Now that I have the privilege of teaching high school English, I get the opportunity to reread some of the perennial classroom classics (including a few I never got around to as a kid) and I’ve been thrilled to find some powerful and thoroughly engaging stories. I’m finding that perspective affects your reading of a book as much as the ink on the page, so if you’ve read these before, consider taking a look from your current vantage point. Furthermore, if you haven’t read these, keep in mind that none of them were written for a teen audience. These are all serious books, written by serious adults. Seriously. So, here are my thoughts on a few “high school books” that are probably more enjoyable now that you don’t have homework.
When I tried to read Catcher In The Rye as a teenager, I couldn’t stand the entitled, whiny, and relatively clueless voice of narrator, Holden Caulfield. But when I tried again in my mid-twenties, it was a completely different experience. Holden is lost and pathetic, yes, but Salinger manipulates Caulfield’s voice so deftly, I couldn’t help but feel for the little guy. Holden’s innocence and ignorance create a space that allows the reader to see plainly what our sad narrator can’t. It’s a poignant rumination on the loss of innocence, and the awkwardness of being stuck between youth and adulthood without the guidance of understanding or hindsight.
If you’re unfamiliar with Mary Shelley’s novel, it’s time to remedy that situation. It's much different from what you might expect if all you know of this story is the flat-topped, bolt-necked green guy from cartoons. You get the French Alps, you get unattainable love, you get complete and utter despair, you get a complex novel of multiple perspectives and formats (including the monster’s perspective, after it learns to read and write from a blind man). Plus, you can feel terrible about yourself, knowing that Shelley was eighteen when she wrote a book that pioneered countless conventions and tropes of the sci-fi and horror genres.
The only Faulkner I read in high school was the haunting story, “A Rose For Emily” (although the breathtaking “Barn Burning” should be his most anthologized). I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I didn’t fall in love with his work until well into my college years. As I Lay Dying is his only novel taught in schools, and I suppose that makes sense—in spite of its fifteen separate narrators(!), it’s one of Faulkner’s most accessible books. In the book, the Bundren family sets off to transport the body of their deceased matriarch to be buried in her hometown. The real draw is the subtlety in Faulkner’s portrayal of each character, which creates an emotionally intricate mess of a family—through a complexity that deepens and expands with each new perspective. Also, Renaissance man James Franco recently wrapped a big screen adaptation (his directorial debut), that is, by early accounts, not so bad. No matter what, I’m going to guess that reading the book first might come in handy this time around.
Steinbeck’s simplest and shortest novel could be read in a single sitting, if you’ve got an open Saturday. It’s a riff on the author’s favorite subject: loneliness (hint—it takes place in near a town called Soledad). It’s a striking portrait of the lives of migrant workers in depression-era California that hinges on themes of friendship and mercy. The language is gorgeous and Steinbeck’s ear for dialogue is as sharp as it is in any of his books. It’s a bit of a heartbreaker, sure, but it’s also overflowing with wit and humanity.
This is such a formative book for many young people that it almost doesn’t need anyone’s recommendation. Don’t worry—it’s still amazing and will break your heart, every time. I’m actually disappointed if kids don’t cry in class when Tom Robinson’s verdict is read—I wonder if I should read it again, slower. I realized that there was so much I’d missed as a kid, including quite a bit of humor and charm. It’s about injustice and growth. It’s about choosing courage and kindness, even (or especially) in the face of helplessness. If, in terms of age, you were closer to Scout than Atticus when you last read it, read it again, soon.
Now that Baz Luhrman’s adaptation has hit movie theaters, this book is suddenly a hot topic. But if you haven’t read it since high school (if at all), grab a copy. Narrated by the awkward outsider Nick Carraway after a whirlwind stint in New York, we get a fleeting glimpse of unbridled pre-crash American decadence. But in spite of the wild living, everything is always just out of reach for every character concerned. They try to lie, cheat, and spend their way to happiness, but it eludes each of them. There’s a pervading sadness pulsing through this book, threatening the hopes of everyone concerned. And it’s got some of the best sentences you’ll ever read.
Instead of the big scary government controlling of our freedoms (like Big Brother in 1984), Bradbury presents a much more frightening scenario. Society has gradually lost interest in personal relationships and the arts in favor of the fastest, loudest, and most immediate pastimes (like wall-sized TVs with shows that simulate reality, or tiny earphones that people never ever remove, for instance). Walking outside is suspicious activity, as is having an extended conversation. Oh yeah—and books are absolutely, totally forbidden. Ray Bradbury offers us an entirely unsettling dystopic vision that is more plausible than most others.
I don’t know if many people have been assigned this novel in schools, but it’s been on the AP list for a while, so I figured it was fair game. It’s the shocking story of a horrific act carried out by a desperate runaway slave, and the irrevocable consequences that follow. Toni Morrison is one of three Nobel Prize winning Americans on this list (along with Faulkner and Steinbeck), and it’s easy to see why she completely deserved it. This book will haunt you. I realize that my last sentence is a bit of a pun, but there’s really no better way to explain the effects of Morrison’s prose.