In search of a good book that is not about vampires or unrealistic teen romances? I’ve got you covered. Not only will these five good reads be precisely that (good reads), but they will also contribute significantly to whatever it is you are studying in English class, by virtue of their complex character development, plots, use of allegory, and general good writing.
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- Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. This dystopian novel will grab you immediately and will refuse to drop you even after you’ve finished reading. Guy Montag is a “fireman” who burns books, which have been banned from a society in which people do nothing but spend hours in front of huge T.V. screens. Bradbury’s novel is certainly a thriller, but it interrogates many of the things that our society renders important: knowledge, education, and entertainment. The novel’s discussion alone of how we read and use literature in daily life makes it worth reading.
- Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. What appears to be a miniature picture book for children is actually not. Saint-Exupéry’s lovely little novella does include drawings (of elephants, planets, and flowers) but it is actually at heart a beautifully thoughtful, philosophical exploration of loneliness, love, and friendship. Le Petit Prince is the most read and most translated book in the French language; but you shouldn’t read it solely for that reason. Le Petit Prince‘s stripped narrative modeled on allegory is deft, and resonates with the book’s historical, psychological context: the author wrote Le Petit Prince just after World War II. A memorable quote from the novella: “The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched; they are felt with the heart.”
- Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. Another dystopian novel, Huxley’s work is brilliantly written but downright chilling, particularly because it arguably anticipates the direction modern technology is taking today. Written in 1930, Brave New World takes its title from Shakespeare’s Tempest, specifically Miranda’s exclamation upon seeing other humans for the first time (she has been raised by her banished father on a magical island populated by monsters and strange creatures): “O brave new world / that has such people in it!” The title is ironic given the “world” described by Huxley: a dystopian city that genetically modifies its inhabitants based off of a social caste system, and excludes communities of “savages,” the tribes of ‘normal’ humans who resist this “new world” culture of sensuality and technology. Huxley’s iconic novel comments on other important literary tropes: particularly the noble savage (a term inspired by Montaigne) and dramatic irony.
- The Iliad and The Odyssey, by Homer. Classics, certainly, but classics for a reason. Homer’s two epic poems—which discuss the Trojan War and Odysseus’ journey home, respectively—are probably the foundation of all Western literature. Nearly every classic writer references Homer at some point. But these epic poems are gripping, complex, and contain some of the most beautiful lines in literature. Like these: “Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men. Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth, now the living timber bursts with the new buds and spring comes round again. And so with men: as one generation comes to life, another dies away” (The Iliad).
Wait a minute, you might add suspiciously. These all sound the same! Protagonists seek meaning in a world that is not their own, which is by contrast, incomprehensible, dystopian, or just plain weird. They probably do not entail happy endings (most of them don’t). So what’s the point?
The point is that all of these novels depict believable realities in which their characters strive to make their own forms of meaning. They reflect, in part, what writing attempts to do: to flesh out new forms of meaning, to show us what our world is like by virtue of what it is not. That’s what good literature does! It should make you question the world around you, or at least look at it in a different way. Though our world may not have the crazy machines of Brave New World or Fahrenheit 451, these authors are saying something they think is important about what our society could be like and what that consequently has to say about human nature in the process. Remember: all books are conversations, just hidden within stories. Ask yourself: what is this conversation in front of me, and how do I choose to respond?
About the author: Kathleen McGunagle is a senior in Princeton University’s English department and Interdisciplinary Humanities Certificate Program. Concentrating in British Renaissance Literature, she will be writing a thesis this spring on Shakespeare and early modern materialist psychology. Kathleen is an Academic Peer Adviser at Princeton, tutor through Princeton Tutoring, and avid performer. She has recently returned from a year of study at Worcester College, Oxford.