10 Best Classic Books | Sarah Stook
Ah, the classics. They’re beloved by some, whilst others angrily slog through them in GCSE English. From Tolstoy to Hemingway, classics reach across the globe and bring us exciting stories. During lockdown, reading soared and bookshops managed to keep themselves steady as people searched for the latest novel.
Classics are classics for a reason. Perhaps they stand the test of time or have had an unfathomable impact on popular culture. There are many books and characters that people will recognise even if they haven’t read that particular classic.
Here are my Top 10 classics, both old and modern.
- Gone With the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
My all-time favourite book, Gone With the Wind tells the story of spirited Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara from the age of 16 to 28. She makes her way through the Civil War and Reconstruction, often mixing with charming rogue Rhett Butler. The 1939 film is the largest grossing film of all time adjusting for inflation, a three hour plus epic starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable.
What makes the book is just how well it’s written. I felt as though I was there with Scarlett as Atlanta burned. You watch Scarlett grow from a spoiled teenager to a headstrong businesswoman. It remains one of the biggest sellers of all time despite controversy over its racial themes. Gone With The Wind is also Margaret Mitchell’s only novel, as she died in a 1949 car accident.
A Great Read For: Those who love epic romances and history.
- To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
A staple of school literature, Harper Lee’s 1960 novel is held as the standard for storytelling. Narrated by young Jean ‘Scout’ Finch, it tells the story of Depression-era Alabama and her father, Atticus Finch. Finch agrees to defend Tom Robinson, an African-American accused of raping a white woman, on the stand. Scout grows as Atticus instils in her the importance of anti-racism.
The narrator is unreliable, a child, but this is what gives the book its charm. Scout is a young girl in the deeply segregated and racist South who often innocently offends. Boo Radley, the famous recluse, is a hugely influential character despite essentially being a ghost for a good chunk of the book. Atticus Finch was voted greatest fictional hero and remains an object of literary fascination.
Side Note: DO NOT read the sequel. It’s the only book I’ve ever completely disavowed. It was brought out whilst Harper Lee was old and frail, despite her saying she never wanted to publish another book. Go Set A Watchman completely ruins its predecessor. It’s also the initial draft of TKAM and recycles much of it.
A Great Read For: Those interested in social issues and the Civil Rights movement from a different perspective.
- Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier
‘Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again’ is one of the most famous opening lines in literature. Daphne du Maurier’s most popular novel brings us the story of a naive young lady’s companion who quickly marries an older, wealthier widower named Maxim de Winter. The second Mrs. de Winter, whose name is never revealed, joins her husband at his manor house, Manderley. She is reviled by Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper who revered Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter. As she navigates her new role, she also learns more about Rebecca herself.
A twisty tale of glamour and secrets, it’s got the elements of an old mystery. Hitchcock’s 1940 film version starring Sir Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine brings that genre to life. Rebecca is a very captive tale and full of memorable characters, including the infamous Mrs. Danvers.
A Great Read For: Lovers of mystery and glamour.
- The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
I hate to be that person, but I was a fan of this book long before the excellent TV series starring Elisabeth Moss. The world has a fertility crisis, which allows a hardcore Christian group to take over the USA and turn it into a theocracy called Gilead. ‘Offred’ is a woman forced to become a concubine ‘Handmaid’ to one of the founding couples of the nation. As the wife of a divorcé, she is seen as an adulterer but is useful as she successfully had a child.
The book is quite different to the series, which takes on the story after the original novel ends. It’s a chilling read, especially when you factor in Margaret Atwood’s decision to base it on real policy around the world. Though it’s sadly been overused as an example whenever someone feels that women’s rights are being stripped away, it’s ultimately an impressive read. Particular praise goes to the worldbuilding by Atwood, who really details the fictional Gilead.
I do recommend the series as well as the sequel, The Testaments, which is on par with the original.
A Great Read For: Those interested in women’s rights and lovers of a good dystopian world.
- Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
Another popular read in schools, Jane Eyre tells the story of a young woman sent to a harsh boarding school by cruel relatives. Jane is soon engaged as a governess in a large, remote English country house. It’s not only Thornfield Hall that seems mysterious and haunted- its owner, Mr. Rochester, is too. The spirited governess soon finds herself quite taken by her employer.
A mix of gothic, romance and coming-of-age, Jane Eyre is also an erudite commentary on race and gender in Regency/Victorian England. The protagonist remains a beloved literary heroine over a century later.
A Great Read For: Fans of older fiction, Victorian novels and gothic horror.
- A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini
A gem I picked up at a garden centre while casually browsing, A Thousand Splendid Suns tells us of poor, illegitimate Mariam and privileged, educated Laila, both married to the same cruel man. It takes us from before the Soviet invasion, through it, the Taliban and after their downfall. Though both women are from different lives and generations, they form a tight bond.
It’s ultimately a look at the life of Afghan women, who society still keeps locked away today. The reader also gets to experience Afghanistan through several decades of different rulers and oppressors. You may need to get a fluffy puppy to hug, for the ending is very sad.
A Great Read For: Those who are interested in Afghanistan and the role of women in other societies.
- Anne of Green Gables – L. M. Montgomery
A beloved children’s classic, Anne of Green Gables is the first in a series by Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery. In the story, Anne Shirley, a fiery redhead orphan is accidentally sent to the home of the Cuthbert siblings on Prince Edward Island. The Cuthberts are expecting a boy to help on the farm but become enchanted by Anne.
It’s a sweet tale and Anne Shirley is a rightfully beloved literary character. There’s definitely a lot of sadness in the book, but it’s also very uplifting and takes us back to a simpler time. The Netflix adaptation Anne With an E is a definite recommendation.
A Great Read For: Kids and kids at heart.
- The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
Narrated by Death, The Book Thief follows Liesel, a young girl in Nazi Germany sent to foster care by her mother in order to protect her from the authorities. After stealing a book from a grave, she is taught by her foster father to read and continues stealing from book burnings. This is complicated by war, the Nazi regime and the Jewish man her family is hiding.
Having Death as a narrator is definitely an intelligent idea, as he is both omnipotent and humanised by the author. Add to that the perspective of a child in Nazi Germany, one that you usually only get in Holocaust tales. The ending is another one you may need to get a fluffy puppy for.
A Great Read For: Historians and book lovers.
- Beloved – Toni Morrison
Slightly based on a true story, Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel centres on escaped former slave Sethe and her family home in Cincinnati. The house is apparently haunted by the ghost of the child Sethe killed to prevent them being returned to slavery. A mysterious woman appears at the home one day, a manifestation of said baby ‘Beloved.’ This manifestation, however, is anything but benevolent.
Beloved doesn’t shy away from the horrendous nature of slavery and how its victims still felt gripped by it years later. Family is the main theme of the book, whether with living members or those who have passed.
A Great Read For: Those who like the supernatural and unusual tales.
- War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells
One of the most famous sci-fi books of all time, War of the Worlds started a love for alien fiction and also became one of the most influential stories through this. The unnamed narrator, a journalist, lives in Woking, Surrey, whilst his younger brother is a medical student in London. When tripods come out of the ground and start killing everyone, they must fight for survival.
Though it’s quite short, more of a novella really, it really maintains a gripping commentary throughout. The battle of HMS Thunder Child is a particularly memorable and popular scene, sadly lacking from the dire BBC adaptation from 2019.
A Great Read For: Sci-Fi and tech nerds.