The hardest thing about high school English classes is the dense, outdated books we are required to read. Even for bookaholics like me (Hi, I'm Karielle Stephanie, and it has been exactly 4.9 seconds since my last book), having to read hundreds of pages of stiff, incomprehensible prose per night -- no matter how timeless or genius the themes and motifs -- gets dull. It's not even that the books themselves are bad, per say, but being forced to read and analyze every detail gets tiring. Aren't people supposed to enjoy fiction, to slowly and deliciously savor it? Au contraire! Lit class made me (for brief bursts of time) hate reading because it was way too strenuous, way too much. I'm looking right at you, Charles Dickens.
Thankfully, of the dozens of classics I've read in the past four years, some of them -- each from different roots, different upbringings, and different personal natures -- have, believe it or not, become my all-time favorites. Today, I am absolutely grateful for having been required to read them. These nine fabulous books I've narrowed down are my ALL-TIME favorites, meaning they mingle with the brilliance of Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, etc. etc., currently up in my mental "to read... again and again and again" bookshelf. That's saying a lot.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger: A contemporary classic, this was the first book I ever read twice in one sitting. I literally flipped to the title page and started reading again as soon as I finished it the first time around, because it was that good. It was also that confusing and that complicated. To date, I've had to read it 12 times... and I still don't think I've caught everything. Salinger is a genius. This 1951 novel is very readable (with a conversational, rather than formal voice; hallelujah!) and actually quite hilarious, but in the end, it will probe your mind and break your heart. It's also probably the only book brimming with more questioned sexuality, drugs, plenty of swearing and other obscenities that you'll ever be allowed to read in school.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles: Character-heavy and true-to-life, this coming-of-age novel explores real themes of teenage angst, including innocence, betrayal, and identity. I'm the kind of mega fangirl that falls in love with fictional characters (it's a bit of a disorder, I know), and boy, did I fall for the protagonists, Gene and Finny. My toes tingle just at the thought of the best friend character pair.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: My favorite book of all-time: #1, top of the shelf. Seriously. Some say this one is about a tragic fall from innocence, but really, it encompasses the tragic fall of humanity, of people, of flawed beings. Even though the diction is from the 19th century, it flows well and never gets boring. Also, everything Oscar Wilde writes makes for a thought-provoking quote, no joke. That's what I call literary prowess.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe: Simple in structure but resonant in message, Achebe's fictionalized novel about the Igbo tribe in Nigeria is the first critically acclaimed African narration written in English. This is another one of those books that isn't hard to read, but takes a while to comprehend. Structurally, it's disjointed and there's lots of unfamiliar context, but that's what makes it so powerful: It conveys the disorientation and peculiarity that European colonization inflicts on African natives. Overall it's one of the most compelling books I've ever read, and it's what jumpstarted my love for world literature, aka books written other than white-haired English/American males from large cities (typically deceased, and with excellent moustaches and solely posthumous recognition).
Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez: I love this one so much! It reads historical, investigating a small-town Colombian crime, but has fantastical elements, which make it darkly comical. Unlike most murder mysteries, Chronicle reveals to readers who the culprits are within the first few pages. Unlike most murder mysteries, Chronicle explores in-depth, almost journalistically, the duplicity of time and perspective, as well as the holistic problem with reconstructing "truth." Nobel Prize-winning author García Márquez utilizes a cluttered, purposefully nebulous structure to compose a contradictory, complex narrative.
Night by Elie Wiesel: I cry easily during movies, but seldom when reading books. Night had me bawling like a baby one minute, and ready to puke the next. Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel's quasi-autobiographical novella based off his real-life experiences at Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust will stun, repulse and petrify readers. This is one of the few books whose graphic scenes -- word for word -- have stayed with me. Warning: not for the faint of heart!
Lord of the Flies by William Golding: Golding, also a Nobel Prize winner, struck gold with Lord of the Flies. Plot-wise, this story of a group of British school-age boys stranded on a deserted island is shocking and unbelievable, but it reveals more about human nature and the subconscious mind than any of your own thoughts, dreams or secrets ever could. Prevalent themes include the battle of good vs. evil, survival, and civilization (or lack thereof), and there's a strong, highly riveting anti-war undertone to it as well.
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros: Composed entirely of remarkably observant and penetrating vignettes, this is a coming-of-age story of Esperanza Cordero's Latina youth, as well as her determination to leave it all behind. Raw, honest and painfully nostalgic, Cisneros's Chicano culture comes to life in this novel, but more importantly, with universal lessons.
Atonement by Ian McEwan: To be honest with you, I loathed this book at first. McEwan's style, while lush and exquisitely descriptive, is thick mud you have to trudge through in steel-toed boots. The plot itself is also slow, and the action not too exciting. But the introduction to an unreliable narrator and the concept of verisimilitude -- the blurry line between truth and fiction, whatever fiction may be -- as well as a revelation on the craft of writing, make Atonement a breathtaking read.
Have you read any of these books? What did you think? What books would you add to your assigned-read-turned-personal-favorite list? I'd love to know... I'm excited to learn about your favorite books, and as always, eager to add more to my nightstand!