BY ANNIE O'BRIEN '21, A CREATIVE WRITING AND ENGLISH MAJOR AT GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY
It is a universally acknowledged truth that books are the best part of high school
Books were my saving grace and place to escape during high school. They became a touchstone for conversations with my teachers and peers, a stepping stone on the path to deeper friendships. After reflecting on the many books I read, I found, much to my surprise, that the required reading for my English classes had the greatest influence on my beliefs, interests, and relationships.
1. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger
Native New York teenager Holden Caulfield relays this enduring tale of teenage angst and identity in crisis. He runs away from his wealthy college preparatory school to spend a few days in New York City by himself. He confronts his conflicting desire for adulthood with his yearning for childhood.
Holden Caulfield is the world’s most relatable teenager. This book is the perfect read for teenagers who need to see that they are not alone– not just hear it. Holden’s one confession captures exactly what it feels like to be a high school reader:
“I’m quite illiterate, but I read a lot.”
2. The Crucible by Arthur Miller
In this drama, Arthur Miller tells the story of the Salem Witch Trials. The trials begin with teenage girls accusing village outcasts of witchcraft to protect their own reputations. It evolves into a civil war; neighbor charges neighbor with invisible, impossible crimes in the name of personal pettiness. Miller wrote The Crucible as a response to 1950s blacklisting in Hollywood.
As the graduate of an all girls school, reading this book chronicling the rise and fall of so-called witches and teenaged-girls was a very cathartic and empowering experience. My favorite quote comes from the quiet, but no less womanly, Mary Warren:
"I am 18 and a woman… however single."
3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre straddles the line between feminist manifesto, bildungsroman, and gothic romance. It follows the orphaned Jane as she finds her place in the world amongst the moors, estates, and poverty of Victorian England.
Jane Eyre is the OG queen of self-love! She understands her inherent self-worth and refuses to compromise it. I read this book during my freshman year of high school. I did not understand the importance of self-worth. As much as Jane searches for satisfaction with herself, she does love to feel loved:
“There is no happiness like that of being loved by your fellow-creatures, and feeling that your presence is an addition to their comfort.”
4. The Great Gatsby By F. Scott Fitzgerald
Gatsby is more than an aesthetic; it studies the danger of ambition. It follows Nick Carroway as he spends the summer on Long Island completely engrossed in the drama of his wealthy neighbors–specifically, the mysterious Jay Gatsby. Nick becomes a key player in Gatsby’s affair with the beautiful and married Daisy Buchanan.
On January 1, 2021, Gatsby entered the public domain; this means that we can expect more books, movies, and projects based on this story since Scribner, the original publisher, no longer owns the rights.
As a high school student, I found the most magical part the friendship and enduring loyalty between Nick and Gatsby. I would die if someone said this to me:
“They’re a rotten crowd,” I shouted across the lawn. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”
5. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenina is beloved, wealthy, and beautiful, but she harbors a secret: she is repulsed by her life. She wastes away as a housewife until she meets the irresistible Count Vronsky. They begin an unforgettable affair that Russian society gossips about endlessly. One can not help but think, this can’t end well.
Seriously considering a campaign to rename this book The Real Housewives of Moscow. The glamour and scandal in this book seem straight out of reality TV. Despite its size, I devoured this book in a week. The curiosity I had about the characters drove me straight to the end. Vronsky and Anna’s romance is as seductive as it is destructive.
“He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.”
6. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
It’s 1939 in Nazi Germany. Newly orphaned Liesel Meminger copes with the doom around her with books. Told by Death– who is as witty as he is cruel–this moving story is a reminder of the power of books and human’s capacity for resilience.
Ironically, I stole this book from my grandparents’ library as I was too embarrassed to ask my family if I could read it. It was the first “grown-up” book I read. The relationship between Liesel and her adoptive parents struck me:
“A DEFINITION NOT FOUND IN THE DICTIONARY: Not leaving: an act of trust and love, often deciphered by children.”
7. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Nicknamed the first romantic comedy, Pride and Prejudice chronicles the romance between the extraordinarily wealthy Darcy and the extraordinarily clever Elizabeth Bennet. For these two prideful sparring partners, the road to true love is filled with scandal, embarrassment, and lots of poor manners.
I don’t love Jane Austen novels– it is my deep literary secret. I appreciate the Regency aesthetic and the personalities of her female characters, but I find actually reading these books tedious. Nonetheless, even I can admit that this is a rich, influential, and swoon-worthy romance. I can hardly resist these funny quips:
“There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well.”
8. A Room With a View by E.M Forster
Coming of age in repressed Edwardian England, Lucy Honeychurch finds her life forever changed after a trip to Italy. She meets an abundance of colorful characters who teach her about love, life, and freedom–all things off-limits to a respectable girl in Edwardian England. Can she bring a little bit of Italy back with her when she returns home?
A Room With a View is one of the most beautiful books ever written.I read this book to prepare for my own trip to Italy. It touts the virtues of travel like no other novel. This particular quote played like a broken record in my mind during my journey through Italy:
“One doesn’t come to Italy for niceness,” was the retort; “one comes for life. Buon giorno! Buon giorno!”
9. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Ethan Frome lives a miserable life on his broken-down farm in the barren cold of rural New England. He cares for his loveless, hypochondriac wife like a prisoner. A curious visitor investigates the roots of Ethan’s unhappiness, revealing a tragic story of shattered hearts, broken bones, and lots of snow.
The line between comedy and tragedy is so slim; this aggressively depressing novel could not blur the line more. This book is a cup of coffee for those with a DARK sense of humor. As humorous as I found this tragedy, Wharton sprinkles sobering and astute observations throughout the novella, such as this one:
“I had the sense that the deeper meaning of the story was in the gaps.”
10. Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Conceived in the mind of an 18-year old genius, Frankenstein tells the horrific story of a monster who craves the love its creator denied. Dr. Frankenstein’s monster terrorizes the Swiss Alps to heal his broken heart.
I did not expect to love this book as much as I did. To me, Frankenstein is a story about loneliness, yearning, and grief. As someone who appreciates routines, this quote struck me:
“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”
Readers, what books would you add to this list? Share in the comments below!