Former First Lady Barbara Bush was one of only two women who was both the wife of a president and the mother of a president. While this was a notable achievement, the late first lady was also celebrated for her work with the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. Not content to rest on her laurels, Mrs. Bush dedicated her life to teaching others to read. In celebration of her many contributions to our nation, we proudly present a small selection of outstanding novels from the 20th century that you might consider for your literary bucket list.
Our daily lives have become so cluttered with cell phones, computers, reality television, and other distractions that it has become difficult to find a moment’s peace. There is no better way than to shut out the demands of the world around us than to curl up with a good book and take a journey into a world created from the imagination of the author. With that goal in mind, and in memory of Barbara Bush, here are 10 great 20th century novels to begin your next journey into the wonderful world of reading.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – First published in 1953
In a world where books have actually been banned and even burned, perhaps no other novel could be a better starting point. Fahrenheit 451 represents the temperature at which paper burns, which is appropriate as Bradbury’s novel was influenced by the fearful political climate of the McCarthy era in the 1950s when the government blacklisted writers and actors as alleged communists. Bradbury’s novel tells the story of a dark future when books are banned and squads of government enforcers dedicate their lives to finding and burning books.
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck – First published in 1931
Pearl Buck’s story of family life in China won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1932, and in 1938, she won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The novel’s touching portrayal of one family’s struggle to survive and prosper in rural China helped create a sympathetic image of the Chinese people in the final years before World War Two. In The Good Earth, Buck also addressed sexual, racial, and gender oppression long before these issues entered mainstream thinking.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov – First published in English in 1967
Mikhail Bulgakov was a Russian doctor, novelist, and playwright who lived in the time of Lenin and Stalin when writers were routinely sent to the gulag for offending the state. The Master and Margarita, deservedly considered one of the most important novels of the 20th century, was not published in the West until 27 years after the author’s death. The novel tells of a visit by the Devil to the Soviet Union of the 1930s and to Jerusalem in the time of Pontius Pilate. The author uses biting satire to examine the destructive atheism of Soviet Union, as well as the author’s belief that both good and evil are found in every human being.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller – First published in 1961
Often cited as one of the great novels about the futility of war, Catch-22 follows the events in the life of Captain John Yossarian, a U.S. Army Air Forces B-25 Bombardier, and the other men in his unit as they struggle to remain sane under the never-ending pressure of a terrible war. Told in a non-chronological fashion in the third-person, the novel reveals the details of the war from the wildly divergent points of view of the various characters.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway – First published in 1952
Hemingway’s moving story of a fisherman’s battle with a giant marlin won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The novel was also cited by the Nobel Prize Committee when Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. The story’s protagonist, Santiago, is an aging fisherman who has gone 84 days without a catch when he suddenly hooks an 18-foot marlin. After three grueling days, he finally harpoons the giant fish and lashes it to his boat. Now, Santiago must use his remaining strength to cover the long miles to shore before sharks consume his catch. An epic tale of struggle and perseverance, The Old Man and the Sea is the work of a master writer at the peak of his power.
Hiroshima by John Hersey – First published in 1946
Perhaps the ultimate cautionary tale on the insanity of nuclear war, John Hersey’s Hiroshima is the story of six survivors of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. Hersey, who won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1945 for A Bell For Adano, originally planned to publish Hiroshima in four parts in The New Yorker magazine. The editors, realizing the power and importance of Hersey’s writing, decided to devote an entire issue to the novel instead.
Hiroshima first appeared in The New Yorker on August 31, 1946. The story begins with the small details of a quiet morning in a Japanese office.
“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey – First published in 1962
Part madman, counterculture guru, and 1960’s prophet, author Ken Kesey captured the cold brutality of the treatment of the mentally ill in America in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The novel follows the tragicomic ordeal of Randle Patrick McMurphy, a Korean war hero and petty criminal who decides he would be more comfortable in a mental hospital than prison after he is convicted of several minor crimes. Unfortunately, he butts heads with the dictatorial Nurse Ratched, who rules the institution with an iron fist, which results in life-altering consequences for the irrepressible McMurphy.
Kesey’s novel was adapted into a Broadway play starring Kirk Douglas, who also purchased the film rights to the book. Kirk’s son, Michael Douglas, produced the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which became only the second film to win all five major Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Jack Nicholson’s Best Actor Oscar in the lead role as McMurphy is considered one of the highlight’s of his distinguished career.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – First published in 1960
Harper Lee’s novel has been universally praised as a classic of 20th century American literature, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. Remarkably, To Kill a Mockingbird was the author’s first novel. Lee, who had moved from her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, to New York City, where she worked as an airlines reservation clerk, was determined to peruse a career as a writer. As related by an article from Business Insider, in December 1956, Lee received a gift of one year’s wages from a group of friends, along with the following note, “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”
Lee was able to write To Kill a Mockingbird, a tale of the segregationist south told from the point of view of 6-year-old Jean Louise Finch. In Lee’s novel, an innocent black man is accused of raping a young white woman. Against the wishes of many of the town’s racially prejudiced citizens, Jean’s father, Atticus Finch, agrees to defend the man, which leads to a tragic outcome for the defendant and the father of his accuser. By presenting her story through the eyes of a child, Harper Lee was able to convey the evils of racial hatred. The critically acclaimed film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird was nominated for eight Academy Awards, and Gregory Peck won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus Finch.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – First published in 1949
In George Orwell’s frightening dystopian future, readers will discover a world of endless war, constant surveillance, and government propaganda. In the police state of Nineteen Eighty-Four, free-thinkers are punished for thought crimes and mercilessly reprogrammed by the use of fear and torture under the auspices of a mysterious leader known only as “Big Brother.”
There are few works of fiction that have been invoked as often as Nineteen Eighty-Four to illustrate the dangers of an all-powerful central government. George Orwell, who suffered through decades of British government surveillance due to his socialist leanings and unconventional lifestyle, wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four as both a warning against tyranny and as a defense of individualism.
The Lord Of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – First published in 1954
With over 150 million copies in print, The Lord Of The Rings is one of the three best-selling books in human history. Immense in scope, Tolkien brings his readers into a truly unique and original high-fantasy universe. As a renowned academic, Tolkien was the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University, and he was considered one of the world’s leading philologists and authorities on the Old English epic poem, Beowulf.
The narrative of The Lord of the Rings is set in the pre-industrial world of Middle-Earth. In a millenniums-old battle of good versus evil, the Dark Lord, Sauron, is searching for the One Ring, into which he has infused a portion of his soul and power. If Sauron obtains the ring, he will plunge all of Middle Earth into eternal darkness and control the fate of every living creature.
The ring has come into the possession of Frodo Baggins, a seemingly inconsequential hobbit of small stature. Frodo is entrusted to carry the ring to Mt. Doom, where it was forged, and cast it into the only fire strong enough to destroy the ring, and with it, Sauron. Aided by eight companions, Frodo embarks on his quest to destroy the ring as nine terrible servants of Sauron, called the Ringwraiths, search for Frodo, and Sauron’s armies ravage the lands of Middle Earth.
Whether a parent reads The Lord of the Rings to a young child for the first time or an old hand re-reads the book for the tenth time, there is always something new and wonderful to discover in Tolkien’s epic work. Adapted into a film trilogy by director Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings grossed almost $3 trillion and earned a total of 17 Academy Awards.
We have proudly presented 10 books you might enjoy reading. There are libraries filled with countless works of fiction to enrich your life and bring you untold hours of enjoyment. Celebrate the life’s work of Former-First Lady Barbara Bush and begin your own reading bucket list. There is a world of wonder and imagination waiting with every turn of the page.