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The Ugly American by… maybe it’s a MUST READ book!

November 28, 2021

The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick is one of the best books that I’ve read in a while. I’m not going to do a synopsis of the book because you can get that anywhere, but The Ugly American meets a lot of my criteria.

The book is short, at just over 200 pages.

My copy of The Ugly American was cheap. I bought this old paperback for $3.00 at a used book store. I know the price of a book doesn’t really affect its quality, but not paying much makes me feel pretty good about it. Plus, the book was in great condition for its age, and I didn’t mess it up when I read it.

Even though The Ugly American was written in 1958, it predicts a lot of what would happen with United States involvement in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s. Most analysis about the Vietnam War was written after it happened, but here is a 1958 novel that lays out exactly what not to do, and then the United States did a lot of what the authors said not to do.

The title The Ugly American has more than one meaning, which is always good for a book title. For example, a couple key chapters are about an American who was described as literally ugly. He had an ugly wife too. You should never call a guy’s wife ugly, though. You can think it, but you shouldn’t say it, and you definitely shouldn’t put that in a book.

Yeah, I know the ugly American’s ugly wife was a fictional character, but still… I don’t think the authors should have hurt her feelings like that.

I don’t make BOOKS YOU MUST READ lists, but if I did, The Ugly American would probably be on it. I don’t even plan on traveling to foreign countries, and I still think it’s a cool book. I heard the movie sucks, though. I’m not going to watch the movie just to verify that it sucks. I’m just going to assume that it sucks.

Even if the movie sucks (and it probably does), I still think The Ugly American might qualify as a MUST READ BOOK, if such a category exists. I don’t think a bad movie based on a good book should ruin the good book’s reputation.

I know I have to be careful when recommending books. Some people have a natural inclination to dislike a book when it’s recommended. That initial response is even worse for a MUST READ book. The worst, however, is when a book is assigned reading. I was an English teacher (in a somewhat previous life), and whenever I had to assign a book to students, most of them would automatically hate the book before they even knew the title. To be fair, some of those books deserved to be hated, but some good books didn’t stand a chance.

I’m the same way. I still dislike The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace. They’re probably good books, but they were assigned reading when I was in high school. I can overlook a bad movie based on a good book, but assigned reading is tough. A book has to be almost flawless to withstand the stigma of being assigned.

I like The Ugly American so much that I would never have assigned it to my students. I might put it on my nonexistent MUST READ BOOKS list, but damn, the authors called the ugly guy’s wife ugly. That still seems pretty harsh.

  1. Have you ever considered making a “Do not read under any circumstances” list and giving it out to your students?
    I mean, sure, most of them would be happy to oblige, but a few that will read it would read it out of genuine interest.

    • I warned them not to bother with some books, but probably not in the way that you meant.

      When I went on a James Patterson rant, a couple students brought in some of his YA stuff from the library a few days later just to get a reaction out of me. I put on a pretty good show when they did that.

  2. Will S. permalink

    This made me curious so I just googled movie reviews for The Ugly American. Apparently there is an excellent chance that the movie does not suck. Plus, I’m pretty sure the movie leaves out the part where the fictional ugly lady gets her widdle feewings hurt.

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