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Saturday Q&A

We're having some production issues. We'll eventually answer more questions this week, but we're not sure when. For now, we've picked one to answer that at least gives readers something to chew on.


J.E. in Boone, NC, asks: What do you consider the greatest American novel and why?

V & Z answer: (Z) has an assignment in his U.S. history course that is due shortly before his lecture on Rock and Roll. Here's the exact prompt:

Several years ago, NASA was putting together a capsule to send into space, with the idea that if it was found by aliens, they would be able to learn about American civilization. They decided to include a recording of a single rock and roll song. If NASA came to you and asked what rock and roll song to use, what song would you have suggested and why? Make clear why, of all the millions of songs you could have chosen, this was the best choice.

That is prelude to the lecture on rock, of course, which has a significant portion dedicated to the question of "What is a rock song?"

We are going to use this exact question, just replacing "rock and roll song" with "American novel." It's tempting for us to produce a 5/10/15 book list, but we're going to discipline ourselves and stick to just one.

So, what is our pick? Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. That's a little obvious, but it's also the right choice, in our view. It embodies many core elements of American culture: racism, entrepreneurialism, exploration, gender roles, mistreatment of Native Americans and religiosity among them. At the same time, it also has universal themes like young love, friendship, restlessness, social tensions and the question of what "civilization" means. The book is accessible to children, but also has elements that speak to adults, and that can even give a Ph.D. in English something to think about. The author is very possibly America's greatest, and speaks to American culture's love of satire. Also its love of censorship, since Tom Sawyer is one of the most banned books of all time.

What do readers think? If you have thoughts, please choose one book that you think best answers the question, and explain your thinking. We'll run some over the course of the next few weeks. Also, original questioner J.E. included their pick in their question, but we withheld it, so the slate is as blank as is possible. We'll reveal J.E.'s pick in the first installment of reader responses.

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