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Presidential Biography Leads U.S. Best Seller Lists - 2001-08-01


On Book Briefs this week, First Lady Laura Bush will help host a national literary festival, a Presidential biography leads U.S. best seller lists, and a publisher of world classics celebrates its hundredth anniversary.

Nearly 50 American writers and illustrators will gather in Washington, D.C. September 8 for the first National Book Festival. U.S. First Lady Laura Bush is joining the Library of Congress in hosting the festival. The participants will include historian Stephen Ambrose, mystery novelist Sue Grafton, and Walter Dean Myers, best known for his stories for young people. According to the Washington Post, the festival will be patterned after similar events Laura Bush organized in Texas while her husband was state governor.

Also participating in the National Book Festival will be David McCullough, whose biography of America's second President, "John Adams," is currently a best seller in the United States. The Pulitzer Prize winning historian originally intended to write a book about John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, America's third President. But he became especially intrigued by Adams. "Once I got into his life and read what he had written," Mr.McCullough says, "the letters, the diaries-I realized that was the story I wanted to tell."

David McCullough portrays John Adams as a man of great moral courage. During the colonial conflicts with Britain that led up to the Revolutionary War, Adams risked his reputation by providing legal defense for unpopular British soldiers. He was also a major force behind the writing of the Declaration of Independence. His wife Abigail was a person of strong convictions in her own right. She was especially outspoken in her opposition to slavery. "She could have held her own and often did hold her own with the most brilliant people of her time," Mr. McCullough says. "And yet she never went to school. And she was such a principled person. John Adams was the only founding father who never owned a slave, as a matter of principle."

True to the original plan for his book, David McCullough also writes extensively about John Adams' relationship with Thomas Jefferson. The two Founding Fathers shared a love of books and ideas, but disagreed in many other ways. Both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Had he been writing a novel, says David McCullough, such an ending would have seemed too unlikely to be plausible.

And finally, Oxford World's Classics celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. The series began in 1901 with the publication of Charlotte Bronte's novel "Jane Eyre." Since then it has published a range of authors spanning world history from the Greek philosopher Aristotle to a growing number of 20th century writers. University College, London professor John Sutherland says the classics are enjoying a new wave of popularity. He believes that's partly because of the growing number of people retiring in both Britain and the United States. "As a result, you've got people who find themselves with good pensions, with time, and a lot of them I think are getting around to coming to grips with 'War and Peace' and the other great works they always promised themselves they would read," Mr. Sutherland says. "Also what's happened is that, following the paperback revolution of the 1960s, you have about 4 or 5 choices of 'Jane Eyre,' 'Wuthering Heights,' 'Don Quixote'-every work one could think of is there in very attractive editions, all of them budget priced."

John Sutherland says interest has been further sparked by film and television adaptations of works by Jane Austen and other writers. As for the most popular classics, he believes some come in and out of fashion, like the stories of British author H.G. Wells. Other writers, like Shakespeare, always find an admiring audience. "Shakespeare means different things to every generation, but no generation understands Shakespeare any better than any other generation," Mr. Sutherland says. "It's almost as though he can adapt to any kind of historical period in which he finds himself. And so too with other great writers. I expect the same will be true of Nobel prize winning novelist Toni Morrison. People will read 'Beloved' in 400 years time, and to some extent it will be as meaningful a book then as it was in the 1980s."

To emphasize the enduring relevance of such literary works, Oxford World's Classics has traditionally included introductions by contemporary authors. Recent contributors include American suspense novelist Jeffrey Deaver, who introduces a new edition of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." As part of its centennial celebration, Oxford World's Classics is also offering online reading groups, monthly contests and information on classics featured in movies.

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