The Harbinger Online

An Inside Look at all the IB English Books

From sushi parties to speed dating, East’s International Baccalaureate English class is known for being a little bit unconventional. But at its core, it’s still just an English class — we just don’t read as many run-of-the-mill novels.

While the curriculum is still subject to change, chances are these are going to be the books you’ll read if you’re in IB in the next few years. I can’t speak on the Swiss play, “The Visit,” which replaced last year’s “Fiela’s Child,” but here’s my take on all the other IB books as of now (accompanied with some friendly pieces of advice):


“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I’m pretty sure reading about Jay Gatsby’s eccentric and wild parties is a right of passage for every high school student (IB, AP or regular). But I’ll be honest — the excessive time spent on the symbolism of the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg and the valley of ashes required me to devote far too much time rereading chapters over summer vacation in Costa Rica in a desperate attempt to understand.

Fortunately, when you have to dive back in for a second read to write an essay or for your Individual Oral Presentation if you choose this book, everything makes a whole lot more sense and it’s far easier to appreciate the intricate and thoughtful symbolism. Definitely improves after you take a second look.


“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey

On its own, this novel is one of my favorite books I’ve ever read. The complex, ever-shifting battle between mental-health patient McMurphy and Nurse Ratched makes the book hard to put down at the end of each chapter, and the symbolism is so prominent that even the most anti-symbolic readers are bound to pick up on something insightful.

However, annotating for about 10 motifs on every one of the 320 pages makes this read a long one. I’ll admit marking it up does help in understanding the complexity on the novel, but the only way to make it bearable is listening to the audio book at 1.5 speed on Youtube with your pen in one hand and the book in the other.


“Woman at Point Zero” by Nawal El Saadawi

Unpopular opinion: “Woman at Point Zero,” a novel that told the story of former Egyptian prostitute turned murderer, was fine. I have to acknowledge that this is one of the favorites among other students in my IB class, but it just didn’t leave much of an impression on me. Fair warning, it might make you hate all men and really appreciate how good your life is, no matter how bad it might seem.


“The Sound of Waves” by Yukio Mishima

“The Sound of Waves” was exactly the light-hearted, happy romance IB students needed halfway through junior year — essentially the “Love Actually” of Japanese literature, at least on the surface. While the characters and plot tended to be fairly predictable and one-dimensional, it’s impossible not to root for the kind and innocent Shinji and Hatsue to get together at the end of the book.


“Chronicle of a Death Foretold” by Gabriel García Márquez

Ah, Chronicle. This Spanish translation is the most underrated book we read in all of IB English. This easy-to-read book — only 122 pages of large font — chronicles the story of the murder of Santiago Nasar.

Reading “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” is like uncovering pieces of a puzzle to figure out just how and why Nasar was killed, blurring the lines between right and wrong and forcing the reader to question their own idea of morality. The most exciting and exceptional part: Márquez compels us to feel for the murderers as the events leading up to the death are slowly unveiled. Enthralling from start to finish, I knocked this book out in about two days.


“Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” by Annie Dillard

Described as an “exercise in developing character” by the great senior IB English teacher Meredith Sternberg, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” is without a doubt the worst book I have ever finished. As a reflection on author Annie Dillard’s year spent in relative isolation in nature (I think? I’m still confused on what she was doing), this book is almost 300 pages of rambling about muskrats, insects and forests.

While this book would maybe be enjoyable to a more mature group who appreciates the outdoors, I think it’s safe to say that Dillard is just about every IB student’s least favorite character and maybe ruined my summer.


Various Poems by Seamus Heaney

While this isn’t technically a book, I can’t make a list of things we read for IB English without including our poetry unit. While studying the 15 selected poems resulted in many long nights of write-ups about poet Seamus Heaney’s Irish pride, some of Heaney’s poem are quite revealing about human nature and the wonders of the world and family.

You’ll probably have to look up various analyses for anything from the confusing “Station Island” collection, but get excited for the glances into Heaney’s childhood in “Follower” and “Mid-Term Break.”


“Dubliners” by James Joyce

With Heaney’s poems and “Dubliners” back-to-back, you’ll want to hop on the first flight to Ireland (or fly in the opposite direction, depending on your viewpoint). As a collection of short stories, “Dubliners” is like the poems in the sense that some are great and remarkably insightful — like short and sweet “Eveline” and heart-wrenching “A Little Cloud” — while others, like “After the Races” and “Two Gallants,” had me periodically dozing off at my desk.


“Hamlet” by William Shakespeare

Turns out Shakespeare’s greatest play isn’t so memorable. While I can appreciate the beautiful phrasing and the engaging feuds and plots, Hamlet is one of the most annoying, problematic heroes in all of literature, and creates most of his own problems. Luckily, they balance out, making the play fairly neutral.


“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen

As one of the most divisive novels we read, you either love “Pride and Prejudice” or you hate it. Luckily, I’m part of the former.

Austen has a knack for dialogue and developing character that is unmatched by any other author we have read, but if you’re looking for a novel with constant action and plot-thickening, this isn’t the book for you.


“Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad

Even though “Heart of Darkness” is less than a third the length of “Pride and Prejudice,” it probably took me twice as long to read and it was twice as hard to understand. Conrad’s themes are insightful, but the rambling nature of the narration and his tendency to interject random lines of insightful thoughts did not work nearly as well as revealing theme through action and dialogue.


“As I Lay Dying” by William Faulkner

The Bundrens might just be the most dysfunctional, upsetting, and poor decision-making families you’ll ever read about — which effectively makes “As I Lay Dying” one of the most depressing and darkly comedic books I’ve ever read. With distinct, stylized narration from each member of the family as well as various outside sources, the reader is able to feel as though they are witnessing this family’s journey from all angles.

Raising questions about morality and motivation, if you’re able to piece together everything that goes on in this Faulkner classic, it’s well worth the read.


“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brian

I can’t yet review this one, but we start it this week, so check back in a month for the final review!



  1. “Pride and Prejudice”
  2. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”
  3. “As I Lay Dying”
  4. “Chronicle of a Death Foretold”
  5. “Dubliners”
  6. “Sound of Waves”
  7. “The Great Gatsby”
  8. “Woman at Point Zero”
  9. “Hamlet”
  10. Heaney’s poems
  11. “Heart of Darkness”
  12. “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”

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Author Spotlight

Alex Freeman

Alex Freeman
Senior Alex Freeman has been stationed in the J-room for three years, and is excited to take on the role of Head Copy Editor for her final year. Outside of Harbinger, you can find her performing with the the Choraliers, Chamber Choir, or the Lyric Opera of Kansas City (or at least sitting at her keyboard practicing). This year she’s excited to help fellow staffers improve, write as many stories as possible, and essentially live in the J-room — and hopefully make some great memories in the ... »

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