It’s hard to decide exactly which books one can reasonably expect a high school graduate to have read. Some may argue that the major works of Shakespeare are an indispensable part of any student’s education, while others counter that only very advanced fifteen-year-olds can be expected to appreciate the nuance of the Bard’s language. Some curricula focuses only on works written over a century ago, but is it not valuable to have students read works written in the last century? In the last ten years? By limiting one’s self to just British fiction from before the 20th century, students miss out on a lot of wonderful African-American, Asian and Latin American authors, not to mention women.
Coming up with one definitive book list for all high school students is a nearly impossible task, but here’s a list of books that an American high school student should have read by the time he or she graduates.
To Kill a Mockingbird: This is a great book for any body, but for American students in the 21st century who may have trouble understanding this country’s history in regards to race relations, To Kill a Mockingbird is a can’t miss. It’s also wonderfully well-written and has a truly delightful film adaptation.
To the Lighthouse: This is possibly the most accessible of Virginia Woolf’s novel and a fine one to use as an introduction to one of the greatest writers ever to speak the English language.
The Things They Carried: Another work of fiction that brings American history to life better than a true historical text, Tim O’Brien’s account of the Vietnam War is a must-read for anyone.
The Catcher in the Rye: Love Holden Caulfield or hate him, no reader should get through his or her own adolescence without seeing the world through the eyes of J.D. Salinger’s most unforgettable protagonist.
Invisible Man: Another novel that helps to explain race relations; this was the only novel of Ralph Ellison’s published during his lifetime.
Anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: If Love in the Time of Cholera is too much (even a strong reader may not be emotionally ready for this novel in high school), then One Hundred Years of Solitude or another novel. It’s crucial to expose students to literature written by non British or American writers.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Translated from the original French, this is a short, heartbreaking novella that can show a student how truly beautiful and powerful language can be.
The Crucible or Death of a Salesman: Arthur Miller’s plays are exceptional and either of these is a great option. The Crucible can be a great choice for teaching concurrently with lessons on the Blacklist and McCarthyism.
Short stories by Ernest Hemingway: It’s rare that a teenager will embrace The Sun Also Rises or a Farewell to Arms, two Hemingway novels frequently taught in high school English classes. Perhaps they’re not ready for those books, but exposure to Hemingway should occur in some form. A story like A Clean, Well-Lighted Place illustrates the best of Hemingway’s writing abilities without overwhelming students with names of Italian cities they’ve never heard of.