Moving to America is going to be an exciting experience for me in many ways. I have never lived anywhere other than England, and the thought of immersing myself in another country’s culture and customs for a year fills me with glee. I love to travel; being surrounded by other languages, unfamiliar sights and sounds, different architectural styles, alien flora and fauna and so on, absolutely delights me. I find it so thrilling to be washed up on a foreign shore and have to navigate myself around; the feel of crisp new currency in my hands; the disorientation of watching the hustle and bustle of locals going about their everyday business while I stand apart; the effort of my brain working overtime to try and decode a language I have only a faint knowledge of; the rush of triumph as I manage to communicate what I am looking for, in a mixture of pidgin English and crude sign language. What could be more fun?! And now I get to do this for a whole entire year, though the process will be helped hugely by the fact that the Americans speak my language…albeit with a few variations…must remember, a pavement is a sidewalk, a courgette is a zucchini, and my personal favourite – an aubergine is an eggplant. Why such an unattractive name? Aubergine is so much nicer. Also, we share many popular brand names, shops, etc, so it won’t be too difficult for me to work out where’s good to buy my clothes, food, and so on, which can be tricky when you’re in, say, Russia, and can’t even figure out whether you’re walking into a restaurant or a clothes shop!
However, two areas I am most certainly not familiar with when it comes to America is its history, and its literature. I have mentioned my woeful knowledge of American history before; I have a fairly good grasp of modern American history, but anything before WW2 is a mystery to me. I am attempting to remedy this before I go by reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of America; I’ve just ordered this and I am very excited to read it. I love reading social history books, and I can’t wait to have the gaping holes in my knowledge filled! My knowledge of American literature is certainly much better, and I have dabbled in a fair few authors. However, I haven’t read half as much literature originating in the United States as I would like, and the trouble is, I just don’t really know the extent of what’s out there for me to read. American literature isn’t widely taught in English schools and universities, and as such, I’ve never picked up the general knowledge of the classic canon of America’s literature as I have done of Britain’s. Who is America’s Jane Austen? Dickens? Eliot? Woolf? Brontes? Who are the best writers of the 20th century? What are the books that are an American’s rite of passage? What do American students have to read at school?
While I am in New York for a year, I want to do a reading project. I am going to spend my entire year reading solely American literature, and I want to try and gain an understanding of the spirit of America through the writings of its people. I am eager to experience its history, its politics, the lives of everyday citizens, the feel of the different regions, the sights and sounds and smells of American life across the ages, all while reading excellent literature. I know a year will be hardly long enough to do this, but I would like to make a good start. So, I am asking for recommendations. I am going to make a list of 50 books, and I would be enormously grateful if you could give me your suggestions of American novels that I simply can’t go without reading. Thank you in advance!