Classics are classics because they’re awesome.
Knowing the classic works of fiction and non-fiction while still in high school will make you a better writer, reader, and seriously impress the adults around you - leading to better application essays and more college and scholarship acceptances.
Read these books before you graduate and up your literary game.
1) The Iliad, by Homer
You’ve probably read The Odyssey, but have you read The Iliad? Homer’s epic poem about the Trojan War is pretty awesome. As old as the tale is, Homer definitely understood the realities and symbolic weight of war—and it shows. The scenes with Achilles and Patroclus are pretty moving. Check out the Robert Fagles translation!
2) Beowulf, by Anonymous
Too bad the author of Beowulf can’t take credit for the epic poem. It’s a masterpiece. The Seamus Heaney translation is incredible (Heaney was a supremely gifted Irish poet—may he rest in peace). The language is muscular and Heaney captures the spirit of the Old English with dazzling poetic clarity. Beowulf’s narrative is a classic one: the hero on his quest slays monsters and dragons and faces temptations and setbacks. Try reading it aloud!
3) The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This one’s a perennial favorite among high school students, and if you haven’t read it, you should. The language is beautiful and the story is one for the ages: Gatsby makes himself into a swanky playboy in the hopes of winning over his love Daisy. Decadence and idealism abound in this classic from the Jazz Age of the Roaring 20’s.
4) Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley
One of my absolute favorite books, Frankenstein is about everything: love, friendship, culture, monstrosity, science, good and evil, madness, knowledge, self-knowledge, writing itself… According to the Shelleys’ account of the novel’s genesis, Frankenstein was written in response to a self-imposed ghost story challenge between friends (the author, her husband Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron). This is an exquisite novel, one of the best in the English language. Even though Mary Shelley received editorial assistance from her husband, the fact that she wrote this masterpiece as a teenager is nothing short of astounding. Like all good works of art, each new visit with it yields new and delightful impressions.
5) Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
All of Huxley’s books are worth a look, but this is the big one. It’s incredible how prophetic certain elements of this utopian/dystopian novel have proven to be! You won’t need to take soma in order to enjoy this frightening tale of government gone wrong.
6) 1984, by George Orwell
This is the dystopian classic. You’ve probably been required to read it in school—but if not, check it out. It’s a blistering critique of ideology and a timeless tale of the triumph of the individual. It’s uncanny how figuratively (and sometimes literally) true Orwell’s vision feels today.
7) Animal Farm, by George Orwell
Yes, another one by Orwell, but he’s one of the best novelists of the last century. Animal Farm is a slim volume, a fast-paced dystopian allegory about Stalinism. The commandments of Animalism are harrowing and—true to Orwellian fashion—are politically loaded: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” This book’s intense.
8) Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
Ironically, this book about censorship, destroying books, and controlling knowledge was itself banned! Anything that’s banned is worth investigating, and Bradbury’s classic dystopian novel is no exception. Why are so many dystopian novels on this list? Because they represent fiction’s ability to fuse art and politics, to prove that art has a social function.
9) Candide, by Voltaire
When we were assigned this book in high school, I was amazed. It had us all laughing to the point of tears. It’s absolutely ridiculous and very, very wise. A satire on optimism that pushes the philosophy of Leibniz to its logical extreme, Candide is another quick read that’s worth every minute.
10) The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson
Another novella! It won’t take up much space in your backpack or purse, but it’ll definitely occupy a place in your mind. This is the quintessential novel of the double: the shadow self that lurks within us all. The writing’s exquisite and everyone should be able to relate to the theme!
That’s it for now! Happy reading.
Stay tuned for 10 More Classics to Read Before You Graduate!
Additional Resources: “Winning College Scholarships for High Schoolers” Video Course