Reading Rainbow

What book would you force on your neighbors?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

New York City is just the latest locale to turn reading into a civic duty. Predictably, though, New York’s selection process has been contentious. The committee in charge rejected some of the city’s most famous writers, including Henry James and Truman Capote, in favor of a contemporary, multicultural novel, and its final pick—Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker, about a Korean-American immigrant in Queens—is still being disputed by people who say it’s insensitive to Asian-Americans.

Others simply find the “one city, one book” idea more hellish than utopian. In the New York Times, Harold Bloom said it was “rather like the idea that we are all going to pop out and eat Chicken McNuggets or something else horrid at once.” Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote that New Yorkers would “have to get the taste of cod-liver oil out of their mouths before they can actually savor Mr. Lee’s remarkable prose.” Joseph Epstein here to add your own; we’ll post the best reader responses as they come in).

Alex Beam, Boston Globe columnist

The ur-Boston book that came to mind was Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah, or possibly George Higgins’ masterful The Friends of Eddie Coyle. But the most inclusive, and perhaps most obvious book would be the most difficult to digest—J. Anthony Lukas’ mammoth tome Common Ground.

Amy Bloom, fiction writer

I might force them to read Jane Hirshfield’s collection of poems Given Sugar, Given Salt. Forcing would not be in the spirit of her work but everyone would be grateful afterwards and they would be murmuring lines and phrases for weeks afterwards. And, if I was confined to prose, perhaps Nick Hornby’s How To Be Goodor, perhaps even more apt, Bruce Jay Friedman’s Far From the City of Class,a truly dark, excruciatingly funny book.

Steven Brill, media entrepreneur

Robert Caro’s The Power Broker.

Tom Brokaw, news anchor

Well, Yankton [South Dakota] counts as my hometown although I haven’t lived there in 40 years—and knowing my old neighbors I don’t think they’d take kindly to my suddenly telling them what to read. However, if they asked, I think I’d recommend Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee [by Dee Brown]. Yankton is named for a Sioux Tribe, and I have long believed S.D. needs to have a continuing dialogue on Indian issues and history.

Christopher Buckley, editor of Forbes FYI

Living in D.C., as I happily but ironically do, I guess the book I would force everyone to read is the Internal Revenue Code, the 2,000-odd page summation of our nation’s taxes. For light reading, there’s Code 193, “Tertiary Injectants.” For the more serious reader, there’s Code 90, “Illegal Foreign Irrigation Subsidies.” There is something for everyone. Someone—Chesterton, I think—once said that he would rather read a bad book than a good book, because a good book reveals only the mind of its author, whereas a bad one reveals the minds of many. The IRC stands as a testament to the minds of many here in Washington. It would be useful for us all, collectively, to read what we have managed to produce, indeed, inspiring.

Cindy Chupak, writer/executive producer of Sex and the City

The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss for Washington, D.C. (just to remind President Bush that some people in the “Axis of Evil” simply butter their bread butter side down). About a Boy by Nick Hornby for New York City because it’s so charming and funny that everyone would be able to smile and laugh for a while.

Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut for Tulsa, Oklahoma (my conservative hometown), because the short story “Harrison Bergeron” is a good reminder of the dangers of thought control, and the short story “Who Am I This Time” is a valentine to the rituals of community theater and dating.

Randy Cohen, New York Times’ “The Ethicist”

This is an easy one: The Good, the Bad & the Difference, by Randy Cohen, to be published by Doubleday on March 19.

Susan Estrich, columnist and legal scholar

The White Oleander by Janet Fitch. … It really is a wonderful LA book—about the other LA, the LA of the foster care system, and a girl who makes it through, barely.

Ira Glass, host of This American Life

The only book that comes to mind is the Koran, but I don’t think I want to be the brat who says that in print.

(Note: In a subsequent e-mail, Glass gave Slate his permission to include this.)

Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespeare scholar

I’m impressed by the way in which the project has made people talk with one another (about To Kill a Mockingbird or whatever), but my instincts pull against [it]. In any case, I cannot think of a single thing, even a play by Shakespeare.

Jim Holt, Slate’s “Egghead” columnist

I would have the people of New York (where I live) read The Diary of a Nobody, by George and Weedon Grossmith, because it makes the petit-bourgeois virtues of decency and respectability seem so attractive. It could make New Yorkers even nicer than they already are. Also, it is an extremely funny book, so people would not resent me for forcing them to read it.

I don’t see anything wrong with making all the people in a big group read the same book. A few weeks before the beginning of my freshman year at the University of Virginia, I and all my soon-to-be classmates received a letter from the dean asking us to read John Updike’s novel The Centaur. We all did so, assuming that it would be the subject of discussions during orientation week. Oddly, when we got to the university, the novel was never once mentioned by the dean or anyone else on the staff. Still, it made for an excellent ice-breaker when trying to meet girls at freshman mixers: “So … er … um …what did YOU think of The Centaur?”

A.M. Homes, novelist

If I had to force the residents of any city to read one book it would be Crime and Punishment. A native of Washington, D.C., now living in New York, I can think of no book more relevant. This murderous tale of morality, of a man’s mental life, his doing and undoing has more than stood the test of time. Over the years Raskolnikov only becomes more and more modern, his conundrum is as contemporary as it gets.

Erica Jong, novelist

I seek a book set in New York, by a New York writer. It should be a book that’s above political correctness, that engages the human heart, stimulates the mind and reminds us of the beauty of prose when it aspires to plainspoken poetry. It should have no ax to grind but should seek to remind us that the struggle to love is politics enough for any lifetime. I choose The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, a book I would give my right hand to have written.

I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and now live on the Upper East Side, spending as much time as possible in Italy and France. Wharton was New York bred, European-educated and ended her days in the South of France. But she understood the struggle to love—a struggle that subsumes all others in human life.

Sarah Kerr, film critic for Vogue

I once had a friend who when she returned to Manhattan from other large American cities used to declare, in a game parody of New York chauvinism, “They don’t have urine all over the subway walls. They’re not really living!” In the Times piece on the One Book, One New York project, quotes from the project’s annoying detractors struck me as another parody, this time unwitting, of the Big Apple arrogance that confuses parochial fractiousness, and a kind of late-imperial coasting on old glories, with creative ferment. Ann Douglas, if New York already boasts so many committed readers why are our schools, libraries, and few decent independent bookstores always fighting for their lives? Harold Bloom, do the core courses that expose biochem majors to your beloved Shakespeare also smack of civics, and should they therefore be scrapped? Stanley Crouch, must we put down the immigrant experience in order to recognize the African-American one as key?

Still, finding a book for mass reading is tough and probably doomed to compromise. But I disagree with the committee’s impulse to avoid classics. The best I can do off the top of my head is Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, because its earnest, harsh honesty about American selfishness has been out of style so long that it seems fresh again. Invisible Man and One Hundred Years of Solitude also come to mind.

Michael Lewis, writer based in Paris

Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People.

Merrill Markoe, comedy writer

I would be very foolish not to use this as an opportunity to promote my new book, which just came out yesterday, titled It’s My F—ing Birthday. If all of even one city anywhere would read it, I would be hurtled immediately to the best-seller list and so I will gladly sign up for whatever city that does not currently have a homework assignment, with the assurance that even if they just buy it, but do not actually read it, it will not affect their grade point average.

Martha Nussbaum, law and ethics professor

For Bryn Mawr, where I grew up, in the 1950s: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (published in 1952). Where I lived, people of color were indeed invisible: present only as servants in rich people’s houses, excluded from schools, clubs, and ordinary social life. Ellison’s work, by turns tragic, fantastic, hilarious, surreal, and caustic, both castigates the blindness to humanity that is so great a part of racism and works on the “inner eyes” (as his narrator puts it) of its reader to create at least the beginning of a recognition of a shared humanity. Ellison described his novel as “a raft of perception, hope, and entertainment” that could help our nation negotiate the “snags and whirlpools” it was encountering on the way to its democratic ideal. The formal elegance of the novel, Ellison’s sure command of form and language, combine with his mature human insight, both radical and merciful, to produce a work that can’t be avoided once begun.

Cynthia Ozick, writer

Washington Squareby Henry James. It’s a page turner. … I wondered why they threw it out. Because it’s 19th century? Or because—and this is my hunch—the people are too aristocratic? … But people have always lived in tenements, and they have loved to read about rich people.

Francine Prose, novelist and critic

Everyone in New York should read War and Peace immediately. I just reread it while on the road, and it’s truly amazing, everyone is in it, from Donald Rumsfeld to Rudy Giuliani to John Walker Lindh. They just have Russian names.

Diane Ravitch, education scholar

If I were the literary boss of New York City, I would propose that everyone read a different book every month. I first encountered this program in a small town in Wyoming; lots of people were reading a button on their lapel that said, “I am reading (the name of the book). Talk to me about it.” It seemed to be a good way to get people talking together about something that they had thought about it and on which they had strong opinions.

I’d start with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, maybe because I live in Brooklyn but wasn’t born here. I’d like for a new book every month that reminded us of our common human problems, that touched all of us in some very immediate way. The book of the month might be a new book, but I would not restrict the list to books that are contemporary or about New York City. The defining feature of the list should be that it speaks to all of us and gives us something to think about, something to remember. Another candidate for the list would be Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. And Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, which made me cry.

Katie Roiphe, writer

I suggest Infinite Jest [by David Foster Wallace].

Ron Rosenbaum, New York Observer columnist

I don’t want to criticize the well-meaning choices others have made for New York’s homework assignment. But my feeling is that what my city could use now is a brief holiday from solemnity and gravity. Perhaps some pure reading pleasure, maybe even a good laugh at bad behavior. So I’d suggest, first, Money by Martin Amis, a great laugh out loud New York novel about the self-destructive binge of a British media hustler. About the way the maddening seductions of our fair city chew him up and spit him out (binge and purge him?). It will be good for our municipal self-confidence. It’s incredibly funny, but as someone once wrote, “it raises comic self-abasement almost to the level of spiritual self realization.” (OK, I wrote that.) Anyway it will make us all feel incredibly virtuous by comparison with John Self, Amis’ debauched unreliable narrator.

My other choice would be Charles Portis’ comic tour de force The Dog of the South. A book that offers so much pure pleasure, one can almost overlook its literary seriousness (check out the epigraph from Sir Thomas Browne if you need reassurance on that count). It will have the whole city grinning.

Lee Siegel, critic

I don’t think that each city should have its own book because sooner or later a person from one city will be sitting on a plane or a train next to a person from another city and they won’t have anything to talk about when books come up. Also, what if you live between two cities? Then you would have to choose which book to read. Also, what about people who live in rural areas, far away from a city, assuming they know how to read at all.       

What we need is a book that explains how to decide which book everyone in a particular city should read while avoiding the problems listed above. But who will write such a book? More important, who will choose the person to write such a book? It grieves me to say this, but maybe it would be better if people just stopped reading for a while and worked on this question of what everyone should read. They could watch television in the meantime.

Cyndi Stivers, editor of TimeOut New York

I think James McBride’s The Color of Water is actually a fine choice—it’s very evocative (physically and emotionally), and it really reflects how diverse the city is … in every way, not just racially. Thus I suspect that if anyone tried to foist a single title upon the populace, many would disagree, just on principle.

Nick Tosches, writer

Last Exit to Brooklyn, by Hubert Selby Jr.

The notion of mass reading assignments of sanctioned books seems a fitting and cloyingly reeking post-mortem perfuming of the dead horse called culture. Burn all books bearing the imprimatur of the ministry of mediocrity.

Helen Vendler, poetry scholar

Opened Ground by Seamus Heaney, because it has political, emotional, and familiar interests as well as aesthetic mastery.