In Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven't Touched Since High School, Kevin Smokler takes you on a trip down high school memory lane, when you couldn't stand reading As I Lay Dying or Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Or maybe you could, you bookworm. Either way, Smokler gives us 10 books and 10 compelling reasons why you should revisit them.
It's all too easy to look at the novels assigned to us as high school students as monuments or mist, to be worshiped or abandoned as we did our outfit to the junior prom. That either/or narrative matches both how we encounter these “great books” in education (as non-negotiable requirements) and an educator’s hope for our response (that their “greatness” changes our lives). That may be a whole lot no-shades-of-gray thinking on my part. As proof, I’ll accept a “meh” opinion on Moby-Dick or The Scarlet Letter from anyone assigned to write an essay on it as a teenager.
Is there a third way? I hope so. I spent the last year rereading the books my high school teachers assigned to me. My thinking: It isn’t enough to give a classic another look just because “it’s a classic.” A classic is also so because of its resonance and usefulness throughout time, JST as Shakespeare’s Henry V was a patriotic salvo when Laurence Olivier adopted it in 1944 and a warning about the cost of empire when Kenneth Brannagh did at the end of the Cold War.
Below are 10 high school classics where I found that useful thing I missed the first time around.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald - Fast cars, huge houses, a raised martini glass and a love that cannot be. No wonder F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third novel gets credit for both naming and embodying the most glamorous era of the 20th century. I had forgotten that Nick Carroway tells the story of Gatsby and Daisy in flashblack, a eulogy to a romance and an era that are gone. The novel’s unforgettable closing passages are as much about acceptance as longing, as much about the pain of age than forbidden desire and American dreams.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain - Another contender for the great American novel that, sneakily, is as much about maturity as youth. The time of Huck and Jim is nearly a half-century before the 1884 publication of their story. It took Mark Twain 8 long years to write this sequel to Tom Sawyer (1876) during which time he also completed a memoir about his 20s as a young riverboat pilot. But if Twain meant Huck Finn to be a song of nostalgia about the innocence of childhood and an earlier America, he used that all up in Tom Sawyer. The America of Huck Finn is violent, cruel, and unforgiving, as much about blood feuds and human bondage as adventures with best friends. If Tom Sawyer is about an American Boyhood, Huck Finn is about a country that has grown up and how we are better for it.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton - Edith Wharton was 57 and living in Europe when she wrote Age of Innocence. The world of this novel, her childhood New York in the 1870s, was an ocean away and several decades gone. However, despite Innocence being the story of a love affair thwarted by the rigidity of tradition, Edith Wharton doesn’t criticize the traditions that raised her. Instead she reserves a withering stare for her protagonist Newland Archer and his inability to accept his own choices. A smothering culture is the barrier to love, Wharton says, but circumstances beyond our control. And how, despite that, we can still show initiative in our own lives.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee - How did I miss that Scout Finch is telling us this story in flashback, as an adult woman? It’s right there in the final scene with Boo Radley when Scout says “I never saw him again.” Harper Lee was about 30 when she wrote this novel, and originally named it Atticus. Maybe she saw herself around the adult Scout’s age. Maybe Mockingbird is a tribute to her own father who was also a noted civil rights lawyer. And perhaps the reclusive Harper Lee saw herself more as much the reclusive Boo Radley than in Scout? Perhaps Mockingbird is more a literary invention than autobiography?
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury - The phrase “Fahrenheit 451” is now a stand-in for all manner of government-backed repression. But look closer, oh angry youths: There is no “Big Brother” in Bradbury’s tale. The crimes against books are committed by the foot soldiers. Guy Montag grows to hate both what he’s doing to books and his job itself. As an adult, it stuck me that Farhrenheit carries with it a quiet yet as-relevant message: A job that makes you hate yourself is its own kind of burning.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka - What teenager does not respond to the out-of-placedness of Gregor Samsa waking up with in the body of cockroach? But Gregor Samsa doesn’t have to go to school or work as a cockroach. In his mid 20s, his salesmen’s wages provide for both his parents and sister. His parents need to take in boarders to compensate after Gregor’s transformation. His fate is determines as much by him being a economic nuisance to them as a giant bug. Family is the entire area in which Kafka’s great tale happens, asking us “Isn’t it just as weird to wake up a member of a group you didn’t sign up for as it is a cockroach?"
The Poems of Emily Dickinson - “Who are you? I’m nobody. Who are you?” These are the great words of Emily Dickinson and the mantra of generations of high schoolers who didn’t run for student council. But Dickinson as shrinking-violet-in-chief ignores history on purpose. Read her poems again (and some pretty good recent biographies) and you’ll witness an artist of great ferocity. Dickinson wrote with fire (a poem a day in her best years), knew the work of her poetic heroes cold, and sought out mentors and constructive criticism. Even if she never intended to publish, her discipline was on par with a professional athlete. The one image we have of Dickinson as a frail 17 year old is a half-truth.
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon - Often called a young person’s entry point into the cracked mirror world of Thomas Pynchon, I found Lot 49 so bizarre that teenage me took it personally. No author would ever confuse me this much on purpose and get my free time if I could help it. Pynchon is actually a much nicer guy than that. Lot 49 is nutty. But Pynchon doesn’t mystify us out of sadism. Structured as a roadtrip that never reaches its destination, the novel and its author seem to be saying. “Life is loony but it's better to experience it in all its lunacy than get off the road. Wanna ride with me?”
Animal Farm by George Orwell - Whose fault is it that Animal Farm goes so wrong so quickly? The Pigs, of course. Isn’t that Orwell’s message? Beware of tyrants dressed as liberators? But a tyrant needs followers and it’s the other animals who are convinced that a revolution means everything is different. It’s “Year One” thinking, the same thing we all do when we begin any sentence with “Everything will be better when...” There’s no finishing that sentence with truth. Instead Orwell reminds us we are all the same flawed creatures yesterday as today. Animal Farm is a lesson in how we all are tragically human.