Best American books competition!

Today, people of the Internet, a competition! 

The topic for this competition is simple: what books, fiction or nonfiction, give you a sense of America and the arc of its history?

I limited myself to 10 books to get us started, a restriction placed so that I wouldn't go on forever...

1: 1776, by David McCullough

I spent a glorious few weeks last summer with the 1776 audiobook as entertainment. Historian David McCullough is the white Morgan Freeman of narration. 

I'm a sucker for history recast as nonfiction narrative. The actual Declaration of American Independence is almost a footnote in 1776, but much more interesting are the factors no longer reflected on today: the initially bedraggled American forces, the British condescension toward the rebellion, the muted response in certain circles to an independent America.

2: Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides

Blood and Thunder is a loose spiritual sequel to 1776, dealing with the ceaseless American sweep west, drunk on a national sense of manifest destiny.

In 1846, the American government declared war on Santa Fe, a base land grab that would spread in coming decades to California and Texas. Hampton Sides brings the era to life deftly and vividly, with pioneer Carson at the centre, taking in the conquest's true, inevitable toll on Native Americans without ever explicitly taking sides.   

3: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I love this book, maybe more than any other. I probably needn't bother with plot description such is the infamy and adoration of Gatsby.

There's something indelibly American about this book, the way Jay Gatsby pioneers his own destiny to hopefully make himself worthy of Daisy Buchanan. The excess depicted in it is tied into the coming Great American Depression, and Fitzgerald's biting satire of this (and the capacity of the powerful to close ranks and protect their own) is ahead of its time.

4: Travels with Charley, by John Steinbeck

The book is a travelogue of a journey Steinbeck took in 1960 from New York to California and back with his dog, motivated by a sense of his own mortality.

Travels with Charley rambles along, quite charmingly, taking in the dizzying spread of American sights and the emerging urban sprawl, which seems foreign to Steinbeck and gives a sense of the mountain of change sitting in front of America (as does Steinbeck's encounter later in the book with Southern racists protesting against integration in schools).

5: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird reveals itself like a classic episode of The Simpsons: you see new things at different stages of your life. 

The book came out after the first protests emerged from the civil rights movement, and like Gatsby gives an intimate sense of the time it sprang from. The book speaks movingly and most directly to Southern racism and provides a terrifying account of the venom behind it, but there's much more going on than just that.  

6: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972, by Hunter S. Thompson

This book is unleashed, subjective and brilliant reporting. It is one part a catalogue of a different time in American politics, when political journalists still managed to get unfiltered access to a political campaign, while also being an early critique of forces that would further ravage the American political system in the coming decades. This book shows me that the deepest fears about American politics have always been true: different versions of the same sociopathic, craven, power-hungry figures have been cycling through Washington DC for decades.

7: White Noise, by Don DeLillo

There's something about White Noise that terrifies me; its commentary on consumerism and media saturation and the separation in society between information and knowledge in 1985 are spot on for 2012. Though television is the omnipresent medium in the book, the Internet has only rendered its message more powerful. The world of White Noise is semi-dystopian, but recognisable. It is the quintessential novel about the modern American condition, somehow written 30 years ago.  

8: Notes from a Big Country, by Bill Bryson

I recommend this book with trepidation because in essence Voyages in America is a much paler imitation of what Bryson started. Bryson has moved more toward historian and academic with his recent works but as a travel writer he was rarely bested.

Notes is a collection of Bryson's columns for the UK's Mail on Sunday from when he moved back to the USA from England in the mid-1990s. Whatever Bryson sets his pen upon - reckless bureaucracy, laziness, consumption, stupidity - it is all pretty damn funny.

9: Dreams From My Father, by Barack Obama

Dreams From My Father is a one of a kind book because it is a completely honest biography written by a young man long before he would become the most powerful politician in the world. It is a glimpse of a president in waiting before he became entombed in the BS.

This is a book essentially about the development of personal identity in a globalised world where national boundaries are much less rigid. But Obama's fairytale rise from the divided childhood and split-parentage he covers here and into the presidency give it a uniquely American context.  

10: The Big Short, by Michael Lewis

There are a lot of books about that will allow you to shake your fists in rage at the brazen Wall Street ignorance that brought America to its knees in 2007, but none bring to life such an insider's sense of that world, the personalities and the sheer stupidity as vividly as The Big Short. It is as definitive as it is memorable.


Today there is a pretty sweet prize, courtesy of the great people at Booksellers NZ: $100 in book tokens and the Lonely Planet New Zealand book, to help you start your summer reading in style. The Booksellers Tokens are redeemable at 350 bookshops throughout New Zealand.    

To bag this prize, all you have to do is comment on the following: what, to you, are the quintessentially American books?

I'll keep the competition open till next Friday, when I shall announce the winners (and also, the long overdue winner of the election competition).

Get to it!

Become a fan of Voyages in America on Facebook: you'll get blog posts to your news feed, some great photography, and some good chatter. You can also follow the conversation on Twitter, or send an email and share your thoughts.