If you are like me, you may have only paid partial attention during your 5…er…4 years of high school. When your teacher assigned a book to the class you generally followed what I call the “5 Stages of Procrastination.”

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Sparknotes

I don’t believe this is a shortcoming of the education system or even a flaw in the syllabus which requires that you read the usual suspects of novels (see Romeo and Juliet, Catcher in the Rye and the Crucible among others). These books are generally chosen for a specific reason and fit into a well rounded literary experience that shapes the minds and hearts of high schoolers everywhere. They are the classics, right? That doesn’t mean that we have to love them, but we should at least give them their due.

While I was not an exemplary reader in high school, in college I turned into a devourer of books. I read everything I could get my hands on, turning once again to books that I should have read in High School. In so doing, my appreciation grew for the classics and the authors that stood behind them. Inspired by my own Dad, I created a list of books which I would eventually encourage all of my children to read one day and included many of these works. So if you’re like me and relied heavily on the plot synopsis page of SparkNotes, here are 5 books that you definitely did not read in high school but should now.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

There are so many good reasons to read this book, but chief among them is that Atticus Finch is quite possibly my favorite character in any work of fiction. Atticus is the father that every child deserves; smart, eloquent and above all, he possesses an unshakeable sense of right and wrong. Set in a small Alabama town during the 1930’s, To Kill a Mockingbird is centered around the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Atticus is appointed to defend Tom and does so honorably, despite the crushing social pressures applied to he and his family. The narrator is Scout, the six year old daughter of Atticus making the story accessible and yet incredibly profound as it touches on themes like justice, racial prejudice and gender roles. The beauty of this book is that, like any good work, it holds a mirror up to our modern society and begs the question “How much progress have we really made?” It preaches compassion and courage in the face of immense hatred. A lesson that, if you browse through the latest youtube comments, you will quickly surmise that we have not yet learned. 

Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

Another one of my absolute favorite books, the Killer Angels is a historical fiction that relays the four bloodiest days of any American war - the Battle of Gettysburg. Based heavily in historical accounts and accented by some brilliant storytelling, this story explores the brutal reality of war. The narrator acts like a fly on the wall, floating between a number of characters on both sides, including some of the most pivotal officers of the brief four day engagement. Shaara masterfully crafts the story by exploring the mindset of a soldier before, during and after battle. To me, he perfectly depicts the solemnity, tension and depending on the outcome of the day joy or misery that battle brings on men. The story is driven and somewhat focused on one of the more unlikely heroes of the Civil War, a lowly Colonel from Maine named Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain who would lead a tide turning defense of the Union’s position on Little Round Top despite enormous odds. Chamberlain is rightly celebrated in this story as his bravery is exceeded only by his ability to lead the men around him. If history is not your thing, pretend this book is non-fiction and you’d be surprised at just how captivating the story is.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

You probably saw the movie, because if you don’t love Leo I’m sure someone close to you does. But what the movie fails to portray and the book captures perfectly is how the pursuit of the “American Dream” when left unchecked, can be so destructive. If you’re not familiar, the story recounts the extraordinary tale of Jay Gatsby, an eccentric, self-made millionaire living in a wealthy suburb of New York City and his life-long pursuit of Daisy Buchanan. The story is told through the point of view of Nick Carraway, who is Gatsby’s neighbor, Daisy’s second cousin and a green bond salesman who lives in a wealthy suburb of New York City. What follows is a twisting tale of excess, lies and ultimately, destruction. Gatsby’s unhinged pursuit of his personal “American Dream” quickly transforms from blind ambition into madness and ultimately ends in ruin. But I think F. Scott Fitzgerald was writing less of a cautionary tale and more of a biographical confession. He experienced the wealth and excess of the times and like many, ultimately came up empty handed in pursuit of what he thought would make him happy. Whatever the author’s intentions, it’s a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a man who is bound to his dream and driven at great lengths to get there.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

I see you rolling your eyes. Shakespeare is polarizing author but some of his works are undeniably good and Hamlet is definitely one of them. The story revolves around Price Hamlet of Denmark, who is driven to revenge after his father, the former King of Denmark, is murdered. Hamlet suspects his Uncle, who has hastily married Hamlet’s mother after the murder (making him the King) and is generally a shady dude. I compare Hamlet (and most of Shakespeare’s works) to a game of European Football. Long interchanges highlighted by space, exciting moments and yet ultimately the end in tragedy. My theory also works on another level, it’s no coincidence that most Americans abhor Shakespeare and Soccer. What I mean is, the man could write some great one liners and Hamlet might just be the ultimate literary Golazo. Consider some of the following quotes, “This above all: to think own self be true” or “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” or “One may smile, and smile and be a villain” and “Listen to many, speak to few.” You can’t deny those gems and Hamlet is full of them. Another wildly enjoyable aspect of Shakespeare’s works is how much scholarly work has be done to make sense of his works. So, you can literally say anything means anything and when it comes to Shakespeare you might be right. Ambiguous? Sure. Enjoyable? Absolutely.

Call of the Wild by Jack London

Jack London’s short adventure about frontier life in the Yukon territories of Canada was a book that captured my imagination when I was young. Nothing sounded more exciting to me than dogsledding through a snow capped valley with the sun lighting up the horizon. Interestingly, the book centers on a dog named Buck who was stolen from a ranch in California and made into a sled dog on the frozen tundras of the Alaskan wilderness. A life of brutal conditions and grueling work turns Buck from a domesticated animal into a creature of primordial instinct. London not have seen the future but he certainly is raising some questions about the cost/benefit of progressive society. It’s no coincidence that he chose an animal as his protagonist when he could have easily told a similar story about a man. When all of Buck’s comforts are removed, he had no choice but to lean on his natural impulses, “reverting” to a primitive state. London’s point (to me, at least) is that the wild can provide a paradoxical cure to the pressures of modern culture and in some way return us to a more instinctive state. Curiously, he doesn’t seem to mention any “Paleo diet” or being “Naked and Afraid” although I am sure those would just accelerate the process. A short, engaging read that is high on my list of recommended reads.

Well, there you have it. If you are headed on Spring Break, a long business flight or just looking for some alternative to NetFlix, give these reads a go. Have a different book to recommend? Hit the comments below and share it with us. Happy reading everyone!

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