George R.R. Martin, world-renowned author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, once said that someone who reads lives a thousand lives, while someone who does not read only lives one. I can’t emphasize how much I wish I could take credit for this quote because it is probably one of the greater truths that I have heard—as someone who has been a dedicated reader of about 14 years, I can say with complete and total honesty that I’ve seen more of the world and beyond in black and white, through the pages of a book, than I ever will in person.
I wouldn’t be who I am today without my love of reading; I wouldn’t be nearly as self-aware or well-rounded, and I definitely wouldn’t be as close with a lot of my friends without the bonds we’ve forged through reading together (okay, that’s a bit melodramatic, but it’s true!)
As such, because I’m a lot more eloquent in writing than in speech, and because it’s in my nature to share my passions rather aggressively, I compiled a list, in no special order, of the most personally influential books that I’ve read throughout high school. I wouldn’t say that all of these are my favorites or of particularly established merit, but many of them are both. Most of these books taught me lessons that I’m still observing to this day; a select few made me cry, and some are just really, really funny. I hope you find the same joy in them that I did.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time — Mark Haddon
This book is hilarious. Like, just straight-up funny. It has that really dry, banter-esque humor that’s always present in books written by British authors, and, at the risk of sounding really elitist, you probably won’t get the jokes if your sense of humor is anything besides. Curious Incident is a quasi-mystery novel about a 15-year-old boy named Christopher who finds his neighbor’s dog stabbed to death with a gardening fork and takes it upon himself to unmask the culprit.
The book’s plot is phenomenal, with just the right amount of twists, turns, and side-splitters, but the thing that makes it so cool is that, even though its narrator and protagonist has autism, the book isn’t about having a social disability. It brought much-needed diversity of character to the general literature field, and it did it marvelously.
The Song of Achilles — Madeline Miller
I can tell you exactly where I was when I finished this book, which is saying something considerable given the state I was in upon its ending. I was sitting in the youth room at my church, surrounded by hoards of screaming twelve-year-olds, sobbing my eyes out.
I don’t think I can accurately or justifiably convey how heart-shatteringly beautiful this book is. It’s phenomenal, beyond belief—I don’t have enough positive adjectives to speak as highly of this novel as I would like to.
If you’re familiar with The Iliad (even if you hated it, like I did) please, please, please read it. It’s technically a historical fiction (albeit called “fanfiction” by many, much to my chagrin), but it focuses primarily on Achilles’ and Patroclus’ relationship, as well as the psychological and emotional consequences of love, loss, and war. I won’t say anything more because you probably know how it ends, but I more than recommend it anyway. It’s beautifully written and tells an incredible story.
Slaughterhouse-Five — Kurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five is probably one of the most well-known sci-fi books of the 21st century. It’s a semi-autobiographical World War II novel about a chaplain’s assistant named Billy Pilgrim who recounts his experiences of the infamous Dresden fire-bombing (which actually happened and is incredibly interesting!)
Billy is poorly trained and all but refuses to fight, and he believes himself to have been abducted by creatures from the planet Tralfamadore and put on exhibit in a zoo, where he reveals important moments of his life via extended flashbacks.
Honestly, this book has everything I love in a novel: satire, nonlinear form, an unreliable narrator, vague existentialism, pseudo-propagandistic anti-war sentiment, and, of course, impertinently philosophical aliens. The book as a whole, widely claimed to be Vonnegut’s most influential work, has a lot of interesting ideas and lessons, but its plot makes next to no sense (which, honestly, I loved.) It was really interesting and sparked a lot of introspective reflection for me.
The Secret History — Donna Tartt
If I had to pick an ultimate favorite off this list, it would be this book, for sure. Don’t even start it if you have commitment issues because it’s pretty freaking long, but it is very worth reading. The Secret History was Tartt’s debut novel, and it’s about a guy named Richard Papen who moves from a small fictional town in the Midwest-esque region of California to the elite Hampden College in upstate Vermont. He joins a small, exclusive Classics program with only five other students and, as you discover in the book’s prologue (no spoilers here!), they end up murdering one of their own.
The book serves as an “inverted detective story,” meaning it gives you the crime and perpetrator at the beginning of the novel and guides you throughout the plot to discover the causes and consequences of the situation. Tartt encompasses the “whydunit” magnificently—this book is insane, and I didn’t want it to end. Every detail is worthy of later use, every character is created and developed flawlessly, and her writing is impeccably and beautifully crafted; you won’t want to put it down.
I could talk about this book for hours, but I’ll leave you with saying that I’ve best heard it described as “a cautionary tale about devoting yourself too heavily to ‘the aesthetic,’” (in short, read it!)
Harry Potter series — J.K. Rowling
All right, if you’re surprised that this masterpiece of a series is included on this list, you’re lying. Harry Potter is timeless — a real, honest-to-God contemporary classic. I grew up on these books. Like, my dad read the first one to me in first grade and from then on out I was hooked; if six-year-old me can do it, you can too. I mean, come on, it’s 2016! If—God forbid—you haven’t read these books, or at least seen the movies, I can only assume you’re actively avoiding them.
I’m not even going to provide a plot synopsis. For heaven’s sake, I’m on my fourth re-read as we speak. No excuses! Read them!
The Great Gatsby — F. Scott Fitgerald
If you’re lucky, you either had or will have this book as required reading while you’re in high school. I read it for the first time as a freshman, when I heard about the then-upcoming remake, and I fell in love with it so hard that I actually resented the movie for a while. This is one of those books that the film industry just can’t do justice.
It tells the story of Jay Gatsby through the eyes of his neighbor Nick Carraway, but I really can’t say any more without giving anything away. It’s beautifully written and poses poignant criticism about the trials and consequences of blind infatuation and the ever-present societal greed of the roaring 20s. I hated all the characters and still loved it, if that tells you anything!
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — Douglas Adams
This book is a lot like Curious Incident in that it is genuinely, outrageously funny. Comedy is really the main point of this book, though, and it does it exceptionally well. It’s by a British author, so, as I said earlier, it has that bare bones sense of humor that I love a lot.
There is a plot, but pretty much all you should know going in is that the world is ending and there’s only, like, one survivor. Side note: I learned absolutely no paramount life lessons in this book, but I’ve read it about four times simply because it’s never failed to make me grin.
Every Day — David Levithan
This is one of those books that I made all of my friends read (confession: I always do that, but still.) It’s about a person, self-dubbed ‘A’, who doesn’t have a body of their own. For as long as they can remember, A has woken up every day in the body of someone new—their “incumbents” range all genders, races, and walks of life. A spends one day in whosever body they happen to land in, then repeats the cycle day after day.
There’s a lot of blind compliance that comes with this story—nothing is ever really explained, just accepted and often pondered, because the narrator themself doesn’t understand why they are the way they are. The concept is really cool and it’s artfully done; the story is beautiful and compelling.
It taught me a lot too—I read it at a time in my life in which I had no idea who I was, and it was interesting and thought-provoking to read about a character who was so sure of themselves despite having no personal corporeality. Five stars!
The Perks of Being a Wallflower — Stephen Chbosky
Honestly, everyone who didn’t live under a rock read this book, and I risked sounding mind-numbingly cliche by adding it to this list (that’s me, ever the daredevil.)
Fittingly enough, I read it the summer before my freshman year, and I like to think it prepped me rather well for my entrance into high school, primarily because the events of this book were nothing even remotely similar to my experience as an underclassman (or, granted, upperclassman.)
Still, it emphasizes the importance of healthy relationships—friendly, familial, and romantic alike—and reminds you that there is, indeed, a light that never goes out. Honestly, now that I’m writing about how much I liked it, I have the urge to read it again; it’s the quintessential coming-of-age story, and it brought to light the gravity of mental illness. Added bonus: it helped me discover the Smiths.
The Picture of Dorian Gray — Oscar Wilde
This book and its backstory are pretty big parts of why I love literature so much. It’s about three men: an artist named Basil, an aristocrat named Henry, and their new friend—Basil’s new “muse”—the beautiful and whimsical Dorian Gray.
Dorian is new in town and captivates Basil, who is determined to keep him around for as long as possible as a means to satisfy his artistic fancy. Dorian, however, is enthralled by the sensual and hedonistic perspectives of Lord Henry, and he soon lets his Epicureanist tendencies get the better of him. The book is magnificently well-written and, as it is philosophical by nature, you begin to be as influenced by Lord Henry’s pretentious and cynical musings as Dorian himself is. Great concept, better execution.
Now, the backstory: it was originally published in 1890 (yawn, I know, I get it), and it was received rather poorly by critics because it was considered to be “amoral” and “nauseous.” Critics and readers alike found the book to be full of homoerotic subtext—which, let’s be real, it is—and it was soon censored, with the author himself prosecuted. Essentially, Wilde was imprisoned for writing this book because the masses thought it was “too gay.” It’s great.
Reading may not be your idea of a good time, but everyone has to start somewhere, and the only way to grow to enjoy it is to read as much and as impartially as you can. As it goes, these books in particular may not be for you, but they’ve meant so much to me and to many others, and it’s important to spread that joy as much as possible with the goal that you can lead at least one other person to find the book that might change their life.
I can only hope that reading this, or even just skimming it to get to the end, has sparked something in you that can only be satisfied by a good book. Only then will my job be complete!