Reading is important for many reasons — it builds imagination, improves memory, leads to better writing, and can even make you more sensitive to the plight of others. With so many classic novels out there, it can be difficult to decide which ones are worth your time and which ones aren’t worth the trouble.
To help you choose, here is a list of 10 of the best classic novels. These classic novels, some of which you may have read in high school, are relevant today, whether they teach us about societal problems, history, or the meaning of life.
10. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
What it’s about: Winston Smith is a worker for the Party, the shadowy, all-controlling government run by Big Brother. When his rebellious thoughts attract the attention of the powers that be, he must either find the strength to hold onto his principles — or become one with a power he doesn’t believe in.
Why you should read it: Often lauded as the classic dystopian novel, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is a work that has had a profound impact on the way we think of and even talk about the abuse of power. The book gave birth to the adjective ‘Orwellian,’ which is used to describe authoritarian or totalitarian power. There are few classic novels which describe so well what can happen when absolute power and thought control run rampant, which makes it a must-read for anyone concerned about corruption and deception in political states.
Famous quote: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”
9. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
What it’s about: Holden Caulfield is an adolescent trying to manage his transition into adulthood, often wondering if it is worth it, as he navigates the world from prep school to the New York underground.
Why you should read it: “The Catcher in the Rye” has been persecuted for its profanity and sexuality, but it has ultimately become known as the quintessential ‘coming of age’ story. Anyone who has struggled with teenage rebellion can identify with Caulfield, and it is this universality, in part, which has led it to be named one of the best classic novels of the 20th century time and again. Although the novel is a staple of high school English curricula, it can easily be enjoyed during adulthood.
Famous quote: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”
8. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
What it’s about: After crash landing on a deserted island, a group of children descend into a world of savagery, one which they’ve neither experienced or are ready for.
Why you should read it: Although humans like to think of themselves as civilized, Golding shows that there’s an untamable side to all of us, one which could manifest itself with little provocation. It is, perhaps, Golding’s portrayal of this savagery through children that makes the novel so chilling — whether you’re reading it for the first time or the fifth.
Famous quote: “Maybe there is a beast. . .maybe it’s only us.”
7. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
What it’s about: Captain John Yossarian, a bombardier fighting during World War II, finds himself caught in the machine of bureaucracy, despite his many attempts to leave the Army behind forever.
Why you should read it: Referring to a situation in which there is no way to come out ahead, the phrase ‘catch-22’ was introduced into the English language by this classic novel. The book unfolds non-linearly and uses many characters’ viewpoints to make its ultimate point about the machinery of bureaucracy. Although this could be viewed as heavy subject matter, Heller manages to be funny and touching, making this one of the top classic novels which is infinitely re-readable.
Famous quote: “He was going to live forever, or die in the attempt.”
6. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
What it’s about: After Janie Crawford returns to the black community of Eatonville, Florida, there is much speculation about what she has done during her absence, especially in regard to her missing husband, Tea Cake.
Why you should read it: The publication of “Their Eyes Were Watching God” was a watershed moment in both African-American and women’s literature, although it wasn’t initially recognized as such. Without becoming sappy, the novel is moving in its portrayal of the struggle of one African-American woman, leading it to be regarded as one of the best classic novels of the 20th century.
Famous quote: “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”
See Also: 10 Chilling Post-Apocalyptic Novels
5. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
What it’s about: Ishmael, a sailor on the whale ship Pequod, is soon caught up in the ship’s captain’s treacherous journey to exact revenge on one ferocious white whale — Moby Dick.
Why you should read it: Often viewed as one of the ‘Great American Novels,’ “Moby Dick” tackles a range of themes that are eternally relevant — exploitation of resources, revenge, good versus evil, class structures, and more. Although the work is quite long, it is a compelling read, one which is layered with symbolism and includes a cast of characters not easily forgotten.
Famous quote: “Call me Ishmael.”
4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
What it’s about: During the summer of 1922, Jay Gatsby pursues the lovely Daisy Buchanan, although all involved might not get the happy endings they hope for.
Why you should read it: Few classic novels have come as close to capturing the essence of the Jazz Age as “The Great Gatsby.” The novel not only deconstructs the so-called ‘American Dream,’ but also gives readers an excellent example of a narrator who is on the outskirts of the action, whether they choose to view him as reliable or unreliable.
Famous quote: “There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.”
3. The Stranger by Albert Camus
What it’s about: One man contends with the absurdity of his existence after a series of events leading him to murder.
Why you should read it: To read “The Stranger” is to enter a world of ‘isms’: existentialism, absurdism, nihilism, and more. Although the plot is fairly simple, Camus has given readers a complex character in Meursault, one who is illustrative of common struggles, including alienation, amorality, and doubt.
Famous quote: “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.”
2. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
What it’s about: Lennie and George, migrant workers moving around California, have a dream to one day own a place of their own; however, Lennie’s childlike mind may lead to the undoing of all they have hoped for.
Why you should read it: As with “The Catcher in the Rye,” Steinbeck’s classic novella has been challenged by censors for its offensive language and vulgarity. Despite these attacks, it is widely used by high school English departments and is a classic by virtue of Steinbeck’s realistic writing style and use of themes including abuse, aspiration, and powerlessness.
Famous quote: “Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.”
1. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
What it’s about: Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton are caught in a web of intrigue and treason during the time of the French Revolution; they must come to grips with life and love as upheaval surrounds them.
Why you should read it: “A Tale of Two Cities” reveals a dark side of Dickens, one which enthralls the reader from beginning to end. As with other Dickens novels, the treatment of the poor is a main concern, although resurrection at the societal level is also dealt with at length. Thanks to the power of Dickens’ writing, this novel is suitable for all types of readers, from those interested in history to those who enjoy a rousing drama.
Famous quote: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Although this list is not exhaustive, the classic novels contained in it have all been held up repeatedly as some of the best writing that the best writers have had to offer. Some deal with heavier subject matter than others, but all are worth the time not only to read, but to read again and again.
What are your favorite classic novels? Let us know in the comments below!