Confessions of the Fox
Feeld by Jos Charles
This speculative data of the unknowable future is also a speculativeness tuned toward the unknowable past: how the potentialities and the disasters of our history still inhabit us, and how the unfinished business of our resistance compels us. Could we say Jos Charles' glorious Feeld inextricates the battles for the past and for the future? Feeld dives back into the wreckage, spins heart-stopping poems of trans life and struggle from the addictive, mouth-twisting lexica of Middle English. I see Charles's fight for the past as a political necessity. You know the enemy loves to rewrite history to fit its own pernicious narratives. They have infinite resources for this, wringing profit even from bones. I'm being metaphorical when I say they have developed technologies of breathing underground, but can't you see them salivating over our dead, our histories, and what they can get for them? Blinking out from behind their masks, crouching in their million-dollar exoskeletons, their exhalations thundering through the soil? Charles fights fire with fire; embraces the speculative data of our past, seeds it with passion, and doesn't let go.—Rosenberg
W.E.B. Du Bois's Data Portraits edited by Whitney Battle-Baptiste and Britt Rusert
Speaking of fire, W.E.B. Du Bois's Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America, edited by Whitney Battle-Baptiste and Britt Rusert, collects Du Bois' crucial contributions to the Exposition des Negres d'Amerique at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, and makes these images available to a wide public for the first time. Du Bois and a group of students and alumni from Atlanta University created an arresting set of images compiling and depicting information on African-American homeownership in Georgia, occupation, courses of study, literacy, "conjugal condition[s]," and city vs. rural population, among others. This is "speculative data" at the turn of the 20th century: data attesting to the tenacity of life, of its lived, multifaceted dailyness, of the intention toward futurity. These images are as precise as they are dazzling; sobering and chromatic all at once. They also unleash modernist forms of abstraction and conceptual artistry decades ahead of their time. As Silas Munro's ekphrastic captions suggest: the data portraits are Kandinsky before Kandinsky, Bauhaus before Bauhaus. The data portraits confronted Parisian exhibition-goers with an aesthetic storm of data, life rendered over and over in brilliant, swooping arcs of color and pulsating design. A graphic rendering of fire.—Rosenberg
Monument by Natasha Tretheway
Natasha Trethewey's Monument offers just that: a living memorial to a mother lost too soon, a reworking of her classic books to bring out the themes of history and memory all the more profoundly, and a rock-solid testament to a tremendous career still underway. The new poems also offer a sense of her trajectory as a public poet who has made her private concerns ever-present and everlasting, with an exactness of language that remains unmatched.—Kevin Young, author of Brown
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