The one thing I was always simultaneously excited for, and also dreaded, were the reading lists for the new school year. In school when we read books it was a weeks long effort that included projects, group discussion, outside reading, and the dreaded final essay. If it was a good book, for me all these things were welcomed. I can happily dive into a discussion or a project about a book that is compelling and entertaining. But to write an essay on the most boring book of the century? Not my idea of a good time. Luckily for me, and for you young scholars, there are some books out there that are taught in the classroom that aren't all that bad. So if any of these books are appearing on your upcoming reading list, rejoice! You're going to have a good time.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
This is a classic english class book thats stood the testament of time and been able to stay relevant as well as have a style that remains entertaining and beautiful. Its an important story about the prevalence of racism and the lessons it teaches about the subject can still be applied to today's society. But alongside that the book also offers an entertaining look at childhood and the adventures that summer brings, the importance of family, and how a community can struggle and either come together to overcome, or tear itself apart.
Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
You're bound to encounter Shakespeare at least once in your school career. I am personally not a fan of Shakespeare, because I think his lofty language makes his works inaccessible to the modern student, and the hyper fixation on his works leaves little room for modern authors whose books offer a compelling and relatable story. But at the very least, Shakespeare's works are entertaining, and in the case of Twelfth Night even funny, as long as you have a teacher willing to slow down and explain them. With any Shakespeare play its a good idea to bring along the No Fear Shakespeare version, or keep Sparknotes handy while you read. At least for Twelfth Night there are a few jokes that will have you actually laughing, and the fast pace of the play makes it a very entertaining read.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
For anyone taking AP literature this upcoming year this book is an absolute must read for the free write essay on the final exam. I did a little research while I took that class and this book is the most used on the essays, because it has so many themes and motifs that can be applicable to the final essay you have to write for the exam. But besides that, this book is a very shocking, deeply moving look at racism, imperialism, and human kind. Like To Kill a Mockingbird its themes are still very much relevant today, and the exciting pace of the novel is riveting. Conrad has you hanging on every last word, anticipating whats coming next. Important to note, Chinua Achebe's essay about the book should be read alongside it. Its only 10 pages and can be found here in PDF format. Since the book is written by a white man about England's presence in Africa there is a definite bias present in the novel, and Achebe's essay offers an important perspective on the novel, and can reframe what it means and represents, as well as what to keep in mind while reading it.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
This novel is extremely simple, straightforward, and short. There isn't really a lot going on, which makes it a nice break from the dense, confusing novels your English teachers might also make you read. People can make up complex metaphors and themes, but the secret of this book is that is about two men that are friends and one of them finds themselves in an impossible situation that the other has to fix. Its about friendship, the prejudice against mental illness that existed in that era, (thought Steinbeck probably wasn't trying to make a pro-mental health statement) and that one final, shocking twist that most of the class probably already knew going into the book, but still hits you when you actually read it.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
A lot of people have some not nice things to say about this book, but it can't be denied that The Great Gatsby is a beautifully written novel thats full of metaphors and symbolism, and once you start getting into the notion that the green light symbolizes Gatsby's longing for Daisy and his yellow car is the manifestation of the American Dream, the book starts getting really good. Fitzgerald was able to weave an exciting tale in a beautiful way and create characters that are strikingly human in the fact that they are totally awful with few redemptive qualities. It remains my most favorite book that I read in high school, and one that I always seem to come back to.
I always found it sad that a lot of kids fell out of the love of reading because they were forced to read bad books in high school. Book units can be painfully boring, but by making the most of a bad situation, and being engaged and interested in the books can make a big difference. The reason I love The Great Gatsby is because my teacher did a stellar job teaching it and helping us all understand it, but also because I was really engaged in the analysis of the book, its themes, and its characters. The same is true for Heart of Darkness. The effort I put into my analysis was reflected back in my love for the novel. So a word of advice if you find your reading list filled with boring books: Change your mindset! These are enduring works of literature that will offer you an important glimpse into a time and a world very different then your own. And even if you get stuck reading Pride and Prejudice you can make the most of it by being engaged and involved and finding something about the book to connect with. Happy reading!
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