9 Books You Were Required to Read in High School That Actually Changed Your Life

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ByAlexandra Villarreal

For high school and college students, required reading can easily become the ultimate antagonist. Books like The OdysseyTo Kill a Mockingbird or A Tale of Two Cities quickly turn from exciting must-reads to frantic skims pre test or paper. 

But once these classics are removed from a 4.0 grading scale, they quickly return to their former fascinating state. The subtext is no longer about crafting a fluffy argument for an AP exam; instead, it's a method of exploring the human condition. When you remove school and grades from the equation, the books that haunted your homework schedule suddenly feel hauntingly relatable, or at least understandable. 

Before you write off your high school or college reading list forever, take a moment to reconsider it. Here are nine books that you were probably meant to read at some point (we won't judge you for skipping them). Now that grades are gone, we recommend a revisit, especially in those important becoming a grown up moments. Plus there are some real world lessons in those pages that SparkNotes might have skipped right over. 

1. For career vs. relationship advice, read 'The Iliad.'

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For the faint of stomach, The Iliad can be more of a fight against the gag reflex than a reflection on mortality. Violent scenes of pillaging and murder describe warfare in gruesome detail and we are grateful that the epic poem concludes before Troy's final defeat.

However, beneath all of the blood and guts, Homer creates intimate portraits that add a subversive dimension to one of the greatest war accounts in history. Whether Hector is unknowingly saying goodbye to Andromache and their son, Astyanax, or Achilles is deciding between a peaceful, long life in the country or death and glory in Ilium, we as readers are forced to consider our normative definition of success and whether we choose to prescribe to it. Yes, we want to make a difference. Yes, we want to leave an impression on our environs. But is our fame or wealth more important than our happiness? And, if we forge onward with our plans to conquer the world, who are we leaving behind? 

2. For perspective on life's toughest grey areas, read 'Medea.'

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When we read this Greek tragedy, we're often tempted to dismiss Euripides' Medea as clinically insane. After all, she murders her own children and then escapes in a chariot pulled by dragons. However, when we look a little closer, we find a woman who has fallen prey to love and been abandoned by the object of her affection. Medea has sacrificed everything for her husband — she has betrayed her family, moved to a foreign land, and endured the reputation of a stranger, all to support him. All of her deceptions and schemes have been for her husband's benefit and even so, he has left her alone and unstable with their two kids.

The scenario and the actions that Medea eventually takes are desperate and through them, we can comprehend both the potency of unrequited love and the isolation of the immigrant. Medea isn't crazy; she's a product of her situation. And, if we look around us, we may learn to feel compassion for those who, like Medea, can't catch a break. 

3. For a real world dose of sympathy vs. empathy, read 'The Inferno.'

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Let's face it: Dante was a long-winded Christian and all of his images of fire and ice eventually blend together. But there are a few moments from The Inferno that stand out and whether Dante's swooning in pity at Francesca and Paolo's love story or helping a suicide victim find shelter, he pulls us out of our delusions of moral superiority.

It doesn't really matter if we believe in a physical hell or not; the importance lies in that we view these characters as "sinners" and yet can relate to them based on our own thoughts and passions. Therefore, in a society that constantly judges the merit and morality of its adherents, we discover that we often criticize the behavior of others without reflecting on ourselves. 

4. On how to not take life too seriously, read Montaigne.

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No matter how despised required reading may be, it's hard to hate Montaigne. Outside of his wit and realism, good old Michel offers us a new dichotomy to delve into in the essay "Of Democritus and Heraclitus." Democritus and Heraclitus were philosophers with very different visions of humankind. Democritus approached the world through laughter and mockery, while Heraclitus pitied the painful experience of mortality. Montaigne is more inclined to approve of the former and he justifies his opinion by embarking on a diatribe that brands the human race as "base" and "incapable of doing good or harm." 

Though this seems a bit severe, he has a point. So many of us take ourselves too seriously and worry over the smallest trifles that we should be the butt of a joke. If our choice is either to laugh or cry over the sad state of the human condition, maybe a bit of humor can make it happier. 

5. In times of doubt, read 'Don Quixote.'

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Sometimes, the man of La Mancha can get kind of annoying. Whether he's attacking windmills or "saving" a damsel in distress, he's wacky, wild and somewhat destructive. But even if the nearly 1,000 pages that comprise his two-part narrative seem tedious at first, our valiant knight does propose a discussion that can engage everyone.

What truly exists? If our outlook on the world is contoured solely by chemical activity in our brains, then why are some perceptions "normal" and others aren't? And is there an objective reality? If Don Quixote thinks that an inn is a castle, who are we to tell him it's not? Who knows, maybe he's the sanest of us all for inventing magnificence in the mundane. 

6. When weighing happiness or luxury, read 'Candide.'

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Candide is almost shorter than its Sparknotes, but don't judge its substance by its page count. Though most of its encounters are heinous and exaggerated, it ends on a note that is more than believable. Candide, who has gone on an adventure around the world, just wants to tend to his garden. He has no intention to return to El Dorado and he scorns the lavish lifestyle that he enjoyed in his youth. Voltaire asserts the authority and autonomy in simplicity when his protagonist settles down in a cottage in the country and we ogle at the peace and restfulness that Candide achieves when he lets go of his lust for excitement. What would happen if we quit our search for something better, something more glamorous, and just stopped to smell the roses? 

7. When a relationship deserves consideration, read 'Pride and Prejudice.'

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No matter your gender or sexuality, it's almost impossible not to fall in love with Mr. Darcy. He and Elizabeth Bennet are one of the cutest couples in literature and their romantic comedy is delightful. Perhaps in your finals study binge you traded in the novel for the movie, but some of the deeper meaning behind Austen's words can't transfer from page to screen.

The book arcs Elizabeth's evolution from a proud, biased and immature young girl to a woman who has had an epiphany about the error of her mindset and snap judgement. As Elizabeth grows more and more fond of Darcy and he becomes ever the gentleman, Austen forces us to imagine the number of people we've misinterpreted. Maybe that girl we disliked in middle school was actually just shy. And now, because of our own prejudice, we'll never have the pleasure of making her acquaintance. 

8. For a dose of self-acceptance, read 'East of Eden.'

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Steinbeck is often criticized for his one dimensional characters, but in East of Eden, even his purest or most wicked creations reveal multiple sides of themselves. Sure, it's a bore to compare Aron to Abel and Cal to Cain through superficial generalizations that teach us nothing but how to make allusions to the Bible. But there's more to analyze — maybe not for an in-class presentation, but definitely for an investigation of ourselves. All of us have good and evil within us; we have temptations and vices, but we also have an inclination to improve the world in some way. Cal gives us a means to access this duality within ourselves. We no longer have to be afraid of what lies beneath our fake personas because the multiplicity is universal. He also shows us that we all mess up and that we're meant to be imperfect. Our flaws don't make us bad people — they make us people. 

9. When it's time to be a grown-up, read 'Song of Solomon.'

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It would be easy to write a dissertation on imagery alone in Song of Solomon. On top of lengthy descriptions, Toni Morrison packs the novel with poetic phrases, complex diction and references to 20th century culture. But, underneath it all, Milkman's story is much more than a commentary on race, class or sex. It's a bildungsroman and it takes us through the trials and challenges of becoming an adult. It's painful and poignant to read, not because of the violence that surrounds it but because of how much it reminds us of ourselves. And, by the end, we're inspired to have the courage to stand up for what we believe in and take a leap of faith.