5 Classic Novels Everyone Should Read

Hand taking old book from shelf in library.
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Everyone has a reading lane. Whether it’s romance novels or timey-wimey sci-fi books about people becoming their own grandparents, readers often have a channel they return to 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 online sources to write a book report on a text we’ve been hearing is absolutely genius for our entire lives.

There are a lot of classic novels out there, so it's OK if you don't know where to start. These five classics are not only great books, but they also laid the groundwork for current bestsellers and remain some of the most celebrated works of literature ever produced.

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Moby Dick

Macmillan Collector's Library 

"Moby-Dick" has an unearned reputation for being, well, dull. Melville’s novel wasn’t received well upon 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 talk about 19th-century whaling that leaves even the most thoughtful reader sometimes wondering when, exactly, Melville plans to get to the fireworks and make something happen. Add to this the immense vocabulary that Melville utilizes—over 17,000 unique words in the book, some of which are specialized whaling lingo—and "Moby-Dick" is one of the densest novels ever written.

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. The name "Captain Ahab" is also used as cultural shorthand for an obsession-crazed authority figure. In other words, our daily conversation often references the novel whether we realize it or not, and that tells you something about just how powerful the book and its characters really are.
  • The deep themes. This isn’t just 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 of “Call me Ishmael” to the desolate ending, this novel will change the way you view the world if you stick with it.
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'Pride and Prejudice'

Pride and Prejudice

CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform 

"Pride and Prejudice" is a kind of literary Rosetta Stone; it's the inspiration, basis, and model for so many modern novels that 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 until you realize that this is the novel that, in many ways, defined what a modern novel is.

One of the great things about "Pride and Prejudice" is that Jane Austen was such a natural writer that 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 well-constructed story that it’s still stolen (and left practically intact) by modern authors, with the most obvious example being the "Bridget Jones" books where author Helen Fielding seemed to make no effort to disguise her 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 we urge you 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 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 in the modern world. In other words, things haven’t changed much when it comes to marriage, relationships, or status since Austen’s day.
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Ulysses book cover

Penguin Books 

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" used the “stream of consciousness” method before the term existed. (Technically, Tolstoy used something similar in "Anna Karenina," but Joyce perfected the technique with "Ulysses.") It is 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 awesome and fun. The trick to reading "Ulysses" is simple: Forget it’s a classic. Forget it’s so important and so revolutionary and you'll feel less pressure when reading.

Why You Must Read It: Enjoy it for the 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 pick up "Ulysses," you're joining a worldwide club of people who have chosen to do something difficult but ultimately rewarding.
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'To Kill a Mockingbird'

To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Perennial 

One of the most deceptively simple novels ever written, "To Kill a Mockingbird" 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. Lee shows us, to our horror, that 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 published in 1960 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 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 that you're missing out if you're not familiar with the book. Once you read it, you'll start seeing it everywhere.
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'The Big Sleep'

The big Sleep

 Perfection Learning

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 modern audiences see as a self-consciously tough style, peppered with old-fashioned slang. The plot is also famously complex, even for a mystery, and actually has several loose ends that never get resolved.

Why You Must Read It: Don't let these complexities dissuade you. We suggest you 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 mysteries.

The Short List

Five incredible books, and, if you commit yourself, you can power through with just a few weeks' worth of reading. If you’re going to turn back to a classic or two, choose from this list.

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Your Citation
Somers, Jeffrey. "5 Classic Novels Everyone Should Read." ThoughtCo, Dec. 18, 2020, thoughtco.com/classic-novels-everyone-should-read-4153022. Somers, Jeffrey. (2020, December 18). 5 Classic Novels Everyone Should Read. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/classic-novels-everyone-should-read-4153022 Somers, Jeffrey. "5 Classic Novels Everyone Should Read." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/classic-novels-everyone-should-read-4153022 (accessed June 2, 2023).