50 Classic Books Everyone Should Read in Their Lifetime

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We've already recommended our picks for the 50 best books of the past 50 years, but now we're diving deeper into our literary history, temporally speaking. These are our picks for the 50 most essential classic books. You know, the ones that everyone should get around to reading sooner, rather than later. These books have meant a great deal to readers throughout the centuries, and they distinguish themselves as firsts and bests, sure, but also unexpected, astonishing, and boundary-breaking additions to the canon. That's why we're still reading them. Everyone has his or her own definition of a literary classic, and our choices span the centuries, from the 8th century B.C. to the English Renaissance to the mid-20th century. (We've even included a book from the 1990s, as we're convinced it's going to go down in history as a classic.) No matter your definition of classic literature, you'll see that these books have stood—and are standing—the test of time, which is why we think they should be on your must-read list. We're betting a few of them already are.

Add These to Your Bookshelf—And Your Reading List

George Orwell's dystopian classic blends political and science fiction into a chilling panorama of high-level surveillance and manipulation.

A House for Mr. Biswas

A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul

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A struggle for independence is at the heart of V.S. Naipaul's darkly comic and very moving 1961 novel.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

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Betty Smith's 1943 classic is a coming-of-age tale about a second-generation Irish-American girl named Francie who lives in Williamsburg with her family.

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

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Leo Tolstoy's masterful epic—or one of them, at least—is about one woman's scandals, passions, and ultimate tragedy, all set amid the tumult of late-19th century Russia.

Jean Toomer's hard-to-categorize work emerged in 1923 as an astonishing blend of genres, a brilliant composite of vignettes giving voice to facets of African-American life in the United States.

Emma Woodhouse entertains herself by meddling in the romantic affairs of her neighbors. As with so many of Jane Austen's classic comedies of manners, Emma is as relevant as ever.


Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

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Dr. Frankenstein and his monster embark on an unearthly, and ultimately tragic game of creation and rejection in Mary Shelley's haunting story.

Go Tell It On The Mountain

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

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Rooted in raw reality but told through poetic fiction, James Baldwin's masterwork attends a day in the life of 14-year-old John Grimes and the awakenings, histories, and stories that shape his life.

Great Expectations

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

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You may have skipped this one in high school, but it's never too late to read Charles Dickens' classic about a young boy called Pip coming of age in 19th-century England.

Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

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Narrated by Charles Marlow, Heart of Darkness follows Marlow's journey up the Congo River, captaining a ship into the heart of the African continent while searching for a trader called Kurtz.

Howards End

Howards End by E. M. Forster

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Set in England at the turn of the century,Howards End immortalizes the pursuits, missteps, encounters, and conflicts of three families—the Wilcoxes, the Schlegels, and the Basts.

Invisible Man

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

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Racism as an erasing force, a force that renders human beings invisible to society and to themselves, is at the center of this powerful bildungsroman by Ralph Ellison.

Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

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Charlotte Bronte brings to life Jane Eyre's titular heroine through a vivid internal world, one as dynamic as the wild English landscape, but one often at odds with the social strictures of the novel's early-19th century setting.

Little Women

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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The bonds of the four March sisters and their mother are at the heart of this classic novel, which unfolds the courses of their lives and imaginations across Civil War-era Massachusetts.


Middlemarch by George Eliot

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George Eliot's unconventional Victorian novel upends expectations while crafting a complex portrait of family and individual life in fictional Middlemarch, North Loamshire.

Moby-Dick; or The Whale

Moby-Dick; or The Whale by Herman Melville


Herman Melville's oceanic epic begins "Call me Ishmael," and is based on the true story of the whaler Essex and its tragic encounter with a whale.

My Antonia

My Antonia by Willa Cather

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The last installment in Willa Cather's Prairie Trilogy,My Antonia immortalizes the American Midwest and the lives of neighbors settling on the frontier.

Native Son

Native Son by Richard Wright

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Richard Wright's powerfulnovelof race, racism, poverty, and despair is set in 1930s Chicago, where a man named Bigger Thomas struggles against the dangerous expectations thrust on him.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by Himself by Frederick Douglass

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Frederick Douglass tells his life story in this work, from the years he was enslaved in the pre-Civil War South to his escape, his freedom, his work, and his dedication to the abolitionist movement.

Elie Wiesel's memoir chronicles the harrowing period he spent in Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust, the inhumanity he encountered there, and his ultimate survival.

Pale Fire

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

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This novel comes to readers in the form of a poem—one written by a fictional poet and accompanied by annotations from the poet's (also fictional) colleague. The story, non-linear as it is, emerges line by line and note by note, however differently it's read each time.

Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost by John Milton

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Milton's 17th-century biblical epic traces the story of the Fall of Man and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

In Gothic style as haunting as it is thrilling, Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca conjures secrets and suspense from the landscape, the architecture, even the air in which the story exists.


Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

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At the heart of this novel, which is told in simple, sincere prose, is the spiritual journey of a man named Siddhartha who searches for self-discovery throughout the years of his life.

Song of Solomon

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

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Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon is a transformative bildungsroman of one Milkman Dead, who spends his life captivated by the possibility of flight in all its many forms.

The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

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Gilded Age New York plays host to this lauded work, a novel published in 1920 that concerns itself with family strife and social scandal amid looming nuptials.

The Awakening

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

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Set on the Louisiana Gulf coast at the turn of the century, The Awakening plunges into the life of Edna Pontellier and the dissonance she feels between the era's social expectations and her own emerging beliefs.

The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar (P.S. Series) by Sylvia Plath

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Tracing the tangle of a new job in New York City and the simultaneous onrush of clinical depression, The Bell Jar brings the interior world of central character Esther Greenwood into stunning relief.

The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov: A Novel in Four Parts and an Epilogue by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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Dostoevsky's final novel is also one of his most beloved. The Brothers Karamazov unfurls drama, philosophy, and morality against a vision of 19th-century Russia.

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty

The Collected Stories Of Eudora Welty by Eudora Welty

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Published in 1980, this collection brings together Mississippi writer Eudora Welty's celebrated short stories, all teeming with her sensitive eye for details and landscapes.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Barnes & Noble Collectible Editions) by William Shakespeare

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It wouldn't be a classics list without a Shakespearean listing.The Complete Works is a must read at any stage of life, not just for a semester of English 101.

The Complete Stories

The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor

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Published in 1971 but written much earlier, Flannery O'Connor's sharp, Southern Gothic short stories cement her place in the American literary canon.

The Glass Menagerie

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

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Arguably the most personal of Tennessee Williams' dramas, The Glass Menagerie is also his first major work. It presents the lives of the Wingfield family—Amanda, Tom, and Laura—and the disturbance they feel when a gentleman caller enters their lives.

The God of Small Things

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

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By far the most recently published novel on this list, we're going out on a limb to call this a classic in the making. Twenty years after it was first published, Arundhati Roy's luminousThe God of Small Things is still a must-read and just gets better with time.

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby


F. Scott Fitzgerald's beloved Jazz Age novel captures the desires and decadence of the 1920s through the pursuits and parties of Jay Gatsby and his West Egg neighbor Nick Carraway.

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

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Carson McCullers' remarkable debut novel tells a story of the American South, one set in Georgia and peopled with a cast of characters that exist in a rich, layered, and challenging reality.

The Last of the Mohicans

The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper

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Set in 1757 during the Seven Years' War, this historical novel follows the escapades of wayfaring Natty Bumppo and his Mohican companions, Chingachgook and Uncas.


Metamorphoses by Ovid

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While Roman poet Ovid originally wrote the Metamorphoses in Latin, readers now widely enjoy the translations, which offer nuanced lyrics on hundreds of classical myths.

The Moviegoer

The Moviegoer: A Novel by Walker Percy

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Walker Percy's first novel is set in New Orleans, where young stockbroker Binx Bolling goes about his days reflecting, and eventually embarking on, an unexpected search.

The Odyssey

The Odyssey by Homer

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Homer's Odyssey is an ancient Greek epic detailing the adventures of Odysseus and his crew as they attempt to reach the shores of Ithaca, their home, in the decade after the Trojan War.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) by Oscar Wilde

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An enchanted portrait and a life of debauchery are at the core of this lavish literary horror by Oscar Wilde.

The Sound and the Fury

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

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The Compson family, their struggles, and their haunting legacies are at the center of this shattering, stream-of-consciousness marvel by William Faulkner.

The Sun Also Rises

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

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A quintessential post-World War I novel, The Sun Also Rises follows Jake Barnes, Lady Brett Ashley, and their lost generation compatriots through 1920s Europe.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

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Zora Neale Hurston's early-20th century masterpiece follows the journey of a young woman named Janie Crawford as she navigates life, passion, independence, and understanding across the American South.

Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

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Chinua Achebe's story explores the life of a man, Okonkwo, and his home in Nigeria, which is forever changed when outside forces begin to encroach.

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird

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While Scout Finch and her father, Atticus, have become beloved characters of American literature, this novel's true power lies in its heartbreaking account of race and injustice in the American South.

To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

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Of conceiving this book, Virginia Woolf wrote, "Then one day walking round Tavistock Square I made up, as I sometimes make up my books, To the Lighthouse; in a great, apparently involuntary, rush." The 1927 novel brings to life a family and their visits to Scotland's Isle of Skye.

James Joyce's modernist classic unpacks a day in the lives of two men, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, who live in Dublin and encounter neighbors, strangers, and friends, all the while unspooling a stream-of-consciousness narrative from their minds and onto the page.

Wide Sargasso Sea

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

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Jean Rhys reimagines the life of Jane Eyre's madwoman in the attic by building an account of the life of Antoinette Cosway amid the madness-inducing social and gender hierarchies in which she lives.

Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights (Barnes & Noble Collectible Editions) by Emily Brontë

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In Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte presents a world of conflicts, frictions between families, passions, and attachments—especially those of Catherine Earnshaw and the tortured Heathcliff—across an untamed landscape.

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