Reading List: American Novels

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Those Few Great Moments

The Hours is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I liked it so much, in fact, I read nearly the entire thing again. At times I would start to cry without recognizing my reaction right away, as if the story was in more control of my emotion than I was. It was definitely a book for me, because like most people, I’ve always tried to figure out what it is about life that makes people happy, what makes people persevere or strive, and why some people can never seem to find any satisfaction or contentment. Michael Cunningham condenses the life’s source of happiness (or pleasure, or contentment, or whatever you want to call it), in a way that’s neither too bleak to handle nor too optimistic to allow yourself to believe it:

We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep–it’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more.

When thinking of my own life, there are memories that jump out at me–moments of complete happiness that I’m grateful I got to have. They belong to me, they are exclusive to me, and I will have them as long as I’m capable of remembering. Of course, I want more. I would risk spoiling one of these moments to try re-creating it, or topping it. With this, my destructive nature in mind, I want to honor those moments the best I can and dwell in them a little longer. It has given me a prompt for at least three creative non-fiction essays I should have already written.

Building A Reading List

Having undergone a significant transition in my life–marriage!–I am finding myself with the amount of spare time that will allow me to get in more reading time. I’ve looked at a few lists of the greatest American novels, but I can’t quite commit to one or another because I find the lists either exclude things I’ve always wanted to read, or they include books and authors I’m absolutely not interested in. Now I know the main purpose of a reading list is to put options in front of you that you might not have considered on your own, but I feel that there are so many classics, contemporary and otherwise, that I first want to build a strong foundation in.

Off the heels of a British novel course I took last spring, I’m interested in moving forward with a more modern novel, and I would like to fill in my repertoire with American literature for a while.

I’m starting with Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. It’s a doozy of a book, but I bought it years ago and I think I’ve read the first hundred pages or so about four times. Always intriguing, but life gets in the way.

If you can recommend a list of classic American novels, or if you have a few that you recommend, please share!

TIME Magazine’s Top 100 English Language Novels since 1923

Modern Library: 100 Best Novels (Board and Reader’s Picks)

The American Scholar: 100 Best American Novels by David Handlin