Do you know the Mount Rushmore game?
Essentially, you pick a category like, say, candy bars and decide which of them belongs on the candy bar Mount Rushmore.
(For the record, the answer is: Snickers, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Twix and Kit Kat.)
The most fun part of the game is that limiting the list to four guarantees that worthy candidates will be left out and you get to argue and call your friends names for their insistence on the superiority of the Milky Way or, god forbid, a PayDay bar.
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Go into a local sports bar and ask for the Chicago sports Mount Rushmore, and I guarantee there will be fists flying over Bobby Hull vs. Gale Sayers or Ryne Sandberg vs. Dick Butkus.
(The correct answer is: Michael Jordan, Walter Payton, Stan Mikita and Ernie Banks. Sorry, White Sox fans.)
When we are asking for a Mount Rushmore, it's important to distinguish that we are not necessarily declaring who or what is the "best" in a category. Certainly, any selection must be high quality, but a Mount Rushmore is also an attempt to distill the category to its essences; the selections are a reflection of one's values. This is why a candy bar Mount Rushmore is dominated by chocolate, because what good is a candy bar if it does not have chocolate?
A Mount Rushmore of American literature seems almost impossible, but only almost.
Here's mine: Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and James Baldwin.
Twain is an easy choice. He is, in many senses, the first fully "American" novelist. Twain explored what scholar Louis J. Rubin called "The Great American Joke," the fact that the country was founded on an irony, declaring that "all men are created equal" while simultaneously subjugating a race of people and denying women the vote. There has never been a writer more in tune with the particularities of the American psyche.
Faulkner gets the nod over a contemporary like Hemingway because of his stylistic adventures in stream-of-consciousness and his capturing of the spirit and rhythms of the South. Without Faulkner to show a path beyond realism, there would be no postmodernists like Pynchon or DeLillo. He is necessary to what came after him in ways Hemingway can't claim.
Flannery O'Connor is important for her exploration of the very American traits of religious faith and inexplicable and sudden violence. Her work is both darkly hilarious and deeply disturbing. She reveals that we are all the butt of the Great American Joke.
James Baldwin is our conscience. In both his essays and his fiction, he provides a vision of the glory that could be America juxtaposed against the disappointment of the reality. He is urban to Faulkner's rural. International to O'Connor's provincial. We are just now catching up to some of his wisdom on race and sexuality. He's an American prophet.
I'm aware of names left off: Toni Morrison, Emily Dickinson, Kurt Vonnegut, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Philip Roth, John Updike, John Steinbeck, Willa Cather.
If it were a Mount Rushmore for individual books by American authors, "To Kill a Mockingbird" would for sure be included; "Catch-22" and "The Great Gatsby" as well, but we can't have authors who either published a single book — or only one truly great book — chiseled permanently into stone.
In the end, I believe I see what unites the names on the list. They understood the country's wounds and were unflinching in probing them. This nation was founded as an experiment and a promise that we only intermittently keep. These writers celebrate the complexities of art.
Our Mount Rushmore writers hold us accountable to our own best selves.
Biblioracle John Warner is the author of "The Funny Man." Follow him on Twitter @Biblioracle.
The Biblioracle offers his recommendations
1. "Beautiful Ruins" by Jess Walter
2. '"Bastard Out of Carolina" by Dorothy Allison
3. "Want Not" by Jonathan Miles
4. "The Sisters Brothers" by Patrick deWitt
5. "Maya" by Jostein Gaarder
—Mirjam Q., Chicago
I'm going to take a risk that Mirjam doesn't mind short stories and recommend "Selected Stories" by Andre Dubus. This is Andre Dubus, not his son, Andre Dubus III, who is probably best known for "The House of Sand and Fog." Andre Dubus was a realist of the Raymond Carver variety, though more concerned with interiors than surfaces. His story "A Father's Story" (collected here), is one of the great masterpieces of contemporary American literature.
1. "The Troubled Man" by Henning Mankell
2. "The Blackwater Lightship" by Colm Tóibín
3. "Police" by Jo Nesbø
4. "Woes of the True Policeman" by Roberto Bolaño
5. "Can You Forgive Her?" by Anthony Trollope
—Jeordano M., Naperville
It's been awhile since I recommended Patricia Highsmith, and I don't want to go too long. Jeordano should dive into the Ripley novels, starting with "The Talented Mr. Ripley."
1. "Flight Behavior" by Barbara Kingsolver
2. "The Hummingbird's Daughter" by Luis Alberto Urrea
3. "The Engagements" by J. Courtney Sullivan
4. "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter" by Tom Franklin
5. "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" by Lisa See
—Judy S., Chicago
Are they stories, or a novel in stories? Doesn't matter when a book is this deeply affecting: "Olive Kitteridge" by Elizabeth Strout.
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