I was inspired to write this post by a friend beginning her Master’s in Education. She asked for recommendations of books people had enjoyed reading in high school. I asked the question, which books have I read that really stuck with me and could have had a greater impact in my adolescent years?
In high school I already had a healthy appetite for literature. I loved to read and enjoyed a variety of genres. I owe a great deal of my library collection to my High School English Department that required their students to purchase the books studied in class. Thankfully, I was well acquainted with the used book store. I don’t think I paid more than a $1 for any Barnes and Noble Classic Edition I own.
In this list you will find books my classes did not cover as well as books that were published or gained literary notoriety after I graduated high school. This list has no hierarchical order. I love the first as much as the last.
1. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
My brother bought this book when he came home on a winter break. He purchased it in a terminal and read the whole thing before he reached home. I’m appalled to say I never read any Oscar Wilde in high school. I think that Wilde is a great author to read in high school because his works not only teach a great deal about society, but they are also (please excuse the pun) wildly entertaining! The Picture of Dorian Gray addresses the unattractiveness of vanity, the impressionable vulnerability in youth, and the importance of choosing your friends. Dorian Gray starts off a beautiful, vapid yet harmless, youth. His character is corrupted by malicious friends and drugs. I also like that vanity is portrayed through a male character rather than an air-headed young girl. The story is thought provoking and fun to read.
2. Brave New World by Alduous Huxley
I believe that schools actually began to read this book right after I graduated. It was one of the first books I purchased on my nook after graduation from High School. Instantly, it resonated with me. Brave New World is America’s 1984. I believe that Brave New World’s dystopian future is much more realistic than any overlord style government. Huxley portrays a consumerist society in the extreme. Americans love feeling good and living at the top, so what happens when we get everything we want? We find out we have nothing at all. Not only is Huxley’s future more realistic to America, but I believe his character is very much flesh and blood throughout the novel. There are no heroes here, only survivors.
3. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
My school actually did cover this book, but at the time I was in ‘regular’ English and not AP English. All of my friends in Advanced Placement loved the novel so I read it in my free time. I don’t understand why ‘reg’ didn’t read this novel. It’s very applicable and the reading level is relatively easy. Gatsby is an enigma. He’s an icon. Everyone knows of him, but no one knows him. This book asks the question: What is the cost of fame? When is enough, enough? Is love the same thing as possession? I would say that Gatsby was less in love with Daisy as he was in love with the idea of her. The difference between the two is a great lesson. I also wonder if there isn’t a parallel between Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and The Great Gatsby. That could be an interesting lesson.
4. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
I live in the South so, contrary to belief, we read a lot of civil war era and civil rights works. I love To Kill a Mockingbird and I am by no means saying The Help should replace it. What I like about this novel is the fairness in which the author portrays every character. Everyone has their problems and it is not just about race. It’s societal, educational, and includes gender roles. Every character is representative of a civil rights issue, a human issue, and that is very powerful. The book presents the idea that human rights aren’t just a black and white issue. My favorite part of this novel is the end. I’m glad she doesn’t save the day. In fact, she may actually have increased tensions. But that’s what happens when someone questions the status quo.
5. The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
I think a lot of classrooms avoid this novel because of the religious tones. I would argue that regardless of religion, this book reveals a lot about the human character. Reading this novel I found myself asking the question: How much of what I do is really out of my control? How many excuses do I create for my shortcomings? The answer for the latter is a lot. The book is a series of letters between two demons discussing how to make a new Christian abandon his faith. The demons run through a multitude of schemes that depend largely on the humans own doing. Gossip, jealousy, distraction, and insecurities are just a few ways the demons discuss using human character against the subject. This book presents the opportunity for self reflection and response on a deep level.
6. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
No, not the ridiculous movie Hollywood made it into. The Time Machine is another pseudo-dystopian novel. The book mainly deals with ideas of reason and culture evolving. As the main character continues to move forward in time he encounters a race of people that have lost touch with logic and reason. As he tries to learn more about the future he ultimately learns more about humanity and the error of a decadent life without work. In school I felt we didn’t read enough science fiction and I feel this is a great example of science fiction with literary merit.
7. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Esperanza’s family finally owns their own home, but she soon finds the street they live on strongly defines them. The House on Mango Street is written through a series of poetry, vignettes, and anecdotes. This book illustrates urban life through the innocence of a child. The reading level is extremely easy, but the issues presented in the novel are not. Esperanza finds struggles with her identity, gender, equality, abuse, and poverty. The stories shared are identifiable and eye opening. Cisneros provides a narrative as beautiful as it is fun to read.
8. Go Ask Alice by Beatrice Sparks (Anonymous)
Go Ask Alice follows a teen through a descent of drug use and depression. The book is written as a series of journal entries. Once again, this is another easy read, but the lesson learned through the book is powerful. Alice often justifies her actions and tells herself that she isn’t so bad off. Innocent ‘one time’ drug use turns into a spiraling addiction she no longer has control of. A girl who believes she has it all together soon finds life becomes harder to grip when you tie your hands behind your back. Her depression leads to a solitude that separates her from help she desperately needs. The reality of this story in so many teens lives is amazing. What I like best about this book is the teen is not shown as a ‘bad kid’ or a stereotyped version of adolescents. Instead, she represents many teens. I found myself realizing I could easily be Alice if I put myself in the situations she had. In my opinion, learning through a novel is much better than experiencing that kind of lesson.
9. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
This was summer reading in my senior year of high school. Unfortunately, that meant we turned in our papers the first day of school and never spoke about it again. Have you ever wondered what a closed country truly look like? Reading newspaper articles and hearing propaganda about the terrible Middle East could only tell you so much. Reading Lolita in Tehran is about a book club started by Professor Azar Nafisi with a group of her female college students in her home. This book is based on her true experience of reading forbidden Western literature amongst a harsh morality censorship in Iran. What I liked most about this book was how the girls rebelled. These women did not burn their bras, go out without their head coverings, or protest outside their government. Their rebellion began with their very education. They built the foundation in their minds then began to wear bright clothes beneath their dark shawls, painted their fingernails, and dared to go without hosiery. This book reminded me of the power of literature and the resilience of the human spirit.
10. Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
My first encounter with Latino literature came in college. Once I had a taste I couldn’t get enough. This coming of age story of a fictional boy named Tony is powerful and beautifully written. Rudolfo Anaya combines the traditional themes of a coming of age story with the brilliance of magical realism. Tony’s abuela (grandmother) Ultima is a witch, but whether magic is real or simply a series of self fulfilling prophecies and coincidences is for the reader to decide. Tony finds strength and faith. He sees violence and he sees his brothers change from the idols he’d once believed they were to mere fallible men. Tony may be the most philosophical nine or twelve year old boy I’ve ever seen, but his insights are hard won through a hard life. This book was difficult at times, but undoubtedly enlightening.
What books stuck with you? Anything you wish you’d been exposed to in your youth? Share in the comments below!
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