Kids just aren’t reading like they used to, at least if you believe what is coming out of the schools. Even though I am a voracious reader, I never really had to read for school. We read a couple novels and plays, but I came to the English department at a premier university and discovered that there were so many great classics that I should have read in school and just hadn’t been told to. I made it my mission to become even more well-read through these books. In fact, I have only grown in the process. If you, like me, value literature and want to make sure it is appreciated for years to come, pick up these ten great books you should have read in school and encourage others to read them too.
Beloved by Toni MorrisonBeloved is an amazing well-written book about the aftermath of slavery and the life of those kept inside of its bonds. The protagonist, Sethe, was born a slave, but she escaped. Still, she is haunted by her past, by memories of an old home and a dead baby never named. Beloved is a tough book to read, the topic being quite heavy, but once you start, you won’t want to put it down. There is a reason Toni Morrison is one of the most celebrated authors of the modern century.
1984 by George Orwell1984 became a best-seller again after Trump was elected, but how they understood the book to comment on modern advancements showed a lot of people hadn’t read it at all. 1984 follows Winston Smith as he struggles to exist within Oceania, a totalitarian government where Big Brother is always watching. Along with his lover, Juliet, he begins to wonder if Big Brother is really as gracious as he claims to be, what the Brotherhood can do for him, and how he will survive his indiscretions against the government.
Lolita by Vladimir NabokovA lot of schools shy away from reading Lolita because of its content and the point of view of a pedophile, but Lolita is so much more. It’s one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever rea. While it is definitely disturbing, you won’t want to stop reading. The novel follows Humber Humbert’s question for his nymphet and eventual stepdaughter Delores Haze, his Lolita and he’s one of the most antagonistic protagonists you’ll ever meet.
Though it is a thick book, the Odyssey by Homer is one of the most fulfilling books you’ll read. It’s a grand adventure through one man’s life, through times of war and peace. The Odyssey informs so much of the western canon and the myths we tell that it should be taught far more widely than it is! It is the second oldest piece of western literature. You should also check out Homer’s other work, the Iliad, which ranks as the oldest.
James Joyce’s Ulysses is a modern adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, but it itself is one of the most important books in modern literature and caused a firestorm with its publication. Taking place all in one day, June 16, 1904, Ulysses follows the hero Leopold Bloom through the city of Dublin, Ireland. It is one of the first stream-of-consciousness novel and studied highly in most universities, but accessible to all readers.
Though it is one of the most read classic novels, especially in high schools, To Kill a Mockingbird is still something every generation should read. Published in 1960, the lessons of the novel still ring true today. To Kill a Mockingbird follows a lawyer, Atticus Finch, and his children, Scout and Jem, as Atticus defends a black man charged with raping a white woman in a racially charged South steeped in prejudice.
Though it is one of my favorite classic novels, A Separate Peace is not read nearly enough in schools, even though it takes place in high school. Set during the early years of World War II, A Separate Peacefollows two young friends, Gene and Phineas, as they come to terms with their similarities, their differences, and how the approaching war will tear them apart. It’s a quick read, but an extremely moving novel.
Most students get a taste of Shakespeare in school. Unfortunately, it’s usually something like Romeo and Juliet, which turns students off to Shakespeare. Macbeth is a much better substitute. It will show you what Shakespeare can really accomplish in his plays. Macbeth charts a Scottish nobleman’s rise to power with the help of his scheming wife.
Another play, but this one much more modern. Arthur Miller’s Crucible is an allegorical commentary on the Red Scare through the setting of the Salem Witch Trials. The Crucible opens with Betty Parris,a local reverend’s daughter, falling ill, and her friends say that witchcraft is to blame. This leads to a literal witch hunt in the town, complicated by extramarital affairs, prejudices, and preoccupation with the unknown. It’s a quick but thrilling read.
In a society that doesn’t seem to value free speech as much as it should, Fahrenheit 451 is a must-read for all book lovers. The dystopian novel follows a fireman, Guy Montag, who is tasked with burning things owned by those who read outlawed books, and yes, there are many of them. He meets a girl, Clarisse, who begins to make him question if what he is doing is right. The stakes rise as Guy and his wife Mildred start to come into the possession of banned books themselves. They must stand up against the law that seeks to burn them to the ground.