Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. (1948). Raised in an Appalachian backwater where only one race was represented, I had nothing but a theoretical understanding of the racist disease---the most vile worm in the whole shiny apple of human experience, and the American experience in particular -- before I read this beautiful, generous, unforgettable novel by a white South African liberal.
Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver. (1968). The American racial tragedy straight from the horse's mouth -- prison essays and enduring life lessons from an African American rapist, convict, self-taught intellectual and Black Panther revolutionary. Any American, white or black, who neglects it has his/her head in the sand.
The Abyss by Marguerite Yourcenar. (1968) The perfect corrective for any male reader who may have inhaled sexist stereotypes about the way women write. Yourcenar, the great Belgian writer who spent the last years of her long life in coastal Maine, left us one of the finest historical novels ever written----the tragedy of a free-thinking philosopher fighting to survive in a pre-Enlightenment Europe ruled by the Roman Church and its Inquisitors.
The Wind Among the Reeds by William Butler Yeats. (1899) If you can't respond to these poems, some of the most perfect Yeats wrote while he was still intoxicated with Irish mythology, you are tone-deaf to the music of the English language and should never try to read or write serious poetry. Lines that no amount of memory loss can erase.
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The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. (1880) Dostoevsky's last and greatest achievement, this is where modern literature begins -- according to me. Whatever you can't find here, you don't need.
Award-winning essayist HAL CROWTHER has won a 2014 Pushcart Prize for non-fiction with his essay “Out of Date: The Joys of Obsolescence” originally published in Blackbird and currently in the 2014 Pushcart Prize Anthology. His most recent book of criticism, Mencken: An Infuriating American, was published in the fall of 2014 by the University of Iowa Press as part of a series of “Writers on Writing,” edited by Robert Richardson