The Next Chapter·Dog-Eared Reads

Why Omar El Akkad keeps re-reading James Agee's classic 1957 novel A Death in the Family

The American War talks about one of his favourite books.
American War author Omar El Akkad says that James Agee's classic novel A Death in the Family is a gorgeous book that hits close to home.

Omar El Akkad is the author of American War. The dystopian novel imagines a near future where a civil war over diminishing natural resources has broken out in the United States. It was defended by Tahmoh Penikett on Canada Reads 2018.

El Akkad explains why re-reading James Agee's classic autobiographical novel A Death in the Family is always bittersweet. This interview originally aired on Nov. 20, 2017.

About A Death in the Family

"There are a lot of books that I go back to, but the one that stands out as my favourite novel is a book called A Death In The Family by James Agee. It's a bit of a strange book, in the sense that he never finished it during his lifetime. He was working on this book when he died. It was published posthumously and won the Pulitzer Prize. It is essentially a semi-autobiographical novel describing the immediate aftermath of his father's death and the funeral. It is, for my money, the most emotionally surgical book I've ever read." 

Why it's a stand-out read

"Two things stand out: the prologue, which myth says he wrote in 90 minutes, is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I've ever read. It's up there with the introduction of The Grapes of Wrath as the most stunning opening to a book I've ever read.

"The other thing is the degree to which every sentence hones in on a very particular emotion. It didn't help that I read that book not long after my own father died, so obviously there was resonance there. But it's the only book that I promised myself I would never read again. I repeatedly broke that promise because it's just a gorgeous, gorgeous book."

Omar El Akkad's comments have been edited and condensed.