Become a Writer Today

27 Must-Read Classic Literature Books

October 23, 2023 Bryan Collins
Become a Writer Today
27 Must-Read Classic Literature Books
Show Notes Transcript

I recently had the pleasure of discussing 27 must-read classic literature books on the Become a Writer Today podcast. These books have stood the test of time and offer timeless wisdom and insights into the human condition. 

Whether you're a seasoned reader or just starting your literary journey, these classics are an essential addition to your bookshelf. 

🔹 Classic Literature: Dive into the world of the classics and explore timeless themes and masterful storytelling. From epic adventures to thought-provoking social commentaries, these books offer a rich and diverse reading experience.

🔹 Coming of Age Tales: Many of the classic literature books discussed on the podcast explore the coming-of-age journey. These stories allow us to reflect on our own growth, self-discovery, and challenges as we navigate life's complexities.

🔹 Understanding Society: Classic literature gives us a window into different cultures and historical periods, offering a deeper understanding of society and human nature. Through these books, we can explore themes of love, power, identity, and social injustice.

So, whether you're seeking to expand your literary horizons or simply looking for a captivating read, make sure to check out these must-read classic literature books. They are a treasure trove of inspiration and storytelling that will leave a lasting impact on your reading journey.

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This epic poem tells the story of the Greek hero Odysseus and his ten-year journey home after the fall of Troy. It begins with Odysseus being held captive on an island by a nymph, and it tells of how he escaped the island and ultimately found his way back. And, of course, Odysseus encounters many challenges along the way, including the wrath of a sea god, Poseidon, and temptations in the form of an alluring sorceress.


Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here you'll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers. 


Are you looking for some must-read classic literature books? Hi there. My name is Bryan Collins. Welcome to Become a Writer Today.

I love reading contemporary fiction and nonfiction, but I also try to spend a bit of time reading older books and the classics. That's because they've stood the test of time, but it can be a bit overwhelming. Where should you start? Well, if you're asking yourself that exact question, I'm going to profile 27 different must-read classic books from a variety of genres and countries. 

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is the first classic literature book that made a big impact on me. Now, the book was published all the way back in 1960, when I was in school back in the late 1990s. Some time ago, we had to read this book as part of our exams, but it was the first book that was prescriptive reading, which I actually really enjoyed. It's a coming-of-age tale all about Scout and who's five years of age, and her father Atticus. And, of course, it tells the tale of racism and overcoming adversity in the Deep South.

Now, a follow-up was published, somewhat controversially, in 2015. That book is called Go Set a Watchman, and I think it's fair to say it's not as good as To Kill a Mockingbird. Sadly, Harper Lee herself passed away in 2016. 

Next up is another staple of book clubs and school reading lists around the world. It's Animal Farm by George Orwell, which was written in 1946. The book offers a unique take on the Russian Revolution of 1917 and Stalinist society. In the book, the talking animals, I guess it's like a precursor to Toy Story realize that their society or farm is anything but just, and they were bell against the farmer overlords of Manor Farm. Now they're portrayed in the book by the pigs and the leader Napoleon.

The book is an interesting framework if you're looking for something to debate and if you're also interested in understanding how satirical authors can take on the politics of the day. 

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a classic American novel. It was published in 1925 and it's a glimpse into the opulence of the roaring twenties and an American society of the day. We meet Gatsby, who begins his Courting of Daisy, and how Gatsby uses his tenant or friend Nick in an attempt to win her heart once again, all at no expense spared. Now, of course, this book was so successful that it's been turned into films multiple times, including in 2013, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Personally, I found that film version a little bit bland, but I do love The Great Gatsby, and I also like some of F. Scott Fitzgerald's other writing, including his nonfiction essay The Crack-Up, which is all about how his life started to fall apart once he found a little bit of success.

Now we have an older book, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Did you know it was published between 1860 and 1861 as a weekly story? It's widely regarded as a classic 19th-century novel. We meet Pip, who's an orphan who rises from poverty and who encounters a mysterious benefactor. He is recruited as a companion to the wealthy young lady Estellia, who makes fun of Pip's humble beginnings and makes him embarrassed about his rough start in life. He eventually leaves London and learns that character, not wealth, is what makes a man a lesson that's more relevant today than ever before. 

Next up is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. This classic Gothic novel was published back in 1818. It sheds light on questions of humanity and the thin line between good and evil.

We meet Victor Frankenstein, who's a young scientist who creates a monster that quickly develops or grows out of his control, and events conspire that Frankenstein cannot control. He's forced to watch as his creation destroys the very things that Frankenstein loves, despite his attempts to destroy the monster. At the end of the novel, we discover that the monster wanted the same things that humans do love and affection. But his horrible or his horrific appearance scares away anybody who can provide him with comfort. 

Did you know that Mary Shelley wrote this book in the summer of 1816, after she went on holidays to Lake Geneva? There was a terrible storm, and along with her traveling companions, she was given a challenge to write the best ghost story to pass the time. 

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger is a classic literature book. It's a coming of age tale all about Holden Caulfield, a Pennsylvania prep schoolboy who leaves his home to explore New York City. This book is famous for employing an unreliable narrator that is, a narrator who seems to appear or to know what's going on. Or does he? We never quite can tell. He also seems to know more than is possible for a 16-year-old. Sometimes he is wilely and wise, and on other occasions in the book, he's reckless and immature. In the book, Salinger explores Holden's thoughts and experiences as he struggles with challenges like alienation and the phoniness of adult society. It's a fun tale all about growing up and finding one's place in life. 

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte is an 1847 classic. We meet two families, the Earnshaws and the Lintons, and we discover their ups and down relationships that all hinge on Heatcliffe Earnshaw, the family's adopted son. The book is widely accepted as a classic today, but it was hugely controversial in its time. That's in part because it describes the difficulties and cruelties of Victorian life with a frankness that was uncommon back then. Now, unfortunately, Wuthering Heights is the author's only published novel, as she sadly passed away, age 30, of tuberculosis. 

Moby Dick by Herman Melvin is also known as the Whale. It tells the story of Ahab and his quest for revenge against Moby Dick, the sperm whale who destroyed one of Ahab's whaling ships and caused the amputation of his leg below the knee. The book was published in 1851 and was a commercial failure, and sadly, Melville never saw the book experience the overwhelming success that it enjoyed after he died in 1891. 

Now, I read this book a few years ago. Frankly, it's a challenging read. It took me quite some time to go through it. That's because the book is as much about the story of Ahab as it is about maritime life. That said, if you can get through it, it is an enjoyable classic literature book that is worth spending time with. 

The Lord of the Rings by J-R-R. Tolkien is perhaps my favourite classic literature book of all time. Of course, everybody knows Lord of the Rings, thanks in part to the films directed by Peter Jackson and, more recently, The Rings of Power, a TV show on Amazon, which is nothing in comparison to The Lord of the Rings books. It's set in the world of Middle Earth, and it's actually all about the horrors of World War I and World War II.

We meet Gandalf, Frodo, Aragon and Samwise as they attempt to destroy the One Ring and defeat Sauron once and for all. If you're interested in fantasy, this book is a cornerstone of that particular genre, and it's also famous for Tolkien's myth building and his construction of lore and languages. 

Anna Karenia by Leo Tolstoy is perhaps my favourite book from a Russian author on this list. Much like Charles Dickinson's works, this book was published in serial form between 1873 and 77. It's all about a remarkable woman, Anna, and how she's deeply unhappily or deeply unhappy in her marriage to a high-ranking government official, Alexey Karen, and how she started an affair with Kant Varonsky. Now, their affair represents how many people in the world in Russia of the day, struggle to find satisfaction and peace. The book is a lot more than Ash. It's also about politics and Russian society of the day, and it has a tragic ending which will stay with you long after you reach the end of the book.

And like many classic literature books, it's been turned into films and TV shows over the years. 

Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is another classic literature book that has stood the test of time. The March sisters are beloved by a generation of readers and moviegoers. The book is told from the female perspective, and it's all about the lessons and situations, the protagonist or the March family experience. It delves into love, life and family relationships. And it's also a type of coming of age book, so perhaps it would pair well if you're going to read about the experiences of Holden Caulfield. 

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is a classic tale that tells of suffering during the Great Depression in America. It was published in 1939, and back then, the book shocked readers with its detailed descriptions of hardship and life for migrants in the Dust Bowl.

Looking for work and a better life, we meet the Jodes, who, along with thousands of other Okis, leave the Dust Bowl region and face a journey filled with hardship and uncertainty. Along the way, they encounter kindness and cruelty from strangers and they encounter a society that appears to value profit over people. It's a heartbreaking read, but it's also a great work of literature that's an insight into times gone by.
Tony Morrison's. Song of Solomon is a more recent book that belongs on this list. It was published in 1977. It's a coming of age tale all about Milkman Dead. On the day of his birth, Milkman Dead's grandfather leaps out the window to his debt.

Now Dead himself is the son of a wealthy black family and is raised in a privileged environment. But as he grows older, he becomes increasingly disillusioned with life and searches for a new sense of identity and belonging, and many people struggle to relate to Milkman as he undergoes this transition. Ultimately he forms a deep relationship with his family and they finally start to understand him. The book is all about community and the power of connection to one's heritage and history. It's also about healing and reconciliation. It's probably a more heartwarming read than some of the other books on this list. 

I'm a big fan of science fiction. Elsewhere on this channel, I've profiled some of the best science fiction authors you should check out.

One of those authors is Ray Bradbury. His most famous book, Fahrenheit 451. It's a Dystopian tale all about Guy Montag, a fireman who lives in the world where firefighters are charged with starting rather than putting out fires. Now, he's also charged with getting rid of printed books because they're forbidden in his society. Television rules a roost in Montag society and his home. And because of television, he becomes exceptionally bored by his wife Mildred, who spends her days staring at the television. I guess you could swap television for smartphones or the internet today.

Anyway, it's a classic science fiction book which has really informed the genre. So definitely one to check out if you're interested in reading more science fiction or if you just want to delve into the world of Ray Bradbury. 

Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn in 1884. It's another coming of age story that follows the adventures of a young boy named Huckleberry, or Hulk Finn, as he travels down the Mississippi River with an escaped slave named Jim. Of course, it's set in the southern United States, and it was famous for a realistic portrayal of the time period, particularly for its depiction of slavery and the treatment of African Americans. In the book, Huck faces moral dilemmas and grapples with societal expectations of the day. They also have lots of entertaining and fascinating adventures as they float down the river, encountering con artists, criminals and so on. And eventually they reach Cairo, Illinois.

The book is famous for its humour, for its satire, and for exploring or for exploring themes like freedom, individualism, and the moral ambiguity of human nature. 


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Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov is another classic literature book from a russian author. It's set in the 19th century and it centers around the four Karamazov brothers Dmitri, Ivan, Alexi and their father Fyodor. It explores themes like morality, fate and the nature of existence. The novel is actually divided into twelve shorter books, each dealing with relationships and conflicts between the brothers, their father and other characters in the book. The book's central theme is the struggle between good and evil, both within the characters themselves and the world at large. 

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway is the next addition to this list. Now, it's hard to pick one book from Ernest Hemingway because he's written so many different classics, but if I had to pick one, I'd pick The Old Man and the Sea. When I first read this book, I had worked the next day and I was supposed to go to sleep around eleven, but I ended up staying up till half one to finish the book because the story or short novel and it is a short novel, so you'd finish it in a few hours, is just that good. We meet an elderly Cuban fisherman named Santiago who has gone 84 days without catching his fish, but he's determined to catch a large Marlin.

So one day he sets out to sea on a small skiff, and after a long grueling battle, he captures a giant marlin. But sharks attack and devour the marlin on the way to shore, leaving Santiago with only the skeleton and a sense of triumph for having caught the fish in the first place. Basically, the book is all about one man's quest for success and the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. 

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf was published in 1925. It's set in London and England on a single day in 1923. It follows the lives of several characters, with the main focus being on Clarissa Dalloway, who is a high society woman of the day planning a big party, and also Septimus Warren Smith, who's a shell shocked World War I veteran. Like many of Woolf's books, it employs a stream of consciousness narrative which can be a little bit difficult to get your head around at first, or a little bit difficult to read.

But Virginia excels at depicting the thoughts and feelings of characters to the reader and it was quite a unique and distinctive style back then, although it was quite popular today with many literary fiction authors. 

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy was published in 1869. Now, I read this book when I was in my late twenties. At the time I was working on a night shift in a rather boring job, so I had a lot of free time in the middle of the night and it still took me a couple of months to get through this book. That's because it's such a big, compelling read. Actually, if you're going on holidays, you could bring it with you because it will captivate you for the entirety of your holiday. The book tells the story of several aristocratic Russian families, all about their lives, relationships and struggles. And when they go to war, we also discover or learn about the political evils or upheavals of Russian society of the day.

And the book also interweaves fiction and nonfiction by Tolstoy. Personally, I found the nonfiction treaties a little bit more difficult to get through in this book and was more captivated by the tales of the families inside of War and Peace. But compared to some other Russian novels on this list, it is an accessible and enjoyable read. 

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde was published in 1890. He's a handsome and wealthy young man who indulges in a life of hedonism and pleasure, but he keeps a secret portrait of himself locked in the attic. That's because as long as he keeps the portrait of himself locked in the attic, he will hold on to the secret of eternal youth. In the book, we discover that Dorian becomes consumed by his desire for beauty and youth and ultimately his pursuit of pleasure, and hedonism leads him to commit terrible crimes. He becomes increasingly narcissistic and cruel, but in the end he realizes the error of his ways and the ugliness of a soul.

He destroys the picture and ultimately ends his life. Basically, the book explores how art can reveal the inner nature of a subject and that true beauty lies beneath the soul and not in external appearances. 

100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez was published in 1967. It's all about the story of the Wendier family who live in the fictional town of Maconda in Colombia. It's a multigenerational saga that follows the lives of this family, their struggles triumphs and setbacks an ultimate decline over the course of a hundred-year period. It's a dense read. It's also a masterpiece of magical realism.

It combines both realistic stories and fiction with fantastical elements to create something that's a rich and complex narrative. It's also quite a dense read, so it's going to take you some time to get through it. The book is also about the politics and societal upheaval of Latin America, particularly Colombian society. 

In the book, Marquez explores themes like solitude, memory and the passage of time. And many of the characters are shown to be affected by the weight of their history and their inability to break free from the past. 

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice was written in 1813. It's a famous romantic novel that follows the lives of the Bennett family, particularly Elizabeth Bennett, as they navigate true societal expectations of the day and their pursuits of love and marriage in 19th-century England. Austin also explores themes like pride, prejudice, of course, and a societal pressure to marry for wealth and status. And it's famously about the relationship between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy as they overcome their issues to fall in love with each other. 

Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in 1897. It's a famous gothic horror novel that tells the story of Count Dracula, a vampire who moves from Transylvania to England to spread an undead curse. And it's also about the people who try to stop him. Now, unlike traditional horror books, it's written in the form of journal entries, letters and newspaper articles. So it can take a little bit of time for you to figure out the narrative, you kind of have to piece it together like a puzzle.

The book has obviously had a huge impact on contemporary horror and contemporary thriller books. So if you're interested in that particular genre, then Dracula is a must read. 

Charlotte Bronte wrote Jane Eyre in 1847. It's a romantic novel that tells the story of the orphan Jane Eyre. She becomes a governess at the estate of Mr. Rochester. He's the wealthy master of Thornfield Hall, and the book follows Jane's experiences at Thornfield and her growing love for Mr. Rochester.

It's all about the secrets and obstacles that keep them apart. The object of her affection is already married and he's locked his wife up in the attic. Jane leaves him, but later she inherits money and then returns. He loses his sight and his hand when his mad wife burns down the house. And then they can finally marry and live happily ever after. Now, the book actually explores themes like social class, gender roles, and the nature of love and family. But it's got many different interpretations. So it's more than a romantic book. It's a classic literature book, which is often studied in schools for those exact reasons. 

The Iliad by Homer is a much older book on this list. It's actually an epic poem that was written in the 8th century BC, and it tells the story of the last year of the Trojan War and a legendary conflict between the city of Troy and a coalition of Greek states. It focuses on the Trojan Prince Hector and the Greek warrior Achilles, the central character, and it's all about how the Trojans take advantage of Achilles'absence to push the Greeks back in an epic battle. The book, or The Iliad, is famous for its vivid depictions of battles of the day and its complex portrayals of characters, and it's been hugely influential on the field of storytelling. 

The Odyssey is another 18th century poem by Homer. This epic poem tells the story of the Greek hero Odysseus and his 10 year journey home after the fall of Troy. It begins with Odysseus being held captive on an island by a nymph, and it tells of how he escaped the island and ultimately found his way back. And of course, Odysseus encounters many challenges along the way, including the wrath of a sea god, Poseidon, and temptations in the form of an alluring sorceress. It's another great read if you're looking for something that's a lot older but is still regarded as a classic today. 

Lewis Carroll wrote Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, a classic fantasy novel, in 1865. In the book, Alice falls down the rabbit hole, which has become a type of cliche today, and enters a fantastical world of strange and peculiar characters. These include the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts and the Cheshire Cat. The novel follows Alice as she encounters these characters and goes on various adventures, and even plays croquet with Flamingos as Mallets attending a mad tea party. And of course, this book has informed or inspired a lot of contemporary successful works, including The Matrix. 

Don Quixote was first published in two parts in 1605 and 1615. It's considered one of the great works or great literature works from Spain. We meet Alonzo, who becomes enamored with the tales of chivalry romance of the day. He sets out to become a knight under the name Don Quixote, and to revive Chivalry, defend the oppressed, and serve his lady love. His lady love is Dulcinea, who is a peasant woman who Kyote idolizes as a noble. This love story is as much an engaging love story as it is a book that's full of irony, humor and satire. 

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was a novella first written in 1843. Like many of Dickinson's works, it takes place in London, England. It takes place on Christmas Eve, and it tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, who's a wealthy but miseraly or miserly businessman who hates himself and his wealth and pretty much all those around him. He's also known for his disdain of Christmas and all things joyful. On the night before Christmas, he's visited by the ghost of his former business partner, who warns him that three spirits will visit him the ghosts of Christmas past, present and yet to come, and ultimately, Scrooge changes his ways. 

Now, as great as A Christmas Carol is, I actually recommend checking out the Muppets film version because it's pretty entertaining. That said, A Christmas Carol is a classic read, and it's a good example of how Charles Dickens was able to write the contemporary society of his day. 

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island in 1883. It's a classic adventure story. It's all about a young boy named Jim Hawkins who becomes involved in a treasure hunt for a pirate's treasure on an island in the Caribbean. The story begins when Jim finds a treasure map in the belongings of an old sailor, and he, along with a group of men, set out to find it.

We also meet Long John Silver, a famous one legged pirate who is initially presented as friendly and charismatic, but ultimately becomes the mutiny's leader. And I guess Treasure Island has informed contemporary works like Pirates of the Caribbean. 

Those are just 27 must read classic literature books. And of course, this list is entirely subjective, based on books that I've read or enjoyed other readers have recommended to me. 


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