High school. Ugh. If anyone ever tells you that high school was the best time of their life, the only proper reaction is to back away from them slowly. Even at its very best, high school is a time of angst, acne, and forced reading.
Don't get me wrong, I love classic novels. In fact, some of my favorite books of all time were introduced to me in high school English class: Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon , Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried , James Joyce's Ulysses, and even Virgil's Aeneid all made a huge impact on me. I liked reading Shakespeare and talking about symbolism. English was definitely my favorite subject.
But I'm not going to pretend that I enjoyed every second of English class. As much as I loved Jane Eyre and To Kill a Mockingbird , I would rather eat glass shards than re-read The Scarlet Letter. There were some books that we all just suffered through — and I'm not saying they were all books by dead white men, but most of them were books by dead white men. Few things are more hellish than trying to force yourself to finish a book you hate when you know there's going to be a quiz in the morning. I mean, you could be reading something you actually enjoy, but instead you are reading about a very grumpy man who's obsessed with killing a whale.
So if you ever struggled your way through a book for class, these titles might sound familiar:
1. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Look, if you liked The Scarlet Letter , then good for you. That's great. But for me, this was a terrible garbage book that ruined my life. The story is fine: Hester Prynne gets pregnant from an adulterous affair, all the other Puritans hate on her, she rises above the patriarchy and lives her life. Fine. I have no problem with Hester. Hawthorne's writing, however, is so aggressively dull, that very few high school kids could get through it without wanting to travel back in time and slap Hawthorne with his own boring book. Ugh.
2. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
If you want to read a great Herman Melville story, then read Bartleby the Scrivener. It's about a scrivener who's so uninterested in doing anything that he dies. And it's still more compelling than a novel about fighting a giant white whale from the same author. Moby-Dick is a slog. Again, it's not that the story doesn't have literary merit. It's not even that Melville can't write a good description of the ocean. It's just that it is pages upon pages of tedious, detailed facts about whaling ships, and it bored me to tears.
3. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Many, many people love The Catcher in the Rye. And many, many people hate The Catcher in the Rye. If you were into it, this was a book that perfectly spoke to your teenaged angst. But if you weren't into it, the book was just Holden whining about his rich kid problems (and, ok, his dead brother). I liked the book, but I'll admit it's a bit of self-pity party. There's not much plot, so if you're not on board with Holden's apathy, then you're not going to have a good time.
4. A Separate Peace by Jon Knowles
Two boys at a prep school are kind of in love with each other, until (spoiler alert) one of them dies. And it's kind of the other one's fault. There's a surprising amount of A Separate Peace fan-fiction on the internet, but nevertheless this is one of the most loathed books in the high school canon. I think it was supposed to be about either war or suppressed sexuality, but all I can remember is lots of boring discussion about high school sports and boy's locker rooms.
5. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
All Quiet on the Western Front is hailed as the greatest war novel ever written. It's not, but it's ok if people want to think that. I assume that the people who love this book love it because they read it of their own accord. And also because the idea of the "greatest war novel ever" fills them with excitement instead of dread. This is the deeply upsetting book that made me and my classmates absolutely hate war novels until we got to Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.
6. The Chosen by Chaim Potok
Look, yes, The Chosen is a Very Important Book about coming of age and friendship and Judaism. And those are all great things. But The Chosen is also a desperately dull book if you're not reading it by choice. High school English class rarely wants to delve into the homoerotic themes, so instead you're stuck talking about Reuven's relationship with his terrible father and what the spider symbolizes in that one scene.
7. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
I might be a bad feminist, because I couldn't stand The Awakening. Lots of people love this book, and with good reason: it's one of the earliest feminist texts that's sort of sex-positive, and that's exciting. Edna, the protagonist, realizes that she's living in a patriarchy and (spoiler alert) has affairs and then drowns herself. Sounds like a good time. But boy was it a struggle to make it through this book back in English class. I know it's not cool to pit fictional ladies against each other, but I'd honestly take Hester Prynne over Edna any day.
8. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Is this a good book? Yes, definitely. Is it a pleasurable read for an eighth grader? Debatable. A lot of people suffered through this book. Dickens is never brief, and his comical characters only sometimes make up for his tendency to drone on and on. If you weren't a Dickens fan, you definitely resented reading over 500 pages on Pip and Estelle and how they're the worst. But this book deserves a re-read, if only because Miss Havisham is one of the best characters in English literature.
9. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway himself hated discussions about symbolism (he also hated women). So the fact that his books are so popular with English classes is a complete mystery. Sure, Hemingway is a great writer and many of his short stories and other novels are well worth reading. But The Old Man and the Sea is one of those books that was the bane of my high school existence. I mean, I guess if you were a really fishing-oriented high schooler, this one was more readable than Moby-Dick. But... just throw the fish back, dude. Yikes.
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