Chances are the books from your high school reading list are something you never thought you’d want to see again. But it turns out that most of the books we end up loving and talking about were books we read during those precious four years of school lunches, bathroom passes, and gum-covered desks. Whether you were the slacker who didn’t do any of the reading, the straight-A student who absorbed every page, or the artsy kid who spent more time making cool paper covers for your books (seriously, though, these may be the only time that annoying high school phrase “When am I ever going to need to know this?” actually applies) than reading them, odds are high school you was more worried about pimples and prom dates than about whatever The Great Gatsby was supposed to be saying about “the American dream or whatever."
But, now, you’d totally get a lot more out of some of the better books on that required reading list. So, maybe it’s time for a reunion with your high school syllabi. Never fear: You don’t actually have to go hunting through that box of embarrassing memorabilia your mom keeps in the basement. Here's a list of the 21 high school books that deserve a second (ahem, or first, for us slackers) look.
'The Iliad' by Homer
In high school, you probably groaned about having to read not just poetry, but ancient poetry. But The Iliad is sort of like an action movie… if action movies were actually good. It’s got all the awesome stuff, like heroes with bulging muscles and beautiful women, without all the terrible one-liners and absurd plot. Plus, it’s poetry — and we like poetry now, right?
'Things Fall Apart' by Chinua Achebe
'1984' by George Orwell
1984 might be one of the books almost all of us actually read in high school. After all the amazingness of the tyrannical pigs in Animal Farm, how could you not? While there are no animals in this one (well, there are rats…), 1984 has never been more relevant than now, in our era of reality TV, constant social engagement online, and debates about online privacy.
'Their Eyes Were Watching God' by Zora Neale Hurston
When we think of distinctly “American” novels, we tend think of road trips mixed with personal journeys, the good ol’ rags-to-riches narrative, and white men. Their Eyes has all of that, but it’s all told from the perspective of a Black woman living in an all-Black town in Florida. A book that shook the canon and raised the volume on Black female voices in the U.S., this one’s a worthy read.
'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley
No matter how many Frankenstein movies you’ve seen, nothing beats the book… nothing! Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein gives us a much more interesting, articulate, existentially troubled monster than any of the dumbed down zombie-ish versions in pop culture. Frankenstein is so much more than a horror novel, and you best read it to find that out.
'Bless Me, Ultima' by Rudulfo Anaya
Seems like half the books we read in high school can be put in that “coming-of-age” (or “bildungsroman” if you want to get a room full of teenagers to giggle) category. Bless Me, Ultima is definitely a coming-of-age story, but it’s more than just the ramblings of an angsty preteen. Its uniqueness is in the relationship between a young boy and the mysterious woman healer who introduces him to spirituality and his Chicano heritage and history.
'The Awakening' by Kate Chopin
In The Awakening you actually get to get inside the mind of a woman as she awakens to new ideas about women’s sexuality and social roles. That might not be so impressive a thing these days, but The Awakening was one of the first American novels to do this, that is, one of the first to do it realistically (read: without completely undermining female intelligence).
'The Joy Luck Club' by Amy Tan
Reading The Joy Luck Club is like sitting in the middle of a giant family reunion made up of a bunch of Chinese immigrant mothers and their U.S.-born daughters. Hilarity, good food, drama, and a great deal of misunderstanding is bound to occur. The Joy Luck Club is all that, plus the real, sometimes less-fun realities of the lives of Chinese immigrants and their families.
'The Picture of Dorian Gray' by Oscar Wilde
Pretty much everyone’s afraid of getting older, but dear little Dorian Gray takes it a little too far. Part horror story and full of Oscar Wilde’s characteristic wit, The Picture of Dorian Gray is the book to read to remind yourself that a couple of grey hairs is a lot better than being a creepy, self-involved hedonist terrified of a painting in the attic. Plus, all that Wilde humor will inspire you to break out the charm and wit at your next party.
'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison
It takes you from a Black college in the American South to the throes of the Communist Party and Black Nationalism rising in the North, and finally to a basement covered in light bulbs running off of stolen electricity. Oh, and your guide is a nameless invisible man. It’s a helluva ride and one that also teaches you a thing or two about the social, personal, and political struggles of Blacks in the 19th century U.S.
'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath
Not every young woman’s emergence into the bustling life of New York looks like Sex and the City or Breakfast at Tiffany’s (in fact, most don’t). With its important look at depression, The Bell Jar might not be the cheeriest book in the world (but then, life isn’t always rainbows and kittens either), but probe a bit further and this tale of a woman working to overcome crippling depression and come into her own in the big, bad city is actually somewhat more hopeful Carrie Bradshaw than bleak Emily Dickinson.
'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee' by Dee Brown
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is hardly what most would call a “fun” read, but, after reading it, you’ll never think of the American West the same again. This is one of those books that changes your whole perspective on history and fills you full of riveting facts. It’s probably high time to move on from of those “wild West, ”gun-slinging cowboy fantasies, anyway.
'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead' by Tom Stoppard
Every wonder what all those minor characters in Shakespeare were doing when they weren’t being convenient plot drivers? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead steals two of Hamlet’s minor characters to show just how absurd their off-stage lives are. This is the book that teaches you how to laugh at the canon and appreciate it all at the same time.
'My Ántonia' by Willa Cather
Anyone else notice how so many of the novels we read in high school were set in New York or Boston or “The South?” Well, Willa Cather is one of the few authors we meet in high school that shows us the American West… that is, an American West that isn’t all gun-happy cowboy and drunk “wenches” stereotypes. My Ántonia is the third book in a trilogy, but it’s also the best book in the trilogy, and we’re grown ups, so we can have our dessert first if we want!
'Song of Solomon' by Toni Morrison
Song of Solomon is just a ridiculously beautiful book. More than any of Toni Morrison’s other novels, it has that magical, fairytale-ish flavor about it. With characters with names like Guitar and Macon “Milkman” Dead III, and with men who can maybe kinda fly — or, well…not — this book is an other-worldly experience. Plus, it’s Barack Obama’s favorite novel. So… now you have to read it.
'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' by James Joyce
Remember when you were all bold and dreamy-eyed and hopelessly devoted to “the life of an artist?” Well, it’s good to get those stars back in your eyes sometimes, and this is just the book for it. Stephen Daedalus might turn out to be less-than-charming in his later days in Ulysses, but young Stephen in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man might be just the thing you need to remember why you fell in love with your work in the first place.
'Ceremony' by Leslie Marmon Silko
Following a mixed Laguna man who survived World War II and struggles to overcome PTSD, Ceremony’s main character Tayo represents some of the most overlooked American heroes of WWII. But it’s more poignant achievement is its intimate look at the personal wars that follow the national wars once the battlefields go quiet.
'Crime and Punishment' by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Books are all about trying other lives and perspectives on for size for a while. And probably just about everyone has had that guilty daydream of going all underground criminal (or at least the romanticized TV version of it). Well, Crime and Punishment can convince you that you’re just couple of lonely nights and a twisted philosophy away from becoming a crime boss. So… maybe read it in small doses broken up with large amounts of socializing.
'The Woman Warrior' by Maxine Hong Kingston
The Woman Warrior blurs the line between folktale and memoir in a seriously beautiful way. Often comparing Kingston’s own life as a first-generation Chinese immigrant woman to that of her more traditional mother growing up as a woman in China, the book melds the facts and the myth in such a way that it’s delightfully difficult to figure out which is which. It’s an experimental form of memoir that, at times, feels more honest than a more straightforward memoir does.
'The Sound and The Fury' by William Faulkner
Oh, those tricky modernists! Faulkner does some pretty cool things in The Sound and The Fury, like telling the story from the perspectives of different characters, including the character Benjy, whose mental disability makes his chapter more than a little difficult to understand. But it pays off as you get little details and different versions of the same story from different characters and put it all together like a big, nerdy, literary puzzle (that will probably hurt your head a whole lot less now than it did in high school)!
'Black Boy' by Richard Wright
Black Boy is gritty. Not in that Clint Eastwood, old Western sort of way, but in that laid-bare, super-honest kind of way. A personal account of Wright’s own coming-of-age, the novel is not your typical inspirational story of hardship and achievement. Instead, Wright gets real and shows off all his faults and missteps, and, in the process, reveals a great deal about the personal, not just social, struggles of Black men and women growing up in an era of deep injustice in the U.S..