Community Reads and Classic Books

Many areas around the country have been doing something called a “Community Read” for years, and it’s possible there’s one happening in your hometown, too!  The concept is like a community-wide book club, where local libraries choose a book (usually with input from local residents) and encourage everyone in town to read that book over a generous period of time, like six months to a year. Participants can attend scheduled discussion groups, like a real book club, or simply read the selected book on their own.

Participating in a Community Read is a great way to connect with others in your town, to check one of the classics of literature off your bucket list, and to feel a part of a larger movement to embrace and appreciate great books. Check with your local public library to see if such an event is scheduled in your area, and if not, consider asking the Head Librarian to start this wonderful tradition in 2013.

In my town, 2013’s pick is The Great Gatsby (4/5 stars, currently priced at $3.99). The library is holding a big kickoff event in mid-January, where attendees are encouraged to dress up in Jazz Age attire. Period music will be played, door prizes will be awarded, and participants will have a great opportunity to meet one another at the start of the Read and get all the information about Read events to be held in the coming months while everyone’s enjoying the book. I strongly suspect there will be a Community Read outing to see The Great Gatsby film that’s due to be released next May, for example.

Even if a Community Read isn’t in the cards for you in 2013, consider making it a New Year’s resolution to read just one of the classics of literature in 2013. There’s a reason why they’re classics, after all! Here are some great possibilities:

The Grapes of Wrath (4.5/5 stars, currently priced at $12.99) – Amazon Reviewer Melanie Rehak says:

When The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, America, still recovering from the Great Depression, came face to face with itself in a startling, lyrical way. John Steinbeck gathered the country’s recent shames and devastations–the Hoovervilles, the desperate, dirty children, the dissolution of kin, the oppressive labor conditions–in the Joad family. Then he set them down on a westward-running road, local dialect and all, for the world to acknowledge. For this marvel of observation and perception, he won the Pulitzer in 1940.

The prize must have come, at least in part, because alongside the poverty and dispossession, Steinbeck chronicled the Joads’ refusal, even inability, to let go of their faltering but unmistakable hold on human dignity. Witnessing their degeneration from Oklahoma farmers to a diminished band of migrant workers is nothing short of crushing. The Joads lose family members to death and cowardice as they go, and are challenged by everything from weather to the authorities to the California locals themselves. As Tom Joad puts it: “They’re a-workin’ away at our spirits. They’re a tryin’ to make us cringe an’ crawl like a whipped bitch. They tryin’ to break us. Why, Jesus Christ, Ma, they comes a time when the on’y way a fella can keep his decency is by takin’ a sock at a cop. They’re workin’ on our decency.”

The point, though, is that decency remains intact, if somewhat battle-scarred, and this, as much as the depression and the plight of the “Okies,” is a part of American history. When the California of their dreams proves to be less than edenic, Ma tells Tom: “You got to have patience. Why, Tom–us people will go on livin’ when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we’re the people that live. They ain’t gonna wipe us out. Why, we’re the people–we go on.” It’s almost as if she’s talking about the very novel she inhabits, for Steinbeck’s characters, more than most literary creations, do go on. They continue, now as much as ever, to illuminate and humanize an era for generations of readers who, thankfully, have no experiential point of reference for understanding the depression. The book’s final, haunting image of Rose of Sharon–Rosasharn, as they call her–the eldest Joad daughter, forcing the milk intended for her stillborn baby onto a starving stranger, is a lesson on the grandest scale. “‘You got to,'” she says, simply. And so do we all.

Lord of the Flies (4/5 stars, currently priced at $9.99) – Amazon Reviewer Jennifer Hubert says:

William Golding’s classic tale about a group of English schoolboys who are plane-wrecked on a deserted island is just as chilling and relevant today as when it was first published in 1954. At first, the stranded boys cooperate, attempting to gather food, make shelters, and maintain signal fires. Overseeing their efforts are Ralph, “the boy with fair hair,” and Piggy, Ralph’s chubby, wisdom-dispensing sidekick whose thick spectacles come in handy for lighting fires.

Although Ralph tries to impose order and delegate responsibility, there are many in their number who would rather swim, play, or hunt the island’s wild pig population. Soon Ralph’s rules are being ignored or challenged outright. His fiercest antagonist is Jack, the redheaded leader of the pig hunters, who manages to lure away many of the boys to join his band of painted savages. The situation deteriorates as the trappings of civilization continue to fall away, until Ralph discovers that instead of being hunters, he and Piggy have become the hunted: “He forgot his words, his hunger and thirst, and became fear; hopeless fear on flying feet.” Golding’s gripping novel explores the boundary between human reason and animal instinct, all on the brutal playing field of adolescent competition.

Animal Farm & 1984 (5/5 stars, currently priced at $9.12 for the bundled set of 2 books)

Animal Farm
A biting satire of the Russian Revolution, Animal Farm imagines a wholly democratic society built on the credo that All Animals Are Created Equal. The pigs Napoleon, Squealer, and Snowball emerge as leaders of the new community in a subtle evolution that leads to the brutal betrayal of the faithful horse Boxer and reestablishes totalitarian rule, adding an unforgettable bloodstained postscript to their founding slogan.

London, 1984: Big Brother is watching, and the Thought Police are always one step ahead of you. Winston Smith is a man in grave danger for the simple reason that his memory still functions. Drawn into a forbidden love affair, Winston finds the courage to join a secret revolutionary organization called The Brotherhood, dedicated to the destruction of the Party. Together with his beloved Julia, he risks his life in a deadly fight for freedom.
Whether as part of a Community Read or on your own, why not make 2013 the year you dig into some classics?


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