I didn’t exactly hide the fact that I thought The Great Gatsby sucked. In fact, I disliked it so much that I spent a lot of time wondering why so many of my fellow students were forced to read it in high school (I have no idea how I escaped that particular rite of torture, I guess I’m just lucky). For a lot of us, being forced to read books in high school was the pits. It probably left a bad taste in your mouth when it comes to a lot of the classics on my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list. After all, non-negotiable enforced reading isn’t exactly conducive to enjoying and engaging with a story. Plus, as teenagers, how many of us actually had the perspective to understand the themes in Gatsby – or, indeed, any of the other classics bestowed upon us by the evil overlords of English teaching departments? Still, we’re all older and wiser now, so maybe there’s some value in giving them a second chance. Here’s a list of books from high school that you should revisit.
The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger
I had a quick peruse of the internet, and it would seem that a lot of other bloggers and experts agree with me: The Catcher in the Rye is definitely a book from high school that you should revisit as a grown up. I never actually read this one in high school either, but I reviewed it for Keeping Up With The Penguins and really enjoyed it. Sure, it’s a coming-of-age story, but Salinger didn’t actually intend for it to be a young adult novel so it’s certainly suitable for an adult audience. Holden Caulfield is a perfect caricature of every young man you’ve ever met, and if nothing else you get to enjoy that in a really patronising way (“ah, aren’t young people silly?”). Read my full review here.
Looking For Alibrandi – Melina Marchetta
I know we probably couldn’t call it a “classic” by any means, but Looking For Alibrandi is the first book that comes to mind when I think about high school reading lists. Teachers always assigned this one thinking that we’d really relate to Josie’s struggles with family, identity, responsibility and culture. I’m not sure how much I could “relate” per se, but I did really enjoy it at the time, and I can tell you that it really holds up – even now, more than two decades after its publication. It’s a bit niche in the sense that it is very specific to the Australian context, so I have no idea whether international readers would be able to get into it. Still, anything’s worth a try! (And if you’re an international reader who’s given it a go, please let me know what you thought in the comments!)
To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
Now, more than ever, storytelling that explores our understanding of race and power is vital – regardless of whether you’re fourteen or forty. If you read To Kill A Mockingbird carefully, you’ll notice that, even though the story is mediated through the experiences of young people, Scout recounts it as an adult; it’s one long flashback, and a nifty narrative style. You’re in a position, as an adult, to pick up on things like that, and you’ll appreciate the prose all the more for it. Plus, you might want to give yourself a refresher if you’re planning to read Go Set A Watchman, set twenty years after the events in the original book. Read my full review here.
Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
Fahrenheit 451 is usually assigned in high schools to teach teenagers a valuable lesson about censorship and government power, but it’s about so much more than that (as Bradbury has said himself). You’ll find a lot more to chew on here when you revisit it as a grown up, and you don’t have an English teacher standing over your shoulder telling you what to look for. Bonus: it’s a short and easy read (most editions don’t run more than 150 pages), so even if you haven’t learned to love it with age, at least it will be over quick! Read my full review here.
The Crucible – Arthur Miller
I don’t think I read The Crucible in high school, but I do recall watching the film; indeed, I got full marks on my assignment to write and perform a monologue from the perspective of one of the characters, so I remember it very fondly 😉 Given how many men have called out current events as being “witch hunts” over the past year, it’s great to take a look back at this fictionalised account of what went down in Salem. Or you know, you can try to read more into the allegory that Miller wrote into the story (you probably know what McCarthyism actually is now, so it’ll make a lot more sense).
Lord Of The Flies – William Golding
I once heard an English teacher say that if she had to teach Lord Of The Flies one more time, she’d do something unseemly with that pig’s head. It is pretty ubiquitous in the classroom, presented as a kind of cautionary tale for kids that might think they can handle life without adult supervision. That much is clear to you as a teenager, but revisiting it as a grown up reveals so much more. It’s definitely one to make you ponder the bigger issues of individual responsibility, groupthink, authority, humanity’s capacity for darkness… all that stuff we think we already know as teenagers, until we grow up and realise we don’t have a damn clue. Lord Of The Flies is good for all of that, trust me!
Revisiting books from high school is great; you enjoy them all the more, safe in the knowledge that there won’t be a test after. You might even get a nice nostalgic kick out of re-reading books that you first encountered as a wide-eyed impressionable youngster, and marvel at how much you’ve changed since then. Have you revisited any books from high school? Did you find any new favourites? Let me know in the comments below (or post your list over at KUWTP on Facebook!).