There are some concerns that the popularity of reading blogs and other short articles online reduces the interest of young people in the classics. It would be a pity if this is the case, since experts suggest reading books recognized as "classics" can improve a reader’s worldview. How many of these classic books have you read?
Henry Dana’s tale of a nineteenth-century voyage around Cape Horn is written in such beautiful English that you don’t need to be interested in the sea to enjoy it.
Dana was a New England lawyer who later became a minor government official. He sailed to California as an ordinary sailor with hopes that the voyage would bring him health benefits. He does an excellent job describing the rigors and dangers of the sailor’s life and fascinating descriptions of California before its incorporation into the USA.
Dickens' tale explores the cruelty of a private schoolmaster in northern England and the struggles of Nickleby, one of the teachers, to correct the injustices he encounters.
Dotheboys Hall and the horrible Headmaster Squeers was a fictional account of the worst of private schooling in Victorian Britain. Nickleby soon discovers this school is a scam. He puts his job on the line to remain dedicated to his students — including a simple and badly abused boy who turns out to be none other than the headmaster’s own son.
Charles Dickens provides a vivid portrait of how the lives of people in a Victorian debtors’ prison intertwine. When Dickens was a young boy, his father was imprisoned for debt in London, so he knew the conditions and social structure of the debtor’s prison from personal experience.
In addition to its vivid description of life within the prison’s walls, the story also involves the revealing of family secrets, a sudden rise to riches and fall again, and the affection that develops between Little Dorit and her wealthy patron.
The passage of more than a century has failed to dim the humorous appeal of this satire of middle-class Victorian suburban life. George Grossmith co-wrote this classic with his brother Weedon.
In addition to his skills as a writer, Grossmtih rose to fame as a leading member of Gilbert and Sullivan’s D’Oyly Carte light opera company. He makes good use of his comedic abilities to emphasize the pretensions and foibles of the central character, Charles Pooter, in his relationships with family and hilarious misunderstandings with tradesmen and servants.
A gripping tale of life in the southern USA in the early 1900s, this deservedly beloved story shares the conflict in this racially divided society. Though published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the Depression-era Alabama of the 1930s. The story is centered on the experiences of a six-year-old girl who lives with her older brother and widowed father. The father is a principled lawyer who agrees to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman.
1984 has become a classic portrayal of struggling against a totalitarian regime that tries to control people’s thoughts as well as their actions. Journalist and broadcaster Orwell came from the left side of the political spectrum but he was disillusioned with the communist society he saw developing in Stalin's Russia.
Orwell saw in his lifetime the emergence of oppressive state control in Russia and Hitler’s Germany. In his classic novel, he outlines how, in future years, state monitoring of individual actions and thoughts could create a "Big Brother" state of control.
A boy named Harry Potter embarks on his career as an apprentice wizard in this contemporary children's story. The first tale in the Harry Potter series has become a modern classic with an enormous following, but its magical theme fits in well with medieval tales of King Arthur and Merlin the magician.
In addition to Rowling’s excellent writing, the popularity of Potter seems to be a reaction to the hi-tech, scientifically advanced twenty-first century where everything is expected to have a natural explanation.
This trilogy is one of the most famous fantasy novels, taking the reading into the fantastic world of Middle Earth with all its heroes and villains. The dwarfs, elves, and other mythical creatures populating Tolkien’s world echo elements found in European mythology, but his interpretation is unique.
The author’s enthusiasm for the Welsh language is one of the many interesting influences on his choice of names for characters and places. Roman Catholic thought also influenced the philosophic approach taken in this book.
This journal kept by a Jewish girl in Second World War Amsterdam describes her family’s struggle to survive the Nazi terror. Anne Frank and her family manage to hide from the Nazi occupiers of Holland for two years. In her diary, Anne describes her thoughts and relationships with her family in these tense times.
Unfortunately, in 1944 the Frank family was betrayed and sent to a concentration camp. Only Anne’s father Otto survived. After the war, he discovered and published Anne’s diary.
This story shares the challenges four sisters face as they mature from girlhood to womanhood in nineteenth-century New England. Alcott's characters are modeled loosely on herself and her own three sisters.
The American Civil War setting was also familiar to the author, since she lived through this period in history. The book is seen as forward-looking for its advocacy of women’s rights despite the conventions of the time, although women’s traditional domestic role is not challenged.
The heroine of this story stands strong despite the sufferings of her childhood and the limitations opposed on her life by the conventions of early nineteenth-century British society.
Jane Eyre takes up a job as a governess and draws the attentions of her employer, Mr. Rochester. They are about to be married when his terrible secret is revealed. Jane runs away and uncovers the secrets surrounding her birth and family connections. She comes into wealth but cannot turn her back on her love for Mr. Rochester.
On the surface, this is an entertaining children’s story, but it was written to deliver a clear message about the totalitarian society that took shape in Communist Russia. The genius of this book is that it can be read on both its simple level and as a biting satire.
Are you reading an amusing tale of pigs, dogs, and horses, or a biting satire of the rise of Trotsky and Lenin? The old regime of the human farmer (the Russian Tsar) is successfully overthrown by the animals (the Russian workers) but the regime the pigs establish turns out to be no better.
The Grapes of Wrath is a poignant 1930s portrait of the sharp divides between the poor and wealthy during the Great Depression in the USA. Tom Joad, a released prisoner, returns home to Oklahoma in the company of his childhood friend Jim Casy. They discover that the local farms are being repossessed by the banks.
Tom and Jim join the Joads and other families on the trek west with hopes of a better life in California. The book describes their experiences during this migration and the terrible exploitation of migrant workers in California. Tom and Jim become involved with organized labor and a bitter and violent struggle for improved rights.
Children stranded on an island reveal the dark sides of their natures. The scene is set when a British plane crashes on a Pacific island during a wartime evacuation; only the younger passengers survive.
The deterioration in their relationships contrasts with the beauty found in their surroundings. Through the medium of this tale, Golding takes the opportunity to explore how even well-educated youth might cast aside the veneer of civilization and descend into savagery. The themes he focuses on include the conflict between the individual and the group and intelligence and emotion.
A friendship develops between two Californian migrant workers as they come to appreciate their differences and shared hopes of a better future. George Milton and Lennie Small dream of one day owning their own farm. The book describes the amusing interchanges between George, who is intelligent yet poorly-educated, and the physically strong but mentally challenged Lenny.
This is a tragic tale of the friendship between these two very different characters.
This tale of romance and intrigue is set in London and Paris around the time of the French Revolution of 1789. Dickens describes the oppression of the French peasantry under the Old Regime and the brutality of the revolutionaries towards their former aristocratic masters.
He also uses the novel to put across his views on the abuse of the death penalty and to explore themes of death and resurrection as reflected in Christian thinking. As with many other Dickens novels, this book was originally published in serial form.
This Victorian tale runs the gamut of emotions in its gothic account of the stormy relationship between chief protagonists Heathcliff and Catherine. This is the only novel written by Emile Bronte – a member of the famous literary family of the vicar of Haworth in West Yorkshire.
The novel was written in the mid-1840s and although today it is considered an undisputed literary classic, it was very controversial at the time. While its Gothic theme catered to contemporary tastes, the vivid descriptions of mental and physical cruelty and its portrait of religious hypocrisy were problematic.
This nonsense tale of Alice’s descent into the topsy-turvy world of Wonderland has become one of the most popular works of children’s literature, but many adults also greatly enjoy it. Carroll was a Victorian cleric and academic who is, to this day, highly respected for his work in mathematics. The fantasy stories that brought him international fame had their roots in stories he told to the young daughter of a fellow clergyman. She begged him to write them down, so generations of children and grownups continue to enjoy Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass.
The man-made monster in this Gothic horror story has become synonymous with the destructive forces mankind is capable of releasing and failing to control. Lord Byron and others in his literary circle posed a challenge of who could devise the best horror story. Mary Shelly dreamt about a scientist who created a life form and then became terrified by what he had done. This formed the kernel of the idea for the novel.
Her choice of setting was prompted by the places she visited on a tour of Europe, including Geneva in Switzerland. She was just 20 years old when Frankenstein was published.
While it remains an enjoyable tale of youthful antics in the mid-nineteenth century, this novel is also valued for its exploration of friendship and changing social values. Although written by one of America’s most famous authors, Twain chose to publish this story first in England. The use of conversational language with a regional flavor is one of the story’s features that cause it to stand out from American literature of earlier years.
The tale is set along the Mississippi River in the mid-1800s. The author knew the area very well from his own travels, including working on the famous riverboats.
The most famous of all Victorian detectives finds solving even the most complex crimes quite “elementary.” Before becoming a world-renowned author, Conan Doyle trained as a doctor in Scotland. His professor at medical school was known for his skill in observing case symptoms and provided the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes.
Conan Doyle did such a good job of developing his character that many people were convinced Holmes was a real-life detective. Even today, people continue to address letters to Sherlock Holmes on Baker Street.
Despite the title, this is no salacious account by a drug addict, but a fascinating exploration of how the author’s own childhood experiences made such lasting and deep impressions. The son of a prosperous Manchester businessman, Thomas is sent to Manchester Grammar School, but he runs away to travel around Wales.
Eventually, he makes his way to London, where he is befriended by a young prostitute. This account of his youthful adventures is interspersed with the surreal visions brought on by the author’s use of opium.
Goldsmith penned a hilarious eighteenth-century tale featuring an English clergyman and a set of rogues who try to take advantage of his good nature. When the vicar gets into financial difficulties, he is forced to relocate with his family to the parish of disreputable Squire Thornhill.
The amusing conversations and misunderstandings between the vicar, his wife, his daughters, and their suitors provide the most entertaining element in the book. Believe it or not, Goldsmith’s friend Dr. Samuel Johnson sold this novel on his friend's behalf for 60 pounds. The money saved Goldsmith from eviction.
A faithful friend of Dr. Johnson wrote this biography full of fascinating anecdotes of Johnson’s life and opinions. When the Scottish squire Boswell arrives in London, he is delighted by the opportunity to make the acquaintance of one of England’s leading literati, Dr. Samuel Johnson. Despite the doctor’s well-known antipathy to Scotland, a firm friendship develops between the two.
Boswell becomes the chronicler of Dr. Johnson’s life and vividly portrays the fascinating host of poets, politicians, and artists in his circle. At the same time, the reader learns of Boswell’s own adventures amongst the highs and lows of London society.
Written by the subject of the previous recommendation, this is one of the earliest and most famous English dictionaries, with many very personal definitions. Although Johnson’s choice of terms provides a rich source of entertainment to 21st-century readers, there was no doubt serious scholarship involved.
Johnson was commissioned to compose a new English dictionary by a group of London booksellers who were unhappy with the existing installments. They paid him over £1,500 (multiply 150 times for an idea of how much this is worth in today’s terms) for this groundbreaking dictionary, which was published in 1755.
Stranded on a desert island, Crusoe learns to be self-sufficient and eventually meets a faithful helper, Man Friday. Defoe’s early 18th-century novel was loosely inspired by the experiences of a real desert island castaway, Alexander Selkirk.
Defoe makes Robinson the story narrator and did such a good job that many readers were convinced it was a genuine first-person account. Literary experts view it as a milestone in the development of English fiction writing. Concepts and terms from the novel entered our everyday language as the story was retold through numerous reprints and stage and screen productions.
Mary Ann Evans, better known by her penname George Eliot, recounts the moving story of how Silas Marner raises an abandoned baby girl as his own daughter. Eliot also explores the harsh and judgmental Nonconformist Christian community of which Marner is a part, and the stirrings of political unrest threatening the stability of early Victorian society.
Eliot's own personal life scandalized respectable Victorian society and the perceptive reader who knows the author’s own story can detect her views on religion and social order in the mouths of her literary creations.
This story of a loveless marriage serves as a vehicle for challenging the moral and social conventions of the Victorian upper classes. Although the book was published in 1872, it was set forty years earlier, in a time of political turmoil centered on the passing of the Reform Act.
The novel provides an interesting glimpse into rural English society at this crucial time. At the center of Elliot’s story are the inhabitants of the fictional rural town of Middlemarch. In particular, readers meet passionate Dorothea Brooke and learn of her entry into a loveless marriage with cold intellectual Reverend Edward Casaubon.
In this exciting tale of banditry and political unrest set in eighteenth century Scotland, Sir Walter Scott did more than any other writer to create the popular image of warring Celtic clans, kilts, and bagpipers.
Rob Roy is based on an actual figure in history. Scott transforms him and his formidable wife Helen, into leading figures in the struggle against English domination in early eighteenth century Scotland. They fought hard against their enemies but with a certain chivalry that the reader can admire. Scott's reproduction of the local dialect gives the story an additional authenticity.
A Spanish satire on the world of medieval chivalry that has lost none of its slapstick humor since it was first published in the 1600s.
Romance intertwines with themes of jealousy and guilt set against the small town politics of nineteenth century England.
These tales of Toad, Mole, Ratty and the evil weasels who live around the river bank have been entertaining young readers for over a century.
Rich images from the life of ordinary people in the early twentieth century English countryside.
Children living close to a country railway station team up to prevent a major railway accident.
This 1860s novel is often considered the first detective story. See if you can work out the criminal’s identify without jumping to the last chapter!
This story of the evil count that can change into a vampire is loosely based on a medieval Rumanian ruler known for his cruelty.
An early foray into the world of science fiction, The Time Machine is an interesting story around the concept of time travel.
A knock on the head sends a late nineteenth century American back to the medieval world of King Arthur. With guns and telephone exchanges, he tries to improve the medieval world.
Twain records his idiosyncratic impressions of an 1869 visit of a group of American tourists to the Middle East and other places of cultural and historical importance.
A wonderful children’s tale all about Christopher Robin and his toy bear’s mischievous adventures.
This tale of the life of slaves in the Southern United States may sound patronizing to modern readers, but it was a revolutionary depiction of how slaves could be upstanding, pious people. Historians believe it played a role in the end of slavery.
Although published in 1859, this guide to making the most of each person’s abilities continues to be reprinted and find new readers.
A faithful administrator of a Victorian almshouse (seniors' home) is challenged by the corruptible churchmen who run the institution.
When the traveler Gulliver arrives in the miniscule kingdom of Lilliput, he appears to be a giant. This children’s story also contains subtle allusions to early eighteenth century English politics.
This controversial Irish writer is at his best in this tale of an English ghost’s amusing encounters with a brash American family who come to live in his house.
An English officer is appointed Resident Magistrate in rural Ireland where he has a succession of amusing encounters with his Irish relations and their friends.
This 1834 work brought Dickens fame. It tells the story of Mr. Pickwick and his friends as they travel across England by stagecoach.
A scientist succeeds in making himself invisible but fails in his attempts to reverse the process. In the end, the Invisible Man turns to a life of crime.
Orwell’s observations of poverty in Depression-era north-western England formed the source material for this book.
The famous politician was a young man when he wrote this action-packed account of his experiences in the 1898 war between Britain and the Sudan.
This story of the punishment faced by a convicted adulteress in seventeenth century New England is considered Hawthorne’s finest work.
This is the diary kept by Celia Fiennes during her horseback journey across late seventeenth-century England.
This classic romantic tale of early nineteenth century England explores the protagonists’ relationships against the social conventions and manners of the time. The leading character, Elizabeth Bennet, is the daughter of a country gentleman. Although this gives Elizabeth social status in Regency England, there is little for her and her sisters to hope for in terms of an inheritance.
The plot revolves around the efforts to find the Bennet girls suitable suitors, with their mother taking a very active role in this regard. Their prospective marriage partners and the interplay between them offers many interesting insights into life at this time.
Anyone who enjoys Churchill’s rhetoric will delight in this finely written account of the history of England and its colonies from Roman times until 1914.