High-schoolers often have to slog through classics when they’d rather be hanging out with their friends or doing just about anything else. You might have felt the same way, heading to a football game or slumber party rather than drowning in "Moby Dick." But there’s a reason your English teacher pleaded with you to read these books. Crack them open or download them to an e-reader and get reacquainted with the likes of Jay Gatsby, Hester Prynne, and, indeed, Mr. Darcy.
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“I think that there are characters that it would be a shame not to meet like Atticus Finch in 'To Kill a Mockingbird' or Holden Caulfield in 'The Catcher in the Rye'" said Misha Stone, Reader Services Librarian at The Seattle Public Library. “I borrow from what world-renowned librarian Nancy Pearl says, and I will paraphrase here — everyone has a different definition of what would be considered a classic, but there are also books that it would be a shame to go through life not reading. There are books that speak to the human condition and the world we live (and lived) in in astonishing, thought-provoking, and life-changing ways.”
In no particular order and omitting a lot of astonishing books:
By Mary Shelley
(Simon & Brown)
With all the movies and real-life stories about people mucking around with genes and DNA ('Rise of the Planet of the Apes,' anyone?), here’s the classic cautionary tale that touches on themes of man vs. science, man vs. nature, and man vs. God. It’s the whole monster enchilada. With the hubris of youth and intellect, Victor Frankenstein reanimates a creature from a pastiche of body parts. The creature is a sore for sight eyes and only finds compassion from a blind man, who teaches him to speak and read. Others, however, are not quite so welcoming and it’s not long before the estranged creature and his creator become locked in a deadly game of cat and mouse.
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‘The Scarlet Letter'
By Nathaniel Hawthorne
Religious guilt, adultery, single parenting. These themes may be ripped from today’s headlines but they go back centuries, to the earliest years of our nation. Hawthorne explores these heavy concepts with the most compelling of stories and enduring images: Hester Prynne, with a scarlet A sewn on her bodice, raises her daughter in a small Puritanical (i.e. judgmental) community. She refuses to reveal the name of her lover, despite the fact that her long-lost husband Roger Chillingworth shows up wanting to exact some psychological revenge.
‘The Catcher in the Rye'
By J.D. Salinger
(Back Bay Books)
This was the most censored book in U.S. high schools between 1961 and 1982. What seems like a dream to most of us—romping around New York unattended for several days—becomes a story of modern-day alienation and ennui. Original emo boy Holden Caulfield is expelled from prep school and heads for Manhattan, soliciting a prostitute, bungling a date with an old girlfriend, hanging out with his little sister, seeking advice from a former teacher, and making plans to go West. He may be in the big city, but he feels utterly alone and misunderstood, something most of us, at one time or another, can relate to.
‘The Great Gatsby'
By F. Scott Fitzgerald
One of the great American novels about the American dream, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece is the story of Jay Gatsby, a self-made man who moves to Long Island to impress and woo back his lost love Daisy. Things don’t exactly goes as planned—in fact, they couldn’t get much worse for Gatsby—making the book a reminder that money and ambition can’t buy you love or respect, just a lot of square footage and custom-tailored suits. And when you get a load of Daisy’s husband, you’ll realize that money can’t buy you class, either.
‘Pride and Prejudice’
By Jane Austen
(Michael O'Mara; Elibron Classics)
Social classes and the search for an eligible man go back a long way. Before match.com, there were epistolary relationships, and the touch of a hand or a sidelong glance spoke volumes. Watch out for when Mr. Darcy does declare his intentions. “My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” Who wouldn’t swoon at that? Well, Elizabeth Bennet for one, but she soon has a change of heart, if not for his ardor and brooding good looks, then for Mr. Darcy’s beautiful grounds at Pemberley. A tart and tasty bonbon of manners and courtship.
By Herman Hesse
(Simon & Brown)
There’s a lot of talk today about meaningfulness and being present, thanks to yoga and Eckhart Tolle. Hesse’s story, about the spiritual journey of a man who lived at the time of the Buddha, offers up additional inspiration in your search to be one with everything. Siddhartha starts his life as a contemplative young man but restless, moves onto a worldly, sensual life, which he eventually rejects in favor of asceticism as a means of achieving enlightenment. His experiences, along with a humble river, help him to gain understanding.
More in books
‘Lord of the Flies’
By William Golding
(Faber & Faber, Inc.)
Skip another season of "Survivor" and read about what happens to a bunch of kids when left alone after their plane crashes on a deserted island. Hint: it’s not a fun and games, there’s no Jeff Probst, and the only prize is survival. Golding’s novel is chilling, showing how easily society can unravel. You’ll be shaken to your core, and you’ll never look at a conch shell quite the same way again.
‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'
By Mark Twain
Where a little freedom in "Lord of the Flies" goes a long, dangerous way, Huck hits the road, or in this case, the Mississippi River to escape an abusive drunkard of a dad. He meets up with runaway slave Jim and the two of them embark on a journey along the river. During the course of their adventures, they happen upon grifters, feuding families, and characters of the savory and unsavory variety. While the novel is primarily about freedom, it is one of the first to deal with prejudice, Huck and Jim’s friendship providing the narrative thread that anchors the book.
‘To Kill a Mockingbird’
By Harper Lee
Racial tensions, class, justice, loss of innocence, and straight-up courage weave themselves through Lee’s Southern Gothic novel. Told through the eyes of young Scout Finch, "Mockingbird" centers around a wrongly accused black man on trial for rape and the barely latent prejudices that surface during the court case. But it’s so much more. Atticus Finch is among the noblest characters in American fiction, a white lawyer defending his client in the face of threats to his family. If that’s not enough, there’s Boo Radley, the best-named recluse in all of literature. It’s Lee’s only novel but she hit it out of the park.
By Ayn Rand
Rand always sparks a lot of controversy for her Objectivist philosophy but this story of Frank Lloyd Wright-like architect Howard Roark is a testament to absolute vision and belief in oneself. Rather than compromise, Roark again and again refuses to dull his shine, collaborate, or otherwise give in, no matter the consequences. In our current era of energetic social networking and personal branding, it’s refreshing to think about being a “prime mover,” rather than submitting to design by committee or playing to the lowest common denominator.
What classic do you recommend reading or revisiting?
Jennifer Worick is the author of more than 25 books and a publishing consultant; she can be found at The Business of Books.
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