By: Diane Parfitt
In high school, you probably had at least one great English teacher who introduced you to books that you might not have read if they had not been required. The best teachers made them interesting and inspired you to enjoy these books. Alas, I did not have a teacher like that – or perhaps it was just me! Sure, I read the “literary masterpieces,” but it was only so I could pass the test. Fortunately, I loved reading in general, especially the “fun books” (think Peyton Place). That love of reading helped me make it through my English courses and I actually did begin to enjoy some of the novels I was required to read.
As an adult, I have had the opportunity to re-read many of these books, partly because all my book clubs read at least one classic a year. Thank goodness for this incentive! I have thoroughly enjoyed this return journey and the discovery of what made these “great books” so great. Some are so important that you need to take a second look, especially if many years and “life experiences” have passed since high school—as in my case! In this article, I have listed some of those titles with a few observations.
This list is by no means complete. You may have other books in mind that you remember as being a turning point for you and your education, or books that caused you to wonder what all the fuss was about. In either case, I hope this list will inspire you to seek out some of the books from your past and give them a second chance. And for those of you just embarking on reading some of these books for the first time, stick with it. You will get something out of it.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: I don’t know anybody who didn’t have to read Fitzgerald’s classic story in high school. I remember thinking, “Who gives a flip about these people?” To read about a group of people who never seemed to work, had more money than Trump, and were not very nice people anyway, did not inspire me as a teenager. Reading it later, I can understand why I didn’t like it then, but I can also see why it became a classic. It is the great American dream to work hard and achieve success. This is a romantic love story set in the Roaring Twenties, and it is beautifully written! So now I “get it.” I still don’t like Gatsby and Daisy, but I get it.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey: Who would think a novel about patients in a mental hospital would be such an important book? Some people have even said this book (and the subsequent movie) contributed to the revamping of the mental health system in America. As a nurse, I worked on psychiatric wards, but they were nothing like Kesey’s description. However, anyone with a friend or family member with a psychiatric disorder will find this novel’s depiction of the treatment of the mentally ill both disturbing and tragic. This controversial book has been censored on one hand and included on many required reading lists on the other.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker: Growing up north of the Mason-Dixon Line, I learned most of what I thought I knew about black people from reading Gone with the Wind. What a misguided perception this gave me! When I read The Color Purple, I learned so much about the black woman’s experience and about people in general. We are all human beings, trying to do the best we can against all sorts of adversity and cruelty around us. Celie is an inspiration as she does this, and I found myself cheering for her the first time I read the book and every time since. Many black women have found great inspiration in Walker’s novel, the first work by a black woman to win both the Pulitzer and National Book Awards.
Night by Elie Wiesel: With the passing of Elie Wiesel this summer, I was inspired to revisit his memoir. Having read numerous other books on Germany and the Holocaust, I still was touched profoundly by his telling of his gruesome experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Reading it a second time reminds us to always recognize hate and to reject genocide unequivocally and forever.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens: I must admit, this is probably one of those books that I thought I read and I thought I loved and maybe I did, and maybe I didn’t. Then my book club decided to read it and I picked it up and, yes, I did love it. We all can remember various novels by Charles Dickens that we were required to read and maybe struggled through. A Tale of Two Cities is one you must read as an adult. This historical novel about England and France during the period leading up to the “Reign of Terror” is a masterpiece of writing. Dickens’ “tale” is also a story about two life choices—between good and evil, compassion and tyranny, and between selfless love and selfish hate. Are these not choices we are still confronting today?
Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. This is one book I did not read until I was an adult, so I can’t tell you how I would have responded to it as a teenager except to say I would not have wanted to read a book about impoverished Okies confronted with a drought and dust as heavy as snow. I did read many other Steinbeck novels when I was younger and actually loved them all. Recently, my book club read a non-fiction book, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan. We decided to read Steinbeck’s great book as a parallel piece, and I am so glad we did! This is a story that will continue to resonate generation after generation, as we seem to be repeating the mistakes in the treatment of our climate as well as our fellow man.
Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. Oh, the idealism of youth! I read this and most of Rand’s other books when younger and really did like them. I thought they were such important books, full of bigger-than-life characters who made their own way in the world. On later readings, I realized how much I missed the first time around, especially the selfishness that was presented as a virtue in the book. Yes, human beings may be selfish by nature, but all of our socialization and religious training should make us better than that. I abhor the idea of being all for oneself. We are all in this world together and we need to help each other out. So, this is one book that on re-reading I did not like as much as I did the first time. Perhaps it is a measure of how we change as we grow older?
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. My all time favorite book, the first time I read it and the second and the third! I loved the story, the writing, the characters and the messages. I loved that it is told from the perspective of a child. It is worth reading more than once because it never gets old. It is the quintessential American novel! Enough said.
Finally, I know there are so many books out there that you may find it hard to read a book more than once. However, we all feel and think differently after we have grown older. These classics might just feel like brand new books when you read them the second time around.