50 English Class Classics You Should Revisit Later in Life
High school English, even for avowed bibliophiles, sometimes (if not oftentimes) imbues participants with boredom and frustration — especially when teachers try to force perspectives and close classes off to multiple interpretations. As a result, readers dread many a classic they may otherwise adore. Some rediscover these dreaded tomes once they hit college, others wait until much later in life. Either way, they look at them in a whole new light and subsequently develop a love, appreciation, understanding or at least a different interpretation.
Before comments start trickling in about the monocle-popping heresy of excluding certain works, including others and mentioning one some never read in school, remember that literature is a highly subjective topic. This list was compiled after discussing the subject with peers and reading about it on the internet for a broader scope. It’s not meant to be taken as anything even one iota definitive, merely a series of talking points to contemplate and debate.
So please save the outrage for real injustices and approach this list with civility instead of puffed feathers and bellowing fingers.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: High school students who go on to college can quite easily nurture a firsthand understanding of the self-serving hedonism found at the center of this beloved classic. And then they’ll either despise it even more or relate all too well.
Beowulf by unknown: Pick up the popular Old English epic after forgetting the seemingly endless lectures and settle in to a thoroughly enjoyable adventure tale.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger: Depending on one’s circumstances when first picking up The Catcher in the Rye, protagonist Holden Caulfield is either a counterculture revelation or a whiny, pretentious brat. Revisiting him later in life will inevitably shift perceptions to some degree, be it major or minor.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: Some high school students may scoff at the soapier elements found on Zora Neale Hurston’s Harlem Renaissance essential, but older adults are more likely to see and admire the strength, courage and resolve of heroine Janie Crawford.
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare: The real tragedy of Romeo and Juliet isn’t their mistaken, needless deaths. It’s their staggering myopia and selfishness.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey: Anyone who has ever personally suffered from a psychiatric disorder — or loves someone who does — might find the marginalization of the mentally ill in this undeniable classic both disturbing and tragically accurate. It may take some time and experience between high school and the next read for such bitter facts to really seize hold.
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo: Les Miserables is huge. When reading it in English class, deadlines might preclude many students from really picking up on the book’s myriad juicy nuances. Revisiting it later offers far more time to sit and ponder everything Hugo wanted audiences to see.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy: As with Les Miserables, time constraints and other academic obligations make it difficult to really become absorbed in War and Peace. When picking it up and reading on a more personal schedule, visitors are more likely to forge a far more solid grasp of the material.
Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko: More sensitive high school students may find protagonist Tayo’s spiritual, emotional and physical healing process too intense for their tastes. But as they age and gain more life experience, Ceremony could very well prove exactly what they need one day.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe: As long as there are nations battling it out over land and squashing indigenous cultures beneath their boots, postcolonial literature will always be relevant. Chances are, anyone reading Things Fall Apart as a high school student will probably be able to apply many of its tenets to current events. When they re-read it as adults, they might find themselves sadly noting how little things have changed.
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair: Both at the turn of the 20th Century and on into today, most readers (even teachers) tend to emphasize Upton Sinclair’s visceral descriptions of unsanitary food production — especially since it directly spawned hefty legislation. In reality, though, he wanted it to shed light on the plight of exploited workers. Give his classic another visit later in life and see how the story changes when reading it with this in mind.
Beloved by Toni Morrison: Toni Morrison deliberately left many elements of her celebrated novel ambiguous, so any subsequent readings will inevitably churn up new perspectives, details and interpretations.
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan: Because family stands as this classic’s core theme, The Joy Luck Club never goes out of style. Whenever issues with parents arise, refer back to it for solace and insight.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker: When life grows too overwhelming, timeless heroine Celie provides inspiration to press on — no matter what sort of adversity and cruelty stonewalls happiness and stability.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: The sociopolitical elements driving this famous narrative are incredibly important to understanding it as a whole, but focusing too much on them — as one would in an English class — glosses over the comparatively more lighthearted adventure elements.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: Understandably, many first-time Frankenstein readers dive into the novel expecting a green-skinned simpleton with bolts in his neck — and find themselves shocked when encountering something completely different. Give it a re-read and see what may have been missed when consciously or subconsciously making comparisons with the iconic movie.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway: High school students sigh over this leisurely-paced classic, but older adults seeking something more philosophical than frenetic might find it exactly what they want.
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller: Hopefully, picking up the searing Death of a Salesman at just the right time will prevent many students and adults from falling into the same lifestyle traps as tragic Willy Loman.
The Stranger by Albert Camus: Existentialism probably seems intense and somewhat inaccessible to many high schoolers, but one of the philosophy’s cornerstones warrants further consideration once they pack on more life experiences.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad: Puncturing through allegory after allegory after allegory grows tiresome after a while, and a fair amount of individuals might enjoy Heart of Darkness far more if they didn’t have to so painstakingly dissect every word.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou: Maya Angelou’s poetic autobiography is at once heartbreaking and inspiring — an ultimately uplifting tale perfect for anyone needing a dash or two of courage.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut: An American treasure, Kurt Vonnegut may not necessarily appeal to harried high schoolers lacking the time to really sit and think about his statements regarding society, religion and politics. Approaching him with the proper time frame and mindset will make Slaughterhouse-Five and his other works burst with life and lessons.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka: "Monstrous vermin" Gregor Samsa serves as a viable literary outlet for anyone, anywhere feeling as if the world treads all over their stability and happiness. Reading about the horrific abuses his family heaps upon him provides a strange, comforting sense of solidarity.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte-: Though fiction, Wuthering Heights makes for one of the most prominent lessons in how mentally and emotionally abusive relationships operate – something women and men alike absolutely need to know if they hope to keep themselves safe.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck: Most of Steinbeck’s oeuvre deserves multiple reads, but his story of a developmentally disabled man and his devoted caretaker remains one of the most heart-wrenching American novels ever printed. And one whose tragic ending merits a wealth of conversations.
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: Because Don Quixote possesses such a rich history and left an indelible mark on popular culture, bibliophiles of all ages find themselves coming back again and again to enjoy the adventures of the eponymous dreamer.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: This semi-autobiographical novel sheds considerable light on a life wracked with mental illness — a somber, realistic lesson every adult must understand. The Bell Jar also serves as a reminder that anyone emotionally struggling doesn’t always do so alone.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess: Readers who don’t understand Russian or cockney slang (aka most of them) need to read this warped dystopian novel multiple times to understand what in God’s name the characters are even saying.
A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen: Written before the feminist movement rose up and fought for women’s equality, one of Henrik Ibsen’s most popular plays toyed with the scandalous notion that some housewives may pine for a life outside their husbands, homes and kids.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin: Another recommended read for the liberated woman and the men who appreciate them, though many fans of this book find themselves divided over whether or not they fully agree with the central figure’s actions.
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift: English classes spend so much time zeroing in on the wealth of social, political and religious commentary found in Gulliver’s Travels, they oftentimes forget to address just how much fun the book actually is.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison: Dense and intense, Ralph Ellison’s brutal analysis of pre-Civil Rights race relations is required reading for any students and adults hoping to end bigotry in all its twisted, ugly guises.
Maus by Art Spiegelman: Maus currently holds the honor of being the only Pulitzer-winning graphic novel, a status that rightfully earned it a place on many a syllabus. Despite its grim content — Art Spiegelman’s very real talks with his father about his Holocaust experiences — the valuable lessons about family and history remain timeless.
Inferno by Dante Alighieri: All three portions of Dante Alighieri’s epic poetry trilogy The Divine Comedy are required reading, but his bizarre, highly detailed depiction of hell holds the most influence over the literary world today — not to mention pop culture as a whole.
1984 by George Orwell: No literary history aficionados will argue that George Orwell’s terrifying totalitarian dystopia birthed the entire genre, but it certainly left the biggest impact. Political pundits enjoy trotting out parallels to 1984 when discussing administrations they hate. Citizens familiarizing themselves with the novel’s tenets and context can tell whether or not they have a real point or are just resorting to paranoid fearmongering.
Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya: Despite the many hardships heaped upon protagonist Rukmani, hers is a story of strength and perseverance that many students and adults may want to consult when seeking comfort in times of trouble.
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton: Though apartheid may have ended, its legacy of intolerance and discord provides future generations with the tools to identify and stop such practices before they even have a chance to start.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: Readers of all ages with a particular affinity for absurdity and political commentary — especially as it relates to wartime — keep coming back to this novel again and again for laughs and truth bombs.
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros: Bibliophiles looking for a great bildungsroman to read over and over again have plenty to love about and explore with this compelling story about a young Chicana and her life in an impoverished Chicago neighborhood.
A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor: Though an obviously subjective statement, many consider Flannery O’Connor one of the best American short story writers of all time. In such a confined space, she thrived with some incredibly provocative, influential narratives well worth reconsideration.
Night by Elie Wiesel: In his autobiography, Elie Wiesel recounts his gruesome experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald with the hopes of educating the world about the Holocaust’s horrors. Giving Night more than one look helps drive home its major historical themes, imbuing readers with the knowledge needed to better recognize hate and genocide.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi: This new classic is at once hilarious and heartbreaking. Through deceptively simple art, writer and cartoonist Marjane Satrapi recounts her childhood during the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the different set of prejudices faced as an expatriate in Europe.
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon: Gravity’s Rainbow necessitates multiple reads because it involves over 400 characters embroiled in increasingly absurdist, surreal situations. Anyone who says they understand everything in one read is probably lying just to seem smart. Punch him or her in the face.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles: The comparatively cushy lives of private school students in New England are juxtaposed with young men forced to the front lines of World War II, with a strange and interesting friendship right in the center.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole: Not only is it a provocative read — especially when one factors in author John Kennedy Toole’s tragic life — this posthumous Pulitzer winner also happens to be one of the most hilarious novels ever published.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens: Charles Dickens attracts such a massive audience, most of his oeuvre could’ve easily made this list. A Tale of Two Cities oftentimes bores high school students, but as they grow older they may come to love its history and memorable characters.
Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott: Aside from the fact that this novel exists as one of the greatest satires ever written in English, it also warrants multiple reads for the sheer originality and imagination.
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf: In her book-length essay A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf opines on feminism, sexuality (most especially lesbianism) and the importance of financial autonomy and personal space for writers.
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri: Short stories of Indians and Indian-Americans intertwine thematically, raising some excellent questions about multiculturalism, family, relationships and plenty of other subjects bibliophiles delight in discussing.
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse: Both the spiritually-minded and those adhering to no religious credos at all appreciate this reflective classic and turn to it for meditative advice.