Reading is rarely fun when it’s being forced upon you. That’s why so many high school kids are so resistant and resentful about the books they’ve been assigned to read by their teachers. Even though a teen’s job—and high school is essentially that: a job—involves reading some of the greatest works in the history of literature, teens gripe and moan like they’re child laborers in a coal mine. They get such a chip on their shoulder about these literary chores that many of them grow up and still recoil at the mere mention of the classic books they once pretended to read carefully.
It’s time to reclaim your education from the young version of you that didn’t know any better. Here are 40 books that you probably ignored or, at best, skimmed just to get a passing grade in English class. You might not have connected with these iconic tomes as a teenager, but there’s definitely something there that will resonate with you as an adult.
Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
A bunch of American expats party too hard in Paris cause they’re so disillusioned and bored and then travel to Spain to watch bullfighting and then drink some more. Was it the Lost Generation wandering aimlessly, or the best vacation ever? (Also, trying to figure out Jake’s mystery “war wound” that left him impotent is way more fun as a anatomically informed adult.)
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
In mid-19th century England, a poor orphan boy named Pip is convinced that, somehow, someway, he’ll escape his miserable, impoverished life and become a gentleman of means, and finally convince the woman of his dreams, Estella, to fall in love with him and get married. Then an anonymous benefactor makes him rich, and to the surprise of nobody, it doesn’t make him happy, and he eventually loses everything. It’s like a 500-page reminder of why you shouldn’t bother playing the lottery.
The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
When you first read it in high school, you were probably disappointed that the book was nothing like the movie of the same name, as it didn’t involve a literally invisible guy wrapped in bandages. Bo-ring! But as an adult, you’re better able to appreciate the symbolism that Ellison brilliantly weaves into his story, a portrait not just of a man who feels disenfranchised by the country he’s tried so hard to adapt to, but of the scars of racism that linger below the surface, and how black people can feel invisible in American society.
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
It took Whitman 35 years to finish writing this collection of poetry, and he even finished the last draft on his deathbed, so it should take a little longer to digest and make sense of than just one high school poetry class. Whitman celebrates nature and the human body and the soul in ways that only somebody who has thought a long, long time about these subjects can truly wrap his or her brain around. “I am large,” Whitman wrote. “I contain multitudes.” Remember that part? It might be time to revisit those words from the hindsight of age.
Catcher in The Rye by J. D. Salinger
Holden Caulfield may’ve seemed like a character that only a confused and disillusioned teen could really identity with. But when you’ve got some distance from those years, you realize how easy it was to see the world through Holden’s eyes, sneering at phonies and anyone who doesn’t live up to your moral standards, and you start to see how teenage rebels aren’t always worth emulating, and some of them might actually just be spoiled rich kids who need to be ignored. “All morons hate it when you call them a moron,” says Holden, who just might be a moron.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
If the recent adaptation (starring Michael Shannon and Michael B. Jordan) didn’t whet your appetite for picking up your old dog-eared copy of Bradbury’s dystopian classic, we’re just going to assume you didn’t realize it was a book first. Well, it totally was. And the grim cautionary tale about a future dystopia where books are outlawed and burned by “firemen”—and the only legal pleasures are watching a huge wall-size TV, driving too fast, and listening to “Seashell Radio” with ear-attached devices—might seem a little more eerily familiar to real life than it did back when you were in high school.
This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was recently voted as “America’s Best-Loved Novel” as part of the PBS “Great American Read” series, and it’s unlikely that all those Mockingbird fans only read it that one time when they were a sophomore in high schools. What’s fascinating about taking another look at this story is realizing just how much was at stake for Atticus Finch, who had more to lose than just a court case. Defending a wrongly accused black man in Alabama during the mid-’40s was the epitome of a hopeless task, but Atticus fought with the moral certitude of somebody who knows that the right thing isn’t always the same as the easy or safe thing.
Animal Farm by George Orwell
“Let’s face it,” one of the characters says in Orwell’s brutal satire, “our lives are miserable, laborious, and short.” Sure, he’s referring to the overworked and abused animals of Manor Farm, who eventually decide to revolt against their oppressors and set up a new government that feels very much like the Soviet Union during Communist rule but with more hooves. It’s an allegorical tale about the nature of power, and the moral decay even of good ideas, and though it was written very much of its time, there’s sure to be hints of modern totalitarianism in there to make the book feel more relevant than ever.
All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
Though it was written specifically about World War I German soldiers, Remarque’s vivid and heartbreaking account of the horrors of war, both on the battlefield and back in the relative safety of home, feels like it could have just as easily been written in (and about) modern wars. There is none of the action and adventure we expect from fictional war epics—just the terrifying realities, and the daily struggle to stay alive just a little longer.
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
“There is no greater sorrow than to recall happiness in times of misery.” Wait, was that line really in Dante’s book, which you probably recall mostly as a weirdly-worded poem about a guy who takes a tour of the afterlife, purgatory, and heaven, and then writes about it? There are a lot of quotes like this—which sound like something written by a middle-aged guy who woke up feeling sad—that you may’ve missed the first time around.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
It’s possible to overthink the symbolism in Fitzgerald’s beloved masterwork. Yes, the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock might represent Gatsby’s hopes and aspirations for the future. Or it might just be a green light. And the charming and rich Jay Gatsby may very well be a living embodiment of the American Dream, with all its flaws and ideals and youthful aching for something better. Or he might just be a rich jerk. Whatever the case, this book is just flat-out awesome.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
It’s not always an easy read—especially when you’re younger, and learning about the human capacity to inflict suffering on one’s fellow man seems like a pretty big weight to carry on your shoulders—but it’s an important one to remember, especially in today’s world, where the scars of racism have never been so vivid.
Set in post-Civil War Ohio, it follows a former slave who believes the ghost of her dead child—who she herself killed to protect the then-infant girl from a slave owner capturing them—has reincarnated as a young woman named Beloved. This book also invented a new word to describe an emotional response called “rememory,” which means remembering the past while fiercely resisting the idea of returning to it.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Maybe it’s just us, but when we first read Shakespeare, we didn’t understand half of it. We mostly pretended we had any idea what his characters were saying. We got the gist of it: The ghost of Hamlet’s dead dad tells him he’s been murdered by his uncle, Claudius, so Hamlet murders him and a bunch of other people, and then gets killed himself.
But the beauty of Hamlet isn’t the carnage; it’s the poetry of Shakespeare’s language. “To be, or not to be: that is the question,” Hamlet says in his most famous monologue. “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them? To die: to sleep.” Yeah, we’ll be honest, we’re still not sure what the heck any of that speech is about. But its meaning gets more intriguing with every passing year.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
When this hilarious and spot-on satire—it focused on a World War II bombardier in the U.S. Air Force, trying to stay sane and alive despite wartime bureaucratic idiocy—first appeared in the early ’60s, it connected with readers disillusioned with the Vietnam War. But really, it’s an ideal novel for anybody who thinks there’s something intrinsically stupid and illogical about war in general. There’s never been a better novel for the pacifist with a dark sense of humor.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
This story of a group of British boys who get stranded on a deserted island and try to create some semblance of order using a conch shell, until everything goes south (because obviously it had to), is not really about the inability of kids to govern each other any more than it’s about the right way to hunt a wild island pig.
No, Golding’s novel speaks to the fractures than can infect any society of human beings, where a charismatic leader can win over the majority by promising to protect them from some nonexistent “monster” while demonizing the leader who just wants everybody to calm down and take care of each other. Hmm, not sure why that would seem so relevant in 2018, but maybe you can come up with something.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Technology isn’t our friend in this terrifying vision of the future, where cloning has replaced human reproduction and there’s a pill to snuff out any unpleasant emotion. The government has turned the populace into virtual slaves by keeping them in a state of perpetual happiness.
But as one character rages, he wants the right to be unhappy, “Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow.” It’s a nice reminder that 24/7 joy may sound like a good idea in theory, but freedom will always be preferable to pre-packaged euphoria.
Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
“It may be unfair,” Hosseini writes, “but what happens in a few days, sometimes even a single day, can change the course of a whole lifetime.” If that sentence doesn’t give you goosebumps, then you’re probably a teenager who’s only reading Kite Runner because your teacher assigned it, and it’ll take another decade at most before you’re ready for this heart-wrenching story of a young Afghan boy who overcomes racism, war, and his own cowardice to find a better life.
I Know Why The Cage Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Published when Angelou was in her early 40s, this memoir—the first in a seven-part series—covers only the first 17 years of her life in rural Arkansas, but her strength and perseverance in the face of so much racial hatred is staggering. A young girl with an inferiority complex finds her confidence, and at an age when most of us were just thinking about prom dates and homework, she was learning how to find her way through “the puzzle of inequality and hate.”
The Odyssey by Homer
Why take another crack at reading Homer’s really, really, really long poem about Odysseus’s really, really, really long trip to his home island of Ithaca, in which he encounters sea monsters, a cyclops, lotus-eaters, and many others threatening him bodily harm? Because, despite having been written 2,800 years ago and comprising 12,110 lines of dactylic hexameter (whatever that is), people continue to be fascinated with Odysseus, a “man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.”
There have been at least 60 translations, including by the very first woman to tackle the text just a year ago. There’s a universality to the story, about overcoming adversity and making the long journey home, that transcends time and place and, apparently, very archaic language.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
A Pulitzer Prize-winning epic that chronicles the desperation and relentless optimism of the people who survived the Great Depression. The Joads, an Oklahoma farm family, leave their familiar surroundings for California, drawn by the promise of jobs and a future. Along the way, they encounter the best and worst of America, the senseless tragedies and the unbreakable dignity, and become part of the fight between the powerless and powerful. “In the souls of the people,” Steinbeck writes, “the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” If that doesn’t make your pulse quicken, you might be clinically dead.
Night by Elie Wiesel
It was one of the first books to reveal the truth about life at Nazi concentration camps like Auschwitz and Buchenwald, told from the point of view of a teenager who survived it. It’s all true—author Wiesel was liberated from Buchenwald when he was 16—and every page is filled with examples of unfathomable cruelty. Wiesel explains in the foreword that he wrote the book because he considered it his “duty… to bear witness for the dead and for the living.” Reading his incredible memoir, as difficult as it can sometimes be, feels like the same sort of duty.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
It’s subtitled “A Romance,” but we’re not sure if this 1850 novel qualifies as a romance in the conventional sense, unless you like your lovin’ with a lot of persecution and shame. Set in a super puritanical 17th-century Massachusetts, the novel introduces us to Hester Prynne, who has a daughter out of wedlock and is forced by her community to wear the letter “A” on her clothes, to remind her neighbors daily that she committed “adultery.” It’s a challenging story because it doesn’t follow the same rules we’d have for modern literary heroines, where a character like Hester might say, “[Forget] your fake morality! I’m not guilty of anything!” But the Hester of Hawthorne’s novel is not only accepting of her sinful nature but willing to serve her time with courage and a certainty of spirit.
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
“The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell.” That’s the advice Willy Lowman, an aging traveling salesman who’s too exhausted to drive long distances anymore, gives to his sons Biff and Happy, and it might as well be his recipe, sad as it is, for the American Dream. The Lowman family, Willy in particular, are finding it more difficult to live up to the lies that have kept them alive for so many years. Willy now has nothing left but living vicariously through his son Biff, once a high school football hero who’s now just, well, a loser like dad. It’s a play that’s brilliant no matter what age you read it, but this tragedy has a way of getting under the skin the older you get, and the more you realize how fragile our lives and identities can be.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
There’s no denying that the Jack Nicholson movie version of Kesey’s book was a faithful and beautifully-done adaptation. But it’s still not a replacement for reading the original, if only because the book (unlike the movie) is told from the point of view of Chief, the half-Indian schizophrenic who may or may not be able to differentiate fantasy from reality. Is he a reliable narrator, or just getting confused by his own hallucinations? Whatever the truth, it’s clear that Kesey is making a case against conformity, and how we all willingly make ourselves prisoners to our own institutions.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut intended to write an account of the Dresden firebombing (February 13–15, 1945) during World War II, which he just barely survived as a POW, but eventually decided it was hopeless, as “there is nothing intelligent to tell about a massacre.” Instead, he wrote fiction—science fiction, no less—about an American soldier named Billy Pilgrim, who gets “unstuck” in time while being held prisoner during World War II, and gets to relive moments of his life over and over again, not all of which he wants to relive, like having barely survived the Dresden firebombing. Vonnegut’s greatest literary achievement has been heralded (and banned) for its portrayal of the horrors of war. But as a reflection on memory, and how some terrible thoughts are impossible to escape, it’s a book you’ll come back to again and again as you get older.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
On the surface at least, this modernist novel is about as simplistic as it gets. We follow Clarissa Dalloway on a typical summer day in London, as she does unremarkable things like walk in the park or talk to old friends or buys some flowers or runs into an old admirer who still thinks she’s happily married. But the pleasures of this narrative are in the unspoken details, like Clarissa’s high society snobbery and her ”tender superfluous probing into all that pollutes,” and just a general feeling that something darker is lurking below the surface, something we never quite see but is always present.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
It’s got one of the most memorable opening lines in all of literature (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) and what follows is a sprawling epic that follows three lover across two cities, Paris and London (the title wasn’t lying), during the French revolution. At its core, this novel is about how politics and personal lives intermingle in complicated ways. So if you’re planning on spending the holidays with a relative who doesn’t see eye-to-eye with you politically, this classic might be worth a second read.
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
It sure did seem like a whole lot of nothing when we first read it as a teen. Little did we know that Beckett’s tale of two dudes in bowler hats, Vladimir and Estragon, waiting for another dude named Godot—who obviously had no intention of showing up—was actually a big metaphor for the existential crisis of modern man.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Faulkner called this novel his “tour de force,” and while he wasn’t being especially humble, it’s hard to refute him. It’s the story of the Bundrens, a family of poor Southern whites trying to figure out how to get the body of their recently deceased matriarch Addie to the cemetery that’s 30 miles north of the family farm. What makes the story remarkable is that it’s told from multiple points of view—15 different narrators delivering stream-of-consciousness internal monologues, including the neighbors who think the Bundrens are crazy. All told, it contains 59 sections, some just a few words long, creating a stunning overview of a small Deep South community that is far more than meets the eye.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The story of a poet who tries to end her life, written by a poet who ends her life, just one month after The Bell Jar‘s publication, has enough irony to fill a thousand high school English thesis essays. But how much of Plath’s only novel is autobiographical isn’t what makes this book worth revisiting. From the expectations of women in society to how even living in a big city can make you feel isolated, there’s so much in just 234 pages that will have you nodding your head in recognition.
Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
A traveling salesman named Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning and discovers that he’s been inexplicably transformed “into a gigantic insect.” It’s a fantastic conceit, but one that gets old fast if you’re not old enough to appreciate it. Not that teens don’t have vivid imaginations, but Kafka’s macabre masterpiece isn’t really about the weirdness of a man becoming a bug. As we learn, Samsa is a workaholic, driving himself towards an early grave through his constant stress and never-ending commitments. His new exoskeleton isn’t just grotesque, it also represents, as Kafka points out, a man who’s “imprisoned already by his job and parents’ debts.”
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Huck Finn escapes his drunk dad to travel down the Mississippi River on a raft with his friend Jim, a runaway slave. It’s considered one of the greatest American novels, and also a book you shouldn’t read anymore because of its overuse of racial epithets. It could be argued that Twain was just using the blatant racism to satirize the stupidity of the day. Or maybe what passed for racism in 1884 wasn’t the same as what we call racism in 2018. Whatever your opinions, it’s a novel worth coming back to, and letting it encourage you to follow Huck’s lead and lash out against backward beliefs and tell those who want to scare you into immoral behavior to check themselves.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Even if you didn’t already read it in high school, you likely already know the whole story of Captain Ahab and the white whale. So why bother reading the thing at all, especially since it takes so long to get to the good stuff, and there’s an entire chapter devoted to marine biology? Specifically because it includes such head-scratching moments like this. Moby Dick isn’t just a novel about a whale, but a book that challenges the whole idea of what a literary narrative could be. As author Nathaniel Philbrick explained in his exploration of the timeless classic, Why Read Moby-Dick?, Melville “pulled back the fictive curtain and inserted a seemingly irrelevant glimpse of himself in the act of composition.”
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Abandoned by the only family she’s ever known, Jane Eyre survives and even thrives at boarding school, becomes a governess, falls in love with her boss, and eventually marries her true love. But she does it all without losing even an inch of her integrity or self-reliance. This is what makes Jane such an extraordinary figure in literature; she’s not a damsel in distress, waiting to be saved, but a heroine more than capable of taking care of herself, even when she fails or makes mistakes, because she wants to define her life on her terms. “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me,” Jane says at one point. “I am a free human being with an independent will.”
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
It’s kind of shocking how many people have only seen the movie(s), assuming it’s more or less the same thing. It’s really not. The movie monster is a mute, lumbering beast, while in the novel, the creature (not Frankenstein, that’s the doctor’s name) has his own narrative—the book is broken up into different sections, with several storytellers—where he says things like, “Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it.” This is a far more interesting and poetically anguished monster who contains more complexities then just some bolts on his neck.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
The book that inspired Apocalypse Now is about so much more than just Marlon Brando muttering “The horror… the horror.” The original novella tells the story of a boat trip down an unnamed African river in search of a corrupt ivory trader named Kurtz, “an emissary of pity and science and progress,” which is a fancy way of saying he might be a little bit nuts. The subtext is about the horrors of imperialism, and how the real “savages” might not be exactly who modern civilization has taught us to believe.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
At 864 pages, not too many high school kids were disciplined enough to make it through the entire thing. Their loss. Tolstoy’s classic, wherein everybody is in love with somebody who doesn’t love them back, is like the best rom-com never produced. Konstantin wants to marry Kitty Shtcherbatsky, who only has eyes for Count Vronsky, who is much more interested in Madam Karenina. There are several great lessons to glean, including a pretty compelling case for not rushing into a relationship, and to paraphrase the Rolling Stones, you can’t always get what you want—but if you try sometime, you just might find the lover you need.
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
It’s impossible to read this diary, written by a young girl while hiding from Nazis with their family in an Amsterdam attic, and not be affected by it. But with a few years under your belt and some experience with how human beings can be both astonishingly terrible and stunningly kind to each other, this book will change you in ways you can’t even fathom. And if you happen to be a parent now, well, get ready to ugly cry the whole way through.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
One of the biggest themes in this groundbreaking novel—about a strong-willed woman who eschews the expectations of black society in the early 1900s—is that you’re only going to find true fulfillment if you look outside yourself. That’s not an easy lesson for a teenager to appreciate. What’s more, this book, by a woman who’s been called “the black Faulkner,” has more subtle humor than you may have noticed the first time around.
Beowulf by Anonymous
Beowulf is proof that perception is everything. You can approach this epic poem as a really difficult and long read, with the near-gibberish of all that Old English, and it doesn’t help when people tell you “It’s one of the oldest stories ever written” as if that somehow makes it better. But you might have better luck if you approach it as a story about a tough-as-nails warrior who sails to a foreign land to help some bros being terrorized by a monster named Grendal, and he tears the creature’s arm off with his bare hands and nails it over the door to their mead hall. And that’s just the first scene! If you’re one of those people complaining that Game of Thrones still hasn’t come back and you haven’t cracked open this book recently, we have exactly zero sympathy for you.
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