10 Books You Really Should Have Read In High School: An Alternate List

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This week, we came across this list of ‘books you really should have read in high school’ over at MSNBC’s Today Books. While their picks are definitely classics, most of which we did in fact have to read in high school, we think today’s youth (and any adults playing catch-up, which let’s be real, is almost everybody to some extent) would be better served by a few alternate choices. The classics are wonderful, but the canon should be fluid, allowing some experimental choices as well as the tried-and-true. Of course, kids today should read hundreds of books, if possible, so this is by necessity a finite, imperfect list reflecting, as it must, our own proclivities. Let us know your own choices for essential alternative high school reading in the comments!

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

It’s no secret that we love us some DFW, and though we’re tempted to suggest his work as a salve for almost any problem, this book is especially pertinent here. High schoolers especially are in need of reading like this: structure that they can’t quite parse, insane length, hypnotic language and loose ends will do them well in a sea of formulaic novels that ‘lend themselves’ to being taught in time-sensitive classes. Moreover, the novel is in some ways a brutal foil for the teenage experience — Blake Butler recently mused that the book “seems like it was written by an extremely intelligent alien; someone trying so intricately and direly to figure out humans and so utterly, utterly failing.” We don’t know about you, but we remember this feeling. Pair that with a much-needed warning against over-entertainment, and there’s something every high schooler should take a look at.

Maus , Art Spiegelman

Many high schools choose to teach the Holocaust through the humanizing lens of literature, which makes sense to us. But much better than the standard tear jerker that is the Anne Frank diary is the chilling Maus I and II, Art Spiegelman’s epic graphic novels about his family’s experience in Nazi-occupied Poland and beyond. Something about the simple representative form — the Jews as mice, the Germans as cats, the French as frogs, the Poles as pigs, the Americans as dogs — strikes a deep chord in a young reader, allowing her to put her own face on every character and experience the horrors for herself.

Anna Karenina , Leo Tolstoy

At the age when you first experience desperate lovesickness, overwhelming heartbreak, and the consequences of your decisions, what better novel to read than the gold standard in impetuous romantic decisions? Like a teenager sneaking away from parental guidance before facing the music at the end of the day, Anna must negotiate the hypocritical standards of the society to which she belongs while trying to follow every fleeting fancy of her own heart. Let’s just say there’s a strong moral ending.

Swamplandia! , Karen Russell

Since Russell’s novel is a relatively new release, we must admit it’s impossible to chastise ourselves for not having read this in high school. However, to upcoming generations of high schoolers, we suggest it highly: it’s a novel about the importance of family, especially a family that’s a little bit strange, and the lengths to which we will go to appease our imaginations. As a bonus, it would have positively reinforced us significantly in high school (it does now, too) to read a bestseller by a young woman in her twenties — it makes it all seem that much more attainable.

Reality Hunger, David Shields

Another recent release, Reality Hunger is an imperative read for teenagers growing up in a culture of mixed media, shifting genres, and increasing overlap between truth, fiction, and whatever lies between the two. Though in our heart of hearts we don’t subscribe to Shields’ thesis that attribution doesn’t matter and all artistic barriers are endlessly permeable, we think upcoming generations of writers, readers and consumers of culture should be presented with these ideas at an early age, so they can make those decisions for themselves.

The God of Small Things , Arundhati Roy

Another family story (we know we could have used the reinforcement of the importance of family in our teenage tugging-away years), The God of Small Things is a dreamy look at another culture with lessons on dealing with suffering that ring universal. The beautiful language alone is enough to recommend it, magical enough that every page feels like a private discovery. And we know how much teenagers love their secrets.

Against Interpretation , Susan Sontag

Perhaps it goes without saying that Sontag’s essays are a must-read for any high schooler self-consciously counting themselves as an intellectual, but we think they’re a perfect high-brow introduction into how to think about things. After all, we’ve always thought of school as more important in terms of it teaching you how to learn and think than in terms of what facts you’re actually memorizing in that Modern European History class. Plus, with this collection, you’ll get a primer (or at least a canned opinion) on everyone from Beckett to Sartre to Godard. You know, just something to pull out at parties.

Ender’s Game , Orson Scott Card

Though some readers might be able to tackle this sci-fi treat before high school, we’ve never read a more convincing argument for the power and importance of young people, something many high schoolers might need a little reminder of. Plus, it combines politics, deep space, video games and social hierarchy into one neat bundle that any self-respecting book nerd will fly through in a day or two, leaving plenty of time for that Bio lab that’s due on Wednesday.

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress , Robert Heinlein

The most important thing we took from The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is something every high schooler should take note of: TANSTAAFL. That is, “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” That’s worth thinking about when you forget to be grateful for everything your parents do for you. It’s the real world soon, kids!

Beloved, Toni Morrison

This incredibly dense and distressing novel is one of the best books of all time, and should be read by everyone despite its difficulty. The spirit of a murdered infant haunts the home of a former slave in Ohio a few years after the civil war, bringing fear but also comfort to its mother. This is a beautiful introduction to grief and complex choices, as well as the post-war climate and the sickening history of slavery in America.