The Best Books We Were Assigned in High School

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Of all the books you were assigned in high school, which was the best? That’s the question I wanted our staff to answer. It’s fun — yet maybe a little disconcerting — to travel back to that formative point in your memory. Why did you like the book? Was it the charisma of the teacher who assigned it? What were you going through at the time?

I was surprised (for some reason) to see so much continuity here, to see books that I loved, too, at the time, or maybe a few years earlier or later. It struck me that these high school assignments are a point of connection that spans generations — hence the recent ordeal with Harper Lee. I don’t have children, but it’s obvious to me that the books we’re assigned in school stay with us, shape us, guide us, and, in certain ways, undo our evolving expectations of what life will bring. Call it politics or ethics or something else, but it’s there. What we read together helps define who we become.

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

I was the kind of snobby high school geek whose geeky snobbery revolved around the idea that difficult Modernist literature was the only thing worth reading. But honestly, it wasn’t until I read my first Virginia Woolf novel — midway through my senior year, in a class on literature between the World Wars — that those books became something more than intellectual trophies to collect. Mrs. Dalloway reminds me of the best bits of every art form; it’s visual like painting, full of refrains like poetry, forces the reader to experience duration like music. And on top of all that, it does precisely what a novel should do (though plenty of Modernist experiments don’t): it catches you up in the sweep of its narrative, which collapses a society lady’s life story and the ordeal of a shellshocked WWI veteran into a single day through digressions and dilations that get closer than any other prose I’ve read to capturing the way we think about our lives while we’re living them. — Judy Berman, Editor-in-Chief

Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe

This is sort of cheating, since I got to choose the book, but I went to the kind of high school where one could get through an entire year of AP English without being assigned a single full-length text, so my pickings for this prompt were slim. Anyway, Wolfe’s satire of New York’s bloated financial elite electrified me long before my peers and I stumbled across American Psycho. At the time, I lived 3,000 miles away from New York, but Wolfe painted a crystal-clear portrait of the city’s status obsession and conspicuous consumption that may have hit their peak in the 1980s, but remain strong 30 years on. Wolfe’s prose was social commentary whose truth I immediately recognized, and did far more to show me what “satire” meant than more typical high school examples like Jonathan Swift. — Alison Herman, Editorial Assistant

A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway

When my junior English teacher assigned Hemingway’s 1929 novel to our class, I approached it with much the same jaded perspective as most of our assigned reading, with the assumption that it was a moldy old relic, one that I’d muddle through for as long as I could before finally giving up and grabbing Cliff Notes to pass the quizzes and tests. But I was also reading it while entering into my first serious relationship, emotionally and physically, with a girl who was in that same class — and we were both taken aback by the directness with which Hemingway’s story spoke to us, and to the way he captured the intensity (and occasionally, the recklessness) of our attraction. I wasn’t used to “classics” having that kind of accessibility, and though I’d read (and enjoyed) lots of non-required reading before, Arms was, in many ways, the moment I became an adult reader. — Jason Bailey, Film Editor

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

I was that irritating precocious reader who had already read Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and many other big British novels by the time we got to them them in class. But when I was handed Their Eyes Were Watching God in sophomore English class, my eyes were opened to a book that, like my favorite pre-20th century “classics,” followed a woman’s self-actualization both within, and in opposition to, a larger community. I still remember the harsh consonants my teacher used when he spoke of Janie’s “pugnacious breasts” and their metaphorical significance. It’s a glorious novel that speaks to the value of teaching diverse books and also the value of continuously culling the literature of the past to remake the canon — if it hadn’t been for the efforts of 70s-era black feminist scholars, the book would have languished in obscurity. — Sarah Seltzer, Editor-at-Large

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

As a Very Serious Teenager, I was largely frustrated with the books we were assigned, a frustration that eventually culminated in me physically assaulting a copy of Patrick White’s The Tree of Man (which does, in fairness to my teenage self, remain one of the most long-winded and tedious novels ever committed to paper). But! Then! We were assigned Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness — the prose was dense but striking, the themes were suitably serious, and the whole thing was laden with a sense of portent that appealed greatly to someone whose very favorite band was War-era U2. I wrote endless essays about it, and I still have my study copy in a box somewhere, covered in breathless scribbled notes that I’d probably cringe at today. Why is being a teen so dramatic? — Tom Hawking, Deputy Editor

The Norton Anthology Series

A lifelong library brat, I had read many of the requisite high school novels early — probably too early to understand them. And for a time, in high school, my love of fiction gave way to a love of cinema. Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath was traded for John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath. So those years weren’t my favorite years in terms of the novel. But, during junior and senior year, I had a duo of forward thinking English teachers who did the thankless work of pushing me through various incarnations of the Norton Anthology. And because of this, for the first time in my life, I became a serious reader of world literature and poetry — especially Modernist poetry. I was crazy about Eliot, Yeats, Stevens, HD, and Marianne Moore. It was the first time I felt like I had to respond to a work of literature by working for it — the way I might work to understand calculus or genetics. Far from boring or bothering me, this work had a way of opening me up to the world. — Jonathon Sturgeon, Literary Editor

The Bald Soprano, Eugène Ionesco

In my theater criticism class (at an arts magnet high school), we were able to choose from a list of canonical plays to report on. I randomly (but randomness turns out to be topical) picked Ionesco’sThe Bald Soprano, not expecting to open to a series of unmitigatedly silly scenes. At the time, I was unfortunately more interested in Monty Python than postwar French history, and thus gave no thought whatsoever to the cultural context of the writing, but rather appropriated it as a manifesto for my own taste for not making sense, linguistically and otherwise. Luckily, growing up taught me that contextualizing one’s analysis of Ionesco matters greatly if you want to see it as a meaningful portrait of language-dictated meaninglessness, rather than a series of outrageously disjointed lines that could have been successfully imprinted on Hot Topic T-Shirts. — Moze Halperin, Associate Editor

I did not read a single book I was assigned in high school. — Pilot Viruet, TV Editor