Happy Teen Lit Day, everyone! It’s funny, it’s super fashionable right now for adults to read YA—like someone has deemed it “okay” for a no-longer-young adult to read young-adult fiction—but we all grew up reading all kinds of books! Here is a roundup of Sploggers’ and Sparkitors’ favorite books in high school and college. Add your own in the comments!
My favorite book I read in high school was Catch 22. There’s something really fun about the world of zany characters it creates and the way they all bump off of each other. I also really liked the way Heller pointed out the insanity we accept as normal in the world, even if I couldn’t fully appreciate the gravity of everything he was saying at the time. I remember when I was getting ready for the AP Literature exam, I kept saying that whatever the essay question was, I would write about Catch 22 because I felt like there was enough there that I could relate it to anything I was asked. As much as that may be a very “high school” thing to say, I still feel like it has so much to say about a lot of our unquestioned assumptions about society and civilization. Some of my friends say they couldn’t get through it in high school, so maybe I’m just crazy. Though if I admit I’m crazy it would mean I’m aware enough to be sane… man, if only there was a name for a dilemma like this!
As for college, I love all the Vonnegut I’ve read, though I think Breakfast of Champions is my favorite. I know that may be an odd pick as people tend to go with either Cat’s Cradle or Slaughterhouse V, but there’s something weirdly life-affirming hidden in B of C. It was one of Vonnegut’s later books, and he seems to be adding something of an addendum to some of his earlier work. I think that the clever yet kind of mechanical nature of Vonnegut’s writing might accuse some of thinking he doesn’t care about his characters, but there’s a specific point in Breakfast of Champions that feels like a rebuttal to that. Vonnegut seems to have an appreciation of humanity (even the humanity of the characters he makes up) and nowhere is it clearer than here.
I wasn’t much of a recreational reader in high school. Honestly, I wasn’t much of a assigned homework reader, either. I did enough to get by; I fancied myself a debonair Ferris Bueller type, when in reality I probably fell more on the Cameron spectrum. That changed when I was introduced to Catcher in the Rye. I completely understand the allure of J.D. Salinger’s iconic tale of a disenfranchised youth who attempts to make sense of a nonsensical world. Salinger gave an articulate voice to a feeling I was unable to express with words and it not only assuaged my own insecurities, but also inspired my affection for fiction.
I have the writing staff of the television series One Tree Hill to thank for introducing me to my favorite college book. Lucas Scott, handsome outsider and prolific squinter, quoted a passage from John Steinbeck’sThe Winter of Our Discontent that elicited a strong, emotional response in college Josh. “What a frightening thing is the human, a mass of gauges and dials and registers, and we can read only a few and those perhaps not accurately.” The first of countless yellow highlighter worthy quotes I’d enjoy while reading and re-reading the John Steinbeck classic.
This one’s hard because you get to read so, so many amazing novels in high school—To Kill a Mockingbird, Rebecca, A Separate Peace—but I’m gonna cheat a little and say the one that struck me the hardest was a short story. Yup, I’m talking about The Lottery. I will never, ever forget that twist ending. M. Night Shyamalan in his prime had nothing on Shirley Jackson. I was disturbed for a week. They STONED that lady! STONED HER! Like in biblical times! It was too crazy for my brain. I don’t even remember when I read it the first time. Maybe freshman year? Whatever. It changed the game. Everyone was not going to end up all right in the end. Someone’s gonna get stoned.
I read so, so many plays in college and not a ton of books. Is that weird? Was it just because I was a theater major? That probably had something to do with it. I remember being so, so pleasantly surprised by Tartuffe by Molière in a way that I still haven’t forgotten it. It was funny—like legit funny—which at the time really got to me because taken at face value, it sounds boring right? Would you ever expect a crusty old French dude from the 17th century to ever do anything that you’d find even remotely humorous? No way. But there it was. And the character of Dorine (the housemaid) is particularly sassy. And for someone who’d read A Doll’s House like five bajillion times, this was an excellent departure from the norm.
My favorite book in high school was definitely 1984, by George Orwell, because although I looked sweet and innocent on the outside, nobody understood how HARDCORE I was. I was down with fighting Big Brother and I loved imagining a grim, dystopian world in which freedom was an illusion, no one trusted anyone, and love was strictly verboten. Maybe because it was kind of what high school felt like for me? Let’s not read too much into this, shall we?
My favorite book in college (and still one of my favorite books today!) was called Sex Tips for Girls, by Cynthia Heimel. An American ex-pat who lived in Britain for years, Heimel had the sort of cozy, chatty, no-nonsense authorial voice that made you feel as though you were reading a letter written to you by your best friend. Her book offered a little bit of everything, from advice for the lovelorn, to dating philosophies, and even fashion, hairstyle, and yes, sex tips (although it was written in the 80s, so I took the fashion and hairstyle recommendations with a grain of salt). I hauled out that book and read it cover-to-cover every time I went through heartbreak, and it always got me through troubled romantic times with its wit and no-nonsense advice.
In high school, my favorite book was The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. Sure, it’s a graphic novel, but I was in high school and I wasn’t about to read any “real book” that wasn’t assigned to me. What I loved about Frank Miller’s tale of an aging Batman coming back to save Gotham on last time is that it felt real. It felt like this could be a real dystopia in our America and the way he wrote Batman made me appreciate the character not just as a hero, but as a cultural warrior, fighting to wipe out not just violent crime but white collar/political crimes as well. Frank Miller went on to influence almost every Batman writer and director since then and it remains one of my favorite Batman stories of all time.
I absolutely fell in love with Richard Matheson in college and pored over dozens of his books and short stories. One I absolutely adore is I Am Legend. It catapulted the “last man on earth” genre and is the basis of the 2010 movie starring Will Smith. It may seem tame by today’s standards, but considering it came out in the 1950s, this book remains one of the best horror titles to ever hit store shelves. Sadly Richard Matheson passed away last year but he’ll always remain one of (my) most influential writers of all time.
The book that I reread the most in high school was probably THE ENTIRE TOMORROW SERIES by John Marsden, but one of the books that was most mind-blowing to me was Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths, because I had never read short stories working on that meta level—these fully kitted out metaphors like the Library of Babel that were the basis of the story, and yet not what the story was about. I had several small mind explosions about infinity and time reading about a library that contained every possible combination of letters on the page, and therefore the meaning of life (and also, by definition, every Sweet Valley High book ever written). Here is how I felt reading Borges:
But I also got a wee bit obsessed with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard, because I was into drama, and comedy, and it was both and everything and introduced me (via Beckett) to absurdity. I still think a lot about Stoppard and Beckett.
In college, I had to read The Merry-Go-Round In The Seaby Randalf Stowe for a unit on Australian lit, and I fell in love. It’s a coming-of-age story about a young boy in Western Australia whose older cousin goes off to war. It’s sad and thoughtful and beautiful, and very Australian in the sense of how isolated the land feels. Ohhhh now I want to reread it!
What have been your favorite books in high school and college?