One of our student coworkers here at the Gothic (we’ll call him Lieutenant Awesome) recently asked me what books I’d recommend for a reading list of classic American literature. It’s an interesting question, and it’s sparked a lively but fun debate here at the store. We’ve expanded the parameters of the category to include some writers from other countries, and several of us have gotten in on the game. In the first of what is going to be a series of occasional dual (or duel, depending on the topic) postings, Arthur and I are going to come up with a few recommendations.
In coming up with a reading list like this, it’s easy and tempting to simply run down the list of canonized “great” authors and pull from their works. And in fact, some of these authors are just the ones I’d recommend. But I feel inclined to tailor my list to what I feel are Lt. Awesome’s tastes, so I’m going to draw from some contemporary authors, too.
Lt. Awesome is interested in war and history, so my initial recommendations are going to organize themselves around that interest.
First, I’d recommend Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls. Not only is it a tersely but elegantly written book on war, it’s a good jumping-off point for modern American fiction. You can go from this book to other great books on war (see below), immerse yourself in Hemingway’s contemporaries, such as Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, or Sherwood Anderson (all killer-diller writers), or pursue Hemingway’s stylistic trajectory and pick up books by the great pulp writers such as Hammett or Thompson.
I’ll also put Lt. Awesome onto All Quiet on the Western Front. Remarque’s book on German soldiers fighting in World War I is widely considered to be the greatest book ever written on war and its effects on those who wage it.
For a more contemporary writer –and war—I’ll suggest Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. O’Brien uses language that is both tough and compassionate to describe the inner lives of a company of soldiers in the Vietnam War. The book is a classic of war writing, and a classic of modern American fiction.
Finally, for something of a palate cleanser, I’m going to suggest Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. It’s technically a war novel too, I guess. It’s also great fun to read, and it’s a good introduction to what can be done with the twin weapons of absurdity and articulate cynicism. So it goes.
Right, those are my kick-off picks. There are many, many more authors I’d recommend that have been left off this list. I hope we return to this subject soon.
Ready, Arthur? Hit me:
Okay, my turn.
Sticking with the military theme for Lt. Awesome my recommendations fall along similar but alternate lines.
First, I would suggest Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I found the book to be wonderful. It does such a good job of showing what a giant bureaucracy an army can become. It is at times dark and sinister yet still amusing, and at times outright audacious in the absurdities that befall these poor airmen.
Next, I would go with the Red Badge of Courage. Set during the civil war, this novel follows a single soldier as he faces the horrors of battle. The novel is so well written and you become so invested in the protagonist that by the end you are totally immersed in a time that none of us were alive for. The novel also speaks to a functioning army comprised of many soldiers acting towards one conclusion.
Though it may seem oddly out of place amongst all these war novels, I have recommended to the lieutenant that he read To Kill a Mockingbird. When I came into the conversation it was built on a premise that the lieutenant wanted to read classic American literature. Mockingbird is such a wonderful book about dark subject matter. Rape, racism, and class and gender wars all play a part in Mockingbird. Though no actual war is fought I still think the book should be considered a classic and no thorough reading should go without it.
Next, I would recommend a play Inherit the Wind. It was one of the first plays I ever read and is again about a different kind of war, the war of evolution and religion. It is a great piece that when well acted can leave you with much to think about. The playwright does an excellent job of remaining neutral and there is no clear cut winning side in the play.
Lastly, I recommend a book about a war of the future in 1984. Orwell’s’ classic shows a bleak world where a Big Brother watches you. Your every move is monitored and cataloged. Some would say we are not to far away from this with the passing of the Patriot Act; others would digress with an argument of freedom versus safety. The novel under the current conditions our country faces holds up well, and is as pertinent today as it was when it was written.
Whatever choices he makes I applaud the lieutenants desire to further his knowledge of literature and encourage him to go forth and conquer these great books.