You know it and I know it — there were just some books in high school that were too painful to read. Snoozefests followed by tons of “and what do you think the author meant when he wrote…” conversations. I would sometimes skip the book altogether and just try to fake my way around it.
While I don’t recommend that strategy to any current student (spoiler alert: teachers can tell), I do recommend rereading these nine required school reads for fun. Who knows? Maybe you’ll (actually, this time) learn something!
The best books you should have read in high school
Not my favorite Steinbeck but the first one I ever pretended to read! Once I tried reading it again, without the threat of having to write a paper explaining it, I found out it was actually holding my attention and I had a hard time putting it down. The themes circle around the ever-changing definition of “hard work” as the Great Depression seismically shifted America’s way of life. There are also lots of ties to the history we are living through today that make it that more interesting to page through.
This one I actually read in high school, but I didn’t necessarily understand or relate to it at all when I was 15. Even before the Hulu show debuted, "The Handmaid’s Tale" came back into my hands when I found it on an Airbnb bookshelf during a rainy day that was keeping me inside. Women’s rights, the patriarchy, body autonomy, government, technology and human dynamics are explored at length. It’s a much better book when you have lived a little bit of life for yourself.
This one was ruined by too many know-it-all high school juniors thinking they were super deep for getting into Vonnegut, but maybe there’s a reason we all figured out early on that people would be impressed with us if we said we read his books. It was assigned to me post-9/11, which sparked a lot of conversations surrounding the necessity of war. I was happy to read it again without a pending discussion dominated by a bunch of 16-year-old boys.
We didn’t read nearly enough books by women and especially not by minority women when I was in high school. Every teacher I had from kindergarten through 12th grade was white. I did not understand it was a problem at the time. Coming into the real world and working, studying and living with people who did not look like me or were not raised like I was became eye-opening. Returning to read Zora Neale Hurston in my 30s had a similar effect. Not only is it about an African-American woman’s place in the United States in the post-World War II world, it is so much about socioeconomics, the backs upon which this country was built, privilege, our biases and how we all fall into our predestined place in the world.
Here’s the thing about reading Orwell’s "Animal Farm" and "1984": Um, it’s pretty uncomfortable. What did George Orwell know about 2020 and when did he know it? In "Animal Farm," a group of farm animals rage against their human owners and demand equal rights. It sounds funny (or at least like a kids book gone awry), but it’s mesmerizing. It’s deeply political; art that is meant to leave the reader with questions and opinions long after they’ve finished the last page.
Same as above, but instead of animals, this one is about the takeover of robots, technology and the Big Brother state. I remember thinking in 2002 that Orwell had gotten it all wrong. (“None of this stuff happened!”). Now I know better!
In my opinion, "The Catcher in the Rye" gets all the attention and "Franny and Zooey" deserve more. Franny and Zooey Glass, the two youngest of their family, have a brother and sister relationship that often can put them at odds with each other. Exploring both of these characters so deeply as individuals (each gets their own story) allows readers to be able to understand what makes their relationship work as they go through life together.
I faked my way through all of them but I guess it’s important to have a tacit understanding of “the world’s most influential storyteller” or whatever. FINE! I like "A Midsummer Night’s Dream." "MacBeth" is also fine. Or maybe I’m confusing it with "The Tragedy of Hamlet"? I honestly don’t know.
Now this one I did read but I know there are probably more than a few who didn’t. Hester Prynne gets pregnant from an affair and she’s essentially shunned from society, forced to both wear her “sin” publicly and carry it with her as she attempts to move forward. It takes place in the 1600s but adaptations of screen and stage have transformed it into a story that can take on a timeless quality.