The Great (Anti) American Novel: TPM’s Summer Reading Recommendations

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August 3, 2021 10:00 a.m.

Hi my name is Jackie, and I think I am a (classics) book snob.

I am that person from your high school honors English class who actually enjoyed reading “The Great Gatsby” and “The Catcher in the Rye” when I was assigned it. I chose to enroll as a literature major in college and my current bookcase *has a system*. Fiction: organized by author’s last name, Non-fiction: size of the book ’cause those babies are thick, plays and poetry, mysteries, and then … classics. (If you have a better system hit me up!)

My best friend recently sent me a meme that read: “‘I love reading’ says the woman who loves owning books.” She keeps me humble.

Most people place classics in a have-to-read-to-feel-educated category. But, for better or for worse, they’re a part of the American literature canon for a reason, in my humble opinion. (However, to be fair, I bought “War and Peace” a few years ago and have yet to touch it.) I recognize there are few people like me who read “Gone with the Wind” the summer before senior year for fun.

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But in this political climate, it’s become more difficult to justify the teaching of American canon literature in the classroom. It’s justifiably hard to stomach a glorified story of the old American South — where owning slaves is depicted as the norm and the KKK is portrayed as just a bunch of white guys looking out for their wives. That’s not to say there isn’t some merit in reading these books, but, for good reason, it’s gotten a lot harder to buy into stories that reflect a sense of American exceptionalism that is not, and never was, true. They tend to gloss over the racist truths about American history that Republicans in state legislatures across the country are now dying to keep young people from even discussing.

While we watch old men in the halls of power continue trying to whitewash American history by debating critical race theory on cable news, we’ve also put together a list of  some of our favorite American classics that remind us of how far America has come (and how much it still needs to change), as well as some of our favorite stories that more accurately reflect America for what it is.

Comment below with some of your favorites! You can always purchase any of the books below by visiting our TPM Bookshop profile page. Be sure to check back again next month for some new staff reading recommendations, and if you’ve missed any, you can find all of our reading lists here. Happy reading!

Matt Wozniak, Director of Technology:

Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon: Laurel Canyon, Covert Ops & the Dark Heart of the Hippie Dream by David McGowan

“At the end of this book you will feel like the Charlie Kelly mailroom meme with a wall full of connections between … hugely influential ’60s artists: The Grateful Dead, The Doors and Frank Zappa (to name just a few), Hollywood legends including Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, and Peter Fonda, Biker gangs and mafiosos, the Manson Family, Satanists and occultists and Nazis, LSD, MK-ULTRA and the CIA. Equally entertaining and stunning, this is a powerful read that thoroughly impacted my worldview. Psychedelic enthusiasts be warned; the idea of dropping acid loses so much appeal after realizing it’s a psyop tool of the US military.”

Joe Ragazzo, Publisher:

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

“Snow Crash is a satirical vision of America in the not-so-distant future where mega corporations have taken over and society is radically different, yet, also, immediately recognizable. Considered by some to be cyberpunk, others to be post-cyberpunk, this 1992 novel weaves together themes including linguistics, religion, technology, capitalism, and many others. Phenomenal book.”

Christine Frapech, Senior Designer:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

“I’ve read ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ a few times since it was assigned in high school English class. I always hated ‘required readings’ but this one hit different, it was the first book that stuck with me beyond the book report. It has this unique ability to be horrifying and charming at the same time. Harper Lee’s descriptions of life and law in the south are vivid. When I first read this book I read it as a cautionary representation of the past. Years later when I re-read, I realized how relevant the story still is.”

Matt Shuham, Reporter:

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

“I first became aware of this book when I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman depict its creation, in the film ‘Capote.’ Now, having read it and loved it, I realize I’ve known about ‘In Cold Blood’ for much longer than that. It’s one of those books in the well water of American letters: Glorified small-town life can’t seem to escape the persistent whiff of distrust and horror. On the periphery, amoral killers grasp wildly for different lives. Capote’s pioneering use of the ‘non-fiction novel’ form means we’re allowed behind-the-scenes, eavesdropping on invented conversations that create real human beings out of flat news reports. The author’s impossible omniscience in the book stands in for all the answers we wish we had about our country. In lieu of the real truth, I’ll take his aspirations of it.”

Josh Kovensky, Investigative Reporter:

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

“Blood Meridian first struck me as something like an extremely gory comic book written in the language of the King James bible. But it’s more than just that. The book narrates America’s Western expansion in the mid-19th century, following an unnamed teenage runaway as he falls in with a group of marauders. The runaway, who we only know as ‘the kid,’ grows up as his group of bandits plays a violent role in the ‘taming’ of the West. The result is a book that gives a pretty chilling sense of the brutality that underpins our country’s history.”

Nicole Lafond, Associate Editor

The Best American Poetry (2015) by David Lehman and Sherman Alexie

“I read through this book of poetry this summer, mostly because it’s been sitting on my bookshelf for … far too many years, but also because I wanted a nostalgic dive into a different era of American culture. Before the pandemic. Before Trump. Before each waking moment wasn’t filled with apocalyptic dread. It was a fascinating practice in time-travel that didn’t disappoint and a heartwarming, and at times dark reminder, that in America, our problems span years and decades — the language we use to talk about those problems merely shifts.”

Jackie Wilhelm, Associate Publisher

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

“This is one of those cases where watching the movie before reading the book paid off. I remember first watching ‘Gone with the Wind’ in elementary school — a weird choice by my teacher but I’m not judging — and falling in love with it. I didn’t pick the book up until years later and it is just … stunning. There’s not much to say that hasn’t already been said about this book. Scarlett is a woman you love to hate, and I do hate her, but it’s easy to get swept up in this epic.”

TPM partners with Bookshop, a non-profit bookseller whose objective is to help independent bookstores survive. TPM and independent bookstores both earn a small percentage of revenue for each book sold. You can learn more about Bookshop here, and on this episode of the Josh Marshall podcast.

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