No summer, no matter how sunny and fun-filled, can last forever, as kids must painfully remember every year with the return of back-to-school shopping and early-morning alarms. Now that back-to-school season has rolled around once again, kids everywhere are engaging in a time-honored ritual: pulling out the school summer reading lists they've been ignoring since June and groaning with dismay and panic.
But it doesn't have to be that way! Sometimes reading books we're assigned to read, rather than those we would pick up on our own, can be a blessing rather than a curse. It can lead us to unexpected treasures, introduce us to unfamiliar and unexpected points of view, and challenge us in surprising ways. HuffPost Entertainment's team rounded up their absolute favorite required reading from their school years and revealed what made those assigned books so memorable.
What about yours? Let us know in the comments!
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K. Dick
I remember this title appeared on one of my summer "Suggested Reading" lists in early high school, and I overlooked it because it wasn't going to be tested on the AP Lit exam, or some other pretentious reason like that. But I did eventually read the book as an adult, all in one sitting on an airplane, and it haunted me for weeks after. In the best possible way. Philip K. Dick tackles concepts like collective consciousness, artificial intelligence, religion of the masses, post-apocalyptic conservation, internally displaced people, future colonization. All wrapped up in a sci-fi plot exciting enough to prompt "Bladerunner." The movie only begins to skim the surface of how intensely rich this novel is. Even for those weary of science fiction, the author packs so much ethical analysis into just over 200 pages. Go out, get this book, and spend a day dreaming about electric sheep.
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
When I was in 12th grade, the last thing on my mind was required reading. But The Sun Also Rises
was one of the only books I didn't find myself hastily looking up on Sparknotes the night before an exam that senior year. The angsty "Lost Generation" novel of the 1920s and its underlying theme of unrequited fickle love resonated with my equally aimless teenage soul. Also, this quote is still timeless, true and amazing: “It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing.”
A Lost Lady, Willa Cather and The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner
I entered the final semester of college as a young man in transition. Family dynamics needed retooling. Old friends were exiting my life as new ones blossomed. A long-term relationship was shifting from young, carefree love to something even richer, but also at odds with the frequent constraints and sacrifices of adult life. I was looking out at the horizon toward a job market that appeared unforgiving and unwelcoming. And, in the classroom, an undergraduate thesis whose premise was still shapeless and vague hung above my head as graduation approached. It was in the course of formulating that thesis that a brilliant professor recommended I seek out Willa Cather's A Lost Lady
and Wallace Stegner's The Big Rock Candy Mountain
. They're both Westerns, specifically stories set at the closing of an old era and the emphatic beginning of something newer, and more uncertain. The former is a small novella and the latter a big, sweeping opus of a novel, but both are extremely similar in the way they interrogate family responsibility, the myths of the frontier and the American Dream, coming of age, what it means to be a man, and how one registers loss. When people say good fiction has the power to instruct and to move, to imbue you with empathy and understanding for your own life, it's novels like these two that they have in mind.
To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee
When I first got my hands on To Kill A Mockingbird
in eighth grade, I was a little skeptical. The cover looked kind of boring, and, come on, it was required reading. But from page one I identified with Scout. I was obsessed with Atticus. I was enthralled by Boo Radley. The book kept my on edge until the very last page, and the ending left me in tears. I loved it so much that I secretly read it again over the summer. Yeah, I was cool.
"The Lottery," Shirley Jackson
As I started reading more on my own in high school, I became less and less a fan of most of the assigned readings given out. "The Lottery" was the first assigned reading that really hit me. The story covers a village where everyone has gathered for a yearly tradition of the lottery, in which one member of the village is chosen. For what, it's uncertain. Until the chilling end of course. When I read it, I thought, "Wow, old stories can be twisted too!" It was my first exposure to a more genuine type of science fiction. Not lasers and spaceships (though I enjoy those, too), but rather the world as we recognize it, save for a few key differences which make it rather unrecognizable. From there I went on to read Philip K. Dick, my favorite author, and one of the greats of science fiction. Anyone who is a fan of "The Twilight Zone" will immediately enjoy this. It leads you question the very idea of tradition.
Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
I come from a family of humanities majors, so most of us have stories about how assigned reading changed us profoundly. My dad, an English professor who studies Milton, always thought he'd study 19th-century novels -- until a required poetry class in college turned him on to the wonders of Paradise Lost
, setting him on his lifelong career path. For me, it was a seminar I'd been assigned to junior year, for which I read a number of the Victorian novels I already loved so much. I also read Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway
. It was my first serious brush with modernism, and I was enraptured by the cadences of her language, the boldness of her unconventional punctuation, the saturated beauty of her prose, and the sheer denseness of her writing. Her books resembled poetry more than any novel I'd ever read. I could take any paragraph and spend hours deciphering its many meanings and nuances. Inspired, I read more of her novels and eventually wrote my senior thesis on floral imagery in her fiction, which was incredibly fun and intriguing to research and led me to an even deeper realization of how complex and carefully structured her novels are. Woolf's presence on that class's syllabus taught me to view reading in a whole new way -- and given that reading is such a big part of my life, that's no small thing!
Siddhartha, Herman Hesse
Herman Hesse's Siddhartha
, the quintessential entry into spiritual and self-discovery literature, was and still is one of the most important books I've ever read. Living in New York City for the first time as a freshman in college, I was struggling to figure out who I was and what I believed in. I was assigned to read the short novel in a required class about Eastern philosophy and religion, and I flew through it in one day. I've yet to cover a book in so much yellow highlighter and pen markings, underling almost every other sentence, the next one resonating with me more than the last. It may be simple, and maybe somewhat cliché, but Hesse's book laid much of the foundation for my understanding and beliefs today.
Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud
In the midst of a class about literature written between the World Wars -- we'd been discussing Stein and Fitzgerald and all of those other lost writers -- my professor decided to veer from the syllabus. Next up on our list was A Farewell to Arms, but instead, he asked us to grab a copy of The Freud Reader
and cozy up with it immediately. The many rationalists among us grumbled that outdated pop psychology had little to do with Hemingway, but, of course, they were wrong. Civilization and its Discontents
colored my understanding of these authors who were trying to make sense of the atrocities they'd witnessed or endured. Freud was in the same boat, but approaching from a different angle. His theories are often regarded as silly by our generation, but does his influence, or the fact that he's a joy to read and an incredible storyteller, not make him exciting and important? It seemed that many of my professor's colleagues regarded fiction as the best or only lens through which to see the world. I'm thankful that he took what might've been considered a risk by introducing us to Freud, with whom I've been well-acquainted ever since!
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
After reading books such as The Giver
and Nineteen Eighty-Four
, I was fascinated by the idea of a future where the heralded democracy of which I had been taught about in school might one day transform into a regime determined to control by any means necessary. When I was handed Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World
in high school, the label of dystopian fiction certainly caught my attention, but what I read was far from what I expected. Instead of rewritten history, Big Brother and telescreens was Neo-Pavlovian conditioning, Soma (a narcotic) and sex orgies. Brutal tyranny was replaced with societal indifference. Orwell taught me to fear the powers above me. Huxley taught me to fear myself.