1984, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Beowulf, Books You Should Have Read in High School, Ender's Game, Fahrenheit 451, Frankenstein, Hamlet, Jane Eyre, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Hobbit, Top Ten List
All of us were guilty of it at some point in time. A class assigned a book that just didn’t appeal to us, or we didn’t have the time to get it in. Or maybe you read it and found yourself bored out of your mind. There are some books that schools have their students read that are simply there because, well, everyone places that book on the reading list. They get paraded around as being worth reading because they are old, by famous authors, but the weight of their worth is never actually evaluated in terms of whether the book is enjoyable to read.
It is no secret that I love reading older books as much as I do the newer ones. I was lucky enough that one of my two teachers for English and Literature classes actually assigned books that were worth reading (while the other stuck to those oh-so-dreadful books like Grapes of Wrath) and introduced me to books that ran away with my imagination. So several of these books below are directly from what he pointed me toward. The others have come across my table later in life and, upon evaluating the books that are commonly-assigned reads, they stood out as being ones that are very much worth picking up and reading. You can thank me later. In no particular order:
- 1984 by George Orwell
Odds are that you’ve heard, or even used, the phrase that “Big Brother is watching”. But if you skipped the book, you missed out on the magnitude behind the entire plot. It is so much more than spying on the doings of the common people, it includes an almost brain-washing of the masses daily to change who they are at war with, who they have peace with, and so much more. Woven within this frightening image of the future is a great story that will keep you riveted the entire way. Another book to read with a glimpse at a possible future, which just barely missed the list, would be Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Forget what you think you know about Frankenstein, because the tale of the book is very different from anything that the popular culture and the movies have created. It can be a hard stereotype to break, but this book will do so when you get to see an intelligent creation struggle with people’s reactions to its own existence. This is one of the shorter reads on the list, and that alone should grant it merit on your reading list. This is one of those many instances where the book is way better than any other adaptation.
- The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
The first of the books I can credit to the aforementioned teacher in high school. This is not a short book. The leatherbound copy on my bookshelf comes in at over 1,000 pages, but don’t let the size deter you on this one. This is a novel that has it all: action, adventure, true love, fencing, fighting, torture, prison escapes, political intrigue, pirates, treasure, and so much more. I finally reread this book back in January and was blown away by just how magnificent this novel truly is. It all builds up for an unforgettable literary experience.
By far the oldest of things on this list, yet it has merit in its own right. Pick up a good, readable translation such as the one by Seamus Heaney and get swept away on an adventure that will see the protagonist, Beowulf, do battle with three different monsters (one of them is a dragon!) by the time it reaches its conclusion. Or, if the thought of this old poem really intimidates you, check out my previous post on Beowulf and click the link that takes you to Beowulf for Beginners. Once you familiarize yourself with the story, you might be better prepared to dive into the poetic translation of Heaney. Fans of this one would also do well to pick up a few of the Icelandic Sagas, such as Njal’s Saga or Egil’s Saga.
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Another shorter work, this one being a fun and whimsical story that we’re all fairly familiar with from the various film adaptations. Much like Carroll’s Jabberwocky poem, you can expect to come across the strange and unexpected in this story and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass. If you have a rainy afternoon and are looking for something to occupy your time, leave the Netflix turned off and pick this book up. You’ll enjoy the experience.
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
I didn’t read this one until a college Lit course that was solely reading Victorian literature. Among all of the books we read that term, which included works by Dickens, Austen, Thackeray, and Eliot, this book stood head and shoulders above the rest as being the highlight of the term. It had everything the others contained: a fun glimpse into the Victorian-era lives, while pairing it with elements of the supernatural. The underlying themes captured my mind while the book itself stole my reader’s heart and I cannot wait to dive back into this one. It was that good.
- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
This is the second book on the list that I have to thank that high school teacher for introducing me to. I do not know how I made it to my Junior year of high school without reading a single word of Tolkien, but this book did not exist to me until that class. I devoured the book in two days and dove straight into the Lord of the Rings trilogy afterwards (by his recommendation, of course!) and this has since become my favorite book of all time. I reread this one almost every year for a reason, and fully expect that my children will know this story just as well as I do. I still have not decided whether or not they will ever get to learn that movies were made “based” on this book…
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
This is another book that I absolutely devoted every possible moment toward reading when I first encountered it. I spent an entire afternoon lost in the world of Bradbury’s imagining and have since revisited it two more times (including an audiobook venture last year) and it still captivates me every single time. This one pairs well with 1984 on the list, showing a possible future where books, and the information contained in them, are considered dangerous. Bradbury was a tremendous writer, and if you only read one thing by him in your lifetime, this would be the one to read. But you may find, like I did, that his fiction is too good to stop after reading just one of his books. If you need to scratch that Bradbury itch after finishing this, I recommend The Martian Chronicles as a good second read.
- Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
The last of the books I can thank my old teacher for, this one probably isn’t on many high school reading lists but I firmly believe that it should be. If you guessed that I downed this book in a day or two, you’d be correct. Forget the recent movie, this book is so much better than anything in that film. Ender Wiggin made his mark in this book and it was something the direct sequels never really lived up to. Enjoy following this young boy through Battle School as he tries to help Earth ward off the threat of a future Bugger invasion and then follow it up by reading Armada by Ernest Cline if you’re looking for something more in a similar style.
- Hamlet by William Shakespeare
This list would be a tragedy without at least one Shakespearean play and this one still stands far above the others as being the best of the best. Forget the typical reading of Romeo and Juliet and opt instead for this dark tragedy about the prince of Denmark. It is such a quotable work, and something everyone should get the chance to experience. This was Shakespeare writing at his finest, when so many of the gems were coming out, and while you can ask a dozen Shakespeare scholars which one work should be read and get a dozen answers, this one should make all of their lists for top three Shakespearian plays. Then hop on Youtube and watch the version with David Tennant, Patrick Stewart, and Penny Downie.
Have you read any of these books? Agree or disagree with what is on this list? What are some of the books from high school reading lists that you would recommend a person should read? Comment below!
Andrea Lundgren said:
Jane Eyre, Ender’s Game, and Hamlet are such wonderful books! I read the Tolkien version of Beowulf, and I found all his notes extremely helpful in understanding what was going on.
David Wiley said:
Yes, Tolkien’s version of Beowulf is wonderful for those notes alone, as I love to study Beowulf. I wrote a paper on Christian themes in Jane Eyre and found myself having to only touch on the major ones because there were too many to choose from. I also looked at Hamlet from a Christian perspective, which was an interesting exploration of how reading it from a Christian worldview perspective could lend a reading that reminds us that God’s justice will ultimately prevail over the corruption of a king or other figure of power. I really need to dust that essay off and see if I can find it a home!
Andrea Lundgren said:
Hamlet is delightful. I loved how he comes back from the pirates as a changed man, no longer seeing himself as the hand of judgment that must do something about the corruption (appointed by God, in his mind, but still, it’s up to him), and then, when he comes back, “the readyness is all” and he’s trusting in Providence to sort out the timing and means of justice. He knows he may have a hand in it, and doesn’t draw back from that participation, but no longer feels its incumbent on him to make plans and set the stage… But I’m pontificating, I think. 🙂
I read Beowulf, The Hobbit, and Hamlet in HS, but sadly none of the others. Instead of 1984, we read Animal Farm, which was also very good. We had a whole semester devoted to different King Arthur books (Once and Future King, etc.) and read Star Wars after, comparing the two, which was interesting. One book that made a huge impression on me was Watership Down. I’ll have to read it again one day to see how I like it now as an adult. When I’m ready for more classics this is a great list to start from!
David Wiley said:
I considered Animal Farm but just found that 1984 was an all-around better book. I am so jealous of your King Arthur/Star Wars class!!! I loved Watership Down and just got a copy of it a few months ago. I have every intention of revising the warrens with Hazel, Fiver, and the others someday soon.
Let me know when you do! I might make that a summer reading assignment for my daughter going into 7th grade, but should probably read it again myself first.
And yes, making comparisons between the King Arthur legends and Star Wars was a blast. 🙂 Never would have thought of it on my own, for sure.