Monday, November 4, 2013
Books Like Whoa: America in 10 Books
I was intrigued by a challenge recently laid down by one of my favorite book podcasts. The challenge was to describe your country through 10 books that would give someone moving to your country the most realistic picture of what life is like. To be honest, I found the "realistic" bit quite difficult.
Let's take my home state/region: Tennessee and the Southern USA. I'm not sure that I've ever read a book that realistically depicts what life is like today in that area of the country... almost all Southern fiction worth its salt is concerned with "the Old South" and all the horrors and glories that go along with that extinct way of life. That being said, I still think that those books accurately capture the atmosphere of the South, whether they are set in 1863, 1963, or 2013.
NYC, I daresay, has the largest quantity of "realistic" fiction set within its boroughs. That being said, it still is only depicting a certain kind of New York experience. Considering it is the most linguistically diverse city in the world, with an enormous range of income and education levels, I think it's safe to say that writing a definitive New York novel would be basically impossible.
So, rather than torturing myself by trying to find genuinely realistic portrayals of American life, I am going to stick to books that realistically convey the mood or atmosphere of a place. Most of these are not set in the present day, but I think each of them still uniquely captures the essence of their setting. I've tried to cover most of the country, though (and I'm sure this is true for most countries) that is difficult given the diversity of experiences in our various regions.
Some of these are non-fiction (A Walk in the Woods, Devil in the White City, and All the President's Men), some are books I personally don't like (Grapes of Wrath and My Antonia), and some are books that are high on my all time list of favorites (Gilead and The Great Gatsby). What they all have in common is a strongly evoked sense of place.
1) Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (American West)
2) Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (American Mid-West)
3) My Antonia by Willa Cather (American Prairies)
4) Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (Chicago, IL)
5) The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (New Orleans, Lousiana)
6) The Complete Short Stories of Flannery O'Connor by Flannery O'Connor (American South)
7) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (Alabama)
8) A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (The Appalachian Mountains - Eastern Seaboard)
9) The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Long Island, NY)
10) The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (New York City, NY)
11) All the President's Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (Washington DC)
I'm sure that if 50 different Americans played this game, we'd have some overlap, but a plethora of different titles would emerge. That's the agony and the ecstasy of having a vigorous literary tradition (similarly, I don't envy a Brit trying to represent the UK in 10 books). It would also be interesting to have people make lists based on their home regions - I suspect more nuance and richness in experience would surface in those lists.
I'm curious - to my fellow Americans, do you think this is a solid representation of our rather diverse country? What would you have added or left out?