I believe that reading literature is like flossing in one way only: that if you make a practice of it early in life, your future self will be infinitely grateful. I personally would never want to know a life where I did not have a regular habit of stepping out of reality and into the warm bathwater that is a good book.
The following list includes books that, when I see their familiar covers peeking out of my students’ backpacks, I sigh with delight. These are the books that never lose their excitement for me, that I can read again and again, always finding something new and fresh to offer up to my students for examination. These books, in other words, are like whirling kaleidoscopes -- offering a shiny new vision depending on the reader and the angle from which he or she observes them.
They also are books that taught me what it means to be alive, and in that sense, I believe they are “musts” to read while in high school. They’re also books I’m pretty sure you’ll love, so ask me if you’re curious about my own personal favorites. I, for one, LOVE Moby Dick, but haven’t met many students who share my appreciation for hundreds of pages about whale blubber. (Not that interested in prose-y fiction? Try one of my favorite graphic novels: Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis or Art Speigelman’s Maus.)
1. The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass
I am not sure why this is not standard reading for every high school student. Usually, it makes the list of “free choice” books, if you see it at all. In addition to being one of the only firsthand accounts of slavery (Douglass taught himself to read in early adulthood), I find it to be perhaps the most profound exploration of the human spirit ever written.
2. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
This book changed the way I think about science, nature, technology, parenthood -- it has inspired more homages and adaptations than virtually any other story ever told, but nothing comes close to Shelley’s beautiful and disturbing prose. Shelley wrote this feat of the human imagination when she was NINETEEN -- practically in high school herself. Never have I felt more unaccomplished than when I read this gem.
3. Macbeth, by William Shakespeare
If you can read Shakespeare and the Bible, you can understand every story every written. You can anticipate its themes, recognize its allusions, know what motivates its characters. Here's a great place to start.
(In addition to Shakespeare’s predictable obsession with fate, free will, and revenge, this particular offering from Shakespeare features bearded ladies who coined the phrase “Double, double, toil and trouble.” Win.)
4. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
Morrison is dark, difficult to understand and...well, dazzling. Beloved is the ultimate ghost story, and one which explores the impact of slavery and trauma in a way that is entirely unique. It’s one of the only books I actually remember being struck dumb by when I was in high school, even though my junior year English teacher did a “meh” job of explaining it. It’s also a novel that you can flip open to any page, point to ANY LINE -- and find infinite layers of meaning. No idea how she does it.
5. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
This book is incredibly important for a number of reasons, but my favorite is that it’s the first time I’ve ever felt sympathy for a little girl in a Nazi youth uniform. It is a Holocaust novel unlike any other (hint: you’ll never look at colors the same way again). Bonus: This is also one of the only books that offers an exceptional movie adaptation.
PS: Don’t pick up his subsequent novel, I am the Messenger. It’s not great. In fact, I am convinced that The Book Thief must have been the product of divine inspiration, because the quality of Zusak's second work is so drastically inferior.