Ah, the classics. Some readers believe them all to be super boring and not worth their time. When you say the words “classic book” to them, they think of a book that is absolutely no fun to read. Believe me, I was there once too.
I went to a really good public school and had some pretty amazing literature teachers. Our reading list was long and varied, with some books I loved (I am looking at you, To Kill a Mockingbird) and others I did not (ahem, Hiya, Tale of Two Cities).
Still, I graduated from high school and then college and went out into the world (I started my working life in Washington, D.C.), and quickly realized I was not as well-read as I wanted to be.
The good news is that is easy enough to remedy, and so in my 20s, I set out to read as many classics as I could. Oh to have those days back again…when I could spend entire weekends just reading, cooking and purely enjoying the good things in life. But, I digress.
Where To Get Your Hands on Classic Books (for Cheap)
My 20s (when I first started seeking out the classics I had not read in school) were not my most flush-with-cash decade, so I mostly frequented the library and second-hand bookstores for these titles. These remain wonderful treasure troves for finding copies of the classics.
You can also find them for a discount through regular book deals if you prefer go the buy-the-book-new route. I put out weekly book deals and classics often drop into my book deals list from time to time. If you are interested in getting these books deals straight to your inbox, be sure to subscribe below!
And don’t forget to try Book Outlet. That is a website that has some pretty awesome discounts on books.
You can also get classic books for free through websites like this one, if you are okay with reading them online.
How Did I Compile This Classic Book List?
This is the list of classic books I put together with the help of my English teacher mother starting just after I graduated college (when I was in my early 20s). I did not include every classic I have read on this list but rather, the ones I have read that I find myself recommending to people repeatedly. These are the ones I feel are the most accessible and enjoyable with compelling stories and language that is maybe not so difficult and intimidating.
When I decided which classic books to include on this list, I chose based on whether or not the premise sounded interesting, who the authors were (Dickens and Austen are obligatory in my opinion), and also whether or not I was able to get past the high level writing or language and still enjoy the story.
Most of them I have read, but I went ahead and included a few (at the end) that I still hope to get to. It’s never too late, right?
Note: I have reading ADD and have a really hard time making myself read books that do not capture my attention pretty quickly, so if I can get through these, I am going to go ahead and say that pretty much anyone can.
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Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Synopsis from the Publisher: “In what may be Dickens’s best novel, humble, orphaned Pip is apprenticed to the dirty work of the forge but dares to dream of becoming a gentleman — and one day, under sudden and enigmatic circumstances, he finds himself in possession of “great expectations.” In this gripping tale of crime and guilt, revenge and reward, the compelling characters include Magwitch, the fearful and fearsome convict; Estella, whose beauty is excelled only by her haughtiness; and the embittered Miss Havisham, an eccentric jilted bride.“
My Thoughts: If memory serves, this was the first one I read right out of the gate. I found it fascinating and exciting while also containing such beautiful words and descriptions. I loved its peculiar characters and complex themes while also enjoying the ride of unexpected twists and turns. It made my all-time favorite list.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Synopsis from the Publisher: “The hero-narrator of The Catcher in the Rye is an ancient child of sixteen, a native New Yorker named Holden Caulfield. Through circumstances that tend to preclude adult, secondhand description, he leaves his prep school in Pennsylvania and goes underground in New York City for three days. The boy himself is at once too simple and too complex for us to make any final comment about him or his story. Perhaps the safest thing we can say about Holden is that he was born in the world not just strongly attracted to beauty but, almost, hopelessly impaled on it…J.D. Salinger’s classic novel of teenage angst and rebellion was first published in 1951. The novel was included on Time’s 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923. It was named by Modern Library and its readers as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. It has been frequently challenged in the court for its liberal use of profanity and portrayal of sexuality and in the 1950’s and 60’s it was the novel that every teenage boy wants to read.“
My Thoughts: While I could see the draw given how different it is from other books in this category, I kind of could not see what all the fuss was about with this one back when I read it. It seemed to be more of a rambling stream of consciousness type book with not much plot which is normally not my thing. However, the subject matter was newer ground when it was published and that coupled with the compassion I had for the main character really captured my attention. A bonus is that now I feel like their are many allusions to this book in my daily life (Trivial Pursuit questions for one), and the book nerd in me loves being able to pinpoint the reference.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Synopsis from the Publisher: “Thrown in prison for a crime he has not committed, Edmond Dantes is confined to the grim fortress of If. There he learns of a great hoard of treasure hidden on the Isle of Monte Cristo and he becomes determined not only to escape, but also to unearth the treasure and use it to plot the destruction of the three men responsible for his incarceration. Dumas’ epic tale of suffering and retribution, inspired by a real-life case of wrongful imprisonment, was a huge popular success when it was first serialized in the 1840s.”
My Thoughts: This one was an incredible read and aside from its length, I found it not too difficult. It’s an epic story that kind of has all the essential elements required for a compelling and interesting story: love, betrayal, intrigue and an interesting twist.
Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Synopsis from the Publisher: “Independent and spirited Bathsheba Everdene has come to Weatherbury to take up her position as a farmer on the largest estate in the area. Her bold presence draws three very different suitors: the gentleman-farmer Boldwood, soldier-seducer Sergeant Troy and the devoted shepherd Gabriel Oak. Each, in contrasting ways, unsettles her decisions and complicates her life, and tragedy ensues, threatening the stability of the whole community. The first of his works set in the fictional county of Wessex, Hardy’s novel of swift passion and slow courtship is imbued with his evocative descriptions of rural life and landscapes, and with unflinching honesty about sexual relationships.”
My Thoughts: This one took a few pages for me to get in to due to Hardy’s wordy descriptions, but once I got through the beginning, I was hooked. The story is in a similar vein as other books written about that period with maybe a little more of a peek into real life and its ups and downs. I especially recommend this one for lovers of Downton Abbey and Jane Austen.
The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
Synopsis from the Publisher: “Deep in the forests of upper New York State, the brave woodsman Hawkeye (Natty Bumppo) and his loyal Mohican friends Chingachgook and Uncas become embroiled in the bloody battles of the French and Indian War. The abduction of the beautiful Munro sisters by hostile savages, the treachery of the renegade brave Magua, the ambush of innocent settlers, and the thrilling events that lead to the final tragic confrontation between rival war parties create an unforgettable, spine-tingling picture of life on the frontier.“
My Thoughts: Listed as a runner-up on my all-time favorites list, I will confess that the award-winning movie with Daniel Day Lewis probably was the impetus for me reaching for this one. Still, the book version definitely had enough action, intrigue and interesting characters to keep me turning pages. It’s a love story wrapped in an adventure wrapped in historical fiction and the language is descriptive without being overly difficult.
The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham
Synopsis from the Publisher: “Set in England and Hong Kong in the 1920s, The Painted Veil is the story of the beautiful, but love-starved Kitty Fane. When her husband discovers her adulterous affair, he forces her to accompany him to the heart of a cholera epidemic. Stripped of the British society of her youth and the small but effective society she fought so hard to attain in Hong Kong, she is compelled by her awakening conscience to reassess her life and learn how to love.”
My Thoughts: Somerset Maugham is maybe a little more off the radar as far as typical classics go, but I was delighted to find him. This is one of those rare books that has a compelling and exciting story while also breaking your heart at the same time. It boasts some pretty huge character arcs which keep you cheering on the sidelines for them to progress and grow into their lives and relationships.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Synopsis from the Publisher: “Pride and Prejudice is an 1813 romantic novel of manners written by Jane Austen. The novel follows the character development of Elizabeth Bennet, the dynamic protagonist of the book, who learns about the repercussions of hasty judgments and eventually comes to appreciate the difference between superficial goodness and actual goodness. A classic piece filled with comedy, its humour lies in its honest depiction of manners, education, marriage and money during the Regency era in Great Britain.”
My thoughts: I love the language in this one (my Anglophile heart soars). Just the way they talk and act and oh, the misunderstandings. It is very much a traditional story of dating (courting) and the trials and tribulations of women finding a husband during this time period. Still, Austen was way before her time with so much of the humor and not to mention the strong female lead character who is at once traditional AND with a bit of a rebellious streak.
These last three I have not read, but they are on my list. I believe each one fits here based on recommendations from book friends (and the fact that they are STILL on my “to be read” list and have been for about 20 years.)
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Synopsis from the Publisher: “In their youth, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza fall passionately in love. When Fermina eventually chooses to marry a wealthy, well-born doctor, Florentino is heartbroken, but he is a romantic. As he rises in his business career he whiles away the years in 622 affairs—yet he reserves his heart for Fermina. Her husband dies at last, and Florentino purposefully attends the funeral. Fifty years, nine months, and four days after he first declared his love for Fermina, he will do so again.”
Why I Want to Read It: Books that are primarily about romance are typically not my favorite. A friend and fellow romance hater named this one as her favorite romantic story recently, and I decided I needed to get to it soon. So, I am joining a “buddy read” for this one on Instagram in April. (Interested in joining? Email or DM me on Instagram and I will add you to it!)
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Synopsis from the Publisher: “Bram Stoker’s Dracula established many conventions of the subsequent vampire fantasy genre. This gothic fiction tells the tale of Count Dracula’s transition from Transylvania to England and his attempt to spread the undead curse and of the battle between Dracula and Professor Abraham Van Helsing.”
Why I Want to Read It: I am a huge horror fan and this is the quintessential literary horror. I am embarrassed to say that I have never actually read it. Going to remedy that soon!
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Synopsis from the Publisher: “Heralded as Virginia Woolf’s greatest novel, this is a vivid portrait of a single day in a woman’s life. When we meet her, Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway is preoccupied with the last-minute details of party preparation while in her mind she is something much more than a perfect society hostess. As she readies her house, she is flooded with remembrances of faraway times. And, met with the realities of the present, Clarissa reexamines the choices that brought her there, hesitantly looking ahead to the unfamiliar work of growing old.”
Why I Want to Read It: Virginia Woolf is one of those female authors that I feel like I can’t be a modern woman without reading. I bought To the Lighthouse and honestly, the language and sentence structure was so complex I could not even get past the first few pages. This one is supposed to be more accessible (plus, the premise is much more interesting and relatable for my current stage of life.)