Summer reading, daily assignments, book reports, class projects–whether it was for a freshman seminar or a middle school poster project, I know we’ve all read a good amount of stuff we don’t really care about. But for me, the heaps of classic novels, poetry collections, and short stories that we read in school ultimately lead me where I am today. As I’m going into the second semester of my junior year as an English major, I’ve begun to appreciate some of the classic works that I had to read as a kid (and right now) more than ever before. So, here’s a list of my top 5 books-for-school that became faves-for-life!
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Although I feel like I’m far from the first person to say it, I do feel like it needs to be said, over and over, until everyone has read this book: Frankenstein is a masterpiece. As the first true sci-fi novel, Frankenstein raises the bar for all things death, monstrosity, and the horror of birth in a way that no other book has been able to touch. I’ve read it twice for school now, and the second time around, I was struck by how fresh and personal this novel feels–like Shelley is giving us insight into the fears that she carried with her throughout her life, which ultimately inspired the horrific events in Frankenstein. (Google her. Her life was insane.) If you’re looking for a spooky read full of elegant lament, beautifully written pain, Gothic aesthetics, then Frankenstein is absolutely for you. Just don’t get too inspired and try to create a creature of your own!
- The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
When I read The Outsiders for the first time in 7th grade, I had no idea what I was getting into. Gangs, violence, and the coming-of-age story of a teen boy? That didn’t sound much like the magical fantasy stories that I was into back then. But, as I read, I found that while Hinton’s work is propelled by the violence and situations that arise from joining a gang, ultimately, The Outsiders is really about what it means to take responsibility for your life–and the consequences that come with it. It’s also got one of the sweetest main characters in any novel I’ve read, and even all of these years later, I still feel the poignancy of “Stay gold, Ponyboy” every time I hear it.
- The Divine Comedy by Dante Aligheri
This is the oldest book on my list, but I still feel that it belongs here, because The Divine Comedy isn’t just the book that created the visuals that all of Christendom associated with the afterlife, and practically invented Italian as we know it today–it’s also a genuinely exciting and fresh read. This epic poem, separated into three parts and several shorter cantos, or songs, follows our narrator, Dante, and his guide, Virgil, as they descend into hell and rise into heaven. Along the way, Dante faces monsters, ghosts lost souls, the greens of the Garden of Eden, and ultimately the stars of heaven, in an epic journey that will you have you going, “So that’s why we’re taught that.” This is a book I read my freshman year of college, and though it can be a little dense, it’s become one of my favorite books I have found through my education because it’s packed with daring imagery and philosophical revelations in a way that only Dante can accomplish.
- The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson by Emily Dickinson
If you’ve ever received any form of American schooling, at some point you’ve probably heard at least a little about Emily Dickinson. You probably know a few things about her–that she was sickly and reclusive, and that she never enjoyed sharing her poetry with the world–and if you’re anything like me, those facts didn’t exactly drum up interest in looking at her work. But this year for the first time, I have had to read a bit of Dickinson’s poetry for class, and you guys–she is incredible. She writes about an intense kind of loneliness that speaks to the heart of anyone who’s ever shut themselves off from the world, but who still feels with all their heart that they are a part of it, and I honestly can’t get enough. If you’re like me and you dismissed Dickinson outright, I would recommend giving her another chance–her solemnity and passion just might surprise you.
- Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Ender’s Game has long been recognized as one of the top science fiction stories of the modern age, and when I first read it in high school, it totally changed the way I gauge how much I enjoy a piece of fiction. The story follows our young lead, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, a child prodigy, as he is recruited and trained to fight against the Formics, an alien race that is threatening to take over planet Earth. Over several years, we get to know not just Ender, but his siblings, Valentine and Peter Wiggin, who are also child prodigies, as they take over the political and cultural voice of the Earth as Ender fights to keep the planet safe against alien invasion. What makes this space novel special, though, is not the extraordinary abilities of the Wiggins, but specifically, the emotional development of Ender, as he begins to feel the weight of the fate of the world on his shoulders, and he rejects the violence he has caused.
So, there you have it–my list of five books I read for school that helped me become a better reader, writer, and student. If you’re looking for a book to read over the break, why not pick up one of these volumes? A whole new world of stories is waiting for you!