What makes a book a classic? Well, the answer to that question depends on who you’re speaking to. In my opinion, the books that are most commonly considered classics do one of three things: explore the human condition, make you reconsider the way you view the world, and have cultural appeal and influence well beyond its time.
The books on this list all have at least one, if not all of these qualities. Whether you’re either looking to round out your reading of the classics, or if you’re in the mood to revisit an oldie but a goodie, you’ve come to the right place.
To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee’s classic work is set in Maycomb, Alabama in the mid-1930s. This well-known and well-loved literary work focuses on Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, and her family. Alcomb is thrown into conflict when Scout’s widowed father, Atticus, is appointed to defend a young African American man, Tom Robinson.
Tom, one of the few African American people in town, has been accused of raping a young white woman. The controversial case changes both the lives of the Finch family, and the way that Scout looks at her community.
Tolstoy’s mammoth work is over eight hundred pages long, and has spawned both film and theatrical adaptations. It follows the lives of several unhappy families living in Moscow in 1874. While the classic Russian book has over a dozen characters, it focuses primarily on two women: Anna and Kitty.
Anna is trapped in a loveless marriage with the distant Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin. She becomes infatuated, and subsequently has an affair with Alexei Vronsky, a charming military man. Kitty also falls for Vronsky, passing on a potentially advantageous marriage to admit her love for a man that has no interest in her. The tangled web of romances leads to disastrous outcomes.
The Color Purple
The Color Purple examines the challenges that Black women in the South faced during the early twentieth century. The story begins in rural Georgia in 1909, and is focused on a young woman named Celie. Uneducated, separated from her sister, and abused by her father, Celie copes with the harsh realities of her life by writing letters to God.
Walker’s work interwove classic prose with African American vernacular, and allowed its female characters a depth that hadn't rarely been given to them in previous works. The Color Purple has had an impact on Black and American literature alike, and has been adapted into both a film and a musical.
George Orwell's groundbreaking novel is set in the fictional nation of Oceania and follows Winston Smith, a lowly member of The Party. The Party is the ruling political power that keeps a tight hold on its citizens, watching them constantly through telescreens. Winston, feeling trapped and repressed by the rigid rules of the political system, begins to defy the Party’s control, acting out in small, secretive ways.
He begins to record his thoughts and wants in a diary that he buys—both of which are illegal to possess under the control of the Party. This little bit of personal rebellion leads Winston to seek out further pockets of freedom from the Party. He begins to frequent neighborhoods that are beyond the Party’s focus. But no matter what he does, or how far he drifts from the Party’s expectations, Winston lives in constant fear that Big Brother is watching.
East of Eden
Published in 1952, Steinbeck’s book follows two families that become inexplicably intertwined. East of Eden spans three generations of the Hamiltons and Trasks. These two families fall repeatedly into the patterns that Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel have played before them. The story stretches from the Civil War to the end of the First World War.
When Adam Trask settles in the Salinas Valley in northern California, he becomes friends with Samuel Hamilton. Samuel and his wife, Liza, are well-respected in the community, and have a sprawling family of nine children. Adam and his wife Cathy have twin boys. Aron takes on the best qualities of his son, while Caleb demonstrates his mother’s capacity for ruthlessness and cruel behavior.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Set in an Oregon State psychiatric hospital during the 1950s, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is told from the perspective of Chief Bromdon. Chief is a patient who suffers from hallucinations and delusions. The hospital is ruled with an iron first by Nurse Ratched, a tyrannical administrator that operates with little medical oversight. If a patient defies her orders, they’re often punished with electroshock treatments to make them fall back in line. The order of the facility is thrown with a new arrival: Randle Patrick McMurphy.
McMurphy defies Ratched’s authority, leading an internal rebellion among the patients. The struggle between patients and staff escalates, challenging the staff’s authority, and the patients’ resolve.
Nabokav’s most famous work is a highly controversial and opinion-splitting novel, and is often either loved or hated. Lolita is told from the point of view of Humbert Humbert, a frustrated, middle-aged college professor. Humbert becomes obsessed with his landlady’s twelve-year-old daughter, and is determined to do whatever it takes to possess her. He goes so far as to marry Charlotte Haze, Lolita’s mother, to become closer to her.
Nabokov’s use of an unreliable narrator offers a sympathetic portrayal of a man who is deeply flawed and incredibly manipulative. The book spawned both a well-known film adaptation, and an unsuccessful musical.
The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is set in 1922, at the height of the Jazz Age. Nick Carraway is a Minnesotan who’s recently arrived in New York. He rents a home in West Egg, Long Island. The neighborhood is known for its wealthy and lavish residents, who have a penchant for flaunting their newly acquired fortune.
Carraway falls into the company of Jay Gatsby, a man who throws extravagant parties on Saturday evenings in the hopes of impressing his first love, Daisy Buchannan. Whether it’s your first time reading it, or your fifth time rereading it, you’ll surely enjoy it, Old Sport.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
After finding a tidy sum of money with his best friend, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn was adopted by Widow Douglas, a goodhearted, but strict woman. Now, Huck Finn is having difficulty adjusting to a more regimented life, but does his best to stick it out at Tom’s bequest. This new civil existence is upended when Huck’s abusive father demands both Huck’s return, and his money, which is being held in trust by a bank.
Huck escapes his cruel father by faking his own death and hiding out on an island in the middle of the Mississippi. From there, he meets a runaway slave named Jim. The two take a raft down the Mississippi River, encountering convicts on the run, family feuds, and the hurdles of class and race.
One Hundred Years of Solitude
This landmark work of magical realism tells the story of the Buendías, and their lives in an isolated town in Colombia. The tale stretches the length of a century, Macondo is largely untouched by outsiders, despite the fact that the odd traveler passes through, peddling their wares.
Despite the town’s initial solitude, the outside world begins to creep into the remote utopia, bringing conflict and destruction to Macondo.