Ever since I was a teen, I’ve been fiercely against mandatory reading. I was opposed about summer reading for high school since I knew the choices were often political rather than based on literary merit. The summer before senior year, I just refused to read the assigned books entirely. I believe in the beautiful freedom to read whatever I want rather than whatever someone else wants. Over the years, though, I’ve been introduced to some amazing books that I wouldn’t have read if they weren’t compulsory to read.
Throwback Freebie: Ten Books I Loved During The First Year I Started My Blog, Favorite Books Published 5 or 10 or 15 Years Ago, Ten Older Books I Forgot How Much I Loved, etc. etc. Tweak however you want!
I’m also adding a back to school bookish element to it. This list is unranked and in no particular order. Enjoy!
PS: Some of the covers I selected do not match up with the links to Amazon or Goodreads because I sometimes use the ones as close to the covers I remembered when I read these books.
The Best Books I Read as Required Reading
(1). Villette by Charlotte Bronte
I’d hate to say that Villette is a “minor” work by Charlotte Bronte, but certainly her novel Jane Eyre gets most of the attention. Yet Villette also has a cult classic following among literary folks stretching back to George Eliot’s praise: “Villette! Villette! It is a still more wonderful book than Jane Eyre. There is something almost preternatural in its power.” When I talk to other people who have read it, we share an almost conspiratorial glee, a gushing passion. We’re part of a secret club.
I read this novel for “Duty and Decadence,” an English class at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. Coming into that class, I felt like the only person I knew who hadn’t read Jane Eyre, and indeed I read it in another class that same semester. But I far prefer Villette, a subtle, slow burn love story with some Gothic elements thrown in for fun. I remember reading Villette those first weeks of the fall semester, highlighting and annotating my Oxford World Classics edition while I worked the late shift at my dorm’s information center, one of my student jobs. I can still smell the salty scent of my highlighters. I can instantly recall the fresh ink, almost chemical whiff of that book. I loved Villette and I still do.
(2). To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Once, I was naive enough to think Virginia Woolf was only famous for being a female novelist. Oh, how wrong I was! I don’t know where I got that idea, but I was proven wrong when I took a self-designed independent study seminar on “Virginia Woolf and Her Critics” the fall of my senior year. I secured research funding to study soundscapes and aesthetics in Virginia Woolf’s writing and went to Scotland’s Isle of Skye, the setting of To the Lighthouse. I read the novel before I left for Scotland and then again for the seminar and then again to write my final paper and then yet again as I reviewed that final paper to be a writing sample for my applications for English doctoral programs (which I didn’t apply to in the end).
To the Lighthouse… as is so often the case with books you love, is stamped into my heart. When you’ve read a lot of books in your life, it’s natural to forget many of them. But To the Lighthouse is packed with moments that come up for me again, and not just descriptions that linger in my brain but entire passages, concerned with life, love, trauma, doom. It feels like it was written just for me.
(3). The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
In my first semester of college, I took a lecture in Russian literature. That class introduced me to a bunch of great books, and I have fond memories of reading Anna Karenina in the deserted dorm lounge one long autumnal Friday afternoon. The Brothers Karamazov was more of a surprise. That was probably the most difficult book I’d ever read in my life. The novel impressed me so much that I read it twice. Once for class and again the following summer. Maybe it’s because the novel confronts ethical and philosophical issues that interest me: free will and choice vs. predestination, religion vs. doubt, and moral duty. I lent it to my friend one summer. Years later, I demanded he give it back to me. After all, I had glossed that book the fuck up.
I’ve always loved a good family story, especially siblings. Novels about estranged siblings or families thrown together again? That’s my kryptonite. Thanks to my Russian lit class, I got to read Dostoevsky’s novel which I probably would not have picked up myself.
- Buy on Amazon / Find in a library / Add to Goodreads – And check out my article about brothers and sisters in fiction for more sibling stories.
(4). “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” by Delmore Schwartz
Delmore Schwartz was never supposed to be forgotten. He had a bright and brilliant early career, publishing canonical short stories and poems, and then became so consumed by mental illness and alcoholism that he spiraled into obscurity and eventual death. Today he is mostly known for his widely canonized story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” which you can read in its entirety here.
I read this story for the seminar “Jewish American Literature” my last semester at Columbia. I learned a lot from that class—and fell in love—and I ultimately made Delmore Schwartz the focus of my final paper, which I wrote the following semester when I took an incomplete and did a semester of medical leave. I became pretty obsessed with Schwartz and that paper, especially when I did a ton of research and realized that no one was really writing about Delmore Schwartz. Something about him appealed to me, like his tortured artist mental illness issues. I wondered if that would be me one day. Anyway, I did manage to track down a professor at Penn State who was working on a forthcoming journal article about Schwartz. I sent the professor some questions and we went back and forth about some of my questions and Schwartz’s backgrounds and conventional interpretations. It was so rad! I felt for the first time that excitement when you feel like you’re really engaging with scholarly dialogue. The Penn State professor also had some kind words of encouragement, as did my professor back at Columbia. In the end, I wrote my paper about Delmore Schwartz being “owned” at various times by differing factions in literature. I argued that Schwartz was being co-opted by the Jewish American literary canon and that his work should be analyzed irrespective of that identity. This paper made me more excited to pursue scholarly research, English, and literature. And like everyone else who has encountered Delmore Schwartz’ work, I stumbled upon him almost as an accident.
(5). The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
I’m not much of a fantasy fan. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I don’t read much fantasy, though what I read, I often like (hello, A Song of Ice and Fire). In sixth grade, my English teacher was a big fan of the Lord of the Rings series and managed to wrestle The Hobbit onto the curriculum. To my surprise… I liked it. No, I loved this novel that was just the right amount of plot and character development. Plus, I enjoy origins stories like this. The Hobbit felt both neatly self contained and like the prequel for a larger, more sinister story. Later, I would try to read the Lord of the Rings series, but I could never really get into it in the same way that I felt totally engrossed by The Hobbit, a book I would probably never choose, especially because of the cheesy 90s cover.
Before I transferred to Penn, I had a year off between leaving Columbia and starting at Penn. I had an idea that I would go to Oxford University through some obscure workaround. This was not new. I applied to Oxford in the fall of my senior year of high school since it was my dream to study there as an undergraduate. It didn’t work out, at least partially thanks to efforts of self sabotage on my part, but that gap year my parents said we should go to England and check it out. When I sat in the room for the college’s open house, it dawned on me that there was no way we could afford to send me to Oxford since it was expensive and there was no aide for international students. Listening to the presentation by admissions, I felt a sick, heavy feeling in my stomach. My dream was dead.
Later, I managed to break away from my parents and wander around Oxford, the city that would always be a dream for me, like Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. I went to a bookstore. Rather than buying something new, I purchased a paperback of The Hobbit. I wanted to read something comforting. I wanted to live in a fantasy again.
(6). “Ariel” by Sylvia Plath
I was mighty freaked out when I read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar sometime in high school, I think the spring of my sophomore year. It wasn’t for class, just extracurricular reading. This was before YA was really a thing, so any book remotely related to a young person’s descent into mental despair (okay, “had a nervous breakdown”) was instantly labeled as “Holden Caulfield-esque.” Since The Catcher in the Rye was my favorite book, I read anything said to be a readalike for the angsty neurotic unreliable protagonist category. The Bell Jar crystallized my depression and anxieties in a more vivid way than Salinger. I saw myself in Esther, the heroine and narrator. Reading The Bell Jar was like reading a premonition. They felt like my thoughts, my feelings, my sorrow, written out on a page by an author with a different name. There was a reason for that. Plath had bipolar, just like me. Still, reading The Bell Jar unnerved me, and I tried to distance myself from it after I finished reading the novel. It was almost like that sensation we get that if we notice something unusual with our health, we choose not to Google it and find the symptoms on WebMD because we just don’t want to know. When I read The Bell Jar, I felt that uncomfortable feeling of uncanniness. It was doom, my destiny. I tried to forget about Plath.
But she found me. In my senior year of high school, spring semester, I took AP English. We read some of Sylvia Plath’s poetry. When I read her poem, “Ariel,” I felt like I had written it myself. She named a cavernous, deep void inside me. We were analyzing the stanzas out loud. (You can find the full text of the poem for free at the Poetry Foundation.) The lines I was most concerned with were the closing ones:
And now IFoam to wheat, a glitter of seas.The child’s cryMelts in the wall.And IAm the arrow,The dew that fliesSuicidal, at one with the driveInto the redEye, the cauldron of morning.
My teacher asked if anyone knew what the final stanzas meant. I raised my hand. “Well… I think you could make the case that Plath was describing death by suicide. She did, after all, die by gassing herself in her oven. The word ‘suicidal’ is right there. Maybe the cauldron is the oven? The flame inside the “red eye”?” The teacher thought it was a good reading of it. I had the correct answer. I wish I didn’t. I wish I didn’t know such things. I wish I couldn’t accurately read an inference of suicide into a poem. Beyond that, I was greatly influenced by her confessional style. It helped shape my early poetry, an intense focus on emotion and feeling, a pact of honesty to get it all out. “Ariel”—and the other Plath poems—pushed me to go further. To not attempt to include clever tricks or jokes in my writing but speak from my heart and mind.
(7). The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
I read The Year of Magical Thinking twice for school. The first time was in a summer writing seminar in longform journalism. I think I was just too busy to focus on her memoir about the sudden death, aftermath, and grieving process Didion endured after her husband died suddenly of a heart attack. A few years later, I took a graduate course at Penn in the bioethics department. The class was about medical narratives and the literature of medicine, and my friend was the instructor. This time, when we read The Year of Magical Thinking I was all about it.
The best writers are able to make any subject, no matter how grim, completely absorbing, and it does feel a bit perverse to find a narrative about a woman’s grief to be page turning. But I found it to be so. I think that’s because when you read Didion, it feels almost theatrical. Her writing is so tight, so compact, that not a word is wasted. This is a writer who understands how to use words in such a mindful way. Every single sentence or word serves to accomplish pathos. It’s one of those rare books that you can’t imagine being written since they feel so effortless, so strategically and flawlessly composed.
(8). The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
You might have noticed that I’m don’t read much science fiction. I think that’s partially because I feel imposter syndrome with science. I always have. When I was in science classes all through secondary school and in college, I operated from the assumption that I was too dumb to understand it. I felt like I didn’t belong there. I did find an author of science fiction whose work I do enjoy: Ray Bradbury.
I wouldn’t have read Bradbury if it I hadn’t taken a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) from the University of Michigan offered through Coursera: “Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, The Modern World.” (You can read the syllabus here.) The Martian Chronicles was on the reading list. I was drawn to The Martian Chronicles because of the reissued edition’s cover.
I ended up really liking it. I enjoyed Bradbury’s very literary style. I also like tracing the patterns among interrelated short stories, as they did with The Martian Chronicles (and one of my all-time favorite novels, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad). Bradbury’s gentle writing style helped the science seem more approachable and less alienating than I usually find it to be. It was both transportive and familiar. Since then, I’ve also read Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, another collection of short stories. I think the mark of a memorable book that leaves an impact on you is that you can remember where you were when you read specific chapters or passages. I definitely feel that way for The Illustrated Man. I remember reading “The Long Rain,” about a doomed mission on Venus as a torrential rain killed many of the astronauts. I read that story as I took my lunch break one summer afternoon. I sat on one of the benches on Penn’s campus and was completely riveted by that short story. Even though it was humid and hot in Philadelphia, Bradbury’s story felt like it was happening to me, as if I were being pummeled by a downpour instead of sitting on a stiff but still comfortable bench while the sun beamed down unobscured. So thanks to that random Coursera course for making me feel welcome at the science fiction table.
(9). We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
For a few years during my mid-twenties, I started and ran the Meetup.com group, “Delco Cult Classics Book Club.” I would have kept it going longer, but I was a poor graduate student (and before that, an underpaid secretary), and I couldn’t find $45 fee to keep it going. It was fun while it lasted, though, and it was another way I was trying to advanced my literary education, like taking the MOOC that introduced me to The Martian Chronicles. The idea behind our selections was to to pick books that had a cult following of some kind. For example, we read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and The Secret History.
One of my favorites was Shirley Jackson’s gothic mystery-horror novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I think that a big recurring theme in most of my favorite books is some kind of strong narrative voice. I love narrators like Holden Caulfield and Hazel Grace Lancaster or even the omniscient narrators of The Disreputable History of Frankie Laudau-Banks. The heroine and narrator of Jackson’s 1962 novel is 18 year-old Mary Katherine “Merrikat” Blackwood, who lives in a mansion with her older sister, Constance, and frail Uncle Julian. Merrikat’s best friend is Jonas, her black cat. The Blackwoods are treated as outcasts, social pariahs in their conservative New England town, in part because several members of the family were murdered years before. Constance, accused of the murders, hasn’t left the house in six years, and Uncle Julian toils away at his memoirs. I loved that Merrikat, a bit of a witch, was so unapologetically sinister, and I loved her devotion to Jonas. And I really appreciate stories that start with a great inciting event. For We Have Always Lived in the Castle, it’s distant cousin Charles’ arrival. The epic meltdown that follows when Merrikat risks losing everything and the glass box around her existence threatens to shatter into pieces is chilling, astonishing, and totally gripping. As someone who has at times been so opposed to change that I’ve considered drastic action to prevent it, I identified with Merrikat’s fear. Thank you to my book club for selecting this novel. I might never have read it otherwise.
(10). Russian Rebels, 1600 – 1800 by Paul Avrich
What a crazy pick, right? In the spring of my senior year of high school, I took a class at Swarthmore College. I chose to take a class in Russian folk and fairy tales. It was hands down one of the best college classes I ever took. I loved learning about not just Russian stories, but also greater patterns in literary criticism and Russian culture.
Which leads me to Paul Avrich’s Russian Rebels, 1600 – 1800, an academic text we read excerpts from in the earliest weeks of class. The book describes Russian peasant uprisings during 1600 – 1800 and focuses on emerging sociological, religious, and political trends that would go on to influence the rise of Communism, the fall of the Romanovs, and the Russian Revolution. This book was nuts. There were descriptions of Russian peasants firing their enemies’ corpses from cannons! After seeing Tarksovsky’s Andrei Rublev with my best friend as an evening movie in one summer night before college, I felt an even greater kinship.
But it helped me start to understand concepts of national psyche and identity and how that can influence the course of a country’s history, that there is such a thing as cause and effect, that a nation’s cultural and religious history leads towards something and can explain mass political and sociological change while still hearkening back to its oldest beliefs and history. This book was a crucial factor in my emerging political consciousness, especially in the development of my identification with the proletariat and popular culture (such that it was, with Russian peasants from 1600 – 1800!). And absolutely, if I was not introduced to this book through my Swarthmore College class, it’s very likely I would never encounter it. Russian Rebels, 1600 – 1800 is actually still in print, even though it was published in 1976. You can’t say that about many books that were published in 1976. Unquestionably, Avrich (who you can read about on Wikipedia) has contributed a seminal text in Russian history and political theory. During that class, we only had photocopied chapters as part of our course pack. Years later, I found a copy of Russian Rebels in The Last Word Bookshop, a used bookstore near Penn’s campus that I used to frequent during my lunch breaks. I purchased the book. It still stirs a drum within my soul.
What were some of your favorite books you read as required reading? Leave a comment below.