5 Classic Novels Everyone Should Read

Reading a book
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One simple truth about life is that everyone has a Reading Lane. Whether it’s romance novels, or books about troubled former Navy SEALs racing against the clock to save the world, or timey-wimey sci-fi novels about people becoming their own grandparents, people who read have a channel they return to over and over again, tearing through books. Reading is, after all, a form of entertainment, a way of passing the time as well as a way of learning and expanding your mental horizons, so it’s perfectly natural that once you figure out the sort of novel you enjoy you’re going to return to that lane over and over again.

Of course, every now and then we all have an "Eat Your Vegetables" moment when we think that maybe we ought to read a classic, one of those novels we skimmed unenthusiastically in school, gleaning just enough information from the back cover and Wikipedia to write a book report, or a book we’ve been hearing is absolutely genius for our entire lives. Once you start thinking about classic novels you ought to read, though, a problem emerges: There are a lot of classic novels out there you ought to read. Even if you restrict your choices to one of those “100 All-Time Novels” that’s still a hundred novels. The average adult reads at a pace of about 200-300 words a minute, and most books have about 200 words on a page. That means reading War and Peace will take you about 33 hours, total, and that’s just one classic novel.

Most of us struggle to find just a little reading time every day, so you might wind up reading War and Peace for half the year if you’re particularly busy. So maybe that list of 100 novels is a bit... ambitious. Instead, let’s get down to brass tacks: If you’re having an "Eat Your Vegetables" moment in regards to classic novels, what are the five novels you should read? These five classics are not only great books, but they also laid the groundwork for all the current bestsellers and remain some of the most evergreen works of literature ever produced.

01
of 05

Moby-Dick

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.

Moby-Dick has an unearned reputation for being, well, dull. Melville’s novel wasn’t received well on publication (it took decades before people really started to 'get' how great it is), and the negative sentiment is echoed every year when groaning students are forced to read it. And, yes, there is a lot of stuff about 19th century whaling that leaves even the most thoughtful reader sometimes wondering when, exactly, Melville plans to get to the fireworks factory and make something happen. Add to this the immense vocabulary that Melville utilizes — with over 17,000 unique words in the book, Moby-Dick is one of the densest novels ever written — some of which is specialized whaling lingo, and you have a recipe for a book most people would much prefer to pretend to have read.

Why You Must Read It: Despite these surface difficulties, you should make Moby-Dick one of the classics you read for several reasons:

  • Pop Culture Status. There’s a reason the term “white whale” has become shorthand for a foolhardy and dangerous obsession, after all. The name Captain Ahab is also used as cultural shorthand for an obsession-crazed authority figure. In other words, much of our daily conversation references the novel whether we realize it or not, and that tells you something about just how powerful the book really is.
  • The Deep Themes. This isn’t a long book about a guy hunting a whale. It explores complex and elusive themes about existence, morality, and the nature of reality. From the famous opening line “Call me Ishmael” to the desolate ending, if you stick with this novel it will change the way you view the world.

Moby-Dick is dense, challenging, and absolutely awesome. Set aside 13-15 hours this month and read it, if only to scratch it off the bucket list and be able to tell people smugly that yeah, you read it, NBD.

 

02
of 05

Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

Pride and Prejudice is kind of a literary Rosetta Stone, the inspiration, basis, and model for so many modern novels you’re probably more familiar with its plot and characters than you think. For a book written in the early 19th century, it’s modernity is surprising only until you realize that this is the novel that in many ways defined what a modern novel is.

The great thing about Pride and Prejudice though is that Austen was such a natural writer you don’t see any of the techniques and innovations she used — you just get a great story about marriage, social class, manners, and personal growth and evolution. In fact, it’s such a perfectly-constructed story it’s still stolen more or less intact by modern authors, with the most famous and obvious example being the Bridget Jones books, which made no effort to disguise their inspiration. Chances are if you’ve enjoyed a book about two people who seem to hate each other at first and then discover they’re in love, you can thank Jane Austen.

Why You Must Read It: If you’re still unconvinced, there are two other reasons you have to read Pride and Prejudice:

  • The Language. This is one of the most sharply written novels ever composed; you can enjoy the novel solely for its language and wit, beginning with its epic and perfect opening line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

  • The Story. Put simply, you could tweak Pride and Prejudice for some anachronisms in language and technology and the story still plays 100% in the modern world. In other words, things haven’t changed much when it comes to marriage, relationships, or family since Austen’s day.

In other words, Pride and Prejudice is that rare classic novel that you can simply enjoy without thinking too hard. And at about 10 hours of reading time, you can squeeze it into a week or two (or one epic day spent in bed).

 

03
of 05

Ulysses

Ulysses by James Joyce
Ulysses by James Joyce.

If there’s a book that inspires fear in the hearts of people everywhere, it’s James Joyce’s Ulysses, a huge tome stained with the term “postmodern.” And, real talk, it is one of the most difficult novels ever written. Chances are if you know nothing else about the book, you know that Ulysses did “stream of consciousness” before the term existed (Joyce actually wasn’t the first person to use the technique — Tolstoy used something similar in Anna Karenina a few decades earlier — but Ulysses kind of perfected it as a literary technique), but it’s also a sprawling novel dense with allusions, wordplay, obscure jokes, and intensely, opaquely personal ruminations by the characters.

Here’s the thing: All those puzzles and riddles and ambitious experiments also make this book 100% awesome and fun. The trick to reading Ulysses is simple: Forget it’s a classic. Forget it’s so important and so revolutionary. 

Why You Must Read It: Enjoy it for the smutty, hilarious, rambling epic it is. If that's not enough, here are two more reasons: 

  • The Humor. Joyce had a wicked sense of humor and a big brain, and the ultimate joke of Ulysses is that he borrowed the structure of Homer’s epic poetry to tell a series of jokes about sex and bodily functions. Sure, the jokes are phrased in a riddling literary style and you will need the Internet to look up references, but the key is that this novel doesn’t take itself too seriously, and neither should you.
  • The Difficulty. Don’t worry if you read it and don’t understand a word of it the first time — if someone tells you they understand everything in this book they are lying to you. That means when you read Ulysses you're joining a worldwide club of people who have chosen to do something difficult—but ultimately rewarding.

Per-word, it should take about eight or nine hours to read — but add on another month for the thought and research.

04
of 05

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockinbird by Harper Lee
To Kill a Mockinbird by Harper Lee.

One of the most deceptively simple novels ever written, this classic is often dismissed as a charming look at a young girl named Scout’s first brush with adult concerns in 1930s small-town Alabama. The adult concerns, of course, are horrifying racism and entrenched meanness among the white citizens of the town; the story centers on a black man accused of raping a white woman, with Scout’s father Atticus taking on the legal defense.

Sadly, the issues of racism and an unfair legal system are as applicable today as they were in 1960, and that alone makes To Kill a Mockingbird a must-read. Harper Lee’s fluid, clear prose manages to be thoroughly entertaining while subtly examining the attitudes and beliefs under the surface that allow prejudice and injustice to persist to this day, and as we’re all discovering to our mutual horror there are still plenty of people out there who secretly (or not so secretly) harbor racist beliefs.

Why You Must Read It: Sure, a book written in the 1950s and set in the 1930s might not sound so compelling — but here are two things to consider:

  • It Still Feels Modern. In some ways we’re all Scout Finch. In the novel, part of Scout’s growing-up is realizing that the people in her town, people she thought were good and righteous, are deeply and disappointingly flawed. For a lot of people in this country today that’s exactly how we feel every day when we turn on the news.
  • It's a Cultural Key. To Kill a Mockingbird is referenced (subtly and obviously) in so much of our culture you're literally missing out if you're not familiar with the book. Once you read it, you start seeing it everywhere.

It’s rare for a novel to remain as on-point as Mockingbird for more than five decades. If you want to know how Harper Lee managed the trick, you’re gonna have to read it. At about seven hours to read, you can totally squeeze it in.

 

05
of 05

The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.

Raymond Chandler’s classic 1939 novel isn’t often cited on lists like these; nearly a century after its publication it’s still regarded in some circles as “pulp,” trashy disposable escapism. It’s true that the book is written in what seems to modern audiences like a self-consciously tough style, peppered with old-fashioned slang, and the plot is famously complex, even for a mystery, and actually has several loose ends that never get resolved, but it doesn’t matter. You still have to read this book, for two reasons:

  • It’s the Template. Whenever you hear “hard boiled” or “noir” dialog or descriptions today, you’re hearing second- and third-hand imitations of The Big Sleep. Chandler (along with a few other contemporaries like Dashiell Hammett) more or less invented the hard-boiled detective story.

  • It’s Beautiful. Chandler has a style that is simultaneously violent, bleak, and gorgeous — the whole book reads like a tone poem with violence and greed as its subject. Coupled with its status as the original, it’s the one detective story everyone has to read no matter what they normally think about detective stories.

The Big Sleep shouldn’t take you more than a few hours to tear through. Just be prepared: Not every mystery is solved.

The Short List

Five books. A few days’ worth of reading. If you’re going to read a classic, these should be the ones you choose!