A month into the school year and I have plenty of reason to speak to students about what they are reading. A few even ask sincerely for suggestions, and while I recognize the challenges of suggesting or assigning reading, there are just some books that all high school students should read.
Many students lean on contemporary books, which certainly have their place on any reading lists. Whether Sherman Alexie or Jodi Picoult or Angie Thomas, these are all impressive writers with much to say. However, I cannot turn my back on some of the classics that I think every high school student should try.
There is no discussing necessary reading without first landing on Homer’s Odyssey. Scholars have long suggested how every other story since, comes from the tale of Odysseus and his longing for home, and I cannot help but find this true to more widely I read.
Not without faults, which shows he’s human, the battle weary captain struggles to overcome impossible odds and devious gods, to return to his family.
Scarred by war, damaged by doubt, Odysseus confronts his men’s laziness, the gods’ hubris, and more, until he at last reunites first with Argo, and then Penelope and Telemachus. His journey is the definition of perseverance.
From epic poetry to American parable, To Kill A Mockingbird might appear low hanging fruit for some, but it is still the quintessential tale of overcoming prejudice and hatred. Bob Ewell is a stereotypical villain, and Scout a comfortable narrator, but it is Atticus Finch, the laconic small town lawyer who glues the story together with his homey witticism and simple diction.
Tom Robinson plays the innocent, and Dill provides some comic relief, but the story is–as ever–a useful lesson on the beauty and the power in difference and forgiveness, as important in our time as in any previous era.
There is a third book that I always come back to when talking to students about what they might or should read, though I confess most are challenged greatly by this slim work. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a psychological thriller that wanders through thick jungles and deep into the makings of civilization.
Charley Marlow narrates his descent into both the Congo and his questions of how man comes to treat his fellow man when no one is looking. Take a bit of Huck Finn and put it together with Lord of the Flies and you have an idea that comes close to Conrad’s famous text.
I might have included The Great Gatsby or Romeo and Juliet or any number of other worthy titles that literate folks should know. There is no shortage certainly of books that help connect us to the rest of the world, and to ourselves.
In the end, though, high school reading should include books that challenge a reader’s perceptions of the world and of themselves, while also illustrating what is possible in writing. Homer, Harper Lee, and Joseph Conrad all do this convincingly.