How do you choose only five books that every American should read? At least 100 would be a beginning, but five! On Facebook occasionally a list gets passed around of the books everyone should have read and people highlight how many they’ve actually read. The list is unbelievably arbitrary and includes the Harry Potter series (which I love but would never include on any recommended reading list). In substitution for this list, I’ve posted Mortimer Adler’s list from How to Read a Book, with the addition of a few female writers that the unintentional misogynist neglected or whom he preceded, such as Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Woolf, and Marilynne Robinson.
To finish this list of the five books every American should read, I have the problem of too many choices. People have sent me their picks: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye… But I only get to choose one. Because I have to limit myself to five, I’ve been narrowing my choices to American authors and novels. I haven’t even pondered the canonically great books such as The Divine Comedy or the American Modern Library’s 20th century bestsellers such as The Brothers Karamazov. Nor have I ventured into poetry, prose, or drama recommendations, though Dickinson, Emerson, and Williams would make that list. Instead, I have limited myself, and I have progressed chronologically from nineteenth century to now.
Yet, with one choice left, I wanted a work that would somehow encapsulate all other works, that would be a starting point for those who have yet to understand the importance of reading for the development of character, and, let’s be realistic, a work that was short enough for the average American reader.
So, to echo Monty Python, “and now, for something completely different”: my final recommendation is Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, a recent novella by British playwright published (on my birthday of all irrelevant coincidences) in London. The book is hilarious and uplifting and a wonderful initiator into reading. With or without knowing it (not being a Bennett scholar, I will not make statements of authorial intention), Bennett has embodied C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism in this playful tale.
The story follows the new obsession of Queen Elizabeth II with reading. Her reading causes quite a commotion among her cabinet members, family, and her subjects. At the beginning of the tale, she is not much of a reader, for “liking books was something she left to other people.” However, reading transforms her, making the monarchist into somewhat of a…democrat. For any more information than that, I recommend reading the book—it’s too short to give too much away.
This past year I attended a presentation by Yann Martel, the author of Life of Pi (another book I’d highly recommend), who admitted that he sends book recommendations to the Prime Minister of Canada for the leader’s edification. At first I laughed—how funny for an author to recommend novels to his political representative! Then I reconsidered—how audacious, how fitting, how absurd. I’ve concluded that I side with Martel, who is enacting what Bennett satirizes in The Uncommon Reader, the need for those in power to be reading fiction. However, I think it substantially more important for the citizens to be reading literature, especially in a country where the government should be of, by, and for the people.
In 1958 Ezra Pound wrote a poem “Cantico del Sole,” in which he wonders what “America would be like/ If the Classics had a wide circulation.” I think fifty years later, the question is, what would America be like if any books had a wide circulation? What would America be like if teenage boys enjoyed reading The Odyssey or mothers spent their free time reading Augustine’s Confessions? What would America be like if we were all common readers?