At the dreaded end of every summer, students across America are given syllabus upon syllabus upon syllabus for their upcoming academic year. These syllabi hold the outlines for how their brains will be molded, how many all-nighters they should anticipate and, most importantly, what books they will read.
The average English class syllabus is notoriously white-washed and male, and can often be mostly underwhelming for readers and non-readers alike. However, among the expected monotony of an academic reading list, there is always a literary gem or two that makes the class worthwhile. When this gem becomes apparent, the impact of the novel is nothing short of profound. At The Michigan Daily Book Review, we have sorted and shared the most impactful novels that we read — or should have read — while in school and offer them to you as the fall semester begins.
— Senior Arts Editor Ava Burzycki
“A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini
I wish I could say that I read Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns” for the first time as a result of personal desire. This was not the case. I first encountered this specific Hosseini masterpiece when it was assigned to me as summer reading for my AP Lit class during my senior year of high school. When I searched up the novel’s synopsis on Goodreads, I was struck by the content I would soon encounter. It didn’t strike me as the type of book my school typically assigned.
“A Thousand Splendid Suns” tells the heartbreaking yet inspiring story of two Afghan women and how their lives became connected as they lived in Afghanistan between the early 1960s and early 2000s. Mariam goes through the mind-boggling experience of being married off to a man 30 years older than her when she was just 15. Two decades later, 15-year-old Laila is struck by tragedy and forced to move into Mariam’s unhappy home. Even though they despised each other at first, as their culture taught them to, Mariam and Laila eventually became close, creating a bond similar to that which exists between a mother and her daughter. The novel tells a beautiful story about how during times when the world feels like it’s ending and there’s no way out, love perhaps cannot save us, but it can provide a safety blanket on which to rely when life becomes too intense to handle.
Before reading “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” I had never binge-read any of my assigned readings for school. Ever. But Hosseini’s way with words and the way he paints a picture of love amid a state of inescapable crisis had me hooked from beginning to end. Even more than that, the novel’s historical background was one I had never considered before and now believe to be of utmost importance, deserving undivided attention on a worldwide level. In a way, I’m glad that I encountered the novel as an assigned reading for school. It reassures me that it will be passed on through generations of students until it is (hopefully) recognized in high school English classes at a national level. I’m convinced that 20 years from now, Hosseini will become a household name, and his novels will garner the same amount of recognition as the classics we know and love today.
Daily Arts Writer Graciela Batlle Cestero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“East of Eden” by John Steinbeck
The first time I read John Steinbeck was in my 9th grade English class. My appreciation for the “Giant of American Letters” after I was required to read “Of Mice and Men” and discuss the significance of Curly’s wife and George’s promises that Lennie would still be able to tend the rabbits. Despite my enjoyment of this novel, I did not pick up another Steinbeck book until I was a freshman once again, in the summer before starting at the University of Michigan.
While I enjoyed “Of Mice and Men,” “East of Eden” blew my mind. Set in Steinbeck’s familiar Salinas Valley, California, “East of Eden” is a multi-generational epic that mimics the structure and story of the Bible’s Book of Genesis. It explores the nature of good and evil, the malleability of fate and the ability to overcome evil — all in the most beautiful, thoughtful and articulate language I have ever read. This probably does not sound like the most exciting or interesting concept — it didn’t to me at first — but this novel is phenomenal. Every single word is purposeful and precise, and the almost 600 pages never drag or dawdle. Each character is connected and dynamic: Their distinct personalities and narratives seamlessly integrate into the story’s world. The examination of evil nature and the ability to conquer sin is remarkable and revolutionary. In his portrayal of a familial cycle of the biblical Cain and Abel relationship between brothers, Steinbeck identifies the novel’s core concept: Timshel, “Thou Mayest.” Not to be dramatic, but this concept has changed my life. As people, we are able to make conscious and deliberate choices over evil, that “thou mayest” go into the world and, well, do whatever you may. Your future is not a determined destiny — it is up to you to choose how you will make your path and where it will lead, and ultimately, we choose to be “good.”
“East of Eden” will rewire your brain. I view reading of it as a key moment in my life, one that has changed the way in which I view and perceive my own actions as part of a larger personal and world future. It presents the idea that you are not living up to some predetermined role or path but making your own decisions for the future, which is especially poignant and relevant for high school and college students. I read this novel at a time when I was on the cusp of independence and college freedom — to be influenced by this advocacy for the deliberate pursuit and choice to be good was beyond significant for me. Inspired partially by Steinbeck’s literary feats, I have pursued writing at The Daily and in my academic pursuits, my love for “East of Eden” has led me to one of my now-best friends (at first only united by our common favorite book). It has made me actively consider how my choices now will be perceived and have an influence later. It has taught me the power of deliberately and consciously choosing to be good. I have found “East of Eden” to guide me as I build my place at the University and in the world. If I could make one book a required read, “East of Eden” is my obvious choice.
Daily Arts Writer Kathryn Hemmila can be reached at email@example.com.
“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley
Before reading “Frankenstein” — originally titled “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus” — I did not expect to love it. I didn’t really expect to hate it, either, but I was bored of its cultural image: the zombie with torn clothes, the muttering and low growls and, most of all, the two little bolts that sit upon his sewn-shut neck. But I was obsessed with Mary Shelley as a literary, gothic and feminist icon, so I gave her more of a shot than I had ever given Frankenstein or his monster.
Immediately, Shelley drew me into the heartbreak and grief of social isolation. The novel, unlike its many cheap movie adaptations, is more of an emotional, psychic horror than anything else. I cried for the unnamed monster, and I felt his heart ache as all that he yearned for was out of reach. The monster, the sweet monster, is more soft, tender and human than any of the novel’s other characters. He is a victim of circumstance — an abandoned experiment forced to wander the earth with a loneliness that can be communicated but which society will not listen to. When the monster retaliates after a lifetime of humiliation and exclusion, I felt no sympathy for his creator’s final plea: “I had been the author of unalterable evils; and I lived in daily fear, lest the monster whom I had created should perpetrate some new wickedness.” I felt no sympathy because he had not created an evil being by accident in his lab; rather, he created evil through abuse and misunderstanding. His monster, who doesn’t even have the dignity of a name, was intelligent, understanding and curious of his positionality — his physical grotesqueness was his only perceived flaw.
Senior Arts Editor Ava Burzycki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Go Tell It on the Mountain” by James Baldwin
Words alone cannot describe how James Baldwin makes me feel. Though “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is from the early years of Baldwin’s career, the novel still finds him at his best. The prose is lyrical, the imagery stark and the narrative tightly wound. Central to it all is John Grimes — a likely stand-in for Baldwin himself — the young stepson of a preacher living in 1930s Harlem. Baldwin explores the lives of several of John’s family members through a series of flashbacks that unfold during a single church service, exposing a history that is at once personal and mythological.
“Go Tell It on the Mountain” is, at its core, a stunning image of passion as it collides with the past and unfolds under the pressures of race, class and religion. I fell in love with Baldwin when I read this in my senior year of high school. It’s still a book that keeps me up at night, tossing and turning over some passage I read two years ago. It’s the kind of book that will haunt you, that will cling to your skin even as you bend to close the cover.
It’s a novel about a boy coming into his inheritance: of a nation and a family still grappling with the legacy of slavery, of a legacy of fire-and-brimstone preaching and homophobia, of a society of shame and repression. It’s the “tenderness” (as Toni Morrison put it) with which he approaches this subject matter that makes Baldwin — and this first novel in particular — required reading.
Daily Arts Writer Alex Hetzler can be reached at email@example.com.
“The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas
If you asked me to point to any book I have read and predict will be a classic in 20 years, I’d point to “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas. I did not read this book in an English class in high school, but rather for a mandatory 30-minute class in the middle of the day that my district called “Impact Hour.”
Everyone hated Impact Hour — it was our designated Social Emotional Learning time, which usually meant we’d spend half an hour trying to dodge awkward questions about our feelings from our equally unenthused teachers. But in my freshman year, I had an Impact Hour teacher who decided to use that time for an impromptu book club, and we read and discussed “The Hate U Give” as a class.
To say “this book is amazing” doesn’t give enough credit to the story or what it represents. This book has obviously garnered a lot of critical success — it’s amassed more than 80 total weeks on the NYT Best Sellers list and is the winner of numerous literary awards — and for good reason. The story follows Starr, a Black teenager who splits her time between her fancy private school in a rich white neighborhood and her home in Garden Heights, a much poorer and predominantly Black neighborhood. After Starr witnesses a police officer kill her friend Khalil, she gets wrapped up in the center of a national news story and grapples with questions of identity, systemic racism and police brutality.
These themes aren’t unfamiliar to many of us — even if we haven’t experienced them ourselves, they are frequent topics of conversation in the news and on social media, especially over the last few years. The book itself was inspired by the death of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Black man killed by police on New Year’s Day in 2009. Videos of Grant’s death garnered massive attention and fueled protests and riots similar to those featured in “The Hate U Give.” Yet, Thomas brings a new perspective to the forefront by allowing Starr and Khalil to be whole, complex people on the page rather than just names or numbers on our screens. By humanizing a story that is far too common, she has created a classic that will be read for decades to come. If you live in the United States — and even if you don’t — this should be required reading.
Daily Arts Writer Camille Nagy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini
My argument for “The Kite Runner” is quite simple: It’s the one and only high school English book that made me blow through the required chapters and charge straight to the end ahead of time. At one point while reading, I sat on the floor of my childhood bedroom and bawled my eyes out like a baby. “The Kite Runner” cut my heart into a million bloody pieces and even now remains the most powerful, impactful novel I have ever read for school.
The story follows a boy named Amir who is growing up in Kabul during a tumultuous, violent period in Afghanistan. Despite the crucial historical context, the parts of “The Kite Runner” that I remember best revolve around Amir’s internal struggles. The young boy amasses a burden of intense guilt and shame that he carries throughout his life, and so much of his self-image and worldview is tied to this inescapable weight. Amir’s private, inward battle is so visceral and heart-wrenching that it completely shattered the wall of prejudice I usually have against books required for school and resonated with me in a deeply human, personal way. “The Kite Runner” made me fall in love with books again.
Daily Arts Writer Pauline Kim can be reached at email@example.com.