Our Reading Lives

Top Ten Books from High School

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Jaime Herndon


Jaime Herndon finished her MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia, after leaving a life of psychosocial oncology and maternal-child health work. She is a writer, editor, and book reviewer who drinks way too much coffee. She is a new-ish mom, so the coffee comes in extra handy. Twitter: @IvyTarHeelJaime

There was a Facebook thing recently, to list your top 10 albums that influenced you in high school — without thinking too long about it, the task was to list the albums, with the only catch being you couldn’t list more than one album per artist. I was in high school during the mid-90s, so I was more than happy to list my music, and then pretty much proceeded to make playlists of songs from the albums (and all the ones I forgot to list, or that didn’t quite make the list).

Which got me thinking about books I read in high school that made an impression on me. This proved to be a little harder, as my memory wasn’t as good, regarding all the books I read during that time. It’s not as easy to conjure up a sensory memory with books as it is with music; at least, for me, anyway.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I read this sophomore year, and despite the fact that this was *cough cough* 22 years ago, I vividly remember falling in love with it. The way the South was a character, Scout and Jem and Boo, and the writing; oh, the writing.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Because I was a sensitive teenage girl/writer-in-training. Do you need any more explanation?

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. We read this shortly after Mockingbird, and again, the storytelling and the way the characters were written, with such life, let me escape into their pages with Janie and Tea-Cake.

When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner. When my parents announced their divorce, I was blindsided and wanted to learn why. Even then, I was a person who liked — needed — answers, and looked for them in a book. I didn’t find any, but I did find comfort.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Why yes, I am a real-life cliche. No, in all seriousness, I remember the exact moment this book shifted my life. I was sitting in the library — oh, excuse me, the “LMC (learning media center)” — and started laughing out loud at Holden saying “goddamn” and “give her the business.” It was like nothing I’d read up to that point, and I loved it.

Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls by Dr. Mary Pipher. This was the book that made me want to become a clinical psychologist. I must have read and reread this book at least 15 times, I’m not even kidding. And until I was in a graduate program for clinical psychology, I didn’t allow myself to seriously think about any other path. Ooops.

The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers. I don’t remember how I got into McCullers, but after reading this book, I decided to read every other book and story collection that she wrote. Again, my affinity for Southern lit, rearing its head.

Girl Power: Young Women Speak Out by Hillary Carlip. Another one I read and reread a million times, reading the words of girls from all sorts of backgrounds and worlds.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I didn’t like this at first; it was one of our assigned books – but as I read it, the words folded me into them, and it ended up becoming one of my favorites. I remember it not being an easy read for me – I was used to speed reading, and this book forced me to slow down and be in the story, to think about it and turn it over in my head.

Welcome to My Country by Lauren Slater. This was the first of Slater’s books that I read, and it introduced me to well-written memoir.

What would be on your list?