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Feb 19, 2024

Top 20 Must-Read Classic Books That Stand the Test of Time

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Join us as we explore 20 of the best classic books every book lover should read.

We dive into stories of love, adventure, loss and finding yourself, all found in the pages of the most beloved classic novels in history.

20 of the Best Classic Books to Read

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Plot: In the heart of the Roaring Twenties, Nick Carraway finds himself drawn into the lavish world of Jay Gatsby, his enigmatic millionaire neighbour known for extravagant parties and a shadowy past.

Through Nick's eyes, we unravel Gatsby's obsessive love for Daisy Buchanan, a love that entangles them in a web of passion, jealousy, and tragedy, revealing the illusory nature of the American Dream.

Theme: Fitzgerald weaves themes of illusion vs. reality, the decay of moral values, and the pursuit of happiness in a world where everything can be bought and sold.

At its heart, the novel questions the cost of dreams, especially when those dreams are built on deception and the relentless pursuit of status and wealth.

Historical Context: Set against the backdrop of 1920s America, a period marked by unprecedented economic prosperity, cultural dynamism, and the bitter aftermath of World War I, "The Great Gatsby" reflects the era's clash between traditional values and the new ways of life that emerged in the post-war society.

Why You Should Read It: "The Great Gatsby" is more than a story about the seductive power of the American Dream; it's a literary masterpiece that offers a snapshot of a time and place filled with vibrant characters whose desires and despairs are as relevant today as they were nearly a century ago. It invites us to reflect on our dreams and the lengths we are willing to go to achieve them.

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Plot: Narrated by Scout, a precocious six-year-old, the novel unfolds over three years of her life, during which her father, Atticus Finch, a conscientious lawyer, takes on the defence of Tom Robinson, a Black man unjustly accused of raping a white woman.

Through Scout's observations, Lee explores the themes of racial prejudice, social inequality, and the loss of innocence, as the Finch family faces the backlash of their community's deeply entrenched racism.

Theme: At its core, "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a commentary on the nature of right and wrong and the complexities of human morality. It delves into the racism and injustice that pervade the small town, juxtaposing it with the purity and wisdom seen through the children's perspectives.

Historical Context: Published in 1960, amidst the Civil Rights Movement, Harper Lee's novel offered a critical look at the social dynamics of the South, reflecting the racial tensions and the struggle for justice that defined the era.

Why You Should Read It: Its enduring appeal lies in its timeless themes of compassion, moral courage, and the fight against injustice. As with most classic books, Lee encourages readers to look beyond their prejudices, advocating for a world where empathy and integrity prevail.

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Plot: "Jane Eyre" unfolds the life of an orphaned girl, from her abusive childhood to her growth into a strong, independent woman. The novel explores her time at the dreary Lowood School, her employment as a governess at Thornfield Hall and her complex relationship with the mysterious Edward Rochester.

Theme: This is a narrative about the quest for love, the search for a sense of belonging, and the struggle for equality and autonomy. It delves into the themes of morality, religion, feminism, and the social class system of Victorian England, intertwined with a compelling love story.

Historical Context: Published in 1847, a time when the British Empire was at its peak, and the Industrial Revolution had transformed societal structures. Women's roles were confined mainly to domestic spheres, and their rights were severely limited.

Charlotte Brontë, under the pseudonym Currer Bell, challenged these norms through her novel, presenting a heroine who defies the expectations of her gender and social class.

Why You Should Read It: Its enduring appeal lies in Jane's relatable struggle for self-determination and dignity in a world that seeks to repress her.

Brontë's masterful narrative invites readers to ponder on profound themes, making it a thought-provoking classic book that stimulates deep reflection.

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Plot: "Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus" is a novel that weaves a tale of ambition, despair, and horror through the life of Victor Frankenstein, a young scientist who creates a creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment.

The creature, longing for companionship and understanding, turns to vengeance after being rejected by society and its creator, setting the stage for a tragic exploration of human nature and responsibility.

Theme: The central themes of "Frankenstein" include the dangers of unchecked scientific ambition, the quest for knowledge, the ethical limits of human endeavour and the search for acceptance and love.

Historical Context: Published in 1818, "Frankenstein" emerged at a time of significant scientific advancement and during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. This era saw an interest in galvanism—the concept that electricity could animate the dead—which influenced Shelley's narrative.

The novel is also reflective of the Romantic era's fascination with nature, emotion, and the sublime, contrasting Enlightenment ideals of reason and progress.

Why You Should Read It: "Frankenstein" is often heralded as one of the first science fiction classic novels, but its appeal extends far beyond its groundbreaking genre. Shelley's novel poses enduring questions about the nature of humanity, the responsibilities of creators toward their creations, and the ethical boundaries of scientific inquiry.

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Plot: Jane Austen's quintessential tale of love, society, and manners, unfolds in the rural English countryside of the early 19th century. It chronicles the life of Elizabeth Bennet, the witty and independent second daughter of a country gentleman, as she navigates the complexities of morality, upbringing, and marriage prospects within the British landed gentry.

Theme: The novel intricately explores themes of pride, prejudice, family, class and the pursuit of true happiness. Austen critically examines the social hierarchy of the Regency era, highlighting the impact of first impressions, the dangers of hasty judgments and the influence of societal expectations on personal relationships.

Historical Context: Published in 1813, "Pride and Prejudice" is set against the backdrop of the British Regency period, a time characterised by significant social, political, and economic changes.

Why You Should Read It: Out of all classic books, Pride and Prejudice remains one of the most beloved novels in English literature for its sharp wit, dynamic characters, and insightful commentary on human nature and society.

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Plot: George Orwell's chilling portrayal of a totalitarian future, introduces readers to a world where the government, known as the Party, exerts absolute control over every aspect of life. The protagonist, Winston Smith, works for the Ministry of Truth, where his job is to alter historical records to fit the Party's ever-changing narrative.

Living in a state of constant surveillance under the watchful eye of Big Brother, Winston secretly despises the Party and dreams of rebellion.

Theme: "1984" delves into the dangers of surveillance and the manipulation of truth. Orwell's world is one where language is twisted, history is rewritten and reality is moulded to enforce conformity.

Historical Context: Published in 1949, "1984" was informed by Orwell's experiences during the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the rise of Stalinism. The early and mid-20th century was a period marked by the rise of fascist and communist regimes, which wielded propaganda, censorship, and terror to maintain control.

Why You Should Read It: As a commentary on the human condition and the fight for freedom against oppressive forces, its relevance persists in the modern world, where issues of surveillance, privacy and government control are increasingly pertinent.

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Plot: "Moby Dick" is Herman Melville's epic saga of the quest of Captain Ahab to exact revenge on Moby Dick, the white whale that maimed him. Narrated by Ishmael, a sailor aboard Ahab's whaling ship, the Pequod, the novel takes readers into the vast expanse of the sea, exploring the depths of human obsession, the complexities of society and the immensity of the natural world.

Theme: "Moby Dick" addresses themes of obsession, revenge, and the struggle against the uncontrollable forces of nature. It also delves into deeper questions of identity, morality and the existential quest for meaning in an indifferent universe.

Historical Context: Published in 1851, "Moby Dick" emerged during a period of rapid American expansion and the golden age of whaling. This era was marked by an interest in natural science, exploration, and the philosophical underpinnings of man's place in the world.

Why You Should Read It: "Moby Dick" is not just a story about a whale hunt; it is an exploration of ambition, humanity, and the search for meaning beyond the material world.

Out of all the classic books, "Moby Dick" is known for its adventure, philosophical dialogue and deep introspection, challenging readers to ponder their relationship with nature, the divine, and the quest for understanding life's mysteries.

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Plot: A beloved novel that follows the lives of the four March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—as they come of age in Civil War-era America. Under the guidance of their mother, Marmee, while their father is away at war, the sisters navigate the challenges and joys of growing up.

Theme: "Little Women" explores the theme of personal growth and the quest for identity within the framework of familial love and societal expectations. It addresses the struggles of young women to find their place in a world that offers them limited opportunities.

Historical Context: "Little Women" reflects the social and moral climate of the United States during the mid-19th century. The novel is set against the backdrop of the Civil War, which had profound effects on American society, including shifts in gender roles and family dynamics.

Why You Should Read It: It remains as one of the timeless classic books, as readers are drawn into the intimate world of the sisters, sharing in their trials and triumphs as they grow from girls into women.

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Plot: This gripping novel tells the story of Tess Durbeyfield, a young woman from a rural family in Victorian England who hopes to improve her family's fortunes.

The novel follows Tess's journey as she faces a series of challenges and misfortunes, including betrayal, love, loss and societal judgment. Tess' encounters with two men, Alec D'Urberville and Angel Clare, impact her life, leading to a narrative rich in emotional depth and moral complexity.

Theme: The novel explores themes of fate, injustice and the cruelty of social conventions. Hardy delves into the complexities of human nature, the social hierarchy and the injustice of Victorian society's moral standards, particularly regarding women's purity and the stigma of social disgrace.

Historical Context: Published in 1891, "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" reflects the tensions and changes in late Victorian England, a time of significant social, economic and moral shifts. The Industrial Revolution transformed the landscape and society, leading to a growing divide between the rural past and the industrialised future.

Why You Should Read It: Hardy's ability to evoke the beauty of the English countryside, juxtaposed with the stark realities of Tess' life, creates a compelling and immersive reading experience.

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Plot: Written by Bram Stoker in 1897, "Dracula," is a seminal work in the gothic horror genre that introduces Count Dracula, a vampire from Transylvania who uses his supernatural powers to spread his curse of the undead across England.

The novel is structured as a series of diary entries, letters, and newspaper clippings, through which the story of Dracula's attempt to relocate from Eastern Europe to England, and the efforts of a small group led by Professor Abraham Van Helsing to stop him, is told.

Themes: "Dracula" explores themes of good versus evil, the fear of the unknown, and the struggle of science and reason against superstition and the supernatural. Stoker delves into the Victorian anxieties surrounding sexuality, invasion and the erosion of traditional social structures.

Historical Context: The late 19th century, when "Dracula" was written, was a time of great change and uncertainty in Europe. The Victorian era was marked by rapid scientific progress, the questioning of traditional religious beliefs and the exploration of new psychological depths.

Why You Should Read It: Its exploration of fear, the other, and the battle between good and evil makes it a timeless read that continues to captivate and terrify audiences. Whether you are drawn to its rich historical context, its complex themes, or simply the allure of the vampire myth, "Dracula" is a novel that promises a deeply compelling and unforgettable reading experience.

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Plot: This is one of the most monumental classic novels that unfolds against the backdrop of 19th-century Russian society. It tells the tale of Anna, a married aristocrat, who embarks on a deeply passionate but ill-fated affair with Count Vronsky, leading to her eventual downfall.

Parallel to Anna's story is the tale of Konstantin Levin, a landowner who struggles with questions of faith, happiness, and the meaning of life, eventually finding contentment in family life and the simplicity of rural existence.

Theme: The novel delves into the contrasts between city and country life, the hypocrisy of societal norms, the nature of true love versus infatuation, and the pursuit of happiness.

Historical Context: Published in the late 19th century, "Anna Karenina" reflects the social and political climate of Russia during a time of great change, including the emancipation of the serfs and the rise of the liberal movement. The novel captures the tension between old-world values and the start of modern consciousness, encapsulating the struggles of a society on the brink of the modern era.

Why You Should Read It: Tolstoy's profound understanding of human emotions, combined with his ability to craft intricate characters and narratives, makes the novel an essential read for anyone interested in the exploration of deep philosophical and existential questions.

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Plot: "The Catcher in the Rye," captures the teenage angst and alienation of its protagonist, Holden Caulfield. Expelled from his prep school, Holden embarks on a wandering journey through New York City, voicing his discontent and observations about the phoniness of the adult world and the innocence of youth.

Theme: The novel explores themes of alienation, the loss of innocence, and the struggle against the artificiality of adult society. Salinger masterfully portrays the complexity of adolescence, capturing the difficulty of transitioning from youth to adulthood. Holden's dream of becoming "the catcher in the rye," a guardian who saves children from falling off a cliff (a metaphor for losing their innocence), underscores the novel's exploration of the desire to protect innocence in a world that seems invariably tainted.

Historical Context: Published in 1951, "The Catcher in the Rye" reflects the post-World War II era's cultural context, a time of economic prosperity, growing suburbanisation, and emerging youth culture in the United States. The novel's themes resonated with the existentialist mood of the time, reflecting the disillusionment of some with the American dream and the search for a more meaningful existence beyond material success.

Why You Should Read It: J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" is one of the enduring classic books that captures the essence of youthful disillusionment and the deep yearning for a sense of place in the world.

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Plot: "Great Expectations," one of Charles Dickens's most famous works, tells the story of Pip, an orphan living in the marshes of Kent with his abusive sister and her kind-hearted husband, Joe Gargery. Pip's life is forever changed when he encounters an escaped convict, Magwitch.

Theme: "Great Expectations" explores the corrupting influence of wealth and the quest for personal improvement. Dickens critiques the rigid class structure of Victorian society and the illusion that social advancement brings happiness.

The novel also delves into themes of loyalty, compassion, and forgiveness, highlighting the moral development of Pip as he evolves from an innocent boy dreaming of becoming a gentleman to a mature individual who recognises the value of human kindness and moral integrity.

Historical Context: Published in 1861, "Great Expectations" reflects the social and economic changes of the Victorian era, including the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle class. This period was marked by significant shifts in attitudes toward wealth and class.

Why You Should Read It: "Great Expectations" is a compelling narrative that combines rich character development with a deep exploration of themes relevant to human experience. Dickens' masterful storytelling, characterised by vivid descriptions, sharp wit and profound empathy for his characters, makes the novel an engaging and thought-provoking read.

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Plot: "Crime and Punishment," follows the story of Rodion Raskolnikov, a former student living in poverty, who convinces himself of a peculiar philosophy: that certain individuals possess the innate right to commit crimes if their actions serve a higher purpose or greater good.

However, the aftermath of his crime plunges him into a psychological maelstrom of guilt, paranoia, and existential angst, leading him on a harrowing journey through the depths of his conscience.

Theme: It delves deeply into themes of morality, justice and redemption. Dostoevsky explores the psychological turmoil and moral dilemmas faced by Raskolnikov, challenging the reader to question the nature of good and evil, and whether ends can justify means.

Historical Context: Published in 1866, "Crime and Punishment" reflects the social, economic, and philosophical currents of 19th-century Russia. This period was marked by rapid modernisation, social upheaval, and the questioning of traditional moral values.

Why You Should Read It: Dostoevsky's psychological insight, combined with his philosophical depth, makes this novel a compelling study of the inner turmoil that accompanies the transgression of moral law. The narrative's intensity, its vivid portrayal of 19th-century St. Petersburg, and its exploration of complex moral issues make it a profoundly engaging read.

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Plot: "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," is set in a psychiatric hospital in Oregon and narrated by Chief Bromden, a half-Native American patient who pretends to be deaf and mute. The story kicks into gear with the arrival of Randle Patrick McMurphy, a rebellious man committed to the institution from a prison work farm.

Theme: The novel explores themes of individualism versus society, the corrupting influence of power, and the struggle for self-expression and identity within oppressive systems. Kesey delves into the idea that society labels and confines individuals who do not conform to its norms, questioning the definition of insanity and the nature of freedom.

Historical Context: Published in 1962, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" emerged during a period of significant social and cultural upheaval in the United States. The 1960s were marked by the civil rights movement, the rise of the counterculture, and increasing scepticism toward authority and the establishment.

Why You Should Read It: Reading "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" offers an opportunity to reflect on the nature of freedom and the importance of standing up against oppressive systems. Kesey's ability to blend stark realism with elements of the fantastic creates a powerful narrative that challenges readers to consider the boundaries between sanity and madness.

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Plot: Set in the dystopian future of the Republic of Gilead, where a totalitarian regime has overthrown the United States government. The novel is narrated by Offred, a Handmaid who serves in the household of the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy. In a world ravaged by environmental disasters and plummeting birth rates, Handmaids are among the few women still able to conceive and are forced into sexual servitude in a desperate attempt to repopulate the world.

Theme: "The Handmaid's Tale" delves into the dynamics of power and control, particularly over women's bodies and autonomy. Themes of surveillance, resistance, and the importance of storytelling and memory are central to the narrative, highlighting the power of the individual voice against the silence of oppression.

Historical Context: Published in 1985, "The Handmaid's Tale" reflects the growing anxieties of the late 20th century, including the rise of conservative political movements and debates over women's rights, reproductive freedoms and degradation.

Why You Should Read It: "The Handmaid's Tale" is arguably one of the most impactful classic novels that offers a stark warning about the fragility of freedom and the dangers of allowing power to go unchecked.

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Plot: This charming tale follows the adventures of Mole, Rat, Toad and Badger in the English countryside. The story begins with Mole abandoning his spring-cleaning to explore the world above ground, where he quickly befriends the water-loving Rat. Together, they embark on a series of adventures.

Theme: The novel celebrates the virtues of a simple life and the beauty of the natural world, exploring themes of friendship, adventure, and the sanctity of home. Grahame's characters, each with their distinct personalities and quirks, embody the spirit of adventure and the importance of loyalty and kindness.

Historical Context: "The Wind in the Willows" reflects the idealism of Edwardian England, a period marked by a longing for the simplicity and tranquillity of rural life amidst the rapid industrialisation and social changes of the time.

Why You Should Read It: This is one of the timeless classic books that transcends age, captivating both children and adults with its wit, warmth, and wisdom. It serves as a gentle reminder of the importance of cherishing our relationships and the world around us.

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Plot: Oscar Wilde's only novel, is a masterpiece of Victorian literature that tells the story of Dorian Gray, a young man of extraordinary beauty and innocence who becomes the subject of a portrait by the talented artist Basil Hallward.

Dorian wishes that his portrait would age and bear the scars of his sins, while he remains youthful and unblemished. Miraculously, his wish is granted, setting Dorian on a dark path of moral and spiritual decline.

Theme: It delves into themes of aestheticism, the duality of human nature, and the consequences of living a life devoted to pleasure and vanity. Wilde explores the corrupting influence of beauty and the idea that the pursuit of pleasure can lead to the degradation of the soul.

Historical Context: Published in 1890, Wilde's novel was controversial for its time, critiqued for its perceived immorality and homoerotic undertones, which reflected broader anxieties about sexuality and morality in Victorian society.

Why You Should Read It: "The Picture of Dorian Gray" is a compelling and beautifully written exploration of the human soul, morality, and the dangers of unchecked vanity and desire. Wilde's sharp wit and masterful prose make the novel a pleasure to read, while its profound themes and moral questions lend it a timeless relevance.

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Plot: "Things Fall Apart," written by Chinua Achebe, is a work of African literature that tells the story of Okonkwo, a respected leader and wrestling champion in the Umuofia clan of the Igbo people in Nigeria.

Driven by the fear of appearing weak like his father, Okonkwo is determined to build his legacy of strength and masculinity. The novel intricately details his rise to prominence, his struggles with personal and societal expectations, and his eventual tragic downfall.

Theme: "Things Fall Apart" explores themes of tradition versus change, the clash of cultures, and the struggle for identity in the face of colonialism. Achebe delves into the complexities of Igbo society, highlighting its rich culture, traditions, and social norms, while also critiquing aspects of its rigidity and the consequences of unyielding pride.

Historical Context: Published in 1958, "Things Fall Apart" was written during a period of significant transformation in Nigeria as it moved towards independence from British colonial rule. Achebe's novel was a response to the European depictions of Africa as a dark and primitive continent, offering an African perspective that highlighted the continent's diverse cultures and histories.

Why You Should Read It: Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" is a timeless classic that resonates with readers across cultures and generations for its profound exploration of themes of identity, change and resilience in the face of external pressures.

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Plot: "Wuthering Heights," the only novel by Emily Brontë, unfolds in the stark, brooding moors of Yorkshire, offering a gripping story of love, jealousy, and vengeance. The narrative is ingeniously framed through the eyes of Mr. Lockwood, a tenant at Thrushcross Grange, who finds himself drawn to the mysteries of the neighbouring Wuthering Heights and its inhabitant, Heathcliff.

Theme: "Wuthering Heights" explores the destructive nature of love and obsession, the class divide, and the cyclical nature of revenge. Brontë examines the profound impact of unfulfilled desire and how vengeance can poison successive generations. The novel also delves into themes of nature versus nurture, the supernatural, and the confines of social class, questioning the extent to which individuals can transcend the circumstances of their birth.

Historical Context: Published in 1847 under the pseudonym Ellis Bell, "Wuthering Heights" emerged during the Victorian era, a period characterised by strict social hierarchies and moral codes. The novel challenged contemporary norms with its portrayal of fierce, often destructive love, and its depiction of morally ambiguous characters.

Why You Should Read It: The novel's exploration of dark themes, combined with its haunting settings and poetic language, makes it a profoundly moving read that delves into the depths of human passion and psychology.

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