by Jen Moyers (@jen.loves.books)
One of our categories for this year's Reading Challenge is "Book Published Before 1950," which can indeed be a challenge. Classics often have a reputation of being really difficult or not relevant or just not fun at all. So, I thought I'd throw out some titles that I've enjoyed over the years that might meet some of your current reading goals AND help you knock out this category.
What to read if . . .
. . . you want some classic romance tropes
Many of you know that I've spent the past two years doing some Jane Austen deep dives, so these favorites might be a great fit for your current romance preferences.
Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm)—published in 1813—is a fantastic enemies-to-lovers story. It doesn't get better than the absolutely loathing that Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy feel for each other and then the gradual shift to a love that has endured centuries (at least in literary form). Most people know the story, but if you don't, you're in for a treat. (And there are so many fantastic adaptations and retellings to dive into when you're done!)
Jane Austen's Persuasion (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm) is one of the OG second-chance romance novels. Anne Elliott and Frederick Wentworth had an amazing and passionate romance that ended because of Anne's snobby family. When they meet up again, they try to be friends, but of course, those feelings come crawling back. This novel, published in 1817, was one of my favorites from Austen's ouvre.
. . . you want a classic memoir
Zora Neale Hurston's Dust Tracks on a Road (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm), written in 1942, is a great memoir for more than one reason. First, Hurston really did have a fascinating life, and her account of growing up, of her anthropological studies, of her journey to becoming a writer is worth reading on its own. Then, I recommend that you do some background reading because you'll find out that this memoir isn't 100% factual . . . that's a journey of its own. I highly recommend the audiobook, narrated by Bahni Turpin. (If you're intrigued, you'll see more Hurston later!)
. . . you want a childhood classic
Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm), first published in 1868, is our Book Club pick this month, so I know many of you are reading along with us. If you haven't picked it up yet, though, this is a book that holds up. There's plenty to dig into with the novel, and there are several excellent adaptations. (We're talking about the newest, directed by Greta Gerwig, on Patreon in February!)
We covered L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm) (which I read and re-read during my childhood) on the pod. You can listen to our episode here. Re-reading this one was such a great experience, and it was Ashley's first time reading the book! This one was published in 1908 (but I'd recommend all of Montgomery's books! You can't go wrong).
. . . you'd like to read about a social issue
I used to teach John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm) each year at my previous school, and I was always thrilled by the ways that students could connect it to current issues that were at the forefront of the news cycle. The book centers on the Joads, a family forced to migrate from Oklahoma to California during the Dust Bowl, and their plight resonated with so many of my classes. Despite its length, Steinbeck's style is actually pretty easy to follow, but there's a lot of depth within the simple words he chooses. Steinbeck traveled through the migrant camps with these families, resulting in this impassioned 1939 book (and the quick release of the classic movie in 1940).
If you want to try some shorter Steinbeck, you can't go wrong with his Of Mice and Men (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm), published in 1937, which has—of course—an excellent 1992 adaptation starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich. It centers on itinerant workers in the Salinas Valley of California (Steinbeck's favorite setting) whose destinies take an unexpected turn. This one isn't as directly related to social justice, but the issues are there nonetheless.
. . . you're looking for a classic work of feminism
Kate Chopin's The Awakening (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm), published in 1899, centers on Edna Pontellier, a woman who seemingly has everything. Nonetheless, she realizes that her marriage and her family—what she thought of as the end-all-be-all of her life—is not necessarily all that she wants out of her existence. This is a slim novel that unveils Pontellier's life through beautiful writing, powerful symbolism, and a compelling story.
Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm) is one of my favorite books. The story, published in 1937, of Janie Crawford is part love story, part coming-of-age story, all about the ways that Janie figures out who she is and what she wants out of life. Hurston's training in anthropology allowed her to record the characters' Southern dialect authentically, evoking her characters' histories vividly. (The audiobook narrated by Ruby Dee is amazing!)
. . . you want to dip into some great drama
Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm) and A Streetcar Named Desire (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm) are both drawn from Williams's life and distinctly Southern upbringing (they were published in 1944 and 1947, respectively). Streetcar also considers the challenges of a homosexual lifestyle—again, drawn from Williams's own experience—during this time period. Both plays have strong adaptations that I recommend highly (I teach the 1951 Streetcar every year, and my students love its vivid characters and plot).
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