The Books We Read in High School


Izzy Wollfarth

Something about the books I had to read in High School freaks me out. While there were a few books I actually enjoyed in my upperclassmen English courses, there were a few questionable building blocks. For example, one of my favorite books from highschool is The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. I do still love this book today and have read it three times, annotating and analyzing the entire novel the first time. Reading classic novels like this was not nearly enough to overshadow the absolute dumpster fire plot lines that I had to follow in other novels. The most difficult task I have ever experienced was trying to write a coherent paper on the themes and examples from Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. There is absolutely no disrespect or judgment if you enjoy Brave New World, I think I just didn’t appreciate the fact they electrocuted babies to frame their utopian society (I had to use spark notes to recall this fact). 

This got me thinking: why are certain books chosen for us to read in High School? What is the benefit of making students read objectively violent and uncomfortable stories? While I’m sure there is a teacher out there with some form of answer, I want to interpret this question for myself. I do believe that good can come from bad, meaning that even though we might not like something we can still learn from it. For example, if I do bad on a test I can be upset about my grade but at least I know what I need to do next time to get an A. This is my motto for many things but I can’t help but have trouble applying it to the time I read Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. 

Again, this is just my humble opinion but I’m not sure how that book was supposed to change my life or help me learn something besides learning how to read a poetic/lyrical writing style. I absolutely detested this book, so much so that I don’t even think I had the willpower to actually read it to the end; I think it just made me uncomfortable. I didn’t like the element of incest and I thought it diminished any sort of message the book was trying to convey. I remember the year after I read it, I told students in the grades below me that it was the most terrible book I’d ever read. 

But maybe this is not true? Maybe it made me uncomfortable because I was learning something new. I was learning something new and I was seeing it in a book written decades ago. After doing some research and digging into the pits of my brain, I remembered the theme involved Healthcliff’s revenge and the story of passionate lovers ignoring the constraints of their different social classes. I guess this makes sense. But, that doesn’t mean I didn’t have to overcome extreme levels of discomfort to reach this understanding. I also had to watch the movie just to fully understand what was going on. Let’s take another infamous novel read by High School students everywhere (and as I have recently discovered, also in college classrooms), Brave New World

I hate this book. Reading this was even more trying than reading Wuthering Heights. Now you might have thought that a middle age man chasing his cousins during the 19th century was weird… Read the literal first chapter of this book. Before I begin on my slight tangent/realization, I’d like to mention that Aldous Huxley, the author of this novel was one of the world’s first psychonauts. This might explain why this book is so twisted and quite disturbing at most points. This novel is quite famous; it is admired for its’ take on a dystopian society gone wrong. It demonstrates a completely robotic lifestyle unavoided its inhabitants. Maybe I am just sensitive, but the farthest I’ll go to learn and read about dystopian society is The Giver

Another infamous one is The Great Gatsby. I personally love The Great Gatsby. I think over the course of my life, I have read it four or five times and written essays on it and even done a research project on other works by F. Scott Fitzgerald. While I love this novel, objectively it is very violent. Additionally, none of the characters are really admirable in any way. I think when I first watched the movie, I couldn’t sleep for a week because all I could think about was Myrtle getting run over by a car, Gatsby getting shot in the back, and basically the list goes on. Even though I like this book, it was hard for me to understand the message under all the violence. I felt more distraught than I did knowledgeable about some aspect of morality. 

I guess you could argue that its’ a lesson of greed and the dangers of living life in the past. But also, couldn’t you just say that its’ a story of a group of very bad and horrible people? You could! But, that wouldn’t be a challenge. At least through reading this book I was able to recognize what I truly valued. I value my safety, the safety of others, and my growth as a person. Seeing a group of people descend into madness only made me feel anxious about my own life. Again, the feeling of discomfort and confusion sunk in. 

It is honestly hard for me to pinpoint what made me hate certain books I read in high school so much (which is a bad sign). But, I think I can try to understand how they might have made me think differently in my own life. I don’t have a clear answer but I think that what these books changed in me is my level of comfort. Reading these challenging and strange topics has prepared me for understanding more difficult topics in society. Going into college there are things that might make me feel a similar discomfort. This includes things like race, politics, social reform, health equity, and our criminal justice system. 

When approaching new topics while in college, I recall the discomfort I felt when reading these books in High School. I remember this feeling of discomfort when I read about Heathcliff’s fits of passion, or Bernard’s inner thoughts towards their dystopian society (Brave New World). Remembering this,  I now know how to work through my discomfort, to challenge it, to understand it. Even though I might hate that I feel uncomfortable, I don’t stop there. I work, write, understand, and analyze why I am uncomfortable and the impact it has on myself and others. 

I don’t know if this makes sense, but if you really think about it, discomfort is something we experience everyday. Learning new things, challenging our beliefs, recognizing problems with society that might not even affect you, and more are things we experience daily. It is hard to face these things everyday. Maybe a small way in preparing for these large topics of discomfort can be reading a weird book in high school. I didn’t love every book I read, but sometimes you don’t need to love something to respect or appreciate it.