Burn all the political books and essays: trivia masquerading as analysis that mostly measures horse races and trends, at best attempting to make sense of what’s already history; if you want to understand everything about the American experiment in all its good, bad, and ugly permutations, there’s no shortage of books to assist and enlighten, but for my money, you equip an impressionable enough mind with “Heart of Darkness,” “The Jungle,” pretty much anything by Orwell (and just for the record and to avoid cliche, I’d put “Down and Out in Paris and London” ahead of “1984” and “Animal Farm,” and probably put a single chapter from “The Road to Wigan Pier” up front, too; “Burmese Days” is like the more literate kissing cousin of “Heart of Darkness” while “Down and Out” expands and modernizes how much we evolved and simultaneously forgot –on purpose– after the regulations “The Jungle” inspired Teddy Roosevelt to make), and that’s a worthy education (fiction, of course, pulls together all the disparate threads that psychology, sociology, Econ, Political Science and History cover, all inadequately in their inevitable ways).
Kafka is, of course, unavoidable.
So many books about war (many of them essential) but for my money –after “Catch 22,” which is so prescient it’s practically a documentary, I’d put Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” up front as it –crucially– deals with the carnage that unfolds after soldiers return “safely” from the battlefield (with the acoustic version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” –the single-most misunderstood song in pop history — as the eleventh song in my reimagined reissue of “Nebraska” for soundtrack purposes).
Throw in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by the immortal Flannery O’Connor (you get all the relevant shit from both Russian Lit and the bible in 20 pages, along with the blackest humor…how on earth did she pull that off? A miracle) and “Invisible Man” by Ellison.
But if I had to just pick ONE text that somehow explains all the ways the American Dream (attainable for the precious or lucky or persistent few; myth and black hole for entirely too many) grinds down the vulnerable and disenfranchised, I’d happily drop Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” down on the table, along with the mic.
All of which is to say, boy did I enjoy reading this piece from The New Yorker. If it’s possible to feel every human emotion (joy, despair, envy, inspiration, resolve, optimism despite all available evidence to the contrary), this piece put me on that bumper car ride.