Monday, December 15, 2014

Older books worth another look

These books were all published quite a while ago, but they say that what goes around comes around. Or everything old is new again. Or something.

I think these could serve as interesting springboards to discussions of current events:

1984, by George Orwell. This novel, considered a futuristic dystopian when it was written, is newly relevant. Orwell paints a picture of a society with constant surveillance, political doublespeak, revisionist history, and the end of privacy.

Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis. This story takes place in the World War I era, yet the divide that we would now call red-state/blue-state is exemplified in this story of a marriage in a small town. Are we too polarized to ever get along?

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. I've been considering doing a blog read-along of this one. It also takes place in the World War I era, yet the economic struggles of its main characters are part of many families' stories nowadays. This is also a book with the "strong female characters" readers look for today.

David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, or A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. News reports can go on and on about wealth inequality, the rise of homelessness, and the burden of debt, but I wonder if any of that has the same impact as the classic scene of Oliver Twist begging for more gruel in the orphanage. I could have put almost any Dickens book on this list; he continually brought readers unflinchingly to the workhouses, the debtor's prisons, the factories that used child labor, and the street corners and haystacks where the homeless sleep. Oliver Twist is probably the most muddled of these books; having created sympathy for his gangs of young characters driven to thievery and prostitution, Dickens seemed troubled by the morality of having a thief as a hero. Therefore, Oliver improbably reforms by falling into prayer in the middle of a burglary, and the novel eventually veers away from him altogether, as Dickens became more fascinated by the fatal relationship between Sikes and Nancy. (However, Dickens did give the Artful Dodger some eloquent parting words on the brutality of the criminal justice system.) A Christmas Carol probably hammers home most directly the hazards of trying to live without a living wage, and the need for compassion.

What other classics do you think can speak anew to us today?


  1. Count me in on the blog read-along for A Tree Grows In Brooklyn!