Whether you went to a small high school or a large one, in a big city or in the suburbs, there are certain shared experiences that everyone can relate to. Among these are the slew of “classic” books that your English teachers inevitably subjected you to during those four years. Maybe some of these books made you fall in love with reading; maybe some still haunt your dreams. Either way, many of these books still elicit strong feelings well into our college years, whether you’re a book nerd or not.
Best: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott-Fitzgerald
Anyone who says they hated The Great Gatsby is lying. This was hands down the best book ever to grace a high school English classroom. Pretty much everyone everywhere read it in high school, but for those who were unlucky enough to have skipped it, it’s about a super-rich and enigmatic guy who throws extravagant parties in the hopes of winning back his lost love. If the beautiful prose isn’t enough to make you fall in love with this book, the super short length, the glamour and glitz of the 1920s, and the drama of Gatsby and Daisy was enough to make anyone want do their English homework. Plus, there was always the option of watching the movie if all else failed.
Worst: The Odyssey, Homer
All can agree that this is the longest book epic poem ever read. Very few have escaped reading this famous tale by Homer in a high school English class. Not only is this story never ending (why can’t Odysseus just get home already!?), but the prose is also very dense and difficult to digest. TG for Sparknotes. #blessed
Best: The Catcher and the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Catcher and the Rye is a great book for any angsty teen. Not only is it short, but it is also a breeze to read. Written entirely from the first-person perspective of Holden Caulfield, the book is fast-moving and interesting, as Caulfield experiences the familiar ups and downs of adolescence, and finds himself in some bizarre situations. I wouldn’t be surprised if Holden even stepped foot on Cornell’s campus and thought we were all phony.
Worst: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Who knew that such a short book could be so excruciatingly painful? At only 78 pages this book moves at the slowest. Pace. Ever. The novel is a “frame narrative” about Charles Marlow’s experience as an ivory transporter down the Congo River in Central Africa. Although the overall themes of the story have the potential to be interesting – written in a time of colonialism and imperialism, exploring what it means to be a “civilized society” – essentially nothing happens. If you weren’t forced to read this book in high school, I am jealous.
Best: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Set in post-WWI England, Virginia Woolf’s most famous novel follows the stories of multiple characters during this tumultuous time. Although half of this book probably went right over my head, this was definitely one of the better favorite high school books. Although the entire book is set on one day, as the main character Clarissa Dalloway prepares for a party, the book is fast paced and interesting, as the narration switches between characters. There are lots of intersecting plot lines and character stories, and although Woolf’s writing can be difficult to follow, the book touches upon important themes of identity and what it means to lead a meaningful life.
Worst: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The quintessential high school English book: everyone and their mother has read this novel. Set in seventeenth-century puritan Massachusetts, young Hester Prynne is outcast as a harlot and condemned to a life of penitence after conceiving a daughter through an affair. If anything, this book will make you thankful that you do not live in Puritan New England.
Best: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
This is a wonderful book, and if you have not had the chance to read it, I highly recommend it. This book touches upon important themes of race, class, and identity. Although it is on the longer side, it is an engaging and meaningful novel that follows the life of one individual (whose name is never revealed). The story is very allegorical, and addresses many of the social and political issues that African-Americans faced in the early 20th century, such as black nationalism, the relationship between black identity and marxism, and personal identity.
Worst: Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare
No author is more symbolic of high school English class than William Shakespeare. We all read Shakespeare in high school (and many of us probably haven’t read it since). While Shakespeare is considered to be the greatest writer in the English language, his plays are notoriously difficult to read, and Merchant of Venice is no exception. At least with Romeo and Juliet the plot line is pretty basic, but this tale is both slow moving and confusing. (Who knew that combination was even possible?)
Best/Worst: Beloved, Toni Morrison
This is a tough book for anyone to read, both thematically and stylistically. Although Morrison’s most famous book is an important and formative work for any education, it is definitely not the easiest to digest. The plot is centered on the life of Sethe, who escapes slavery, running to Cincinnati, only to be found only after 28 days. In order to save her two-year old daughter from a life of full of the pain of slavery, she kills her. Her daughter’s ghost comes back from the dead to torment Sethe, symbolizing the haunting legacy of slavery. At points the novel is very the poetic and obscure, making it hard to discern what is happening.
While everyone can relate to the struggles of high school English, these classics are all important reads. You might find them boring or their prose difficult, but they are all formative pieces of our education and how we think about the world.