While there will always be fresh books topping your to-read list, certain classic novels should hold a permanent position on your bookshelf or bedside table. You can almost feel the history in the pages, full of literary firsts and once-controversial topics.
Whether you’ve read them before and are in for round two (or three or four) or you skimmed them in high school, these 50 classic books to read should be at the top of your literary bucket list. Challenge yourself by reading the book that’s considered the first modern novel, Don Quixote, fall in love with Elizabeth Bennet’s wit in Pride and Prejudice, catch a glimpse of early feminist thinking in The Awakening, and understand the precursor of your current Hulu addition by sitting down with a hard copy of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Break out your bookmark—here are 50 classic books to read.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
This character-driven romantic novel explores themes of marriage, gender, and societal hierarchy and their place in late 18th-/early 19th-century rural England. Witty, irreverent, and slightly judge-y, Elizabeth Bennet, the story's protagonist, is totally ahead of her time.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
This Gothic novel follows its main characters, Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw, as they don't live happily ever after. It's a twisted, tormented love story that'll transport your mind to the moors of England in all their untamed, slightly creepy glory.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
When she bears a child out of wedlock, Hester Prynne is branded an adulterer by her Puritan community in New England and is sentenced to wear the letter A (for adulteress) on the front of her dress for the rest of her life. But who is the true sinner in this story—Hester or the people pointing fingers?
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Set in 19th-century Boston, Louis May Alcott's semi-autobiographical novel centers around the four March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—and touches on themes of family, responsibility, and gender roles. It's a light, character-driven story with a happy ending.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
As the title implies, The Awakening is about an a-ha moment (or moments) that leads the protagonist, Edna Pontellier, to break free from her binding roles as a wife and mother and seek personal fulfillment. While The Awakening is now considered a landmark feminist novel, it was considered vulgar by many among its original 19th-century audience.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Written by Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita is a story about 37-year-old Humbert Humbert and his lustful, emotional obsession with his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Lolita. Disturbing? Yes, but the off-putting premise of the novel hasn't stopped Lolita from being lauded as one of the 20th century's greatest novels, nor has it halted sales. In fact, Lolita has sold 50 million copies—and counting.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The concept of the American dream is at the core of this famous work of fiction, which takes place in tony Long Island in the year 1922. While The Great Gatsby is now considered a classic American novel, Fitzgerald died before his work began to receive commercial and critical success. Nowadays, The Great Gatsby sells 500,000 copies annually.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
This semi-autobiographical novel is considered Woolf's mangum opus, particularly due to the author's brilliant manipulation of the stream-of-consciousness narrative. The story centers around the Ramsay family as they summer in Scotland's Isle of Skye.
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
This Modernist novel is arguably one of the most highly esteemed works of 20th-century American literature. It's also a notoriously difficult read due to the novel's frequent shifts in time, narrators, and setting.
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
Generally accepted as the first modern novel, Don Quixote is said to have paved the way for Western literature as we know it. The story runs the gamut from philosophical to comedic as middle-aged Don Quixote embarks on a quest to prove that chivalry's not dead.
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
Depending on whom you ask, Gulliver’s Travels is a (mis)adventure story, a children's book, a prose satire, a combination of all of the above, or something else entirely. Form your own opinion by reading the four-part story, which is considered a landmark text of English literature.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Widely regarded as one of the greatest American novels, this tragic epic follows sea captain Ahab in his quest for vengeance against Moby Dick, a white sperm whale responsible for the loss of Ahab's lower leg. It all starts with one of the most famous lines in literary history: “Call me Ishmael.”
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
When it was published in 1884, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ruffled feathers with its satirical jabs at the social mores that governed life in the antebellum South. These mores, of course, included the institution of slavery, which Twain boldly condemns through his less-than-flattering depictions of white characters.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
This children's story explores some very grown-up ideas. Namely, that interactions with nature can inspire personal growth and serve as a catalyst for health and healing, both physically and spiritually. The transformation of 10-year-old protagonist Mary Lennox from insufferable brat to empathetic cherub might just inspire you to reconnect with the earth—even if that just means introducing a few more houseplants into your space.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Set during the Great Depression, this influential novel presents the American dream as an impossibility—despite the best-laid schemes of mice and men. And while it's clear that the shared aspirations of migrant workers George and Lennie, the story's main characters, are doomed from the beginning, you'll find yourself rooting for them anyway.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Curious and imaginative, the pint-sized protagonist in this modern fable appeals to the child in us all. And if you sometimes feel like a kid trapped in a grown-up body, you're not alone: The Little Prince has sold more than 200 million copies across the world.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
The age-old debate of nature versus nurture is at the core of this classic work of fiction. The story centers around a group of British schoolboys who find themselves on a deserted island following a plane crash. Without adult supervision, the boys waste no time letting go of civility and order.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Arguably the most famous text to come out of the Beat movement, On the Road is a counterculture classic, nay bible. Following the misadventures of two road-tripping friends, the novel captures the spirit of the American dream (and the optimism of youth) through non-linear, stream-of-consciousness-style writing—dubbed "spontaneous prose" by Kerouac.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
This three-volume fantasy novel became a pop culture phenomenon well before Orlando Bloom donned his elf ears as Legolas. Conceived as a sequel to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings has sold more than 150 million copies since its publish date in 1954.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Taking place during Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812, this historical novel offers a realistic glimpse into the era's unique struggles and triumphs as they pertained to the story's three main characters—all of whom come from very different backgrounds. Coming in at more than 1,400 pages, War and Peace is a lengthy read, but worth the investment of time: It's heralded as a masterpiece of Russian literature.
Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger
Storm of Steel is a first-person account of trench warfare, written by German officer Ernst Jünger as he served on the Western Front during World War I. Initially published in 1920, the memoir offers a realistic, yet objective glimpse into the everyday life of front-line soldiers—and the author spares no gory details.
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Inspired by Hemingway's time as a volunteer ambulance driver for the Red Cross during World War I, this work of fiction is told from the perspective of Frederic Henry, the story's protagonist who must reconcile his duties in warfare with his tragic romance with Catherine Barkley, an English nurse.
Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves
Written by Graves at age 33, this autobiographical account of frontline warfare during World War I is sometimes somber and occasionally irreverent, proving the memoir to be an accurate peek into the war experience. And while the memoir was Graves's attempt at "a formal good-bye to you and to you and to you and to me and to all that," its contents suggests that some life experiences are too profound to leave in the past entirely.
Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo
While Johnny Got His Gun was published in 1939, the work of fiction has an anti-war message that transcends time. The story centers around Joe Bonham, a young soldier who, after surviving a disfiguring and incapacitating injury during World War I, is stuck between the optimism of his past and the grim realities of his future.
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
Taking place during the Russian Revolution, this gripping novel is a critique of Communism. More than that, though, it's a tragic love story that centers around Yuri Zhivago, a poet and physician who's unwilling to relinquish his individualism and free-thinking to conform to political ideals.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Set during World War II, this best-selling American novel shines a light on military bureaucracy and the absurdities of war. The book is significant not only due to its satirical take on war fiction, but also because it coined the term "catch-22"; the story's main character, Capt. John Yossarian, finds himself unable to escape the war because of the paradoxical concept.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Inspired by the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, which Kurt Vonnegut witnessed during his time as a World War II POW, Slaughterhouse-Five combines elements of sci-fi, autobiography, and satire to weave the non-linear story of Billy Pilgrim, a WW2 soldier and the novel's protagonist. When the novel was published during the Vietnam War, its antiwar themes were embraced by members of the counterculture movement.
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
Nabbing the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1975, this riveting historical novel recounts the four deadliest days of the Civil War—the Battle of Gettysburg, which took place July 1–3, 1863. The character-driven story is told through the eyes of the battle's key players (primarily Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and James Jongstreet and Union generals Joshua Chamberlain and John Buford) and does so with historical accuracy and emotional tension.
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Oliver Twist exposes the unsavory truths of Victorian society, namely England's new Poor Law of 1834 and the deplorable workhouse conditions that followed. With its social commentary and then-provocative story line (complete with murder and crime), the novel was an instant success when it was published in 1838. Because it was published serially, readers eagerly anticipated the next installment.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
They say you can't judge a book by its cover—unless, of course, you're peering at the grotesque, hideous portrait of Dorian Gray. Through mysterious powers, the living portrait reflects each cruel, ugly act committed by its subject, who, off-canvas, is impossibly beautiful and unapologetically hedonistic.
The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a trailblazing 19th-century American feminist, The Yellow Wallpaper comprises several of the writer's more notable works. Its title story highlights the patriarchal oppression of women as the main character, struggling with postpartum depression, is prescribed a "rest cure" that ultimately fuels her psychotic break.
How It Feels to Be Colored Me by Zora Neale Hurston
First published in World Tomorrow, an American political magazine, in 1928, this autobiographical essay discusses the author's transformation from "everybody’s Zora" to "a little colored girl." The change occurs upon Hurston's move from her all-black hometown of Eatonville, Florida, to Jacksonville, but despite the poignancy of her newfound self-awareness, Hurston refuses to allows racial differences to define her.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
This semi-autobiographical novel and coming-of-age story, set in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn, tells the uplifting tale of Mary Frances "Francie" Nolan, an imaginative adolescent whose tenacity paves the way for her escape from tenement life.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
If there's one novel that captures the angst of adolescence, it's The Catcher in the Rye. The story chronicles two days in the life of 16-year-old Holden Caulfield as he questions authority, gets in fights, thinks about sex, and, well, acts like a teenager. Themes of innocence, death, and authenticity are in play here, too, contributing to the book's enduring relevance.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison's only novel, Invisible Man is heralded as a classic African-American text—and it was named one of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century by Time magazine. At the story's core is a nameless black protagonist whose experiences with social invisibility spur him to retreat to a subterranean lair. There, he mulls his identity and his position in society.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Published during the Civil Rights movement, this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel hinges upon themes of social inequality, moral education, and evil versus innocence. The protagonist is Jean Louise (“Scout”) Finch, a young girl whose father, Atticus Finch, is serving as the defense lawyer for a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Taking place during the Great Depression, the trial divides the Finches' small Alabama town as prejudice muddies the waters of justice.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Paralleling Sylvia Plath's real-life struggles with mental illness, this novel tells the story of Esther Greenwood, a young college student whose self-doubt contributes to her spiral into depression. Joining mental health as a presiding theme in this novel is the treatment and position of women during 1950s America.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Through a series of confessional-style letters written by the main character, Celie, this Pulitzer Prize-winning feminist work underscores the oppression endured by black women during the early 20th century. It's also a story of triumph over adversity, as Celie finds success and fulfillment despite the injustices of her past.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
This 200-plus-year-old story (considered by many as the progenitor to the sci-fi genre) endures for a reason: It's dark and suspenseful, yes, but its treatment of universal themes (science versus nature, life and death, etc.) pervade time and space. Fun fact: Mary Shelley penned the story when she was only 18 years old.
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
We all have H.G. Wells to thank for the concept of the time machine. The notion of traveling through time via a manmade machine was introduced in this 1895 scientific parable. Told as story within a story, the events center around a Victorian English scientist/inventor and his journey to the year 802,701.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
This 19th-century Gothic novella explores the duality of human nature through the two alter egos of its main character, a prominent and respected physician named Dr. Henry Jekyll. The story was an instant hit upon its publication and represents Stevenson's best-selling work.
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Sesame Street's Count von Count, Twilight's Edward Cullen, Buffy The Vampire Slayer's Drusilla... All of these modern vampires share a common ancestor: Bram Stoker's Count Dracula. Published in 1897, Dracula is credited for creating the vampire literary and film genres as we now know them.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Set in 2540 CE, this dystopian novel explores a futuristic society in which humans are designed to be void of emotion in order to better serve the conformist ideals of the "World State." The speculative fiction story retains its relevancy through its chilling representation of "utopian" society.
1984 by George Orwell
The term "Big Brother" was coined by George Orwell in this 1949 dystopian novel, which examines ideas of totalitarianism, government overreach, and media manipulation in a futuristic superstate dubbed Airstrip One (formerly Great Britain). Orwell's ninth (and final) novel, the poignant and enduring story was named one of the 100 best English-language novels by Time magazine.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Taking place in the 24th century, this novel presents a futuristic society in which books (and therefore, individual thinking) are banned. The story's protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman who's tasked with the book burning, but he begins to question his role as his eyes are opened to the notions of autonomy, free will, and a society without censorship.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Considered by the author to be her magnum opus. Atlas Shrugged explores Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, which advocates for reason, laissez-faire capitalism, and rational self-interest in achieving true happiness.
While Atlas Shrugged received a resounding thumbs-down from many critics (and Objectivism remains a polarizing topic), her novel has maintained a presence on best-seller lists—and her philosophy is said to have helped shaped the ideas of the Libertarian Party.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Before its small-screen adaptation for Hulu, the story of The Handmaid's Tale existed in the pages of Margaret Atwood's 1985 dystopian novel. The story explores a near-future New England in which a theocratic government strips women of their human rights, reducing them to their reproductive capabilities.