The Best (And Worst) Books We Were Forced To Read In High School   

1984 and Of Mice and Men; Huck Finn and Fahrenheit 451. Great American Novels? Sure. But if you completed any years of high school in America, you probably didn't read these of your own free will—you likely first met these books when a faded 30-year-old copy was unceremoniously flopped on your desk by a teacher who expected the first 30 pages read by Wednesday.

This week’s news about Harper Lee’s new novel got us thinking back on her legendary work, To Kill A Mockingbird, a book that’s still required reading in most high schools today. But it’s not the only required reading that has stuck with us: Though, for the most part, high-school English books were a bore (let’s be real, being forced to read a book is the number-one worst way to experience it), there are always one or two that stand out in our memories—and maybe even change us for the better.

We asked our Ravishly writers: What were the best (and worst) books, short stories, poems, or plays you read in high school? Our answers were honest, unexpected, and, at times, a little heated. Here’s what our staff had to say.


Favorite: Rappaccini's Daughter, Nathaniel Hawthorne

Where do I begin? This story is wonderful! There were so many themes running through it that astounded me. Not only was this a classic tale of good vs. evil, but it also questioned the line between genuine adoration and creepy voyeurism, as well as science and spirituality. The moment I finished this, I wanted to reread it. I would also argue that the plot was way ahead of its time: The perils of scientific advancements (and curiosity) are explored, and it's a feminist book for the era.

Least Favorite: An American ChildhoodAnnie Dillard

I abhorred this book with a passion that could only result from the raging hormones of a 14-year-old. In retrospect, I wonder if I was too young to appreciate it. In my memory, the narrator lamented endlessly about trivial things and came across as a stalker. I recall this speaker watching her neighbor ice skate for (what felt like) an eternity, and I just wanted to scream "GO ICE SKATE YOURSELF! PARTICIPATE IN LIFE YOU NITWIT!" She also sounded like a terrible child, and my overly polite self was oh-so-offended.



Favorite: The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

The main character, Holden Caulfield, to me was an adult in a young person's body, longing for connection and yet pushing people away, stuck in isolation and trapped by his own cyclical thoughts. And he cursed! As a dirty-mouthed rebel myself, I felt the same way as Holden during these formative years.

Least Favorite: I can't think of any books I didn't like.




Favorite: The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved, Hunter S Thompson

If left on a desert island, I would take an IKEA catalog over just about any "great American novel." Fuck this compulsory prioritization of stories with sad, sordid endings—if you didn't want a selfish and detached Millennial generation, maybe you shouldn't have hit them over the face with the futility of the American Dream as we were steamrolling the Middle East. Most of us will never know the cloying haunt of having all the money but not the woman of your dreams.

We will, if we try very hard, mar and interrupt the circle jerk of establishment—it doesn't seem like much when compared to winning medals for valor and getting rich off prohibition, but it is a real and tangible victory you can hold onto.

That said: Fuck Hunter S and the lionization of a violent homophobe who skated by on his white privilege to make a career out of shit that would have gotten other journalists arrested or at the very least expelled from the journalism community.

Least Favorite: The Catcher In The Rye, J.D. Salinger

I couldn't even finish it. Did everyone stop being phonies?


Favorite: The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

The Sun Also Rises really resonated with me because shortly after finishing it, I did a lot of traveling in Europe. One of the best quotes:

“You're an expatriate. You've lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed with sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes.”

Least Favorite: The Bluest Eye, Toni Morison

I understand that this book is a masterpiece, but totally out of line for high schoolers to not only read, but truly appreciate. It's way too symbolic and heavy.



Favorite: The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

Hands-down my favorite book about the Lost Generation, which I always had to read about during my English lit classes. It's wonderfully gender-subversive, with a more stereotypically "feminine" male protagonist and "masculine" female protagonist (named Brett, no less). And the last line . . . well, not to give too much away, but it's objectively the best last line of all time ever.

Strangely, though, Hemingway is also behind the objectively worst book of all time ever, which of course is . . .

Least Favorite: The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway

I'm sorry, I can't type anything about this book because even thinking about it made me just fall asleep.





Favorite: The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

(It's cliche, but) it hit home with me because it's in essence the story of how my maternal great grandmother came to California from Oklahoma in 1935, in a wagon, with horses. The stories she told of that time sounded like something that could be an epic novel. And her life was as simple, and interesting, as Steinbeck's version of it.

Least Favorite: Faust, Goethe

Not only is it in German, which is hard enough, it's also about as understandable as the most difficult Shakespeare. In addition to reading this gem. I gave a lengthy oral report on its relevance, in German. Need I say more?


Favorite: The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison

Conversely, this face-melting intersection of feminism, civil rights, and sexuality (among like 15 other themes) is so beautifully rendered, it's humbling. Between the prose and the plot (yes, also gut-churningly sad) I think I've read it eight times. It shattered my 13-year-old brain and haunts me to this day.

Least Favorite: As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner

Perhaps it was the dialects, perhaps it was the utterly depressing plot, perhaps it was the 15 characters wending their way across 59 chapters . . . but damn, was this book hard for me to get through. I can remember dreading sitting down to read it, slogging through a chapter . . . only to realize I had actually absorbed nothing and flipping back to start again. And wanting to rip my face off. So. boring. So. sad. Call me a philistine but this book is the pits.



Favorite: The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

I have a big secret to share with y’all: Though I am a professional writer, I've never liked reading novels. Fiction often feels indulgent to me, and if I am not feelin’ a book within the first few pages, I’m just not gonna finish it. If I don’t like it, why should I have to?

That said, I remember being pleasantly surprised by The Grapes of Wrath. I always liked Steinbeck’s sparse, simple writing style, which, who knows, could have been partly responsible for my pursuing journalism. I also appreciated his obvious reverence for California, which I consider not my home state, but my homeland. As Joni said, it’s sweeping and dramatic, and the metaphors are a little on-the-nose, but I was a big theater geek in high school so I obviously had no problem with sweeping and dramatic.

Least Favorite: It’s a tie for three:

The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne

Do I even have to explain why this book should be dissolved from high school curriculum? Even when I read it at age 15 in 2002, I was rolling my eyes at the whole "take-pity-on-this-poor-woman-ruined-by-sex" theme. Not to mention the writing is dry and dull and absolute torture to get through.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

This one was kind of the opposite: The writing was fine, but the plot was a snooze. Rich people have problems, too! Cry me a river.

Moby-Dick, Herman Melville

This sentence took up a page and a half in my textbook. Case closed.

If you like this article, please share it! Your clicks keep us alive!