Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
Less than a hundred years after Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and friends all signed their John Hancocks to the Declaration of Independence, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick pretty much set the bar in terms of American books that tackle themes like race, class, religion, and social status in the young country. Even though Melville’s masterwork was largely unappreciated in his own lifetime, you can point to Moby-Dick as one of the finest and earliest examples of literature that shines a light on some of America’s complexities that we struggle with to this very day.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion
While the whole thing should be considered required reading, it is the first half of this collection of Didion’s essays that would lead any reader to believe that the post-war idea of the American Dream died along some highway out west in the 1960s, and Joan was there to write about it. From the opening line of her account of adultery and murder in San Bernardino County in “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” to hanging out with Communists and hippies to people getting married in Las Vegas, you can’t help but get the sense that something is very wrong here.
Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward
In a country with so much, it is still a sad truth that there are so many with so little. Even though there is no shortage of books featuring characters living in poverty, Parul Sehgal at the New York Times said of Jesmyn Ward’s 2011 story of a pregnant 14-year-old named Esch, that the book “is never wrong when it comes to suffering.” The novel, set in a rural Mississippi town in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, will break your heart and make you think about just how hard it is for too many people in this country, and Ward’s writing will blow you away.
Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago, Mike Royko
Journalist Mike Royko’s profile of Chicago Mayor J. Daley’s Machiavellian rise and eventual power grab (he was mayor for 21 years, only bested by his own son, Richard M., who ran the city for one more year than his father) is one of the truly great examples of American-style political control and corruption.
A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers
If you ever wanted a novel that adequately sums up the way America feels about itself on a global scale circa the here and now, Dave Eggers did a pretty fine job of providing it with this tale of a struggling businessman named Alan Clay trying one last time for that elusive American Dream.
The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner
Mark Twain is considered a prophet by this point, right? This 1873 novel that satirized the widening gulf between the rich and poor in America after the Civil War could easily have been written about the same gap we’re watching grow in America today.
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
Even though we’re supposedly living in a post-racial America, just a few minutes spent watching the nightly news tells a different story. From the Trayvon Martin trial to Paula Deen, Ellison’s book is just as important today as it was in 1950s America, and could be applied to the struggle of any minority trying to get on equal footing in America.
1984, George Orwell
I don’t want to join in the post-Snowden chorus of people screaming that “Big Brother is watching us,” but that whole 10000% spike in sales of this novel after the NSA leak has to say something about what George Orwell imagined the future might look like back in 1949.
The Group, Mary McCarthy
Since one of the great minds of the 20th century is having something of a small revival right now, there might not be any better time to revisit her 1963 classic to play a game of “Then vs now: how women are treated and expected to act in America.” The results might startle you.
A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn
From the decimation of the native people who lived on the continent long before anybody shot off fireworks in the name of independence to slavery and years of imperialism, Zinn’s book is the history of America and people that should really be required reading for everybody.