Earlier this year, when Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed a 100-book required reading list for his compatriots, it provoked anxiety, rekindling memories of Soviet-era censorship. The furor underscored an important point: that literature plays a fundamental role in defining a country's culture and its discourse.
As world leaders gather this week in Chicago for the NATO summit and at Camp David for the G-8 summit, the American Writers Museum is hosting “The Power of the Word,” an online exhibit that seeks to examine the role of literature in influencing leaders and defining culture. The exhibit, which is online at americanwritersmuseum.org, aims to generate discussion about what books illuminate the American experience, said Malcolm O'Hagan, president of the museum.
"One of our missions is to reinforce the importance of reading and writing and how it influences our country, our culture and our history," said O'Hagan, who added that the museum hopes to open an exhibit space in Chicago in 2015. "We're hoping to stimulate a discussion about books and plays that people feel have defined America."
To kick off the discussion, the American Writers Museum collected responses from nearly 40 writers about which American books they'd recommend to foreign leaders to help them understand the United States as well as which foreign books had influenced them.
An edited sampling of their responses follows below.
— Printers Row Journal editors
The authors will be answering the following questions:
1. Which works by American writers should world leaders read to help them gain a better understanding of America?
2. Which works by writers from other countries have been most important to you as a writer?
Author of "American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood" and "Lima Nights"
1. I would recommend Maxine Hong Kingston's "The Woman Warrior," which showed us a dazzling, new way to be an American. I would urge them to read Bernard Malamud's "The Assistant," for its deep insights into America's immigrant culture and our abiding obsession with "belonging."
2. I don't think I would have become a writer if I had not read seminal works by the following writers: Gustave Flaubert ("Madame Bovary"), Leo Tolstoy ("Anna Karenina"), Vladimir Nabokov ("Speak, Memory"), Margaret Atwood ("The Handmaid's Tale"), Jane Austen ("Pride and Prejudice"), Italo Calvino ("If on a Winter's Night a Traveler") and Yasunari Kawabata ("Thousand Cranes"). Reading these as a youngster, I was persuaded that good stories trump cultural differences. They hold the key to human understanding.
Author of "Drop City" and "When the Killing's Done"
1. Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," John Steinbeck's "Tortilla Flat," and "The Collected Stories of John Cheever." Miller's heart-wrenching play gives insight into our society's obsession with commercial/monetary success. The Steinbeck book represents the opposite pole in this hilarious and utterly charming novel about a group of "paisanos" in Monterey who live only for the pleasure of the moment. Finally, Cheever's stories not only provide a unique insight into his generation of Americans but also deal with their bruised aspirations and the malaise of a consumer society.
2. The foreign authors who were hugely important to me when I first began to write were García Márquez, Borges, Cortázar, Gunter Grass, Beckett, Genet, Ionesco, Gide, Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis and a host of others too numerous to name here.
Author of "Middlesex" and "The Marriage Plot"
1. Tocqueville's "Democracy in America"; "Leaves of Grass" by Walt Whitman; and Richard Ford's trilogy, "The Sportswriter," "Independence Day" and "The Lay of the Land." In order to understand America, you need to understand three things: its origins, its soul and its trajectory. "Democracy in America" describes the first, "Leaves of Grass" delineates the second and Richard Ford's trilogy sketches the third.