10 High School English Class Books You Should Read Again as a Grown-Up—and Why
Now that you’re an adult, the dull literary classics of your youth become the scintillating, enriching reads you’ve been aching for. Get ready to see these titles with new eyes.
‘Death of a Salesman’
When you’re in high school, having a full-time job and a family to care for are things only grownups have to worry about, which makes it hard to understand a character like Willy Loman. As the main character in this Arthur Miller play, salesman Willy is not exactly a role model: He’s disillusioned with the American Dream, lies to his family, and cheats on his wife. As a kid you probably thought Willy was a lame bad guy. But in rereading the play as an adult, you can really relate to Willy’s daily struggles and finally appreciate how Willy’s failed dreams are behind his flaws and his drive his self-deceptions. (Check out these contemporary writers whose work you should have read by now.)
Sure, when you’re 13, reading about talking pigs taking over a farm seems weird and boring. And you probably tuned out your English teacher when he droned on about how the novel is an allegory for Soviet Union-era communism. But George Orwell’s 1945 classic, Animal Farm, takes on a much greater meaning when you reread it as an adult and discover that the book is about more than talking farm animals. It’s a multi-layered historical analysis of human behavior that examines the way power breeds corruption. (You can devour these 18 classic books in one day.)
‘To Kill a Mockingbird’
You may have read and even enjoyed Harper Lee’s 1960 groundbreaking novel in middle or high school, featured here on one of the most classic book covers ever published. Maybe you even identified with and rooted for Scout, the novel’s strong and sassy female protagonist who tries to stand up for what’s right. Reading the novel again as an adult, however, helps you appreciate the novels’ thorough examination of racism, prejudice, and injustice in the rural south in the 1930s. On the second read, you also better understand the novel’s approach to childhood, and how children can lose—at least partially—their sense of compassion and justice as they transition to adulthood. (Related: Here are surprising facts you never knew about Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird.)
‘The Great Gatsby’
As a teen, you may have been intrigued with The Great Gatsby‘s depictions of glittery wealth and tempestuous love in the Roaring ’20s. As an adult, you can better understand F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece novel simply because you better understand the intricacies of human behavior. Are Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan flawed? Yes, and irrevocably so. However, with adulthood comes a greater understanding of how loss and a yearning for “what once was” can drive people to do foolish things. The Great Gatsby is also one of the most quotable books of all time.
So, a guy wakes up one morning and finds out that he’s turned into a giant bug. Ew, right? As a teen, this very aspect of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis was likely enough to induce nightmares. And then the mundane tasks that the main character, Gregor Samsa, completes upon his transformation might have left you asking, “So what?” As an adult, however, you soon see that the book is a profound existential look at alienation and, conversely, identity, leaving readers to ask: Who am I? Do I belong? How do I fit in?
As one of the original horror tales in American literature, Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein pretty much invented the science fiction genre. As such, it deserves a second read as an adult. If you were assigned this book in high school, you might not have appreciated its grim, intricate look at the boundaries of scientific inquiry, or relished its symbolism and allegory. If nothing else, you’ll finally understand that Frankenstein isn’t the name of a big green monster with bolts in his neck; rather, Frankenstein is Victor Frankenstein, the mad scientist whose unquenchable curiosity helped him conquer the secrets of nature.
‘Of Mice and Men’
When you read it as a young teen, John Steinbeck’s novel about two migrant farm workers who travel together may, at first, just seem like a novel about two migrant farm workers who travel together. Read it again as an adult and you’ll understand why it’s become an important entry into the cannon of American literature. Yes, there’s sex, there’s violence, there’s swearing, and there’s murder. Dig below the surface, and you’ll also become aware of the novel’s intricate dissection of racism and sexism, as well as its examination of the way those with disabilities were treated in the early part of the century.
‘All Quiet on the Western Front’
Let’s be honest: If you were required to read this 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque in high school, you probably groaned. First of all, it’s huge—the paperback tops 300 pages. Secondly, it’s dense; those 300-plus pages are packed with minute details about life as a German soldier in World War I. In light of today’s political and economic climate, however, this book certainly deserves a reread. Especially if you’ve served in the military or know someone who has, you’ll appreciate the psychological and physical struggles that protagonist Paul Bäumer faces when he returns to civilian life after experiencing the horrors of war.
When you’re in high school, Emily Bronte’s 1847 novel may be a typical boring love story between the beautiful Catherine and the tall, dark and handsome Heathcliff. As an adult—perhaps as an adult who’s experienced your fair share of heartbreak—you realize that Wuthering Heights is not a simple love story; rather, it’s a story about what happens when love becomes manipulative, violent, psychotic, and even incestuous. Part Gothic tale, part psychologist thriller, Wuthering Heights is the complex and passionate love story you’ve been longing for.
If you read this book in high school, you know that Night is Elie Wiesel’s heartbreaking, semi-fictional story of how he survived Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust. It’s a gripping read for teens, but as an adult you’ll better appreciate Wiesel’s commitment to never be silent “whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation,” as he remarked in his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize speech. With maturity, you’ll also better understand the book’s complex analyses of faith, family, race, and identity. (Related: If you’re fascinated by Holocaust stories, you’ll be uplifted by the tale of an American couple who risked everything to save 50 children from certain death at the hands of the Nazis.)