TIME Books

12 Great Authors Pick Their Essential American Book

Authors from Ann Patchett to Curtis Sittenfeld share classic favorites

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

  • Sherman Alexie

    Love Medicine By Louise Erdrich
    Harpers Collins Publishing Love Medicine By Louise Erdrich

    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.

  • Julian Barnes

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

    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.

  • Teju Cole

    Geography III By Elizabeth Bishop
    Macmillan Publishers Geography III By Elizabeth Bishop

    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.

  • Anne Korkeakivi

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

    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.

  • Amitava Kumar

    Open City By Teju Cole
    Penguin Random House Open City By Teju Cole

    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.

  • Karan Mahajan

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

    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.

  • Jay McInerney

    The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
    Penguin Random House

    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.

  • Jon Meacham

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

    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.

  • Ann Patchett

    Underground Airlines By Ben Winters
    Mulholland Books

    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.

  • Curtis Sittenfeld

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

    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.

  • Jesmyn Ward

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

    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.

  • Joby Warrick

    The Grapes of Wrath By John Steinbeck
    Viking

    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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