As I write this, I have approximately 88 days left until my high school graduation on May 18th. I have to admit, four years ago I never thought that senior year would come as fast as it did and if these last 88 days warrant nothing else, they warrant reflection.
I have no doubt that throughout my high school years I have spent more time working and reading for my English classes than I have for any other class. Four years of classic and contemporary literature, essays and analysis will all culminate on May 9th when I take my AP Literature and Composition exam. I have no doubt that I will be well-equipped to deal with the monster that is 55 multiple-choice questions and a few essays.
Admittedly, I did not always enjoy the books I was assigned to read in high school. The syntax in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird -- which I do not think is the greatest piece of American literature ever written -- exasperated me to no end. I never quite cared for any of the Shakespeare dramas that I had to read over the years -- I could probably write a whole other post about how Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello could have easily avoided their deaths -- but perhaps if we had read more of the comedies I would have favored Shakespeare more.
For the small group of poems, plays, and literature that I had to read in high school that I disliked, there were many more that I enjoyed quite a lot. So, without further delay, here are the five best pieces of literature -- in chronological order -- that I read in high school.
Dante Alighieri's Inferno: Read my sophomore year of high school, the first part of Dante's Divine Comedy, Inferno was hands-down the best piece of literature I read from high school that was written before the 19th century. Although it was a more challenging read due to its old-world syntax, I couldn't put this epic poem down. There was just something horrifyingly enticing about journeying through each level with Dante and Virgil and seeing the increasingly gruesome punishments that the residents of each level of Hell were forced to endure. Admittedly, I enjoyed the various theological discussions that arose in class while discussing each canto most of all. As a practicing agonistic at the time, it was enlightening to me to see how people valued each respective sin in each level of Hell and how they valued the corresponding punishments.
J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye: Before John Green or Stephen Chbosky set out to tackle the daunting and complex nature of contemporary teenage angst; J.D. Salinger gave the world Holden Caulfield. I originally read Salinger's novel as a sophomore and instantly sympathized with Holden. "Here was a character who understands how the world works," I'd say to myself. I liked Holden and his philosophies so much that I actually went out and bought a trapper hat. When I reread the novel at the beginning of my senior year of high school I was amazed at how much I disliked Holden. Here was a character that had no reason in the world to be bitter towards society, but he still was anyways. Of course, the complexity of Holden as a character is much deeper than him simply being bitter towards society, but what I got out of reading The Catcher in the Rye the second time around was that I had grown up. I no longer sympathized with Holden because I myself had changed and grown up, even if he hadn't.
Elie Wiesel's Night: One of the subjects that I have found is often under-taught in the American public education system is the Holocaust. In 800+ page history books, the event only garners a few pages at most and Elie Wisel's autobiographical account of his time in the Nazi German concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald is the only book I have ever been assigned in 12 years of school on the topic; but I'm glad I was assigned it my sophomore year. I'm glad because for the first time the Holocaust became more to me than just a historical event in the pages of a textbook. Wiesel put faces and names to the events and places. He humanized it for me and many of my peers. No adjectives do justice to the despairing account Wiesel gives. I suppose that it is a mark of his talent as a writer that he is able to really transport the reader to see what he saw, but at the same time it is not a journey for the light-hearted.
Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman: This is another novel that I got to read twice during my high school career; the first time my sophomore year, the second time my senior year. Fundamentally, Death of a Salesman is supposed to be about the fallacy of the American dream, but it wasn't for me. All of the characters in Death of a Salesman live in a bubble of superficiality and have "all the wrong dreams." Willy Loman, the father, is a poor excuse for a salesman because he disvalues hard work for "being liked." Biff Loman, the eldest son, is an unemployed drifter who peaked in high school due to his father convincing him that his looks would get him by in life. Happy Loman, the second son, is nearly an identical clone of his father who sleeps with the wives of his superiors in order to feel good about himself. Linda Loman is the long-suffering wife of Willy who stays with him even though he verbally abuses her and neglects her emotionally. Although at Willy's funeral -- sorry for that spoiler, but you really should have seen it coming -- it is implied that Happy and Linda have not changed as characters, and it is implied that Biff has. Through Biff, I realized that the American dream isn't dead as long as one is willing to go after the right one (even if it doesn't make the most money).
Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment: I read Dostoevsky's psychological thriller at the beginning of my senior year. Although it was definitely the longest book I read during my high school years, it was also one of the best. Raskolnikov -- self-described as an "ex-university student" -- is not an easy protagonist to like. He is crass, pretentious and bitter. For all of that, the other central characters bring Raskolnikov's better characteristics out throughout the novel and he become more tolerable by the end. I didn't enjoy Crime and Punishment for its characters or setting, however. I enjoyed it for its themes and exploration into the psychology of the human mind. Utilitarianism, rationalism and even atheism are core components of Raskolnikov's character, while altruism and theism are the core components of Sonya, one of Raskolnikov's only friends, who embodies the literary archetype of the "hooker with a heart of gold." Crime and Punishment, more than any other novel I read during high school, really made me think about the world while I was reading it. It made me ponder whether the ends justify the means all the time or only some of the time, and if you too enjoy spending countless hours reading up on philosophical ideas then Crime and Punishment gives you plenty of material to get started with.
I never have understood the concept of "not liking" reading. I suppose I can sympathize with not liking the work that comes with reading assignments -- i.e. literary analysis papers, dialectical journals, etc. -- but to not enjoy being transported to New York City in the late 40's, or Russia around the time of the "Marvelous Decade," or any other of the amazing places books took me during high school is alien to me. Reading the works of the greats throughout history has made me a better person. I have learned so much from these books and plays. I have broadened my horizons and my vocabulary and cannot wait to continue in college. Hopefully by the time I graduate college, I'll have several new favorites to add to my list of the best pieces of literature I ever read.
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