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New Read Alikes for Old Classics

By Holly Hibner and Mary Kelly

Remember in high school and college when you were assigned classic fiction reading? Those titles are classics for a reason. They have stood the test of time and are still assigned reading in many classrooms. Some of my personal favorites were The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorn, Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, and Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. I remember thinking that there were such profound ideas in those novels, and soaking up every metaphor and every turn of phrase.  As an adult, I am interested in these same profound ideas and great writing, and I think that there are a lot of books published in the last ten years or so that make great read alikes to those classic novels. Let’s start with my favorites.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Written in 1850, this is the story of a woman who has a daughter as a result of an affair. In 17th century Puritan Massachusetts, this is a grievous sin, and the woman is ostracized and punished to the “letter” of the law (pun intended!) She is forced to wear a letter “A” on her chest to show everyone that she is an adulteress. She refuses to share the name of her baby’s father with anyone, and lives a life of shame and guilt (as does the father, who allows this).

One of the appeal factors of this book is its setting. 17th century Boston, settled by Puritans, makes for very interesting reading. They had a very strict lifestyle, and religion and moral living were not separate from the law. Two books that share this setting are Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown (2014) and The Pilgrim by Hugh Nissenson (2011).

There are also books that have similar plots, and even take inspiration for their storylines from The Scarlet Letter itself. These include When She Woke by Hillary Jordan (2011), Hester by Paula Reed (2010), and Angel and Apostle by Deborah Noyes (2005).

Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
Long before teenage angst was a popular topic, J. D. Salinger wrote this masterpiece. It is about a boy named Holden Caulfield who, after being expelled from his prep school, has a series of wild experiences on his own in New York City. He stays in a hotel, hires prostitutes (just to talk, to their disappointment), and gets drunk. He is disillusioned with humanity, he is confused by sexuality, and he feels alienated.

This is a coming of age story told with dark humor and a conversational, train of thought style. Other books that match these descriptions include It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini (2006), Paper Towns by John Green (2008), and Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld (2005).

One book with a plot related to Catcher in the Rye is Catcher, Caught by Sarah Collins Honenberger (2010). It is about a teenager with a terminal diagnosis, who starts to question his identity, authority figures, and follows in Holden Caulfield’s footsteps with a trip to New York City.

Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
This is the story of a man and his bad luck in fishing. He has not caught a fish in 84 days, and everyone believes he is the most unlucky person. On the 85th day, he catches a giant marlin. The rest of the story is his battle with the marlin. It is a very physically draining battle in which the old man is wounded. The marlin drags the boat until he is too tired, at which point the old man kills it. The marlin is strapped to the side of the boat and the old man sets off for home. Along the way, the old man battles with sharks that are attracted by the trail of the marlin’s blood in the water. By the time he gets back to shore, there is only a skeleton of the marlin left.

What I loved about this story were the characters. Santiago, the old man, was absolutely determined to change his luck and catch that fish. He put up with physical pain for two days and nights in order to win the battle. The marlin is a character, too, respected by the old man for its tenacity and its impressive size. There is also a young boy who helps Santiago, believing in him enough to stay by his side and worrying when the old man disappears for two days and nights. This is a metaphorical tale rich with imagery for endurance, survival, pain, and even Christian ideas of suffering.

Other novels of endurance, pain, suffering, and survival include Brian’s Hunt by Gary Paulsen (2003) and To Die For by Mark Nestor Svendsen (2011).

A metaphorical tale with a sense of adventure and human/animal relationships, though much more stylistically complex than Old Man and the Sea is The Life of Pi  by Yann Martel (2001).

With plot inspiration from Old Man and the Sea comes a book for younger readers called The Young Man and the Sea by W. R. Philbrick (2004). This is the story of a 12-year-old boy who goes out to sea by himself to catch a bluefin tuna. He, too, is exhausted in a battle with the tuna and endures the elements in his attempt to bring home the valuable creature.


[alert-info]Holly Hibner Mary Kelly

About the Authors

Holly is the Adult Services Coordinator at the Plymouth District Library in Plymouth, MI. She has a mild obsession with collection quality (ok, maybe not so mild) and can be found at the Readers’ Advisory desk dreaming up read-alikes.

Mary is the Youth Services Librarian at the Lyon Township Public Library in South Lyon, MI. She, too, is obsessed with collection quality, and has taken it up a notch with never ending shelf lists, spreadsheets, and inventory. Mary has a special knack for linking books to readers of all ages.

Together Mary and Holly are the authors of “Making a Collection Count: a holistic approach to library collection management.” They also tweet at @awfullibbooks and blog at


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