The Root Rewrites the Western Canon

Forget about Paradise Lost and The Canterbury Tales. Here's a list of books that students should be reading in school.

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  • The Root Rewrites the Western Canon

    The Root Rewrites the Western Canon

    Enough of Paradise Lost and The Canterbury Tales at school! Check our list of understudied books that students of all ages can and should be reading.

    Captions and selections by Dayo Olopade.

  • The Education of a British-Protected Child by Chinua Achebe (2009)

    The Education of a British-Protected Child by Chinua Achebe (2009)

    When constructing a syllabus of powerful books on black themes, Things Fall Apart is a natural place to start. The 1958 classic vaulted the Nigerian-born Chinua Achebe into his prominent role as patriarch of African letters, and onto academic syllabi around the world. But the 50 years since have wrought millions more pages of literature of, by and about the African diaspora—including Achebe’s new collection of nonfiction essays on language, country and raising “brown” children in America. Read on to see the required reading of the new day.

  • The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Adichie (2009)

    The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Adichie (2009)

    Adichie has won critical acclaim virtually since putting pen to paper to write her prizewinning debut novel Purple Hibiscus, and Half of a Yellow Sun, a powerhouse sophomore effort. With large doses of sarcasm, feminism and history, her new collection of short stories translates her ongoing personal journey through two continents and cements her place as current queen of the African literary scene.

  • The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (1963)

    The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (1963)

    Shorn of the unevenness that plagues lyrical, personal novels like Another Country and Just Above My Head, Baldwin, in peak form and spurred by the real-time racial dramas of the 1960s, pens some of the most stirring protest writing and reporting of the 20th century. Essays like “My Dungeon Shook” and “Down At the Cross” alone make this essential American history.

  • Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde (1982)

    Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde (1982)

    This memoir of being a black, immigrant lesbian in 1950s New York is the definition of pioneer literature. Situated in a Caribbean history of mythological women, Lorde’s poetic, empowering and untraditional history should be first on the list of books about strong single women making it happen.

  • A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters by Julian Barnes (1989)

    A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters by Julian Barnes (1989)

    Overly ambitious and yet incredibly succinct, this classic Barnes “novel” tests the known history of the world using visual art, newspaper reporting, Noah’s ark and much more. It’s the brilliant, impudent student’s response to a final exam on Western civilization, and opens the door for conversation about our own perspective on the history of the world since its 1989 publication.

  • Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau (1997)

    Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau (1997)

    Nabokovian wordplay meets the narrative sprawl of Faulkner or Garcia Marquez in this dizzying, Prix Goncourt-winning novel from the Martinican writer and educator. Painstakingly historical as well as obsessed with rewriting the past, this tale of one tiny island is history, genealogy and a smart, if wrenching, environmental parable. Its translation from Creole and the French is itself worth prolonged study.

     

  • Age of Iron by J.M. Coetzee (1990)

    Age of Iron by J.M. Coetzee (1990)

    Cape Town native and Australian expatriate Coetzee is among the most prolific and honored writers of the anti- and post-apartheid moment in South Africa. His characters are always complex and his style crisp and direct—rarely is a work of his over 300 pages. Age of Iron, the story of an Afrikaner woman coping with the end of life and the violent birth of a new national politics, explores the psychology of dissent in a refreshing, honest manner.

  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (2007)

    The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (2007)

    Dominican author Junot Diaz has written of the terror and trauma and frustration that went into the seven-year writing of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The end result educates on all levels: Writers learn about form, lovers learn about loss, strangers learn about the Dominican Republic—and everyone learns about comic books. This enormously satisfying New Jersey coming-of-age story was worth the wait.

  • Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)

    Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)

    This classic novel by Richard Wright thrusts an odious crime, a vicious black antihero and a suspenseful court case into the faces of a startled nation. Wright’s unblinking examination of law, prejudice and liberty narrates the intricacies of 1940s race politics in Chicago as well as any textbook. And the theme of black male angst elevates the thriller to the register of parable.

  • Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (1936)

    Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (1936)

    Other novels like the Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying are more popular source material for studies of Faulkner and the American South. But this sprawling, intimate portrait of the Sutphen dynasty takes perennial questions of miscegenation and origins from the South to the biblical story that gives the book its title. The myths the characters tell themselves and are as much a part of the discourse on family as the stunning truths about their own history.

  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)

    Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)

    In forward-leaning, chatty prose, Hurston speaks, repeats and repackages the idea of love and sex in a black context. Her attention to the politics of home as well as the nation was uniquely cosmopolitan. While this book is usually featured in courses devoted to writers of the Harlem Renaissance or to black feminism, Their Eyes Were Watching God deserves a place on the syllabus of any class in modern American history.

  • Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala (2006)

    Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala (2006)

    This story of an unnamed child soldier in an unnamed West African nation replaces what it lacks in historic specificity with a political and precise use of language. Set in a context as far from standard Western comings of age as imaginable, the book builds on the tradition of writing “rotten English” begun by Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy, and stands beside other works of formal linguistic experimentation from Gertrude Stein to William Carlos Williams.

  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (1861)

    Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (1861)

    The engaging true story of Harriet Jacobs’ life as a slave, fugitive and free mind was written, by her own hand, with clarity and authority in the days before the Civil War broke out. But for a century after the publication of this early slave narrative, the academic and literary establishment did not give Jacobs her due. Recent scholarship has restored Jacobs to the pantheon of freed men and women who told their stories, and made her voice one crucial to understanding the antebellum American South.

  • The Known World by Edward P. Jones (2004)

    The Known World by Edward P. Jones (2004)

    After 10 year’s gestation in the mind of Edward P. Jones, this saga of black slaveownership burst out, like Athena from the head of Zeus, and onto lists of the finest American writing in recent years. Biblical and morally ambiguous, The Known World maps a place where black history had failed to trod and is a brave contribution to our understanding of slavery and reconstruction.

  • Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid (1990)

    Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid (1990)

    The story of Lucy Potter, a good girl from a small island who comes to work for a wealthy family on the Upper East Side of New York City, is an easy choice to replace Pride and Prejudice, or other 19th century “novels of manners.” Thrown, like Kincaid herself, into the boil of 1980s Manhattan, Lucy soon loses all of her manners and gains both pride and prejudice in return. What’s best: Lucy negotiates the tropes but avoids the smallness of the Anglo-centric “chick lit” tradition that soon followed.

     

  • King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild (1998)

    King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild (1998)

    This underdog best seller narrates the commercial, social and military history of King Leopold II’s brutal administration of the Congo Free State from 1885 through 1908. In readable yet anthropologic detail, Hochschild reports on the Berlin Conference that divvied up a continent, and the evils of the trade in rubber and ivory that killed hundreds of thousands of Congolese. This book is essential reading for any student of Afro-European relations in the 19th and 20th centuries.

  • The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu (2007)

    The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu (2007)

    The story of an East African immigrant working a corner store in the gentrifying neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., Mengestu’s prizewinning first book is a quintessentially American effort. The protagonist sells condoms and packaged cupcakes and reads Dostoevsky with the white family next door. The novel instructs on urban renewal, nationalism, interracial dating and dreams deferred.

     

  • A Bend in the River by VS Naipaul (1975)

    A Bend in the River by VS Naipaul (1975)

    Reopening the space exoticized by Joseph Conrad’s 1906 Heart of Darkness, Trinidadian expatriate V.S. Naipaul offers a first-person narrative perspective of the days when Mobutu Sese Séko ruled central Africa. Based in part on time Naipaul spent in then-Zaire, the novel draws characters and situations that force readers into a new vocabulary for the Congo: wealthy, petty, pretty and mundane.

  • The Nature of Blood by Caryl Phillips (1997)

    The Nature of Blood by Caryl Phillips (1997)

    This inventive, postmodern narrative is the best in a long resume of sociological fiction from the St. Kitts-born British novelist. From Ethiopian Jews to Holocaust survivors and Venetian usurers, The Nature of Blood is obsessed with the nature of blood. Study it for what Shakespeare left out: Under Phillips’ pen, Othello has a wife in West Africa and a hell of a time learning Italian.

  • The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah (1991)

    The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah (1991)

    Arguably the first shot in a now-booming industry of “urban fiction,” this novel from musician and activist Sister Souljah takes readers on a ride with a teenager caught up in a life of drugs, deception and the early days of bling-bling. It’s a vintage 1990s morality tale and is hard to put down.

  • Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (1997)

    Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (1997)

    Adrian Nicole LeBlanc sat, read, walked, taught and ate with a group of women and their children, friends and baby daddies as they all navigated seven years together in the Bronx. The radical method of documenting, then animating the lives of strangers lays bare the realities of poverty and criminality in modern New York, and created the idea of “immersion journalism” in the process.

  • The Venus Hottentot by Elizabeth Alexander (1990)

    The Venus Hottentot by Elizabeth Alexander (1990)

    Today, Alexander’s most famous poem may be “Praise Song for the Day,” written for and read at the inauguration of President Barack Obama, but her first collection of poems offers the fierce personality and smart historicity that first grabbed the president’s attention. The title poem is a caustic, scientific meditation on performer Saartjie Bartman, and part of a discourse on spectacle, and on black bodies, that resonates today.

  • King Hedley II by August Wilson (1999)

    King Hedley II by August Wilson (1999)

    Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson is best known for his Pulitzer Prize winners and Broadway sellouts like The Piano Lesson and Fences. But this 1985 offering is the finest study of black male interiority in Wilson’s ten-play cycle. Its hero, Hedley, whose blood and name reaches back to the earliest decades of Wilson’s project, fights the frustrations and humiliations of being a black man under the thumb of Reaganomics and the worst ravages of the crack era.

  • Omeros by Derek Walcott (1990)

    Omeros by Derek Walcott (1990)

    Like James Joyce’s Ulysses, this richly lyric poem, constructed in three-line bursts, marks an intervention into the mythologies that Western civilization has built. Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott reimagines the heroes of the Iliad as Achille and Hector, ordinary men in St. Lucia. Most surprising is how easily the players in Homer’s famous epic dissolve into another seafaring culture, miles away from Greece.

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