The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Yes, there is a film with Leonardo DiCaprio, but that doesn’t get you off the hook from reading this perceptive, pitch-perfect novel. Set in the jazzy Roaring Twenties, Fitzgerald’s tale of obsession, ambition, love, money, and a world that would vanish with the Depression was to be his Big Hit—and he was surprised and disappointed when it sold poorly. When Fitzgerald died in 1940, he was an all but forgotten writer. Soon after, there was a revival of his work, and he is now viewed as one of the great American novelists. Today, 500,000 copies of Gatsby are sold each year. You’ll never guess what The Great Gatsby was originally supposed to be called.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Lee’s famous novel, published in 1960, has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide. For all that it exposes the racial injustice of a particular time and place, it is timeless and universal. As Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Rick Bragg wrote in Reader’s Digest, “Many people see To Kill a Mockingbird as a civil rights novel, but it transcends that issue. It is a novel about right and wrong, about kindness and meanness.” Here are some more high school English books worth a re-read.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Kerouac’s agent spent more than four years trying to find a publisher for this turbo-charged, road-trip novel about the postwar beat generation. Finally published in 1957, On the Road—written in a style at once breathless and disjointed—spoke to the deep restlessness of young people chafing at mainstream Cold War culture. Also give these best autobiographies ever written a read.
Tell Me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen
You might not have heard of Olsen, but her 1961 story collection Tell Me A Riddle was one of the first to intimately chronicle the lives of working-class women. One entry is plainly titled “I Stand Here Ironing,” and chronicles a mother’s regrets with wisdom, bravery, and not an ounce of self pity. Olsen opened a window onto a world not often seen before in American literature and influenced a generation of women writers, including Margaret Atwood, Sandra Cisneros, and Alice Walker. Here are some great books for mothers and daughters to read together.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
You might’ve been assigned the tale of Pip the ambitious orphan in school. But we promise Great Expectations is more entertaining to read as an adult, because the humor that sailed over over your head will be evident now—and besides, you won’t need to write a paper about it. Dickens, in his time, was as famous as a rock star (or, a Kardashian) because his novels were written as page-turners, with whip-smart observations about ambition and human nature.