Classic novels are par for the course when it comes to required reading in high school. To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, and almost anything by William Shakespeare come to mind when most people imagine “the classics.” But hidden gems—books penned by renowned authors and recognizable names—often slip through the cracks.
Here are a handful of classic books worth your time that you likely didn’t read in high school.
Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley
Author Aldous Huxley is most famous for his oft-quoted, forever-relevant novel Brave New World. Although that book's praise and dissection are hard to ignore, it’s Huxley’s first novel, Crome Yellow, that often slips past readers.
Crome Yellow was first published in 1921 and serves as a timely satire following a number of characters and stereotypes of the era. A synopsis from Goodreads:
On vacation from school, Denis goes to stay at Crome, an English country house inhabited by several of Huxley's most outlandish characters — from Mr. Barbecue-Smith, who writes 1,500 publishable words an hour by "getting in touch" with his "subconscious," to Henry Wimbush, who is obsessed with writing the definitive "History of Crome." Denis's stay proves to be a disaster amid his weak attempts to attract the girl of his dreams and the ridicule he endures regarding his plan to write a novel about love and art.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Becoming unstuck in time has turned into a modern pop-culture trope, but the concept is often traced back to Billy Pilgrim’s conundrum from the Kurt Vonnegut novel Slaughterhouse-Five. First published in 1969, the book is etched in history as an essential read, but it’s not a novel that likely made every high school required reading list. A synopsis from Amazon:
Centering on the infamous firebombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim’s odyssey through time reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we fear most.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Now a critically-acclaimed television series, The Handmaid’s Tale is Margaret Atwood’s novel of a dystopian world in which women are forced to live as concubines within a fundamentalist dictatorship. A synopsis from Goodreads:
Offred is a handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now...
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostyoevski
Fyodor Dostyoevski’s novel Crime and Punishment was first published in 12 monthly parts in 1886 and later collected into a single volume. The author's second full-length novel after his exile to Siberia, Crime and Punishment is an examination of troubled human psychology in the face of moral dilemma. The book is considered a classic by any definition, but the dense, deep dive into the human psyche likely wasn’t part of primary and high school reading lists. A synopsis from Goodreads:
Raskolnikov, an impoverished student living in the St. Petersburg of the tsars, is determined to overreach his humanity and assert his untrammeled individual will. When he commits an act of murder and theft, he sets into motion a story that, for its excruciating suspense, its atmospheric vividness, and its depth of characterization and vision is almost unequaled in the literatures of the world.
Hell's Angels by Hunter S. Thompson
Hunter S. Thompson made famous the gonzo style of journalism—subjective, biased reporting in which the reporter is often part of the story. Thompson’s novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas sits on many bookshelves alongside authors like Jack Kerouac or Ken Kesey, but it’s Hell's Angels that stands apart as something uniquely gonzo-esque.
Hell's Angels was Thompson’s first published novel, going to print in 1966, and it’s often cited as the work that defined the author’s style as well as his infamous persona. A synopsis from Goodreads:
In the mid-60s, Thompson spent almost two years living with the controversial Angels, cycling up & down the coast, reveling in the anarchic spirit of their clan, and, as befits their name, raising hell. His book successfully captures a singular moment in American history when the biker lifestyle was first defined and when such countercultural movements were electrifying and horrifying America.
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
Winner of the 1973 National Book Award, "Gravity's Rainbow" is a postmodern epic, a work as significant to the second half of the 20th century as Joyce's “Ulysses” was to the first. Its sprawling, encyclopedic narrative and penetrating analysis of the impact of technology on society make it an intellectual tour de force.
School reading lists always skirt hidden gem classics
It seems like every year a new tally of banned books from school reading lists makes the news. The Catcher in the Rye is still praised and hated. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer gets edited and re-edited over and over. Fahrenheit 451 continues to turn up the heat in and out of classrooms. Skirting around classics for one reason or another is a timeless practice, and the novels listed above are only a few of the classics you may have missed during your high school literature class.
Cover image credit: fstop123 / iStock