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Considering the Classics

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Ask most people about the classics, and they’re likely to paraphrase Mark Twain, who more than a century ago quipped, “(that’s) a book which people praise and don’t read.” Actually, that’s not quite true.

West Milford Township Library invites you to discover some classic novels that were popular in their day and remain a genuine pleasure to read.

Alternately funny, poignant and refreshingly honest, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn looks at America in 1835 from an “uncivilized” boy’s point of view. Predictably, he runs away from what he sees and journeys down the Mississippi with the runaway slave, Jim. (Free ebook download)

The Call of the Wild, Jack London’s most famous novel, tells the story of the invincible Buck, a dog whose exploits far surpass Lassie’s. Set during the Gold Rush, this short novel illustrates the consequences of greed and the Darwinian concept of survival of the fittest. (Free ebook download)

Another widely read author whose work first appeared in the early years of the twentieth century is O. Henry, the pseudonym of William Sydney Porter. In a dozen years, the prolific author published more than six hundred stories, the best known being The Ransom of Red Chief, The Gift of the Magi, After Twenty Years and The Cop and the Anthem. To O. Henry all people have a story to tell, and for this reason a variety of ordinary people appear in his stories that are famous for their wit, irony and surprise endings. (Free ebook downloads)

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger’s master work, is arguably more relevant today than in 1951, when it first appeared. Among the more controversial novels of its time—it was the thirteenth most challenged book of the 1990s. After being expelled from his fourth boarding school, Holden Caulfield, the sixteen-year-old narrator, decides to spend a few days in Manhattan before going home to his parents …again.

Although Holden hates school, he loves to read and The Great Gatsby is one of his favorite books. It’s the story of Jay Gatsby’s quest for Daisy Buchanan and in many respects mirrors the real life story of its author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and his wife, Zelda Sayre. It also chronicles the Jazz Age and sharply reports the differences between the nouveaux riches and old money. As Fitzgerald noted: The rich are different.

Those who admire strong, independent women will want to read Willa Cather’s My Antonia (free ebook download) and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The former tells the story of a lively, honest Bohemian immigrant who settles in Nebraska and, who despite adversity, succeeds through hard work; the latter narrates the struggles of the Joad Family, as they flee Oklahoma and head for California in the midst of the Depression.

Given today’s headlines, perhaps everyone should check out All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque’s novel about World War I. In it Paul Baumer, the eighteen-year-old narrator of the book, describes, in unflinching detail, his experiences in the war. An immediate international success, the book and its German author were denounced by the Nazis, forcing Remarque to flee to Switzerland.

A generation later John Knowles’s A Separate Peace focuses on World War II, as seen through the eyes of Phineas, an outstanding athlete who is preparing for his part in the war while at a Connecticut prep school. While there, both Finny and best friend, Gene, learn about war and peace, and love and hate. Although the theme is grim, their adolescent pranks plus the book’s literary style make it an interesting read.

Most people are familiar with Vivian Leigh’s depiction of Scarlet O’Hara in the Academy Award winning Gone With the Wind. Not as many are familiar with Margaret Mitchell’s version, which is even more complex, engaging and unforgettable. It, too, is a Pulitzer Prize winning first novel.

To Kill a Mockingbird, first published in 1960, fails Twain’s definition of a classic—big time. It has sold more than thirty million copies, been translated into more than forty languages, won a Pulitzer Prize and been voted one of the best novels of the twentieth century. Harper Lee describes her only novel as “a love story pure and simple.” Not your ordinary love story; instead, it’s the story of a father’s love for his children and of theirs for him, as they learn to live in an unjust world.

These and other classic novels are available at the Library. The Adult/Teen Services staff will be happy to assist you with your next classic selection.