Defining the term "modern classics" is difficult, mostly because there are no hard and fast rules for what exactly a "classic" book is to begin with. For the purpose of this list, we're including books that have stood the test of time (or for more recent publications, books we think will stand the test of time) and were published after 1920. In other words, you won't find any of the old-school classics (like Austen, Shakespeare or Homer) on this list.
This is by no means a definitive list—there are dozens more books that we could have included here—but we think it's a great starting point. Every one of these modern classics is Early Bird Books—approved to be worth your time and a great choice for your next read.
So take a look at our list and let us know what you think. If we missed your favorite modern classic book, tell us about it in the comments below!
Related: 10 Most Popular Books of All Time
The Color Purple
Alice Walker’s groundbreaking, Pulitzer Prize–winning novel follows the lives of a group of African-American women in rural Georgia. Its unflinching look at the violence, sexism, and racism made The Color Purple one of the most censored and challenged books by the American Library Association for nearly a decade. But Walker’s novel is clearly a work of genius that marries history and storytelling into an anthem for social change.
An inarguable modern classic, Sophie’s Choice focuses on three characters: Stingo, an aspiring novelist who is sexually frustrated; Natan, Stingo’s violent-yet-charismatic Jewish neighbor, and Sophie, Nathan’s lover who survived Auschwitz. As the three characters become more involved in one another’s lives, they reveal long-buried secrets that will change them forever.
Related: William Styron: A Life in Books
West with the Night
If you’re looking for adventure, this memoir by the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean has it in spades. Beryl Markham had an unconventional childhood growing up in early 20th-century Kenya. Her life there allowed her to embrace her adventurous spirit, train racehorses, and pilot aspirations—a lifestyle that would have been difficult had she and her father remained in England.
National Geographic ranked West with the Night #8 in their 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time list, and Hemingway called it “a bloody wonderful book.”
The Haunting of Hill House
There aren’t too many modern classic horror books, but this genre was where Shirley Jackson shined. If you think you don’t need to read this because you’ve already seen the (admittedly wonderful) Netflix show of the same name, think again. The Netflix series was only inspired by Jackson’s truly terrifying novel, which is decidedly different and has been unnerving readers for 60 years.
The Forever War
This classic science fiction novel about a never-ending intergalactic conflict has been widely accepted as the author’s response to the Vietnam War. Haldeman himself fought in Vietnam, where he was wounded and received a Purple Heart. His experiences in the war influenced a large part of his fiction, and in The Forever War, he captures the alienation that soldiers feel returning from combat to daily life.
This timeless book transcends the genre; as William Gibson wrote, “To say that The Forever War is the best science fiction war novel ever written is to damn it with faint praise … as fine and woundingly genuine a war story as any I’ve read.”
Related: Legendary Author Joe Haldeman Shares the Story Behind The Forever War, from The Portalist
Revolution from Within
Women across many generations credit this book with changing their outlook and helping them to accept themselves. Gloria Steinem makes clear that internal change and external political change are powerfully linked—and neither is possible without the other. Part personal stories and part eye-opening guide, Revolution will rock your world view.
Life of Pi
In 2003, Yann Martel published the story of Pi Patel, the son of a zookeeper. Tragedy strikes when the family moves from India to North America, an endeavor that involves packing up all their animals aboard a Japanese cargo ship so they can be sold to zoos in America. The ship sinks, leaving Pi stranded on a boat with Richard Parker, a 450-pound Bengal tiger. What follows is an unbelievable tale that underscores the power of story-telling and questions our understandings of reality and truth.
The Prince of Tides
This classic Southern novel by the late, great Pat Conroy is perfect for anyone who loves an epic family drama with a large side-serving of romance. Tom Wingo and his sister, Savannah, have tried their best to move on from their abusive upbringing and make the best of their lives. But it takes a trip to New York—and the help of a therapist—to make Tom realize the key to defeating his demons is to confront them head-on.
Related: 10 Must-Read Pat Conroy Books
The Secret History
“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” So begins the shocking murder-mystery-in-reverse from Donna Tartt, a literary novel that immediately lets us know who done it, but makes us delve deep into her characters in order to find out why. The inclusive, unusual relationship forged among the group of clever misfits all studying Classics at a prestigious New England college would be endlessly fascinating, even if they hadn’t killed one of their own.
The Fall of Japan
For those who have always wanted to learn more about the Pacific arena of WWII, this essential history is told from both Japanese and American perspectives. In this gripping account of the final weeks of the war in midsummer 1945, Japanese generals were still holding on to a hope that the Axis powers would prevail. From the bombing of Pearl Harbor to America’s agonizing decision to drop the atom bombs, The Fall of Japan is a fascinating but harrowing read.
Tara Westover, the child of survivalists living in the mountains of Idaho, never stepped foot in a classroom until she was seventeen years old. In her memoir, Tara examines how education opened up her life far beyond the limits her father had forced upon the family. Incredibly, Tara went further than most students ever do, eventually receiving her PhD from Cambridge University—it’s a journey you have to read to believe, and it’s the kind of book that has the power to completely reshape how people understand the importance of education, and the effects of abuse.
All Creatures Great and Small
Most will remember the delightful British television series of the same name—but perhaps not everyone will realize the show was borne from this modern classic. Just out of veterinary school, the young James Herriot takes up a post in rural Yorkshire, quickly realizing that real life out in the field (or, in this case, on the farm) poses greater challenges than those he faced in the classroom. For readers interested in farm life, animal husbandry, botany, or the people who live off the land, this charming book is to be cherished for the ages.
North and South
In the first book of this enormously popular Civil War trilogy, John Jakes introduces readers to a country divided through the drama between two families: the rice-growing Mains of South Carolina and the iron-working Hazards of Pennsylvania. If historical fiction is your go-to genre, you can’t go wrong with Jakes’ epic trilogy—an intimate portrait of America from before the Civil War through the Reconstruction era.
The City and the Pillar
If you haven't read this modern classic, definitely put it on your TBR list. Brimming with Gore Vidal's trademark style and wit, this landmark novel in gay literature begins in the late 1930s and is told from the point of view of Jim, a handsome young man from Virginia. Jim isn’t attracted to women and has his first real sexual experience with his friend and longtime crush, Bob—and though Bob doesn’t think what they did was “normal,” Jim never forgets it. Jim travels around the country and has affairs with men in New York, New Orleans and Hollywood—but struggles to find happiness as a gay man in WWII-era America.
Upstairs at the White House
From 1957 to 1969, J.B. West was the “chief usher” at the White House, responsible for all the daily events—including weddings, parties, and funerals. Together with the First Ladies, West supervised the White House staff and oversaw renovations and additions to the grounds through the terms of six presidents. One of those first ladies was Jackie Kennedy—and she called West “one of the most extraordinary men I have ever met.” Take a behind-the-scenes look at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue from the guy who kept it running smoothly.
Fear of Flying
Erica Jong’s feminist novel became a literary sensation when it was first published in 1973 (coincidentally the same year of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision), making waves with its upfront depiction of female sexuality, desire, and independence. It follows Isadora, the wife of a psychoanalyst, as she grapples with her desire for another man and searches for selfhood within her marriage. While many similar novels came later, none have become the worldwide, cultural phenomenon that was Fear of Flying.
Related: Literature's Sexual Rebels, by Erica Jong
This Pulitzer Prize-winning, sprawling family epic from Jeffrey Eugenides follows the lives of a Greek-American family from the sacking of Smyrna in 1922 to the Detroit race riots in 1967, culminating in the story of Calliope Stephanides, who was ostensibly born a girl but is not technically female biologically. Now a 41-year-old man, Cal Stephanides traces the history that resulted in his genetic mutation to tell a gripping story that explores the fluidity of gender and the unpredictability of desire.
The Last Jews in Berlin
This thrilling book details the little-known stories of a dozen Jewish men and women who spent the final months of World War II in hiding—many in plain sight of the Nazis. Gross interviewed a handful of the thousand Jews who remained in Berlin in the last 27 months of war to bring readers a moving and suspenseful account of one of history's most horrifying chapters.
Not to be confused with a classic western book, Midnight Cowboy tells the story of Joe Buck, a naive young man from Texas who leaves his small town to make it big in New York City. However, hacking it in Manhattan isn’t nearly as easy as Joe believes it will be, and as his life falls apart, he forges a friendship with “Ratso” Rizzo, a crippled street hustler who isn’t doing much better than he is. Their unusual friendship (famously depicted by Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in the film of the same name) is the heart of this powerful, shattering novel.
We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young
This powerful New York Times bestseller offers a devastating account of two of the earliest and most ruthless battles of the Vietnam War. Lt. General Moore and Joseph L. Galloway—the only journalist on the ground throughout the war—interviewed hundreds of soldiers from both sides to create a revealing look at humanity at its most heroic and most terrible. The basis for the movie starring Mel Gibson, We Were Soldiers Once…and Young is one of the definitive books on the Vietnam War, “written the way military history should be written” (H. Norman Schwarzkopf).
Related: 10 Unforgettable Vietnam War Books
The Man Within
It’s difficult to pick just one Graham Greene book for this list of modern classics—truthfully, we think pretty much all of his books should be included—but if we had to stick with just one, we’d go with his first hit. Published in 1929, the story of Francis Andrews, a man who is struggling to get out from under his father’s shadow, is at once relatable and shocking, even 90 years later.
In 1963, Mary McCarthy published The Group, one of the first novels to deal openly with female sexuality, contraception, and breastfeeding. A story about Vassar graduates from the class of 1933 as they navigate adulthood in New York City, it's as compelling today as it was in the 1960s, and even has admirers in Candace Bushnell (who created Sex and the City as a modern answer to The Group), Hilary Mantel, and Gloria Steinem.
Play It as It Lays
Though she’s best known for her essays, Joan Didion’s “scathing novel” makes it seem as though she’s been writing fiction for all her life. Set in 1960s California, Play It As It Lays is the story of a woman who’s losing control of her own life. An ex-model, ex-film star, estranged wife and mother of a daughter with an “aberrant chemical in her brain,” Maria struggles to find meaning in her life in this searing masterpiece “from one of the very few writers of our time who approaches her terrible subject with absolute seriousness, with fear and humility and awe” (Joyce Carol Oates, The New York Times Book Review).
Crazy Horse and Custer
This dual biography of Crazy Horse, the leader of the Oglala Sioux, and cavalry general General Custer is a classic American history book. Award-winning and New York Times bestselling author Stephen Ambrose provides a thorough account of their lives before their showdown at the Battle of Little Bighorn, highlighting just how much these two enemies had in common.
Fire from Heaven
A New York Times bestseller and Man Booker Prize finalist, Mary Renault’s novel about Alexander the Great shines as a modern classic piece of historical fiction. In this dramatization of Alexander’s formative years, Renault explores Alexander’s relationships with his parents and his friend-turned-lover, and offers an incredible, breath-taking imagining of what it must have been like to come of age while commanding an army and battling for southern Greece.
Clifford Simak’s science fiction classic tells of another intergalactic conflict—this time between humans and aliens. When our hero, Enoch Wallace, travels through space to communicate with aliens, the U.S. government becomes suspicious when he returns to Earth and stops aging for 100 years. What the American government knows, or claims not to know, reflects a sign of the times—Way Station was written during the Cold War, and echoes the paranoia and anxiety that crippled both America and Russia for nearly 50 years.
The Good Earth
American writer Pearl S. Buck drew on her experiences growing up in Zienjiang, China, as the daughter of missionaries. Her 1931 novel, The Good Earth, was a sensation—not only did it remain a bestseller for two years and win a Pulitzer Prize, it has even been credited with inspiring the U.S.-China alliance during WWII. The novel—which tells the story of a Chinese farmers in the 1920s—was adapted into a successful film in 1937, and resurged in popularity when it was chosen for Oprah's Book Club in 2004.
Buck became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and, on top of publishing many more historical fiction novels, dedicated her life to writing about the rights of women and minority groups, becoming a proponent for mixed-race adoption.
One of Italo Calvino’s most famous works, Marcovaldo is a collection of stories about the eponymous character, whose impulsive and impractical ideas never quite turn out the way he expects them to. Told in Calvino’s trademark magical prose and ranging from comedic to tragic, each story “conveys the sensuous, tangible qualities of life” (The New York Times). In short, it’s an excellent introduction to the Italian master of magical realism.
Most people don't think of business books belonging on a list of modern classics, but we're asking you to expand your horizons a bit for this choice. Bill Gates called John Brooks’ Business Adventures “the best business book I’ve ever read”—and if it’s good enough for Bill Gates, then it’s worth reading!
Published in 1969, these “12 classic tales from the world of Wall Street” investigate major corporations like Xerox and General Electric to discover what—and who—make them so successful. Brooks’ accessible and witty writing style makes the book a fascinating read, even if you're not usually the kind of person to keep an eye on the Nasdaq. If you're still unsure, go ahead and read an excerpt of the book here.
The Eagle Has Landed
As long as we're talking about things that aren't usually considered modern classics, let's go ahead and cover spy thrillers with Jack Higgins. His breakthrough WWII thriller, The Eagle Has Landed, sold more than 50 million copies and was turned into a popular 1976 film starring Robert Duvall, Michael Caine and Donald Sutherland. If that's not enough to rank Higgins among the greats, we're not sure what is.
Related: 10 Must-Read Jack Higgins Thrillers, from Murder & Mayhem
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
Since its publication in 1970, Dee Brown’s devastating Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee has become a staple of American history. For any reader who is looking to confront the demons of our nation’s past, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is an unflinching and elegiac chronicle of the Native people, told through their own stories.
Parable of the Sower
This groundbreaking and eerily prescient dystopian novel offers a terrifying vision of our potential future—but also one of hope. Set in an alternate Los Angeles, Lauren Olamina is a young woman with hyper-empathy, a condition that makes her extremely sensitive to the pain of others. She and her family survive within the walls of the city’s remaining safe neighborhood until tragedy forces Lauren into a world on the brink of chaos.
The first in a trilogy, this unforgettable historical novel about the late 18-century settlers of the Louisiana wilderness offers a captivating read that’s rich in history and romance. Set against the backdrop of historic events, such as the Louisiana Purchase, this bestselling chronicle of the Larne family’s saga of poverty and wealth, betrayal and forgiveness, is perfect for fans of Margaret Mitchell.
The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries Volume One
One of the Golden Age “Queens of Crime,” Dorothy L. Sayers is best known for her acclaimed mystery series featuring British aristocrat and sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. A World War I veteran who collects rare books, samples fine wines, and solves crimes, Wimsey is the quintessential English gentleman detective. This volume of the first three books in Sayers’ beloved and elegant series is a perfect introduction for new readers.
The Ice Storm
The basis for the award-winning film starring Sigourney Weaver and Tobey Maguire, The Ice Storm is the bestselling novel that launched Rick Moody’s career. Set in the affluent town of New Canaan, Connecticut, it centers on a family’s unraveling over the course of one night during the winter of 1973. With gorgeous prose, Moody creates a bleak yet compassionate portrayal of the 1970s suburban wasteland—from latchkey kids to key parties—as a literal and symbolic storm tears through.
Featured Image: "The Color Purple" (1985), via Warner Bros.