Reading List – Top 100 American Literature Titles

I love to read. During the course of the last two decades, I’ve had periods of voracious reading followed by prolonged periods of nearly none. I find that it’s not the actual reading that’s a chore but finding the next book. For a long time, I refused to read fiction, feeling I was somehow wasting time on stories rather than facts. Once I mined a subject to my satisfaction, I’d spend months trying to gather enough interest and commitment to tackle something else. Other years, I’d latch onto an author or fiction series and, when done with that, fall into the same trap.

Almost three years to the day, I finished East of Eden. It was in the middle of this Steinbeck kick when I realized there was a trove of rich American literature of which I was completely ignorant. The following weeks were spent searching the internet for an enticing list of classic American novels.

Ultimately I landed on a list of 100 American literature titles compiled by American literature teachers. It’s not a perfect list by any means but it was worthy enough. After a cursory scan of the list, I determined I’d already read a paltry 13 titles and set to begin the remaining 87.

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For about a year I plowed through the first half of the books on the list. At which point I lost interest and either picked something else up or stopped reading altogether for a few months. For the next two years, it was an on and off affair, occasionally getting stuck in some novel I truly hated. I put down the list about 9 months ago and watched the small stack of ten or so already purchased books gather dust in the corner of my room. About three months ago, I determined to give it another go. There were a few books in the queue I really didn’t want to read but I pushed on and managed to finally finish this week.

The experience was challenging but more rewarding than I expected. Because the books were picked by teachers, there was a definite preference towards stories about minorities – frankly, books I would have never otherwise considered. It was one of these threads that nearly threw me off the list for good:  a group of books bunched together towards the end of the list about 1st generation female latin American immigrants, which often all pulled from the same tired script. I could have done with two rather than six. Also, there were four Toni Morrison books. The first three of which I really did not like. Any time I thought about picking up the list during that last year, a 300 page Morrison book, sitting on top of the stack, mocked my commitment. To my utter surprise, I ended up really enjoying that last Morrison book (Song of Solomon).

Themes emerged. Male African American authors generally decried the racial inequities, while female African American authors more often criticized the dominating violence of the African American patriarchy. Native American authors generally did not write about the evil of the white man but the fear of ostracization from their own community. Almost all the Latin female American stories recounted coming of age in America with traditional parents, sexual awakenings, and the inevitable discovery that their ethnic culture was full of previously unknown beauty and poetry. The handful of plays on the list were very powerful, two day reads that somehow cut to the marrow of man’s fallibility and mortality.

One of my favorite books, Ethan Frome, told a disaster story of a man who decides to leave his wife for a pretty young woman, which was all the more powerful because it followed one of my least favorite books, The Awakening, about a mother and wife who decides she was just not into her family anymore and deserts them to lead a much more interesting and successful life as a budding artist.

The ultimate picture derived from this tapestry of stories reveals a country of outsiders: immigrants, underclassed, poor, heavily occupied and marred by constant war but, more often than not, optimistic and hungry for adventure. The exercise has forever changed my understanding of this country.

If you’re like me and find yourself struggling to settle on new books to start, I encourage you to find a similar list and give it a go. There’s something kind of fun about picking up a book blind, not knowing a single thing about the plot or even genre. There’s little doubt that after some dedication, you will glean a new and unexpected truth.

After a couple of post-list books that I’ve been meaning to get to, I think I might pick up another list. I’ve already found one that’s a bit more ambitious than this one. Wish me luck!

Top 5

A Prayer For Owen Meany  – John Irving
Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton
Native Son – Richard Wright
Moby Dick – Herman Melville
A Gathering of Old Men – Ernest J Gaines

Full List:

1. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
2. The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
3. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn- Mark Twain
4. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
5. To Kill a Mockingbird– Harper Lee
6. The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
7. The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
8. Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston
9. The Crucible – Arthur Miller
10. The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien
11. The Awakening – Kate Chopin
12. Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton
13. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
14. A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry
15. The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
16. The House on Mango Street – Sandra Cisneros
17. The Jungle – Upton Sinclair
18. A Separate Peace – John Knowles
19. The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
20. Anthem – Ayn Rand
21. The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway
22. As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
23. The Color Purple – Alice Walker
24. A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway
25. The Secret Life of Bees – Sue Monk Kidd
26. Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
27. Native Son – Richard Wright
28. My Antonia – Willa Cather
29. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave – Frederick Douglass
30. Beloved – Toni Morrison
31. Hiroshima – John Hersey
32. Moby Dick – Herman Melville
33. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey
34. Black Boy – Richard Wright
35. Bless Me, Ultima – Rudolfo Anaya
36. Death of a Salesman – Arthur Miller
37. In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences – Truman Capote
38. A Lesson Before Dying – Ernest J. Gaines
39. Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
40. The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
41. The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison
42. The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner
43. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain
44. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
45. The Chosen – Chaim Potok
46. East of Eden – John Steinbeck
47. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
48. Walden and Other Writings – Henry David Thoreau
49. The Bean Trees – Barbara Kingsolver
50. Billy Budd – Herman Melville
51. The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother – James McBride
52. Maggie – Stephen Crane
53. Song of Solomon – Toni Morrison
54. The Turn of the Screw – Henry James
55. Alas, Babylon – Pat Frank
56. Annie John – Jamaica Kincaid
57. The Call of the Wild – Jack London
58. Cold Mountain – Charles Frazier
59. Fallen Angels – Walter Dean Myers
60. For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway
61. The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand
62. Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer
63. The Last of the Mohicans – James Fenimore Cooper
64. A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving
65. Pudd’nhead Wilson – Mark Twain
66. The Road – Cormac McCarthy
67. Sula – Toni Morrison
68. When I Was Puerto Rican: A Memoir – Esmeralda Santiago
69. The Namesake: A Novel – Jhumpa Lahiri
70. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie
71. All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy
72. Ceremony – Leslie Marmon Silko
73. The Five People You Meet in Heaven – Mitch Albom
74. The Freedom Writers Diary – Erin Gruwell
75. Johnny Got His Gun – Dalton Trumbo
76. The Light in the Forest – Conrad Richter
77. O Pioneers! – Willa Cather
78. Out of the Dust – Karen Hesse
79. McTeague – Frank Norris
80. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight In Heaven – Sherman Alexie
81. Dreaming in Cuban – Cristina Garcia
82. Before We Were Free – Julia Alvarez
83. The Autobiography of Malcolm X – Malcolm X with Alex Haley
84. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman – Ernest J. Gaines
85. Caramelo – Sandra Cisneros
86. The Dollmaker – Harriette Anrow
87. Ellen Foster – Kaye Gibbons
88. Fences – August Wilson
89. A Gathering of Old Men – Ernest J. Gaines
90. The Glass Castle – Jeanette Walls
91. Going After Cacciato – Tim O’Brien
92. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents – Julia Alvarez
93. Kindred – Octavia E. Butler
94. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
95. A Streetcar Named Desire – Tennessee Williams
96. A Yellow Raft in Blue Water – Michael Dorris
97. Our Town – Thornton Wilder
98. Go Tell It on the Mountain – James Baldwin
99. Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life – Langston Hughes & Zora Neale Hurston
100. If Beale Street Could Talk – James Baldwin

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