15 Books You Probably Hated In High School — And Why You Should Give Them A Second Chance
For many reasons, high school English class has gotten a bit of a bad reputation. Remarkably few people think back fondly on their forced encounters with Melville or Salinger. Essentially no one feels gratitude for being made to read The Scarlet Letter. And yes, it's absolutely true that most English classes are in desperate need of some updated readings lists, and that most high school curricula veer heavily towards the writing of straight, dead white men. That needs to change. As we work towards building a better English class, though, it's just maybe worth taking a second look at some of those books we hated reading back in 10th grade. After all, present day you might find a few things that 16-year-old you missed out on.
I mean, sure, I definitely hated my fair sharing of assigned reading back in the day (A Separate Peace, anyone?), but high school English was also my safe haven. I can still remember lessons on The Odyssey and Song of Solomon and The Things They Carried with perfect clarity. I genuinely feel like my high school class on James Joyce changed my life. I've even come back around on a few books that felt utterly inscrutable the first time through. So, whether you were a lit class nerd or a total non-reader, here are a few books from high school English that deserve a second chance:
1. 'Romeo and Juliet' by William Shakespeare
Very few hormonal teens want to have a book about hormonal teens explained to them by a boring adult. Also, romance is not cool because it is associated with girls and girl things, and so most high schoolers (and most adults) end up rolling their eyes at Romeo and Juliet. Read it again, though, and you just might find that it's a beautiful story about gender subversion and how adults would prefer to let teens die in the streets rather than compromise on their own stupid politics.
2. 'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Yes, all the characters in this book are the worst. They're supposed to be the worst. The Great Gatsby is not a book about long lost love, it's a damning critique of capitalism and the so-called American Dream. Read it again, and you might find that all those glitzy Gatsby-themed parties are kind of majorly missing the point.
3. 'The Odyssey' by Homer
4. 'Lord of the Flies' by William Golding
Your English teacher might have told you that Lord of the Flies is about humanity's fundamentally violent nature. But what if I told you that William Golding was actually trying to point out English chauvinism, and flip the script on racist depictions of "savages"? Lord of the Flies is a re-write of Coral Island, a popular British children's book about perfect little British boys stranded on an island with "savage" natives. Golding wanted to subvert the imperialism of the original book by pointing out that the "civilized" British are the ones who bring violence and savagery to the rest of the world, and not the other way around.
5. 'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens
Honestly, I don't care if you hate Pip and Estella and Magwitch from Great Expectations with all your heart. Everyone needs to re-read this book for Miss Havisham, possibly the greatest feminist icon of all time. She gets jilted on her wedding day, and decides to just stay in her rotting wedding dress forever and dedicate the rest of her life to ruining men from afar. Truly, a role model.
6. 'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison
I remember a lot of people complaining that this book was too hard to read in eleventh grade English, but looking back... wow. Invisible Man is a symphonic, nightmarish odyssey across the United States, from the Deep South to the basements of Harlem. Ellison explores the violent racism that exists even in the most "liberal" of spaces in his existential masterpiece. Just... give it a second read, if you had a hard time following it the first time around. Ralph Ellison won't let you down.
7. 'Jane Eyre' by Charlotte Brontë
Sure, there are more than a few problems with Jane Eyre's torrid, Gothic romance. Like the fact that Jane forgives her rich, ugly boyfriend for locking his mentally ill wife in the attic and then lying about it. That's... not great. But Jane Eyre is also one of very few old school romances that depicts a lady who is independent, self-sufficient, and only comes back to her boyfriend once she can be considered his absolute equal.
8. 'Brave New World' by Aldous Huxley
I feel like a lot of people remember Brave New World as some kind of low-rent 1984. But the two dystopias are actually quite different: 1984 takes on fascism and totalitarianism, and Brave New World is more of a horrific tour of late-stage capitalism. Take a second stab at it, and you might find that it still has the power to make you feel wildly uncomfortable about our consumer-based society.
9. 'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley
Yes, the monster is supposed to be sympathetic. I remember being a little disappointed when I read Frankenstein in high school, and it wasn't a fun, schlocky, monster-hunt adventure. But the actual novel is far more interesting than that: it forces us to look past appearances when we decide which character is truly monstrous.
10. 'All Quiet on the Western Front' by Erich Maria Remarque
My god did this book bore me to tears back in the day. Now, though, I can recognize that all those pages of unsettling despair had a point. All Quiet on the Western Front intends to show war as it is: not an exciting tale full of heroes and villains, but as a meaningless death march for young people who happen to be wearing different uniforms.
11. 'The Awakening' by Kate Chopin
Look, you don't have to fall madly in love with The Awakening. But Kate Chopin deserves maybe a second glance for writing a major, controversial feminist classic. This book was shocking for suggesting that married women could have sexual desires and just feel sort of meh about motherhood. And for (spoiler alert) suggesting that a woman might prefer to walk slowly into the sea rather than adhere to traditional gender roles.
12. 'The Crucible' by Arthur Miller
If you hated reading The Crucible, your teacher did you a huge disservice. Witches! Communism! Repressed trauma! It doesn't get more exciting than this. Once you get past the antiquated setting, The Crucible is an edge-of-your-seat classic about American's repressive, Puritan roots (and also a little bit witches).
13. 'Beowulf' by Unknown
I know that ancient epics aren't everyone's cup of tea. But if you couldn't get past the verse as a teen, maybe try Beowulf again as an adult. It is, after all, a piece of classic literature in which a dude fights a monster, and then that monster's mom, and then a dragon, and basically nothing else happens and it's excellent.
14. 'Moby-Dick or, The Whale' by Herman Melville
Wait! Before you scroll away in hate and disgust! A lot of people truly dislike Moby-Dick, and I get that. It's the high seas adventure novel that dares to stop the plot every few pages and give you informative background on the institution of whaling. But, but! If you suck it up and give Melville a second chance, Moby-Dick is actually full of slapstick humor, proto-environmentalism, and a heck of a lot of homoeroticism. Plus, Ahab is a pretty darn great character.
15. 'The Catcher in the Rye' by J.D. Salinger
Full disclosure: I was one of those obnoxious kids who liked The Catcher in the Rye. I'm sorry. I know that Holden annoys a lot of people, but... the book is still a pretty great depiction of a disaffected teen boy trying to perform masculinity while processing the death of his little brother, OK?! Yes, Holden sucks. But also, a lot of pretentious teens find it unbearable to read about another pretentious teen being pretentious. And maybe, just maybe, if you give Holden a second shot, he won't annoy you quite as much, as Bustle writer E. Ce Miller discovered on her re-read.