10. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
Why You Didn’t Like it in School: Absolutely no one in the world cares about Oklahoma or any product from Oklahoma. Also, the breastfeeding scene elicits lots of giggles because boobs.
Why You Should Read it Now: It turns out that the poor treatment of immigrants is a problem that continues today (who knew, right?). The struggles that immigrants face in a capitalist nation are heartbreaking, and often bring out the worst in people. Steinbeck paints a portrait of a desperate, struggling people who still give everything they have to people who need it even more than they do, and reminds us that human beings are still good even in the worst of circumstances. If this book doesn’t make you want to hug your family and hand $20 to a homeless man on the sidewalk, you might be a zombie.
9. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Why You Didn’t Like it in School: When you’re 14, it is easy to forget that there are things in the world worse than having to wear glasses in the marching band’s yearbook photo. Anything with the words “timeless classic” on the book cover is sure to be a snooze.
Why You Should Read it Now: When you’re comfortable with your life, it’s easy to become complacent about issues of social justice - we are told time and again that it’s really hard for just one person to change the world. To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of a family that does the right thing despite the urgings of a community they love. It is often hard to do what you know is right when your decision won’t be supported by your family or friends, but Lee’s heartbreaking story shows us that even the most misjudged and maligned person can be strong enough to stand up for those without a voice.
8. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
Why You Didn’t Like it in School: You were so over talking animals after, like, the last Shrek movie came out. Besides, if Orwell really wanted to get his point across, why didn’t he just write about the Russians and spare us all the allegory?
Why You Should Read it Now: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” In a world where your entire life is available via digital download, it sometimes seems like we’ve entered a different dystopian world, like the one in Orwell’s other classic, 1984. However, unlike 1984, Animal Farm reminds us that while there is often a battle to be fought, it’s easy to get so caught up in winning that you forget your ideology. Sometimes the people in power are exactly the people who should never be trusted with that power, and it’s important not to get caught up in party lines and idealism.
7. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain
Why You Didn’t Like it in School: Honestly, who gives a toot about some kid running around in the South? If there’s one place more boring than Oklahoma, it’s Missouri.
Why You Should Read it Now: Everyone can use a little bit of joy in their life, and that’s what this book is about. Sure, it’s hard to read about a little kid when you’re an adult, but there’s something infectious about Tom’s indefatigable spirit, and you’ll find yourself rooting him on as he attends his own funeral and steals the gold from a notorious crook’s hiding spot. Tom’s friendship with Huck and the earnestness with which he pursues adventure will leave you wanting to chase your own adventures and stand up to the people who tell you no.
6. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Why You Didn’t Like it in School: Look, if you’re not old enough to drink, where’s the fun in reading about people who can? And let’s get real: nothing happens in this book. They have parties, they cheat on their spouses, and then someone gets shot to death in a pool. Bo-ring.
Why You Should Read it Now: We’ve all heard the old trope that you can’t always get what you want (thanks, Jagger). This book is the ultimate tale of wanting what you can’t have. In many ways a cautionary story, The Great Gatsby is a reminder that living in extravagant excess won’t save you from normal human emotions, or erase painful memories from your past. Gatsby’s desire to surround himself with beautiful people and beautiful things is born from deep dissatisfaction, and his tragic end reminds us that money doesn’t solve every problem.
5. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Malcom X
Why You Didn’t Like it in School: Autobiographies are universally boring. If I want to know every detail of someone’s life, I’ll turn on Keeping Up With the Kardashians, thanks very much.
Why You Should Read it Now: Besides the fact that Malcolm X was an absolutely fascinating human being, this book is a compelling look at the kind of society black civil rights leaders were dealing with. Often considered radical, Malcolm X’s approach to the civil rights movement was very different from others’, but his autobiography tells the story of a man whose radical beliefs in his youth eventually gave way to brilliant intellectualism and sharp insight into the African American experience of the era. His brutal assassination by members of his former religious group, the Nation of Islam, means that we’ll never know what he was capable of, but his autobiography gives us a glimpse at what could have been.
4. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
Why You Didn’t Like it in School: Anything in a foreign language is torture. Even when they translate it, no doubt the book holds on to remnants of foreign-y words like “tortilla” and “casa” and uggghhh. Why can’t we just read magazines for credit??
Why You Should Read it Now: Okay, honestly only read this if you have time for an epic journey. This book spans generations, and is the story of an enduring family loyalty that will have you in tears every ten minutes. There’s something very ethereal and mystical about the way Allende writes, and you’ll find yourself captivated not only by the magic wielded by the female characters, but also by the political maneuvering of their male counterparts. The House of the Spirits is also, at its heart, an analysis of the class differentiation in Latin American society. The dichotomy between the rich and the poor continues in Latin America today, and the plot of Allende’s debut work is one of the best pieces of artwork to explain that dynamic.
3. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
Why You Didn’t Like it in School: There is actually nothing worse than reading a play in school. The time spent selecting everyone to read the various parts and the dread of being chosen for a part and then forgetting what you’re supposed to read and…can’t we just watch the movie instead?
Why You Should Read it Now: If you want to talk about someone who led an incredible life, Arthur Miller should be at the top of your list. Between being married to Marilyn Monroe, testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and winning the Pulitzer Prize, there’s no question that Miller had plenty of good stories to tell. One of his best - and certainly his most well-known - is Death of a Salesman. This play shed light on something no one wanted to talk about: the suddenly defunct American Dream. The idea that perhaps satisfaction doesn’t necessarily come with conformity was a dangerous one at the time, and even today it can cause friction in quiet communities like the Lomans’.
2. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak
Why You Didn’t Like it in School: Actually, you probably did like this one. This is the story of a kid who disobeys his mom, gets to go play with monsters, and still has dinner waiting for him when he gets back. What’s not to like?
Why You Should Read it Now: We’ve all wanted to escape our dreary lives and run off to search for adventure. Sendak, who died in 2012, was well-known for his dreamy landscapes and otherworldly characters, and Where the Wild Things Are is no exception. The idea that there is another world in which we’re all rulers of our own fate is one that has tempted and tantalized mankind for all of history. Max’s wild things treat him like a god, but even in a land where his word is law, Max realizes that no amount of power makes up for being away from home. When we’re kids we think what we want is power, adventure, and the ability to do whatever we want. As adults, we know there’s nothing better than simply being able to go home when we need to.
1. Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo
Why You Didn’t Like it in School: Honestly, odds are you didn’t actually have to read this one in school. This is an oft-overlooked book, perhaps because of its brutality and the fact that it was written about World War I, about which there are other, more popular books, like All Quiet on the Western Front. You’re probably in the clear with this one.
Why You Should Read it Now: It is the absolute gospel truth that reading this book will change everything you think about war. Dalton Trumbo (another HUAC target and member of the Hollywood 10, who was blacklisted in 1947) was notorious for his anti-capitalist writings, but not before writing his most memorable novel. Trumbo wrote this book after hearing the story of a WWI soldier who survived the war despite losing all his limbs in an explosion. Johnny Got His Gun is narrated by a young soldier who loses his limbs, eyes, ears, and mouth in an explosion. His crystal-clear recollections of his past and transforming views on the needlessness of war will turn your stomach, but they’ll also make you ask questions about the cost of freedom, the methods used in war, and the price we pay for some semblance of order.