By Grace Weinberg
If your high school English classes were anything like mine, you racked up a considerable amount of classics over the years, from Shakespeare to Steinbeck and lots in between. Pretty much all of our texts were from at least the 20th century and often before, and I remember dreading a lot of the books we covered in class. Some I enjoyed, others less so, and some I avoided actually reading altogether. The books assigned to us, or at least most of them, seemed dated and irrelevant; what could The Scarlet Letter possibly have to say about modern life or teach 16 year old me?
Now that I’m a few years removed, I unfortunately must admit that maybe my English teachers were onto something. The books we read may have been tedious and difficult, but, at the risk of sounding too much like my senior year English teacher, they really did teach us about good literature and the world (and how to navigate it). Lately, I’ve found myself wanting to go back and revisit some of these books, and I think there are at least 3 that are worth another read. Don’t worry, I’m certainly not going to suggest you suffer through Crime and Punishment again unless you really want to, but there are a few classics which I think are definitely worth taking another look at and perhaps rereading (or, let’s be honest, properly reading for the first time):
1: King Lear by William Shakespeare
Okay, I know this isn’t technically a book, but it’s assigned in many high school English classes around the country (including mine) and I think it definitely merits the top spot. Most high schoolers absolutely hate Shakespeare; his language is often inaccessible and hard to decipher, meaning that his beautiful words and their meanings can get lost in the Old English sauce. And while this is a completely valid criticism, especially bearing in mind that these are 16 year olds, Shakespeare’s work is most certainly worth taking another look at. I read a few Shakespeare plays in high school and King Lear was by far my favorite. The plot is fast-paced, unpredictable, and riveting, which kept me hooked (something I unfortunately cannot say for all his plays I’ve read). We see King Lear struggle with dividing his kingdom between his children as he reaches the end of his life and the chaos that ensues, as family drama meets political conflict meets questions of belonging, love, and identity. Shakespeare’s beautiful language is as present as ever, and the multidimensional characters and their strife make this play one worth another look. (Also, if you’re a fan of Succession, the show is based loosely on King Lear, down to who takes over at the end of the series… no spoilers, but definitely worth looking into if you’re interested!)
2: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
This novel, told from multiple perspectives, follows student Victor Frankenstein as he creates a living creature through a science experiment, and the chaos that ensues as the monster struggles with its existence and humanity (or lack thereof). The empathy that Shelley is able to invoke from the readers for this monster as it deals with very human struggles of purpose, belonging, and isolation is quite the feat, and the fact she was only 18 when she began writing the novel is all the more impressive. Frankenstein is one of the most famous and successful Gothic and Romantic novels for a reason; its incredible plot and imagery make it a hallmark of the genres. It also explores important moral issues of human responsibility for technology after creating it when the technology leads to unforeseen consequences, something that has become especially pertinent in recent years with AI. This book is also definitely worth another read for the sole purpose of being able to correct people who refer to Frankenstein’s monster as Frankenstein and bringing up the fact that Frankenstein was not, in fact, the monster but the student in any conversation ever ;).
3: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This one’s a fan favorite amongst high schoolers; it’s often cited as students’ favorite classics from English class, and I have to say I largely agree with them. My love for this book goes beyond the 2013 movie adaptation; I remember being enamored with the glamorous 1920s aesthetic and the complex, multilayered characters when I first read this book my junior year of high school, and have reread it a few times since with even more joy. The story is told by Nick Carraway who is recalling his life years ago on Long Island in the Jazz Age, and his interactions with elusive millionaire Jay Gatsby and Jay’s love for, or rather obsession with, Daisy Buchanan. The novel takes readers through extravagant parties, emotional conversations, and exciting plot twists while weaving in subtle but important motifs such as eyes, time, and the color green. At around 200 pages, this book is a quick and exciting read. I also love an unreliable narrator, and Nick Carraway is most definitely unreliable; as the book progresses this becomes more clear and adds another interesting layer to the story. I highly recommend this one, especially if you aren’t the biggest fan of classics, as it’s not only a more modern classic but very accessible in language and length.
If none of these sound particularly appealing to you, here are some honorable mentions that I would also recommend: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev, and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. High school English class was definitely an interesting experience to say the least, and while a lot of the readings in it seemed archaic and irrelevant at the time, further reflection may show these books to have more worth and wisdom to us than they may have in high school. Also, reading these books for fun rather than school and not having to post-it note every two pages for a literary device will already make them that much more bearable.