The Last Samurai, Helen DeWitt
For the life of me, I can’t figure out why DeWitt’s first novel is still out of print. It’s big, it’s postmodern, it’s ambitious, it’s smart as hell, but unlike a lot of tomes, it’s also airy and fun and a remarkably quick read. And hey, hyperpolyglot 11-year-old Ludo has a lot to teach any student about committing to a subject.
No One Belongs Here More Than You, Miranda July
The thing is, this is a book that would probably really change your life if you read it in high school. The stories are arresting and wondrous and angry and full of life, but often have a little too much porn-shop dancing for the classroom. But don’t tell me “The Shared Patio” isn’t for students. “Are you angry?” asks an insert. “Punch a pillow. Was it satisfying? Not hardly. These days people are too angry for punching. What you might try is stabbing. Take an old pillow and lay it on the front lawn. Stab it with a big pointy knife. Again and again and again. Stab hard enough for the point of the knife to go into the ground. Stab until the pillow is gone and you are just stabbing the Earth, again and again, as if you want to kill it for continuing to spin, as if you are getting revenge for having to live on this planet, day after day, alone.” You’ll just have to do your stabbing at home.
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
Well, for one thing, it’s way too long to assign. And it’s complicated. And full of drugs. And probably impossible to teach. It’s best to read this book by taking three months off from everything else, which is just not possible in a traditional school. That said, it’s worth every minute it takes you to get through it.
By The Sword, Mercedes Lackey
So, um, officially? Lackey’s middlebrow fantasy novels are not worth teaching in classrooms. But actually, they are so much fun. This one has one of Lackey’s best female characters in a long list of standouts.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami
A modern classic perhaps, but so long, so weird, and so convoluted that you’re not likely to see it outside of a Japanese lit class (and even then, they’re just going to assign A Wild Sheep Chase).
Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
This is one of the most notoriously good and notoriously bad and notoriously cryptic SF novels of all time, depending on who’s talking, but everyone pretty much agrees with that last part. William Gibson once described the book as “a riddle that was never meant to be solved.” Well, close your books, kids.
Delta of Venus, Anaïs Nin
Because, well, it’s erotica. But it’s interesting erotica that is worth reading. Perhaps alone.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence
Because even though if you actually read it, it’s pretty tame (by modern standards, anyway), it has that reputation as a scandalous, woman-ruining novel whose pages are always sticking together.
Geek Love, Katherine Dunn
Oof. This book is visceral and upsetting and completely brilliant. It’s likely too disturbing ever to be taught in a classroom — incest, violence, children genetically engineered to be freaks, etc. — but it will haunt your dreams for life.
House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski
Having to turn your book around to read it in the classroom? Inconceivable!
Outlander, Diana Gabaldon
Everyone’s favorite genre romance epic series might be too commercial for a typical classroom, but it’s not too commercial for you. There are a number of sexy Highlanders. It is feminism’s answer to Fifty Shades of Grey. Give in and read it already.
Reality Hunger, David Shields
Everybody should at least have an opinion on Shields’s argument here, but it would take a pretty hip teacher to assign this book.
Bad Behavior, Mary Gaitskill
This is one of those books that I can’t stop recommending, no matter the prompt. It’s a little too sexy (read: S&M-filled) for school, to be sure — “A Romantic Weekend” has lines that make grownups blush. But sometimes blushing can be a good thing, especially in a story that takes a scalpel to life as you know it.
A Feast of Snakes, Harry Crewes
The notoriously dark Crews’ best novel begins thusly: “She felt the snake between her breasts, felt him there, and loved him there, coiled, the deep tumescent S held rigid, ready to strike. She loved the way the snake looked sewn onto her V-neck letter sweater, his hard diamondback pattern shining in the sun. It was unseasonably hot, almost sixty degrees, for early November in Mystic, Georgia, and she could smell the light musk of her own sweat. She liked the sweat, liked the way it felt, slick as oil, in all the joints of her body, her bones, in the firm sliding muscles, tensed and locked now, ready to spring — to strike — when the band behind her fired up the school song: ‘Fight On Deadly Rattlers of Old Mystic High.’” Now that’s some school spirit.
Ooga-Booga, Frederick Seidel
Deliciously dirty and gleefully gauche poems from the “Laureate of the Louche.” It’s really a shame this isn’t taught in more high schools — I can’t think of anything more likely to get teenage boys into poetry.
Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding
Whatever, haters. This book is delicious, hilarious, and calorie-free. Sure, it’s not midterm-paper-worthy literature, but it might teach you a thing or two about being a human.
Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller
Miller’s most enduring classic isn’t banned anymore, but it’s not clean enough for most classrooms, either.
From Russia, With Love, Ian Fleming
Everyone should read at least one James Bond novel in their lifetime — if only for the cultural equity. You probably won’t get the chance in school, so you’re going to have to be your own secret agent man on this one.
Homeland, Sam Lipsyte
Every year, the abominably funny Sam Lipsyte creeps closer to being a household name — but I doubt he’ll ever be taught in schools. That’s what happens when you’re an acerbic genius, I guess.
J R, William Gaddis
Over 700 chaotic pages of dialogue without any dialogue tags. Teachers: good luck. Readers: good luck. Everybody: it’s worth it.
Black Hole, Charles Burns
This is another one that should actually be required reading for high schoolers — I mean, reading about a weird STD that turns teenagers into mutants would be way more prophylactic than anything I heard in health class. But I sort of doubt this one would get past the school board.
Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley
Just the tip of the Walter Mosley iceberg: his classic and roundly beloved 1990 hard-boiled detective novel. You’re not likely to get a peek of this outside a Detective Fiction class, and if your school teaches Detective Fiction, you probably don’t need this list.
The Earthsea Trilogy, Ursula K. LeGuin
You might read The Left Hand of Darkness or even The Dispossessed in school — as well you should. But I’d urge you not to ignore LeGuin’s YA series, which is just as wonderful and illuminating as her more “classroom-worthy” works.
Ready Player One, Ernest Cline
Video game books in the classroom? Ridiculous!
Nightwork, Christine Schutt
Schutt’s stories are like dark jewels, but the subject matter here would be enough to turn many teachers away (certainly this is a collection that would warrant a “trigger warning”). But her work is worth the discomfort: luminous, spare, harrowing.
Samedi the Deafness, Jesse Ball
There’s no real reason this detective-cum-psycho-novel couldn’t be taught in schools — it’s just, in my view, generally under-read and under-appreciated. And way weird.
The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer
Too commercial? Too contemporary? Trust me, you’re missing out.
Tampa, Alissa Nutting
I mean, just imagine a teacher assigning this to a class. Awkward.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke
Clarke’s epic, Victorian Age battle between magicians would be an overlarge mouthful for any classroom, but any reader who likes the idea of an epic Victorian Age battle between magicians will devour it without breaking a sweat.
The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith (Claire Morgan)
You won’t find this cult lesbian romance novel in many classrooms — but you’ll find it under many beds.
Lanark, Alasdair Gray
This masterpiece is way under-read, at least in the US. It is probably way too crazy for classrooms, but it is not too crazy for you.
Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin
If you read Baldwin in school, you’re likely to tackle Notes of a Native Son or even Go Tell It on the Mountain. But don’t stop there, because if you do, you’ll be missing what might just be Baldwin���s best and most beautiful work, which also happens to be a touchstone of LGBT literature.
Chronic City, Jonathan Lethem
Great book. But way too much weed to make it within a whiff of your classroom. Just look at that cover.
The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory
So, this is not a good book to teach you about the reign of Henry VIII, in that it is not accurate at all. But that said, it is very enjoyable, and very sexy, and worth reading if you do not care what actually happened in history, or if you already passed that test with flying colors.
World War Z, Max Brooks
An actually good novel about zombies! Ignore the film.
C, Tom McCarthy
This one is so weird and cryptic that I’m not sure any classroom would know what to do with it. But it’s an incredible read, sparking with intelligence and chemicals, signs and symbols. An ambitious but satisfying experience for anyone.
Bloodchild, Octavia Butler
If your school is really hip, you might read Kindred, but I’d like to ensure that you also gobble up Butler’s dark sucker-punch of a short story collection. After all, you can’t miss her famous “male pregnancy story.”
Heartburn, Nora Ephron
The world would be a better place if everyone read more Nora Ephron.
Foxfire, Joyce Carol Oates
Don’t get any ideas, girls. (Or, you know, do.)
The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, Mark Leyner
Well, there’s that title. Then there’s the fact that this whole novel, like much of Leyner’s work, is a hilarious, bonkers, sideshow roller-coaster freak show. This one features a slew of unusual gods and a metafictional structure. As Ben Marcus wrote, “Think of it as “Pale Fire” written by medically enhanced teenagers who’ve overdosed on smart drugs (while also mastering an arsenal of literary techniques).”
Claudine at School, Colette
Claudine may be at school, but the queen of sultry French literature is best read on a divan accompanied by soft lighting, and without having to write a paper about it afterwards.
Stoner, John Williams
Join the cult of this (now famously) under-read and under-rated novel. You’ll be glad you did.
Loose Woman, Sandra Cisneros
If a teacher decides to assign sexy poetry, odds are ten to one they’ll choose some Neruda and leave it at that. Double your pleasure with this luscious and kick-ass collection. It might even score you some dates.
Sharp Teeth, Toby Barlow
It’d take a pretty cool teacher to assign this blistering epic werewolf poem.
Brown Girl in the Ring, Nalo Hopkinson
There’s nothing unteachable about Hopkinson’s Caribbean-flavored futuristic fantasy of a first novel; it’s just that it’s woefully under-read. Suggest it at the next PTA meeting.
Clan of the Cave Bear, Jean M. Auel
Everyone needs a little classic trash in their life, especially classic trash about Neanderthal love lives written by a Mensa member, but they’re not likely to encounter it in a classroom.
It, Stephen King
Other than On Writing, Stephen King is usually shunned outside specialized classes. But if you’ve a yen for horror, you already know that he’s worth the extracurricular reading.
Popular Hits of the Showa Era, Ryu Murakami
Another relatively obscure, totally weird number that probably shouldn’t be taught in classrooms but should be read by more people. The “other” Murakami is dark and twisted, and this slim novel recounts a bizarre gang war between a clique of old ladies and a group of young men. Karaoke is also involved.
Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Gay Talese
A modern classic too provocative for the classroom.
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Rarely assigned in high school classes, for obvious reasons. But if you ask me, Nabokov is essential to brain development, and this is still his most luminous work.