All the books we hated in school , but now love

Somehow, with a decade between us and the assigned reading of The Great Gatsby, it’s much easier to stomach the green light.

Maybe you were distracted by an adolescent crush to pay attention to the book in front of you, maybe your literature teacher was a nightmare, or maybe you just didn’t like to read. The books we were told to read were more of chores and less of our choice. Would we have enjoyed Animal Farm more if it weren’t some twisted lesson warning us against communism? Would The Great Gatsby have been a pleasurable short read instead of a laborious treasure hunt for symbolism? Even if we hated these assigned books as teens, they have stayed with us in many ways, regardless of if we read them or not. And now, looking back to these texts, there are lessons we missed, stories that we were too young to grasp, and pleasures we were too preoccupied to relish in. Besides, what’s better than revisiting some familiar nostalgic places and faces, even if they’re only found in books. Here are a few books you were probably assigned that you should revisit:

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Reading level: Eighth grade /​Year 9

The logline: A lawyer dad schools his dumb whiny child about race relations.

In the fictitious town of Maycomb, Alabama, a community is left to decide the fate of a rape trial. Famously known for teaching us as children what it means to walk in someone else’s shoes, To Kill a Mockingbird was the assigned summer reading or first book many read in high school. And due to that, we ignored it. The middle lost us, especially the trial. The most important part. The ham costume was a funny detail that everyone remembers, but the lessons about injustice and race in America were skimmed over. Now we know what to look for, because it is not so much fiction at all.

A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen

Reading level: Tenth grade /​Year 11

The logline: Unhappy 19th century marriage unsurprisingly ends because of an affair and money.

A play about a stale marriage, a woman, and a house. And a play about leaving said house and slamming the door on your awful husband. Reading this slow-burning play as a teenager felt like a bore – what did we know about marriage and independence then, anyway? But now, this reads as a reminder to prioritise agency and yourself over any institution or male figure. The main character Nora cancelled men before we all did, walking out of her marriage on her own accord when that was the ultimate sign of social rebellion. A bit like Ariana Grande’s break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored, but make it 19th century. Read this play again and feel the escape at the end – and maybe you will slam the door on someone too.

Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

Reading level: Eleventh grade /​Year 12

The logline: Two men roam around the American West in search of work, and love.

Yes, carrying a dead mouse in your pocket is weird, gross, and not cute. But if you didn’t have a soft spot in your heart for Lennie and closed this book without shedding a tear, it is time to revisit. In a way, this book was so straightforward in language that it was harder to appreciate. Steinbeck doesn’t hide behind language, but rather, complex emotion. Going back through this as an adult, the friendship between Georgie and Lennie is more relatable and the devastation more poignant. A read just short enough to capture the attention of a hormonal teen, it is also short enough to sit down on a weekend or between commutes.

Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson

Reading level: Eighth grade /​Year 9

The logline: Teenagers party and then bully a girl for calling the police after a sexual assault.

A girl calls the police at a high school party after an incident in the woods. Instead of finding justice, she is bullied and tormented for ruining a summer party. The book is still banned as an assigned reading in some schools because of its depiction of sex and rape in a young adult novel. Many, then, never got to even read it. And regardless, very few teenagers at the time they first read it could take in the obscure reality of this book. But now that the conversation around sexual assault and harassment is no longer taboo, revisiting this novel is an emotional reflection.

Beloved, Toni Morrison

Reading level: Twelfth grade /​Year 13

The logline: The firstborn child comes back to haunt her mother and sister.

A formerly enslaved woman, Sethe, lives in Cincinnati with her daughter and mother-in-law. But as far away as she may have gone from her past, and from what she thought she left behind, history is still haunting her. Beloved and the character Beloved encapsulate a magical realism that our young eyes couldn’t absorb, the weight of the story not felt. Toni Morrison’s complexity and elevated prose made this story difficult to follow. But with age, it becomes more clear. And now, with the passing of Morrison as well, there is no excuse not to return to this heart-wrenching story with a new perspective.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

Reading level: Eleventh grade /​Year 12

The logline: Young woman falls in love with her boss, but he has some skeletons in his closet – or attic.

A classic that shapes the writing of many other gothic tales of love, lust, and old buildings. The prose, though, is dark and drab like the interior decorations of Rochester’s house. And every descriptive detail was one too much, and also an expansive pool for extrapolated symbolism for our literature courses. We know the story, but why revisit this classic? Because just when the Jane-Rochester love could have gone down in your memory as the passionate love affair of the last two centuries, you will question everything you thought about their relationship like you might with your own past lovers as well.

The Awakening, Kate Chopin

Reading level: Twelfth grade /​Year 13

The logline: A Southern married woman wants freedom and finds it when she goes swimming alone.

Edna is married to a boring man until Robert comes along, flirting with and blurring the lines of her marriage – resulting in the climactic confession of his love for her. Another book about leaving your husband before it was cool, it’s early feminist pulse and incisive reflection makes it a first of its kind. As a teen, this story feels above us and before us. The psychological and emotional turmoil too intense for our own chaotic minds at the time, we are now mature enough to fully read it and feel it.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Reading level: Tenth grade /​Year 11

The logline: After what first felt like a spark came contempt, which fueled a passionate romance.

Can this list exist without this one? Or at least without one Jane Austen title? Like riding a bike, revisiting Pride and Prejudice is a sweet trip home. The gentile yet impassioned love affair between Lizzy and Darcy will always be a classic. While the 19th century English felt like reading a whole different language, Austen reads more poetically than we remember – and generally less unbearable to sit through and read. Now the love story is more pleasurable, giving you butterflies rather than evoking eye-rolls. Besides, the movie is just another reason to dive back into this story.

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

Reading level: Eleventh grade /​Year 12

The logline: A poor orphan inherits money and does not know what to do with it.

Pip – who we all have a little bit in common with, in some way – is a young boy with no money and inherits a mysterious fortune. While his inheritance and new fortune, when we read this as kids, seems only like a dream, the conflicts of family, love, and dangers of wealth are more visible to our adult eyes. It is difficult, though, to bear through all of Dickens’ slow, dense and dated language. Pip’s hardships, however, ring more true to us now as we understand money – a little bit better – and the difficulties it poses beyond our paychecks. As readers, we have more patience, and as adults coming into handling our own money, we have similar expectations to meet.

Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

Reading Level: Tenth grade /​Year 11

The logline: Angsty teen thinks everyone is phony and doesn’t want to grow up.

You either hated or loved Catcher in the Rye and its infamous narrator, Holden Caulfield. Maybe, for some, reading his name here is enough for you to either miss him or wish you were never reminded of him. While one would think the average disillusioned teen would sympathise with Holden, the pretention of the language and visceral angst may have been even too much for the seasoned rebel. But now, as adults, the youthful skepticism is endearing in some ways and in others, humbly precocious. It will make you miss the spirit of teenage dissent, back when you first learned you could tell an adult no” or say fuck you” to anyone. If you want to get back in touch with your rebel side, ease through 200+ pages of your old friend on a rant.

1984, George Orwell

Reading level: Tenth grade /​Year 11

The logline: Dystopian government with a cultish leader watches everything.

Most of this book sounds too familiar, either in the way it eerily predicted The Cold War or in how it is applicable to our modern government and world. For a teenage reader, however, the skepticism of institutions of power is not fully developed enough to appreciate the dystopic story and reality of 1984. Influential in the genre of dystopic fiction, the novel remained in the canon but took a step back from the literary stage – until 2016. After the election of Donald Trump, 1984 meant something new. It has resurfaced, people are buying new copies, having public readings, and Orwellian’ is no longer just used to describe literature but also policy. Whether or not you pick this one back up, it has become a new required reading of the era.

Bonus: The Lorax, Dr. Seuss

Reading level: Fourth grade /​Year 5

The logline: Orange nature troll is upset there are no more trees.

Deforestation? Climate change? Greed? Yes, this allegorical tale is still relevant today.

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