Students of all ages – even those who enjoy reading novels of various genres and styles from a multitude of time periods – are forced to read books throughout their academic career. As a lifelong, avid reader, I usually didn’t mind being assigned to read books, but I know for some people, being forced to read seems to suck the enjoyment out of it and turns reading into a chore, regardless of whether they like the book or not. In my classes, there was often a clear disparity between people who “loved” a book we were assigned and could appreciate it despite it being an assignment, and people who “hated it,” which generated intriguing discussions.
During my time at school, there were a couple of books that were given as an assignment and, despite literary legacy and widespread appeal, I ended up hating them (here’s looking at you, The Scarlet Letter), but, had they not been assignments, I might have enjoyed them more. On the flip side, there are several novels that I was forced to read during my English classes and I loved them so much they are now my personal favorites.
Here are the novels from my high school years that I was assigned to read but actually enjoyed on the initial read through!
Shane by Jack Shaefer
I honestly don’t know why Shane stuck with me as much as it did, because when I found out we had to read it, I dreaded it. I had to read this book over a break during my 9th grade year, and I remember coming back and discussing it with the rest of the class, only to discover that I was one of only a few who enjoyed it. The stump, man. The stump. The symbolism was so on point in this book. I’m not a huge Western fan, but there are a few titles that have impacted me in film (The Searchers, Stagecoach, McCabe and Mrs. Miller)… and yet, Shane is the only Western novel that I loved reading from start to finish. It’s a pretty straightforward, simple read – but despite that, it hits hard. It’s not a big, action-filled book rife with Western tropes, which I think makes it all the more of an effective story about working together, overcoming obstacles, and it redefined the image of a “cowboy” for me.
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
I. LOVE. ETHAN. FROME. SO. MUCH. It is one of my favorite books of all time, and one that I absolutely need to reread soon. This was another book that we read over a break and when we came back to class to discuss it, I was one of few voices who spoke positively of it, and I could not fathom why. It’s a simple book, and yet, it’s so powerful – the tale of a man suffering from crippling indecision and who grapples with his own growing desires and a staunch sense of moral obligation, which culminates in a disastrous sled ride. I remember getting to the end and realizing that it was the most realistic, if depressing, conclusion that the characters could have come to. It’s not a happy book by any means, and, even though it’s basically a book about crushed hopes and dreams, which discusses futility, desire, and the cruelty of fate, that’s why it worked so well for me – and that final plot twist at the end hit me right at the heart. That pickle dish haunts me still – such an effective symbol.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
I was the only person in my 9th grade English class who liked A Separate Peace. Literally the only one – which still confounds me. We had to read it the summer before classes started and I haven’t read it since, so some of the details are a bit fuzzy. I just remember Gene’s conflicted feelings and jealousy toward Phineas and his guilt over Phineas’s accident being so clearly depicted and well-written that I could almost feel it myself. It’s a novel that resonated with me because it felt very real, and all of the characters felt like they were actual people, not just names and descriptions on paper. It was a novel that was both blatant in some ways and subtle in others, spelling some messages and events out clearly while leaving others to be inferred, which is always a plus for me. Also, my hatred of Brinker lives on to this day.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
We had to read this novel over the same summer we read A Separate Peace, and my class definitely preferred this one as a whole. This book redefined my personal definition of scifi. I always pictured science fiction as aliens and the like, but thanks to books like Fahrenheit 451, my horizon has broadened for the better. The book presents intriguing ideas about censorship (as books are outlawed) and depicts an image of a corrupt society that discourages nonconformity. Firemen are literal firemen in this world – they set fire to books and banned materials instead of putting fires out. But ultimately, the book presents a hope for the future and belief in the ability of humanity to rise from the ashes. I find it extremely ironic and hilarious that this book is frequently challenged, likely because it supposedly encourages “dangerous” ideas about rebelling against social construct or whatever.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
This is a book that I fully expected to hate. I found the entire premise of the novel extraordinarily unappealing and dreaded when I saw it on the syllabus. Ultimately, my expectations were totally wrong and I ended up loving this novel. Like an ogre, this novel has layers upon layers, which are continually revealed through the interactions of the complex characters with each other and with the infamous Nurse Ratched. This book explores the dark side of life in an asylum (as it was back in that time period) and does not shy away from the horrific realities of mental illness / the poor treatment of the mentally ill, and presents a compelling, yet haunting commentary on authority and control. And the film adaptation is one of few that I’ve seen that remained faithful to the novel and evoked the same emotions that I felt from reading it. To this day, Chief Broom remains one of my favorite literary characters.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
This is one of few books I read after I saw the movie adaptation; specifically, the 1990 version. I actually stumbled upon the film partway through when it was on TV one morning, and was utterly horrified by some of the events that took place, but completely engrossed nonetheless. The images of two significant death scenes still haunt me. I was assigned to read the book over the summer in 10th grade (I think…it may have been 11th) and ended up reading the entire thing in one sitting. It was just as compelling as the film version, with greater insight into certain events/characters and how the mentality of the boys changes as their time on the deserted island grows bleaker and more hopeless. The descent into savagery is both disturbing and captivating. It’s chilling to think that the dystopian events of the novel could potentially happen in the real world…to a group of children, no less.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I don’t think this one needs much explaining. I’m fairly certain that every person in my 10th grade class enjoyed reading this novel. TKAM is a beautiful book. Atticus Finch is like, the epitome of a hero character. No, I haven’t read Go Set a Watchman, nor do I ever intend to. I want the magic of TKAM to remain unblemished in my mind.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The circumstances under which I read this book are a bit strange. We were assigned to read it during the summer before 11th grade… and I put it off until literally the day before my assignments were due. This is a 450+ page novel, mind you. I did finish it in one day… mostly because I really didn’t have a choice, but also because it gripped me right from the start. It’s not a happy book. It’s very grounded in reality. Reading about the various Joads, and their hopes for the future as they venture west to embark on a new life… I honestly anticipated a happy ending. But The Grapes of Wrath was one of the first definitive examples I’ve ever read of an ending that, while there is a glimmer of hope left, the lives of most of the Joad family are in shambles. Things just get progressively more awful as the book goes on, and there’s very limited reprieve. They get to their destination, the place they’ve been dreaming of, and things just get worse. This book hit me hard – even harder than Of Mice and Men, which I also loved. I honestly thought Steinbeck couldn’t produce anything sadder than Lennie and the rabbits… but that was before The Grapes of Wrath.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
I have a conflicted opinion of Dickens – his writing is renowned and revered for a reason, and I would never deny that he is a brilliant writer, but his books are always hit or miss for me. It is literally either the best of times or the worst of times whenever I pick up a Dickens title. I hated The Old Man and the Sea – it is actually my least favorite book. I like A Christmas Carol. I hated Great Expectations. I absolutely LOVED A Tale of Two Cities – it is my all time favorite Dickens novel. It was assigned to my 12th grade English class and remains one of my favorite books today, even though it is, admittedly, a difficult read. I’m actually glad I was assigned to read it because I likely never would have read it otherwise. In this tale about the contrasting political and social structures of London and Paris before and during the French Revolution, Dickens weaves a compelling story with brilliant characters, delivering powerful messages about life, death, justice, and forgiveness. Sydney Carton is a hero, and his final words are some of the greatest ever written.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Like Fahrenheit 451, BNW paved the way for my enduring love of classic scifi. I was hooked right from the baby-shocking bit… that sounds wrong, but I just mean that the entire section shocked (no pun intended) me so much I had to know just how messed up the rest of the “utopian” society presented in this book was. And it totally delivered. The ideas presented in this novel are jarring, as is the picture Huxley paints of a warped future in a World State where “everyone belongs to everyone else” and “Lord” is replaced with “Ford.” The characters are all flawed, to some degree – making no clear hero, though one might say John is the closest to such an idea. To put it simply, the book expresses how messed up the future can become when conformity rules all and aberrations are seen as a threat. When I think of how long ago this book was written, the themes and content presented becomes even more alarming. The entire book is brilliant and it made a big impact on me. I absolutely consider it my favorite scifi novel of all time, and that is not likely to ever change.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
The character of Jane Eyre is, to put it simply, a literary badass. She refuses to comply by the restraints foisted upon her by society, follows her own path, and has a strong sense of morality and dedication to her faith. Though she loves Rochester, she refuses to marry him once she learns he is already married. She is stubborn and spirited and totally admirable, and, as she is an independent female protagonist from a male-dominated time period, that really stuck with me. That, and the novel itself, presenting captivating ideas on feminism, morality, love, and spirituality is exceptionally written and I was hooked from the start. Jane herself might be my favorite literary heroine of all time. And Rochester, a well-developed character in his own right, is a total catch, okay? Despite the whole crazy wife debacle, I like him even more than Darcy!
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Honestly… did anyone not like this book? The writing is utterly beautiful and the themes are well placed throughout in various symbols and the actions of the characters. The characters themselves are conflicted, intriguing, infuriating, multi-faceted, and their motivations, while at times unclear, are what kept me turning the pages. I have never hated a character more than I hate Daisy Buchanan. It’s a book that can be interpreted in many different ways depending on how each reader envisioned the characters – some may see Gatsby as a hero doomed by love, some think him a fool chasing an idea and denying reality. THE GREEN LIGHT, PEOPLE. It resonated with me as it did for Gatsby.
BONUS: Junior High
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
This is the only book from 7-8th grade that has gone on to become one of my favorites. I loved the book so much I finished it in one sitting and then went through it again. For me, this book will always stay gold…see what I did there?