A Book about Books

“I am an invisible man.”

“We were around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

“On a sticky August evening two weeks before her due date, Ashima Ganguli stands in the kitchen of a Central Square apartment, combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl.”

So begins three contemporary books: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake (2003). One is about African Americans, another is about the counter culture, and the third opens with a view of new Americans, attempting to recreate a dish she recalled from her native India. Our tastes change with the times–only sixty years separate Ellison from Obama.

With so many words propelled at us each day, so many stories on so many media, there’s not much opportunity to consider the big picture, to develop a sense of the stories we are telling one another. I suspect that’s what caused English Professor Kevin Hayes to write A Journey Through American Literature (Oxford University Press).

In Hayes’s world, the word “literature” embraces poetry, travel writing, autobiography, and fiction. Whether Benjamin Franklin or Stephen Crane, Eugene O’Neill or T. Coraghessan Boyle, his examples consider the broad sweep of 250 years. His definition of literature includes bits of Seinfeld and The Simpsons, and acknowledges films as literature, too.

Skateboarding through media theory and aesthetics, Smithsonian American Art Museum is acknowledging videogames as art this summer. And I’m certain that every word in write in this blog, and every word you write in your email rants, will stand the test of time as great literature, too.

Yes, there is interesting, substantial work being done in all corners of art and media. Often, the work goes unnoticed, or receives a flash of publicity for fifteen seconds. It’s just too easy to forget about the good stuff until somebody says, or writes, “hey, this is worth a look!”

This summer, for me, Hayes is that somebody. Here’s a starter checklist:

  • Walden by Henry David Thoreau
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  • The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill
  • The Invisible Man by J.D. Salinger
  • Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck
  • Beneath the Underdog by Charles Mingus
  • China Men by Maxine Hong Kingston
  • The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Yes, Hayes is an English professor. No, I will not write a term paper, nor will I abide by any deadline. This time, I’m not reading for the professor or the course or the grade. I’m reading for myself. And I plan to read these books not on a screen, but through the ancient technology of ink on paper. Some, I will buy in a used bookstore, some I will buy from the NEW bookstore that just opened not a mile from my home, some I will borrow, at no charge, from a good local public library.

Welcome to summer!

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