Classics From High School English to Read or Reread
Raise your hand if you have a few literary blind-spots – those classic books that you know you should have read, but for whatever reason have not. Fortunately, there’s no time like the present to remedy those blind-spots. Here are a few of those high school classics you may have skimmed the first time around, but most definitely deserve a second look.
Wuthering Heights was Emily Brontë’s only novel — a real tragedy given the pathos and insight it contained. As a tale of complex relationships, lurid passions, and vengeance, this novel shocked readers upon its initial publication, but has since become an unquestioned classic. Between its well-drawn characters and vivid imaginary, it’s easy to see why.
While it’s a necessary read for younger readers, the themes that underline Lord of the Flies only deepen when revisited with fresh eyes. While the violence can be shocking, particularly given that it takes place almost entirely between children, the themes of the corrupting influence of power and the potentially innate savagery lurking within human nature are both unsettling and profound when revisited with an adult perspective.
John Steinbeck was inarguably one of the most gifted storytellers of the twentieth century and The Grapes of Wrath was his masterpiece. It can be easy for our high school selves to overlook, but this sprawling and award-winning tale of the Great Depression, poverty, and family is an extraordinary and moving read.
James Baldwin’s 1953 semi-autobiographical novel is told through the voice of a fourteen-year-old minister’s son in 1935’s Harlem. According to Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain is “the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” It is an essential read for its take on spirituality, sexuality, and morality.
The Outsiders is a young adult classic. It’s a surprisingly nuanced portrayal of socioeconomic inequality told through the perspective of rival teenagers in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Given that S.E. Hinton wrote the novel when she was just sixteen, the strength and surprising depth of its narrative is all the more impressive. This one laid the groundwork for a lot of the YA fiction that followed in its considerable wake.
More recent among the classics set, published in 1987, Toni Morrison’s Beloved immediately found its place as an essential addition to the American classic canon. This Pulitzer-winning tale, set during the 1860s, brings to life a former slave named Sethe and the ghost that haunts her.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tale of sin, guilt, and vengeance is a classic of American literature. Unfortunately, a fresh read with adult eyes also shines a light on its continued relevance, particularly in the Me Too era. The realization that we aren’t far removed from the double standard at the heart of Hawthorne’s novel, now well over a century old, adds an entirely new and devastating layer to the story.
For all of its narrative strength, there are portions of Moby-Dick that can be more than a little difficult to get through, and they’re likely the same ones you skimmed in high school. Melville spends dozens of pages digging into the minutia of whaling and whale anatomy. As unnecessary as they may initially seem, they’re nonetheless a crucial narrative device for taking readers into the purely obsessive mind of Captain Ahab.
1984 tends to get most of the attention when it comes to Orwell, and rightly so, but Animal Farm is just as fascinating and nearly as devastating. You can also read it in an afternoon. Orwell’s allegorical exploration of the corrupting influence of power and the potential dangers of populism is biting satire at its very best.
Great Expectations may be the most Dickensian of Dickens’s novels and as a result it can be pretty easy to get lost in the narrative weeds. Even still, this coming-of-age tale is a fascinating examination of the social landscape of nineteenth-century England, and as a coming-of-age tale is second to none. It certainly doesn’t hurt that it features some of Charles Dickens’s best characters.
There are few tales of revenge and redemption that can match the daunting complexity of The Count of Monte Cristo. The decades-spanning story of Edmond Dantes and his quest for vengeance features a cavalcade of characters and side-plots that can be dizzying to follow. It’s also a thrilling adventure that distills everything that made Dumas such a captivating writer.
We’ll take any excuse to re-read Jane Austen. If you’ve not yet experienced the joy that is her second work, Pride and Prejudice, take this moment to get to know Elizabeth Bennet in all her coming-of-age, lesson-learning glory.