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The first book I read in high school was Romeo and Juliet.
I’ll never forget the uproar when my class realized how incredibly stupid these two teens were. Tryna get married after knowing each other a few days? Killing yourself ’cause you thought your girl was dead and she was just sleeping? Even all us fourteen-year-olds knew they were being more than a little dramatic. Right then and there, I know a lot of kids wrote off those classic books from high school. They’re stupid. These authors know nothing.
We thought we were the smartest teenagers on earth for knowing better than the most famous teenagers of all time, but Romeo and Juliet was an exception, not the rule. A lot of the books we read in high school might’ve gone a little over our heads. We liked R&J because honestly, we didn’t learn much from it. Moral of that story was like, “do your research before you kill yourself.” Or, “don’t get married before you could even physically have children if you can help it.” But, some of the other books? They had real, deep lessons that we as teenagers weren’t equipped to hear yet.
Because what’s the key thing about a teenager’s attitude?
They think they know everything. And when they don’t know something, they act like they do. So, when teachers are teaching these profound books with incredible life lessons, they sometimes go unappreciated because the teens aren’t ready to hear them. My whole freshman year English class was dedicated to “coming-of-age books” like Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ll never forget how my teacher cried as she read us the last few pages of TKAM out loud. We all just looked at each other and laughed at her, which, looking back now after having read it again, really ruined that potentially poignant moment.
Luckily, she wasn’t insulted. She knew that someday, we would learn the lesson the book was trying to teach. And friends, that day has come. I believe that we were too young to appreciate those books from high school. I think that now, in our twenties, is when we actually go through the whole coming-of-age thing. Our twenties are when we realize, like Holden Caulfield or Scout Finch or Pip did much younger, that we don’t have all this figured out. In fact our twenties are now when we learn that we know literally zero things.
But like y tho?
Because this stage of life we call young adulthood is actually really new. As life expectancy crawls upward, and as we add four years of college to the standard timeline of life, the timeline for coming-of-age shifts as well. Teenagers aren’t coming of age anymore because teenagers don’t have to be adults for at least four years past when most of our parents and grandparents did. Ever notice the average marriage age is getting higher? The age people buy houses? Have their first baby?
So, I urge you to give these books from high school another shot now that 1) your pre-frontal cortex is fully developed 2) you are appropriately humbled by the harsh realities of life, and 3) you have a higher tolerance for the writing styles of the olden days.
Books From High School That Deserve Another Shot in Your Twenties
The Great Gatsby
I’m starting with this one because I feel it’s actually the most well-liked of all the books from high school. Y’know, by the actual high school kids, not just people who go back and read it later. You can tell because Leo DiCaprio took it on and it became mainstream again in 2013. Even though the 1974 version is better.
The Great Gatsby is told from the perspective of regular guy Nick Carroway, who moves out to West Egg, Long Island for his job and is fascinated by his fabulously wealthy and mysterious neighbor, Jay Gatsby. They build a friendship and Nick finds that Gatsby has been in love with Nick’s cousin Daisy for years, since their rendezvous in college. However, they can never be together, even though Daisy hates her life with her cheating douchebag of husband, because she is old money living across the Long Island Sound in East Egg, and he is new money, living (in an equally huge mansion) in West Egg. It’s all a big symbol for how, even if you work your hardest, sometimes you don’t get what you want. Sometimes the bad guys win. And it’s heartbreaking. And still painfully relevant in 2018. The American dream isn’t attainable for everyone.
The ending is NOT what you think (no, even now that I said that you’ll still never guess) and the classic symbolism has led the way for practically meme-level recreation. I.e. the green light.
Knowing all that we know now about where society has been since 1984, this book is actually pretty mind-blowing. It was written in 1949, and was George Orwell’s idea of what the world might be like in 1984.
If you don’t remember from high school, it’s a dystopian novel where everyone is constantly watched by “Big Brother.” There is no free thought, no sex, and no expression of personality. All this is illegal. The story follows a guy named Winston, who is against the party and is trying to overthrow them. It’s full of twists and turns– you never know who’s on which side. And you won’t be able to help but think of how close or far we are from really being a society like this. It’s chilling.
Another one of the dystopian books from high school you should give another chance is Anthem by Ayn Rand. It doesn’t take place in a particular year, but it’s another futuristic society that outlaws free thinking, and certainly makes you think.
To Kill a Mockingbird
To Kill a Mockingbird is a story from the point of view of a little girl named Scout Finch, living in Alabama in the early 1900s. Her widowed father, Atticus, is a well-respected lawyer in their town, and he is asked to defend a black man who was accused of raping a white woman. It’s a really eye-opening account of what race issues look like from the point of view of a young child, just seeing difference for the first time.
This is a great book to re-read in your twenties because of the themes of morality. It’s in this stage of life that we really learn who we want to be in our adult lives. It also has a theme of innocence, which is really powerful to look back on as an adult.
Lord of the Flies
Personally, I liked this book even in high school, but I’ve always been a reader. The Lord of the Flies is about a group of British school boys who end up stranded on a deserted island, and have to try to survive. It’s all about the power dynamics that form, and the consequences of them. It explores the dichotomy between human desire for order and rules to follow and the desire for free-will.
Again, even though it’s an old book, the themes are still relevant today, especially considering all the political unrest in the United States. How much power should the government have over us? How much should they be allowed to control? It also explores loss of innocence, which you’ll be able to relate to a lot more in your twenties than when you were fourteen.
If you want a ~high-quality synopsis~ check out this clip from my favorite movie, Silver Linings Playbook.
The Catcher in the Rye
The Catcher in the Rye was one of my favorites even in high school. I thought Holden Caulfield was super whiny, but at the same time, the story was really good. I actually used it in my graduate school essay, because it’s one of the reasons I went into psychology.
The Catcher in the Rye is about a troubled teenager who gets kicked out of school and runs away. As he wanders around NYC for a few days before Christmas Break (to avoid telling his parents he got kicked out) he ponders his innocence and his future. At one point, he remembers a poem that gave him an image of what he wanted to be when he grew up– “if a body catch a body, coming through the rye…”
It made him think of catching children before they fell off a cliff while playing in a field of rye. He wanted to save children who were about to lose their innocence. Having lost his own, it makes sense that his metaphor for lost innocence would be as painful as falling off a cliff. It’s pretty heart-wrenching. It’s one of the great books from high school to give another shot because of that innocence motif throughout.
Are there any books from high school you’d want me to put on this list? What were your favorites? Which ones were better when you read them again as a grownup?