21 Classic Books Everyone Should Read at Least Once
Classic books have stood the test of time for a reason. They're groundbreaking, have wide appeal, and are worth a second (and third) read.
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Read your way through these classic books
Storytelling has existed since the beginning of time, and through it all, humans have woven tales of love, hate, morality, and culture. With the advent of book printing—historians point to first-millennium China as the origin of the first printed text—people have been able to not only read entertaining and moving tales, but also revisit them again and again, rendering them classic books.
So what exactly qualifies a work as classic literature? Broadly speaking, classic books are groundbreaking for their era, have broad appeal beyond one community or country, and have withstood the test of time—their stories and messages remain relevant today. For our list, we chose classic books written in the 20th century or earlier, and every book on this list is more than 25 years old. We combed through best-seller lists of old to dig up books that have been well-reviewed and won awards. But more importantly, we’ve rounded up books that broke ground, kept us thinking, and even created new literary genres.
Many of these novels have graced high school reading lists for generations, while others have been spotlighted and elevated in recent decades, particularly books about racism and those by female authors. All have earned a place among the best fiction books and best books of all time. In an increasingly fast-moving, technology-centered world, with attention spans shrinking by the minute, we offer you this list of classic books in the hopes that you slow down, dive in, and delight in the warm comfort a great book can bring. When you’ve had your fill of classic literature, dive in to these historical fiction and mystery books.
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1. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Set in rural Georgia at the turn of the last century, Alice Walker’s epic novel weaves the heartbreaking and hopeful tale of Celie, an uneducated Black teen fighting for her dignity and freedom while leaning on the sisterhood of the women that surround her. The novel bravely and honestly addresses issues like sexual abuse, domestic abuse, and women’s struggles and ultimate resilience. Published in 1982, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Award. Three years later, the story was made into a movie directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, both of whom garnered Oscar nominations for their portrayals.
2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Published almost a century ago in 1925, the story of the striving Jay Gatsby is still profoundly relevant in its exploration of class, society, and the false promise that money can buy happiness. Gatsby’s misguided chase for his first love is a sad tale that spans the ages. At the time, the book was considered a commercial flop, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a high school curriculum today that didn’t include it.
3. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
“There is no book more important to me than this one,” said Alice Walker, herself the author of what many believe to be one of the most important pieces of literature in history. Written in 1937, Zora Neale Hurston’s novel centers on the life, loves, and losses of Janie Crawford, a middle-aged woman who recounts her transformation from a blossoming teen to a self-possessed woman. The novel was way ahead of its time in the depiction of a strong Black female protagonist, and it had a great influence on women’s literature as well as on Black authors and literature.
4. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
The 1967 masterpiece from Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez introduced the world to magical realism, a literary style marked by fantastical elements amid realistic fiction that’s become synonymous with Latin American authors. It spins a poignant and often humorous tale of the Buendía family that spans seven generations and 100 years in the fictional town of Macondo. When you’re done, pick up one of these other books by Latinx authors.
5. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The complicated love story of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy is a classic that has been retold countless times in countless genres. Yep, both Bridget Jones’s Diary and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies are modern takes on the timeless tale. Austen’s descriptions, dialogue, and plot are as fresh and charming today as they were when the book published in 1813. Literary scholars don’t just consider this one of the all-time greatest romance novels; they also consider it one of the best-loved and best-selling books of all time (and all genres).
6. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Sarcastic, poetic, and heartfelt, angsty protagonist Holden Caulfield is one of the most famous literary characters of all time. Written in 1951, Catcher in the Rye brilliantly captures the lonely teen experience of having to grow up and leave the tenderness and innocence of childhood behind. Though young adult fiction didn’t exist in its current form when J.D. Salinger wrote the novel, it’s considered one of the first teen books and consistently appears on high school reading lists.
7. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Written in 1818, this Gothic classic from Mary Shelley tells the tale of Victor Frankenstein and the monster he creates. The themes of creation and responsibility have deep resonance today, as technology and science yield more possibilities and power than ever before. When you’re done, follow it up with more scariest books of all time—then sleep with the lights on.
8. Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
James Baldwin’s coming-of-age tale about a queer 14-year-old and his religious family in Harlem deftly intertwines tales of race, sex, identity, and spirituality in prose that is riveting and unforgettable. Written in 1953, it was a controversial book at the time. But it’s an LGBTQ story worth reading again and again.
9. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
The 1982 novel from famed Chilean author Isabel Allende—the best-selling Spanish-language novelist of all time—revolves around the Trueba clan and three generations of women, including an enchanting matriarch, Clara, who communes with spirits. Themes of ancestors, feminism, and class struggle are pervasive, as is magic; no surprise since this work of magical realism was influenced by Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
10. 1984 by George Orwell
One of the most influential books of the past 100 years, George Orwell’s dystopian novel about the dangers of authoritarianism has held up decade after decade. Introducing phrases like “thought police” and “Big Brother,” the 1949 novel was eerily prescient. Indeed, it reads more like a work of modern fiction. Glimpse more of the future with these standout sci-fi books.
11. Beloved by Toni Morrison
The most popular of Toni Morrison’s works, Beloved is an anguishing novel about a slave named Sethe, haunted by the death of her infant daughter, whose grave is marked with the word “Beloved.” Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for this 1987 novel, which was made into a film starring Oprah Winfrey in 1998, and quickly joined the ranks of other must-read classic books of the 20th century.
12. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
Young Anne Frank’s diary, one of the most hopeful and heartrending Holocaust books, was discovered by her father, Otto, after her death in a concentration camp. The only surviving member of the Frank family, he published her writing as a powerful reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust. The book recounts the two years the Franks hid in an attic in Amsterdam during World War II. In the moving account, the teenage Frank writes about her hopes of becoming a writer; sadly, the family was captured three days after her very last entry.
13. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Described by Barack Obama as a masterpiece, this 1958 book provides a lens through which readers get a glimpse of life in precolonial Nigeria. The first of three classic books in Chinua Achebe’s acclaimed African Trilogy centers on Okonkwo, a fierce Igbo warrior who fights against (and despairs at) the loss of his culture as Europeans settle across the continent.
14. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
“In English, my name means hope. In Spanish, it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting.” So says the title character, 12-year-old Esperanza, whose life in Chicago is told over a series of vignettes. Written in 1987, this instant classic, which showcases the lives of Mexican Americans, is considered a seminal work for Latin Americans and beyond. The novel is geared toward adults and teens, but you can teach young readers to appreciate differences by reading these children’s books about diversity to them.
15. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Among these classic books, The Bell Jar stands out as a realistic portrayal of mental illness. And for good reason: The 1963 novel is a semi-autobiographical tale written by an author who herself dealt with mental health issues. The titular bell jar is a metaphor for feeling suffocated and trapped, and it’s how college student Esther Greenwood feels as she struggles in the story to find joy and peace in post-college life. Though it’s a dark novel, the themes of depression and trauma are real, important, and resonate more than ever today,
16. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
This classic book from 1960 won the Pulitzer Prize and was voted America’s Favorite Novel in a poll by PBS. Many of us read in high school this coming-of-age story about young Scout, her lawyer father, the falsely accused Black man he’s defending, and the pervasiveness of prejudice in America. While the book has long been applauded for its take on race relations and gender roles, modern readers point out that the story is told through the white lens of the Finch family, while the Black characters don’t have much voice or agency. Still, it is a powerful tale and worth a reread, especially with a modern eye.
17. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Winner of the Booker Prize and a New York Times best seller, the 1997 novel surrounds an Indian family in decline. From the beginning, the reader has a sense of foreboding, and Arundhati Roy’s language and rhythm reveal a heart-wrenching story readers won’t soon forget. Considered a modern classic, it’s as page-turning today as when it was adroitly written 25 years ago.
18. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
This 1989 classic book explores four Chinese American families who gather to play mah-jongg and eventually recount their pasts in China and struggles as immigrants in the United States. Heartwarming, heartbreaking, and a delight to read, The Joy Luck Club is one of the classic books that influenced a generation of Chinese Americans creators, from comedian Margaret Cho to Crazy Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan, both of whom have said they felt seen in Amy Tan’s iconic work. Love hearing what others have to say about your most loved (and most hated) books? Join one of these online book clubs.
19. No-No Boy by John Okada
“It is not enough to be only half an American and know that it is an empty half. I am not your son and I am not Japanese and I am not American,” writes John Okada in this powerful novel. Identity struggles lie at the heart of this story, written by a Japanese American man about his time in an internment camp and his refusal to fight for the United States—hence his being deemed a “no-no boy.” Written in 1957 at the height of the Cold War and before Vietnam, the book was way ahead of its time in questioning one’s identity and loyalty to a country. Sixty-five years after its publication, No-No Boy has finally been recognized as a classic work of literature.
20. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Published in 1878 and considered by many—including acclaimed novelists Fyodor Dostoevsky and William Faulkner—to be the best novel ever written, Leo Tolstoy’s work of classic literature unfolds the tempestuous love affair between a married woman and a dashing count, and the impact it has on the lives of their friends in Imperial Russia. Tolstoy’s character development and emotional detail are masterful. At over 800 pages, we recommend taking your time to enjoy this classic. Not up for something quite so long? These short books pack a lot of emotion into relatively few pages.
21. Little Women by Louis May Alcott
The story of the March sisters is a true American classic, and one of the most enduring books written by a woman. Published in 1868 and set in the time of the Civil War, the book has endured because of its portrayal of strong women and sisterly love. Not only is the novel a classic, but its film adaptations (of which there have been many) became classics in their own right.