The best novels to read while American democracy implodes

Tadzio Koelb Author Of Trenton Makes
By Tadzio Koelb

The Books I Picked & Why

Invisible Man

By Ralph Ellison

Book cover of Invisible Man

Why this book?

Invisible Man is a tour-de-force exploration of what it is to be Black in America, but it is also much more. While I love it for the lush, jazz-inspired originality of its prose and the endless inventiveness of the plot, Invisible Man, despite its specificity and the terrifying view it offers into the cruelty (sometimes thoughtless, most often intentional) begat by America’s obsession with race, is also a book that helps us understand what it means to be the “other” in any place, at any time, in any culture. Ellison’s only novel is a monument to his compassion, a triumph of both art and human solidarity.


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The House of Mirth

By Edith Wharton

Book cover of The House of Mirth

Why this book?

In a twist of dramatic irony that is perhaps all too common, Edith Wharton’s elegantly structured novel successfully sets out to call attention to injustices—the barriers that society erects to limit the power of women and ensure the malleability of the poor—while being itself an example of another. However heart-felt a call for equality, The House of Mirth nevertheless portrays its one Jewish character with much of the thoughtless anti-Semitism that was de rigueur at the time and for many Americans today remains practically an addiction. A book that I read on its own terms but also which I feel encouraged to judge through the very lens Wharton herself would hold up to society.


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Beloved

By Toni Morrison

Book cover of Beloved

Why this book?

Like most readers, I have never been able to forget the moment I understood that Sethe has killed her daughter, Beloved, to protect her from slavery, that death was clearly preferable to the life she had known as a slave, a system one group of Americans knowingly and purposefully inflicted on another for profit, among other unpalatable reasons. Beloved haunts her mother for the rest of her life, just as Beloved haunts every reader and the facts behind the story it tells haunt our country’s claims to defend and promote freedom, democracy, and equality. Here is a novel of terrifying beauty and pity that should inspire endless anger and unwithering sorrow. 


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Midnight Cowboy

By James Leo Herlihy

Book cover of Midnight Cowboy

Why this book?

I’m sad the brilliance of Herlihy’s novel has been overshadowed by the (admittedly also brilliant) movie it inspired. What the film can’t include is the dangerous repression of sex and sexuality, described in unrelenting detail, that defined Joe Buck’s childhood. The novel’s indictment of this tyranny and the effects it has on people, both individually and collectively, is embedded in its portrait of gay men driven to self-hatred by religion, discrimination, and social pressure. The homosocial love that develops between Buck and Ratso, Midnight Cowboy tells us, could only happen outside the boundaries—represented in the novel by middle-class economics and its accompanying pieties—of “normal” America.


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Light in August

By William Faulkner

Book cover of Light in August

Why this book?

We tend to look to Black or other minority authors when we want to consider race, but racism is a white problem, and it’s important for white artists to face the issue. Joe Christmas passes for white in the post-Reconstruction South, but believes (without knowing for sure) that he might be partly Black. What would be a non-issue in any sensible society becomes, in a country where race defines a person’s value, the central feature of his life, plaguing his thoughts, driving his every decision, torturing him until his pain explodes in rage and violence. White society demands that the anger of a man presumed Black be suppressed with prodigious force and cruelty—thus closing the circle and trapping us all. In my opinion, Faulkner was the greatest prose stylist ever born in America. In Light in August his mastery of language is paired with structural complexity and psychological depth to create a devastating work about the destructive assumptions that underlie the strange American interpretation of our own claim that people were “created equal.”


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