Books You Shouldn’t Have Just Sparknotes-ed in High School

The only thing to fear...is not reading Shakespeare!

Earlier this week, MSNBC discussed the “10 books you really should have read in high school” as part of their “Back to School” special. I’ve got about two weeks left ’til my last year of school (ever!), but until then I spend my days begging high school kids to start reading.

One of my students admitted that he’s only assigned 4-5 books a year, and if he reads one of them he’s lucky. I believe that most teens are pretty intelligent, but most are too distracted by Facebook and football to care about books. A lot are too lazy, and Sparknotes and Wikipedia keep them that way. I love my job, but I know that I’d go crazy if I taught for the rest of my life, desperately trying to pry kids away from their iPhones long enough to write an essay and take a test every now and then.

That being said, I hope you’ll enjoy this list and reminisce about all the classics you actually read in high school. Here’s the 10 novels from MSNBC:

  1. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  2. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  3. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  5. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  6. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
  7. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  8. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  9. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  10. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

I’ve read #2, 3, 4, 5 (partially), 7, and 9–and I’ve already discussed my love for some of them in this blog. Junior year of high school at my school must have been the year of “Books about women who cheat or sleep around” because not only did we read The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby, we also read The Awakening by Kate Chopin, The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, and East of Eden by John Steinbeck. With the exception of Chopin, I learned just how many male authors are haunted by female promiscuity in their work!

I can’t judge #1, 6, 8, and 10 personally–although I don’t hear many good things about Ayn Rand. However, I have read some of Twain’s short stories and Hesse’s novel Demian (one of my absolute favorites), so they’re definitely worth making the list.

The only entry I’d have to disagree with, in my humble opinion, is Pride and Prejudice. I tried so hard to like Austen and I respect her as one of the few female authors in the literary canon, but I could not make it past the first 50 pages. The writing wasn’t particularly riveting, the dialogue badly labeled and confusing, and the story full of women clucking around like gossipy hens. I much preferred the Brontes’ Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, as well as Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, to get my fix about marriage and elitism during the 19th century. Hate me if you want, but I found those novels of more substance. But, of course, with enough convincing, I might give Austen a second chance!

I’d also like to add that MSNBC did a horrible job, because THERE’S NO SHAKESPEARE ON THIS LIST!!! Granted, they’re plays, not novels, but STILL. No one should graduate high school without experiencing the Bard! There are also no ethnic minorities represented, and students should get the opportunity to read the works of Divakaruni, Allende, Ishiguro, or Achebe in order to learn about other cultures and appreciate diversity.

I think that tomorrow I’ll post my own list about overrated high school standard reading, so if you have any novels you couldn’t stand as a teen, let me know! I’ll give you a shout-out!

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7 thoughts on “Books You Shouldn’t Have Just Sparknotes-ed in High School

  1. Books I HAD to read (and whether or not I did)

    1. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (I enjoyed it)
    2. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (I hated this one and have yet to re-read it)
    3. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (I read it on my own and loved it)
    4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (also loved it)
    5. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (quite possibly my favorite book of all time. To politely disagree, it isn’t just a bunch of women clucking, there’s a lot of satire on early 19th century social customs)
    6. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse (never had to read it)
    7. Lord of the Flies by William Golding (the jury’s out on this one because of how it was taught to us)
    8. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (liked it)
    9. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (LOVED IT)
    10. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (never had to read it)

    To add to your list: I don’t know if these ones were overrated, or if I just didn’t like them:
    – The Grapes of Wrath
    – A Separate Peace (I really hated this one)
    – Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (this was summer reading before my senior year)

    I agree about loving Jane Eyre, I haven’t been able to get through Withering Heights. If you want to give Austen another try, I suggest Persuasion. It’s a bit more melancholy and not as silly in my opinion.

    • I knew you’d defend Austen, Lizzie, and I know that I totally oversimplified Pride and Prejudice. I tried reading it on my own, so maybe if I had a good teacher walk me through it, I would’ve enjoyed it (or at least finished it!) I definitely need to learn to love her! I’d love to hear why you hated The Scarlet Letter though, since I can’t get enough of Hawthorne. And I would add Invisible Man to the overrated list, except there’s other African-American novels that sucked worse (*cough*Beloved*cough*). But oh the incest, bleh!

      • I didn’t read P & P for a class. It was on my own, but maybe it would be even better with a professor explaining things.

        The Scarlet Letter was just horribly boring in my opinion. I took the 19th century American Fiction class at UCSC though, and we read a couple of Hawthorne’s short stories and he was redeemed (somewhat) in my eyes.

        And I’d have to agree with Beloved. I’ve had to read it twice (once in high school and once in college) and I couldn’t get through it either time.

        Any suggestions for how to tackle Wuthering Heights? Is there a point where you just can’t put it down?

        • The Scarlet Letter does suffer from some complicated vocab and sentence structure, but luckily the version I used had chapter summaries and wonderful footnotes that made it more readable. But I loved his short stories “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Birthmark.”

          As for Wuthering Heights, my advice is to keep a family tree handy, as some characters share names and it can get confusing. Also, although I think that the whole book is excellent, I admit that the first half is more enthralling. Heathcliff and Catherine’s tragic relationship makes the novel, in my opinion, and Heathcliff is a more sympathetic character when she’s around. I just love the Bronte sisters’ more gothic romantic writing style, and that you have to go into their novels knowing that their depiction of love is darker and uglier than other authors. If you can like Rochester, though, you can like Heathcliff! And hopefully one day, I’ll like Darcy too 🙂

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