Earlier this year, when Russian President
As world leaders gather this week in Chicago for the
"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
2. I don't think I would have become a writer if I had not read seminal works by the following writers:
Author of "Drop City" and "When the Killing's Done"
2. The foreign authors who were hugely important to me when I first began to write were García Márquez, Borges, Cortázar,
Author of "Middlesex" and "The Marriage Plot"
1. Tocqueville's "Democracy in America"; "Leaves of Grass" by
2. In my teens, "A Portrait of the Artist as a
Author of "The Corrections" and "Freedom"
1. "The Great Gatsby" byF. Scott Fitzgerald and "East of Eden" by John Steinbeck
2. Too many to list. A few highlights: "War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy, "The Brothers Karamazov" by Fyodor Dostoevski, "The Magic Mountain" by
Award-winning poet and author of "Gemini"
1. That's going to be a hard one. "Sula" by
2. Of course we all read, and had to read, the Russian classics. I found them trying, though my favorite Dostoevski is "Winter Notes on Summer Impressions." ... I thought an exile in Paris would be just the bee's knees, though I never as an adult considered exile. I had an interest in the history of
Author of "A Drinking Life" and "Tabloid City"
1. "The Great Gatsby" byF. Scott Fitzgerald. In elegantly crafted prose, we are given here a very American mixture of poetry, ambition, lies, delusions and aching pity. It remains our deepest prose version of the blues.
2. The one that first knocked me for a loop was "The Story of Babar"by Jean de Brunhoff. Later, when I could read and could make my own choices, it was "Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson with the illustrations by N.C. Wyeth. Others include: Short stories by Alice Munro, "On Love" by Stendhal, "Death in Venice" by Thomas Mann, "Diaries" by Cesare Pavese, everything by Charles Dickens, and the stories and plays of Anton Chekhov.
Author of "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love" and "Thoughts Without Cigarettes"
1. Well, for one, "Gem of the Ocean," a brilliant play by
I think each speaks to a certain formative time in American history. Wilson addresses the legacy of slavery, while Ralph Ellison's novel addresses the emerging African-American male, at the cusp of a time when everything began to change in terms of civil rights. Anaya's book recounts a saga, taken from a certain moment in Mexican-American history, while Twain's very famous book offers a lyric and tender look at yet another time in pre-Civil War America. Of course my list could go on, but I think each of these books is a piece of the puzzle that comprises the collective, ever-emerging American identity.
2. Goodness. During my formative years as a writer, I very much liked Gabriel García Márquez and
Author of "The Ecstacy of Influence" and "Motherless Brooklyn"
1. "The Man Who Loved Children" by Christina Stead, a novel set around Baltimore and Washington D.C. by an Australian-born novelist who also set books in London and Sydney — and who somehow captured in it a portrait of everything impossible and ineradicable in the spirit of American optimism.
2. Fiction in English from the
Author of "Miles from Nowhere"
1. My original list contained 37 books, filled with mostly the canonical works. After three hours of whittling: "Miss Lonelyhearts" by
2. I prefer to name authors rather than books, of which there are too many: Chekhov (Russia); (Bertolt) Brecht (Germany);
Author of "We Were the Mulvaneys" and "Mudwoman"
1. I would choose three books: "Moby-Dick" (by
2. Books from abroad especially important to me as a writer are James Joyce's "Dubliners," "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" and "Ulysses"; and Dostoevski's "Notes From the Underground," "Crime and Punishment" and "The Brothers Karamazov."
Author of "Fight Club" and "Damned"
1. The United States is a constant battle between narratives. To me, the plays of
2. As usual I trend toward the surreal: Gunter Grass, Irvine Welsh, Michel Houellebecq. Each of them uses strong, well-depicted physical moments to achieve their effect. Who can forget Grass' severed horse head filled with eels? Or Houellebecq's brothels? The physical actions and descriptions imprint on the reader in ways that dialogue never could.
Author of the V.I. Warshawski detective series
1. "The Virginian" and "(Adventures of) Huckleberry Finn" probably sum up the vision Americans like to have of themselves, but I think a different, fuller picture could be drawn, of America and of Chicago, by reading Gwendolyn Brooks. "Bronzeville" is a good place to start, although it is her early work.
2. (Irinia) Ratushinskaya's "Grey is the Color of Hope"; the whole oeuvres of Dickens, Eliot, Gaskell and Austen; and "Democracy in America." David Mitchell and Hilary Mantel are two contemporary writers I greatly admire. I like Daniel Pennac's quirky voice. Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields and Howard Engel.
Author of "Bel Canto" and "State of Wonder"
1. "The Great Gatsby" by
2. "Independent People" by Halldor Laxness, "The Magic Mountain" by Thomas Mann and "The Leopard" by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.
Author of "The Better Angels of Our Nature" and "The Language Instinct"
1. Anything by John Mueller, particularly "Retreat from Doomsday" — an analysis of how, contrary to popular opinion, nations are moving away from war. And David Courtwright's "Violent Land" — a history of America with special reference to its patterns of violence, combining history with biology.
2. The British tradition of fine writing in evolutionary biology — from (Charles) Darwin through J.B.S. Haldane to John Maynard Smith, Richard Dawkins and Matt Ridley — has shown me how deep scientific principles can be explained in lively and witty prose.
Author of "Presumed Innocent" and many other best-sellers
1. I suspect these foreign leaders understand much more about the United States than most of us do of their countries. Given that, I'd choose "The Bear" by
2. Two British writers, Charles Dickens and Graham Greene, had an enormous impact on me.
Author of "The Warmth of Other Suns"
1. Tough question. For those outside of the United States, I would recommend anything by
2. Two books that have greatly affected my own sense of the possibilities as a writer have been Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" and Ian McEwan's "Atonement." Obviously, they are gorgeously written, but what moves me the most are their mastery of the inconsistencies of the human heart and how accurately the portrayals are rendered.
Author of "The Prize" and "The Quest"
1. For two views of America: Walter Isaacson's biography of
2. I think I learned a lot from studying (Charles) Dickens, (William) Thackeray and Evelyn Waugh. I was very taken with the Canadian writer Morley Callaghan's "That Summer in Paris," about Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
Visit americanwritersmuseum.org to read more responses, learn about world leaders' reading habits or to submit your recommendations about defining American literature. Don't miss the section where writers ruminate on influential childhood reading experiences.