These Are The 12 Classic Books You Need To Read Before You Die

Discover why they've stood the test of time.

If you didn't enjoy all of the books you read in your high school English class, you probably aren't alone.


While there are lots of teenagers who enjoy reading, there are very few who enjoy dissecting stories, mining the pages for symbolism and key quotations in order to produce a good book report. It's a double-edged sword, because while assignments are important for making sure that students are doing the reading and have a basic level of understanding of the work, they certainly aren't fun, and they often get in the way of reading and enjoying the book organically.

If you did like a lot of the books that were assigned reading in high school, it's still good to re-read a few classic masterpieces every few years. With additional life experiences under your belt, you'll find new meaning and even more to love on every page.

Here are 12 books that you likely read in high school, but really should check out again. This time, with no book report required.

1. To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee

To be black in the South during the 1930s was to be subjected to omnipresent prejudice. To Kill A Mockingbird is told from the perspective of a young white girl named Scout who observes their father, Atticus Finch, defend a black man in a trial regarding the rape of a white woman. The way the town reacts to the family during this time helps shape the children's view of the world.

Memorable Quote: "They're certainly entitled to think that, and they're entitled to full respect for their opinions... but before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience." -Atticus Finch

2. 1984, George Orwell

1984 envisions a time when surveillance by is everything and personal thought and opinion are systematically removed. Official historical records are altered to suit political matters, and the masses blindly follow The Party. A man named Winston sees the hypocrisy for what it is and desperately seeks freedom alongside the woman he loves, but their rebellion might not be strong enough to overcome Big Brother.

Memorable Quote: "Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious." -Winston

3. The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne

In The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is a beautiful young woman with a new baby, but there's one problem: the child isn't her husband's. Hester is jailed and becomes an utter outcast, as she is forced to put her sins on display with an embroidered scarlet 'A' on her clothing. Rather than reveal the identity of the child's father and subject him to the same Puritanical social persecution, Hester chooses to shoulder the burden alone. That is, until the strain from the secrecy becomes too much for one person to bear.

Memorable Quote: "Mother, the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom. . . . It will not flee from me, for I wear nothing on my bosom yet!" -Pearl

4. Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes

In Flowers for Algernon, a mouse named Algernon has been given an experimental drug that allows him to become exceedingly intelligent. The first human to receive the drug, a man named Charlie with below average intelligence, responds to treatment extremely well. His life is suddenly everything he dreamed it would be, but when Algernon's condition changes again, it will have huge implications for Charlie.

Memorable Quote: "What did you expect? Did you think I'd remain a docile pup, wagging my tail and licking the foot that kicks me? I no longer have to take the kind of crap that people have been handing me all my life." -Charlie

5. Of Mice And Men, John Steinbeck

The original bromance, Of Mice And Men tells the tale of George and Lennie, who travel to find work during the Great Depression and dream of a stable life. Their desperate situation is magnified by the fact that though Lennie is bigger than most men, severe learning disabilities prohibit him from acting and reasoning like an adult. Lennie inadvertently causes a series of incidents, ranging from annoying to criminal, that force George into an impossible situation.

Memorable Quote: "Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don't belong no place. . . . With us it ain't like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us. We don't have to sit in no bar room blowin' in our jack jus' because we got no place else to go. If them other guys gets in jail they can rot for all anybody gives a damn. But not us." -George

6. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings explores the early life of Maya Angelou, who reveals the struggles of what it was like for a poor black girl in the South. Angelou bore the brunt of tragedies including racism, sexual abuse, and an unplanned pregnancy shrouded in secrecy, but fought to overcome the obstacles in her life and turn them into something more.

Memorable Quote: "See, you don't have to think about doing the right thing. If you're for the right thing, then you do it without thinking." -Mother

7. The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

Though Esther Greenwood is a talented girl, her mind is troubled. The Bell Jar tells the tale of her decline into mental illness, reaching depths that she may not be able to overcome. Though she is eroding from depression, she is able to see the world in a poignant and pragmatic way.

Memorable Quote: "If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I'm neurotic as hell. I'll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days."

8. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Books, and the independent thought they can inspire, are powerful, much to the dismay of those who would seek to narrow the thoughts of the general public. Fahrenheit 451 paints a dystopian future where books of a dissenting nature are burned (ironically by firemen) and censorship prevails. One fireman reads the books out of curiosity and begins to question his duty.

Memorable Quote: "We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?" -Montag

9. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

The love story to end all love stories, Jane Eyre follows the life of the title character (plain in face but fierce in character) from her abused life as an orphaned child to working for the rich and handsome Mr. Rochester. Just when Jane believes all of her dreams are finally coming true, things take a dramatic turn when Rochester's darkest secret is unceremoniously revealed.

Memorable Quote: "I would always rather be happy than dignified." -Jane Eyre

10. Death Of A Salesman, Arthur Miller

Death of a Salesman follows the story of Willy Loman, a salesman who has struggled to provide for his family throughout his entire life, to no avail. Though he always had delusions of grandeur of a successful career and adoring family, his reality was much different; a problem that is about come to a head when Loman loses his job.

Memorable Quote: "I've got to get some seeds. I've got to get some seeds, right away. Nothing's planted. I don't have a thing in the ground." -Willy Loman

11. A Raisin In The Sun, Lorraine Hansberry

When the Civil Rights Era ushered in a host of previously undreamable opportunities for black Americans. Though the opportunities may technically have opened, societal pressures made it difficult to pursue many of these avenues. A Raisin In The Sun follows the Younger family, whose members hold vastly different beliefs of what it means to be a black in America, with struggles that threaten to tear the family apart.

Memorable Quote: "Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain't through learning – because that ain't the time at all. It's when he's at his lowest and can't believe in hisself 'cause the world done whipped him so!" -Lena Younger

12. The Old Man And The Sea, Ernest Hemingway

The Old Man And The Sea tells of a fisherman who still has dreams of catching a great fish, though his aging body may no longer be up to the task. With a need to prove his abilities to himself, he takes to the sea and goes after a marlin. Though the book is short, it explores the themes of self-actualization and what it means to be alive in an open and matter-of-fact way.

Memorable Quote: "Why do old men wake so early? Is it to have one longer day?" 

[Header image credit: Amanda Govaert]


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