In grade school, we read a lot of classic literature.
But while there’s something decidedly magical about being drawn to an unknown-to-us title at a bookshop, when we found one printed in Times New Roman under the words “Required Reading,” the magic was just plain gone.
So, with a full course load and a slew of extracurriculars thrown in for college bait, SparkNotes and skimming our way through some of the greatest classics in the English language seemed like the smartest way to pass the next pop quiz.
Now that we’re somewhat older—and a tiny bit wiser—we’re revisiting the books we didn’t fully appreciate the first time around. Follow along and let us know what we missed.
The literary world has gone positively bonkers over Atticus Finch’s racism in Harper Lee’s now-published, early manuscript Go Set a Watchman. Perhaps because we all read To Kill a Mockingbird too early, we put Atticus on a pedestal and refused to imagine his complexity. Rereading the book now could give us a more nuanced view; even our greatest heroes have faults.
This novel—for which Buck won both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes—is taught in high schools and colleges around the globe as an introduction to 20th-century China. And though it expertly catalogs life in rural China, The Good Earth is also about man’s relation to nature and the corruptive power of getting what he wants, which is why it deserves a second look.
Anything by William Shakespeare
When our freshman English teacher assigned Romeo and Julietand Macbeth, we thoughts: “Thank goodness for No Fear Shakespeare.” We think it’s time to give the Bard another go now that we’ve got the wits to uncover those penis jokes, clever insults, and highly poetical existential crises hiding underneath all that vernacular.
Despite numerous instances of book banning, The Color Purple is taught to high school juniors and seniors all across the nation. But the book’s rich commentary on race, class, and gender are ageless. Gloria Steinem recommends a reread, and that’s good enough for us!
We read the eerily accurate dystopian novel before the recent NSA surveillance scandals and Snowden revelations, which means we read it too young. As full-fledged adults, who vote in elections, it’s time to fully appreciate the doublespeak and perfidious Ministries of Love and Truth.
Much maligned in it’s time as well as today, readers tend to condemn the book and its protagonist, Edna Pontellier, because of the character’s suicide. A more mature understanding of major depression and the conflicting duties to self and family could help us focus on Edna’s awakening with a sympathetic eye.
One of the top 10 most assigned books in secondary education, The Scarlet Letter is often berated by students for being dull and dense. We now know we should should reserve our Goodreads reviews ’til the second reading. We can now revel in Hawthorne’s soapy plot and elaborate language, while grasping the symbolism scattered through the book’s reasonable 200 or so pages.
As with books about the Holocaust, stories centered around the systematic oppression and extinction of Native Americans can be hard to grasp for young readers. But unlike World War II, the so-called Indian Wars and the history of interactions between the U.S. government and native tribes are not typically covered in schools. During a reread, we would keep a map handy and expect a peek into modern reservation life.
Like all Toni Morrison works, The Bluest Eye is an intense piece. It deals with internalized racism, rape, blackness, womanhood, and community. Confronting these things in literature is important for all ages, but revisiting it again with a more experienced mind may provide us with a more complete view of contemporary race issues in America.
Fahrenheit 451 is taught in both middle and high schools, usually as a book about censorship, but Ray Bradbury himself has rebelled against that idea. Fahrenheit 451 is not about the government deciding which books are fit for consumption. It is about books and all the things they represent being drowned out by less meaningful information and media. We’re ready to devour his ironically snackable classic again (it’s just 150 pages, after all).