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Top 5 books to get started with American Literature and history



Key takeaways:

Here are five books that help us explore and get a taste of American literature:
  1. Catch-22 By Joseph Heller
  2. The Colour Purple By Alice Walker
  3. The Cather In The Rye By J.D. Salinger
  4. Their Eyes Were Watching By God Zora Hurston
  5. The Scarlet Letter By Nathaniel Hawthrone

American literature is predominantly written or produced in English in the United States of America and its preceding colonies. The American Revolutionary Period (1775–83) is notable for the political writings of Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson. A stark pragmatism is visible in these books. They have a diverse range of themes and the character’s choices are always a lesson. Here we will be featuring five novels from American literature that have shaped the ideas and ideals of many.

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Catch-22 By Joseph Heller

Catch-22 By Joseph Heller book cover

They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.
No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.
Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.
They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”
And what difference does that make?

Despite the story and characters of Catch-22 being entirely fictional, the story is thoroughly inspired by Heller’s life and his career as a bombardier in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Coming from the novel of the same name, a Catch-22 is a situation where one is trapped by two contradictory conditions. It’s more generally used to refer to a paradox or dilemma. The story revolves around the same and is a delightful read.

"The Catch-22 itself is a bureaucratic idiocy so sublime it leaves you staring out the window with wonder."  —  The Guardian

The Colour Purple By Alice Walker

The Colour Purple By Alice Walker book cover

I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.

A powerful cultural touchstone of modern American literature, The Color Purple depicts the lives of African American women in early twentieth-century rural Georgia. This book is indeed a masterpiece as it traces the paths to self-actualization.

"This work is a beautiful interplay of power and gender, of victimization and liberation which introduced Black femininity into the then male-centered Black Nationalist discourse."  —  Feminism India

The Cather In The Rye By J.D. Salinger

The Cather In The Rye By J.D. Salinger book cover

It’s funny. All you have to do is say something nobody understands and they’ll do practically anything you want them to.

Great fiction unveils the nakedness of society. This book adheres to that notion. There are many voices in this novel: children’s voices, adult voices, underground voices-but Holden’s voice is the most eloquent of all. Transcending his vernacular, yet remaining marvelously faithful to it, he issues a perfectly articulated cry of mixed pain and pleasure.

"I think many teenagers would be able to relate to the themes  — it’s a modern classic of the coming-of-age genre." —  The Guardian

Their Eyes Were Watching By God Zora Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching By God Zora Hurston book cover

There are years that ask questions and years that answer.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a 1937 novel by American writer Zora Neale Hurston. It is considered a classic of the Harlem Renaissance, and Hurston’s best-known work. The novel explores main character Janie Crawford’s 'ripening from a vibrant, but voiceless, teenage girl into a woman with her finger on the trigger of her own destiny'.

"This novel is a packet of surprises as we have no idea what’s going to happen next. Many romantic novels basically have the same plot, but this novel is something no one would have ever imagined. —  The Guardian

The Scarlet Letter By Nathaniel Hawthrone

The Scarlet Letter By Nathaniel Hawthrone book cover

She could no longer borrow from the future to ease her present grief.

Set in 17th-century Puritan Boston, Massachusetts, during the years 1642 to 1649, it tells the story of Hester Prynne, who conceives a daughter through an affair and will not reveal her lover’s identity. A masterpiece of American literature this one is a must-read.

"The Scarlet Letter was the first, and the tendency of criticism is to pronounce it the most impressive, also, of these ampler productions. It has the charm of unconsciousness; the author did not realize while he worked, that this “most prolix among the tales” was alive with the miraculous vitality of genius."  —  The Atlantic

Hope you enjoy this list! If you have more recommendations or have read any of these books, share your takeaways and review them with the community at —!