The Grapes of Wrath By John Steinbeck
Viking

12 Great Authors Pick Their Essential American Book

Jun 30, 2016
Ideas

As vacationers pack their bags with summer reading, we asked 12 writers to answer the question: “What book by an American author should everyone read?”

The list they gave us spans classics and brand-new releases, poetry and fiction, canon writers and up-and-comers.

See more of TIME’s Reasons to Celebrate America Right Now here

Love Medicine By Louise Erdrich
Love Medicine By Louise ErdrichHarpers Collins Publishing

Sherman Alexie

Love Medicine
By Louise Erdrich

Because she writes so powerfully about indigenous and immigrant lives in the United States, and because she will eventually win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Alexie’s most recent book is Thunder Boy Jr.

Birds of America By Lorrie Moore
Birds of America By Lorrie MooreKnopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Julian Barnes

Birds of America
By Lorrie Moore

The best book (so far) by your greatest living short-story writer.

Barnes’ most recent novel is The Noise of Time.

Geography III By Elizabeth Bishop
Geography III By Elizabeth BishopMacmillan Publishers

Teju Cole

Geography III
By Elizabeth Bishop

This slim, difficult book of poems, Bishop’s last, seems to me a compressed masterpiece of irony, patience and wisdom, all virtues that can either console or help us today.

Cole’s forthcoming book is Known and Strange Things.

A Lesson Before Dying By Ernest J. Gaines
A Lesson Before Dying By Ernest J. GainesKnopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Anne Korkeakivi

A Lesson Before Dying
By Ernest J. Gaines

This story of a young black man awaiting execution for a crime he didn’t commit bears a fundamental message: no one can take away the freedom to conduct oneself with love and dignity.

Korkeakivi’s forthcoming novel is Shining Sea.

Open City By Teju Cole
Open City By Teju ColePenguin Random House

Amitava Kumar

Open City
By Teju Cole

For its sense of the tragic, not least when he describes, at the novel’s end, the fate of the migrating birds as they fly past the Statue of Liberty at night.

Kumar’s most recent book is Lunch With a Bigot.

Humboldt’s Gift By Saul Bellow
Humboldt’s Gift By Saul BellowViking Press

Karan Mahajan

Humboldt’s Gift
By Saul Bellow

Bellow’s comic megaphone of a novel amplifies the life and early death of a half-mad poet into a meditation on the “big operation” of American life.

Mahajan’s most recent novel is The Association of Small Bombs.

The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
Penguin Random House

Jay McInerney

The Day of the Locust
By Nathanael West

Every American should read this fierce, apocalyptic novel about Hollywood and the American Dream that seems newly relevant in this era of an angry and volatile electorate.

McInerney’s forthcoming novel is Bright, Precious Days.

All the King’s Men By Robert Penn Warren
Harcourt/Harvest

Jon Meacham

All the King’s Men
By Robert Penn Warren

This is the ultimate novel of power and its discontents in American life and politics—a sprawling, knowing journey into the human heart.

Meacham’s most recent book is Destiny and Power.

Underground Airlines By Ben Winters
Mulholland Books

Ann Patchett

Underground Airlines
By Ben Winters

As a bookseller, I like to promote books that are brand-new. This one kept me up at night and changed the way I saw the world once I was finished.

Patchett’s forthcoming novel is Commonwealth.

Make Your Home Among Strangers By Jennine Capó Crucet
St. Martin's Press

Curtis Sittenfeld

Make Your Home Among Strangers
By Jennine Capó Crucet

A recent debut novel, it is funny and painful and wise, and vividly shows how the immigrant experience and the American experience are one and the same.

Sittenfeld’s most recent novel is Eligible.

Parable of the Sower By Octavia E. Butler
Grand Central Publishing

Jesmyn Ward

Parable of the Sower
By Octavia E. Butler

Right now we seem dangerously close to Butler’s ruined, near future society, to residing in an America fractured along class, racial, ethnic and ideological lines.

Ward is the editor of the forthcoming book The Fire This Time.

The Grapes of Wrath By John Steinbeck
Viking

Joby Warrick

The Grapes of Wrath
By John Steinbeck

Set against an environmental disaster and weaving together soulless banks, corporate con men and immigrant bashers, Steinbeck’s searing portrait of an American family in ruin feels remarkably relevant just now.

Warrick’s most recent book is Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS.

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