Publish the Word
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The Lord gave the Word and great was the company of those that published it.
  Psalm 68:11

Best American Books

Lists of great books, East and West, have been compiled by booksellers, librarians,
academics and bibliophiles
like myself – the Modern Library collection, the Harvard
Classics, Nobel Prize winners in Literature, the Boston and New York Public Library lists . . . on and on.

 

As a life-long reader I have my own personal favorites.  Ranked in order, here are my
choices for the top ten greatest American books.

 

1. A tie between Walden and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn


                                                                                                  Walden Pond

Henry David Thoreau
might be great grandfather to the 20th Century counterculture, but also spiritual mentor to conservationists, and a major influence on Mahatmas Gandhi and Martin Luther King's views on civil disobedience.  Thoreau's journal of two years at Walden Pond, a twenty minute walk outside of Concord, Massachusetts, is an eclectic mix of philosophical musings, poetry, social commentary and vivid nature writing.  His themes are timeless; his writing vigorous.

 

Having grown up in the Midwest, not far from the Mississippi River, the story of Huck and Tom Sawyer and the runaway slave Jim on a raft trip south were mine and every boy's fantasy.  Underneath the adventure, however, Mark Twain probes issues of racial attitudes, culture, friendship and especially coming-of-age issues in middle America during the1800s.

         


2. A difficult decision between the triumvirate of Hemingway/Faulkner/Fitzgerald, but my favorite book would be F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.  Set during the 1920s Jazz Age in upscale Long Island, Jay Gatsby's great American dream of wealth, status, desire and greed, in the end, become hollow values.  What makes the novel memorable is the voice of narrator Nick Carraway.

 

3. America's foundational documents have to rank high – beginning with the Federalist
Papers, 85 political essays that set forth principles which would evolve into the U.S.
Constitution.  Written principally by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, they
originally appeared as newspaper articles.  Many other countries since 1787 have based their constitutions on the U.S. model.  The Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776, its primary author, Thomas Jefferson, a brilliant and complex man.

 

In the second paragraph appears this indelible sentence:  We hold these truths to be
self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
  The Founding Fathers of America made clear that this radical new government was based on the belief that God created all human beings equal and their rights came from Him – not from a king or government who could take away any such rights on a whim.

 

4. Another novel – Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage is an impressionistic novel that explores the insanity of war and the codes men live by, in a harrowing and emotional tone.  Crane, who wrote it when he was 24, would die four years later of tuberculosis.

 

5. A pair of autobiographies makes my list – The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and The Education of Henry Adams.  Franklin was everybody's definition of genius: statesman, inventor, author, scientist and leader of the American Enlightenment.  Born in 1706, the 15th of 17 children, Franklin, who died in 1788, offers a front row seat to the  major events of America's Revolution. 

What Franklin tells us of the 1700s, Adams tells of the 1800s, after the birth of the new country to the dawning of the modern era.  His grandfather and great-grandfather were both U.S. presidents.  Henry Adams was an astute  observer of America's growing pains.

 

6. Time to add two poets – Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, the literary mother and father of American poetry.  The reclusive Dickinson lived a rich inner life, but published only a handful of poems before her death in 1886 at age 55.  Her short, metrically dense verses are like exotic gems.

                   

The brash Whitman wrote long, rushing rivers of words that celebrated all things human, American and masculine, though his war poems reveal a sensitive side.  He published the first version of Leaves of Grass at age 37, then revised it several times until he died in 1892.

 

7. Too many other great novels, but let me select Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and  the Sea, deceptively simple in style, but like all great literature resonant with insight into human nature.  William Faulkner's Snopes trilogy – The Hamlet, The Town, The Mansion – comprise a powerful narrative of Southern character, but my favorite of all Faulkner books would be his often overlooked Intruder in the Dust, which became a 1949 movie filmed in Faulkner's hometown of Oxford, Mississippi.

 

8. John Steinbeck's great proletarian novel of 1939, The Grapes of Wrath, captures the dust-bowl Okies adrift in the Great Depression like no other book.  Filmmaker John Ford's 1940 movie of the book portrayed the travails of Tom Joad, played by a lean and hungry Henry Fonda, as the classic archetypal story that Steinbeck intended. 

 

       
 

9. I can't decide on just one book that conveys the African-American experience.  Candidates would be Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Richard Wright's Native Son, classics like The Life of Frederick Douglass, and The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. DuBois.  My two favorites would be Jean Toomer's Cane, and Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington.

        

10. I have not mentioned Moby Dick, the works of Washington Irving, E. A. Poe, any of the contemporary novelists, not a single playwright, though Arthur Miller would be my choice over Eugene O'Neill or Tennessee Williams.  Willa Cather, Henry JamesTheodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, Frost and Sandburg, any of the Lowells – these are the official and expected selections.


          
Dandelion Wine is another childhood favorite, though I might have been a teenager when I discovered the work of Ray Bradbury who grew up in nearby Waukegan, Illinois. 
If
I want to feel nostalgic for a bygone Midwestern childhood and the glories of summer vacation, I rejoin Douglas Spalding in his new, magical tennis shoes as he and his buddies explore Green Town and its remarkable citizens.
 

Let me end with a most personal choice. . . to be honest, not even mine.  Lynn would choose the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose Little House on the Prairie and other frontier books gave her and then our two sons whom she read the series of books to so much pleasure.  Wilder spent most of her life and wrote many of her books a little more than an hour east of where I write these words – in Mansfield, Missouri.  Perhaps not immortal literature, the Little House books recreate the turn-of-the-19th Century in such realistic and loving detail that they deserve to be read.

 

    
                  On the Banks of Plum Creek  by Laura Ingalls Wilder                          

Here are my favorite World books which have given me great pleasure at different times during my life.

1. The Bible – no book has sold more copies – nor even come close.  No book has so influenced so many people in every culture and country in the world for 2,000 years.  Why?  What makes it so unique?  No person can call himself well-educated without a deep knowledge of its message.  The brilliant German intellectual of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant, once said: 

"The existence of the Bible, as a book for the people, is the greatest benefit which the human race has ever experienced.  Every attempt to belittle it is a crime against humanity."

2. The Odyssey, by Homer, the legendary Greek blind poet of the 7th or 8th century B.C.  No other narrative poem is a better textbook for someone who wants to be a writer:  the episodic tales of Odysseus after the great war at Troy, as he tries to return home are filled with exotic locations, fierce monsters, romance, adventure and ultimately, justice.

3. Don Quixote, by Miguel Cervantes, the first "real" book I ever bought and read from cover to cover after my childhood favorites – The Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Chip Hilton and every comic book I could find.  The quest of the knight errant and faithful squire has inspired readers for centuries – humorous, philosophical and never boring.

4. Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, an easy choice by a storyteller who created so many memorable characters in recreating London of the 19th Century – think of Mr. Pickwick, Nicholas Nickleby or Oliver Twist.  But who could ever forget young Pip, who dared to dream big, and Estella, who breaks his heart, the eccentric Miss Havisham, and Magwitch, the escaped convict on the foggy moors?

                 

5. Two choices by Robert Louis Stevenson – Treasure Island which motivated me to read the beloved Kidnapped.  In his short life of 44 years, Stevenson created stories of pirates and treasure and a boy's adventures that still captivate readers today.  Anytime I pick up the tale of Jim Hawkins, I am transported back to a magical world in the same way others long for the simple pleasures of The Wind and the Willows riverbank, or A.A. Milne's 100 Acre Woods in Winnie the Pooh, or J.M. Barrie's Never Never Land of Peter Pan.

6. In college my Chinese professor and friend, Dr. Cheng Hsi-ling required me to read the classic novel, Dream of the Red Chamber.  At the time I had trouble keeping track of the large cast of characters and almost soap-opera like romances and intrigues, but later I came to appreciate the rich, colorful canvas written by Cao Xueqin during the Qing Dynasty.

7. As a young poet, I once stumbled upon Jade Mountain, a collection of Chinese poetry in translation that introduced me to the works of Li Bai, Wang Wei, Han Shan, and my favorite, Du Fu, more commonly known in the West as Tu Fu.  Chinese students ask me why I don't prefer the more popular Li Bai, who wrote poems so effortlessly he would fold them into paper boats and let them drift down the river for peasant girls to find.  I do enjoy his exuberant lyricism, but personally, the sorrowful images of Du Fu resonate deep inside me:  "A thousand year's fame, ten thousand year's fame – what good when we are dead and gone?"
                                                                                                                                        
             

8. The Divine Comedy by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri is considered the greatest epic poem of world literature.  As one travels with the poet to the depths of hell in The Inferno, then up through Purgatory and finally, into a raptuous vision of Heaven, all via Dante's skillful poetic three-line, interlocking stanzas -- terza rima -- one feels transported to a spiritual realm that far exceeds the medieval imagination: a feat of writing for the 1300s or any century.  Dante's work had a major influence on my desire to write.

9. The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje, a 1992 Booker Prize winning novel that was made into a popular film.  Ondaatje's work on the page is amazing – aural, imagistic, vividly descriptive, emotionally intense, long passages of poetry masquerading as prose.  The story is captivating from beginning to end.

10. Among the hundreds of other books I want to add to my top ten list, I must choose J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Like many in my generation, when I discovered the first Fellowship book in the late 1960s and read them one after another, ending with the prequel, The Hobbitt, the start of Bilbo Baggin's epic journey, I knew Hollywood filmmaking would have to wait years for the technology to advance so the movies could match the storytelling.  Hollywood finally did catch up, in 2001, 2002 and 2003.  To the late author, an Oxford professor, I award an A+.

A 2002 survey of around 100 well-known authors from 54 countries voted for the "most meaningful book of all time" in a poll organized by editors at the Norwegian Book Clubs in Oslo. Voters included famous authors Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie, Carlos Fuentes and Norman Mailer. Miguel de Cervantes' tale Don Quixote gained 50% more votes than any other book, eclipsing works by Shakespeare, Homer and Tolstoy.



Ten authors got more than one book on to the list. After Cervantes, Fyodor Dostoevsky emerged as the most worthwhile read with four books listed. The only Shakespeare plays the authors agreed on were Hamlet, King Lear and Othello. Shakespeare was matched by Franz Kafka whose three angst-ridden tales of grotesque alienation on the list were The Trial, The Castle and The Complete Stories. Three works by Leo Tolstoy made it: War and Peace, Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories. William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf both scored twice, along with the Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Other than 'Don Quixote' in first place below, the remaining 99 titles are reproduced in authors alphabetical order and are not ranked.

1.      Don Quixote Miguel de Cervantes

2.      Things fall Apart Chinua Achebe

3.      Fairy tales and stories Hans Christian Andersen

4.      Pride and prejudice Jane Austen

5.      Old Goriot Honore de Balzac

6.      Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable Samuel Beckett

7.      Decameron Giovanni Boccaccio

8.      Collected fictions Jorge Luis Borges

9.      Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte

10.  The Stranger Albert Camus

11.  Poems Paul Celan

12.  Journey to the end of the night Louis-Ferdinand Celine

13.  Canterbury Tales Geoffrey Chaucer

14.  Nostromo Joseph Conrad

15.  The Divine Comedy Dante Alighieri

16.  Great Expectations Charles Dickens

17.  Jacques the Fatalist and His Master Denis Diderot

18.  Berlin Alexanderplatz Alfred Doblin

19.  Crime and Punishment Fyodor Dostoyevsky

20.  The Idiot Fyodor Dostoyevsky

21.  The Possessed Fyodor Dostoyevsky

22.  The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoyevsky

23.  Middlemarch George Eliot

24.  Invisible Man Ralph Ellison

25.  Medea Euripides

26.  Absalom, Absalom William Faulkner

27.  The Sound and the Fury William Faulkner

28.  Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert

29.  A Sentimental EducationGustave Flaubert

30.  Gypsy Ballads Federico Garcia Lorca

31.  One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel Garcia Marquez

32.  Love in the Time of Cholera Gabriel Garcia Marquez

33.  The Epic of Gilgamesh

34.  Faust Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

35.  Dead Souls Nikolai Gogol

36.  The Tin Drum Günter Grass

37.  The Devil to Pay in the Backlands Joao Guimaraes Rosa

38.  Hunger Knut Hamsun

39.  The Old man and the Sea Ernest Hemingway

40.  The Iliad Homer

41.  The Odyssey Homer

42.  A Doll's House Henrik Ibsen

43.  The Book of Job Bible

44.  Ulysses James Joyce

45.  The Complete Stories Franz Kafka

46.  The Trial Franz Kafka

47.  The Castle Franz Kafka

48.  The Recognition of Sakuntala Kalidasa

49.  The Sound of the Mountain Yasunari Kawabata

50.  Zorba the Greek Nikos Kazantzakis

51.  Sons and Lovers D H Lawrence

52.  Independent People Halldor K Laxness

53.  Complete Poems Giacomo Leopardi

54.  The Golden Notebook Doris Lessing

55.  Pippi Longstocking Astrid Lindgren

56.  Diary of a Madman and Other Stories Lu Xun

57.  Mahabharata Anon

58.  Children of Gebelawi Naguib Mahfouz

59.  Buddenbrooks Thomas Mann

60.  The Magic Mountain Thomas Mann

61.  Moby Dick Herman Melville

62.  Essays Michel de Montaigne

63.  History Elsa Morante

64.  Beloved Toni Morrison

65.  The Tale of Genji Murasaki Shikibu

66.  The Man without Qualities Robert Musil

67.  Lolita Vladimir Nabokov

68.  Njal's Saga

69.  1984 George Orwell

70.  Metamorphoses Ovid

71.  The Book of Disquiet Fernando Pessoa

72.  The Complete Tales Edgar Allan Poe

73.  Remembrance of Things Past Marcel Proust

74.  Gargantua and Pantagruel Francois Rabelais

75.  Pedro Paramo Juan Rulfo

76.  The Mathnawi Jalalu'l-Din Rumi

77.  Midnight's Children Salman Rushdie

78.  The Bostan of Saadi (The Orchard) Sheikh Saadi of Shiraz

79.  A Season of Migration to the North Tayeb Salih

80.  Blindness Jose Saramago

81.  Hamlet William Shakespeare

82.  King Lear William Shakespeare

83.  Othello William Shakespeare

84.  Oedipus the King Sophocles

85.  The Red and the Black Stendhal

86.  The Life and opinions of Tristram Shandy Laurence Sterne

87.  Confessions of Zeno Italo Svevo

88.  Gulliver's Travels Jonathan Swift

89.  War and Peace Leo Tolstoy

90.  Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy

91.  The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories Leo Tolstoy

92.  Selected Stories Anton Chekhov

93.  Thousand and One Nights

94.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain

95.  Ramayana Valmiki

96.  The Aeneid Virgil

97.  Leaves of Grass Walt Whitman

98.  Mrs Dalloway Virginia Woolf

99.  To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf


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