Sam Smith, 2004
[Your editor was invited by Counterpunch to be one of those suggesting a summer reading list of the most important American novels of the past century. Here was my response.]
I don’t read that many novels in part because I resent novelists. They write lies, then get to call it literature, and turn beautiful women gooey-eyed at parties. Journalists write the truth, then get to call it news, and turn bleary-eyed listening to politicians at press conferences. If they start writing like novelists, it becomes a major scandal.
There are plenty of literary truth-tellers and any summer would be better spent reading them than the average novel. I particularly recommend the work of The Initials: E.B White, A.J. Liebling and H.L. Mencken, as well as anything by James Thurber. Consider, for example, a good novel that makes my list: “All the King’s Men.” Fine as it is, it doesn’t match Liebling’s description of another Long in “The Earl of Louisiana.”
Further, having more than enough dysfunction in my own family, I get no particular joy out of reading about other people’s problems, whether fictional or mildly disguised. And I agree with Joe Rauh who told me that he once declined an invitation from Arthur Miller to see a tragic play because “I didn’t see why I should have to pay to see what I try to avoid in real life.”
But, unlike novelists, journalists tend to do what they’re told, so here’s my list:
Sister Carrie; The Great Gatsby; Brave New World; Catch 22; 1984; Slaughterhouse Five; Animal Farm; All the King’s Men; The Sun Also Rises; Catcher in the Rye; Lord Jim; Lord of the Flies; Invisible Man; Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Finally, when I do read fiction, it tends to be detective mysteries. I’m convinced that Dashiel Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Nero Wolfe, and Michael Innes tell all one needs to know to get along in this life and how to avoid trouble along the way. As Chandler once wrote of the detective hero, “He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks — that is, with a rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. . .”