The All-American Summer Reading List

Summer is officially here, even though it feels like spring just started. There is so much fun stuff to do all around here on the Cape this summer, there’s seafood to eat, carnivals and fairs to enjoy, and beaches for relaxing. For a bibliophile like me, when there’s a beach, that means that there are also books to be enjoyed on that beach. While there are a ton of newer contemporary novels to enjoy, summer can also be a great time to catch up on all the books you haven’t read. Maybe they’ve been on your list for a few years and you just haven’t gotten around to them. Maybe it’s time you revisited an old classic or your once favorite books.

With the images of American flags and other red, white, and blue decorations among us during this Fourth of July season, maybe it’s time you revisited or rethought about the concept of “The Great American Novel.” Since the late nineteenth century, American novelists lead some of the world’s greatest literary movements and had a strong impact on world literature.

With just so many weeks of summer to enjoy, here’s a list of great All-American books to complete your All-American summer reading list.

Let’s start with our nation’s early history, shall we?

Two great books that wonderfully explain our nation’s earliest days would be David McCullough’s historic piece 1776 and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic The Scarlett Letter.

1776 (2005) (David McCullough)

David McCullough’s historical piece recounts, as the title suggests, the year 1776—perhaps the most important year in American history. It tells the incredible story of those who fought right alongside our nation’s first president and the perils and pitfalls that it took to achieve independence. I would definitely recommend this to anyone who isn’t really into fiction, but I of course, would also love to recommend this book to those who are less inclined to read fiction. It’s easily as thrilling and page turning as any beach read.

The Scarlet Letter (1850)    (Nathaniel Hawthorne)

Before you all say “no,” hear me out. I (this book was assigned) for my AP English Literature course in high school and sort of only read this book because I had to. By the time I finished it and wrote about it on the exam itself, I was really surprised to find that I liked it. Even though the novel was written in 1850 and set in the 1600’s, it felt fresh and relevant as if it had been written within the last decade. Hester Prynne is an incredibly contemporary character and her story is one that is actually indeed intriguing as it is timeless.

Moving on to the days of the Civil War, one of the most widely acclaimed novels of the last few decades is Charles Frazier’s epic Cold Mountain.

Cold Mountain (1997) (Charles Frazier)

Charles Frazer’s debut novel is Homer’s epic The Odyssey set in the context of the American Civil War. When confederate soldier W.P Inman deserts the defeated confederacy to return to his beloved Ada at their home in the mountains of North Carolina, he finds his journey home hindered by one roadblock after another, much like Homer’s Odysseus. With Ava serving as a civil-war era Penelope and the eponymous mountain as a modern day Ithaca, any fan of a good adventure story should line up in droves to buy this book. Or if you’re like me and have read it once, I would suggest reading it again as it really is just that enjoyable. Also, one side note, is that (while I’m not advocating cheating and seeing the movie), the film version of this novel with Jude Law, Renee Zellweger, and Nicole Kidman is phenomenal and worth watching—after you’ve read the book, of course!

After the days of reconstruction and political uncertainty, head on to the days of optimism and hope for a new frontier with these great books about westward expansion.

My Antonia (1918) (Willa Cather)

Long story short: I love this book. First, it’s beautifully written. The way Cather describes the American prairie landscape in her text makes the reader feel as if they are actually right there in the heartland. Cather also creates incredibly rich and detailed characters in Jim Burden and Antonia Shimerida. The story of their coming of age in the Nebraska prairie and the hardships they both endure make for a story that stays with you long after you’ve read the last chapter. It’s subjects such as immigration, land conservation, and adolescence are also incredibly timely. I’ve had to read this novel twice now in various lit classes and while some books I’ve had to read twice make me roll my eyes—this one just puts a great big smile on my face.

East of Eden (1952) (John Steinbeck)

I shouldn’t pick favorites—but John Steinbeck is my favorite novelist of all time. I can only think of a few other writers who create stories that are so thought provoking and impeccably written, while also ridiculously entertaining. This novel (which is definitely a top five favorite of mine) tells the story of three generations of the interwoven stories of the Trask and Hamilton families. With an underlying message of self-acceptance, love, family, pride, retribution, and all the other little things that make us human, Steinbeck’s update of the Book of Genesis is the very definition of the great American novel.

The interwar period was a time of great social and political change and there are a great many parallels between the world of one of my all-time favorite books E.L Doctorow’s Ragtime and the contemporary world.

Ragtime (1975) (E.L. Doctorow)

Another personal favorite of mine, Ragtime interweaves the stories of three distinctly different American families at the turn of the 20th century. A wealthy white family, a poverty stricken family of Latvian Jewish immigrants in the lower east side, and a black family from Harlem’s lives are irrevocably changed by direct interactions with each other and real life historical figures who defined the social, political, and economic world of pre-World War I America. Indeed, real life characters like Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, J.P. Morgan, and Theodore Roosevelt interact with some of the richest characters in American literature, like Coalhouse Walker, Jr. whose quest for justice and equality feels equally as provocative and timely as it was 100 years ago. This is certainly a quick read, but one that stays with you—heck, I’ve read it three times and each time it gets better and better.

Next, step into the world of the 1920’s and the jazz age with none other than the man who practically ingrained the jazz age into our vernacular, F. Scott Fitzgerald. While I’m sure you’ve all read his magnum opus The Great Gatsby, take the time to read his first novel: This Side of Paradise.

This Side of Paradise (1920) (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

Fitzgerald is one of the many writers that helped defined an American identity in the interwar period. His debut novel, a semi-autobiographical account of his early years, concerns Amory Blaine, a wealthy, arrogant young man about to head off into the real world. With one reality check after another, Blaine’s experiences will have a profound effect on any reader this summer at any age.

Now we find ourselves back in the south, at the dawn of the Great Depression in William Faulkner’s classic As I Lay Dying.

As I Lay Dying (1930) (William Faulkner)

Written by perhaps the most prolific modern American writer, Faulkner’s 1930 masterpiece concerns the Bundren family as they prepare for, and eventually do, bury their deceased matriarch, Addie. Honoring their matriarch’s wish to be buried in her hometown, the Bundren family travels across the Mississippi countryside, with the corpse in tow. Along the way the intentions and secrets of the Bundren family reveal themselves to the reader to create a shocking and utterly heartbreaking finale. Faulkner’s breathtaking prose, with its imagery of the southern summer and heat, is perfect for a warm summer beach day or for the back porch on a cool evening.

Carson McCuller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is another novel that so accurately and (without giving too much away) heartbreakingly brings the psychological effects of the Great Depression to life in a group of misfits from a small Georgia town.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1939)

A piece about misfits in a small Georgia industrial town, Carson McCuller’s debut novel introduces her reader to the most complex human emotions. Sadness, joy, lust, love, and anger are all present in Mick Kelly, Dr. Copeland, Jake Blount, Biff Brannon, and the protagonist—the deaf, mute, John Singer. In each of these characters, Carson McCullers beautifully written text takes us into each of these characters’ journeys. For Mick, that journey is growing up. In Dr. Copeland, it’s the search for racial justice and equality. Each of these characters has their own stories that make for a wonderful summer read that, like a lot of other novels on this list, will stay with you long after you finish.

So as to not completely depress you while reading about the Great Depression, I have also included Daniel Brown’s The Boys in the Boat.

The Boys in the Boat (2013)

As a rower myself, I feel semi-obligated to recommend this book. But as a rower it is my duty to recommend this book to everyone. This is an incredible story of Depression-era resilience and determination that ultimately defines the American spirit. This true story about the 1936 U.S Rowing Team from the University of Washington is a page turning delight for all readers. Each rower has their own unique backstory they bring with them to the Olympic games and the end result is so satisfying and heartwarming, you’d think it were a fairy tale. At once a historical novel and a celebration of the American spirit, The Boys in the Boat is the perfect summer read.

For those wanting a little excitement and suspense thrown into the foray, look no further than Raymond Chandler’s thrilling and impeccably written The Big Sleep.

The Big Sleep (1939) Raymond Chandler

There’s a lot to love about this book. It’s suspenseful, it’s well written—and it’s introduced us to one of the most famous sleuths of all time: Philip Marlowe. When an aging General hires Marlowe to pay off his spoiled daughter’s gambling debts, the people closest to the General begin getting killed off. Soon Marlowe finds himself in a never ending web of gambling, adult films, and ransoms to be paid. This is a well written, speedy, quick beach read that is for anyone, like myself, who loves a good crime novel.

We know have arrived at one of America’s foremost and quintessential writers: Toni Morrison.

Sula (1973) Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison is a brilliant writer. Period. End of story. No questions asked. Her prose is so filled with beautiful imagery and carefully chosen words that you feel like you are reading poetry, not prose. In this novel, two women in rural Ohio find their lives turned upside down by betrayal. In the title character of Sula, Morrison plays with the idea of hero and villain and introduces the reader to the rare example of a morally ambiguous character: an antihero. Short, but incredibly beautiful, I highly recommend Sula (or anything by Toni Morrison) to all readers.

We close this list with what many (including myself) believe to be the quintessential American novel: Harper Lee’s immortal classic To Kill a Mockingbird.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) Harper Lee

While this might be a very bold statement, I’ll still stand by it: this is the greatest American novel. To be honest, I didn’t understand why for a while. I was forced to read it in 8th grade and then last summer I decided to reread it due to the hype surrounding its sequel, Go Set a Watchman. I put the book down realizing what the buzz was all about. The novel, told through the eyes of Scout Finch, an elementary school girl, tells the story of injustice and morality. Told with a childlike innocence, summer is the perfect time to read or reread this quintessential All-American classic. You will not be disappointed.

There were a ton of books that I wanted to include on this list, but if I were to, this list would go on forever. In short, as an avid reader, I’ve always thought summer to be the perfect time to read that book you’ve never gotten around to reading and these are just some of my suggestions. Have a wonderful summer and happy reading!

ChristianPChristian Papadellis is one of CCB’s summer interns for 2016.  He grew-up spending his summers on Cape Cod and is currently entering his junior year at Colby College in Waterville, Maine where he studies English Literature and Art History.         

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