Soon after he passed away, The New York Review of Books published a selection of Norman Mailer's letters. In a letter from January 1988, Mailer named his 10 favorite American novels (in no particular order).
In the same letter Mailer wrote “With the exception of “Huckleberry Finn,” which I reread recently, the other nine books were devoured in my freshman year at Harvard, and gave me the desire, which has never gone completely away, to be a writer, an American writer. … Freshman year at Harvard is luminous because of these books.”
by John Dos Passos
Michael Goodell from Grosse Pointe Farms, MI says:
The U.S.A. Trilogy is a photographic essay on the United States during the first third of the 20th Century. I call it a photographic essay even though it has no pictures because Dos Passos took snapshots with his prose. Several different story lines are intertwined through the three volumes. Some of them mesh in surprising ways, others unwind on their own. In addition to the narratives, Dos Passos composed brief biographies of major figures of the day, snapshots really. Also, "the camera eye" segments included impressionistic images from his own life, and the "newsreel" segments presented a montage of snippets from newsreels and newspapers. The work is an abstract expression of his age, a work of complexity and power.
by James T. Farrell
William V. Lipton from Ann Arbor, MI says:
This is both a coming-of-age novel and a social history. Set during the 1920s and 1930s, it follows Studs as he grows through his teen years in Chicago. It shows the influences on urban children, the stresses on families and the American society during that time. The characters and dialogue are captivating.
by Thomas Wolfe
by John Steinbeck
Horo from Jacksonville, FL says:
The Joad family is made up of hardscrabble people who have known no life other than tenant farming in Oklahoma. When the Great Depression strikes, and much of the central United States is turned into a "Dust Bowl" incapable of sustaining crops, the Joads set out for California and a better life. The story captures, inimitably, the life and times of the poorest of the poor, as they struggle to reach a place they've only heard about, for a future they cannot imagine. They see incredible kindness among their fellow travelers, and unbelievable cruelty among the authorities and landowners along the way. The unfairness towards labor makes a political statement, as does the description of poverty among the lush valleys of California. But more than anything, the book haunts the reader by leaving images of a devastated country, the poor, simple, honest people who struggle to survive, and their deep family relationship that sustains them when there is literally nothing else.
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Tad Friend says:
Fitzgerald was a wistful snob, ever anxious about his place in the firmament: as a youth, finding his father listed in the St. Paul Social Register as a “grocer,” he penciled in the word “wholesale” before it. And in this book he transmutes that anxiety into Jay Gatsby's poignantly ardent social climbing. The self-made Gatsby longs, tragically, for the approval of those who — as Ann Richards once said of George H.W. Bush — were born on third base and thought they hit a triple.
by Ernest Hemingway
Laura Marello says:
The Sun Also Rises is one of my favorite books. I read it when I was a teenager and I cannot forget the characters; Jake Barnes will be in my head forever. The language is simple — perhaps overly simple — but very powerful. The characters are well drawn and the relationships are interesting. It will not take you long to read this book, but you will think about it for a long time... maybe forever.
by John O'Hara
Will from Chicago, Il says:
O'Hara had a great ear for dialogue and a highly attuned perceptiveness on cultural and psychological issues like class prejudices, marital relationships, internal deception and self-aggrandizement. All of his tremendous skills are used to wonderful effect in this Prohibition-era novel set in a prosperous coal-region Pennsylvania town. Intellectual without being too lofty. Always interesting and quite often hilarious. This is a great novel.
by James M. Cain
Eric Mueller from Los Angeles, CA says:
There's only three things you need to know about this book: first, it's seriously hard-boiled noir. Second, the characters border on reprehensible. Finally, you won't be able to put it down.
by Herman Melville, introduction by Nathaniel Philbrick
Katrina Naugle says:
Oh my bejeezus, Herman Melville has a great sense of humor. I put off reading this book 'cause I thought it was slow-going; turns out, I just wasn't catching his dry, witty sense of humor, and once I did, he just kept getting better and more clever! Ishmael is a truly funny character, in a dark way, which makes me wonder why they haven't made a movie yet (don't get any ideas! Don't ruin it! Just kidding — a little).
by Mark Twain
I don't suppose there are too many readers who are not already familiar with this title. I happened to write about this classic on my blog, due to the decision to put out a new edition with all instances of "the N-word" omitted. The reason why this decision was made and the reason I oppose, despite its good intent, says all that needs to be said about why this is the first title on my list. The brilliance of Twain's novel is that it shows how basically good people can be conditioned to have reprehensible attitudes and not even realize their wrong doing. We forgive a character such as Huck Finn in spite of himself, which makes us wonder what sins we ourselves may be unknowingly committing on a regular basis. How many of us would be willing to do what our conscience says is the right thing when society says such behavior will result in banishment to Hell?
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