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30 Novels For High Schoolers

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Published : November 23rd, 2023
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The ambitious high-schooler should aim to read about thirty to fifty good novels. I did. But, I didn’t have much guidance as to what these novels should be. I mostly went on vague reputation. In general, it is best to concentrate on the nineteenth century (and earlier) classics, adding 20th century novels only as a supplement to a foundation built on pre-1914 literature. Just as with Modern Art, the orchestral music of the 20th century, or the architecture of the 20th century, the Novel of the 20th century was generally corrupt, degenerate, and not nearly as good as that of the glorious 19th. This was particularly true of those novels that are “canonized” today. I think there were probably a lot of pretty good novels, that are not remembered. There were some noteworthy accomplishments during the century, however. It was a great time for children’s literature, including the Little House, Little Britches, and Narnia series; and also science fiction and fantasy.

I’ve broken the list into twenty novels from the 19th and early 20th centuries, before 1914, and ten afterwards. I tried to hold back on the Monster Novels of more than 600 pages, leaving out noteworthies including Tom Jones, Vanity Fair, and Les Miserables. I also left out a lot of books that are of more “historical” interest, such as Robinson Crusoe or Frankenstein. I am skipping some well-known books intentionally, including Wuthering Heights, which should be avoided, and Jane Eyre, which is not as bad as Wuthering Heights, but has significant degenerate tendencies. In the 20th century, I am also skipping some noteworthies that, in retrospect, are not really worth reading (Ulysses), and also much too degenerate (Portnoy’s Complaint, Lolita). I also skipped several novels that you should definitely read, although not necessarily for their “literary” content but more as expressions of ideas or philosophy. This might include 1984, Animal House, Brave New World, The Lord of the Flies, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

Nineteenth Century and Before

Don Quixote Book I, by Miguel Cervantes. A very silly all-time classic.

Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan. A wonderful allegory of the Christian life.

Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Stern. Also silly.

David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens. The semi-autobiographical David Copperfield used to be considered the go-to book from Dickens. A Monster Novel, but easy to read.

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. Still Austen’s most memorable book. If you want something different, try Emma or Mansfield Park.

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. A Mississippi River of narrative, in Tolstoy’s water-clear prose style. One of the great accomplishments of all time.

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. Dickens gets a second slot here, with this adventure of the French Revolution.

Middlemarch, by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). Mary Ann Evans had already made a name for herself (using her real name) when she decided to start writing novels under a male pseudonym. Some have called this the best novel written in English, which seems like an exaggeration but … it is hard to think of a competitor.

Notre Dame de Paris, by Victor Hugo. This tale of the “hunchback of Notre Dame” gets a position instead of the Monster Les Miserables. Of course you should read them both.

Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. A very American tale of whaling adventure, in a rich prose style.

The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Scarlet Letter used to be a high school warhorse, in part because there really were very few American Novels of notable quality in the mid-19th century.

Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. Another American classic, written in a vernacular language.

Ivanhoe, by Walter Scott. While the realist novel dominated the top slots for highbrow fiction, Scott’s tales of heroism and adventure were loved by millions.

The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton. One of our selections here for the later, Gilded Age period.

The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni. Considered the best novel in modern Italian.

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe’s most memorable novel, and one of the best in German.

Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust. Maybe I am cheating, by putting here only the first of the seven books of In Search of Lost Time, which is definitely a Monster Novel. But, if you like the first book, you can continue to the others. This is the very end of the time before World War I, and reflects the early influences of Modernism. Try something from Alexander Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo) as a more adventurous alternative; or, perhaps something from Dostoyevsky (The Brothers Karamazov) or Turgenev (Fathers and Sons).

Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James. A last example of realist fiction from the end of the Gilded Age period.

The Last of the Mohicans, by James Feinmore Cooper. Cooper’s adventure tales took a role in American fiction much like Walter Scott’s in Britain.

Twentieth Century

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck. Steinbeck endures as a writer of realist fiction of the 1930s. We’re skipping The Grapes of Wrath to keep the Monster Novel count down, but read that one too if you like Steinbeck.

Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. This “stream of consciousness” novel could be called degenerate, but we’ll include it here as an example from the 1920s. I considered Kristin Lavransdatter as an alternative, although it is a Monster trilogy.

The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow. A contender for the “Great American Novel.” Herzog is also good.

The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway’s style is pretty degenerate, almost illiterate. It works best in this short fable. I think I would take A Farewell to Arms among his larger novels, instead of The Sun Also Rises or For Whom the Bell Tolls.

My Antonia, by Willa Cather. A look back on that golden time of the Pioneer Era — sort of a grown-up version of the Little House books.

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. This is also a Monster, and perhaps represents about the best of the 1990s.

The Sportswriter, by Richard Ford. A very nice realist work from the 1980s.

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Looking back now at the 20th century, The Lord of the Rings remains one of the most memorable achievements. Not only did it create a whole new genre; but even today, represents the pinnacle achievement of the genre it created.

The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov. If the highbrow novel degenerated considerably from the heights it achieved in the 19th century, this was made up somewhat by achievements in new genres such as science fiction. This is actually three books, but they are short.

This leaves me one more book for the 20th century. I had a hard time choosing one from among the better representatives of the 1950s and 1960s, including: Franny and Zooey, Play It As It Lays, Pale Fire, The Heart of the Matter, or something else that you might find on this list.

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Nathan Lewis was formerly the chief international economist of a firm that provided investment research for institutions. He now works for an asset management company based in New York. Lewis has written for the Financial Times, Asian Wall Street Journal, Japan Times, Pravda, and other publications. He has appeared on financial television in the United States, Japan, and the Middle East.
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