This list contains traditional and contemporary classics, which repeatedly show up on high school required reading lists. It does not contain “YA classics” such as Blume's Forever, Hinton's The Outsiders, or Cormier's The Chocolate War. While many classics are 350 – 500 pages or more, “thin” in this context means approximately 200 pages or less: many are less than 150 pages. Please keep in mind that the actual number of pages can vary by edition and/or publisher.
Things Fall Apart
When white men arrive in a Nigerian village, order is disrupted and one of foremost village men is destroyed by his inability to adapt to the new order. The novel chronicles the life of Okonkwo, the leader of an Igbo (Ibo) community, from the events leading up to his banishment from the community for accidentally killing a clansman, through the seven years of his exile, to his return. The novel addresses the problem of the intrusion in the 1890s of white missionaries and colonial government into tribal Igbo society, and it describes the simultaneous disintegration of its protagonist Okonkwo and of his village.
No Longer at Ease
The sequel to the classic Things Fall Apart tells of a troubled young African whose Western formal education separates him from his roots and makes him part of a corrupt ruling elite he despises.
The Underdogs: A Novel of the Mexican Revolution
A classic account of the Mexican Revolution. Demetrio Macias, a naive, peace-loving Indian, becomes swept up in a revolution against the dictator Portfirio Diaz, and his courage eventually leads to a generalship in Pancho Villa's guerilla army. This is a timeless, authentic portrayal of peasant life and revolutionary zeal.
The Fire Next Time
A coolly impassioned plea to "end the racial nightmare." Baldwin's seething insights and directives, so disturbing to the white liberals and black moderates of his day, have become the starting point for discussions of American race relations. Yet despite its edgy tone and the strong undercurrent of violence, it is ultimately a hopeful and healing essay. At once a powerful evocation of his childhood in Harlem and a disturbing examination of the consequences of racial injustice, The Fire Next Time, which galvanized the nation in the early days of the Civil Rights movement, stands as one of the essential works of literature.
Waiting for Godot
Tragicomedy in two acts, the play consists of conversations between Vladimir and Estragon, who are waiting for the arrival of the mysterious Godot, who continually sends word that he will appear but who never does. They encounter Lucky and Pozzo, they discuss their miseries and their lots in life, they consider hanging themselves, and yet they wait.
Often perceived as being tramps, Vladimir and Estragon are a pair of human beings who do not know why they were put on earth; they make the tenuous assumption that there must be some point to their existence, and they look to Godot for enlightenment. Because they hold out hope for meaning and direction, they acquire a kind of nobility that enables them to rise above their futile existence.
In this frightening vision of the future, firemen don't put out fires--they start them in order to burn books. Bradbury's vividly painted society holds up the appearance of happiness as the highest goal, a place where trivial information is good, and knowledge and ideas are bad. Fire Captain Beatty explains it this way, "Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs.
Don't give them slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy." Guy Montag is a book-burning fireman undergoing a crisis of faith. His wife spends all day with her television "family," imploring Montag to work harder so that they can afford a fourth TV wall.
Their dull, empty life sharply contrasts with that of his next-door neighbor Clarisse, a young girl thrilled by the ideas in books, and more interested in what she can see in the world around her than in the mindless chatter of the tube. When Clarisse disappears mysteriou sly, Montag is moved to make some changes, and starts hiding books in his home.
Eventually, his wife turns him in, and he must answer the call to burn his secret cache of books. After fleeing to avoid arrest, Montag winds up joining an outlaw band of scholars who keep the contents of books in their heads, waiting for the time society will once again need the wisdom of literature.
A Clockwork Orange
Set in a dismal dystopia, it is the first-person account of a juvenile delinquent who undergoes state- sponsored psychological rehabilitation for his aberrant behavior. The novel satirizes extreme political systems that are based on opposing models of the perfectibility or incorrigibility of humanity. Written in a futuristic slang vocabulary invented by Burgess, Alex, the protagonist, is a member of a vicious teenage gang that commits random acts of brutality. Captured and imprisoned, he is transformed through behavioral conditioning into a model citizen, but his taming also leaves him defenseless. He ultimately reverts to his former behavior.
The story of a man who, after the death of his mother, murders another man for no apparent reason. A young Algerian, Meursault, afflicted with a sort of aimless inertia, becomes embroiled in the petty intrigues of a local pimp and, somewhat inexplicably, ends up killing a man. Once he's imprisoned and eventually brought to trial, his crime, it becomes apparent, is not so much the arguably defensible murder he has committed, as it is his deficient character.
The trial's proceedings are absurd, a parsing of incidental trivialities; that Meursault, for instance, seemed unmoved by his own mother's death and then attended a comic movie the evening after her funeral are two ostensibly damning facts, so that the eventual sentence the jury issues is both ridiculous and inevitable. Meursault remains a cipher nearly to the story's end; dispassionate, clinical, disengaged from his own emotions.
It's undoubtedly true that Meursault exhibits an extreme of resignation; however, his confrontation with "the gentle indifference of the world" remains as compelling as it was when Camus first recounted it. The impetus for The Cure's “Killing an Arab.”
The House on Mango Street
The coming-of-age classic about a Latino girl in Chicago. Esperanza and her family didn't always live on Mango Street. Right off she says she can't remember all the houses they've lived in but "the house on Mango Street is ours and we don't have to pay rent to anybody, or share the yard with the people downstairs, or be careful not to make too much noise, and there isn't a landlord banging on the ceiling with a broom. But even so, it's not the house we thought we'd get."
Esperanza's childhood life in a Spanish- speaking area of Chicago is described in a series of spare, poignant, and powerful vignettes. Each story centers on a detail of her childhood: a greasy cold rice sandwich, a pregnant friend, a mean boy, how the clouds looked one time, something she heard a drunk say, her fear of nuns.
Esperanza's friends, family, and neighbors wander in and out of her stories; through them all Esperanza sees, learns, loves, and dreams of is the house she will someday have, her own house, not on Mango Street.
Heart of Darkness
In Conrad's haunting tale, Marlow, a seaman and wanderer, recounts his physical and psychological journey in search of the enigmatic Kurtz. Traveling to the heart of the African continent, he discovers how Kurtz has gained his position of power and influence over the local people. Marlow's struggle to fathom his experience involves him in a radical questioning of not only his own nature and values but the nature and values of his society.
The Red Badge of Courage
The harrowing tale of a young soldier in battle during the Civil War, The Red Badge of Courage is one of the most powerful statements against war that can be found in all of literature. A stirring tale of action in the Civil War, this is a story of one soldier's battle against his own cowardice. It is a powerful, psychological story of a young soldier's struggle with the horrors of war.
A Christmas Carol
A miser learns the true meaning of Christmas when three ghostly visitors review his past and foretell his future. "Bah!" said Scrooge."Humbug!" With those famous words unfolds a tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit, and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and remind us how the true Christmas spirit comes from giving with love.
Notes from Underground
"I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man,” the irascible voice of a nameless narrator cries out. And so, from underground, emerge the passionate confessions of a suffering man; the brutal self-examination of a tormented soul; the bristling scorn and iconoclasm of an alienated individual who has become one of the greatest antiheroes in all literature.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott
The Great Gatsby
Nick Carraway, fresh from the Midwest, comes to 1922 New York where, at a Long Island party, he becomes involved in the lives of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, a glamorous but unhappy couple. Through them, he meets Jay Gatsby, their fabulously wealthy neighbor, who has a mysterious past and is renowned for his extravagant parties. Gatsby is a self-made man who believes in the American dream that wealth brings happiness, and is betrayed by it.
The Miracle Worker
One of the most beautiful and heartfelt dramas of our time, this is the inspiring story of Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan. Helen Keller at age 12 was deaf, blind and utterly unable to communicate. She went through her young life alienated and terrified, struggling against all who tried to help her. Anne Sullivan was half-blind herself, but inordinately patient and equally determined to help this bright young girl overcome her frightening loneliness and reach out to the world around her. Anne Sullivan began a titanic struggle to release the young girl from the terrifying prison of eternal darkness and silence.
Lord of the Flies
The classic tale of a group of English school boys who are left stranded on an unpopulated island, and who must confront not only the defects of their society but the defects of their own natures as they revert to primitive savagery and superstition.
A Raisin in the Sun
An African-American family is united in love and pride as they struggle to overcome poverty and harsh living conditions, in the award-winning 1959 play about an embattled Chicago family.
The Old Man and the Sea
The story of an old Cuban fisherman and his supreme ordeal: a relentless, agonizing battle with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. Using the simple, powerful language of a fable, Hemingway takes the timeless themes of courage in the face of defeat and personal triumph won from loss, and transforms them into a magnificent 20th century classic.
This is the story of six people who lived through the explosion of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima in 1945, with an additional chapter in which the author, returning to Japan forty years later, tells us what has happened to each of these six survivors. When John Hersey went back to Hiroshima in search of the people whose stories he had told, his account of what he discovered about them is now the eloquent and moving final chapter of Hiroshima.
Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair's Youth
Demian is the dramatic story of young, docile Emil Sinclair's descent, led by precocious schoolmate Max Demian, into a secret and dangerous world of petty crime and revolt against convention, and eventual awakening to selfhood.
A young man, leaves his family for a contemplative life, then, restless, discards it for one of the flesh. He conceives a son, but bored and sickened by lust and greed, moves on again. Near despair, Siddhartha comes to a river where he hears a unique sound. This sound signals the true beginning of his life, the beginning of suffering, rejection, peace, and, finally, wisdom.
Houston, Jeanne Wakatsuki
Farewell to Manzanar
Jeanne Wakatsuki was seven years old in 1942 when her family was uprooted from their home and sent to live at Manzanar internment camp, with 10,000 other Japanese Americans. Along with searchlight towers and armed guards, Manzanar ludicrously featured cheerleaders, Boy Scouts, sock hops, baton twirling lessons and a dance band called The Jive Bombers, who would play any popular song except the nation's #1 hit, "Don't Fence Me In." Farewell to Manzanar is the true story of one spirited Japanese American family's attempt to survive the indignities of forced detention, and of a native-born American child who discovered what it was like to grow up behind barbed wire in the United States.
Hurston, Zora Neale
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Hurston's novel traces an African-American woman's search for her identity. Fair and long-legged, independent and articulate, Janie Crawford sets out to be her own person, no mean feat for a black woman in the '30s. Janie's quest for identity takes her through three marriages and into a journey back to her roots.
"When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin." With this startling, bizarre, yet surprisingly funny first sentence, Kafka begins his masterpiece. It is the story of a young man who, transformed overnight into a giant beetle-like insect, becomes an object of disgrace to his family, an outsider in his own home, a quintessentially alienated man. A harrowing, though absurdly comic, meditation on human feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and isolation.
A Separate Peace
Knowles' classic story of two friends at boarding school during World War II is one of the most starkly moving parables ever written about the dark forces that brood over the tortured world of adolescence. Gene was a lonely, introverted intellectual. Phineas was a handsome, taunting, daredevil athlete. What happened between them at school one summer is the subject of A Separate Peace.
Inherit the Wind
A drama based on the Scopes “Monkey” Trial of July 1925, in Tennessee, where a high school science teacher in the Bible belt is brought to trial when he breaks the law by teaching Darwinian evolution.
The Call of the Wild
A dog who is stolen from his pampered home in California must learn to survive as a sled dog in Alaska. Buck, who is shipped to the Klondike to be trained as a sled dog, eventually reverts to his primitive, wolflike ancestry. As Buck fights for survival, his primitive nature begins to emerge and he becomes more like the wolf from whom his breed is descended. He then undertakes an almost mythical journey, abandoning the safety of his familiar world to encounter danger, adventure, and fantasy. When he is transformed into the legendary "Ghost Dog" of the Klondike, he has become a true hero.
For over four hundred years, The Prince has been the basic handbook of politics, statesmanship, and power. Written by the most successful statesman of his time, this fascinating document remains as pertinent today as when it first appeared. The result is a highly readable, witty and devilishly shrewd formula that has long been required reading for everyone interested in politics and power.
Death of a Salesman
A play in "two acts and a requiem," Miller won a Pulitzer Prize for the work, which he described as "the tragedy of a man who gave his life, or sold it" in pursuit of the American Dream. After many years on the road as a traveling salesman, Willy Loman realizes he has been a failure as a father and husband.
His sons, Happy and Biff, are not successful. His career fading, Willy escapes into reminiscences of an idealized past. In the play's climactic scene, Biff prepares to leave home, starts arguing with Willy, confesses that he has spent three months in jail, and mocks his father's belief in "a smile and a shoeshine." Willy, bitter and broken, his illusions shattered, commits suicide.
The famous satire on Soviet communism depicted as a revolutionized barnyard in which "some animals are more equal than others." A farm is taken over by its overworked, mistreated animals. They set out to create a paradise of progress, justice, and equality. It becomes a razor-edged fairy tale for grown-ups that records the evolution from revolution against tyranny to a totalitarianism just as terrible.
Cyrano de Bergerac
It is the moving and exciting drama of one of the finest swordsmen in France, a gallant soldier, brilliant wit, and tragic poet-lover with the face of a clown. Set in 17th-century Paris, the action revolves around the emotional problems of the noble, swashbuckling Cyrano, who, despite his many gifts, feels that no woman can ever love him because he has an enormous nose.
Secretly in love with the lovely Roxane, Cyrano agrees to help his inarticulate rival, Christian, win her heart by allowing him to present Cyrano's love poems, speeches, and letters as his own work. Eventually Christian recognizes that Roxane loves him for Cyrano's qualities, not his own, and he asks Cyrano to confess his identity to Roxane; Christian then goes off to a battle that proves fatal.
Cyrano remains silent about his own part in Roxane's courtship. As he is dying years later, he visits Roxane and recites one of the love letters. Roxane realizes that it Cyrano she loves, and he dies content.
Saint-Exupery, Antoine de
The Little Prince
One day, the author reminisces, when his plane was forced down in the Sahara, a thousand miles from help, he encountered a most extraordinary small person. "If you please," said the stranger, "draw me a sheep." And thus begins the remarkable history of the Little Prince.
The Little Prince lived alone on a tiny planet no larger than a house. He owned three volcanoes, two active and one extinct. He also owned a flower, unlike any flower in the entire galaxy, of great beauty and of inordinate pride.
It was this pride that ruined the serenity of the Little Prince's world and started him on the interplanetary travels that brought him to Earth, where he learned, finally, from a fox, the secret of what is really important in life.
Salinger, J. D.
The Catcher in the Rye
Holden Caulfield narrates the story of a couple of days in his sixteen-year-old life, just after he's been expelled from prep school. It begins, "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them." His constant wry observations about what he encounters, from teachers to phonies (the two, of course, are not mutually exclusive) capture the essence of the eternal teenage experience of alienation.
Confused and disillusioned, he searches for truth and rails against the "phoniness" of the adult world. He ends up exhausted and emotionally ill, in a psychiatrist's offi ce.
Schaefer, Jack Warner
He rode into our valley in the summer of '89, a slim man, dresses in black. "Call me Shane," he said. He never told us more. There was a deadly calm in the valley that summer, a slow, climbing tension that seemed to focus on Shane. "There's something about him," Mother said. "Something...dangerous..." "He's dangerous all right," Father said, "...but not to us..." "He's like one of these here slow burning fuses," the mule skinner said. Quiet...so quiet you forget it's burning till it sets off a hell of a blow of trouble. And there's trouble brewing." A classic western.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
A juvenile delinquent at reform school deliberately sacrifices the goodwill of the authorities when he realizes the dehumanizing effect of "finding his niche."
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Set in the forced-labor camp in which the author was interned from 1950 to 1953, Ivan Denisovich describes a typical day in the life of an inmate. Published during Nikita Khrushchev's de-Stalinization program, the work was released without interference from Soviet government censors and Solzhenitsyn became an instant celebrity.
A masterpiece of modern Russian fiction, this novel is one of the most significant and outspoken literary documents ever to come out of Soviet Russia. This brutal depiction of life in a Stalinist camp is a moving tribute to man's triumph of will over relentless dehumanization.
Cannery Row is sentimental in tone while retaining the author's characteristic social criticism. Peopled by stereotypical good-natured bums and warm-hearted prostitutes living on the fringes of Monterey, California, the picaresque novel celebrates lowlifes who are poor but happy. Drawing characters based on his memories of real inhabitants of Monterey, Steinbeck interweaves the stories of Doc, Henri, Mack, and his boys, in a world where only the fittest survive, a story at once humorous and poignant. It focuses on the acceptance of life as it is, both the exuberance of community and the loneliness of the individual.
Of Mice and Men
Of Mice and Men tells the story of the friendship between George and Lennie, a mentally handicapped man. Together they find a new job, where Curly's wife makes advances on Lennie and horrible consequences ensue.
Jody, a young boy growing up in California, trains his horse Gabilan and learns valuable lessons about life along the way.
Stevenson, Robert Louis
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Dr. Jekyll experiments with a drug that splits his personality into good and evil elements; he gradually loses control of the process and finds himself slipping more and more frequently into the guise of the evil and depraved Hyde. This fascinating novel explores the curious turnings of the human character, and is a brilliantly original study of man's dual nature, as well as an immortal tale of suspense and terror.
Stevenson, Robert Louis
After being kidnapped by his villainous uncle, sixteen-year-old David Balfour escapes and becomes involved in the struggle of the Scottish highlanders against English rule.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich
Tolstoy's most celebrated short story takes place at the deathbed of an ordinary man who is forced to contemplate not only his own death but also the great philosophical questions that have never troubled him before.
The story of a gentle man who, though pummeled and slapped in every direction by fate, clings desperately to the belief that he lives in "the best of all possible worlds." On the surface a witty, bantering tale, this eighteenth-century classic is actually a savage, satiric thrust at the philosophical optimism that proclaims that all disaster and human suffering is part of a benevolent cosmic plan. Fast, funny, often outrageous, the French philosopher's immortal narrative takes Candide around the world to discover that, contrary to the teachings of his distinguished tutor Dr. Pangloss, all is not always for the best.
An eerie, terrifying story from the author of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. An obscure scientist invents a way to render skin, bones, and blood invisible, and tries the formula on himself. Now he can go anywhere, menace anyone, sight unseen. He then goes murderously insane when he realizes that he cannot reverse the spell.
Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel's wrenching attempt to find meaning in the horror of the Holocaust is technically a novel, but it's based so closely on his own experiences in Birkenau, Auschwitz, and Buchenwald that it's generally, and not inaccurately, read as an autobiography. Like Wiesel himself, the protagonist of Night is a scholarly, pious teenager racked with guilt at having survived the genocidal campaign that consumed his family.
His memories of the nightmare world of the death camps present him with an intolerable question: how can the God he once so fervently believed in have allowed these monstrous events to occur? There are no easy answers in this harrowing book, which probes life's essential riddles with the lucid anguish only great literature achieves.
It marks the crucial first step in Wiesel's lifelong project to bear witness for those who died. A terrifying account of the Nazi death camps.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey
The novel opens in the aftermath of an inexplicable tragedy; a tiny footbridge in Peru breaks, and five people hurtle to their deaths. For Brother Juniper, a humble monk who witnesses the catastrophe, the question in inescapable. Why those five? Suddenly, Brother Juniper is committed to discover what manner of lives they led, and whether it was divine intervention or a capricious fate that took their lives.
First produced and published in 1938, this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama of life in the small village of Grover's Corners has become an American classic and is Thornton Wilder's most renowned and most frequently performed play.
Streetcar Named Desire
One of the most remarkable plays of our time. It created an immortal woman in the character of Blanche DuBois, the haggard and fragile southern beauty whose pathetic last grasp at happiness is cruelly destroyed. And, it shot Marlon Brandon to fame in the role of Stanley Kowalski, a sweat-shirted barbarian, the crudely sensual bother-in-law who precipitated Blanche's tragedy.
The Glass Menagerie
The story of a family whose lives form a triangle of quiet desperation. Amanda Wingfield lives in a St. Louis tenement, clinging to the myth of her early years as a Southern belle. Her daughter Laura, who wears a leg brace, is painfully shy and often seeks solace in her collection of small glass animals.
Amanda's son Tom is desperate to escape his stifling home life and his warehouse job. Amanda encourages him to bring "gentleman callers" home to his sister. When Tom brings Jim O'Connor for dinner, Amanda believes that her prayers have been answered.
Laura blossoms during Jim's visit, flattered by his attention. After kissing her, however, he confesses that he is engaged. Laura retreats to her shell, and Amanda blames Tom, who leaves home for good after a final fight with his mother.
A proud and bitter man who was prevented by racism from playing major league baseball, Maxson is at 53 years of age a garbage collector. While his job allows him to successfully provide for his family, handling garbage represents for him a grim metaphor of his life. As he did during a bit in prison, he once again feels confined, and those who love him most, who depend on him most, suffer most for it.
Through Troy Maxson, playwright August Wilson personifies the man who grew up during the heat of Jim Crow: first proud, hopeful, and passionate in expectation, then emotionally withdrawn and disillusioned from incessant battles with life. It offers a bleak picture of what happens to black males when their aspirations go beyond the fences within which they are confined.
The fences of a racist society are compounded by the fences black men have often created to ward off loved ones who remind them of their failures. These fences only harbor pain and hasten an inevitable asphyxiation. It is a gripping portrait of a black man dying.