Ten Must-Read Classics of Great Literature
Classic Novels You Won't Want to Miss Reading
I love to read good books. This page lists ten of my favorite must-read classics. Classic novels have enchanted and entertained readers for decades, and I am one of those who believes they're still worth reading.
One of the saddest effects of modern society has been to minimize the joy of reading great classic novels. Novels should still be loved as much as video games, television, and iPads.
Books are Like Friends
Books are special.
One of my friends had the habit of telling her kids, "Books are your friends!"
All young people should be introduced to great novels during their teen years if not before.
Never underestimate the lasting positive impact of a great classic book!
My novel-reading journey started when I was assigned a few great novels while in high school. At that time they were regularly distributed to students in English classes.
I don't know if they still are where you were educated, but I discovered that my youngest children were not assigned to read novels while in high school. This not only shocked and appalled me, but it actually frightened me.
What has our world come to if great literature is not valued? (There's more on my experience with novels, below.)
100 Must-Read Classic Novels - Plus 500 Extra Classic Novel Recommendations
This book is full of reviews of classic novels. It provides a list of 100 must-read classic novels, and also tells us about another 500 selections. All reviewed.
If you want a comprehensive list of great novels to read, this is it.
If you want to know ten of my favorite classic novels, read on. I'd like to read the top 100... they're classics because these books are really good and have withstood the test of time.
Try Reading the Classics
...I did and am so glad I made the effort!
When I graduated from high school in 1970 I was not into novels, or reading, or much of anything good. I drifted for a few years, unable to find what I wanted to do in life. One day I made the decision to quit smoking.
At the same approximate time I got hold of a copy of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. This amazing novel about the French revolution starts with the infamous line, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." For me, that was a true summation of my condition. It was the worst of times because I had to quit smoking. It was the best of times because I discovered the great joy of getting emotionally tied up in the pages of a great novel.
I've read many of the world's classics since then. Here are a few that I believe should be on everyone's must-read list, unless of course, you've already read them.
I'm going to give you a short review of each book. At the end of this page you can vote for the books you like best.
These are not presented in any particular order - in other words, I didn't put my favorites first.
I'm Guessing Most People Visiting This Page are Book Fans, but I'll Ask Anyway...
Do you love to read?
I have read every one of these novels, and I recommend them. There are many great classic novels. These are a few I enjoyed, and I hope you'll enjoy them too.
Charles Dickens' Classic About the French Revolution
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."
To truly experience an event in history, the emotional involvement of reading a novel can help you feel it almost as intensely as if you were one of the characters in the story. In A Tale of Two Cities, you become part of an extremely turbulent part of history - the bloody, terrifying French Revolution. You're probably thinking, "Scary! I don't want to go there!" But what motivated these crazy people? Don't you want to find out? Meet Madame Defarge.
You'll learn what it was like to live in Paris at that time, juxtaposed with chapters about life in London. Besides the contrast in the two cities, you get a contrast between people - from the pure and innocent, to the wickedly hateful. The novel is not cheerful or light hearted, but is a good witness to the best and worst in the human condition.
Charles Dickens wrote many other wonderful novels. I'll also recommend A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield.
Charles Dickens wrote his novels as serial stories in a magazine, so he had to write only one chapter at a time. Once that was published, he could write and edit the next chapter. Publishing a book in this way, one chapter at a time, over a period of many months, helped the magazines to sell, and lucky for us, his amazing novels have withstood the test of time.
The most recent Dickens novel I've read was The Christmas Carol, which is rather short compared to the others. If you're reading Dickens for the first time you might want to start with that familiar story. (Movies have been made from it, of course, so most of us already know the story.) I noticed while reading the book that Dickens had a marvelous grasp of the English language and an amazing vocabulary. You might want to keep a dictionary handy! I love authors who can challenge my reading skills and comprehension. Dickens lived in that era when vocabulary skills were greater than they seem to be now.
Back to talking about A Tale of Two Cities, my reading experience was memorable because it was the first large, thick novel I'd read since high school days. I read it when I was nineteen or twenty, while trying to quit smoking. This novel helped me along the road to recovery. Considering the trauma of the French Revolution, my little problem of nicotine withdrawal seemed insignificant.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Have you read it yet?
Documentary About Charles Dickens
A Boy Discovers the Horrors of War
Heartbreaking! You will learn what it is like to be a lone soldier on a battlefield.
This short but emotionally charged classic novel is one of the greatest anti-war stories ever written. The year is 1863, the scene is the Battle of Chancellorsville during the American Civil War. A young soldier wanders around the battle area, at times taking part, and at times backing off. Critics have remarked that the story is amazingly realistic and true to historic detail.
If you are just starting to get into reading classics, this is an attention-grabbing short read that will bring you closer to an understanding of the reality of what the Civil War was like, and what all fighting is about.
The main character, Henry Fleming, is traumatized by battle and runs from the front lines in terror. Then he's filled with shame and distress because of his own cowardice. The scenes are chaotic.
I'm a slow reader and still got through this book in only a day or two - that's how short it is. Yet it remains an important novel through many decades. It was originally a serial story in newspapers in 1894, then was published as a book in 1895. I definitely recommend this book for teens and adults, but not for children under the age of about fifteen.
My heart hurts for the young people who have been terrorized by war, but forced to participate in it. A battle is a terrifying experience, and so many do not make it out alive.
The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane
Have you read it yet?
A Short Biography of Stephen Crane
Big Brother is Watching YOU
Read and discuss with your teenagers... they deserve to know. I read this book when I was a teenager - and read it out loud to my son when he was a teen. The more we live in a world where Big Brother is watching us, the more this novel gains significance because it tells us about the world we live in.
Orwell had a unique understanding of the political future planned for the world by powers we're not supposed to know about. He put this picture together in his horrifying novel about a society gone mad with control. The characters want to live normal lives, but are prevented at every turn by "Big Brother" - the eye of the government.
Orwell also wrote Animal Farm - a much shorter novel about how power corrupts. The characters are all animals - a strange thing in a novel intended for adults. I consider both his books to be VITAL reading for informed citizens. Animal Farm explains why socialism doesn't work, using a barnyard full of animals of various types to illustrate what happens and why.
1984 has come out as a movie, but I really believe that watching a movie doesn't replace reading the novel. Much is left out when screen writers step in to adapt a novel for the screen. I'll admit many people will benefit from the movie - because they never bother to pick up books and read them. What a shame! My preference is to read the book before watching the movie. I usually think the book was better.
1984, by George Orwell
Have you read it yet?
Unauthorized Biography of George Orwell (He Didn't Want One!)
A Family's Survival Despite Abject Poverty
My family was from Oklahoma and came to California in the 30s. Naturally, I had to love this book.
I've read almost everything Steinbeck wrote, and loved it all. But to recommend just one of his books, I'll choose The Grapes of Wrath, a heart-wrenching story of a family forced to resettle - from dust-bowl Oklahoma to poverty-stricken California emigrant camps. Life isn't easy, but the human spirit overcomes all trials. If you read this, you'll be glad you have a roof over your head.
Of course I recommend all other Steinbeck stories and novels too, for example, Cannery Row and East of Eden. There's nothing John Steinbeck had published that is not worth reading. His first book, A Cup of Gold, was self-published, and is probably my least favorite because it is about pirates rather than about life in California, but even the pirate book had some genius phraseology and vocabulary that amazed me.
Grapes of Wrath is a book I read in my junior high school years. Maybe 9th grade, or 8th. Back then, great classics were a part of our English class experience. Later when my children attended high school I noticed they weren't reading books. What has happened to this civilization? I truly believe there's been a "dumbing down" agenda in public education, because my teens were not educated as thoroughly as what I experienced as a teen.
The Grapes of Wrath is a great book for a teenager to read (or anyone older) because it shows the ravages of poverty and what people went through earlier in the history of our country. Dust storms ruined farm life in the area of the Oklahoma panhandle and North Texas, forcing thousands of families to relocate so they'd no longer have to breathe and live in horrible, excessive dust and dirt that could no longer be cultivated. Teenagers need to know what real poverty looks and feels like, and that's why this novel is important, as a learning experience for the young.
The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
Have you read it yet?
A Mini Bio of John Steinbeck
A Woman Learns About Love The Hard Way
Scarlett O'Hara - what an amazing personality! I love the book more than the movie, if you can imagine that.
Do NOT do what I did, and wait until you're in your fifties to read this book. Gone With The Wind is the ultimate love story, the ultimate Civil War novel, and the ultimate late-night read. Wow - you've just got to read this one.
Forget the movie, it doesn't hold a candle to the real story. Reading the novel you get underneath the simpering movie-version of Scarlett O'Hara to find the person who changes from a silly and self-centered young rich girl to a woman totally capable of managing her life and accepting her fate. It takes a while - this is a long and rocky journey for Scarlett, but well-worth learning about.
Warning: You won't want this novel to end.
Gone With the Wind, written by Atlanta author Margaret Mitchell, is set in Clayton County, Georgia, and Atlanta, Georgia. It was originally published in 1936. The book is thick, but easy to read. I entered into Scarlett's story and night after night, as I read my chapters, I saw the world from her point of view and my life was enriched because of it.
She's a country belle whose world is decimated by the Civil War. General Sherman's "March to the Sea" devastates the plantation she calls home. The book explores her relationship with slaves, and has been considered controversial for that reason, but let's not throw out history - let's learn from it instead.
If I ever go to Atlanta, Georgia, one thing I'll definitely want to do is tour the Margaret Mitchell house there. What a great writer! Her book is a blessing to us all. In 2014 a Harris poll found that Gone With the Wind was the second most favorite book of Americans. The first, of course, was the Bible. That's how gripping the story of Gone With the Wind is. Definitely worth the time spent reading. I feel strongly about this classic novel. Can you tell?
Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
Have you read it yet?
Bio of Margaret Mitchell
Paramedic Falls in Love
I always wanted to know what "arms" Ernest Hemingway was saying farewell to, so I read the book.
Before I read this book I used to wonder what the title meant. I knew it was a war novel. Did it mean no more arms as in no more weapons of war? Or did it refer to someone who lost his arms due to war injuries? The suspense kept building as the meaning of the title didn't become obvious until the end of the novel.
This heart-wrenching war story takes place in Europe during World War I. The main character, Frederic Henry, an American ambulance driver serving the Italian army, falls in love with Catherine Barkley, a nurse. Through his somewhat detached viewpoint you see the terrors and traumas of war at that time. Hemingway was very young when he wrote this novel, but his unusual, unique writing style is something to learn from and enjoy.
A Farewell to Arms was Hemingway's second novel, published in 1929. It quickly became a bestseller. Hemingway worked as an ambulance driver, thus his main character in this novel reflected his personal life. His first novel, The Sun Also Rises, was autobiographical. This one is not. The relationship between Frederic and Catherine was based on something that happened in his life, but the outcome of the situation he experienced was much different than what he wrote for his fictional characters.
The novel is divided into five books, or sections. When Frederic first meets Catherine, he's not looking for a committed relationship. Later he is injured and sent to a hospital she works at, and their relationship deepens exponentially as the book goes on.
I also recommend The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway - a much shorter book, in case you want to start with something less intimidating than A Farewell to Arms.
Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
Have you read it yet?
Mini Bio of Ernest Hemingway
An Amazing Story of a Man Devoted to the Buddha
His journey took unusual side trips but in the end... [no spoilers!]
I read this novel long ago, when I was a teenager. It started me on a journey of reading everything by Hesse that I could get my hands on. Nothing stood up to the beauty and perfection of Siddhartha, in my memory. Words cannot say how touching and memorable this novel is. Even today I remember certain scenes with awe.
The Siddhartha in this novel was not the Buddha, but rather, he was a man searching for spiritual enlightenment during the same time the Buddha was alive. The Buddha's original name was Siddhartha Gautama, and in this book he is referred to as Gotama.
Siddhartha, the novel, takes place in the Kapilavastu district of Nepal, a small country on the northern edge of India, and on the southwest edge of China. In the beginning, Siddhartha and his friend, Govinda, leave home together to become ascetics, wandering in search of spiritual truth. They are homeless and without possessions, often fasting. They meet Gotama (the Buddha) and Govinda quickly decides to become a Buddhist monk. Siddhartha, however, is not convinced that the way he wants his life to go. Siddhartha's path will take him in a more worldly direction.
This novel is one of the first I read on my own as a teenager, outside of classroom assignments. It was suggested to me by a school librarian who followed a little-known Hindu guru she called Swami Ji. She loaned me one of her books, The Path of the Masters. I read that as well. I never joined her group or became a Buddhist, but I learned from these religions and searched through many others as well prior to becoming a Christian in 2013.
Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse
Have you read it yet?
Hermann Hesse's Long Summer (part one)
A Man's Search for His Family
He looked for them, but they were not there.
Cry, the Beloved Country lets you travel through South Africa, to see it from the point of view of a dignified black minister, Reverend Stephen Kumalo. He receives a letter telling him is sister is ill, and needs him, so he travels to Johannesburg looking for his sister and his missing son, Absalom. He observes the way the country has changed, and is greatly saddened by what he experiences. It gives us a look at a land we may never have been to (most of us) and a time we will be glad we didn't experience (1940's Apartheid).
This is a trip through another culture, where human nature is examined and explored. For that reason, I'm glad I read it. I admired and cared about the main character who was so dedicated to looking for his lost relatives.
Alan Paton, the author of Cry, the Beloved Country, was a white anti-apartheid activist living in South Africa. He wrote two novels. The other one is Too Late the Phalarope. Cry, the Beloved Country was published in 1948, making it a fairly recent classic novel, but one definitely worth reading.
Novels can introduce us to lands we've never seen and experienced, and that' what Cry, the Beloved Country did for me. I've never been to Africa but wanted to learn what living there was like.
Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton
Have you read it yet?
Alan Paton Speaks Out Against Apartheid (1960)
Alabama Coming of Age Story
Who can forget Boo Radley?
Ostensibly a middle grade novel with an elementary-school aged main character, this book will appeal to anyone looking for an easily readable, gripping, page-turning good story.
It is about disturbing events, love, and hometown life in the south.
The author's skill with description and characterization is palpable.
The book, published in 1960, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. In 1999 the Library Journal voted To Kill A Mockingbird "Best Novel of the Century".
To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Have you read it yet?
Harper Lee's Phenomenal Book, To Kill A Mockingbird
Did You Ever Think From A Dog's Perspective?
I'm a die-hard Jack London fan from Oakland, where he lived when young.
I've read a lot of stories by Jack London, and I think this one qualifies as a short novel.
If you want to read about a dog challenged by the elements of nature, facing the cruelty of humans, living on the edge, seeking safety in the snow-bound wilderness of Alaska, this novel will take you there.
Jack London, once a citizen of the town in which I was born, Oakland, California, wrote all his amazing classic stories early in life, and died at the very young age of 40, in November 1916.
The Call of the Wild, by Jack London
Have you read it yet?
A Short Biography of Jack London
Which of These Classic Books is Your Favorite?
Choose only one favorite.
Your Turn to Recommend Your Favorite Classic Novels
In the comment section below, please let me know what you thought of those novels (if you've read them) or better yet, recommend a great classic novel for me to read!