What are the best classic books? If you want to be well-read, here are the 100 classic books to read in your lifetime.
When I was younger, I was fascinated by those lists of 100 books to read before you die.
I’ve always gravitated toward classic literature books. As a child, I had a set of illustrated classics I adored. As a young teen, I was unimpressed with the young adult literature available to me and decided to read the biggest books I could find: War & Peace and The Complete Sherlock Holmes collection.
During my senior year of high school, my English teacher gave me a list of the top 100 classic books, and I vowed to read all of the best classic books of all time. I still have plenty of classic books to read, but I’ve certainly read more than your average bear.
I think I’ve always gravitated toward classic books because there’s an underlying promise that they will be excellent books. Why else would they have lasted the test of time? While that’s not always true, it’s truer more often than not.
**A FEW DISCLAIMERS**
What makes a book a classic?
I strove to pick the best classic books that will help you be well-read. These are the classic novels that are often referenced, with common elements and themes that show up in conversations, are alluded to in articles, are remade into film and television, and books.
My list of the best classic books to read includes the ones I feel you need to know. So I skipped out on most philosophy books and went mostly with classic novels to read. Also, I skipped holy books such as the Bible and the Koran.
My biggest problem was deciding the difference between classics and modern classics. Where do you draw the line in the sand? In a completely arbitrary way, I chose to cut off my list at 1949. Historically, the start of WWII would have been a better dividing line, but I really liked stopping halfway through the century.
Plus, now the list ends on my all-time favorite book!
Eventually, I’ll get around to making a list of modern classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, but for now you’ll have to settle with my list of the best classic books written before 1950.
Early Classics to Read
The Iliad and The Odyssey
I know that these are two separate books with two completely different stories, but Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are so intertwined in my mind that I couldn’t separate them, even here. If you want to know what must read classics have stood the test of time, these two works are the pinnacle of success. The stories of the Trojan War and Odysseus’s epic journey have been copied and alluded to time and time again throughout the years – though nothing can truly touch the original source.
The Art of War
If you were to list the most intelligent books ever written, you’d have to include a book that has endured for over 2,500 years. This classic book of military strategy from Chinese warfare, accredited to Sun Tzu, still holds power today, whether you are facing your enemies on the battlefield, in a board room, or even online.
The Oedipus Cycle
Way back before the dawn of time, Sophocles was a Greek playwright famous for his tragedies. Of all his surviving works, he is best known for his three plays about Oedipus – Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. In case your Greek references are a little rusty, Oedipus was a man who, without realizing it, murders his father and marries his mother. Of the three plays, Oedipus the King and Antigone are worth reading; they are the epitome of Greek tragedy. On the other hand, Oedipus at Colonus is completely forgettable and adds no value to the series.
The Arabian Nights
Every night, King Shahriyar marries a different virgin and then executes her the next morning. To end the bloodshed, the vizier’s daughter, Scheherazade tells the king enchanting stories of magical lands. The Arabian Nights is the English title for One Thousand and One Nights, which includes the stories of Ali Baba and the forty thieves and the adventures of Sinbad.
Classic Novels from the Renaissance
Considered the premiere work of Italian literature, Dante’s Divine Comedy is a narrative poem about the medieval view of the afterlife. Dante shows the journey of a soul after death, condemned to the seven levels of hell, waiting in purgatory, or rewarded in Heaven.
The Canterbury Tales
As a group of pilgrims travels from London to visit a shrine in Canterbury, they decide to have a contest to see who can tell the best story. The Knight, the Miller, the Friar, the Wife of Bath all take their turns telling tales subtly satirizing Medieval society. Honestly, you really just need to read The Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English to have a respect for how much the English language has changed.
Aesop was a slave and a storyteller believed to have lived in Ancient Greece. Over the centuries, many fables have been attributed to his name and his short anecdotes with memorable morals have snuck into commonplace English vernacular. Although you probably already know many of his famous stories – The Tortoise and the Hare, The Fox and the Grapes – the entire collection is worth a read for anyone interested in the best classic books to read.
Le Morte d’Arthur
Sir Thomas Malory
In the fifteenth century, Thomas Malory collected the stories of the Arthurian legend together, adapting and modifying them into one complete work. Malory’s tales span from the birth and rise of Arthur to his death and the downfall of the Round Table, sharing the acclaimed stories of Lancelot, Guinevere, Merlin, and the Knights of the Round Table along the way.
In the 1500s, Italian diplomat Machiavelli printed an instruction guide on the proper behavior of new princes. Machiavelli’s treatise was made famous for its cutthroat philosophy that the ends justify the means, claiming that realism trumps ideals in the pursuit of glory or survival. Not that we see ever see politicians like that today …
Romeo & Juliet
I didn’t want to overwhelm you with Shakespeare, so I decided to limit myself to only three of his plays in my list of the classic books everyone should read. Two star-crossed lovers are the focus of Shakespeare’s memorable tragedy. In Verona, Italy, young Juliet Capulet is swept away by Romeo Montague even though they are from feuding families. Their forbidden love leads to numerous tragedies including the infamous death of the young lovers.
Often considered the most famous of Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet is the tragedy of a Danish prince who swears vengeance for the death of his father. After his father’s death, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius succeeds him as King of Denmark and quickly married Hamlet’s mother. When Hamlet realizes his uncle murdered his father, Hamlet’s revenge leaves him unhinged in this well-known tragedy.
Miguel de Cervantes
Obsessed with chivalric romances, the son of one of the lower noble families decides to rename himself Don Quixote de la Mancha and undertakes an epic journey. Along with his sidekick Sancho Panza, a down-to-earth realist, Don Quixote embarks on his idealistic pursuit (or should I say a quixotic adventure) to bring chivalry back to the nation.
After three witches prophesy that he will be King of Scotland, Macbeth, a respected general, sets out to seek the foretold power. At the urging of his wife, Macbeth kills King Duncan and becomes King. Yet when others begin to question him, Macbeth commits more and more murders, turning into a tyrant and leading to a civil war.
John Milton’s epic poem tells the Biblical story of the Fall of Man. After Satan rebels against God’s plan, he is cast out of Heaven and swears to corrupt God’s newest creation. On Earth, God creates Adam and Eve and places them in the Garden of Eden, where Satan comes to tempt them. Of all the best classic books on my list, I think this one has my favorite quote: “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”
Daniel Defoe penned a fictional autobiography of Robison Crusoe, a man shipwrecked on an island for over 30 years. Through sheer ingenuity and determination and with the help of Friday, a man he rescued from a group of cannibals, Crusoe manages to survive his adventure.
A satirical take on travelogues, Gulliver’s Travels details four epic journeys of Lemuel Gulliver. Each time Gulliver sets out, misfortune befalls him and he ends up in a new undiscovered country: a land of tiny people, a land of giants, a flying island, and even a land with talking horses.
Best Classic Books from the Industrial Era
Sense and Sensibility
When Mr. Dashwood dies, his estate passes to his son from his first marriage. Thus, Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters settle into the modest Barton Cottage. Detailing the love and heartbreak experienced by Marianne and Elinor Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility is a witty study in contrast of wearing your heart on your sleeve versus being too sensitive to social conditions.
Grimm’s Fairy Tales
The Brothers Grimm
In the 1800s, German linguists Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected together a collection of tales from old books and friends and family. These legendary folktales have become common bedtime stories: Cinderella, Rapunzel, Rumplestilksin, and Snow White. Although we are more familiar with the modern Disney takes, everyone should read the far darker original tales at least once in their lifetime.
The Swiss Family Robinson
Immigrating from Switzerland to Australia, the Robinson family finds themselves shipwrecked somewhere in the East Indies. A children’s version of Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson is a fun adventure story of the ingenuity of a family making a life on a deserted island.
Pride and Prejudice
It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen the BBC miniseries or the Keira Knightley movie, you still need to read the book. Jane Austen’s witty novel is a fun reminder of the importance of marrying for love and not lust or security. Follow along as Elizabeth Bennett goes from loathing to loving Mr. Darcy in one of the best classic romance novels.
When Mary Shelley and Lord Byron had a competition to write the best horror story, Shelly came up with the idea for Frankenstein. Grieving his mother, young ambitious scientist Victor Frankenstein conducts a series of unorthodox experiments to create life and ends up creating a creature 8 feet tall. Horrified by his creation, Frankenstein spends the rest of his life haunted and trying to destroy the thing he has made.
Sir Walter Scott
Sir Walter Scott’s best know work romanticizes England in the Middle Ages and is often credited for influencing our modern-day perceptions of Robin Hood, Prince John, and King Richard. After the Third Crusade, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, the son of a Saxon nobleman, returns to England to fight for the hand of the lovely Rowena, whom his father doesn’t want him to marry.
The Last of the Mohicans
James Fennimore Cooper
During the French and Indian War, a group of guides is selected to escort the two daughters of British Colonel Monroe to Fort William Henry. Deep in the forest, the woodsman Hawkeye and his trusted Mohican friends try to keep the girls safe. But the traitorous Magua and the French Army have other plans in this spellbinding tale that is one of the best classic novels to read.
Victorian Era Classic Novels
Complete Tales & Poems
Edgar Allan Poe
I couldn’t settle on just one of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, so I think you should read them all. Known for his macabre short stories, Poe’s tales are highly atmospheric, filling you with suspense and dread as no other author can. All of his stories are spectacular, but you must read “The Raven,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “Annabel Lee”
A Christmas Carol
Bah humbug! The miserly Mr. Scrooge hates Christmas or anything else that gets in the way of his profits. When he is visited by three ghosts – Of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future – he realizes that there is more to life than money and swears to change his ways. A short but memorable read, A Christmas Carol is one of the best classic books to read around the holidays.
The Count of Monte Cristo
If you haven’t read this amazing classic novel yet, you are truly missing out. Dumas’ epic tale of revenge will keep you entertained through all of its 1,000+ pages. Wrongfully imprisoned for years, Edmond Dantes successfully escapes a brutal French prison and sets out to get the ultimate revenge on all those who have wronged him.
The Three Musketeers
“All for one, one for all!” cried the Three Musketeers, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. The young protagonist, Comte d’Artagnan, is determined to find glory for himself and win the hand of his lady love. As he joins the musketeers and befriends the famous three, adventure, intrigue and a whole lot of swashbuckling swordplay await in this fun classic book about friendship.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Famous orator and former slave Frederick Douglass penned his memoir and treatise on abolition in 1845. Douglass started his life under the ownership of a cruel master and then moved between masters of varying levels of kindness before ending up as a field hand from which he eventually escapes. Douglass’s important text shows that although the kindness of masters varies wildly, slavery is morally wrong under every one of them.
Orphaned as a child, Jane Eyre has always felt like an outcast. She gladly accepts a position as a governess at Thornfield Hall, caring for Adele, the young ward of the brooding Mr. Rochester. Soon Jane has fallen in love with Rochester’s troubled but kind soul, but a lurking secret at Thornfield Hall threatens to leave her heartbroken.
On the edge of an English moor, Catherine Earnshaw must decide between her passionate gypsy neighbor Heathcliff and her well-to-do English suitor. When she chooses the latter, a brooding Heathcliff takes out his anger on the next generation. Love it or hate it, Wuthering Heights is still one of those classic books you need to read in your lifetime.
The Scarlet Letter
Among the strict moral code of Puritan Boston, Hester Prynne is an outcast after giving birth to a daughter out of wedlock and refusing to name her lover. As a public shaming, Prynne is forced to wear a scarlet letter “A” on her chest in this classic tale about sin, guilt, and judgment.
“Call me, Ishmael.” So begins the epic story of Ishmael, who signs up for a whaling voyage aboard the Pequod. As Ishmael befriends the crew, including the tattooed harpooner Queequeg, they are startled to find that Captain Ahab is not out for profit, but for revenge. Ahab is determined to find the great white whale which amputated one of Ahab’s legs on his last voyage. A tale of obsession, Moby Dick is a brilliant and exciting tale that unfortunately is wrapped in a lot of excessive descriptions.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Uncle Tom’s Cabin tells of the life of Uncle Tom, a long-suffering and dignified Black man, as he is sold to various slave masters. Published a decade before the Civil War, Stowe’s acclaimed novel pleaded the case for the anti-slavery movement by asserting that Christian theology is incompatible with slavery. Although the book inspired many people to become abolitionists, it also created persistent stereotypes about Black people.
Henry David Thoreau
One of the top classic books on nature, Walden recounts Henry David Thoreau’s two years living a simple life in a cabin on Walden Pond. Written in 1854, Walden is both a satire and a social experiment as Thoreau attempts to return to a simpler time when man is elementally connected with the world around him.
North and South
One of my favorite classic romances, North and South revolves around Margaret Hale, the preacher’s daughter uprooted from her country home to live in the smog of industrializing London. There she meets John Thornton, the harsh owner of a textile mill. Throw in labor riots, social justice concerns, and a dash of Victorian romance and you have a perfect classic book to read.
A Tale of Two Cities
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” So begins Charles Dickens’ novel set amid the violence of the French Revolution. With wonderful characters and a gripping story, this classic tale, one of the must-read books of all time, reminds you that violence only begets violence and that it is never too late to find redemption.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Largely forgotten and believed to be a work of fiction, historians in the 1980s finally proved that Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was Harriett Jacobs’s memoir of her life as a slave. Told in a brilliantly clear and compelling narrative, Jacob shines the light on the hypocrisy and sexual abuse inherent in master-slave relationships. Eventually, Jacobs escapes, living in hiding in an attic for seven years before moving to the North.
Dickens’s classic book tells the story of Pip, the humble orphan who dreams of becoming a gentleman. Pip’s fortune changes when an eccentric wealthy spinster asks for a boy to come visit her. Over the ensuing years, Pip spends time at Miss Havisham’s house and falls for her aloof adopted daughter, Estella. After years as an apprentice, Pip is anonymously given a sum of money that will let him live as a gentleman but feels the gift comes with great expectations of him.
The thickest of all the long classics on our list, Les Misérables is one of the most famous stories ever told. Victor Hugo’s tale of Jean Valjean – the peasant convicted for stealing a loaf of bread – will leave you breathless. From the example of forgiveness of the priest to the unrelenting determination of Inspector Javert, the story has so many outstanding themes to learn from. Yes, the musical is fantastic, but if you have a chance, be sure to pick up the original book. While it might drag in some spots, overall, the story is simply unforgettable.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Down the rabbit hole, you go in this imaginative story about a little girl caught up in a magical land after following a white rabbit with a pocket watch. With madcap characters and plenty of quotable lines, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a memorable children’s classic that everyone should read at least once.
Crime and Punishment
If you enjoy psychology at all, Crime and Punishment is the must-read of the classic books to read before you die. Take a step into the troubled mind of Raskolnikov, a poor student who decides to murder an old woman. The psychological probing of Raskolnikov’s mind is fascinating as he deals with the decision to kill, the guilt of the crime, and the fear of being caught.
War and Peace
War and Peace is the quintessential long classic book, and rightfully so. This sweeping tale of the Napoleonic War has an astounding cast of characters. The main three protagonists are Pierre Bezukhov, an illegitimate son fighting for legitimacy and his place in the world; Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, the soldier; and Natasha Rostov, the fair maiden who attracts them both. Be warned, if you read it just to say you’ve read it, you probably won’t enjoy it. You have to read it for the work itself.
Louisa May Alcott
The story of the charming March sisters’ New England life during the Civil War is a timeless tale that steals your heart. As you fall in love with headstrong Jo, sweet Beth, kind Meg, and impetuous Amy, you’ll feel drawn into all the concerns of their life. If you haven’t had the chance to enjoy this wonderful classic, there is no better time than now. And if you have read it before, well there are no better classic books worth reading again.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas
In 1866, after numerous ships report sighting a gigantic sea monster, the United States Navy equips an expedition to investigate. Instead of a monster, they discover a futuristic submarine led by the mysterious Captain Nemo. Aboard, the Nautilius, the scientists set out on a fantastic journey that will lead them to battle undersea monsters and even discover the Lost City of Atlantis.
Around the World in 80 Days
I couldn’t help but list one more adventure novel from Jules Verne. After an article is published suggesting you can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days, Phileas Fogg and his friends at the reform disagree about the possibility. Taking their wager, Fogg sets out to prove it true in the original amazing race.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Although critically overshadowed by its sequel, I didn’t think my list of the best classic books would be complete without Twain’s satirical look into boyhood. An orphan raised by his Aunt Polly, Tom Sawyer tricks, teases, and stumbles into a host of adventures with his friend, the vagrant Huckleberry Finn.
If you’ve never read Russian novels, let me first warn you about the names. Every Russian character has about 4 different names – various nicknames relating to their heritage. Once you get a handle on this, the novels are much easier to read. The protagonist, Anna, a woman of note in society, decided to cast off her role as wife and dives into a shocking affair with Count Vronsky. But really, you read Anna Karenina for that ending.
The Brothers Karamazov
One of my favorite classic books, The Brothers Karamazov tells of 4 brothers – the brilliant Ivan, the honest Alyosha, the hedonic Dimitri, and the illegitimate Smerdyakov. You’ll spend the whole novel trying to figure out which one killed their father. Not a light read, but oh so worth the effort.
Robert Louis Stevenson
When a mysterious stranger rents a room at his family’s inn before dying, young Jim Hawkins comes into possession of a treasure map. Suddenly, Jim is swept up in an adventure searching for the lost treasure of the evil Captain Flint, but the pirate Long John Silver and his men are also after the treasure. It’s just as much fun to read even if the muppets aren’t in the original book.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
In a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain details the life of Tom’s friend Huckleberry Finn. As Huck travels down the river with a runaway slave, he meets feuding families, scoundrels, and even Tom Sawyer’s aunt. Hailed at the time of publication for its satire of racist attitudes and bold depictions of youth, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the more controversial coming of age books modernly, denounced for its use of the n-word and racial stereotypes.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous tale has become part of our own vernacular when discussing split personality. In the novella, Gabriel John Utterson becomes concerned about his friend Dr. Henry Jekyll who has been acting strangely. Something is wrong with the relationship between the kind intellectual Jekyll and the cruel violent Mr. Hyde, and Utterson is determined to uncover the truth.
The Complete Poems
W. Somerset Maugham said, “The crown of literature is poetry.” Emily Dickinson’s poetry is the perfect beginning to your journey into literature’s finest. Her beautiful lyrics will touch your soul and leave you in awe at the power of verse.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Banned and censored at the time of its publication, The Picture of Dorian Gray is Wilde’s is a classic of Gothic literature. Infatuated with the beauty of his friend, Basil Hallward paints a captivating portrait of Dorian Gray. When Dorian Gray sees it, he realizes that his youth will fade but the painting will not. Thus, he sells his soul so that he may remain young and the portrait will age, allowing Dorian to live shamelessly while the evidence of his sins only appears on the portrait.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Thomas Hardy is a superb writer, and I was tempted to list several of his books. He’s best known for Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the story of a young woman from a poor family driven to claim (probably false) kinship as a distant relative of the wealthy D’Urbervilles. After her “cousin” Alec D’Urberville ruins her reputation, she tries to live an ordinary life, but her past continues to haunt her.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle shines in his first collection of stories about the infamous detective. Using deductive reasoning and impeccable logic, Detective Sherlock Holmes solves twelve impossible mysteries as narrated by his sidekick Dr. Watson. Although the original stories might not be as sexy as Benedict Cumberbatch, they are still worth a read.
The Red Badge of Courage
During the American Civil War, young Henry Crane enlists in the Union Army ready to serve his country. But when he finds himself in battle, he flees from the front line. Ashamed of his cowardice, Henry desperately wants a “red badge of courage” and serves as a standard-bearer for the next battle. Although Crane was too young to serve in the Civil War, The Red Badge of Courage is known for its realistic depictions of the war.
The Importance of Being Earnest
If you want a play to make you laugh, not much beats Oscar Wilde. I’m always a fan of witty humor, and Oscar Wilde’s clever play on words starts with the title and carries on throughout the entire play. In a case of mistaken identities, Cecily and Gwendolen have both fallen in love with Ernest, not realizing that neither of their lovers is actually named Ernest.
Everyone knows the story of the vampire Count Dracula, but you might not have realized that the book is an incredible read. Written in 1897 by Irish author Bram Stoker, Dracula tells of the title character’s planned move from Transylvania to England in search of new feeding grounds and the battle to stop him, led by Professor Van Helsing. It’s a fascinating Gothic horror novel that speaks on deeper themes through a compelling narrative.
Cyrano de Bergerac
Edmond Rostand’s hilarious play tells the timeless tale of the ultimate hero – an expert swordsman and legendary soldier whose eloquent wit sets him off from the crowd. In true balance, Cyrano has one extreme flaw, an extremely large nose. Ashamed of his features, Cyrano feels he is unworthy of the Lady Roxane and instead helps a handsome young officer woo her.
Coming in just below the 200-page mark, The Awakening is a short classic novel to read. For its time, Kate Chopin’s tale of a woman’s infidelity was rather shocking. Although the topic is less shocking nowadays, Chopin delves into the main character’s psychology and is well-regarded for her beautiful writing.
Turn of the Century Classic Literature
The Story of My Life
I’m not sure there is a more dramatic memoir than that of Helen Keller. As a toddler, an illness left Helen Keller without her hearing or her sight. Until age seven, Keller could only communicate through her own system of homemade signs until she met Anne Sullivan. Sullivan patiently taught Helen about language and how to read and write and eventually Helen went on to attend Harvard University and become a disability rights activist.
The Souls of Black Folk
W. E. B. DuBois
One of the founders of the NAACP, W. E. B. DuBois’s book is considered one of the cornerstones of African-American literature and an influencing work of sociology. In his fourteen essays, DuBois makes the case that Blacks should not have to plead for their human rights and introduces the concept of “double consciousness,” where Black people must always be conscious of how they view themselves against how the world sees them.
The Call of the Wild
Jack London’s short classic tells the story of a dog named Buck. Stolen from his home on a Californian ranch, Buck is sold as a sled dog in Alaska. As Buck progresses through a series of cruel owners, he becomes more and more feral. Can one last kind owner save him or will he give in to the call of the wild?
J. M. Barrie
J. M. Barrie’s beloved children’s story is one of the must-read classic books of all time for children. Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up, convinces Wendy Darling and her two brothers to join him on adventures in Neverland. Flying from London, they discover a magical island full of pirates, fairies, mermaids, and Native Americans.
“I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” said Upton Sinclair about his famous classic novel. Although Sinclair aimed to write a novel about the plight of poor immigrants, he actually managed to create an exposé on the meat-packing industry and is directly responsible for the creation of the Food and Drug Administration.
A Room with a View
E. M. Forster
Lucy has her whole life planned out. She’ll marry her perfectly respectable fiance Cecil and live a quiet peaceful life in England. However, when she visits Italy with her cousin Charlotte, Lucy’s life is turned upside down as she meets an explosion of colorful characters, including the passionate George. Can she accept the chaos of this new life or go back to her old ways in England? If you tend toward the romantic, this is the perfect choice for you.
Anne of Green Gables
L. M. Montgomery
Every girl should be required to read the adventures of orphan Anne Shirley who uses all her imagination and spunk to win the hearts of everyone around her. She’s the girl every girl wishes she could be. Rereading this childhood classic, I found it just as entertaining as an adult and loved every minute of it.
George Bernard Shaw
Anyone who has seen a teenage rom-com is familiar with the transformation love story, so why not read the play that helped inspire them? Based on the Greek myth of Pygmalion, who fell in love with one of his sculptures, Shaw’s play describes English linguist Henry Higgins who takes poor flower girl Eliza Doolittle and transforms her speech and manners into that of a high-class lady. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the basis of the musical My Fair Lady.
One morning, salesman Gregor Samsa wakes up to find himself transformed into a gigantic insect. Kafka’s short allegorical novel describes Gregor’s struggle to adapt to his new form and literary critics love to make comparisons to religion or psychology. You’ll have to read this bizarre tale for yourself to see how you interpret Kafka’s allegory.
Of all the books set in Nebraska, nothing quite conveys the sweeping prairie-like Willa Cather’s noted work, My Ántonia. Near the end of the 19th century, 10-year-old orphan Jim Burden moves to Nebraska to live with his grandparents. There he meets Ántonia, the daughter of Bohemian immigrants. The novel follows their lives as each starts to reach for the American Dream – to build a home in a new land.
The Waste Land
T. S. Eliot
Written in five parts, Eliot’s poem combines the Holy Grail and the Fisher King stories with looks at contemporary British Society. Considered one of the premier works of modern poetry, The Waste Land is considered the most famous work of the Nobel Prize-winning poet.
Herman Hesse’s acclaimed novel follows a wealthy Indian Brahmin who forsakes his riches for a life of self-enlightenment. Written as a contemporary of the Buddha, Siddhartha’s journey encompasses both Eastern and Western philosophies. Originally published in 1922 in Germany, Siddhartha didn’t receive its first American edition until the 1950s.
The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American novel serves as the quintessential work of the Jazz Age. As the narrator enters the world of Long Island’s fabulously wealthy, we meet the mysterious Jay Gatsby and the beautiful Daisy Buchanan. The perfect example of books about the roarings 20s, this short but memorable book is one that everyone should read in their lifetime.
The Sun Also Rises
Ernest Hemingway’s debut novel is the story of a group of American expatriates in Paris drinking their way through life. Typifying the Lost Generation, you meet the hapless reporter Jake Barnes and the vivacious Lady Brett Ashley. From the streets of Paris to the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, Hemingway paints a picture of unrealized love, moral confusion, and lost hope.
A. A. Milne
The adventures of Christopher Robin’s beloved bear of very little brain is one that every child should have read to them and that every adult should read again. With his smart humor, A. A. Milne reminds you of the pure joy of a child’s imagination.
Meet the corrupt golden-tongued preacher Elmer Gantry. A study in hypocrisy, Gantry rises to fame as an evangelist minister while living a private life full of lies, sex, and vulgarity. Known for pointing out hypocrisy and corruption, Sinclair Lewis is one of my favorite classic authors to read.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey
On July 20, 1714, a century-old Incan rope bridge in Peru breaks, killing five people. After witnessing the event, Brother Juniper, a Franciscan friar, sets out to learn more about the lives of each individual, looking for the divine in the accident.
Literary Classics: Great Depression -1949
All Quiet on the Western Front
Erich Maria Remarque
Shortly after the start of the First World War, the compelling speeches of his teacher caused Paul Bäumer and his entire class to enlist in the Imperial German Army. Thrust into the chaos of the front, Paul faces emotional and psychological tolls greater than he could ever imagine. Yet, Paul finds no relief when he returns home and struggles to adapt to civilian life.
The Sound and the Fury
William Faulkner’s best-known novel details the fall of the Compson family, Southern aristocrats in Jefferson, Mississippi, whose family is beginning to break up. Over thirty years, the family meets financial ruin, loses its reputation and many of its members die tragically.
A Room of One’s Own
Based on two lectures she gave at women’s colleges at the University of Cambridge, A Room of One’s Own is an influential feminist text. Virginia Woolf believes that for a woman to truly write, she needs two things: money and a room to herself. While you may not agree with everything she says, this short essay covers the interesting topics of intellectual freedom and the process of creating.
As I Lay Dying
When Addie Bundren dies, her family attempts to carry out her last request, to be buried in her hometown, despite their poverty. Narrated by fifteen different characters, As I Lay Dying follows the family’s trek and looks at each individual’s motivations, making it an experimental and critically-acclaimed 1930s novel.
The Good Earth
Pearl S. Buck
The Good Earth tells the tale of an honest farmer Wang Lung as he worked from poverty into wealth with the help of his hard-working wife and focuses on the choice they make along the way. While this is not particularly one of my favorite classic books, I added it to the list of 100 classics to read in your lifetime because of its portrayal of life in China in the 1920s.
Brave New World
As science and technology can do more and more to improve our lives, how much of our humanity are we willing to give to reach utopia? Huxley paints a frightening picture of a world of total uniformity that will show you the downside of a world without suffering.
Robert Graves set the bar for historical novels when he published his famous “autobiography” of the Roman Emperor Claudius. Growing up a sickly stammering child, Claudius is generally ignored by his family, watching as they murder and manipulate to gain power. Claudius’s firsthand account of all the horror, depravity, and cruelty that plagued the Roman leaders Augustus, Tiberius, and the mad Caligula truly brings history alive.
Gone with the Wind
Possibly one of the most controversial picks on my list of long classics, Gone with the Wind is Margaret Mitchell’s idealized look at the South at the time of the civil war provides you food for thought about how we portray our bias into historical events. Her extremely flawed heroine Scarlett O’Hara gives you much to contemplate about love and selfishness. While I adore watching the movie, I love being able to see into Scarlett’s thought process in the book.
Of Mice and Men
This memorable classic about friendship follows eternal optimists George and Lennie who share a common dream – to own some land of their own. When life leads them to work on a California ranch, they bump up against the reality that life can be extremely unfair. Steinbeck is a brilliant writer, and this story will stick with you long after you’ve read it.
J. R. R. Tolkien
Before The Lord of the Rings revolutionized the fantasy genre, Tolkien introduced the world to Middle Earth with his beloved children’s fantasy book, The Hobbit. In an epic adventure, the wizard Gandalf convinces the distinctly unadventurous hobbit Bilbo Baggins on a journey to help a group of dwarves defeat the powerful dragon Smaug.
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale Hurston
Although mostly overlooked during her life, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God has had a well-deserved resurgence in popularity in the last few decades. Hurston’s classic recounts the life of Janie Crawford through her three marriages and journey of self-discovery. Throughout the novel, Hurston makes you consider marriage, gender roles, and what makes a liberated woman.
Daphne du Maurier
Working as a lady’s maid in Monte Carlo, the narrator is swept off her feet by the handsome widower Maxim de Winter. After a rushed courtship and impulsive marriage, she returns as his wife to his beautiful estate, Manderley. Yet, she quickly learns she is not the true mistress of the estate, as the household will not let her forget the memory of Rebecca, de Winter’s first wife who drowned the year before.
The Grapes of Wrath
Steinbeck’s epic on the Great Depression is a must-read classic book. After being released from prison, Tom Joad finds his family crippled by the Dust Bowl and ready to give the promise of California a try. Instead, the Joad family finds the harsh realities for migrants and begins to fall apart as they each handle the injustices of life in different ways.
And Then There Were None
If you want a quick classic mystery, Agatha Christie is the way to go. You’ll have fun trying to figure out whodunit on an isolated island mansion where the suspects start dying off one by one. I’ll be impressed if you figure it out. I never do. A classic for a reason, this novel is surprisingly short, leaving you plenty to read even more classic books.
Ready for a short classic book that will make you think? Enter Albert Camus’ thought-provoking short classic book, The Stranger, the story of Mersault, a seemingly ordinary man without any feelings. After he kills a stranger on an Algerian beach, Mersault is put on trial for murder. On the surface, The Stranger seems like a simple novel, but if you care to look deeper, you can find the roots of many philosophical questions (though few answers).
In a far distant future, psychohistorian Hari Seldon has analyzed the cycle of history and realizes that after twelve thousand years in power, the Galactic Empire is headed toward collapse. A collapse that will spawn 30,000 years of Dark Ages. To prevent complete disaster and shorten this dark period, Seldon sets up Foundation – a planet on the edge of the galaxy to contain the best minds with the knowledge of humanity. At crucial junctures in history, Seldon has set up steps to sway the course of events to protect the fledgling Foundation. Considered one of the best science fiction books of all time, Isaac Asimov shines in this classic tale.
The Little Prince
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
If you aren’t in the mood for long classics, The Little Prince is a short illustrated story full of morals – if only you have eyes to see them. It’s one of those classic books in which you can get out of it as much or as little as you want. This short allegory follows a young boy, the Little Prince, who decides to give up his pleasant life on his tiny planet to go discover the universe. Along the way, he encounters a strange place called Earth and learns about some of the absurdities of the adults.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
A classic coming-of-age story that has enchanted readers for decades, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn chronicles young teen Francie Nolan as she grows up in the slums of Brooklyn. Covering poverty and the American dream, Betty Smith’s masterpiece points out the struggles of the poor families of the early 20th century. Yet, the enduring message of this classic book is one of hope for the future.
On the surface, Animal Farm is just a simple tale of animals revolting against the cruel farmer to set up their own government. In reality, Animal Farm is the perfect parable for the danger of giving up our freedoms for the sake of security. If you’ve ever wondered how a dictatorship comes to be, this classic short novel will show you. To get the most of this short classic, you’ll want to pair it with my favorite book of all time, George Orwell’s 1984.
Man’s Search for Meaning
How do you find meaning in your suffering? If anyone can find the answer, it’s psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. A memoir of his and others’ experiences in Nazi concentration camps, Frankl will help you cope with, find meaning in, and move past the trials in your life. I would have included Elie Wiesel’s Night on my list of the best classic books to read, but it was published after my 1950 cutoff.
The Diary of a Young Girl
With the Nazis occupying Holland, thirteen-year-old Jewish girl Anne Frank and her family went into hiding in the secret annex of an old office building. For two years, they hid with another family until they were betrayed to the Gestapo. Anne Frank’s diary gives a moving account of how a teenager experienced these world-shattering events and teaches of the Holocaust in such an intimate manner.
Published in 1949, George Orwell’s terrifying vision of the future is just as important today as when it was written. Telling the story of Winston, a depressed Party worker who longs to join the Resistance, 1984 shows the horror of a totalitarian society continually at war. Commonly referenced in modern culture (i.e., Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime,), 1984 is one of the best dystopian novels of all time and my all-time favorite book.
What Would You Say Are the 100 Best Classic Books?
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with my list of the 100 Best Classic Books to Read? What classic books have I forgotten? Is it okay that I stopped at 1950 or should I have gone further? As always, let me know in the comments!
More Classic Books Reading Lists:
Kathy C says
I love this list. I’m excited that several are on my reading challenge list. I would love if you made a list we could check off from your top 100 classics
I actually did! It’s one of the bonuses available to my newsletter subscribers.
Amy Bettan says
You did a great job.
My lament, so many books so little time.
Fatheya El Marsafawi says
Thank you Rachael for this great list. I like that you added the publication date and listed the books by era. Can’t wait for the Modern Classics list!
Thank you for this list. I love classics and have read most of them but there are a few I will put on my TBR list.
So my wife and I have three kids and were looking for a good list of classics to start building our little library for them. This list was by far the best I have seen with so many great books. Brings back so many memories from high school reads.
my favorite is the hobbit for sure
James Corcoran says
I taught the amazing Oedipus plays–all three–for decades. Sadly, you really short-changed Oedipus at Kolonus, Sophocles brilliant farewell tribute to the world, to the character of Oedipus, and to Sophocles’ home town of Kolonus. Sorry you failed to recognize it for the masterpiece it is.