Sunday Moment of Zen: American Literature 101

This is almost certainly the only time Michael Gove will ever be mentioned in association with the idea of Zen-like calm. Continuing his seeming fondness for releasing stories designed to continue the  war on joy, he’s today announced that 70-80% of all books studied in English Literature classes will be English. Classics of American Literature in particular have been removed from the syllabus and replaced with the sort of thing Gove studied when he was a child, and presumably head boy, at Mordor Finishing School For Future Education Secretaries.

Here’s the news story:


It’s a nonsensical approach so much so that, as it turns out, it may either be utterly wrong or hurriedly being rowed back from as this DFE statement seems to show. Either way, it got me thinking about Literature and what it means to me. Literature classes should be a guided tour round a tiny part of the infinite museum of human experience. At the end of the tour, you know the layout and better still, you’re allowed to go wherever you want. Literature is one of the roads to understanding, both the world, and yourself. It’s an endless toybox that educates you, helps you escape, teaches you how to come back when you’re ready and is always at your command.

It’s a key, not chains. And I was immensely lucky to be taught that by some of the finest teachers I’ve ever met. One of whom I’m related to. Hi Dad! See! I rite gud!

The challenge, for any reader, is where to start. School provides a useful framework but the secret is using that framework as a start, not a limitation. But how do you do that?

Enter the smartphone, stage right, instagramming Antigonus vs the Bear.

Below is a list of American literature authors who are great. Each name links to audiobooks of their work. Each is available free and legally. Each is a part of the museum I’ve had the pleasure of visiting and each has made my life so much richer for being in it.

So, this week’s Sunday moment of Zen is literature. Enjoy.


Edgar Allan Poe

The grandfather of modern horror, and arguably, detective fiction. Gory, gruesome, in love with language and operatically over the top.


Henry James
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The Blue to Poe’s Oasis. A more restrained author who wrote extensively about the collision between American and other cultures and therefore instantly earns a place on this list for irony alone. The Turn of the Screw is regarded, justifiably, as an all time classic horror story and you’ll see the roots of a lot of more modern pieces in it.


Edgar Rice Burroughs

The King of Pulp. Also the King of IMMENSELY RACIST Pulp. Burroughs really, really hasn’t aged well in outlook but the world building and ideas in the Mars books continue to strike a chord with a lot of comic writers in particular today. The racism will both annoy and offend you but there’s interesting discussions to be had about the evolution of the world view from Burrough’s time to now.


Edith Wharton

Nobel prize-nominated writer, designer and commenter on American high society. Wharton was one of the wittiest, most arch commentators on her circle of life and there’s an interesting line to draw from the satirical elements of Jane Austen, through Wharton, to Dorothy Parker and more recently, arguably, the TV work of Lena Dunham. The movie version of House of Mirth, starring Gillian Anderson, is also well worth a look as an on ramp for her work.


Louisa May Alcott

Alcott is best known for Little Women which, despite being published in 1868, is still held in huge regard as one of the best Children’s books ever written. Her work’s a lot like Burroughs oddly, in the sense that it tells you as much about when it was written as what it was written about.


Harper Lee

ISBNs (Because, remember, Amazon need to sit in the corner and think about what they’re doing)

ISBN 10: 0446310786 / 0-446-31078-6
ISBN 13: 9780446310789

Harper Lee wrote one book, but when that book’s perfect, you really don’t need to do anything else. To Kill A Mockingbird is a childhood memoir, a story about racism, tolerance, perception, mob rule and in Atticus Finch, has one of the greatest fictional characters of all time at it’s center. It’s a fascinating, gripping, sweet natured story about that moment where childhood ends but the corner isn’t quite turned into adolescence. It’s the only one on this list not covered by Librivox but it’s absolutely worth your time and money.



There are so many more. David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, everything Ursula K. Le Guin has written, Ralph Ellison’s staggering Invisible Man and so many others. All of them outside the curriculum that’s about to be enforced on English schools, all of them life changing and all of them essential.So, please, take the tour but when you’re done? Go explore. Everything you find will be worth it.





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