Earlier this year, when Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed a 100-book required reading list for his compatriots, it provoked anxiety, rekindling memories of Soviet-era censorship. The furor underscored an important point: that literature plays a fundamental role in defining a country's culture and its discourse.
As world leaders gather this week in Chicago for the NATO summit and at Camp David for the G-8 summit, the American Writers Museum is hosting “The Power of the Word,” an online exhibit that seeks to examine the role of literature in influencing leaders and defining culture. The exhibit, which is online at americanwritersmuseum.org, aims to generate discussion about what books illuminate the American experience, said Malcolm O'Hagan, president of the museum.
"One of our missions is to reinforce the importance of reading and writing and how it influences our country, our culture and our history," said O'Hagan, who added that the museum hopes to open an exhibit space in Chicago in 2015. "We're hoping to stimulate a discussion about books and plays that people feel have defined America."
To kick off the discussion, the American Writers Museum collected responses from nearly 40 writers about which American books they'd recommend to foreign leaders to help them understand the United States as well as which foreign books had influenced them.
An edited sampling of their responses follows below.
— Printers Row Journal editors
The authors will be answering the following questions:
1. Which works by American writers should world leaders read to help them gain a better understanding of America?
2. Which works by writers from other countries have been most important to you as a writer?
Author of "American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood" and "Lima Nights"
1. I would recommend Maxine Hong Kingston's "The Woman Warrior," which showed us a dazzling, new way to be an American. I would urge them to read Bernard Malamud's "The Assistant," for its deep insights into America's immigrant culture and our abiding obsession with "belonging."
2. I don't think I would have become a writer if I had not read seminal works by the following writers: Gustave Flaubert ("Madame Bovary"), Leo Tolstoy ("Anna Karenina"), Vladimir Nabokov ("Speak, Memory"), Margaret Atwood ("The Handmaid's Tale"), Jane Austen ("Pride and Prejudice"), Italo Calvino ("If on a Winter's Night a Traveler") and Yasunari Kawabata ("Thousand Cranes"). Reading these as a youngster, I was persuaded that good stories trump cultural differences. They hold the key to human understanding.
Author of "Drop City" and "When the Killing's Done"
1. Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," John Steinbeck's "Tortilla Flat," and "The Collected Stories of John Cheever." Miller's heart-wrenching play gives insight into our society's obsession with commercial/monetary success. The Steinbeck book represents the opposite pole in this hilarious and utterly charming novel about a group of "paisanos" in Monterey who live only for the pleasure of the moment. Finally, Cheever's stories not only provide a unique insight into his generation of Americans but also deal with their bruised aspirations and the malaise of a consumer society.
2. The foreign authors who were hugely important to me when I first began to write were García Márquez, Borges, Cortázar, Gunter Grass, Beckett, Genet, Ionesco, Gide, Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis and a host of others too numerous to name here.
Author of "Middlesex" and "The Marriage Plot"
1. Tocqueville's "Democracy in America"; "Leaves of Grass" by Walt Whitman; and Richard Ford's trilogy, "The Sportswriter," "Independence Day" and "The Lay of the Land." In order to understand America, you need to understand three things: its origins, its soul and its trajectory. "Democracy in America" describes the first, "Leaves of Grass" delineates the second and Richard Ford's trilogy sketches the third.
2. In my teens, "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" and "Ulysses" by James Joyce; in my 20s, "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting" by Milan Kundera, Nabokov's "Lolita" and "Pale Fire," and "Love in the Time of Cholera" by Gabriel García Márquez; in my 30s, "The Information" by Martin Amis; in my 20s, 30s, 40s and forever, "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy.
Author of "The Corrections" and "Freedom"
1. "The Great Gatsby" byF. Scott Fitzgerald and "East of Eden" by John Steinbeck
2. Too many to list. A few highlights: "War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy, "The Brothers Karamazov" by Fyodor Dostoevski, "The Magic Mountain" by Thomas Mann, "A Personal Matter" by Kenzaburo Oe, "Confessions of Zeno" by Italo Svevo, "In Search of Lost Time" by Marcel Proust, "The Beggar Maid" by Alice Munro and "Bleak House" by Charles Dickens.
Award-winning poet and author of "Gemini"
1. That's going to be a hard one. "Sula" by Toni Morrison is one of my very favorites, and I reread it regularly. Good and evil are not so easily defined, are they? I also think "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" by Sherman Alexie should definitely be in the briefcase. "The Dew Breaker" by Edwidge Dandicat, because torture is a terrible thing and we must both stop torture and find a way of forgiving those who created this hell on earth. I would close my list with "Leaving Atlanta" by Tayari Jones, which takes a deep and powerful look at the Atlanta child murders.
2. Of course we all read, and had to read, the Russian classics. I found them trying, though my favorite Dostoevski is "Winter Notes on Summer Impressions." ... I thought an exile in Paris would be just the bee's knees, though I never as an adult considered exile. I had an interest in the history of WWII and did some reading in that area, but my favorite books were British. I adored Daphne du Maurier and, quite naturally, Agatha Christie. But one of the books that recently shot up to one of my very favorites is "The Elephant Keeper" by Christopher Nicholson. It makes the top favorite new book right along with "Song Yet Sung" by James McBride.
Author of "A Drinking Life" and "Tabloid City"
1. "The Great Gatsby" byF. Scott Fitzgerald. In elegantly crafted prose, we are given here a very American mixture of poetry, ambition, lies, delusions and aching pity. It remains our deepest prose version of the blues.
2. The one that first knocked me for a loop was "The Story of Babar"by Jean de Brunhoff. Later, when I could read and could make my own choices, it was "Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson with the illustrations by N.C. Wyeth. Others include: Short stories by Alice Munro, "On Love" by Stendhal, "Death in Venice" by Thomas Mann, "Diaries" by Cesare Pavese, everything by Charles Dickens, and the stories and plays of Anton Chekhov.
Author of "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love" and "Thoughts Without Cigarettes"
1. Well, for one, "Gem of the Ocean," a brilliant play by August Wilson, and in terms of (relatively) contemporary fiction, I rather think that Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" and Rudy (Rudolfo) Anaya's "Bless Me Ultima" would be eye-opening. (And to go further back, "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mr. Twain, of course.)
I think each speaks to a certain formative time in American history. Wilson addresses the legacy of slavery, while Ralph Ellison's novel addresses the emerging African-American male, at the cusp of a time when everything began to change in terms of civil rights. Anaya's book recounts a saga, taken from a certain moment in Mexican-American history, while Twain's very famous book offers a lyric and tender look at yet another time in pre-Civil War America. Of course my list could go on, but I think each of these books is a piece of the puzzle that comprises the collective, ever-emerging American identity.
2. Goodness. During my formative years as a writer, I very much liked Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges, but that would be the tip of an iceberg that included other writers like Julio Cortazar, Jose Donoso and Carlos Fuentes, all Latin Americans. At the same time, I was very much under the spell of two rather unlike writers — the Polish/British writer Joseph Conrad and, from Ireland, Flann O'Brien, whose fanciful works were always interesting to me, even if they hadn't anything to do with my Cuban ancestry.
Author of "The Ecstacy of Influence" and "Motherless Brooklyn"
1. "The Man Who Loved Children" by Christina Stead, a novel set around Baltimore and Washington D.C. by an Australian-born novelist who also set books in London and Sydney — and who somehow captured in it a portrait of everything impossible and ineradicable in the spirit of American optimism.
2. Fiction in English from the United Kingdom was always as important to me as that from North America. Graham Greene was among my earliest favorites. Then, shortly after, in translation, Franz Kafka — who has been a lifelong obsession. I'm teaching his work this week to my university students.
Author of "Miles from Nowhere"
1. My original list contained 37 books, filled with mostly the canonical works. After three hours of whittling: "Miss Lonelyhearts" by Nathanael West, "The Complete Stories" by Flannery O'Connor, "Lost in the City" by Edward P. Jones and "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" by Carson McCullers. For their language — for their ability to make words seem larger than they are — and for their characters, whom I absolutely love, though I'd deny most of them entry to my house.
2. I prefer to name authors rather than books, of which there are too many: Chekhov (Russia); (Bertolt) Brecht (Germany); Bruno Schulz (Poland); Younghill Kang, who paved the way for Korean-American writers; and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who, although deceased, is still secretly paving.
Joyce Carol Oates
Author of "We Were the Mulvaneys" and "Mudwoman"
2. Books from abroad especially important to me as a writer are James Joyce's "Dubliners," "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" and "Ulysses"; and Dostoevski's "Notes From the Underground," "Crime and Punishment" and "The Brothers Karamazov."
Author of "Fight Club" and "Damned"
1. The United States is a constant battle between narratives. To me, the plays of Tennessee Williams demonstrate that beautifully. Consider the struggle between Amanda and her daughter in "The Glass Menagerie." Or the battle to establish the "truth" about the killing in "Suddenly, Last Summer." Both plays are about revising the past to serve the present and control the future. That is America. Each of the works I cited seems to represent the world as an unstable and constantly shifting clash of larger forces. And my favorite characters, like Billy Pilgrim, are people who can exist in this perpetual turmoil without being broken by it. World peace will never come to pass, so I aspire to be such a peaceful person.
2. As usual I trend toward the surreal: Gunter Grass, Irvine Welsh, Michel Houellebecq. Each of them uses strong, well-depicted physical moments to achieve their effect. Who can forget Grass' severed horse head filled with eels? Or Houellebecq's brothels? The physical actions and descriptions imprint on the reader in ways that dialogue never could.
Author of the V.I. Warshawski detective series
1. "The Virginian" and "(Adventures of) Huckleberry Finn" probably sum up the vision Americans like to have of themselves, but I think a different, fuller picture could be drawn, of America and of Chicago, by reading Gwendolyn Brooks. "Bronzeville" is a good place to start, although it is her early work. Maya Angelou speaks to contemporary readers in a powerful and authentic voice.
2. (Irinia) Ratushinskaya's "Grey is the Color of Hope"; the whole oeuvres of Dickens, Eliot, Gaskell and Austen; and "Democracy in America." David Mitchell and Hilary Mantel are two contemporary writers I greatly admire. I like Daniel Pennac's quirky voice. Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields and Howard Engel.
Author of "Bel Canto" and "State of Wonder"
1. "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald is, to my mind, the quintessential American novel. It gets at the heart of how we strive and desire and so often fail to take responsibility for our actions. America is the land of reinvention, and that's what Gatsby manages to do. At the other end of the spectrum, Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" and Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" show what happens to the people who are shut out of the dream or fail at it. They're both brilliant plays.
2. "Independent People" by Halldor Laxness, "The Magic Mountain" by Thomas Mann and "The Leopard" by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.
Author of "The Better Angels of Our Nature" and "The Language Instinct"
1. Anything by John Mueller, particularly "Retreat from Doomsday" — an analysis of how, contrary to popular opinion, nations are moving away from war. And David Courtwright's "Violent Land" — a history of America with special reference to its patterns of violence, combining history with biology.
2. The British tradition of fine writing in evolutionary biology — from (Charles) Darwin through J.B.S. Haldane to John Maynard Smith, Richard Dawkins and Matt Ridley — has shown me how deep scientific principles can be explained in lively and witty prose.
Author of "Presumed Innocent" and many other best-sellers
1. I suspect these foreign leaders understand much more about the United States than most of us do of their countries. Given that, I'd choose "The Bear" by William Faulkner and "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller. In case they are fully familiar with both works, then I'd say the poems of Emily Dickinson, which are always surprising no matter how many times you have read them.
2. Two British writers, Charles Dickens and Graham Greene, had an enormous impact on me.
Author of "The Warmth of Other Suns"
1. Tough question. For those outside of the United States, I would recommend anything by Eudora Welty or Toni Morrison to understand the enduring complexities of caste and race in America as well as the plays of August Wilson and the nonfiction of James Baldwin and Richard Wright for their unsentimental witness-bearing to the plight of those long consigned to the lowest caste in so influential a country. I consider myself to be a writer whose subject area is not race or ethnicity, but rather human nature. I chose these books and authors because of the beauty of their art and their unflinching commitment to bearing the truths of the human heart — truths deeply and richly told, that we all might learn from what they have seen in their imaginations.
2. Two books that have greatly affected my own sense of the possibilities as a writer have been Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" and Ian McEwan's "Atonement." Obviously, they are gorgeously written, but what moves me the most are their mastery of the inconsistencies of the human heart and how accurately the portrayals are rendered.
Author of "The Prize" and "The Quest"
1. For two views of America: Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, to understand much about the world that is emerging. And Steven Weisman's "Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait of an American Visionary in Letters," for a sweeping view of American political history.
2. I think I learned a lot from studying (Charles) Dickens, (William) Thackeray and Evelyn Waugh. I was very taken with the Canadian writer Morley Callaghan's "That Summer in Paris," about Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
Visit americanwritersmuseum.org to read more responses, learn about world leaders' reading habits or to submit your recommendations about defining American literature. Don't miss the section where writers ruminate on influential childhood reading experiences.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Like to read more? Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.