With all the new young adult books available, we often dismiss the idea of reading anything published before 2000. After all, why read something set in the 1930s when you can read about teenagers living in futuristic societies? It's because the classics are accessible, entertaining, and thought-provoking.
One of the greatest American authors, F. Scott Fitzgerald, was born on this day in 1896, so, starting with his most famous novel, here's a guide to five must-read American classics.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Sounds familiar. Wasn't it made into a movie?
Yep, last year for the sixth time. (And if you've watched any of the movies, you should definitely read the book!)
Set in 1920s New York, The Great Gatsby is about the mysterious Jay Gatsby and his fixation with his ex-girlfriend, Daisy, who married a wealthier man named Tom Buchanan.
Do we smell a Twilight-esque romance? Perhaps. But apart from romance, organised crime, large parties, and jazz-age glamour, The Great Gatsby also questions the immoralities of material indulgence and the nature of the "American dream".
Was Gatsby great?
Although he's portrayed as a hero who devoted his entire life to realising a dream, he is a dubious character who achieved it in a dishonest way. Was the title praise or a sarcastic label? Read it and decide.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Wow, I've heard of that, but I don't know much about it
That's OK. Just because a novel is highly acclaimed doesn't mean that you have to read it. To Kill a Mockingbird is widely hailed as one of the most influential and successful books of all time. It received the 1961 Pulitzer Prize and is one of the great literary classics.
Set in the 1930s, it tells the story of six-year-old Scout Finch and her family as they are pitted against racial bias in the American South after a murder.
Why should I care?
To Kill a Mockingbird portrays a society that is shockingly unfair. While the book deals with people who are racist and violent, it also talks about people who challenge these prejudices and fight to ensure the rights of others. It deals with the concept of justice and of taking action against injustice, which is really worth caring about.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
What's this even about? Mice? Men?
Set during the Great Depression, Of Mice and Men is a story about two best friends. George and Lennie roam the American West, struggling to make ends meet. Events unfold quickly after they find work on a ranch in California, and they are forced to face the nature of their hopes and ideals.
The book was widely praised by critics and scholars for its unnerving realism and its thoughtful social commentary. Steinbeck won the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Yawn. Sounds boring. Is it?
If violence, killing and tragic endings are boring, then sure. We can all relate to the hopes and dreams of our leading characters, and identify with the isolation and the suffering that they go through.
Besides, the book is short and very difficult to put down, right up to its tear-jerking end.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Ooh, this must be about cars!
Well, it's about the crazy adventures of two friends who travel around America. The story follows Sal Paradise and his pal, Dean Moriarty, across the country after the second world war, moving through different landscapes and stages of personal development as they meet colourful characters.
On the Road was a critical and commercial success when it was published in 1957, and is still seen as one of the most important books of the "Beat" literary movement.
I like travelling, but why would I want to read this?
On the Road is more than just a crazy road trip story. It also touches on universal themes such as sadness, time, friendship and even madness. If you've ever felt like rejecting conformity and running wild (but safely) down a highway, this is the book for you.
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
Rye ... as in wheat?
The Catcher in the Rye is widely seen as one classic that causes readers to take totally opposite views. It reached the top of both bestseller and most banned books lists after its publication in 1951. (Read it this week - it's National Banned Book Week in the US!)
The book is about a teenager named Holden Caulfield, who gets expelled from an expensive school and decides to put his education (and life in general) on hold for a trip to New York City. As he gets lost and confused, Salinger raises questions about the themes of angst, isolation and authenticity.
What's up with the title?
It first appears when Holden passes a boy on the street singing, "If a body catch a body coming through the rye". Later, we learn this phrase is actually from an 18th century poem, Coming Thro' the Rye, by Scottish poet Robert Burns.
If you want to find out what this has to do with a teenager full of fears and doubts romping through a city, you'll have to read it. Although it's not set in a futuristic society with cool technology like Divergent or The Hunger Games, it's just as gripping.