When I was a young teen, I found it odd that so many assigned books were, well, rubbish.
Many of these books were critically acclaimed, and some of them had even won literary awards. But oftentimes authors seemed verbose, overwrought, and moralistic (in a postmodern sense).
No, the pipe-smoking literary snobs in their tweed coats could keep their Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, and Oscar Hijuelos, I said. Give me authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien, James Clavell, Tom Clancy, and Ken Follett.
This was an attitude I maintained for a couple years, but fortunately it’s one I did not keep.
The truth is, although there are plenty of critically acclaimed clunkers, there is also a wealth of rich literature waiting to be explored. Here is a short list of Pulitzer-Prize winners I’d recommend readers not sneer at:
1. American Pastoral (1997), by Phillip Roth
I have no recollection of when or why I bought Roth’s 1998 masterpiece. I just remember not being able to put it down. Roth uses a story within a story to explore two powerful ideas: 1. How does a parent deal with a child who grows into a figurative monster; 2. To what extent is the counter-culture, and the breakdown of traditional American life, spawning such creatures.
Roth explores these themes through the lives of an All-American college athlete and his beauty queen wife, both of whom are left to watch helplessly as their daughter is swallowed by the upheaval of the 60s.
The book is smart, restrained, poetic and honest.
2. The Old Man and the Sea (1952), by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway is considered by many to be the greatest American author of the 20th century. While I maintain The Sun Also Rises was his finest work, others would disagree, including Hemingway. He maintained The Old Man and the Sea was the best book he ever wrote.
"I know that it is the best I can write ever for all of my life, I think, and that it destroys good and able work by being placed alongside of it," Hemingway said of the book.
Hemingway received both Nobel and Pulitzer prizes for the short novel, which tells the story of an aging Cuban fisherman who encounters the battle of his life against a giant marlin.
The Old Man and the Sea is the perfect book to crack outdoors on a warm summer afternoon (preferably by water). It will leave you thinking all week long.
3. Gone with the Wind (1936), by Margaret Mitchell
Like many people, I saw the movie first. In fact, I was close to 30 before I decided to crack Gone with the Wind, and my expectations were relatively low.
Boy, was I wrong.
Gone with the Wind is the greatest American novel ever written, in my opinion. While I had enjoyed the film, the screen version of Scarlett O’Hara (portrayed wonderfully by Vivien Leigh) is practically two-dimensional compared to the heroine in the novel.
Mitchell’s prose is sharp, unflinching, and audacious. Those who would endlessly analyze the book through the prism of class, race, or gender often miss the larger picture: Gone with the Wind is a work of art of epic proportions that was decades ahead of its time.
Do yourself a favor and read it you haven’t done so.
4. Lonesome Dove (1985), by Larry McMurtry
Quite possibly the best Western ever written. In contrast to your Louis L'Amour classics, Lonesome Dove tempers the romanticism of the West with a healthy dose of realism.
The book centers on two former Texas Rangers— Captain Augustus "Gus" McCrae and Captain Woodrow F. Call—who strike out for Montana on a cattle drive. One is seeking a final adventure, the other a love interest that got away.
The book wonderfully captures the beauty and romance of the Western frontier but also offers an unflinching look at its unseemly elements: rape, prostitution, booze, and a great deal of death. In Gus McCrae, McMurtry created perhaps the most entertaining character in modern American literature, a character he sends into the sunset in dramatic fashion.
5. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), by Harper Lee
This book actually gives Gone with the Wind a run for its money in the Greatest American Novel category.
Harper Lee captures childhood innocence, imagination, and love for a father figure more effectively than any book I’ve ever read.
In contrast to the epic scale of Mitchell’s masterpiece, Lee’s story takes place in a tiny town in Alabama, where her attorney father’s decision to defend an innocent man pits her family against racial injustice in the South.
That Lee’s work manages to be no-less grand than Mitchell’s despite the book’s humble setting is an extraordinary achievement.
6. The Executioner’s Song (1980), by Norman Mailer
For those unfamiliar, Mailer’s book is messy criminal odyssey that tells the story of Gary Gilmore, a convict from Oregon recently released on parole. Given a second chance at life, he moves to Utah to start over with the help of some family members. Things don’t go well. In fact, it’s a disaster of tragic proportions.
After struggling to reintegrate himself into civil society, Gilmore commits two separate murders for no apparent reason. He is caught, charged, found guilty, and sentenced to die. But that’s just the beginning of the story.
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