Books by Theme: Modern Literary Classics that Your High School English Teacher Forgot About

Every wonder why you never read anything written after 1940 in high school?  Yeah, I don't have an answer.  But if your opinion of literary fiction stops around The Grapes of Wrath, you're missing out!  Literary fiction is alive, well, and sometimes actually accessible to the modern reader.  Here are a few of my favorites that may have missed your shelf.

Also, no offense to high school English teachers.  I've had several brilliant ones.  It's not their fault that the American high school curriculum forgets about modern literature.      

Modern Literary Classics

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
A young man, incidentally also named Jonathan Safran Foer, and his English-speaking (sort of) Ukrainian guide Alex set off on a journey to unearth the woman who may or may not have saved Jonathan's grandfather from the Nazis.  This whimsical, magical book runs the gamut from hysterical to deeply tragic (often on the same page) with an irreverent reverence and a sarcasm that I've found few places other than Foer.  I read it in a day and immediately gobbled up his next work.  The funniest and most touching book you'll ever read about the Holocaust, love, and family.  Essential.  Also, I've seen him talk and he's one of the cleverest, most humble authors out there. 

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders
Six short stories and a novella set in CivilWarLand, an amusement park where nobody seems to be amused and everybody seems to be living out the ragged ends of their hopes and dreams.  Saunders is a master satirist.  His stories are obviously exaggerated, but so violently so that you can't help find truth in them.  This is a rare book that actually made me laugh, and think, quite a bit, about the state of America and growing up.  I've seen Saunders do a reading as well, and I wish he could read all his stories to me; he's so insanely funny and charming.  (If you like this, try Choke by Chuck Palahniuk, which also features an amusement park gone wrong.) 

White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Okay, I haven't read it.  It's on my shelf.  But I must mention it, because wherever you look for modern classics, you see Zadie.  I know from the short stories I've read of her that she's biting, clever, and very attuned to the artificial world that we call literature.  Beginning with Archie, a down-on-his-luck schmuck who flips a coin to decide his suicide, and Samad, a halal butcher shop owner who gives him a second chance.  If I make it through the week without reading it through, I'll give you ten bucks.  Not really.  But seriously, Zadie is a rockstar. 

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Reading this book is like learning a new language.  Meet Alex, a homicidally charming young man whose principal interests are rape, ultraviolence, and Beethoven.  Meet a dark future where gangs run the streets, ordinary citizens fear to go out at night, and police have turned to brainwashing as the final solution.  The central question: when is the cost of redemption too high?  Besides simply being beautifully dark and disturbed, the book is narrated by Alex in his futuristic slang, which itself perfectly captures the grotesqueness of his world.  There's no glossary; you're thrust into the unfamiliar words immediately, such that reading the book is having the experience of fully immersing yourself in another culture.  Brilliant.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
So, you've read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, maybe.  You were enamored of An Imperial Affliction by Peter Van Houten, the fictional novel contained therein.  Well, meet the inspiration.  This is a punishing, unforgiving book, but it's one that no self-respecting reader can avoid forever.  Set in a near future, it follows the very non-chronological escapades of a mad director, a decompensating tennis prodigy, a drug addict, a broken freedom fighter.  The stories of these tortured  people are intertwined around a central issue: what is entertainment, and at what cost do we seek it?  Be prepared to read a lot of footnotes and be very confused--but also mystified, and inspired. 

Click the book titles to find out more! 

What are some of your favorite modern literary classics?  

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