Unlock the classics and become a deeply well-read person with this list of top 101 classic books to read before you die. These best classic books will make you think, change the way you see the world, and most of all–change you.
Classic Books to Read Before You Die
Have you ever wished you could be well read in the classics? You can–and you don’t need to go back to school to do it! Great literature is for everyone, not just the critics or the academics.
But there are hundreds of great classics out there, and that fact alone makes becoming well read seem a gargantuan and impossible task.
That’s where this list comes in.
This list of best classic books is the product of years of research and curating, and it’s meant to work on two different levels: First, it’s meant to point you to reading some of the best and most worthwhile influential classics throughout history.
Second, this list and article is meant as an education in itself. Even if you never manage to read all the great books here, reading about them and seeing their position in the timeline will give you a sense of the scope and progression of literature through the centuries.
Before we dive in, let’s set up some parameters…
What makes a book a classic?
A classic is a work of literature that has proven itself, over the course of time, to engage with its own era in a meaningful way and to illuminate the universal human condition, while also being structurally, stylistically, and linguistically beautiful. Of course, a “classic” can also simply mean any book that is old. Perhaps it would be helpful if we had a more clear distinction between classic literature and vintage literature, but drawing those lines gets extremely complicated. “Classic literature” must always be a subjective term.
How did I choose the books for this list?
This list includes 101 fiction classics that are representative of some of the world’s greatest literature published before 1970. I’ve focused on fiction and narrative in the form of epic poems, novels, plays, and short stories. (Nonfiction classics, general poetry, and emerging modern classics published in the last 50 years deserve their own dedicated posts.)
To make this a more comprehensive list, each author only gets one slot. Which means that unlike other lists of this sort Dickens, Woolf, and Faulkner won’t be leaping out at you at every turn! The only exceptions are Homer, because the Iliad and the Odyssey are both so foundational to world literature; and Luo Guanzhong, whose authorship of one of the books on this list is contested anyway.
Each book was picked for its cultural significance and impact, literary merit, and influence on its genre. For each author I tried to choose the book that’s regarded as their masterpiece, or that has had the most widespread influence. The list is arranged in chronological order to help you mentally ground them in their historical context and give you a sense of the development of literature over time.
I’ve included mostly classics from the Western canon of literature, but also a few foundational works of literature from non-Western cultures, such as the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, and the two great Indian epics. Reading these important non-Western classics will give you a key into further exploration of the rich literary traditions that flow from them.
You’ll also notice that there aren’t many children’s classics included here, and that’s because they get dedicated coverage in this list of 50 classic children’s chapter books.
When deciding which of these books you want to add to your own classic books “bucket list,” or what to give to your teenager, you might want to use this method to vet books for trigger warnings. Classic literature may be old fashioned in one sense, but content considerations abound nonetheless.
Why should we read the classics?
Reading the classics makes us more human. Meaning, reading classic books increases our ability to reason, to empathize with people in our daily lives, to grasp other cultures and times, and to live our own stories with more intention and joy. Reason, empathy, comprehension, purpose, joy: these are things that make us human, and these are what classic literature gives us.
A note on translations and editions
For any book not originally published in English, you will likely have multiple options when it comes to translations. You might want to do a web search for “best translation of the Odyssey,” etc. to see what other readers suggest. However, I’ve also done a bit of research in this department, and I’ve intentionally linked to and pictured good translations and/or editions for each book.
There are tons of editions of classic novels, and many of them are abysmal quality. (Where do you think I get all that fodder for my bad book covers posts?) My go-to sources for good editions of classic books are Penguin and Oxford World’s Classics. Both include endnotes and helpful introductions. I slightly prefer the Oxfords because they generally have a bit more supplementary material, and I prefer the way they smell (if that doesn’t brand me as a book nerd, I don’t know what will!) But sometimes when choosing between the two for a particular title, it just boils down to which cover I like best!
Other good editions include Modern Library Classics (an imprint of Penguin Random House), and Norton Critical Editions. If you want to do a deep dive and basically get a college course in a book, get a Norton Critical. Each book is packed with secondary material like essays (both modern and contemporary to the book’s original publication), annotations, maps, or illustrations. If you want a more budget-friendly but still good option, try Signet Classics.
A vitally important note on introductions
For everything on this list up to Pride and Prejudice, I recommend reading your book copy’s introduction before diving into the work. These older texts and epic poems will be so much more accessible if you get an overview and background before you begin.
Conversely, with everything from Pride and Prejudice on, I suggest that you don’t ever read the introductions first (with perhaps the exception of Ulysses)! They always presuppose familiarity with the novel, so you’ll actually find that they’re more confusing and spoil major plot points! But by all means, read the introductions after you finish the book to give you some good food for thought.
Top Classic Books Checklist – Printable PDF
101 Must-Read Classic Books
Note: You’ll notice that some of the novels include a date range for their publication, such as “1852-53.” This indicates that the book was serialized during these dates, and then (unless otherwise noted) published in book form the same year the serial finished.
Best ancient classics
1. The Epic of Gilgamesh, circa 2100-1200 BC
This epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia is one of the world’s oldest written stories, predating other ancient texts like the Iliad by 1500 years. And long before it was written down, it likely existed in various oral versions. The story centers on the mythological demi-god hero Gilgamesh (probably based on a historical king) and encompasses some of life’s biggest questions: what does it mean to be human? What is the meaning of life?
Although we have multiple references to the Gilgamesh stories in various archaeological fragments, the standard and most complete Gilgamesh epic was discovered on eleven clay tablets excavated from Nineveh (modern-day Iraq) in the 1800s. The definitive modern translation of Gilgamesh is the Andrew George version published by Penguin. Another popular version is the Stephen Mitchell rendition, which is considered very readable and lively, but takes creative liberties with the text.
2. The Iliad by Homer, written between 700-750 BC
The Iliad is an epic poem from ancient Greece, based on tales that were originally recounted orally from one generation to the next, but eventually composed into a written epic by the poet Homer. Exploring themes of war, manhood, and legacy, the story recounts the final stage of a ten-year conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans. The narrative follows the fate of heroes on both sides of the war, whose lives are sometimes shielded, sometimes endangered by the gods who look on.
There are a ton of English translations of the Iliad, and much controversy of which are “best.” One of the translations you’ll find mentioned and often praised is the Lattimore version; this is the one I personally read. I’d also like to give Alexander Pope’s translation a try, for his poetic rendering in heroic couplets!
The Odyssey serves as a sort of sequel to the Iliad, recounting the ten-year sea voyage of the hero Odysseus as he returns to his home in Ithaca following the Trojan War. While the Iliad narrates a “Man vs. Man” conflict with multiple heroes and arcs, the Odyssey is a “Man vs. Nature” and “Man vs. Fate” story with its one central protagonist (who narrates many of his own adventures to boot). Although still an action-packed story, the Odyssey‘s themes are less broad, more particular, exploring the meaning of home, hospitality, and wandering.
Interestingly, many who recommend Lattimore’s translation of the Iliad suggest not to read his translation of the Odyssey. Instead, try Fagles or Fitzgerald. (Or go down the research hole and find something that floats your boat!)
4. Aesop’s Fables by Aesop, 500s BC
Aesop’s Fables is a collection of very short stories, each illustrating a moral lesson. Aesop was a Greek slave and storyteller, whose stories would’ve been passed down orally before they were written down. As the fables were passed from ancient times to modern, they were expanded, revised, and reinterpreted to fit different contexts of political, religious, or social themes. For a comprehensive collection of Aesop, go with the Oxford World’s Classics edition. For a color-illustrated edition, try this.
5. The Rāmāyana by Valmiki, 500-100 BC
The Rāmāyana is an ancient Sanskrit epic that helped form the basis for literature in India and Southeast Asia. It tells the story of Prince Rama, an avatar of the god Vishnu, known for his chivalry and virtue. Rama grows up and marries the beautiful Sita, who loves him so much that she later follows him into exile. While they’re living in the forest, the demon-king Ravana kidnaps Sita, and Rama and his brother Lakshmana embark on a series of adventures in order to rescue her.
The story exists as an epic poem of 24,000 couplets, divided into 7 books. The poet Valmiki included himself in the epic as one of the characters–a sage who gives shelter to Sita.
You have a few options for reading the Valmiki Rāmāyana in English. If you want an unabridged version, there’s the Robert P. Goldman and Sally Goldman translation, or the Bibek Debroy translation. If you want to get to know the story without investing in the whole epic, try Arshia Sattar’s prose version, or R. K. Narayan’s modern prose edition. For a visual companion to Rāmāyana, get the illustrated DK guide.
6. The Mahābhārata by Vyasa, 300s BC to 300s AD
The Mahābhārata (or “Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty”) is the other major Sanskrit epic. It holds the distinction of being the longest epic poem ever written, containing over 100,000 couplets as well as lengthy prose passages. (Take the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, multiply that by ten, and you’ve got the length of the Mahābhārata!)
The Mahābhārata contains multiple stories of kingdoms and romances, sages and goddesses, as well as philosophical dialogues and codes of conduct. The authorship is broadly attributed to the sage Vyasa, who also appears as a character within the text. But as you might expect from such a massive, multi-part work, there’s complicated scholarly debate over who really contributed to the text, and when each part was written. The Mahābhārata reached its final form in the 300s A.D.
Because of its overwhelming length, it’s best to get an introduction to the Mahābhārata with an abridged version. The C. Rajagopalachari version is beloved and highly regarded. For all the helpful introductory material, glossary, and appendices you’d expect from a Penguin classic, go with the John D. Smith version. If you really do want to give the unabridged Mahābhārata a go, pick up the 10-volume set translated by Bibek Debroy. DK also has an illustrated companion that goes nicely with any of the versions you choose.
7. The Aeneid by Virgil, ca. 29-19 BC
Virgil wrote the Aeneid to mythologize the origins of the Roman empire, connecting its power and greatness with the earlier epics of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Written as an epic poem, the Aeneid follows the hero Aeneas, who flees Troy after it falls to the Greeks. After many wanderings (including a trip to the Underworld), Aeneas reaches Italy and defeats the Latins in the region where his descendant, Romulus, would one day establish Rome.
Apparently, Virgil was working on revisions of his poem when he sickened and died, requesting that his manuscript be burned. Augustus Caesar ordered his literary executors to do no such thing, and the work was published that same year.
8. Metamorphoses by Ovid, 8 AD
Metamorphoses is a narrative poem comprising fifteen separate books that retell ancient myths and legends. Although the books comprise separate episodes rather than one complete narrative, they’re arranged in chronological order (creation of the world to Julius Caesar) and tied together by the common theme of metamorphosis, or change. The transformations that occur in each story take many forms and are sometimes symbolic rather than literal.
Many of the Greek and Roman myths and characters we know today come from Ovid’s depiction in the Metamorphoses. Ovid’s work was a major influence on Dante, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, as well as numerous artists (if you want to “see” Ovid, just go to an art museum and browse the Renaissance and Baroque galleries!)
Best classic books to read from the Middle Ages
9. One Thousand and One Nights, 8th century onwards
This is a collection of ancient and medieval Middle Eastern folk tales that, like much of our oldest literature, began as oral stories. What’s interesting is that from very early on, these tales were told within a frame story: A bloodthirsty king has a habit of killing his wives after their wedding night, and then immediately taking a new bride. All live in terror of the king until one woman, Scheherazade, volunteers to be his bride, and then cunningly preserves her life by telling the king a story that night–but not finishing it. Eager for more, the king postpones her execution the next day so he can hear the rest of the story. Night after night, Scheherazade continues her storytelling, thus saving not only her own life but all the other virgins in the land.
Since there are so many iterations of One Thousand and One Nights, it can be difficult to know what edition and translation to read. The 1880s translation by linguist and explorer Richard Francis Burton is the most widely used, but since Burton’s complete work was seventeen volumes long, it’s likely that every Burton edition you find is going to be a selection. For more modern options, look to the acclaimed Husain Haddawy translation from the 1990s or the extensive Lyons translation published by Penguin in 2008.
10. Beowulf, 11th century
Beowulf is one of the oldest poems we have in the English language. Written in Old English as an alliterative poem, the story is set in Scandinavia in the 6th century. It’s also one of the most famous good-vs.-evil stories in history, as the young hero Beowulf fights a series of three monsters that pose a threat to society.
11. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, 11th century
Although these things are always up for debate, The Tale of Genji is often cited as being the first novel. It was written by a noblewoman of the Japanese court. Although the court employed Chinese as its scholarly language Lady Murasaki wrote her story in Japanese, which was the literary language of women, used for writing their diaries.
The plot of Genji is episodic, but has a clear central protagonist in the person of “Shining Genji,” the son of a Japanese emperor and his concubine. The first two-thirds of the story describes the political status and various romances of Genji throughout his life, and the consequences of his actions. In the final third of the book, the focus shifts to Genji’s descendants and the narrative ends abruptly, leading some to speculate that Lady Murasaki planned to continue her tale indefinitely, her death ending the story.
Waley’s translation from the 1920s and 30s takes liberties with the original, but is a beautiful translation. Edward Seidensticker’s translation (1976) is more accurate in content and tone, but doesn’t include many notes and reader aids. The 2001 Royall Tyler translation has detailed notes for helping to understand the work. You can get the full version, or the abridgement, from Penguin.
12. Saga of the Völsungs, ca. 1270
This famous Icelandic saga draws on Norse mythology to tell a multi-generational story of heroism and tragedy. The central hero of the saga is Sigurd (or Siegfried), who becomes the ultimate champion of the Völsung family line when he kills the dragon Fafnir. But it seems that Sigurd has inherited his family’s curse, too: inevitable tragedy and betrayal.
Where to begin with Dante’s Divine Comedy? Originally titled by Dante simply the Comedy, it has gained the appellation Divine by following generations for a reason. Truly, Dante’s masterpiece is massive in scope. It follows the imaginary journey of the author through the entirety of the Christian afterlife: through Hell to see the suffering of the damned, though Purgatory to see the saved who are being trained in virtue; and finally into Heaven to see the life of the blessed and, in the final moments of the Comedy, to look upon God Himself.
Along the way Dante teaches readers about the nature of love, sin, virtue, and happiness through powerful poetry laced with layers of profound imagery, symbolism, and allegory. Dante’s Divine Comedy is a masterwork that will haunt you for years after reading it and will reward each re-read with a deeper understanding and new insights.
A recommended translation is Mark Musa’s excellent rendition, published by Penguin, which includes wonderful notes to help you understand and appreciate Dante. For the full notes, get it in three volumes: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise.
14. Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, 1300s
One of the major classics of Chinese literature, Romance of the Three Kingdoms has a literary influence on a level with Shakespeare. The book is a historical novel set during the Three Kingdoms period in China between AD 169–280, when China was split into three warring kingdoms. It covers hundreds of characters and subplots involving military intrigues, power struggles, and family rivalry.
I’ve linked to the Moss Roberts translation above, as that seems to be the one that’s easier to follow and includes helpful notes and maps! (And yes, you’re going to need those with this massive story!)
15. Outlaws of the Marsh (or Water Margin), attributed to Shi Nai’an or Luo Guanzhong, 1300s
This classic tragedy of Chinese literature tells of a group of 108 outlaws from all walks of life and society who gather at the Liangshan Marsh. Initially working against the government, the outlaws are eventually granted amnesty and enlisted to fight invaders and rebels. Bonded together by a code of honor and loyalty, the outlaws are led by Song Jiang, who was based on a real historical figure.
16. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, 1387–1400
The Canterbury Tales is a collection of twenty-four stories, framed as part of a storytelling competition by a group of travelers on a pilgrimage to visit Canterbury Cathedral. Full of wit and humor, it’s an enduring work of literature for its entertainment value, as each storyteller’s personality comes through in their tale. It also brings the late Middle Ages to life, immersing us in the customs, dress, and pastimes of the various social classes. An interesting fact about The Canterbury Tales is that it’s an unfinished classic: Chaucer had intended the pilgrims to swap tales on the way back from Canterbury, too, but they never arrive at the Cathedral in the first place.
17. Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory, 1485
The myth of King Arthur has been one of the most popular tropes in Western literature, and by the time Mallory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur, stories of the legendary king had already been around for centuries. But Mallory’s massive, monumental work was the first to rework the disparate legends into a cohesive whole, telling Arthur’s story from his conception to death and expounding on the folklore of Merlin, Mordred, and the Knights of the Round Table.
Mallory’s work would become the primary source for most of the Arthurian stories and poems since the fifteenth century. Le Morte was composed during the Wars of the Roses, and the contention and bloodshed of the era are reflected in the tragic demise of Arthur’s idealistic kingdom.
If you’re looking for which edition to read of Le Morte d’Arthur, you should know that all editions are derived from two original sources. The Caxton version refers to the book’s publisher William Caxton, who made revisions and structural changes to the text. This was the version used for centuries, and was what Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites would’ve based their poems and paintings on. In 1934, the Winchester Manuscript was discovered and proved to be an earlier version that Claxton used when preparing his edition; thus, it is closer to Mallory’s original manuscript (although many would argue that Claxton’s version helped to elucidate the original). After its discovery, the Winchester Manuscript was transcribed by Eugène Vinaver, and thus his name often appears on editions that use the Winchester Manuscript.
Best classic books to read from the Renaissance era
18. Utopia by Thomas More, 1516
More coined the word utopia for his book, based on the Greek ou-topos, meaning “no place” or “nowhere.” The term was also a pun; the almost identical Greek word eu-topos means “a good place.” Purporting to be an account of a real place in the New World, More describes an island kingdom where no one locks their doors, and the people follow simple rhythms of work and leisure. To this day, it’s unclear whether More truly believed in the socialist society he imagined in Utopia, or if the book in fact argues that true socialism is impractical.
19. The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, 1590 (first three books) and 1596 (books 1 through 6)
Of his purpose in writing The Faerie Queene, Spenser said “the general end of the book is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline.” Set in a mythical Faerieland peopled with knights, sorcerers, ladies, and fantastical beings, this epic poem uses multiple layers of allegory, inviting the reader into his own quest for virtue. Despite Spenser only completing six of the planned twelve-volume cycle, The Faerie Queene is one of the longest poems in the English language.
20. Journey to the West, attributed to Wu Cheng’en, 1592
Journey to the West is perhaps the most popular classic of Chinese literature, based on oral folklore as well as the historical 7th-century pilgrimage of a Buddhist monk. The novel follows the fantastical adventures of the monk Tripitaka as he journeys to India to attain sacred scrolls. Tripitaka is accompanied by three disciples: the trickster-hero Monkey King, the greedy Pigsy, and the peacekeeping Sandy.
Pictured above is the Anthony Yu translation, which is probably the one I’ll read, but the Jenner translation is also a popular unabridged version. For an abridged version that serves as an accessible introduction to the folktales, try Waley.
21. Hamlet by William Shakespeare, ca. 1603
It’s hard to choose a “best” Shakespeare, but the consensus is usually Hamlet. The character of Hamlet is based on a medieval Danish ruler, but this play is classified as one of Shakespeare’s tragedies rather than a history. Couched in a compelling revenge plot, the play explores the complexity of the human mind as Hamlet soul-searches and tries to makes sense of the world.
22. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, published in two parts in 1605 and 1615
This Spanish adventure story is one of the cornerstones of Western literature, and one of the first modern novels in any language. The story follows Alonso Quijano, a middle-aged nobleman who is so enamored with bygone tales of chivalric romance that he decides to become a knight-errant himself. He takes the name Don Quixote and sets off in search of adventure, recruiting neighboring peasant Sancho Panza to be his squire. As Don Quixote imagines windmills to be giants and inns to be castles, it’s unclear the extent to which he’s pretending or has truly gone insane. As a result, his escapades are both comedic and tragic, and invite numerous interpretations as to what Cervantes intended.
Best Neoclassical and Enlightenment books
23. Paradise Lost by John Milton, 1667
From an early age, Milton had high ambition to write something great and lasting. Although he made a name for himself with his political writings as a young man, he was in his late 50s (and stone blind) when he at last completed Paradise Lost, his magnum opus. An epic poem written in blank verse, Paradise Lost deals with cosmic themes of heaven and hell, original sin, free will, and love, reimagining the creation and fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
24. Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, published in two parts in 1678 and 1684
Bunyan was imprisoned multiple times for not aligning with the religious rules of the day, but he used his time in prison to get some writing done. (Quite a few writers made use of prison for distraction-free writing time: St. Paul, Cervantes, Thomas Malory, Oscar Wilde, O’Henry, to name a few!)
One of the things Bunyan worked on in prison was Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegorical fiction that represents the life and spiritual journey of a Christian from his conversion to his entrance to the Celestial City (heaven). The book was looked on as a tool to bolster faith and virtue, but also beloved for its drama and fantastical elements, as Christian fights demons, gets stuck in the Slough of Despond, and flees from giants.
I can’t help recommending here Dangerous Journey, an abridged version that’s an excellent introduction to the classic. It has amazing pictures (rather terrifying for young children) that bring the story to life. This was one of our family’s favourite read-alouds when I was little.
25. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, 1719
In the 1700s, fiction increasingly began to take the shape of the novel, rather than plays or narrative poems. Robinson Crusoe is often cited as the first English novel because it follows a protagonist through life–both in his adventures and the mundanities of daily life. Crusoe has a fascinating story, but readers also found him relatable as a contemporary. He’s not a mythic-level character like Hector from the Iliad or Satan from Paradise Lost.
Based on real castaway stories, Robinson Crusoe tells the story of Crusoe’s shipwreck, survival on an island, and adventures after his rescue. The book was massively popular from the get-go, becoming common reading for adults but also for children, who didn’t yet have a fiction category of their own.
26. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, 1726
Purporting to be a travelogue, Gulliver’s Travels is an early fantasy novel that follows the voyages of the protagonist to a series of bizarre lands. Swift himself was a busy man as a priest, poet, and political pamphlet writer, and there’s a lot going on in his fiction. Gulliver’s Travels contains thinly-veiled political and social satire, and Swift claimed that he wrote it “to vex the world rather than divert it.” But for all that, it’s highly imaginative, and you will likely find yourself highly diverted.
27. Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin, mid-1700s
This massive, episodic novel follows the climax and decline of the wealthy, aristocratic Jia family. The novel is known for its vivid depiction of culture during the Qing dynasty, including medicine, the fine arts, philosophy, and tea culture; and is so multi-layered in its plot and symbolism that it has its own academic field of scholarship called “Redology.” Although the book has 40 main characters and over 400 minor characters, it’s perhaps best-known for its central love triangle between Jia Baoyu and his cousins, the melancholic Lin Daiyu and even-tempered Xue Baochai.
28. Candide by Voltaire, 1759
Voltaire (François-Marie d’Arouet) was a French Enlightenment philosopher who had far-reaching influence on later thinkers; his advocacy for freedom of speech and religion can be seen in the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. His fast-paced novella Candide was a controversial work, which in true satiric form doesn’t shy away from lampooning everything from society, to government, to religion, to science.
The naïve hero Candide lives a sheltered life in a baron’s fairytale-esque castle, and is taught by his mentor Pangloss to view the world with optimism. But when Candide falls in love with the baron’s daughter, he’s banished from the castle and embarks on a fraught journey through life that will turn Pangloss’s optimistic philosophy on its head.
Best classic books from the 1800s
Widely considered one of the greatest works of German literature, Faust is a tragic play about a brilliant man who makes a pact with the Devil. Goethe was working off of the same German legend that Christopher Marlowe used to write Doctor Faustus in the late 1500s, but of the two plays, Goethe’s is the magnum opus.
In Part One, the scholarly Faust, dissatisfied with all his strivings for knowledge and the greatest good, makes a deal with the demon Mephistopheles. If Mephistopheles can give him one transcendent moment so fulfilling that he wishes it to last forever, then Faust will serve Mephistopheles in Hell. Faust’s resulting experiences in Part One are personal and individual to him as he seeks to find love with a woman named Gretchen. Part Two is a less individualistic story, with Faust becoming an everyman who has broader adventures that represent society as a whole. Suggested translator: David Luke.
30. Grimm’s Fairy Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, 1812 and 1857
The Grimm brothers were German librarians and scholars who gathered folktales in a movement to help preserve and solidify German identity. The first edition of their work included 86 tales; by 1857 that number had grown to 210. The tales range from humorous to surprisingly dark (sometimes both within the same story), and vary in length from a few paragraphs to extended stories. Grimm’s Fairy Tales form the basis of many of the most popular fairy tales in Western culture.
Related: See how some of the Grimm’s fairy tales have been turned into modern novels in this post on fairy tale retellings.
31. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, 1813
Pride and Prejudice is Austen’s most famous novel, and when you read it it’s not hard to see why. The novel is a very readable classic, with engaging characters, rapid dialogue, and an enemies-to-lovers plot that provides good tension and room for character growth.
Austen’s novels are so readable that they’re almost deceptively simple. And there’s nothing wrong with reading a book just for the sheer enjoyment! Austen’s name is often coupled with Shakespeare when discussing English literature, and I think the reason is that both have so much immediate appeal to the masses, yet give us so many layers to explore beneath the surface. Both writers possessed a piercing insight into human nature and developed new narrative techniques–in Austen’s case, the free indirect discourse common in fiction today.
32. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, 1818
Some classics are conceived and sculpted over long periods of time, resulting in a meticulously crafted magnum opus. Frankenstein was not one of those. An eighteen-year-old Shelley wrote most of the book during a summer holiday as part of a contest with a few literary friends. (They voted her the winner.) Shelley pulled on contemporary questions about science, nature, and moral responsibility to create a landmark book in the horror and science fiction genres. In the story, Dr. Victor Frankenstein plays God by creating a new being from body parts and chemicals. But as a creator, Frankenstein is only human, and there can be no ultimate redemption when his creature falls short.
33. The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. by Washington Irving, 1820
Washington Irving was a key figure for helping to establish America’s literary reputation, earning acclaim in Europe and inspiring and encouraging other American writers such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and James Fenimore Cooper. His Sketch-Book was a published collection of short stories, and includes “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.”
34. The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, 1826
Cooper’s American historical novels helped to set a canon for American literature (although his first attempt at fiction was a Jane Austen-style domestic novel called Precaution, which was decidedly not on a level with Austen). Like his contemporary Washington Irving, and later writers Mark Twain and Willa Cather, Cooper helped to establish the wild and evolving landscape as an enduring theme of American literature.
Among his most famous novels were the five Leatherstocking Tales, which feature the frontiersman Natty Bumppo. The Last of the Mohicans is the second Leatherstocking book, set during the French and Indian War. In this story, Natty Bumppo (known as Hawk-eye) and his two Mohican friends give aid to two women who are on a perilous journey to visit their father.
35. The Red and the Black by Stendhal, 1830
Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle) was a French author notable for being one of the first and most influential practitioners of literary realism. In contrast to romanticism, which idealizes nature, emotion, and heroism, realism seeks to portray its subject matter truthfully, honing in on mundane details of contemporary life. Stendhal was also known for the psychological complexity of his characters and his ability to delve in to their inner thoughts.
Julien Sorel, the protagonist of The Red and the Black, is a romantic at heart, daydreaming about the past glories of Napoleon and vowing to become a modern-day Napoleon himself. He attempts to use his intelligence and cunning to rise through the ranks of French society, but often finds that his own passions betray him. In fact, Julien Sorel is an excellent example of the antihero in literature.
36. Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin, 1833
Known as the father of Russian literature, Pushkin is to Russia what Shakespeare is to England. He was extremely versatile, composing poetry, plays, short stories, essays, and novels, often switching his tone and style within the same work. He also changed the course of the Russian language itself. Before Pushkin, Russian was a language primarily spoken by the serfs (the upper classes preferred French), and it lacked the development and complexity of other modern languages. Pushkin changed all this by choosing to write in Russian, developing its grammar and sentence structure, and modifying words from other languages when he found a gap in the Russian vocabulary (he studied over a dozen languages, so he had plenty to draw on!)
Pushkin regarded his novel in verse Eugene Onegin as his magnum opus. A classic example of literary Romanticism, it tells the story of the eponymous hero, a cynical and dandified young aristocrat who embodies Pushkin’s version of the Byronic hero.
Eugen Onegin has a complex rhyme scheme and is notoriously difficult to translate. James E. Falen’s translation maintains the rhyme scheme as well as the spirit of the original. Stanely Mitchell’s translation, also rhymed, is highly regarded; Mitchell worked on it for 42 years.
37. Short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, 1830s-40s
Poe was a highly versatile writer who penned short stories in the gothic, science fiction, and detective genres, but also turned his hand to humor and satires. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is often cited as the first detective story, while “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado” are landmarks in the horror genre that will still send a chill up your spine.
38. Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol, 1842
Gogol is considered the first great Russian novelist and even today he remains in a class by himself for his unusual style that upends literary conventions and clichés. His penchant for the grotesque and the absurd served as inspiration for Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Flannery O’Connor. A satiric, comic masterpiece, his novel Dead Souls follows the antihero Chichikov, who seeks to buy up “dead souls”–deceased serfs whose names still count towards the landowners’ property taxes. The landowners are only too eager to relieve their tax burden with these farcical transactions, but it’s all part of Chichikov’s cunning scam to position himself as a seemingly-wealthy, serf-holding gentleman.
Dead Souls was the first in a planned trilogy that would serve as a modern-day counterpart to Dante’s three-part Divine Comedy, but Gogol died before he could finish the work (and he burned the nearly-complete second manuscript). Gogol called his work “an epic poem in prose,” drawing on Homerian style to create an epic of provincial Russian life.
39. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, 1844-46 (published in book form 1845-46)
This long, multi-character adventure novel centers around Edmond Dantès, a young Frenchman whose promising career collapses when he’s wrongfully imprisoned in an impenetrable island fortress. Upon its publication (first in serial form and then in book form), Monte Cristo became one of the most popular novels in Europe, and it remains a bestseller to this day.
40. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, 1847
Framed as an “autobiography,” Jane Eyre is the first-person narrative of a lonely, misunderstood orphan who nevertheless possesses an inner strength and keen mind that allow her to triumph over difficulties. After growing up at a poverty-ridden boarding school, Jane takes a governess position at the isolated Thornfield Hall, and discovers that strange mysteries lurk within its halls.
Often compared, Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë are two of the most famous authors of classic romance, but their styles are completely different. Charlotte Brontë thought that Austen’s novels were too lighthearted. By contrast, Brontë’s masterpiece is certainly brooding and melancholy, clearly situated in the gothic genre. But one of the biggest contrasts between the two authors isn’t the tone, but the perspective. In Austen’s novels the reader participates as an outside observer, with everything explained by an omniscient narrator. In Jane Eyre, the reader is in Jane’s confidence the whole time, and she is our sole guide and window into everything that happens.
41. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, 1847
Wuthering Heights is a multi-generational story about two families, living in the beautiful but isolated moors of Yorkshire. The novel has been popular–but polarizing–ever since its publication, with readers either loving it or hating it. It’s a tragic and depressing story, with one of literature’s most famous antiheroes doing his best to ruin people’s lives. But it’s also beautiful, haunting, and elegant in its raw simplicity and symmetrical, cyclical structure. Whether or not it becomes a favorite of yours, it will sweep you away and spread its spell over you.
42. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, 1847-48
Set during and after the Napoleonic Wars, Vanity Fair follows the lives of two very different women: Becky Sharp, an anti-heroine who is poor but clever and ambitious; and Emmy Sedley, rich and good-natured but also naïve. But while these two women are perhaps what unifies the novel, Vanity Fair is peopled with many characters and the reader watches all the foibles of human nature play out among the cast.
Thackeray meant the novel to both entertain and instruct, engaging readers with the story and his accompanying illustrations, but also prompting them to recognize their own vice mirrored back at them. The Norton Critical edition of Vanity Fair includes Thackeray’s illustrations, which I highly recommend.
43. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë, 1848
The youngest of the literary Brontë sisters, Anne Brontë favored realism in the two novels she wrote (as opposed to the more romantic-leaning Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, written by her sisters.) The Tenant of Wildfell Hall deals with themes of domestic violence and alcohol addiction, centering on heroine Helen Graham, who leaves her husband in order to prevent her son from growing up under his influence. It’s considered to be one of the first feminist novels.
44. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850
Hawthorne set his novel some two hundred years before its publication, exploring the Puritan origins of his native Massachusetts. In the story, Hester Prynne is shunned by her community for having a daughter out of wedlock. Hawthorne creates a tapestry of symbolism out of a simple plot to probe themes of sin, guilt, truth, and beauty.
45. Moby Dick by Herman Melville, 1851
Moby Dick is an epic quest-turned-tragedy that tells the story of Captain Ahab and his obsession with hunting and killing the white sperm whale Moby Dick. It’s a good yarn to read just for its own sake, but there’s endless layers of symbolism and commentary on America, religion, fate and free will, race, and friendship that you can peel back if you’re feeling more cerebral. (Melville made the novel considerably more complex and symbolic after chats with his symbolism-loving friend Hawthorne).
Although now it’s recognized as one of the greatest American novels, the book was a commercial failure in Melville’s day. The novel wasn’t even in print at the time of his death, and its literary reputation wasn’t established until the 1920s.
46. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Becher Stowe, 1851-52
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a wonderful example of how a novel can act as a catalyst for social change. As a sentimental novel that pulled on readers’ heartstrings and argued eloquently and dramatically against slavery, it became an international bestseller and was a landmark for the abolitionist movement. The story follows multiple characters, but centers around the heroic Uncle Tom and brave Eliza, two enslaved people who separately encounter a series of misadventures after leaving their original plantation.
47. Bleak House by Charles Dickens, 1852-53
Any Dickens novel is worth reading; we’ve inherited nearly as many cultural references, quotes, and iconic characters from Dickens as we have from Shakespeare. But Bleak House is often considered Dickens’s finest novel, and it contains several accessible and engaging plotlines that even beginning Dickens readers will likely enjoy. It’s got family secrets, rags-to-riches, a bit of romance, and even a case of spontaneous combustion–what’s not to love?
Throughout his novels Dickens takes aim at various social institutions. In Bleak House, the brunt is the Court of Chancery and the English legal system, which mires the protagonists in a seemingly endless legal maze over an inheritance and estate.
48. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, 1854-55
North and South is a wonderful marriage of social commentary and satisfying romance. You learn about the pivotal period of the Industrial Revolution in England and the need for social reform that went with that, as well as the need for empathy and understanding that not everything is black and white. And alongside, you get a satisfying, character-driven love story between two people who at first don’t understand each other a bit, but come to a beautiful union in the end.
Related: North and South has been adapted into a miniseries in the past, but it’s one of those stories that I strongly feel deserves a remake!
49. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, 1856
Madame Bovary was a highly influential novel in the literary realism genre, a genre which attempts to portray life realistically through mundane, familiar occurrences and characters, rather than romanticizing it. The titular character of the novel receives a hefty dose of reality herself. She begins with a highly romanticized view of life, ambitious for wealth, status, and passion. But as she attempts to seize these things for herself she discovers that she is never content.
50. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, 1862
Among the longest novels ever written, Les Misérables is at its core a powerful story of redemption in the midst of a topsy-turvy world. The story centers around the paroled convict Jean Valjean, and is set in France between the years 1815 and 1832, during the restoration of the monarchy following the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. Although not the “Reign of Terror” of the French Revolution, it was still a difficult time that saw disease, famine, and political and social unrest.
Hugo explains the scope of his narrative within the book itself: “The book which the reader has before him at this moment is, from one end to the other, as a whole and in its details, whatever its intermission, exceptions, and shortcomings may be,…a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, and from nothingness to God. The starting-point is matter; the terminus, the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end.”
While using minute historical details of time and place, Hugo meant the novel to transcend its setting and speak to people across borders. In a letter to his Italian publisher, Hugo states that “Social problems go beyond frontiers. Humankind’s wounds, those huge sores that litter the world, do not stop at the blue and red lines drawn on maps. Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Misérables knocks at the door and says: ‘open up, I am here for you.’”
51. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865
In spite of being odd (possibly because of it), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has proliferated in popular culture ever since its release, and has never been out of print. It’s notable for being an early fantasy novel, as well as an early children’s novel. Previously, literature written specifically for children mainly consisted of teaching aids on morals and academics, and used two-dimensional, unrealistic children to carry a point. Carroll’s book marks a shift to children’s literature as entertainment, as Alice slips into a fascinating dream-world of magic and nonsense.
52. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, 1868
This semi-autobiographical book tells the growing-up adventures of the four March sisters in Civil War-era Massachusetts. Little Women was an influential text in girls’ coming-of-age stories, but it’s also unique for being a story about family bonds and resilience, not just one individual protagonist facing the world. The book was an instant bestseller, and connected deeply with readers long before scholarship caught up to admit it to the literary canon.
53. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, 1869-1870
Although he was also a playwright and poet, Verne is best known for his voyages extraordinaires novels, which, according to his publisher, he wrote with the goal “to outline all the geographical, geological, physical, historical and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format…the history of the universe.” All of the books are adventure novels, and many incorporate science fiction made believable through Verne’s meticulous research. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea recounts the adventures of Captain Nemo and his crew on the futuristic submarine, the Nautilus.
54. Middlemarch by George Eliot, 1871-72
Many authors only receive acclaim and wealth posthumously, but George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) was not one of those authors. Queen Victoria was among her many fans, and Eliot earned the equivalent of one and a half million dollars in today’s currency for one novel alone. Middlemarch is considered her magnum opus–in fact, some critics call it the greatest British novel. “The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings,” Eliot wrote in an 1859 letter, “is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves.” Middlemarch is about the intersecting lives of the residents of Middlemarch, a fictional town in the Midlands of England around the time of the 1832 Reform Act, which increased voting rights among the lower classes.
55. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope, 1874-75
One of the most prolific Victorian authors, Trollope published 47 novels and numerous short stories. His longest novel and also considered his masterwork, The Way We Live Now is about Augustus Melmotte, a swindler who ingratiates himself into British society. Through his signature narrative style–conspiratorial and chatty–Trollope takes aim at every institution: politics, business, religion, the media, etc. with sharp satire. The modern-day reader may be surprised to find that the way they lived then isn’t so different from the way we live now!
56. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, 1875-77 (published in book form 1878)
Tolstoy isn’t just one of the greatest Russian novelists, but one of the greatest novelists of all time, anywhere. This reputation is based almost entirely on Anna Karenina, which Tolstoy regarded as his first true novel. Anna Karenina had been preceded by a semi-fictional autobiographical trilogy, two novellas, a number of short stories, and War and Peace, which was a hybrid of novel and nonfiction. After Anna Karenina, Tolstoy published just one other full-length novel, Resurrection, before turning to other literary forms.
Reading Anna Karenina is a bit like watching a multi-season TV series, with numerous main characters, numerous side characters, and interweaving plots and subplots. Except that unlike TV series (that are often cancelled or can’t deliver on the setup from the first season), this story has a smart writer with a plan for everything and everyone.
Other than the confusing Russian names the book is extremely accessible. There’s plenty of conversation to keep the pages turning, and Tolstoy lets you pivot from one character’s perspective to another’s, convincingly presenting the thoughts and feelings of a little boy, a mother of six, a new bride, or a high-ranking politician. It feels like “just a story,” until you get to the end of the 800+ pages and realize you’ve been exploring issues of family life, marriage, ambition, faith, personal fulfillment, death, progress, fidelity, forgiveness, and a dozen other themes all along.
57. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1879-80
Dostoevsky’s last novel is a sweeping family drama centered around three brothers who share the same deplorable father. Each of the brothers represents a different life philosophy and aspect of human nature (body, mind, and spirit). Dostoevsky uses the novel’s symbolic characters to explore themes of justice, fate vs. free will, and the problem of evil.
58. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, 1880-81
People often wondered how Henry James was able to write women characters so skillfully, and Isabel Archer, the protagonist of The Portrait of a Lady, is one of the finest examples. Isabel is a young American who wants to experience the world, but finds it a more complex puzzle than she anticipated. The novel gives us an intimate look at Isabel’s psychology, detailing her innermost thoughts, and then shifts to show us Isabel from others’ perspectives. This character exploration is the driving force of the novel, far more than the plot.
59. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1881-82 (published in book form 1883)
Arguably the most famous adventure novel ever written, this is the story of young Jim Hawkins, who’s entrusted with a treasure map from a dying pirate. Jim seeks help from Squire Trelawney, who commissions a ship and crew to sail to Treasure Island. But what Jim and Squire Trelawney don’t know is that among the crew are a host of unscrupulous pirates, including the indefatigable Long John Silver!
60. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1884
Mark Twain humorously defined a classic as “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” But ironically he penned a highly-readable classic himself with Huckleberry Finn, which is a perfect answer to anyone who holds the notion that classics are dry and boring!
Set along the Mississippi River a few decades before the Civil War, Huckleberry Finn is a hero’s journey narrative that has its literary roots in Homer’s Odyssey. It follows the escapades of Huck, escaped from his drunken father, and Jim, who’s fleeing slavery, as they travel down the river on their raft.
61. Short stories of Anton Chekhov, 1885-1899
One of the most prolific and revered short story writers of all time, Chekhov initially turned to writing as a means to support his family and pay for medical school. His early stories were comic sketches and anecdotes written for the daily papers, but he honed his artistic ambition as he gained popular and critical recognition. His stories deal with quotidian life and human foibles, but in a lyrical style that draws the reader in to life’s mysteries as well. As a narrator, Chekhov abstains from moralizing, and is famous for the anticlimactic “non-endings” of many of his stories, which subvert expectations and require the reader to work a bit harder to plumb the underlying message.
62. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, 1891
Thomas Hardy is famous for his depiction of English pastoral life, and for his tragic storylines. You’ll find both in Tess of the D’Ubervilles, in which a simple country girl is seduced and assaulted by a wealthy gentleman. Tess is a victim of more than just this one act, though; from then onward she is dogged by the unyielding moral strictures of her era. Hardy wrote with a realism that is sometimes brutal to read, but the legacy of Romanticism is evident in his works as well, particularly in their connection to the natural world and nostalgia for a pre-industrial past.
63. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle, 1892
Famed for his powers of deduction and his piercing ability to read people, the famous detective Sherlock Holmes is as fun to read about today as he was a century ago. His methods of logic and creative analysis would form a standard for numerous fictional detectives to come.
Arthur Conan Doyle actually based Sherlock Holmes on a real person–his mentor and professor at medical school, Dr. Joseph Bell. Bell was a highly observant man, able to look at a person and determine details about them without any prior information. Even if you don’t turn into quite the sleuth that Holmes and Bell were, reading these short stories will at least have you counting stairs and observing water stains on people’s clothing.
64. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, performed 1895
Wilde’s comedic masterpiece centers around two rich bachelors who use deceit to avoid their social responsibilities and win love, but find themselves tangled in their own lies. The Importance of Being Earnest unabashedly satirizes Victorian society, but audiences loved it. And thanks to Wilde’s wit and ability to unmask human foibles, the play’s humor transcends eras and is just as entertaining (and insightful) today.
65. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, 1895
Although it was his debut novel, The Time Machine is considered Wells’s best work, and had a profound impact on the science fiction genre. Earlier writers had explored the concept of time travel, but Wells invented the time machine as a means of achieving it. In the story, an unnamed protagonist known only as the Time Traveler uses his machine to leave Victorian England and travel forward to the year 802,701. There he discovers that humanity has evolved into two distinct species, and he strives to understand the true nature of their relationship. Couched in the medium of an exciting plot, Wells explores themes that were at the forefront of Victorian thought, such as industrialization, class divide, and Darwinism.
66. Dracula by Bram Stoker, 1897
Stoker drew on earlier stories when writing his novel, but Dracula stands as a landmark of the gothic and horror genres, and is the most famous example of the vampire story. Gothic novels have always been concerned with plumbing the human psyche, testing the protagonist by exploring their fears and impulses. In Dracula, Stoker creates a powerful good-vs-evil setup as a small group of people work together to defeat the supernaturally dark and powerful Count Dracula before he can overtake London.
Related: Here are more classic gothic novels if you want a deeper dive into the genre!
67. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, 1899
Although most of the events of Heart of Darkness detail an expedition in the Congo, the first-person narrator tells his story while anchored along the Thames in London. This framing is important, as the book draws numerous parallels between London and the African interior, showing the human depravity in both “wild” and “civilized” places. Heart of Darkness is an excellent book to discuss after you read it, partly because of the thick symbolism that Conrad laces through the story, and partly because it’s open to interpretation–some critics and casual readers see it as an indictment against colonialism and racism, while others contend that the novel has perpetrated a dehumanizing view of Africans.
68. The Awakening by Kate Chopin, 1899
The Awakening is notable because it’s situated at the headwaters of several major literary genres of the twentieth century: feminism, American modernism, and Southern fiction. Told in lyrical prose, the novel traces Edna Pontellier’s increasing dissatisfaction with her role in society, and her gradual self-determination.
Best classic books from the 1900s
69. Kim by Rudyard Kipling, 1900-1901 (published in book form 1901)
Considered one of the greatest books about India ever written, Kim is a hybrid of adventure novel, spy story, coming-of-age, and picturesque. The hero is Kim, street-smart urchin and orphaned son of Irish parents, who nevertheless often passes as a native Indian. Kim embarks on a quest with a Tibetan lama to find a sacred river, but along the way gets recruited by the British for espionage. As an Anglo-Indian, Kipling portrays his beloved India with rich sensory detail, encompassing the geography and values of the country as well as the cultural crosscurrents during the British Raj.
70. Call of the Wild by Jack London, 1903
One of the most popular adventure novels of all time, Call of the Wild follows the story of Buck, a dog who’s kidnapped from his comfortable ranch in California and sold as a sled dog for the harsh conditions of the Klondike. As Buck goes from one master to the next, he gradually becomes less and less civilized as he learns to adapt in a wild and brutal environment.
Although he already had a few books to his name before Call of the Wild, it was this one that made London internationally famous and cemented him in the American literary canon.
71. Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery, 1908
“Elderly couple apply to orphan asylum for a boy. By mistake a girl is sent them.” L. M. Montgomery captured this shred of an idea in her journal, and from it developed one of the most iconic literary heroines of all time. Set in Prince Edward Island in the late 1800s, Anne of Green Gables is as funny, endearing, and timeless a novel for adults as it is for children. This power to appeal to all generations is illustrated in the book’s opening structure. Unlike many earlier bildungsroman (“education novel,” or coming-of-age) novels that involve orphans, such as Jane Eyre or Oliver Twist, Montgomery doesn’t begin with Anne’s early life. We don’t see her travails at the orphanage before her fortunes change. In fact, the book doesn’t even start with Anne at all, but with the rural community of the Island whose lives will change so drastically as a result of Anne’s coming.
72. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, 1913-27
Often credited with being the world’s longest novel, Lost Time is a semi-autobiographical, seven-volume work in which the narrator engages in a quest to explore his identity and the meaning of life. In spite of its 4,000+ pages and the 2,000+ characters you meet within, Proust fans over the years have found the novel to be an uplifting and enjoyable read that heightens your perception of life. (The acclaimed Modern Library set pictured above divides the novel into six books, but it is the entire seven-volume work.)
73. My Ántonia by Willa Cather, 1918
Willa Cather brought the American frontier and pioneer experience to life with her nostalgic–but unsentimental–novels of immigrant settlers in the West. My Ántonia is told through the eyes of Jim Burden, an orphan who forms a friendship with Bohemian immigrant Ántonia Shimerda, who lives on a neighboring farm in Nebraska. As they grow up circumstances separate the two, but they keep in touch, their deep friendship enduring through life’s turnings and twistings.
74. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, 1920
Edith Wharton was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize. According to the Prize board, The Age of Innocence met the requirements for a novel that represented the “wholesome atmosphere of American life.” Wharton was afraid the board hadn’t understood her book.
Wharton’s novel–set in 1870s New York–in fact questions the morals of the Gilded Age, showing many of the rich and privileged class in a negative light. Protagonist Newland Archer is on the brink of marriage with pretty, sheltered May Welland. But when May’s fascinating cousin Countess Ellen Olenska appears on the scene, Newland falls passionately in love with her and begins to realize that the high society he was eager to comply with may now be the barrier to his happiness.
75. Ulysses by James Joyce, 1922
The quintessential modernist novel, Ulysses chronicles one day in the life of Leopold Bloom as he goes about his business in Dublin. Despite this sparse premise, the book purports to be an epic, with the structure, events, and main characters paralleling Homer’s Odyssey (“Ulysses” is the Latinized form of Odysseus). In its original edition, the book was over 900 pages. It’s tantalizingly complex, laced with allusions, puns, and experimental literary techniques like stream-of-consciousness writing and interior monologues. And to make things even more complicated, Joyce included hundreds of intentional “errors” in the text meant to challenge the reader!
76. A Passage to India to E. M. Forster, 1924
Set during the British Raj when India was in the middle of a century-long bid for self rule, Passage to India explores the relationships and barriers between the British and Indian cultures. In the book Dr. Aziz, an Indian Muslim, befriends two British ladies and offers to take them sightseeing at the Marabar caves. But the outing goes horribly wrong. As the characters’ veracity and intentions are called into question, so is the hope that the two cultures can ever truly understand each other.
77. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, 1924
One of the most influential works of German literature from the twentieth century, The Magic Mountain is a symbolism-heavy, 700-page bildungsroman that invites a variety of interpretations. Set before World War I, the novel is about Hans Castorp, who leaves his hometown in “the flatlands” to visit his sick cousin at a sanatorium high in the Swiss Alps. But as Castorp’s own health begins to decline, he discovers that he might not be leaving the mountains anytime soon. Meanwhile, Castorp receives an “education” in the small, contained world of the sanitorium as he meets a variety of inmates who represent all the varying philosophies and political viewpoints of a world on the verge of war.
78. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925
Before starting The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald told his editor “I want to write something new–something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.” Gatsby is all of these things: a riveting, tight little gem that you can speed through in a few hours but mull over for years. At its most basic, Fitzgerald’s novel is a love story about the enigmatic Jay Gatsby and his pursuit of his former sweetheart Daisy Buchanan. Not far below the surface, it’s a sober critique of materialism and the American Dream–the idea that anyone, no matter their background, can achieve success if they set their mind to it.
79. The Trial by Franz Kafka, 1925
Josef K. is a successful and ambitious bank clerk who is put under arrest on his thirtieth birthday by an unknown agency, for an unspecified crime. Josef is told to await instructions for his trial and sentencing. Over the next year, he searches for answers about his case, which only generates more confusion and trouble. This nightmarish, ambiguous novel is a classic example of absurdism, a movement which has its roots in the anti-romanticism of the mid 1800s, and reached its zenith in the 1950s and 60s amidst the disillusionment of the post-Word War II era.
The book was published posthumously by Kafka’s friend and literary executor, who disregarded Kafka’s instructions to have all his novel manuscripts destroyed.
80. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Wolf, 1925
Mrs. Dalloway takes place over the course of a single day, following the activities of London resident Clarissa Dalloway as she prepares for a party she plans to host later that evening. Through the method of stream-of-consciousness prose which Woolf helped to pioneer, the reader enters the mind of Mrs. Dalloway and her parallel protagonist Septimus Smith as they reflect on their pasts and encounter small epiphanies throughout the day. It sounds like a simple and cozy story, and in some ways it is, but there is tragedy and aching waiting there as well.
81. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, 1928
The greatest war novel of all time, All Quiet on the Western Front depicts the German experience during World War I. Young Paul Bäumer eagerly enlists for the German Army, but his romanticized ideas of war are quickly upended by the real horrors he encounters. Not surprisingly, All Quiet on the Western Front was one of the first books to be publicly burned when the Nazi party rose to power.
Note: Most editions are from the A. W. Wheen translation, but you might try looking for the Brian Murdoch translation, which is more accurate to the original text.
82. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, 1929
This is the story of the once-prominent Compson family, set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County of Mississippi, where many of Faulkner’s novels and short stories take place. The Sound and the Fury is separated into four narratives; the first three are told by three Compson brothers, one of them mentally disabled. The fourth part shifts to third-person omniscient point of view, and centers on one of the Compson’s black servants, who’s seen the family at their worst.
Many readers find Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness technique and timeline shifts challenging, but the book offers a rewarding and satisfying experience when you see how everything fits together. Faulkner’s technical skill, combined with his deep characterization and the poetry of his language make him one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.
83. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, 1932
Huxley’s dystopian science fiction novel imagines a future World State where technology has allowed humankind to sort and precondition embryos to create a strict class hierarchy of leaders down to menial laborers. Bernard Marx, the main character and part of the ruling class, travels to the Savage Reservation, where people live without the technologies of the World State. Here people feel emotions, give birth, and pursue religion. Marx takes two people back with him: Linda, and her son John, whose illusions of the “brave new world” are shattered when he encounters the emptiness at the heart of the World State.
84. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, 1934
Not only is Agatha Christie the best-selling mystery writer of all time, but she’s often cited as the best-selling fiction writer, period. She wrote sixty-six detective novels, so there’s a lot to choose from, but for one of her most famous try Murder on the Orient Express. It has a lot going for it: an unusual setting, a unique solution, and Christie’s most famous detective at the helm, Hercule Poirot.
85. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, 1936
Gone with the Wind is a 1,000-page historical epic set in the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction Era. It was a Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the bestselling novels of all time, yet is consistently controversial. It centers around anti-heroine Scarlett O’Hara, who’s entitled and manipulative, yet displays admirable tenacity and strength of will when she faces the dissolution of her once-comfortable world.
86. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, 1937
Although known as a Harlem Renaissance author, Hurston set many of her stories and novels in her native Florida, including Their Eyes Were Watching God, her best-known work. The novel follows Janie Crawford’s quest for independence despite hardship, and is a rich exploration of African-American life in the rural south of the early 1900s.
87. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, 1939
Raymond Chandler was one of the founders of America’s hardboiled detective fiction genre–a gritty, urban version of the “well-mannered” mysteries of Golden Age detective fiction writers like Agatha Christie and S. S. Van Dine. The Big Sleep was Chandler’s first novel, and the first to star his trademark detective, police investigator Philip Marlowe. Marlowe is called in to investigate a blackmail case, leading him into a complicated web of lies in the dark underbelly of Los Angeles.
88. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, 1939
This Great Depression novel follows the Joad family, poor Oklahoma farmers whose crops have been destroyed in the Dust Bowl. They pull up their roots and head west to California along Route 66, encountering dozens of other migrants searching for a better life. But when they reach California, they realize it might not be the Promised Land they hoped for. Upon its publication, the book became a national sensation that sparked praise over its concern for the plight of the poor, but also controversy for its socialist views and graphic depictions of harsh realities.
89. The Stranger by Albert Camus, 1942
This novella is a famous example of absurdist fiction, written by Camus while he worked with the French Resistance during World War II. In Camus’ absurdist philosophy, there is no external justification for humankind’s morality or reason. We should accept, as he says, “the unreasonable silence of the world,” and seek to live morally and ethically within a capricious universe. In The Stranger we meet Meursault, a Frenchman living in Algiers, who is oddly detached and passive as he attends his mother’s funeral. A series of ensuing events leads to his trial for a terrible crime, where Meursault will finally face the possibility of his own death.
90. Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges, 1944 and 1956
Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges was one of the founders of the magical realism genre, where fantastical elements appear in otherwise realistic fiction without seeming odd to the characters, or requiring explanation. This collection of his short stories uses symbols like labyrinths, libraries, mirrors, dreams, and games of chess to create philosophical essays-within-stories about the nature of time, identity, and meaning. By 1956, Borges had added more stories to the anthology, bringing the story count up to seventeen.
91. Ray Bradbury short stories – 1940s-1960s
A giant in the broad genre of speculative fiction, Bradbury heavily influenced fantasy, horror, and science fiction in the midcentury and beyond. Although also acclaimed for his novel Fahrenheit 451, he was most in his element with the short story form, writing nearly 600 in his career. To get a sampling, listen to these fourteen stories read by Bradbury himself. For a book collection of stories, this volume contains 100 selected favourites, and this volume has a further 100, all completely different from the other volume!
92. Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton, 1948
Paton’s famous South African novel was published the same year that apartheid officially began, but the book explores racial tensions that had already been brewing for hundreds of years. The two protagonists are Stephen Kumalo, an elderly Zulu priest from a rural parish, and James Jarvis, a white landowner. When Kumalo leaves his village for the bustling city of Johannesburg, his life becomes entwined with Jarvis’s through tragedy and redemption.
93. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, 1949
Orwell’s novel imagines a dystopian future in 1984, when society is prey to constant war, mass surveillance, and rampart censorship. Whereas in Huxley’s Brave New World people are controlled by pleasurable distractions and soothing drugs, in Orwell’s dystopia society is governed via brute force and mind control. The protagonist Winston Smith chafes against the authoritarian regime, and begins a forbidden relationship with a woman named Julia, a fellow ally against the Big Brother state.
94. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, 1951
Although The Catcher in the Rye is ostensibly a coming-of-age novel, the angsty teenage narrator Holden Caulfield is quick to clear up any illusions that his story is a bildungsroman, brushing aside “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” He recounts what happened to him over the course of just three days, after his expulsion from a prep school but before he’s broken the news to his family. The novel gives us a piecing look at the developing teenage mind as Caulfield encounters sordid realities in life and grieves for lost innocence.
95. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, 1952
Identity is the theme at the core of Invisible Man. The protagonist–who is never named–is a young black man seeking to navigate a society which fails to recognize him as an individual. As he travels from the South to New York City, he encounters various groups who prescribe how he should behave (according to their ideologies), and he becomes increasingly disillusioned. Although it depicts American life in the 1930s, the book reaches back through time with numerous allusions to other classic works of literature, and the enduring questions of personhood are equally relevant today.
96. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, 1952
This short classic was the last published during Hemingway’s lifetime, and the one that made him an international celebrity. It tells the story of Spanish-Cuban fisherman Santiago, who despite his years of experience has gone nearly three months without catching a fish. Finally, Santiago takes his small fishing boat far out into the Gulf Stream, where he hooks–but is unable to reel in–a giant marlin. As the marlin pulls him farther and farther out to sea, the story takes on increasingly allegorical significance as Santiago heroically fights for his catch.
97. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, 1954-56
The uninitiated may see The Lord of the Rings as the ultimate book for nerds–after all, it’s full of dwarves and wizards and magic rings. But anyone who wants to be well read should include this epic high fantasy on their reading list. Not only is it the most influential fantasy work ever written, but it contains a great deal of wisdom born of Tolkien’s experience in World War I and his own unique vision of the world.
Published in three volumes, The Lord of the Rings plays out in the land of Middle Earth, where the races of Men, Elves, and Dwarves must rally to fight the Dark Lord Sauron and destroy the One Ring that holds the key to his power.
The edition pictured above includes the trilogy in one volume, with 32 illustrations by Tolkien. For another lovely option, this volume has lush illustrations by Alan Lee. This set includes The Hobbit, and splits the four books into separate volumes.
98. Lord of the Flies by William Golding, 1954
Golding’s novel explores the darkness and wildness within human nature which a civilized society can only tamp down–never stamp out. Set in a vaguely post-apocalyptic world, a plane of evacuees (all boys, from littles to adolescents) crashes on a tropical island. With no adults, the boys attempt to create their own society. Things go fairly well at first, but Golding’s heavy foreshadowing warns us that it’s not going to stay that way. This book manages to pack a wallop of symbolism and allegory into a very exciting plot, which will leave you disturbed and possibly wondering why it’s on every school reading list.
99. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, 1958
Set in the 1890s in a pre-colonial Nigerian village, Things Fall Apart examines themes of tradition vs. change, masculinity, and justice. The story centers around Okonkwo, a fierce and respected leader in his clan who has fought hard for his status, but finds his way of life challenged when British missionaries arrive. While Achebe’s novel is at times critical of colonialism, it also presents an unromanticized view of the indigenous culture. Achebe followed Things Fall Apart with No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God, novels which share similar settings and themes and together are known as the African trilogy.
100. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, 1960
Published during the American civil rights movement, this beloved coming of age story is set in small-town Alabama during the Great Depression, and includes many autobiographical elements from Lee’s own childhood. In the story, young Jean Louise “Scout” Finch discovers that the grown-up world is deeply flawed, and that it takes courage and inner strength to take a different path from the community around you. After the book’s publication, Harper Lee recalled that she had hoped for “a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers.” On the contrary, the book was an enormous success right off the bat, and has enjoyed lasting acclaim ever since.
101. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, 1967
A landmark work in the magical realism genre, One Hundred Years of Solitude covers seven generations of the (fictional) Buendía family, who establish the town of Macondo. The magical realism aspect of this book means that weird, dream-like things happen, but they’re presented as normal occurrences that no one questions. In his book, Márquez weaves a complex tapestry of tragedy and comedy, life and death that is a unique–although not easy–read.
More classic book lists and reading tips
- How to Get Back Into Reading Books (when you’ve lost the habit)
- 50 Classic Children’s Chapter Books
- Classic Novels by African-American Authors
- Classic Irish Fiction
- 20 Essential Southern Novels and Short Story Collections
- 8 Quick Classics for Busy Adults
- Quiz: How Well Do You Know These Famous First Lines from Classic Literature?
- Learn the Classics with the Wishbone TV Show!
- 12 Ways to Improve Your Reading Life
I know you’re probably thinking of other must-read classics and authors that deserve recognition, so please…scroll down to the comments section and let us know what you would add!