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High School Reading–Novels That Don’t Suck As Much As You Remember

By Z.S. Roe

High school English class is rarely the high point of a student’s academic career, not the least of which because of the many mandatory novels that they’re required to read. From Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, required reading lists are often received with minimal enthusiasm. With hundreds of page-turning bestsellers hitting bookstore bookshelves every year, the focus on dated novels can sometimes seem inappropriate for young readers.

But, as they say, everything’s subjective.  And so what some might describe as “boring” and “irrelevant” in high school can very easily become “insightful” and “emotionally gripping” in later years.  With that in mind, maybe it’s worth re-examining the writers your English teachers were so hot for; you never know, maybe they’re better than you once thought.

 George Orwell

Mix talking farm animals with a satirical allegory of Soviet totalitarianism? Sounds like quite a mouthful for many high school students.  How about a dystopian tale warning readers about the betrayal of a revolution by its defenders? Too much?

Despite the complex social commentary, Orwell’s novels are often gripping, and are always satisfying (though not necessarily on an emotional, happy ending level). His Animal Farm and 1984 are two of the English language’s most revered novels, and for good reason. His writing struggles with issues of equality and basic human rights amidst the suppression of self-identity. In today’s world, nothing could be more relevant.

Emily Brontë

Having died in 1848, novelist and poet Emily Brontë is truly “old school.”  Though her prose may seem somewhat archaic to most teenagers, her Wuthering Heights makes for a bewitching tale of love and tragedy, and is worthy of multiple readings.

Originally published in 1847 under the male pseudonym Ellis Bell, Wuthering Heights received mixed reviews from critics. Indeed, for many years Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre was considered the best of the Brontë sister’s works. It wasn’t until recently, however, that critics have begun to argue that Emily Brontë’s novel is the superior work, largely because of its achievement and originality.

But there’s more to this classic than mere intellectual appreciation.  As any fan of the novel can explain, Wuthering Heights contains many Gothic and supernatural elements.  Interestingly enough, Brontë’s novel and novels like hers would go on to influence, among other things, the many horror writers that we love and read today.

Robertson Davies

This is Robertson Davies–he rocks his beard like a boss.

Canadian novelist, playwright, journalist, critic, and professor Robertson Davies is one of Canada’s most well-known authors.  But his writing is also an acquired taste, especially for readers who are more familiar with the style of writing in today’s bestsellers. His novels often take their time, unfolding gradually and with careful orchestration.  However, for those willing to stick it out, Davies’ also offer moments of striking sincerity that are downright breathtaking.

While many high school English teachers have their senior students read Fifth Business, Davies has penned numerous other novels, all of which are worth checking out. The best of the best is arguably The Cunning Man, which tells the life story of Jonathan Hullah, a diagnostician whose life is as peculiar as it is rich. Other standout titles include Tempest-Tost, The Rebel Angels, and – for the truly hardy reader – Murther and Walking Spirits.

Emily Carr

Canadian artist and writer Emily Carr is perhaps best known for her many paintings of the totem poles of the coastal Haida, Tsimshian, and Kwakwaka’wakw communities, among others. Though her written work isn’t as redolent in high school classrooms as Orwell or Brontë, Carr is slowly making her way onto student reading lists, and it’s about time.

Her writing is purposefully deliberate, frank, and always meaningful. She writes with an insightful understanding of native culture and Christian missionary work (interestingly, much of her writing was originally printed with considerable cuts to the manuscript due to her unflattering depictions of those missionaries). While she’s penned such books as The House of All Sorts, Growing Pains, and The Heart of a Peacock, she is best known for Klee Wyck.

Opinion is a bi-monthly column of just that, my opinion. While opinions are like noses and everyone has one, mine are especially snotty. Please leave a comment or question—all opinions are welcome, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. If you like what you read here, please subscribe.


One thought on “High School Reading–Novels That Don’t Suck As Much As You Remember

  1. Ahhh, yes…high school reading. My teachers gave us some current novels which I can still recall – The Island of the Blue Dolphins, White Fang, Black Like Me…and yes, I do recall Animal Farm.

    Novels become classics for very good reasons, so in my humble opinion, we shouldn’t be too quick to ‘retire’ them. I wonder what novels being written today will become classics 100 years from now?

    Posted by Scott Roe (@ScottWRoe) | July 26, 2012, 12:18 pm

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