The Twelve Best Books ‘We Might Never Have Read If They Hadn’t Forced Us To’

by |August 19, 2011

Because of compulsory education most of us can claim to have read – or have some knowledge of – at least one literary classic. We can probably recall the title and/or the author of the book, too. Which comes in handy when we meet one of those bores who still reads good books and wants to make us look dumb by talking about them in a work or social situation.

“So, Sally, what have you been reading lately?” asks the bore.

“Oh, I’m being a tad nostalgic. I am revisiting an old favourite – The Great Gatsby,” you reply, knowing full well your handbag contains a half read paperback copy of Russell Brand’s Booky Wook 2: This Time It’s Personal (which you’re LOVING!).

“How wonderful,” says the bore, then quotes, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

“Ohh! Did you come by ferry? I can’t, I get seasick,” you say, smiling idiotically. And then in the ensuing silence add,  “I came by taxi,” as if that would fix things.

Okay, so sometimes the tiny bit of culture we carry with us from our school days is more of a hindrance than a help. But at least school left us with the impression that we know what there is still to know, even if this nugget amounts to our knowing what we know we don’t know… ouch.

Question: Have you ever asked yourself whether the books you were made to read at school actually deserve to be called classics?
Tell me what you think of these…

The Twelve Best Books ‘We Might Never Have Read
If They Hadn’t Forced Us To’

To Kill A Mockingbird

By Harper Lee

I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.

“Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960.

It went on to win the Pulitzer prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.

Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behaviour-to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humour and pathos.

Now with over 15 million copies in print and translated into forty languages, this regional story by a young Alabama woman claims universal appeal. Harper Lee always considered her book to be a simple love story.

Buy your copy here

Madame Bovary

By Gustave Flaubert

Deep down, all the while, she was waiting for something to happen. Like a sailor in distress, she kept casting desperate glances over the solitary waster of her life, seeking some white sail in the distant mists of the horizon. She had no idea by what wind it would reach her, toward what shore it would bear her, or what kind of craft it would be – tiny boat or towering vessel, laden with heartbreaks or filled to the gunwales with rapture. But every morning when she awoke she hoped that today would be the day; she listened for every sound, gave sudden starts, was surprised when nothing happened; and then, sadder with each succeeding sunset, she longed for tomorrow.

Emma is beautiful and bored, trapped in her marriage to a mediocre doctor and stifled by the banality of provincial life. An ardent devourer of sentimental novels, she longs for passion and seeks escape in fantasies of high romance, in voracious spending and, eventually, in adultery. But even her affairs bring her disappointment, and when real life continues to fail to live up to her romantic expectations, the consequences are devastating.

Flaubert’s erotically charged and psychologically acute portrayal of Emma Bovary caused a moral outcry on its publication in 1857.

It was deemed so lifelike that many women claimed they were the model for his heroine; but Flaubert insisted: ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi.’

Buy your copy here


By Joseph Heller

Havermeyer was a lead bombardier who never missed. Yossarian was a lead bombardier who had been demoted because he no longer gave a damn whether he missed or not. He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive.

Explosive, subversive, wild and funny, 50 years on the novel’s strength is undiminished. Reading Joseph Heller’s classic satire is nothing less than a rite of passage.

Set in the closing months of World War II in an American bomber squadron off the coast of Italy, Catch-22 is the story of a bombardier named Yossarian who is frantic and furious because thousands of people he has never even met keep trying to kill him. Joseph Heller’s bestselling novel is a hilarious and tragic satire on military madness, and the tale of one man’s efforts to survive it.

Buy your copy here

The Great Gatsby

by F. Scott Fitzgerald

He smiled understandingly — much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.

Fitzgerald’s glittering Jazz Age masterpiece

Jay Gatsby is a self-made man, famed for his decadent champagne-drenched parties. Despite being surrounded by Long Island’s bright and beautiful, Gatsby longs only for Daisy Buchanan. In shimmering prose, Fitzgerald shows Gatsby pursue his dream to its tragic conclusion.The Great Gatsby is an elegiac and exquisite portrait of the American Dream.

Buy your copy here

The Getting of Wisdom

by Henry Handel Richardson

Fifty-five heads turned as if by clockwork, and fifty-five pairs of eyes were levelled at the small girl in the white apron who meekly followed Mrs. Gurley down the length of the dining-room. Laura crimsoned under the unexpected ordeal, and tried to fix her attention on the flouncing of Mrs. Gurley’s dress. The room seemed hundreds of feet long, and not a single person at the tea-tables but took stock of her. The girls made no scruple of leaning backwards and forwards, behind and before their neighbours, in order to see her better, and even the governesses were not above having a look. All were standing. On Mrs. Gurley assigning Laura a place at her own right hand, Laura covered herself with confusion by taking her seat at once, before grace had been said, and before the fifty-five had drawn in their chairs with the noise of a cavalry brigade on charge. She stood up again immediately, but it was too late; an audible titter whizzed round the table: the new girl had sat down. For minutes after, Laura was lost in the pattern on her plate; and not till tongues were loosened and dishes being passed, did she venture to steal a glance round.

Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom is the coming-of-age story of a spontaneous heroine who finds herself ensconced in the rigidity of a turn-of-the-century boarding school. The clever and highly imaginative Laura has difficulty fitting in with her wealthy classmates and begins to compromise her ideals in her search for popularity and acceptance.

Buy your copy here

The Catcher in the Rye

by J. D. Salinger

I’m seventeen now, and sometimes I act like I’m about thirteen. It’s really ironical, because I’m six foot two and a half and I have gray hair. I really do. The one side of my head — the right side — is full of millions of gray hairs. I’ve had them ever since I was a kid. And yet I still act sometimes like I was only about twelve. Everybody says that, especially my father. It’s partly true, too, but it isn’t all true. People always think something’s all true.

The Catcher in the Rye is the ultimate novel for disaffected youth, but it’s relevant to all ages. The story is told by Holden Caulfield, a seventeen-year-old drop-out who has just been kicked out of his fourth school.

Throughout, Holden dissects the ‘phony’ aspects of society, and the ‘phonies’ themselves: the headmaster whose affability depends on the wealth of the parents, his room-mate who scores with girls using sickly-sweet affection.

Lazy in style, full of slang and swear words, it is a novel whose interest and appeal comes from its observations rather than its plot intrigues (in conventional terms, there is hardly any plot at all). Salinger’s style creates an effect of conversation, it is as though Holden is speaking to you personally, as though you too have seen through the pretences of the American Dream and are growing up unable to see the point of living in, or contributing to, the society around you.

Written with the clarity of a boy leaving childhood, it deals with society, love, loss, and expectations without ever falling into the clutch of a cliché.

Buy your copy here

Pride and Prejudice

by Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

When Elizabeth first meets eligible bachelor Fitzwilliam Darcy, she thinks him arrogant and conceited; while he struggles to remain indifferent to her good looks and lovely mind. When she later discovers that Darcy has involved himself in the troubled relationship between his friend Bingley and her beloved sister Jane, she is determined to dislike him more than ever.

In the sparkling comedy of manners that follows, Jane Austen shows the folly of judging by first impressions and superbly evokes the friendships, gossip and snobberies of provincial middle class life.

Buy your copy here

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

by Ken Kesey

Maybe not you, buddy, but the rest are even scared to open up and laugh. You know, that’s the first thing that got me about this place, that there wasn’t anybody laughing. I haven’t heard a real laugh since I came through that door, do you know that? Man, when you lose your laugh you lose your footing.

Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest captured the radical anti-establishment mood of 1960s America. Tyrannical Nurse Ratched rules her psychiatric ward with an iron fist and a penchant for electric shock therapy, so when the boisterous McMurphy arrives – intent on disruption and showing the other patients a good time – a titanic battle of wills emerges.

Kesey explores the shadowy boundaries between conformity and individuality, sanity and madness, with devastating effect.

Buy your copy here


by Daphne Du Maurier

If only there could be an invention that bottled up a memory, like scent. And it never faded, and it never got stale. And then, when one wanted it, the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living the moment all over again.

Working as a lady’s companion, the heroine of Rebecca learns her place. Life begins to look very bleak until, on a trip to the South of France, she meets Maxim de Winter, a handsome widower whose sudden proposal of marriage takes her by surprise. She accepts, but whisked from glamorous Monte Carlo to the ominous and brooding Manderley, the new Mrs de Winter finds Max a changed man. And the memory of his dead wife Rebecca is forever kept alive by the forbidding Mrs Danvers . . .

Not since Jane Eyre has a heroine faced such difficulty with the Other Woman.

An international best-seller that has never gone out of print, Rebecca is the haunting story of a young girl consumed by love and the struggle to find her identity.

Buy your copy here

Lord of the Flies

by William Golding

“Aren’t there any grownups at all?”
“I don’t think so.”
The fair boy said this solemnly; but then the delight of a realized ambition overcame him. In the middle of the scar he stood on his head and grinned at the reversed fat boy.
“No grownups!”

A plane crashes on a desert island and the only survivors, a group of schoolboys, assemble on the beach and wait to be rescued. By day they inhabit a land of bright fantastic birds and dark blue seas, but at night their dreams are haunted by the image of a terrifying beast. As the boys’ delicate sense of order fades, so their childish dreams are transformed into something more primitive, and their behaviour starts to take on a murderous, savage significance.

First published in 1954, Lord of the Flies is one of the most celebrated and widely read of modern classics.

Buy your copy here

The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

Gratiano speaks an infinite deal of nothing, more than any man in all Venice. His reasons are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff: you shall seek all day ere you find them; and when you have them, they are not worth the search.

This dark comedy of love and money contains one of the truly mythic figures in literature-Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. The “pound of flesh” he demands as payment of Antonio’s debt has become a universal metaphor for vengeance. Here, pathos and farce combine with moral complexity and romantic entanglements, to display the extraordinary power and range of Shakespeare at his best.

Buy your copy here

Animal Farm

by George Orwell

Remember, comrades, your resolution must never falter. No argument must lead you astray. Never listen when they tell you that Man and the animals have a common interest, that the prosperity of the one is the prosperity of the others. It is all lies. Man serves the interests of no creature except himself. And among us animals let there be perfect unity, perfect comradeship in the struggle. All men are enemies. All animals are comrades.

Mr Jones of Manor Farm is so lazy and drunken that one day he forgets to feed his livestock. The ensuing rebellion under the leadership of the pigs Napoleon and Wellington leads to the animals taking over the farm. Vowing to eliminate the terrible inequities of the farmyard, the renamed Animal Farm is organized to benefit all who walk on four legs. But as time passes, the ideals of the rebellion are corrupted, then forgotten. And something new and unexpected emerges…

Animal Farm – the history of a revolution that went wrong – is George Orwell’s brilliant satire on the corrupting influence of power.

‘Remains our great satire of the darker face of modern history’ – Malcolm Bradbury

Animal Farm has seen off all the opposition. It’s as valid today as it was fifty years ago’ – Ralph Steadman

Buy your copy here

I’m sure I’m missing many worthy set texts – are there any GLARING omissions? Let me know…

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

Follow John: Twitter Website


  • August 19, 2011 at 10:33 am

    This a fabulous and thought provoking post… even though I am not at all happy that Rebecca is curently only sitting at 50% masterpiece. Brought back lots of memories too. Kill the pig!!

    • August 19, 2011 at 11:28 am

      Thank you again, Dr Ladd.
      I value your opinion.
      Four legs good, two legs bad.

    • August 19, 2011 at 1:10 pm

      Oh, I agree, Kylie. Rebecca is absolutely a classic.

    • Annalisa

      August 19, 2011 at 1:27 pm

      Long before there was Brangelina there was samneric!

      Sorry I couldn’t bear Rebecca in Yr 10. Maybe I should go back to it.

  • August 19, 2011 at 10:38 am

    Omissions, offhand:
    – Jane Eyre
    – Any of Dickens (we got set A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield)
    – Thomas Hardy (We did Tess in year 10, Far from the Madding Crowd in year 11)
    – Henry James (I covered, and loathed, The Europeans in year 12)

    Other authors that a probably not considered classics, but that school study introduced me to and I ended up loving, were Andre Brink, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Colette.

    • August 19, 2011 at 11:26 am

      How right you are! Dickens was read by the smart classes – I remember them moaning and growing… I wrote about this here> Did you just call me an idiot? No, I said I enjoy reading the classics.
      And Thomas Hardy, too. Thank goodness I wasn’t taught him. I might never have experienced the pleasure of falling head over heels in love with him at 30.
      Henry James would have baffled me at 17 or 18. He is a writer best read on a full stomach of life experience.
      I love Jane Eyre too much to talk of her… swoon.
      Thanks for you comments.

      • August 19, 2011 at 1:10 pm

        I also love Jane Eyre, in spite of first encountering her as a 14-year-old being taught by an execrable English teacher!

        I quite liked Hardy even as a taught-text but appreciate him much more now. I cannot fathom what anyone sees in Henry James to this day, I’ll admit 😉

        And I am probably about to alienate many people by confessing that I still do not really like Dickens. I find his style exhausting and, frankly, far too florid for my taste. To each their own, though.

      • Malvina

        September 9, 2011 at 8:49 pm

        We read two Dickens at school: Great Expectations, which we as a class found completely thrilling (yes, really), and A Tale Of Two Cities. A lot of us never quite got over the end of that one… But GE introduced us to Dickens, for which I’m forever thankful. I recall we had a student teacher who somehow enthralled the class so we couldn’t wait to read ahead and find out what happened next. It’s still my favourite Dickens, and I’ve reread it twice in the last three years.

  • August 19, 2011 at 11:06 am

    Othello was the set Shakespeare of my era. And a ripsnorter of a tale it is too.

    We did Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge in Year 11. Ugh.

  • Margot Young

    August 19, 2011 at 11:13 am

    No one ever forced me to read a book. I always loved reading.

  • August 19, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    I hated GRAPES OF WRATH when I read it in year 9 or 10…I stopped reading for ages because of it. I tried it again about ten years later but still thought it was turgid and bloated and not a classic at all. To me it’s one of those books that you’re not allowed to be critical of because it’s about a difficult subject and people think you’re having a go at the subject itself (in this case poverty) than the book about the subject and that’s how it became a classic.

  • August 19, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    Of Mice & Men. Read it in year 10 and had nightmares for WEEKS. Very disturbing and not at all suitable for the sensitive 14 year old I was at the time. I don’t think I’d describe it as a “classic” either.

    Oh and don’t get me started on Great Expectations. I suffered through that one in year 12 and I don’t think I’m quite over it yet. 🙁

    • August 19, 2011 at 1:14 pm

      Urgh, Great Expectations. What a terrible book that is.

  • August 19, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    I read a lot of classics when I was younger. Most were rubbish or painstaking to read. I’m glad I read some of the classics, but most weren’t anything special.

    Also, just a point about plays, I don’t think plays should be read. Shakespeare’s works are largely deserved classics, but reading them takes all the fun out of them. Plays were meant to be seen, not read.

  • August 19, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    There are three books on this list I haven’t read. Better get on with it so I don’t get called an idiot!

    PS – will you ever stop talking about Hardy?

  • August 19, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    Captain Corelli’s Mandolin one we read in school, and after seeing the movie, I wouldn’t have touched it with a 12-ft pole. The book was beautiful, hilarious, and a total surprise.

  • Wendy

    August 19, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    My daughter was set Of Mice and Men in year 8. She was 13 and depressed. Luckily she was mature enough, after reading the back cover, to say to us that it would not be good for her mental health to study the book. She was assigned an alternative text, and the book was not taught in subsequent years. But they had to study Tess of the d’uurbevilles in Year 10. WHY? There are other Thomas Hardy novels that at least have a glimmer of redemption. Tess is so bleak. A number of her classmates said that their self harm (a HUGE problem with teen girls) increased while studying the book.

    • August 19, 2011 at 3:45 pm

      Gorky said he brought darkness to accentuate the light. (and to make sure the horrors he wrote about never happened again.)
      I suppose the same could be said of Hardy.

      • Wendy

        August 19, 2011 at 5:01 pm

        Agreed. But we have to be careful how much darkness we subject teens to. Depression and self harm is much more common than when I was a teen. Literature is usually dark. Let’s not choose the bleakest works for kids in their early to middle teens.

  • Margaret

    August 19, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    Pilgrims Progress is one you have missed Also Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I would love to re read Pilgrims Progress, but have not been able to put my hands on a copy. Any ideas where I could get one would be greatly appreciated. And no my local Library doesnt have one. Thanks

  • Kerry Pintado

    August 19, 2011 at 2:57 pm

    You totally forgot Francois Voltaire’s Candide and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina!

    • August 19, 2011 at 3:43 pm

      Wow, you must have been really smart at school!
      If a teacher had handed me Anna Karenina when I was at school I would have dropped dead on the spot. I think I would have doubted that any one could read such a big book.
      But Candide would have made sense to me. Slim, weird, violent, did I say weird?
      I would say more but I have a garden to tend.

      • August 19, 2011 at 6:59 pm

        Oh, Anna Karenina@ We did that ‘un for year 12 Literature. I liked it then and like it now, having re-read it as a thirtysomething.

  • Melissa

    August 19, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    None of those books were ever on my school reading lists, but 3 of those listed I actually read myself.

  • August 19, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    I love to read but the only one of those I have actually read was Merchant of Venice, and to be honest I didn’t like it that much.

    I’m pretty sure a couple of others I was supposed to read but never bothered with which I am sure annoyed my teachers but they weren’t books that looked interesting to me and still don’t.

    I watched the original Lord of the Flies film for Legal Studies class when we studied anarchy and I think I would have preferred to have read it.

    My favourite classic is probably Jane Eyre. I first read it when I 12 because I wanted to and not because I had to. I now own 3 copies of it.

    For the most part when we read things considered classics at school it was usually Shakespeare which I really dislike(though I’m not sure where Hamlet: A Novel by John Marsden falls into this because I loved that!). I remember we had to read Emma in year 12. I wanted to read it… until I did start to read it and found it so boring I literally fell asleep on the first page. First and only time that has ever happened to me.

    The only other classic I can think of reading at school was Little Women. Except by year 8 I had probably read it 5 or 6 times myself. A fairly common problem with the novels we were made to read.

    One of my favourite novels when I was younger was A Little Princess. I think I read it the first time when I was in year 1 or year 2. I also love A secret Garden.

  • Siobhan

    August 19, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    I was put in extension English class in years 11 and 12. We studied ‘Ulysses’ and ‘The Dead’. Also, ‘The Woman In White’ (Wilikie Collins) and ‘Wuthering Heights’. In year 10, we studied ‘Little Women’ and ‘Gone With The Wind’. I remember reading ‘Anne of Green Gables’ when I was in Primary School, I wrote a report on it, because I love that novel more than I’ve ever loved any other book in my life.

    • Ruth

      August 23, 2011 at 12:17 pm

      The Woman in White and Wuthering Heights are definite Classics as well as Little, Women, Gone with the Wind and Anne of Green Gables. What about The Iliad , War and Peace……. They are classics too

  • Jodie

    August 19, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    Enjoyed your list and yes, I did read several of these at school, and several later in life. Am pleased that ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ appears at the top of the list, even if they aren’t meant to be in order of appearance as this is still one of my all time favourites. Thank you Yr 11 English teachers from many years ago!

  • August 20, 2011 at 11:56 pm

    Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain was set for my Junior exams (midway through highschool). Loved it then, love it now.

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