Even if you like reading independently, very few people would fault you for losing motivation when it comes to your school reading list. There’s just something about a book being assigned to you, rather than picking it up off the shelf yourself–plus the looming knowledge that you’re going to have to write a ten-page research paper on it in a few weeks–that makes it instantly lose all factors that might have made it desirable to you. Then, when you add in the nightly worksheets your teacher assigns to prove that you’re actually doing the reading, which soon turn into daily quizzes to prove that you’re actually doing the reading, and that one kid in your class who always feels the need to tie the book you’re reading, whatever it is, to Infinite Jest even though you’re pretty sure he hasn’t even read Infinite Jest and you definitely know that the Jane Austen book you’re reading has literally nothing to do with David Foster Wallace, it might be enough to make you give up on reading altogether.
Don’t give up on reading altogether! I can promise you that at least one of the books you’ll be assigned this year is actually good. Of course, being the model student that I know you are, I know that you are going read everything you’re assigned this year. But just in case you need a little inspiration, these books are the ones that you’ll actually really love:
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper LeeAccording to Verbal Workout, To Kill A Mockingbird is the most commonly-assigned book in high school. This is with good reason, I think! It’s a relatively easy read that raises still-relevant questions about race and equality by telling the story of Atticus Finch, a lawyer in Alabama who has been appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a young white woman, through the eyes of his ten-year-old daughter, Scout. Plus, after you’re finished, you get to watch the (almost) equally-great movie version with Gregory Peck. Plus plus, a random memory that has been stuck in my head for about three years for no reason in particular is of reading somewhere on The Internet that To Kill A Mockingbird is the only book that Niall Horan of (former?) One Direction fame has read all the way through. I have no idea whether this is true or not. But perhaps knowing that you and Mr. Horan may one day bond over this novel, leading to your eventual marriage, is motivation enough for you to read it! I don’t know. I don’t know what moves you. Buy it at Amazon for $8.99
Hamlet by William ShakespeareHamlet is another commonly-assigned text that, because of its ubiquity, is often assumed to be flat-out bad. It’s, uh, not. You know the story--a Danish prince returns home from college to find that his father is dead, probably by the hand of his uncle, who has now married his mother. Then, Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his father who tells him that he must kill his uncle in order to avenge his death, which Hamlet, understandably, does not cope particularly well with. If nothing else, it’s worth reading all the way through so you can contextualize the random quotes like “To be or not to be” and “to thine own self be true” that you probably know are from Hamlet but have no idea what they actually mean. It’s also worth noting that all Shakespeare plays, even tragedies like Hamlet, were written as entertainment. What’s more, they were written as entertainment for people in the Elizabethan era, who were, in my opinion, some truly wild and crazy freaks. This means that there are at least seven thousand (give or take) dirty jokes in every single Shakespeare play. They’re definitely in Hamlet, too--you just have to read it to find out. Buy it at Amazon for $7
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia WoolfI majored in English in college, and, because of this, I think that have been assigned Mrs. Dalloway at least 490246 times. (English professors love Mrs. Dalloway, this will always be true, and this is my only advice to you if you are thinking of majoring in English in college!) It’s one of those books that’s not really about much on the surface--it’s basically just the story of an older high-society woman in post World War I London, the titular Mrs. Dalloway, getting ready for a party she’s having later that evening--but it weaves between the perspectives of all of the characters to show how all of them have affected by the war, as well as by their relationships with one another. I do not love the phrase "all the feels," personally, but, uh, you will feel them all when you read this book. Buy it at Amazon for $8.21
Lord Of The Flies by WilliamYou already know the synopsis of this story, I am sure--a group of British schoolboys become stranded on a desert island and try to govern themselves, which ends up, um, badly. When we read this book during my sophomore year of high school, my teacher tested its theory by refusing to teach us one day and seeing how we fared when left to our own devices. We went wild! By public school standards at least! Some people escaped school, some people fell asleep at their desks, and most people just took out their cell phones. It is true that this particular teacher did not return to my high school the following year, but still--I did learn a lot that day. Anyway, that'sLord Of The Flies ! It’s a good book. Buy it at Amazon for $9.29
Beloved by Toni MorrisonBeloved is...such a good book. I mean, all of the books on this list are great books (hence the “books you’ll actually want to read” qualifier), but Beloved is so great that I feel dumb, personally, trying to describe exactly how good it is. Set after the Civil War, it tells the story of Sethe, an escaped slave who killed her two-year-old daughter when her former master comes to recapture her rather than have her return to the plantation she just fled. Later, when Sethe is officially free from the plantation, the ghost of this daughter comes back to haunt her in her new home. This book is heavy (and often pretty hard to read) but one that’s important to get through, particularly with the help of a class or book group to help you parse its meaning and symbolism. Buy it at Amazon for $12.42
The Crucible by Arthur MillerFirst of all, The Crucible is a play, which means that you can read it a lot faster than it may look. It’s also worth seeing if you can scam your teacher into letting you read the play aloud during class to really experience it, which means that you won’t have to do as much work outside of class. Second of all--like every other book on this list--it’s just really great. It tells the story of the Salem Witch Trials that took place from 1692-1693, but really, is an allegory for McCarthyism, a period of American politics in the 1950s in which the US government blacklisted accused communists. You’ll probably find a lot of similarities to the current political climate in this play, too. Buy it at Amazon for $8.71
Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft ShelleyYou definitely know about Frankenstein--you know, the story of a scientist who creates a sentient being out of old cadaver parts--but, if you're anything like me, you’ve assumed that the story is more trite than anything else and have probably been avoiding it. Don’t! It definitely holds up over time (zombie stories will always be scary, I guess), and, much like Frankenstein’s monster itself, the novel also has a great origin story. It was written in 1816 by eighteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley after being challenged to a “ghost story competition” by her then-boyfriend (and later husband, Percy Shelley) and friend, Lord Byron. The short story she wrote later became Frankenstein--officially published in 1818 and widely acclaimed as one of the first science fiction novels--so, uh, she won. Buy it at Amazon for $6
Have you read any of these books? Did I forget any commonly-assigned books that are actually good? Let us know in the comments!