It’s back to school time—time to put away the books you love in favor of reading the ones someone else has chosen for you. For me, looking at a required reading list once was the equivalent of putting away the ice cream and thawing out frozen vegetables: gross.
It wasn’t until late in my college years that I realized just how good some of these classics are, though. Some of these books that were required reading ended up being my absolute favorites. Here’s a list of books you should not fear if you see them on your back to school academic books list.
My entire ninth grade year, it felt like, was devoted to Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. I dreaded it until I cracked it open and found a ton of (literally) ancient stories full of drama and intrigue—and gods were making these missteps! Look at Oedipus! Can you believe Medea did that!? Zeus turned into a what for this divine rape!? We had to read this book as a primer so we understood, later, when authors made allusions, but man, I never got bored. The synopses are short and sweet, plus, this 75th anniversary edition is illustrated!
Same with this book—I’d heard its title over and over again with “have to read,” so I assumed I’d have to drag my feet through it. I did not: not only is it a short read, but the whole thing is basically a house party during the Roaring ‘20s, complete with bootlegging, unrequited love, and murder. Buckle up, this one is illustrated, too (You’ll get that joke when you finish the novel).
This novel makes most students groan for one reason alone: it’s long. When I tell you that’s the only reason, I mean it: Alex Haley’s history of an African American family, which he traced back to before the Middle Passage—a nearly impossible feat—is one you will remember your whole life. It puts the dried-out history we learn in history class in a less academic book form by telling a real story about real people who were enslaved, and how that travesty affected (and continues to affect) all their descendants. It’s an absolute page-turner.
Full disclosure: I do not like this book. I felt like I needed to include it, however, because when I was teaching English composition, so many of my students cited this novel as one that they were assigned and loved, that it merited telling you about: basically, a prep-school boy suffers from the ennui of his privileged existence in the 1960s. I think it’s likeable because the protagonist is the same age as so many of his readers, so he’s very relatable.e her life’s saga.
Mary Kay McBrayer is the author of America’s First Female Serial Killer: Jane Toppan and the Making of a Monster. You can find her short works at Oxford American, Narratively, Mental Floss, and FANGORIA, among other publications. She co-hosts Everything Trying to Kill You, the comedy podcast that analyzes your favorite horror movies from the perspectives of women of color. Follow Mary Kay McBrayer on Instagram and Twitter, or check out her author site here.