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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