The number one lesson of “best of” lists is: It’s nearly impossible to make a “best of” list. Especially when you’re talking about American literature. This country may not make the best cars or electronic dance music, but we’ve produced some amazing works of literature over the years.
If you went through American public school education – and even if you didn’t – you’re bound to have read many of the classics: Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, etc. Here is a list of 10 iconic American novels that may not have made it into your formal education, but which are certainly worth reading.
From a wide range of authors, decades, and thematic settings, these books paint a rich, complex, and often troubling picture of this amazing country many of you out there call home. It might not be the light beach reading you’re looking for on July 4th, but take some time this weekend to reflect on the true importance of our national holiday. And grab one of these epic works to help you commemorate the day.
- Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Set in the mid-twentieth century, this book tells the story of an unnamed African American man making his way through a harsh and inhospitable world. From growing up in the South, to attending a prestigious black college, to seeking out work in New York City, the man encounters antipathy nearly everywhere he turns. A poignant look at racial tension in this country dating all the way back to our founding and straight through to modern times.
- Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Caught in the dusty, impoverished South during the Great Depression, the Joad family hits the road for California. Like so many families before them, and so many who would follow, the Joads find nothing but further pain, poverty, and misfortune in their quest. Lush descriptions, noble characters, and gripping scenarios will get you through this long and sometimes traumatic book.
- In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. To be honest, this book isn’t a “novel,” but it still makes the list. Here’s why: Journalistic, stark, and six years in the making, this is not only the best crime book ever written, but one of the greatest American works of literature. It tells the horrific story of a quadruple murder by two deeply troubled men who, by the end of Capote’s sensitive re-telling, you almost empathize with. Or maybe not. Give it a read and tell us what you think.
- My Ántonia by Willa Cather. Young Jim Burden goes to live with his grandparents after his parents die, and he soon falls in love with the free-spirited neighbor girl, Ántonia. Though written from Jim’s perspective, the novel is organized according to the stages of Ántonia’s life, from girlhood through motherhood. Her struggles mirror the stark nature of the American prairie, which Cather illustrates so adeptly, and both are juxtaposed against Jim’s own privileged, modern existence. You’ll fall in love with the characters as much as you do their environment.
- Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. If you’ve never read McCarthy before, then be forewarned: His books are exquisitely written and often disturbingly violent. This book is no exception. The protagonist spends much of the novel among a notorious scalp-hunting gang in the mid-nineteenth century Southwest. And make no mistake, scalps will be cut, babies will be killed, and your stomach will turn more than once while you read this classic work. But as a portrait of the American West, in all its vicious rawness, it doesn’t get any better than this.
- Dune by Frank Herbert. This list wouldn’t be complete without a science fiction novel, and Dune is one of the best out there. Set in an intergalactic future in which “spice” is the number one prized commodity, this book is both mythic in proportion and intimate in human dimension. Paul Atreides is the young hero gifted with super-human powers that will, hopefully, help him save civilization from the evil forces out to destroy it. (And when you’re done with this one, there are 5 sequels to keep you reading for weeks to come.)
What’s your favorite American novel? Let us know in the comments section below. Happy reading!