Assigned reading was the worst at times, but mostly because I don’t like to be told what to do, especially when it comes to activities I enjoy. When I look back on the books I read for school, I appreciated most of them. There were the classics here or there that I didn’t connect to, but I could still tell you why they were valuable. Maybe I’ll write a blog post about them in the future but right now I want to talk about the books that I needed to read for a grade that I enjoyed.
Night by Elie Wiesel was assigned to me in 7th grade. We were doing a WWII segment in both English and History, it was one of those great times when classes were able to work together. I loved these couple of weeks in my education. It awoke in me a fascination for all aspects of this dismal time in human history. Night was influential in that discovery. My English teacher suggested the short book to a friend and myself. She allowed us to leave the classroom and read aloud to one another. Sitting Indian style on a ledge, we shared this story between us. The incomprehensible torture depicted in a matter of fact tone carrying us from beginning to end. There are images described in such clarity that they spring to mind at the first thought of this book.
In my Sophomore year of High School, I was assigned to read what would become my two favorite books. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck spoke to me on a basic level. The idea that sometimes the most damaging thing a person can do to themselves is the most selfless act of love for someone else. The writing was simple and impacting, I loved how the characters spoke with unique voices. I had purchased the book before we finished it in class because I needed to know the end. I sat in my bedroom pouring over the last few pages, tears falling from my eyes to soak into the fresh paper between my fingers. At once I was liberated by the beauty of humanity and by its dark brutality.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee had the same effect on me by using very different tools. Scout is a superb main character. She is depicted in a way that allows her to age and gain perspective. And through her innocence she accomplishes what the adults in her life cannot. The story is beautiful and timeless. It astounds me how relevant the themes still are fifty years later.
Some honorable mentions go out to Lord of the Flies a book that balanced lovely writing with disturbing imagery. The Scarlet Letter that used intrigue and mystery to tell a story about inner strength. Romeo and Juliette for introducing me to some of the most romantic prose ever written. And The White Lantern a collection of essays about the exploration of Antartica that has forever put the phrase, “I’m cold,” in perspective.