Every September I turn a little nostalgic for the start of school, fresh paper, and the thrill of a new reading list. Wasn’t it the greatest?—getting a new syllabus and knowing a whole semester of good books was ahead. I’m out of school now, but I’m still reminiscing of my days in school and all the books I was introduced to. Here are my 10 favorite books that were originally assigned to me as required reading, but turned into stories I’ve read over and over again.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee: I was assigned this one as a freshman in high school, and I loved every page of it then. I’ve read it several times since then, and am due for another re-read having recently finished Go Set a Watchman. Favorite moments: Scout as a ham, Walter and the molasses.
All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque: This one I read as a junior in high school, several times on my own, and again in a war literature class. My copy is falling apart at all seams and there are very few pages that don’t have something written in the margins. This is a book that if published today would be criticized as being too heavy-handed, but my teenage self adored every idealistic word. Most heartbreaking moments: Detering’s grief over the horses, Paul’s detachment from his family while home on leave.
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury: Okay, this one wasn’t technically assigned to me in a class. But it should have been! My favorite high school English teacher (Mr. Davis, I think of you often!) loved dystopian literature but Fahrenheit 451 was one I read on my own over the summer. It also sparked a binge-reading of Bradbury’s short stories and a full week of feeling totally not of this world. Sorry about your house, Mr. Bradbury. Favorite quote: “We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?”
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card: I was assigned this one in a Honors course about science fiction and the future of human identity. We talked a lot about the idea of the singularity and I wrote my final paper on Halo (sadly, this move did not get me a date with any of the nerd guys in class. Major bummer). Ender’s Game was the first text we read in that class and it became the book all others were compared to the entire semester. It’s one I’ve re-read a million times, and one I recommend to anyone who says they don’t like sci-fi. In fact, there’s a reason I had to use a sequel to Ender’s Game in the photo above—my copy is out on loan… again. Most tense moment: when Ender beats the crap out of Bonzo but goes too far.
The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien: It was a hard choice between this one and another Tim O’Brien title, Going After Cacciato. The Things They Carried is one of those books I can read and re-read and re-read again and still find something new in it. It’s very firmly a Vietnam story, but remains timeless and perpetually applicable to our current political climate. I tried teaching this one once, it’s really hard to teach this one, I learned. Favorite image: Mary Anne and her white culottes and sexy pink sweater.
The Poems of Wilfred Owen, Wilfred Owen: I read this volume in a war literature course in undergrad. I’d always enjoyed reading poetry but this was the first time I’d seriously absorbed a writer’s entire body of work. I was kind of obsessed with all WWI literature at this point in my life, and Wilfred Owen was a pretty central figure in my reading. Favorite poem: “Dulce et Decorum Est,” for the way “If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood / Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, / Bitter as the cud / Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues – / My friend, you would not tell with such high zest / To children ardent for some desperate glory, / The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori” sounds when you read it out loud.
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston: Amazing how I can go from such an obsession with war literature to something that’s usually read as a love story, huh? I think I was a freshman in college when I read this for the first time, and I used it again in grad school in a course about the blues and literature. Best transformation: when Janie lets down her hair after controlling Jody dies.
Beloved, Toni Morrison: I don’t think we have a better writer alive than Toni Morrison. I stand in awe of nearly everything she writes, but Beloved holds an especially large portion of my heart. This novel is full of story and full of characters so big and so real it’s hard to think of them as fiction. This is a book you talk about. Best line: “Suddenly he remembers Sixo trying to describe what he felt about the Thirty-Mile Woman. ‘She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.” (I once broke up with a guy who said he didn’t like those lines because they weren’t grammatically correct. There were other reasons to dump him but this was the big one).
Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison: You almost can’t say you like this book, because it’s so filled with horrible, scary, sad things. But Dorothy Allison is a great storyteller, and years later her characters and what happens to them have stayed with me. Favorite character: Aunt Raylene, the former carnie and lesbian (probably) who lives kind of a weird life on the outskirts of town, but who is kind to Bone.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain: This novel has cropped up in my classes so many times I’ve lost count, but I’ve always enjoyed it (except for the ending, Twain could not write an ending for anything). There are so many rich moments in this story, no wonder it’s taught over and over again. Most powerful moment: when Huck decides to help Jim escape to freedom, even knowing to do so is considered a grievous sin, and he declares “All right then, I’ll go to hell.”
What are your favorite books from your required reading lists? Have you re-read any of them since school?