The Most Commonly Read Books in High School

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No matter what type of high school you attend—be it public, private, magnet, charter, religious schools, or even online—reading is going be at the core of your English studies. In today's classrooms, students have a wide range of books to choose from, both modern and classics.

If you compare the readings lists in all schools, you might be surprised to learn that the most commonly read books in all high schools are all very similar. That's right! Course work for private schools and public schools (and every other school) are all very similar. No matter where you go to school, you'll likely study classic authors like Shakespeare and Twain, but some more modern books are appearing on these lists, including The Color Purple and The Giver. 

Commonly Read High School Books

Here are some of the books that most often appear on high school reading lists:

  • Shakespeare's Macbeth is on most schools' lists. This play was mostly written when Scottish James I ascended the throne of England, much to many Englishmen's chagrin, and it tells the tale of Macbeth's fearful regicide and his ensuing guilt. Even students who do not relish Shakespearean English appreciate this lively tale, filled with murder, scary nights in a remote Scottish castle, battles, and a riddle that isn't solved until the end of the play.
  • Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is also on the list. Familiar to most students because of modern updates, this tale features star-crossed lovers and adolescent impulses that appeal to most high school readers.
  • Shakespeare's Hamlet, a story of an angst-ridden prince whose father has been murdered by his uncle, also tops independent schools' lists. The soliloquies in this play, including "to be or not to be," and "what a rogue and peasant slave am I," are known to many high school students.
  • Julius Caesar, another Shakespeare play, is featured on many schools' lists. It is one of Shakespeare's history plays and is about the assassination of the Roman dictator Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.
  • Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn has been controversial since its release in the United States in 1885. While some critics and school districts have condemned or banned the book because of its perceived vulgar language and apparent racism, it often appears on high school reading lists as a skillful dissection of American racism and regionalism.
  • The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1850, is a tale of adultery and guilt set during Puritan rule of Boston. While many high school students have a difficult time wading through the sometimes dense prose, the surprise conclusion of the novel and its examination of hypocrisy often make it ultimately appealing to this audience.
  • Many high school students enjoy F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 The Great Gatsby, a riveting and beautifully written tale of lust, love, greed, and class anxiety in the Roaring Twenties. There are parallels to modern America, and the characters are compelling. Many students read this book in English class while they are studying American history, and the novel provides insight into the moral values of the 1920s.
  • Harper Lee's 1960 classic To Kill A Mockingbird, later made into a wonderful movie starring Gregory Peck, is, simply put, one of the best American books ever written. Its tale of injustice written through the eyes of an innocent narrator grabs most readers; it is often read in 7th, 8th, or 9th grade and sometimes later in high school. It tends to be a book students remember for a long time, if not for the rest of their lives.
  • Homer's The Odyssey, in any one of its modern translations, proves difficult going for many students, with its poetry and mythological narrative. However, many students grow to enjoy the adventure-filled tribulations of Odysseus and the insight the tale provides into the culture of ancient Greece.
  • William Golding's 1954 novel The Lord of the Flies is often banned because of its essential message that evil lurks in the hearts of man–or in this case, the hearts of boys who are marooned on a deserted island and turn to violence. English teachers enjoy mining the book for its symbolism and its statements about human nature when it is unchained to society.
  • John Steinbeck's 1937 novel Of Mice and Men is a sparsely written tale of two men's friendship set during the Great Depression. Many students appreciate its simple, though sophisticated language, and its messages about friendship and the value of the poor.
  • The "youngest" book on this list, The Giver by Lois Lowry was published in 1993 and was the 1994 Newbery Medal winner. It tells the story of a 12-year-old boy who lives in a seemingly ideal world but learns about the darkness within his community after receiving his life assignment as the Receiver. 
  • Another more recent book, compared to many of the others on this list, is The Color Purple. Written by Alice Walker and first published in 1982, this novel tells the story of Celie, a young Black girl born into a life of poverty and segregation. She endures incredible challenges in life, including rape and separation from her family, but eventually meets a woman who helps Celie change her life.
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Grossberg, Blythe. "The Most Commonly Read Books in High School." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Grossberg, Blythe. (2021, February 16). The Most Commonly Read Books in High School. Retrieved from Grossberg, Blythe. "The Most Commonly Read Books in High School." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 28, 2023).