Every high school English class had that one skeptic. As the teacher carefully laid out his intricate theory about why J.D. Salinger decided to have Holden Caufield wear a red hunting hat in The Catcher in the Rye, this budding contrarian would strike: “Why couldn’t he have just given him a red hunting hat because he thought it was cool?”
Literary dissection and wild goose chases for metaphor may be the lifeblood of every English major, but that smart-aleck from grade 10 has a point. Who’s to say a book can’t be enjoyed purely for its story? Isn’t that kind of the point? Does every name and object need to have a deeper thematic meaning for a book to be an enriching read? Probably not.
So here are some recommended reads from English class that offer entertaining stories and are accessible enough for anyone to enjoy. No eight-page follow-up essay required.
What We All Long For
Dionne Brand’s 2005 novel tells the story of four friends in their 20s living in downtown Toronto. They are all second-generation Canadians, and the novel tracks their struggle to feel as though they fully belong in Canadian culture. From a free-spirited Vietnamese artist whose parents lost a child on their boat journey to Canada to a young biracial woman still reeling from her mother’s suicide, Brand paints complex portraits of four young people on the fringes of society. What We All Long For tackles heavy subject matter, but Brand brings a thoroughly modern and humorous touch that makes the story a relatable, enjoyable read.
George Orwell’s classic 1948 novel is a still a staple in English classes, and for good reason. His tale of government control and declining free will presents a terrifying world that, in some ways, has started to manifest itself in our own society. As you follow Winston’s mission to fight against extreme government surveillance and mind control, it’s hard not to cheer for him, even though you know his rebellion is not likely to turn out well. 1984 preys on the fears that many of us have, and the result is an unsettling but exciting read.
It may have been written over 150 years ago, but Emily Bronte’s classic gothic novel still feels relevant and surprisingly modern. This is not your typical love story, and as characters make increasingly dark decisions, the novel unravels into something far less cozy than the “classic romance” it’s often made out to be. That is to say, things get pretty weird. Catherine and Heathcliff are perfect early examples of the antihero so prevalent in books and movies today, and while the novel was too dark and shocking to be fully appreciated in its day, it has since become celebrated for those very reasons.
The Curious Incident of the Dog
in the Night-Time
Mark Haddon’s charming 2003 novel follows a teenage sleuth, Christopher, as he attempts to uncover the murderer of his neighbour’s dog. Christopher is a meticulous and eccentric young man who appears to have Asperger syndrome (a mild autism spectrum disorder), and the book documents his attempts to function in the sometimes overwhelming world around him. Writing in first person, Haddon brings us right into the mind of Christopher, offering lots of humour and perfectly capturing the feeling of being a teenager and struggling to fit in with the people around you.