6 Classic Books I (Stupidly) Skipped In High School

hamlet040813When I was in high school, I read a lot; I just didn’t read assigned books. I thought I was bored by their contents (an invalid claim—I never gave them a chance in the first place), and reading them took up time I thought I didn’t have (because high school students have such hard lives).

But I obviously wanted the best grades possible without doing any work, so I devised a complicated system that involved multi-colored highlighters. Yellow highlighter meant it was something we talked about in class, pink meant I had actually read the portion on my own, and orange meant “this is a random passage I’ve highlighted to make it look like I’ve read this book.”

The only assigned books I read in full were The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, because it’s, like, 20 pages and there are pictures; Goodbye To All That, because I liked the teacher who assigned it; and Mrs. Dalloway, because the aforementioned teacher recommended it to me. And actually, from Mrs. Dalloway on, I loved books passionately. And I still do. I just needed a little extra time to find that out on my own.

Here are five books I totally fake-highlighted my way through, thus missing important milestones in my literary development.

1. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
I was a Religion major in college, so I think I would have really enjoyed this book—I know it’s packed with religious allegory. I’ve also been told that after reading it, you will be armed with enough knowledge to catch, kill, and disembowel a whale. Not that I’m going to do that, but it’d be nice to know I could. And I must admit, every time I hear someone say “Call me Ishmael,” I feel like I’m being left out of a really good inside joke. I’ve actually purchased this book on my NOOK, only to ignore it when Caitlin Moran comes out with a new book or I remember how badly I’ve been wanting to read Lean In, or I pick up Helter Skelter for the thirtieth time. “Moby Dick will always be there,” I tell myself. And so there it waits, getting pushed further and further into the depths of my NOOK library.

2. Lord Of The Flies, by William Golding
“A nightmare of panic and death,” says the blurb on the back of this 1954 classic. Why did I not read this when I was told to? I love panic and death! I suppose I wasn’t mature enough to take in a story about English schoolboys stranded on an uninhibited island. But I’m a big girl now. I think I can handle it. And reading about it right now has inspired me to put it on my NOOK list (a few slots above Moby Dick.)

3. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
It isn’t that I haven’t tried to read this book; it’s that I literally cannot get through it. Approximately once a year, a friend says it’s her favorite novel, and I give it another chance. But I never end up finishing it. It sounds interesting and important, but the fact is, I just don’t enjoy moving my eyes through the words. I was supposed to read it in high school. I was also supposed to take Bio in high school. But I’m an adult now, which means that I’ll never take another Bio class again if I can help it, and that I don’t have to read Lolita if I don’t wanna. Adulthood is freedom!

4. Hamlet, by William Shakespeare
You wouldn’t believe how often Hamlet comes up in pop culture. My ignorance of its themes, plot, and characters shames me almost every day. So I wish I had read it in the 90s, just like I wish I had worn sunscreen when I was a teenager. But I don’t feel there is anything I can do about it now. That ship has sailed. I will die without ever reading Hamlet. William Shakespeare was the bane of my existence in high school, and I’m ashamed to say that at certain points in my life, I’ve wished he’d never been born. I would have gotten much better grades, been left out of fewer conversations, and carried around a lot less guilt for failing to participate in the world of literary criticism. William Shakespeare prevented me from being an English major. And I know you’re supposed to face your demons and conquer your fears, but I’m really not convinced it’d be worth it at this point. Especially when there is a whole trove of Ann Rule books I haven’t read.

5. Ulysses, by James Joyce
I know why I haven’t read this book. I don’t think I’m smart enough to read this book. Or, at the very least, I do not have the attention span.

I love the idea of Ulysses, and have read reviews and comparisons and essays about how it relates to pop culture. But I am not man enough to read those sentences. Those long, long sentences.

6. Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling
This one was never assigned to me in high school, but even if it had been—especially if it had been—I would not have read it. When the Harry Potter books first came out, I refused to enter the world of Hogwarts because it seemed so trendy it made my skin crawl. “I’ll read Harry Potter when the hype dies down,” I told myself. I’m still waiting. People often tell me “you would love Harry Potter.” I love fantasy books and The Lord of the Rings, and I’m obsessed with Disney storytelling. And the writing is basically the opposite of Ulysses. But I’m waiting for someone to convince me—really convince me—that I’m missing something.

Which classic books have you never read? Which on this list should Lauren really, really read?

  • johngriffin0928

    I think the only assigned reading I never finished was Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy.” No great loss.

  • http://www.facebook.com/beth.carpenter.520 Beth Carpenter

    Actually read LOLITA on my own. Did not really think it was a big deal in this day and age.. Maybe it was shocking material wise when it came out, but it really didn’t shock me too much.

  • http://www.facebook.com/morwen1031 Danielle Tortorici

    Please, for the love of Dumbledore, don’t dismiss Harry Potter because it’s all hype-y. I read it many years ago, when it was first published in the US and I’ve been preaching the gospel of Potter ever since. This, I think, is one of the few instances in which the hype is spot-on. It might be popular fiction, but it’s *smart* popular fiction, and you’d be surprised how much a book about wand-waving in a wizard’s school would make you think. Rowling touches on a lot of grand literary themes, but she makes it fun, and her use of puns and other literary devices is just mind-boggling. I’m not sure if you’re a nerd for stuff like that, but if you are, you’ll lose your mind over these books. What she does with language and words is just kind of astounding.

  • riceballmommy

    My group of friends and I had the strategy of reading some of the book and then when we just couldn’t stand it anymore one of us always managed to get through it and summarize it for the rest of us. I remember doing that with Lord of the Flies, and The Stranger. I still haven’t re-read Lord of the Flies but I read a different translation of The Stranger in college and really enjoyed it. I’m working my way through a list of classics slowly in between some more modern novels though. I was never assigned them but I still feel like I should read them.

  • Jami Morgan

    I recently tried Moby Dick and couldn’t do it. I just can’t get into it at all. I feel about Moby Dick the way you feel about Lolita. I don’t know why. I completely agree with Danielle below about Harry Potter though. I just recently re-read the series for the third time. It’s one of my go to “I just want to read a good story” options.

  • Renee

    1984 by George Orwell. Everyone seems to have read it but I was never assigned this particular book.

    Please read Harry Potter, if only for the fun of the series. I usually hate and go out of my way to avoid hype books but I started reading Harry Potter before the hype and it is near and dear to my heart. I haven’t met anyone who has read the series with any complaints apart from it being over.

  • http://antkowiaks.blogspot.com Ashley Antkowiak

    Oh wow so spot on! The one I can’t get through? The Scarlet Letter. No matter how hard I try (and it’s not even that long!)…. someday, maybe. But probably not.

    • Jenn

      I had to read this for a class on Magic & The Supernatural in college. Every book was AWESOME except this one. You’re not missing anything in my opinion…

    • Jen Taggart

      That was a God awful book. I couldn’t get through it. It was so slow and uneventful.

    • Mary Baker

      Skip the first chapter, “The Custom House,” which tells how the narrator found the scarlet letter when cleaning out the custom house. Try starting with the second chapter. You still might not like it though because we all have our own likes and dislikes which is what makes the world so interesting!!

  • Jenn

    I always did the assigned reading, but one classic I’ve never been able to make my way through is Les Mis. I’ve tried about 5 times now and I can never make it past the first 50 pages.

  • http://twitter.com/soths_isolade rachel lee smith

    i never read “where the red fern grows”, “the scarlet letter”, “the great gatsby”, “of mice and men”, and “the catcher in the rye”. they were assigned and we had test on them. i bull crapped my way through the test. and i didnt do to bad, the grades were passing. i just couldnt get into them. i was busy reading Poe, Shakespeare, Dickens, Tennison, Jack London and many other authors. those were books i could sink my teeth into. i have read hundreds of books and still feel no need to read the ones i listed above.

  • Jesse

    I was an American Literature major in college and somehow between high school and college I was never assigned “the Great Gatsby” and therefore have not read it. I’ve also never been assigned, nor read, “A Tale of Two Cities”.

  • Jen Taggart

    I love the Harry Potter series, but how is it a classic? I’m not sure if there is a strict definition of classic, but the book hasn’t out lived a single generation of people yet. My favorite classic book (and all time favorite) is The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s long but is very engaging.

  • http://twitter.com/Frogster_15 Shelli

    Read Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion by Jane Austen. Also try books/stories that aren’t usually called “classics” but should be: Mark Twain, Sherlock Holmes, and Edgar Allan Poe are great places to start.

    • http://www.facebook.com/tieyoon.p Tie Yoon P

      I have to agree that Jane Austen’s writing are very classic books and are good reads… But of course… The beginnings tend to be very drawn out and a bit dry but, in my opinion will be worth it. And yes, Mark Twain, Sherlock Holmes, and Edgar Allen Poe are excellent places to start, and are much more compact than Jane Austen’s novels.

  • Albert Sanchez Moreno

    She should read “Hamlet”, and get used to reading Shakespeare, immediately.

  • Anthony Budka

    You have to read Lolita. Lo was the novel I did my thesis on and it’s incredibly powerful. If you never made it to Part II of the book, you’re missing out. Plus the audiobook, if you’re into that kind of thing, was read by Jeremy Irons.

  • Zepher07

    If you really do like panic and death, you should really read Hamlet. I understand your weariness with Shakespeare. They beat us to death with Romeo and Juliet in high school, but Hamlet is whole different game. You get to a follow a man as he is driven delicously insane by the plot contrived by his murderous uncle and compliant mother that killed Hamlet’s father, and Hamlet takes everyone with him. Of course, the real question is whether or not Hamlet is truely insane or or merely acting insane, or both.
    By the way, even though I read the required reading in high school, I only just got into reading the classics. The one that really suprised me was Pride and Predjudice. I thought would bore me because I’m usually attracted to sci-fi/fantasy with a fast paced storyline, but I was so drawn in by this book. I loved the complex domesticity of it, and it was Victorian era life which is different from now which made it all the more interesting.

  • disqus_GEvAyEiXIo

    I started but just could NOT finish Intruder in the Dust (undergrad). And the same us true of the last several books of Spenser’s Faerie Queene (grad school). Here’s another confession: I somehow avoided Chaucer altogether, and I was only 12 credits shy of a PhD in Medieval Literature when I withdrew from the program.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jdlogspook Jd Logsdon

    Where was the comparisons to “1984” and “Atlas Shrugged” ? They especially are relevant to the country today.

  • http://twitter.com/acoywriter A Coy

    I went to a really small school and all the advanced english classed were taught by the same teacher. I got tired of her, so my senior year, I skipped advanced lit for american lit. I got Huck Finn, but missed out on Jane Austin until I turned 40. This week a co-worker gave me Fahrenheit 451 because I’ve never read it either.

  • Katy

    I have to say, I don’t think you’re missing anything by not reading H.P., but you should read it eventually just to see what all the hype was about. It’s not classic-level though.

  • http://www.facebook.com/clarkhamblen Clark Hamblen

    Surprisingly, “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote was assigned in High School and I have been in love with reading ever since.

  • http://www.facebook.com/marielle.davis.3 Marielle Davis

    Confession time: I never made it past page 5 of Waiting for Godot or Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead. (Even the movie version with the delicious Tim Roth and Gary Oldman couldn’t keep me entertained.) They bored me, frustrated me, and worst of all, made me feel absolutely nothing, a cardinal literary sin. Want me to read a book? It’s gotta make me feel some sort of emotion beyond boredom.

  • cospacegeek

    In all honesty, the only one of the six books you’ve listed that I think you’ve lost out on is Moby Dick. I DID read Hamlet in high school and frankly, Shakespeare isn’t for reading. You are far better off renting one of the Royal Shakespearean Company’s performances and watching it. After all, it’s a play and meant to be watched.

    IMO, Lord of the Flies was highly overrated (then again, I didn’t like Catcher in the Rye either) and I regret the time wasted reading the Harry Potter books. Rowling doesn’t so much touch on grand literary themes as borrow from them liberally. She does a pretty good job with descriptive prose but her world is a mishmash of supernatural icons that doesn’t really have any glue or consistency other than Harry Potter as a central character in a supposed grand epic that just doesn’t hold together as well as Tolkien or Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain.

    Instead of the other five books you regret not reading, I would suggest Great Expectations (or Oliver Twist), The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Riders of the Purple Sage (or Betty Zane), Les Miserables (but steel yourself for some really long prose), and The Count of Monte Cristo (use an original translation rather than one of the abbreviated kids’ versions). Reading Les Miserable and The Count of Monte Cristo in sequence can be rather illuminating since they are fairly contemporaneous and both touch on redemption.

    The other suggestions of Twain and Doyle (Sherlock Holmes) are excellent as well.

  • Mary Baker

    I skipped THE SCARLET LETTER,THE GOOD EARTH and THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Now they are among my all-time favorite books. I did read MOBY DICK and loved the Harry Potter series.

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