We all had those classic books we were assigned to read in high school as a part of the standard curriculum. Whether you loved them or hated them, these books are considered by the people who design that curriculum to be the best introductions to classic literature. Even so, there are often other books that are better representations of the authors we all were assigned to read in school. Here’s a list of alternative books to read from 10 frequently assigned classic authors.
1. F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise instead of The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby is the most famous of Fitzgerald’s four novels, but his first book This Side of Paradise is another look into the over-privileged gilded age of flappers and the Roaring Twenties. Paradise was much more successful than Gatsby was during Fitzgerald’s lifetime and its success helped convince the flapper of all flappers and possibly insane genius Zelda Fitzgerald to marry him.
This Side of Paradise was written when Fitzgerald and Zelda were broken up and by providing proof of his literary talent it lead to their reconciliation and marriage, which would was one of the most tumultuous and iconic romances of that generation. The protagonist Amory Blaine is based on Fitzgerald, and Blaine’s failed attempts at romancing two debutantes are inspired by Fitzgerald’s attempts at winning Zelda’s heart. While The Great Gatsby was met with mixed reviews and didn’t sell when it was published, This Side of Paradise was considered a great success, and reading it gives you a chance to see what of Fitzgerald’s work was thought to be his best during the time he was writing.
2. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath instead of Of Mice and Men
Often the people who design high school curriculum have to pick shorter works by classic authors in order for students to have time to pack a wider variety of reading in. Thus Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men is more frequently assigned than his magnum opus The Grapes of Wrath. While Mice does a good job of presenting Steinbeck’s style and major preoccupations in a brief manner, Grapes is one of the most important and iconic works in American literature. If you have to choose just one thing to read by Steinbeck, something that shouldn’t be wished upon anyone, then The Grapes of Wrath should be it.
The book won the Pultizer and was prominently cited when Steinbeck was given the Nobel Prize. With a mix of realist storytelling and political rage, Steinbeck tells the story of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression through the displaced Joad family. The book was also important for being a popular hit among the working class people Steinbeck sought to defend as well as literary critics after it was published in 1939. Don’t think you can just watch the movie to get the gist of this book. As great as John Ford’s film adaptation is, it cuts out the breathtaking final scene in the novel.
3. J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey instead of The Catcher in the Rye
When your high school English teacher felt like being cool or edgy, they probably assigned Salinger’s ode to youthful sulkiness The Catcher in the Rye and maybe even told you that crazy story about how the book inspired Mark David Chapman to shoot John Lennon. The controversial book is practically synonymous with teenage rebellion and angst and the moody protagonist Holden Caulfield is a part of the pop culture lexicon through its popularity. While the book is worth reading for all these reasons, especially when you’re a teenager, older readers returning to Salinger might want to go with either of his other two books instead.
Nine Stories and Salinger’s short fiction in general contains much deeper and more nuanced stories than the sometimes eye-roll-inspiring antics of Caulfield. The novel Franny and Zooey features characters experiencing similar feelings of ennui, but in a more adult manner. The characters Franny and Zooey are members of the fictional Glass family, about whom Salinger frequently wrote. The book consists of two novellas back-to-back, one about each of the characters, though there is overlap between their two stories. If you can’t embrace the teenage mindset enough to listen to Holden Caulfield talk about how “phony” everyone else is, but admire Salinger’s writing style, then either Franny and Zooey or Nine Stories are good books to pick up.
4. Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast instead of The Old Man and the Sea
Hemingway’s 1952 novella The Old Man and the Sea is probably his most frequently assigned book to high school classes. It’s a short way to get a grasp on the American literary titan’s work and given that it won the Pulitzer and was cited by the Nobel Committee as a factor in granting Hemingway the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954 it isn’t a shabby introduction either. But what we all really want to know about Hemingway is his wild times in Europe, specifically Paris, twenty years prior. His role as a part of the literary movement the Lost Generation (a term he helped coin) and his general manly and daring antics are what make Hemingway such a legendary figure. If that’s the stuff you want to hear about, then pick up his gorgeous, posthumously published memoir about his time in Paris A Moveable Feast.
In the memoir, Hemingway name-checks tons of famous writers and artists that he brushed shoulders with during his time as an expat in Paris and explains his love for that great city. He even gives the specific names and addresses of the places where he hung out, which has inspired many a literary vacation itinerary although it goes without saying the Paris of today isn’t the Paris of the 1920s. The book gives an inside look into the thriving artistic movement of the Lost Generation from one of its most important members as well as a glimpse into Hemingway’s thoughts and artistic process. If you want to know about the legend of Hemingway that you know lurks behind The Old Man and the Sea, A Moveable Feast is where to learn about him, from him.
5. Sandra Cisneros, Woman Hollering Creek instead of The House on Mango Street
Mexican-American author Sandra Cisneros is most famous for the young adult classic The House on Mango Street, which you might’ve been assigned in middle school or even early high school. It’s one of those books that can be enjoyed by someone of almost any age and chronicles a young girl’s experiences growing up in a Latino neighborhood of Chicago. The book is written in short vignettes that are an amalgamation of prose and poetry, showing off Cisneros’ gorgeously poetic writing style. The book deals with some weighty themes, including racism, sexism, and poverty, and how the narrator and her family are trapped in unhappiness by those seemingly inescapable things. It’s also considered a good way to introduce students to multicultural literature.
If you enjoyed that book, then Cisneros’ short story collection Woman Hollering Creek is a more mature exploration of similar themes through a teenage and adult protagonist. Again we have Cisneros’ breathtakingly poetic prose and stories told in short vignettes, though these stories lean a bit longer than the ones in Mango Street. The stories in Woman Hollering Creek are about growing up on the U.S.-Mexico border and struggles with identity due to coming from a Mexican family but living surrounded by American culture. In particular, Cisneros focuses on the relationship between immigrant men and women. That picture isn’t exactly a rosy one, but the powerful stories she tells in this book are impressive in the impact she can make in just a few pages.
6. William Faulkner, Light in August instead of As I Lay Dying
Light in August doesn’t get as much attention as The Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dying, but if you remember being assigned either of those works and finding them to be a bit over your head, then Light in August is a way to return to Faulkner with a bit more of a straightforward style and slightly less stream of consciousness. But you aren’t settling for a sub par Faulkner by any means, as the book is still set in his iconic Yoknapatawpha County, Miss., explores social issues in the American South, and has been ranked one of the best English language novels of all time by the Modern Library and Time magazine.
Because he doesn’t rely solely on stream of conscious narrative to tell this story and instead employs aspects of oral tradition, the book is a bit easier to understand from the first read than some of Faulkner’s more famous books, which can be a bit much for someone of high school age to take in. Light in August follows the pregnant, delusional Lena as she searches for the man who knocked her up and deserted her as well as the conflicted racist Joe Christmas, who is an orphan and thinks he could have African American ancestry. Faulkner uses Southern dialect as the characters tell their perspective of the novel’s events. If you want a good introduction to Faulkner and the Southern Gothic genre, Light in August is a way to go that will allow you to ease your way in rather than jump into stream of conscious headfirst.
7. Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle instead of Slaughterhouse Five
Fans of Vonnegut are a passionate bunch, so no matter what I picked as the alternative to Slaughterhouse Five a different lover of Vonnegut would probably recommend a different one of his 14 novels. Cat’s Cradle is probably his “best” book though Slaughterhouse Five is more frequently assigned due to its inclusion of Vonnegut’s experiences fighting in WWII. Vonnegut gave lots of writing advice during his career and in his book Palm Sunday he rated his own books in relation to his body of work, giving both Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five A-pluses, but every Vonnegut fan has their own personal favorite.
Cat’s Cradle like much of Vonnegut’s work has strong anti-war sentiments as well as sci-fi elements. The book is about a strange substance developed by scientists to aid in the war effort called ice-nine that can render water a solid at room temperature. Cat’s Cradle satirically explores how ice-nine affects the fictional Caribbean nation of San Lorenzo. Through the people of San Lorenzo Vonnegut invents a made-up culture, politics, traditions, creole English language, and religion called Bokononism. The book’s cultural observations were even enough for the University of Chicago to grant Vonnegut his master’s in anthropology for the novel after the university turned down his original thesis. Cat’s Cradle is Vonnegut’s signature mix of hilarious and horrifying and heartbreaking.
8. Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine instead of Fahrenheit 451
Bradbury’s sci-fi dystopia classic Fahrenheit 451 is a frequently assigned sci-fi dystopia novel alongside Orwell’s 1984. Named after the temperature at which paper burns, Fahrenheit 451 is about a world in which books are illegal and are set ablaze by “firemen” if discovered. The book follows the struggles of one of these firemen after he witnesses the suicide of a woman who would rather die than see her house full of illicit books burned. Bradbury was a renowned genre writer, using fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and horror elements in his work. While Fahrenheit 451 is a classic, its morals are a bit predictable. Obviously a society that chooses to burn books is going to be portrayed as being bad by a writer and the firefighter is going to gradually realize that what he does is morally wrong through his interactions with the free-spirited young Clarisse.
A more nuanced book from Bradbury is his novel Dandelion Wine, which sees him combining fantastic elements with memories of his own childhood summers growing up in the Midwest. The main character is a 12-year-old boy based on Bradbury who chronicles the daily routines of life in a small Illinois town in the summer of 1928. Subtle elements of magic and the fantastic complicate Bradbury’s descriptions of otherwise mundane goings-on. Here you won’t find the aliens or horrible monsters lurking in Bradbury’s other, more heavily genre work, but you will find what critics believe to be his most personal novel.
9. Charles Dickens, Bleak House instead of A Tale of Two Cities
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Who doesn’t remember being forced to read that epic first sentence in high school English class? A Tale of Two Cities is a classic novel that also gives a history lesson about the French Revolution and Victorian London, making it a popular choice for high school English teachers. But the book definitely has the tendency to lean towards melodrama and isn’t necessarily considered to be the writer’s finest work.
The over 1,000-page whopping doorstop of a novel Bleak House is thought to contain the most complex characters and overlapping plots in all of Dickens’ work, though its sheer length is obvious reason why it would be difficult to assign in school. The book was written as a satire of the English legal system based upon Dickens’ own experiences both working as a law clerk and attempting to enforce copyright on his books. Tying all the characters and storylines together is the court case Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, which pertains to several apparently conflicting wills that the court can’t seem to get sorted out. The novel is narrated in part by the heroine Esther, a girl born out of the wedlock and thought by her mother to be dead, and an omniscient narrator. It’s perfectly acceptable to read this long novel in small pieces over time, as it was originally published in 20 separate installments between March 1852 and September 1853.
10. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov instead of Crime and Punishment
The great Russian author Dostoevsky’s most often assigned work is the second novel he wrote when he returned from exile in Siberia, Crime and Punishment. That book follows the broke college student Raskolnikov, who decides to murder the owner of a pawnshop for her money, and how he morally justifies committing the crime. Raskolnikov has some bizarre ways of justifying the killing and for much of the book it seems as though he’s teetering on the edge of a very unpleasant insanity. His dual personality, which is influenced by the novel’s slew of interesting side characters, makes for a fascinating protagonist.
Though Crime and Punishment is certainly a classic, Dostoevsky’s final novel, The Brothers Karamazov, is probably his best book, the one that most encapsulates his philosophies and world view, and is considered to be one of the greatest literary achievements ever. Set in a slowly modernizing 19th century Russia, the book contains much debate on the existence of God, free will, and the importance of reason. The book follows patriarch Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, who has three sons from two different marriages all of whom he’s taken little interest in and thus they have been raised apart. The book follows each of the three very different brothers as young men attempting to negotiate their relationships with their father and each other.