Well, what makes a classic book? My eight-year-old asked this very 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 also 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 for your reading enjoyment. 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 it’s epic in length and contains great detail about the Arab rebellion against the Turks.
This list covers 30 examples of fiction and 10 non-fiction books because that’s how the cookie crumbles. I actually prefer non-fiction books but I seem to focus on non-fiction published in the last 10 years, which doesn’t help for a list of this nature. As I put the list to together, I was surprised by how many ‘classics’ I had read and shocked by how many I had not. No Jane Austen. No Anthony Trollope. No Vonnegut. No Tolstoy. Sorry about that – I’ll try and cover them off in the next 40 years. I should also explain that becoming a parent opens the door to reading classics you missed as a child and rejuvenates your interest in books from the past.
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 a bit 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. Madness never goes out of fashion even if chivalry has.
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.
Please add your own suggestions for must-read classics at the bottom of the page.
Because it’s still deeply shocking for a young reader to discover what can happen when the rules of civilization fall away.
Because this is no sickly sweet romance. Holy cow, those Doones are wicked people and Lorna’s caught in the middle.
Daphne du Maurier
Because it’s another wonderful stuck–in–the–middle tale. Twenty–year–old Mary Yellan is surrounded by murderous Cornish wreckers.
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.
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.
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.
Because it might be the perfect bedtime read. I had to have children to discover this magical book of farmyard thinking.
Because this might also be the perfect bedtime read. Read it for Toad alone — so conceited, so arrogant, so resourceful.
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.
Because it was no picnic being a child on the street in Victorian London. My favorite piece of Dickensian literature.
Because Dickens showed he could write magnificent historical fiction with this dramatic story of the French Revolution.
Because Waugh could string sentences together like few others. Posh family goes to pieces in style.
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.
Because knights are not always like King Arthur’s crowd.Some of them are crazy. Four hundred years old and still going strong.
Because children’s literature does not have to be predictable. Again, I had to have children to discover this baffling fantasy story.
Because losing your looks is a terrible thing but selling your soul is much worse. This drama has so many themes.
Because totalitarianism is not a nightmare — it’s a reality for millions of people. This terrifying novel shaped modern culture.
Because race continues to be the defining, and dividing, issue of modern America. Atticus Finch is a hero beyond compare.
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.
Because a little bit of politics is easily digested when set in a farmyard. Orwell wrote so few books and yet they all matter.
Because redhead Anne Shirley is one of the strongest female characters in children’s literature. Both my daughters love this story.
Because it’s less than 200 pages of pure genius. This novella offers friendship and heartbreak during a torrid time for America.
Because this often forgotten children’s novel is filled with adventure and intrigue. Also the forest is a fantastic setting.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Because Pinkie Brown is a nasty piece of work at just 17. An underworld thriller with a little bit of religion thrown in.
Because this is the best representation of rural childhood that I’ve come across. A slice of English history that everyone should read.
Because it’s the best anti–war book ever written. The passages describing Siegfried Sassoon’s actions are particularly memorable.
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.
Because it seems almost impossible that one man can be this brilliant and do so much. A masterpiece of autobiography.
Because it begins as a gentle travel memoir and turns into a painful description of Cyprus’ bloody campaign for independence.
Because Mowat practically lived with a pack of wolves and shattered misconception after misconception with this book.
Hunter S. Thompson
Because this book is bonkers from beginning to end. Gonzo journalism starts here and it’s a true non-fiction original.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Because this book pioneered two modern genres — travel literature and personal memoir. Readers owe much to Stevenson.
Because this war book is really about frustration as Orwell battles Fascism in Spain and takes a bullet in the throat for his troubles.
Because this book reinvented the modern non-fiction genre by revealing the truth behind the repression of Native Americans.