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Sherman Alexie's Top Ten List
1. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952). This modernist novel follows the bizarre, often surreal adventures of an unnamed narrator, a black man, whose identity becomes a battleground in racially divided America. Expected to be submissive and obedient in the South, he must decipher the often contradictory rules whites set for a black man’s behavior. Traveling north to Harlem, he meets white leaders intent on controlling and manipulating him. Desperate to seize control of his life, he imitates Dostoevsky’s underground man, escaping down a manhole where he vows to remain until he can define himself. The book’s famous last line, “Who knows, but that on the lower frequencies I speak for you,” suggests how it transcends race to tell a universal story of the quest for self-determination.
2. Howl by Allen Ginsberg (1956). The title poem is considered the signature poem of the Beat generation. In language that blesses, curses, sorrows, and comforts, Ginsberg laments “the best minds of my generation . . . destroyed by madness.” Begun in isolation and anger, the poem reaches a kind of saintliness and communion. What can be seen as a manifesto against the conformist society of America in the 1950s can also be read as a love poem for the promising idea of America.
3. The poems of Emily Dickinson (1830–86). Quirkily punctuated and rhymed, thoughtful and unsentimental, these brief, aphoristic lyrics meditate upon God, nature, and the internal weather of the emotions—“The soul unto itself / Is an Imperial friend —/ Or the most agonizing spy / An enemy could send.” A spinster who published only two of her nearly two thousand poems, Dickinson saw her work as a vehicle for spiritual exploration and as messages to a world “that never wrote to me.”
4. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (1990). A Vietnam vet, O’Brien established himself as a chronicler of the war in nonfiction works such as If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973) and his National Book Award–winning novel Going After Cacciato (1978). In this, his crowning work, a character named “Tim” narrates a series of stories about himself and other young soldiers in his platoon who wrestle with the decision to go to war, walk through booby-trapped jungles, miss their loved ones, and grieve for their fallen comrades. Using simple, emotionally charged language, O’Brien explores the moral consequences and conundrums of the war through daily details, such as the things soldiers carry in their backpacks, and timeless issues, especially the scars they will always bear.
5. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1605, 1615). Considered literature’s first great novel, Don Quixote is the comic tale of a dream-driven nobleman whose devotion to medieval romances inspires him to go in quest of chivalric glory and the love of a lady who doesn’t know him. Famed for its hilarious antics with windmills and nags, Don Quixote offers timeless meditations on heroism, imagination, and the art of writing itself. Still, the heart of the book is the relationship between the deluded knight and his proverb-spewing squire, Sancho Panza. If their misadventures illuminate human folly, it is a folly redeemed by simple love, which makes Sancho stick by his mad master “no matter how many foolish things he does.”
6. Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko (1977). Like many returning soliders, Tayo, who is half white and half Laguna Indian, has a hard time readjusting to civilian life after World War II, when he was held prisoner by the Japanese. Instead of venting his rage or turning to drink, he connects with a medicine man who helps him find solace through traditional ceremonies that reveal life as a process of change and growth.
7. She Had Some Horses by Joy Harjo (1983). Harjo is a celebrated Native American writer whose poetry often explores the connection between ancient traditions and the modern world. This collection of rhythmic, free-form poems searches for meaning in a mythic, mysterious world and for survival strategies in an often harsh landscape.
8. The Branch Will Not Break by James Wright (1963). A poet with finely honed social and political concerns, Wright wrote beautiful lines about outcasts and human suffering. This collection marks the poet’s turn from more conventional forms toward lyrical free verse. Wright’s Collected Poems was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1971.
9. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939). A powerful portrait of Depression-era America, this gritty social novel follows the Joad family as they flee their farm in the Oklahoma dust bowl for the promised land of California. While limping across a crippled land, Ma and Pa Joad, their pregnant daughter Rose of Sharon, and their recently paroled son Tom sleep in ramshackle Hoovervilles filled with other refugees and encounter hardship, death, and deceit. While vividly capturing the plight of a nation, Steinbeck renders people who have lost everything but their dignity.
10. Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987). It’s a choice no mother should have to make. In 1856, escaped slave Margaret Garner decided to kill her infant daughter rather than return her to slavery. Her desperate act created a national sensation. Where Garner’s true-life drama ends, Beloved begins. In this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, the murdered child, Beloved, returns from the grave years later to haunt her mother Sethe. Aided by her daughter Denver and lover Paul D, Sethe confronts the all-consuming guilt precipitated by the ghostly embodiment of her dead child. Rendered in poetic language, Beloved is a stunning indictment of slavery “full of baby’s venom.”