For someone who loves to read and majored in Great Books in college, I distinctly remember doing a lot of skimming in high school. Maybe it was the books themselves I didn’t like (The Yearling fills me with both boredom and rage), or maybe I was just lazy. But hidden among the sleepier classics (Mythology, A Man for All Seasons) were masterpieces: some which I immediately loved, some I couldn’t have fully appreciated at the time. So when you’re finished re-reading these amazing books from childhood, give these high school books another go.
1. A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith
I felt this book on impact when I read it entering my freshman year. Francie Nolan was such a compelling and relatable protagonist for me, and I distinctly remember being so upset by her almost assault that I had to put the book down and return to it a couple weeks later. Back then, I related to Francie’s early years when “the world was hers for the reading,” but now I feel a connection with her later years, and even a greater understanding of the plight of her mother Katie. If you haven’t read it, you absolutely must do so.
2. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Apparently some people didn’t enjoy this book in high school, but I find that shocking. Mysteriously nameless heroine, ghosts of drowned ex-wives, crazy murderous revelations, arson—what’s not to love! As far as I’m concerned, this is the beach read romantic thriller of high school book lists.
3. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
You may not have read this book. But as a woman, especially if you’re in a creative field, and extra especially if you’re a writer: you must read it. If you did read it in high school, you must re-read it. Reading A Room of One’s Own in college was one of the most moving reading experiences of my life, sparking a lifetime devotion to Virginia Woolf. Yes, there’s the infamous question of how a Shakespeare’s just-as-talented sister would have fared in their society (spoiler: not well), but A Room of One’s Own is so much more than that. It’s about the differences between men and women, the nature of writing, and the uninhibited expression of genius. When you read it, please let me know (@kelseyMmanning) because I want to talk about this book forever. Bonus: Please, give Mrs. Dalloway another shot as well. I promise you’ll like it more now.
4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitgerald
When The Great Gatsby began popping up in college discussions, I knew I had completely missed the boat on this one. Most of us almost certainly did not appreciate it fully in high school, and as one of the crown jewels of American literature, we really need to give it a mature, adult read. (Watching the movie doesn’t count.)
5. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Scout Finch is another young heroine who did and always will encourage you to put a little more faith in humanity. One of the greatest books of all time, To Kill A Mockingbird should be read and re-read and re-read until you have it memorized. Thank goodness Harper Lee dropped out of law school, am I right?
6. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
If you read Invisible Man in high school, the Battle Royale scene will be seared into your memory forever. When I read the book again this past year, the imprint became even deeper and more horrifying. But I also emerged with a greater appreciation for one of the book’s most important themes: the power of language to shape meaning and identity, and particularly the power of the novel. Additionally, it brings up essential questions about ignorance and “color-blindness,” which are conversations that continue to be necessary.
7. Inferno by Dante Aligheri
The Divine Comedy is the greatest piece of literature ever created. Although I read it (twice) in college, not high school, it’s now on my high school’s reading list and therefore fair game. The Inferno is the ultimate epic adventure story, an incisive look at human nature and its fallibility, a historical analysis of Florence, the most startlingly perfect, beautiful poem of all time, and oh-so-much more. When you do read it, please read the Robert and Jean Hollander translation (NOT the Longfellow one they put in all the pretty Barnes and Noble editions).
8. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
I admit, I have actually never read The Count of Monte Cristo, but several trustworthy friends insisted it was one of the few books they adored in high school. I’ve heard “captivating, thrilling, fast-paced, entertaining, and action-packed,” not to mention themes of justice, relative vs. absolute happiness, and love. I’m reading it soon—join me?
9. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
I had to. It’s just too compelling, too important, too controversial, and too moving. Some strongly disagree, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Holden Caufield: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.” The Catcher in the Rye is one of those books.
10. The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emmuska Orzay
I’ve always named this book among my favorite adventure stories and my favorite historical fiction, because it is just phenomenal. With the French Revolution as a backdrop, The Scarlet Pimpernel is certainly the most exciting, suspenseful, romantic book I read in high school, and I enjoy it just as much now!
What were your favorite books in high school? I would love to read more high school classics!