Our Editors Reveal: The Classics We Missed in High School

Welcome to "Our Editors Reveal," a series where the Audible editors spill all our listening-related secrets. In this edition, we reveal the classics we should have read in high school. Was it worth the wait?

Literary classics tend to come with baggage. We sense we’re somehow not well-read enough for having skipped one (or many) of the greats, and yet we can be loathe to admit to any holes in our knowledge. Personally, I think it’s a shame that this particular art form is often associated with guilt. Besides, the modern canon is currently being reevaluated to accommodate significant works from underrepresented cultures and communities, a sea change that’s long overdue.

That said, there’s something deeply rewarding about finally finishing the heavyweight we avoided (or pretended to have read) for years—just ask me about the summer I spent marveling over the wonder that is Moby-Dick, and at myself for tackling it. So I was excited to host the Audible editors in a classics challenge—especially because, pro tip, listening helps them go down all the easier.

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The Bell Jar

Editor Sam, The Bell Jar

Okay, I’ll admit: I avoided The Bell Jar in high school because I was worried it would be too dark. My literary awakening came in the form of dystopian fiction and allegory—Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies—so you’d think I could handle something heavy. But I preferred my gloom and doom firmly set in some other, hypothetical world (I guess you can argue my teenaged self didn’t really get dystopia yet). In fact, it wasn’t until the Maggie Gyllenhall–narrated version arrived on Audible that I finally caved. I’ve said it before—part of me is so glad I waited to experience this book via this flawless performance, and part of me is furious at myself for having waited so long. I’ve never experienced such poignant, resonant internal monologue, and Gyllenhall’s subtle vocal cues amplify that sense of listening in on someone else’s deepest, most intimate thoughts. To think, I spent so many years with Holden Caulfield as my literary kindred spirit instead of Esther Greenwood.

The Great Gatsby

Editor Abby, The Great Gatsby

When I was in growing up in the late ’80s, I didn’t think F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work was for me. Something that was a contender for the great American novel title seemed much too stodgy to connect with my teen self. So I skipped it. And I faked it whenever it was brought up. But as I recently ventured into the sweeping tale, the romantic entanglements—each heading to their own awful end—and the vivid scene-setting of the Hamptons during the roaring ’20s, with all its opulence and disconnect, just sucked me in. Jake Gyllenhaal’s narration as outsider Nick Carraway was a spot-on choice, with his soothing and familiar voice evoking just the right amount of earnestness and boy-next-door charm to carry you through this strange, strange world.

Persuasion

Editor Christina, Persuasion

I avoided Persuasion for years. I told myself it was for high-minded and emotional reasons: the social violence of Emma almost killed me—that picnic scene!—and all the gentle Regency irony in the world can’t hide the fact that Jane Austen’s protagonists live in pain. But now, dear reader, I confess the truth: I ignored Persuasion because Hollywood made me do it. In the past 20 years, there’s been no film equivalent to the brilliant, Clueless-style send-up of Emma. No lavish production starring Keira, Kate, or Emma. Luckily, there’s a performance by Juliet Stevenson, a film and TV star who also happens to be a favorite narrator of mine. (Also? I met her once at a party. Story for another day!) And, yes, the story of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth has its socially excruciating moments, but Stevenson brings to life the delicate drama of two people who have loved and lost, and the exquisite suspense of what happens when they meet again after eight and a half years.

Fahrenheit 451

Editor Courtney, Fahrenheit 451

As might be expected for a book I’ve been putting off since high school, my first inclination was to listen at double-speed, racing through so I could finally check this one off of my list. That would’ve been a grave mistake, because I would’ve missed out on the bravura narration of Tim Robbins, who not so much reads the Bradbury classic, but fully embodies each character, varying not just his intonation (which he only does subtly, gloriously avoiding caricature), but his cadence, breath, and volume. The performance here is so richly textured that I’m ultimately glad I skipped over Fahrenheit 451 when it was served up to me on a syllabus. And if you also have yet to experience this all-too-possibly-prophetic dystopian story where books are deemed so dangerous that owning can result in death, well, at the risk of sounding like a tough teacher, it’s time you did.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Editor Kyle, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Zora Neale Hurston’s prose is life-changing, and her words have passed the test of time with flying colors. The themes of race and gender roles—particularly those of women—that abound in Their Eyes Were Watching God are as important now as they arguably have ever been. I am a little upset with myself for not checking this out earlier in my life; maybe I would have been inspired to be more of a fiction listener than the nonfiction obsessive I am—that’s how good she is. Now, please excuse me while I start listening to every work she has ever written. I have some catching up to do.

Beowulf

Editor Rachael, Beowulf

In high school, I shunned this poem because it seemed so…well, old. And boring. And hard. AndIJustReallyDidn’tFeelLikeReadingIt, okay? If I’m being honest, I probably won’t get around to picking up a copy in Old English anytime soon. But listening to the hearty-voiced Irish poet, Seamus Heany, narrate his best-selling translation of Beowulf? Now that I could sign up for. Without any spoilers, here’s a quick summary of the first battle (there are three!): Geatish warrior Beowulf, clad in war gear, sets out to defeat the monster Grendel in order to protect the noble King of the Danes, Hrothgar. Brave quests, monstrous beasts, valiant battle scenes—there’s a lot packed into one of the oldest epics ever told. How’s that for boring?

Brave New World

Editor Katie, Brave New World

I’m one of those nerds that did all of the required reading in high school (and college…), and even started reading and listening to the classics for fun. I was struggling with what to tackle for this challenge, when my fellow editor Emily suggested I turn to the dystopian classics, as opposed to the more obvious greats from British, American, and Russian literature. Given my recent (and repeat) obsession with dystopian YA lit, it seemed only natural for me to try Brave New World. The book is disturbing for how prescient it is, and Michael York’s narration only enhances the haunting effect of the work.

The Bell Jar

Editor Sam, The Bell Jar

Okay, I’ll admit: I avoided The Bell Jar in high school because I was worried it would be too dark. My literary awakening came in the form of dystopian fiction and allegory—Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies—so you’d think I could handle something heavy. But I preferred my gloom and doom firmly set in some other, hypothetical world (I guess you can argue my teenaged self didn’t really get dystopia yet). In fact, it wasn’t until the Maggie Gyllenhall–narrated version arrived on Audible that I finally caved. I’ve said it before—part of me is so glad I waited to experience this book via this flawless performance, and part of me is furious at myself for having waited so long. I’ve never experienced such poignant, resonant internal monologue, and Gyllenhall’s subtle vocal cues amplify that sense of listening in on someone else’s deepest, most intimate thoughts. To think, I spent so many years with Holden Caulfield as my literary kindred spirit instead of Esther Greenwood.

The Great Gatsby

Editor Abby, The Great Gatsby

When I was in growing up in the late ’80s, I didn’t think F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work was for me. Something that was a contender for the great American novel title seemed much too stodgy to connect with my teen self. So I skipped it. And I faked it whenever it was brought up. But as I recently ventured into the sweeping tale, the romantic entanglements—each heading to their own awful end—and the vivid scene-setting of the Hamptons during the roaring ’20s, with all its opulence and disconnect, just sucked me in. Jake Gyllenhaal’s narration as outsider Nick Carraway was a spot-on choice, with his soothing and familiar voice evoking just the right amount of earnestness and boy-next-door charm to carry you through this strange, strange world.

Persuasion

Editor Christina, Persuasion

I avoided Persuasion for years. I told myself it was for high-minded and emotional reasons: the social violence of Emma almost killed me—that picnic scene!—and all the gentle Regency irony in the world can’t hide the fact that Jane Austen’s protagonists live in pain. But now, dear reader, I confess the truth: I ignored Persuasion because Hollywood made me do it. In the past 20 years, there’s been no film equivalent to the brilliant, Clueless-style send-up of Emma. No lavish production starring Keira, Kate, or Emma. Luckily, there’s a performance by Juliet Stevenson, a film and TV star who also happens to be a favorite narrator of mine. (Also? I met her once at a party. Story for another day!) And, yes, the story of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth has its socially excruciating moments, but Stevenson brings to life the delicate drama of two people who have loved and lost, and the exquisite suspense of what happens when they meet again after eight and a half years.

Fahrenheit 451

Editor Courtney, Fahrenheit 451

As might be expected for a book I’ve been putting off since high school, my first inclination was to listen at double-speed, racing through so I could finally check this one off of my list. That would’ve been a grave mistake, because I would’ve missed out on the bravura narration of Tim Robbins, who not so much reads the Bradbury classic, but fully embodies each character, varying not just his intonation (which he only does subtly, gloriously avoiding caricature), but his cadence, breath, and volume. The performance here is so richly textured that I’m ultimately glad I skipped over Fahrenheit 451 when it was served up to me on a syllabus. And if you also have yet to experience this all-too-possibly-prophetic dystopian story where books are deemed so dangerous that owning can result in death, well, at the risk of sounding like a tough teacher, it’s time you did.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Editor Kyle, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Zora Neale Hurston’s prose is life-changing, and her words have passed the test of time with flying colors. The themes of race and gender roles—particularly those of women—that abound in Their Eyes Were Watching God are as important now as they arguably have ever been. I am a little upset with myself for not checking this out earlier in my life; maybe I would have been inspired to be more of a fiction listener than the nonfiction obsessive I am—that’s how good she is. Now, please excuse me while I start listening to every work she has ever written. I have some catching up to do.

Beowulf

Editor Rachael, Beowulf

In high school, I shunned this poem because it seemed so…well, old. And boring. And hard. AndIJustReallyDidn’tFeelLikeReadingIt, okay? If I’m being honest, I probably won’t get around to picking up a copy in Old English anytime soon. But listening to the hearty-voiced Irish poet, Seamus Heany, narrate his best-selling translation of Beowulf? Now that I could sign up for. Without any spoilers, here’s a quick summary of the first battle (there are three!): Geatish warrior Beowulf, clad in war gear, sets out to defeat the monster Grendel in order to protect the noble King of the Danes, Hrothgar. Brave quests, monstrous beasts, valiant battle scenes—there’s a lot packed into one of the oldest epics ever told. How’s that for boring?

Brave New World

Editor Katie, Brave New World

I’m one of those nerds that did all of the required reading in high school (and college…), and even started reading and listening to the classics for fun. I was struggling with what to tackle for this challenge, when my fellow editor Emily suggested I turn to the dystopian classics, as opposed to the more obvious greats from British, American, and Russian literature. Given my recent (and repeat) obsession with dystopian YA lit, it seemed only natural for me to try Brave New World. The book is disturbing for how prescient it is, and Michael York’s narration only enhances the haunting effect of the work.

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