When I was a freshman in high school, my teacher cried as she read aloud the last few pages of To Kill a Mockingbird. We all tried to stifle our giggles, but luckily, she didn’t mind. She knew one day we would understand. Our freshman year curriculum was full of classic novels to read for coming-of-age style growth, but we just weren’t ready.
As life expectancy crawls upward, and since we’ve added college to the natural progression of life, the timeline for coming-of-age has changed as well. Teenagers don’t have to act like adults for about four years post when their parents and grandparents did! Ever notice people are marrying at an older age? Buying their first houses older? Have their first baby older?
Now, our late teens/early twenties are when we realize, as Holden Caulfield or Scout Finch or Pip did as children, that we don’t have life figured out. Teenagers enjoy that feeling of knowing everything. Then when they enter young adulthood– that’s when they get the wind knocked outa them. That’s when they need these classic novels to read for personal growth.
Related: Potty-Mouthed Self-Help Books
Classic Novels to Read Again Post-Grad
You may see these as classic novels to read in high school and then never again. Still, I urge you to give them another shot now that 1) your pre-frontal cortex is fully developed, 2) you’ve been appropriately humbled by the harsh realities of life, and 3) you have a higher tolerance for the writing styles of the olden days.
I’m starting with this one because it’s the most well-liked by actual high school students. You can tell because Leo DiCaprio made it mainstream again in 2013.
Nick Carroway is the narrator of The Great Gatsby. He moves to West Egg, Long Island for work and finds his neighbor, Jay Gatsby, endlessly fascinating. They become friends and Nick learns Gatsby has been in love with his cousin, Daisy, since college. However, they can’t be together because, even though Daisy hates her cheating douchebag of a husband, she is old-money and he is new-money.
This is one of the most powerful classic novels to read again because it’s all a big symbol for how some people have to work three times as hard to get things that are handed to other people. Still painfully relevant in 2018.
This book was George Orwell’s idea of what the world would be like in 1984, written in 1949. It’s a dystopian novel where “Big Brother” is constantly watching. Free thought, sex, and expression of personality are all illegal. The story follows a guy named Winston, who is against the governing party in charge of all this, and tries to overthrow them.
1984 is full of twists and turns– you never know who’s on which side. And you won’t be able to help but think of how close or far we are from really being in a society like this. It’s chilling, and something you’ll be able to appreciate much more now that you’re an adult with a better grasp of what’s going on in the world.
If you like 1984, another of the best dystopian classic novels to read is Anthem by Ayn Rand. It’s a similar plot, with another futuristic society that outlaws free thought. It’s a little shorter, and it certainly makes you think!
TKAM is from the point of view of a little girl named Scout Finch living in Alabama in the early 1900s. Her widowed father, Atticus is a well-respected lawyer in their town, hired to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman.
I love it as one of the classic novels to read while coming-of-age because of the themes of morality and innocence. Who do we want to be in our adult lives? And what is it like to see difference for the first time? It’s a really eye-opening account of what race issues look like from the point of view of a child. And of course, with privilege vs. oppression court cases raging on all over the country, TKAM is still painfully relevant today.
A few years ago, Harper Lee’s family made the controversial decision to publish what feels like a sequel but was originally an earlier draft of TKAM that paints Atticus in a very different light. If you’re interested, it’s called Go Set a Watchman.
Personally, I liked this book even in high school. Lord of the Flies is about British school boys who end up stranded on a deserted island. It explores the dichotomy between a human’s desire for order and the desire for free-will. This is a classic novel to read if you like pretty dark, thought-provoking stuff. You see all types of creepy power dynamics form, and the disturbing consequences of them.
Again, even though it’s old, the themes are still relevant considering the political unrest in the US. Now that you’re an adult, you’re likely better equipped to grapple with the questions it brings up for you. How much power should the government have over us? How much should they be allowed to control? It also explores a painful loss of innocence, which is probably more poignant for you in your twenties than at fourteen.
You can find a ~high-quality~ synopsis in my favorite movie, Silver Linings Playbook.
Holden Caulfield can be super whiny, but I still loved this book for the way it was super blunt but also super beautiful. I actually built my graduate school entrance essay around it, because it’s one of the reasons I went into psychology.
The Catcher in the Rye is about a troubled teen who gets kicked out of school and runs away. He goes to NYC for the few days before Christmas break so he can avoid telling his parents what happened. This journey makes him really ponder his innocence and his future. At one point, he remembers a poem that gives him an image of what he wished he could be when he grew up.
“if a body catch a body, coming through the rye…”
He imagined a bunch of children playing in a field of rye at the edge of a cliff. He wanted his job to be catching them before they fell off. Holden’s struggles with innocence resonated with me so deeply that they formed my career path. There was no way I was writing a post on classic novels to read without including it!