40 classic books & why you should read them

What makes a classic book? My eight-year-old asked this question after spending several days with her nose buried in Charlotte's Web. “Errr - I think it's a very good book liked by lots people that stands the test of time,” I replied. “If people are still reading the book 50 years after it was published then it's probably on its way to being a classic.”...

Here's the catch. For me, classic books need to be readable because I'm not studying literature at university these days. There are many important books published decades or even centuries ago that have great significance but I'm not going to recommend them. The prime example is Moby Dick, which I have read and I will never recommend. Life's too short and that novel is too hard to read. The most challenging book on this list is The Seven Pillars of Wisdom because its length.

By Herman Melville

Also some major examples of classic literature that make everyone else's list did not make mine because they are not my cup of tea. I've tried to like F. Scott Fitzgerald but we just never got on. On the Road goes off the road for me. Holden Caulfield is a phony as far I'm concerned.

The most recent book on my list is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy from 1974 and I am worried that might be a little recent for the 'classic' tag. The oldest is Don Quixote, from 1605, which I read as a child and didn't remotely consider as old-fashioned.

This list of books includes three each from Robert Louis Stevenson and George Orwell, and two each from Charles Dickens and Ray Bradbury. The settings include two islands, an inn, a farm, a hospital and a garden. Through these books, you could visit the Yukon, Gloucestershire, Brighton, Paris, the Alps, Spain, Kansas and Cyprus, and meet pirates, smugglers, soldiers, spies and firemen.


Shop for classic books

By William Golding
Because it’s still deeply shocking for a young reader to discover what can happen when the rules of civilization fall away.
By R.D. Blackmore
Because this is no sickly sweet romance. Holy cow, those Doones are wicked people and Lorna's caught in the middle
By Daphne du Maurier
Because it’s another wonderful stuck–in–the–middle tale. Twenty–year–old Mary Yellan is surrounded by murderous Cornish wreckers.
By Robert Louis Stevenson
Because it's better than Treasure Island and based on real people and real events. Alan Breck Stewart is a memorable character.
By Robert Louis Stevenson
Because I like to imagine hosting a dinner party featuring Long John Silver, Blind Pew, Ben Gunn and Billy Bones. More rum, more fun.
By Jack London
Because an animal tale should be on the list. This isn’t Marley and Me — Buck is a tough, tough dog in the Yukon Gold Rush.
By E.B. White
Because it might be the perfect bedtime read. I had to have children to discover this magical book of farmyard thinking.
By Kenneth Grahame
Because this might also be the perfect bedtime read. Read it for Toad alone — so conceited, so arrogant, so resourceful.
By J. Meade Falkner
Because a great setting always helps. This smuggling tale is set on England’s south coast. Moonfleet is East Fleet on Dorset’s Chesil Beach.
By Charles Dickens
Because it was no picnic being a child on the street in Victorian London. My favorite piece of Dickensian literature.
By Charles Dickens
Because Dickens showed he could write magnificent historical fiction with this dramatic story of the French Revolution.
By Evelyn Waugh
Because Waugh could string sentences together like few others. Posh family goes to pieces in style.
By Thomas Hardy
Because you should never sell your wife and child. I can't read too much Hardy as he does go on, but this novel shows what goes around comes around.
By Cervantes
Because knights are not always like King Arthur’s crowd.Some of them are crazy. Four hundred years old and still going strong.
By Lewis Carroll
Because children's literature does not have to be predictable. Again, I had to have children to discover this baffling fantasy story.
By Oscar Wilde
Because losing your looks is a terrible thing but selling your soul is much worse. This drama has so many themes.
By George Orwell
Because totalitarianism is not a nightmare — it's a reality for millions of people. This terrifying novel shaped modern culture.
By Harper Lee
Because race continues to be the defining, and dividing, issue of modern America. Atticus Finch is a hero beyond compare.
By John le Carré
Because this novel defined the Cold War era after World War II. A real page-turner as well even if you dislike spy stories.
By George Orwell
Because a little bit of politics is easily digested when set in a farmyard. Orwell wrote so few books and yet they all matter.
By L.M. Montgomery
Because redhead Anne Shirley is one of the strongest female characters in children’s literature. Both my daughters love this story.
By John Steinbeck
Because it’s less than 200 pages of pure genius. This novella offers friendship and heartbreak during a torrid time for America.
By Frederick Marryat
Because this often forgotten children’s novel is filled with adventure and intrigue. Also the forest is a fantastic setting.
By Johanna Spyri
Because life’s good on a mountainside. Heidi transforms her Alm Uncle and that's just the start of this heartwarming story of the Alps.
By Ernest Hemingway
Because this novel touches on so many themes, including death and sacrifice. Different to other war novels because it focuses so much on one person.
By Ken Kesey
Because Nurse Ratched is terrifying. This tale of a patient who fakes insanity to land a place on psychiatric ward is funny, sad and touching.
By Ray Bradbury
Because this is the ultimate dystopian nightmare for bibliophiles. It’s highly amusing to discover this book has been banned several times over the years.
By Ray Bradbury
Because these 18 science fiction short stories, tied together by the illustrated man covered in tattoos, are as relevant today as they were in 1951.
By Frances Hodgson Burnett
Because fresh air and nature can heal many things. This Edwardian classic is almost as good as a self-help book in its messaging but more fun to read.
By Graham Greene
Because Pinkie Brown is a nasty piece of work at just 17. An underworld thriller with a little bit of religion thrown in.
By Laurie Lee
Because this is the best representation of rural childhood that I’ve come across. A slice of English history that everyone should read.
By Robert Graves
Because it’s the best anti–war book ever written. The passages describing Siegfried Sassoon's actions are particularly memorable.
By Truman Capote
Because this book is so different than regular non-fiction. Capote’s bending all the rules as he dissects the murder of the Clutter family.
By T.E. Lawrence
Because it seems almost impossible that one man can be this brilliant and do so much. A masterpiece of autobiography.
By Lawrence Durrell
Because it begins as a gentle travel memoir and turns into a painful description of Cyprus’ bloody campaign for independence.
By Farley Mowat
Because Mowat practically lived with a pack of wolves and shattered misconception after misconception with this book.
By Hunter S. Thompson
Because this book is bonkers from beginning to end. Gonzo journalism starts here and it's a true non-fiction original.
By Robert Louis Stevenson
Because this book pioneered two modern genres — travel literature and personal memoir. Readers owe much to Stevenson.
By George Orwell
Because this war book is really about frustration as Orwell battles Fascism in Spain and takes a bullet in the throat for his troubles.
By Dee Brown
Because this book reinvented the modern non-fiction genre by revealing the truth behind the repression of Native Americans.

More essential reading lists

19 October, 2021
Considered the most prestigious literary award in science fiction, the Hugo Award is awarded annually to the best science fiction or fantasy book from the previous year. Explore our list of every Hugo Award winner for best novel dating back to 1953.
1 Min Read
20 October, 2021
Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time high fantasy series is epic in more ways than one. There are 14 novels where Jordan creates an imaginary magical world in immense detail and introduces thousands of good and evil characters.
1 Min Read
10 November, 2021
The mythical, the magical, and the magnificent! Fairy tales are some of our earliest stories and for centuries, children and adults alike have pored over the tales of princes and princesses, beasts and fairies.
1 Min Read