The Top 10 Books Everyone Lies About Reading
There are plenty of overrated classics: books that have lost their relevance, lost their audience, or in some cases (we’re thinking of you, Ulysses!) just plain lost their way from the get-go. But not all “required reading” deserves its bad rap. Here, we take a look at the top 10 books people lie about having read… and whether or not to give them another try.
To Kill a Mockingbird
The real problem with Harper Lee’s classic about racism in a small Southern town is not its surprisingly modern tomboy rebel narrator and her heroic father, who defends a black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman. The crying shame is that most readers get introduced to the novel too early, often even in middle school. Yes, there are childish characters at the heart of the plot, but they themselves don’t fully understand the story’s complex web of racism, snobbery, stifling conformity and violence—and young readers are not ready for its hints of incest, mental illness, and addiction either. We say: Give this American classic another try—especially if you had to read it for school. Check out this list of 100 favorite American novels.
Romeo and Juliet
Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers from warring family groups is definitely not too mature for teen audiences; Juliet is not quite 14 when she kills herself for love of a boy she’s only met a handful of times. But R&J is a play, not a novel; it’s best appreciated in performance. When truly great actors deliver Shakespeare’s lush lines, the old-fashioned expressions seem to slip away, leaving us with the beating heart of a story that, like its ill-fated characters, will never grow old.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
If you haven’t read the first Harry Potter book by now, probably nothing short of a cattle prod will get you to crack the spine. You know that the series as a whole has sold over 500 million copies over the past 20-odd years. You’ve heard of the theme park and seen the relentless merchandising of everything from wands to bedspreads. You may even have attended a Harry Potter-themed wedding. Ok, we get it. Some people just don’t love fantasy. But haven’t you ever wondered if so many J.K. Rowling fanatics can be wrong?
Diary of Anne Frank
Many readers are reluctant to start a book when they already know it has a sad ending. But in her diary, Anne is likely to steal your heart and make you rage against the Nazis for her untimely death—not for the famous platitudes like “In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart,” but for her brutally honest descriptions of what it’s like to be a teen trapped 24/7 in a secret hideaway with, among others, her mother and a boy she no longer has a crush on. In fact, Anne’s microscopic truthfulness about the details of daily life in “the secret annex” might just have you planning a trip to Amsterdam to see the actual hiding place for yourself.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Nowadays Mark Twain’s quintessential American boy would probably be diagnosed with ADHD. His hilariously bad behavior starts on the first page when he distracts his Aunt Polly and runs away from a “switching,” and hardly pauses till the book is done. There’s a good reason Tom Sawyer has never been out of print since its publication in 1876. But if you’re getting bogged down in Twain’s old-fashioned slang, dialect, and dialogue, give the audio version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer a try. Reading aloud brings Tom back to life as nothing else could…not even attending his own funeral!
Lord of the Flies
Yet another book that gets ruined for readers by being assigned too early in school just because the protagonists are kids. Yes, William Golding’s castaways shipwrecked on an island alone together are English schoolboys, but it takes an adult to fully understand the heart of darkness revealed here. If you’ve ever dismissed the modern attitude toward bullies and said, “Oh, we should just let kids work it out themselves,” Lord of the Flies may change your mind. Either way, it will keep you up late turning pages till the heart-thumping end. Check out these other great books you may have read too early!
The Scarlet Letter
This one is easy. Honestly, do yourself a favor and don’t bother revisiting this dreary tale by Nathaniel Hawthorne that gives “red letter day” a whole new meaning. Poor old Hester Prynne has no husband and (gasp) gets pregnant anyway. For this sin, she and her baby are shunned by their Puritan colonial neighbors. She even has to wear a scarlet “A” on her bodice to remind everyone of her pariah status. But it’s hard to fully pity her since she protects the identity of the baby’s father, a hypocritical married clergyman. There’s no redemption and no happy ending, except maybe the awareness of how lucky we are not to live in the 18th century. Thanks, Hawthorne.
The Great Gatsby
If you haven’t read this one, you’re actually in for a treat. You may have seen the movie versions of this F. Scott Fitzgerald masterpiece about ethereal party girls, social climbers, floozies, and gamblers chasing each other through the Jazz Age, but nothing can prepare you for the ache of longing that permeates the book all the way to its celebrated end: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Did you know Fitzgerald almost called this book Trimalchio in West Egg? Here’s a list of also-ran titles for other familiar books.
Of Mice and Men
Don’t be fooled by the page count. John Steinbeck packs quite a wallop in this short tragic Western about a hardbitten cowboy who can’t quite seem to abandon his enormous, dimwitted companion who quite literally doesn’t know his own strength… and is always getting into trouble thereby. In addition to their bare-bones, bare-knuckles lifestyle, the two friends share a dream of owning a farm together. We defy you not to cry at the end.
Popular culture refers so often to George Orwell’s infamous dystopia about a dictatorship where all citizens are monitored for “thought crimes” and all history is subject to revisionism, you may feel you’ve already gotten the point. But so much of its strength lies in the telling. Until you enter Orwell’s gray, joyless world where five minutes of hate against enemies of the state are the bright spot in everyone’s day, you can’t truly appreciate its horror. And of all the books on this list, 1984 may be the most important. And if by chance you’ve read all of these classics, here’s another list of great books you really should have read by now.
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