Five Must-Reads for the Fourth

Share: 

We asked some of our authors to recommend a book they believe every American should read over the Fourth of July, books they think are essential to the American conversation they see happening right now. As usual they did not disappoint!

 

*       *       *

 

Mary Jo Bang author of The Last Two Seconds

 

The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery 

by Eric Foner

 

This beautifully written and well-researched book tells the story of how Lincoln evolved from believing that while slavery was immoral, freed slaves could never be allowed to live in America, to someone who understood that upon "emancipation" former slaves would be Americans who deserved all of the rights and privileges of every other American. While the fact that Lincoln's thinking had to evolve is disturbing, that he was able to evolve is to his great credit. I had no idea before reading this book that Lincoln had begun so far behind the principled abolitionist stance we've come to associate him with. Everyone in America should read this book. And when they finish reading it, they should read Claudia Rankine's Citizen to see how far we have come since Lincoln, and how far we still have to go.

 

 

 

 

Margaret Lazarus Dean author of Leaving Orbit

 

Carrying the Fire

by Michael Collins

 

There has long been talk of NASA sending a writer or poet to space, someone who can describe for the rest of us what it feels like to leave the earth's gravity. So imagine my surprise when I first came across Carrying the Fire, astronaut Michael Collins's account of flying to the moon on Apollo 11 with crewmates Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin: it seems a writer has already been to space. In both his big moments (informing the wife of a fellow astronaut that her husband has been killed in a training accident) and in small moments (about champagne, which is "most pleasurable when one is surprised by it, when it appears unexpectedly and out of context, like in a Norwegian sauna at ten in the morning"), Michael Collins is a first-rate prose stylist with a natural feel for detail and a light touch with humor. Read it, be proud to be an American, and then celebrate the 46th anniversary of the first moon landing on July 20th.

 

 

 

 

 

Ander Monson author of Letter to a Future Lover

 

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

by James Agee and Walker Evans

 

Crucial not just for its subject--poor working families in Alabama, who still of course exist, and in not radically different forms, sadly--but for the sheer intensity of the book's documentary gaze. We should keep reading this to keep looking--at the families at the heart of it and at how and how long and why we look and who we are and can be when we lose ourselves in looking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maggie Nelson author of The Argonauts

 

Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in 19th Century America

by Sadiya Hartman

 

As its title indicates, this book is neither cheery nor easy reading. But it’s crucial to understanding the much misrepresented “slavery to emancipation” narrative that often mystifies us as to our present condition, rather than laying bare its complex, ugly roots. Hartman’s thesis is related to that of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, but here Hartman sticks with an earlier period of American history in order to highlight “the tragic continuities” between slavery and so-called freedom which continue to afflict us. If I cared about patriotism, I’d say that reading this book was a patriotic act. Things being as they are, I’ll just call it a much-needed reminder and/or illumination.

 

 

 

Mark Doten author of The Infernal

 

The Fever

by Wallace Shawn

 

To my mind the The Fever is great American political novel of the last 25 years. It wasn't published as a novel--it's a play, a monologue, by Wallace Shawn--but it fits squarely within the tradition of monologic novels of tortured consciousness that was inaugurated by Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, and continued by Hamsun, Bernhard, and others.  Shawn's narrator is a child of privilege, a well-to-do man travelling to "poor countries ... where the soldiers had strange expressions on their faces, where wealthy families sat in glittering restaurants eating plate after plate of multicolored ice cream." In a hotel room in one such country, he thinks and thinks, and in the terrible turnings of his thoughts, we move from the comforts of an aesthetics, to radical revolutionary possibilities, to the horrors and exploitations of late capitalism, to a long, uncanny unboxing of a gift--and the whole time the narrator is trapped in his room and his own skull, often vomiting on hands and knees. It is a beautiful slim book, and it can be seen online in its entirety, as delivered by Shawn, on the Lannan Foundation website. I can't think of a better way to spend the holiday than remembering the uses to which American state violence has been put, domestically and abroad:

 

"It was always you that all those people were talking about so many years ago when they kept on saying, 'For our children's sake, we have to do it, we have to set this town on fire, this barn, this hospital, these forests, these animals, this rice, this honey,' just as it's still you, because of how much you love those clean white sheets and the music and the dancers and the telephone calls, for whom all those people with radiant faces are being tortured tonight, are dying tonight."