The American Perspective: A $212.95 Investment

The “American” idea is not wholly contained in the Pledge of Allegiance or “The Star-Spangled Banner.” What are the ideas that Americans have traditionally embraced? What events in our countries’ history have been cataloged? What has been the effect of those events? In the literary timeline, what American works have endured or do we expect will endure?

All of these are different ways of thinking about the same problem. What does it mean when you identify yourself as an “American” and what has it meant for the last two hundred years?

The Evolving American Story

The story of America is that of an infant born into this world with endless untapped potential. As the child comes into the world he is given every opportunity to be better than everything that came before him. America is educated on the failures of others which leads to unprecedented opportunity. Along the path to adulthood he makes some mistakes, but he recovers and youthful indiscretions are forgiven. With new focus and experience there is no indication his future is limited.

Eventually, greed, bad decisions, broken promises, and unfair judgments hinder growth. The struggle is to find meaning and come to terms with free will, to find one’s place in the world, to overcome our violent nature. Each of these threaten to lead America away from fulfilling its potential. The fact that we struggle, though, gives us hope. Hope that we can realize our potential.

This, to me, is the story American literature tells us. America is always becoming something different, for better or for worse. At our literary core is always then, the struggle with who we are and how we can and should be better. That desire imposes pressures and stresses that are sometimes too much for us to cope with. Books can help.

My “American” Research Project

So, my weekend research project was to put a price tag on appreciating the “American” perspective. Can you part with .60 a day? If you can you can own it. Alternatively, to quote “Good Will Hunting”, you could get the same thing from “a dollah fifty in late chahges at the public library.”

Here are the works that explain “America” better than I ever could:

Benjamin Franklin

What does it mean to constantly and objectively work toward self-improvement?

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

Cost: Free

Ralph Waldo Emerson/Henry David Thoreau

What are the influences of nature and solitude on the individual?

What does it mean to be self-reliant?



Cost: Free

Nathaniel Hawthorne

How do you describe the individual and social psychology of sin and guilt?

The Scarlet Letter

Cost: Free

Herman Melville

What are the perils of destructive obsession?

Can even the best systems be corrupted by evil men?

Moby Dick

Billy Budd

Cost: $2.99

Walt Whitman

The common people are the real people and the real people contain multitudes.

Leaves of Grass

Cost: Free

Mark Twain

What is right may not always be what everyone else thinks is right.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Cost: Free

T.S. Eliot

Modern man is identified by his internal regret.

The Wasteland

Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Cost: Free

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Following World War I, what are the effects of greed, love, decadence and how do the  three interact?

The Great Gatsby

This Side of Paradise

The Beautiful and the Damned

Cost: $12.99

Earnest Hemingway

Tell me about the sacred land and the sacred individual. Tell me how the individual can be healed by the sacred land.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

The Sun Also Rises

Cost: $25.98

John Steinbeck

How to live as a poor man and the effects of “The Great Depression.”

The Grapes of Wrath

Cost: $12.99

Harper Lee

The realities of racism.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Cost: $8.39

J.D. Salinger

There is something about adolescence that we never forget and maybe never fully recover from.

The Catcher in the Rye

Nine Stories

Cost: $19.97

Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs

Where can we find something to believe in and where can we find meaning?

Is there any hope for the true individual that refuses to conform?

On the Road

Naked Lunch

Cost: $20.98

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

What is fate? What is free will? Oh, how illogically we, humans, act.

Slaughterhouse Five

Cost: $5.50

Ralph Ellison

What is a man’s place in society? What is a man’s identity? What does race still mean to us?

Invisible Man

Cost: $11.99

William Gaddis

Proof we are still trying to figure it all out?

The Recognitions

Cost: $9.99

Thomas Pynchon

We still haven’t figured it out yet, have you?

Gravity’s Rainbow

Cost: $11.04

Cormac McCarthy

Power, violence, and our warlike nature.

Blood Meridian

Cost: $10.20

David Foster Wallace

Addiction of all kinds, depression, and popular entertainment are common demons.

What does it mean to be a hero in the face of extreme boredom?

Infinite Jest

The Pale King

Cost: $19.98

Jonathan Franzen

What happened to the American family and what do we do about it?


The Corrections

Cost: $19.98

Denis Johnson

What happened to America and Americans that brought us to this point?

Train Dreams

Jesus’ Son

Cost: $19.98

TOTAL COST: $212.95

The reality is I missed a lot. That’s where you come in. Tell me what I missed. Please. For example, I’m way light on female authors. Who would you include? Contemporary authors are tricky, too. Who did I leave off?

Photo:  Some rights reserved by Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BP.


  1. Chris

    Hmmm. This requires some serious thought. I’ll be back with suggestions tomorrow.

    1. Read.Learn.Write

      Can’t wait!

  2. Francine Garson

    Great post, and very fitting for Memorial Day weekend! I love the way you pulled the essential questions and themes from these classic books. And you’re right…there are so many more. How about Tim O’Brien’s “In the Lake of the Woods” and “The Things They Carried” and just about anything by Joyce Carol Oates and Joan Didion? There are so many more…

    1. Read.Learn.Write

      Great suggestions. Thank you!

  3. Chris

    After some thought…. I would recommend Ayn Rand’s the Fountainhand (about capitalism and individualism)…. Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” about a brilliant woman’s descent into depression and mental illness, the highly confessional poetry of Anne Sexton, an upper-class 1950s and 60s American housewife, Amy Tan’s the “Joy Luck Club” about life as a Chinese-American, Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women”….and I could go on…

    1. Read.Learn.Write

      Great recommendations. I have avoided Ayn Rand for too long and for no good reason. I need to take that one on, particularly given the state of political affairs here.

      As for the others you have helped round out the category with some female authors worth paying attention to. Thanks!

  4. Andrew Blackman

    Wow, what a wonderful list! I plan to read my way through this, although I dread to think what $212.95 will become when it’s converted to pounds and includes shipping to Barbados! Anyway, I can’t argue with the list. I really can’t. With a huge topic like this of course there are always more you could add, but this would really give a good overall view of the country. I’ve read quite a few, and there are others on there like Thoreau and Whitman that I’ve been meaning to read for years and never got around to. But also good to see a couple of new names for me – Denis Johnson and William Gaddis. Looked them up and they seem like writers I should definitely get to know, so thanks for the recommendations!

    It’s interesting that some books also cross national boundaries – The Wasteland, for example, is a book I always thought of as being more about London, and Slaughterhouse Five is set in Dresden, but you’re right that they say a lot about America too. Writers take their home country and its preoccupations with them wherever they go!

    Good suggestions in the comments too. I’m an outsider, and a lot of my reading is from other countries, so I’m not that qualified to intrude, but might add Roots by Alex Haley as a book that gave me a real insight into American life across the centuries. And how about the short stories of Raymond Carver?

    1. Read.Learn.Write

      Thanks! How is the library system in Barbados? I always wonder about how they are in other countries. That would make a great post, by the way. A roundup of the world’s library systems. Anyway, I digress.

      I’m glad you found something new from the list. I think the contemporary authors could be the subject of the most intense debate because we just don’t know how their works will stand the test of time.

      Great recommendations, too. Every reader is qualified to offer an opinion in my mind and you made some great recommendations. I will check them out.

      1. Andrew Blackman

        There are not many libraries here, but the main public library in the capital, Bridgetown, is quite large. It’s well-stocked but mostly with older books. I had a look for some of these, for example, and found Whitman and Twain, but not Johnson or Pynchon. Barbados is a small place and I doubt they have a huge budget for buying new books – and of course they’d prioritise Caribbean books before those from other countries. Similar story with the bookshops.

  5. Anita

    It IS quite a list.
    Flannery O’Conner’s book of short stories “A Good Man is Hard to Find” might be a nice addition to the list.

    Amy Tan is great. I would recommend adding a bit more on the recent immigrant experience. It is part of what makes American unique. For example, “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” by Anne Fadiman offers an in-depth view of life from the Hmong refugee perspective – and how it clashes with that of the host culture.

    1. Read.Learn.Write

      Good choices! I have never read Amy Tan, but your comment about the immigration perspective is a great one. I am missing that in the original post.

      The other recommendations are wonderful as well. Maybe I can do an updated post at some point and include these thoughts to round out the list. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

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