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Back to School Reads

Kids are in the classrooms again, and so, perhaps we can enjoy leisure reads set among the ivy, between the lockers, on the football field or in the library, if only to remind us of when we were all young, more carefree. (Or, at least, young.) I get wistful just thinking about it…er, um, well, yes: that said, here ya go—your recommended classroom reads!

Old School

This is one of the great, recent novels about “hitting the books”! Tobias Wolff’s prep-school gem is narrated by an older man looking back on his adolescent mistakes and youthful days (for a recent about Wolff’s book, go here). But if this is too prosaic a work for you, then there is profound contrast in The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s ’90s best seller—a frenzy of overbaked narrative fun, with a dab of murder.

The Chocolate War

In terms of Young Adult classics, you have John Knowles’s A Separate Peace; there is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye; Chaim Potok’s The Chosen; and also, to my mind, Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War. No reader can lack sympathy for Jerry, who refuses to sell chocolates at his Catholic school under the thumb of Brother Leon. What he faces is a lot more than just your average dose of peer pressure.

The Campus Trilogy

Britain’s David Lodge seems to corner the market on higher-brow college fiction about the professorial life; check out what’s now termed “The Campus Trilogy”—my fave is Changing Places—for the best representation. Of course, Kingsley Amis’s classic, Lucky Jim, or Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie are English-school classics worth (re)visiting from decades ago.


Not an easy work to comes to terms with, but VERY rewarding, John Williams’s Stoner, a novel of poverty, learning, passion and pedagogy, is a completely overlooked work of genius. (Thanks to the New York Review of Books Classics imprint for reviving it!) All the human elements here make for riveting narrative that is profoundly all its own.


Laurie Halse Anderson’s first novel—released in 1999—paints a detailed, emotionally vivid portrait of a high-schooler named Melinda, who endures the unthinkable and finds an outlet, her voice, in art class (hence, my clumsy allusion to the novel’s title). Speak is suitable for savvy teens and adults alike, and my gross oversimplification is better expressed in three even simpler words: Read This Book.

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