At some point in our lives, many of us decide to get stuck into some classic novels. They can transport us to another time, give us insight into important topics, and teach us valuable lessons. But, most importantly, many are beautifully written and genuinely entertaining.
While classic novels are undeniably impressive, lots of ‘hall of fame’ titles can also be daunting – especially if you aren’t an avid reader. Some are written in challenging styles that can be difficult to decipher, while others are as thick as the Yellow Pages.
However, ‘long’ and ‘challenging’ aren’t necessarily the ingredients for a classic. In fact, some of the most revered novels of all time are relatively short and written in an accessible way (which by no means detracts from their beauty and genius).
With this in mind, we’ve come up with a list of 12 classic novels that are suitable for any kind of reader…
1. Mrs Dalloway - Virginia Woolf (1925)
Set on a single day in the summer of 1923, Mrs Dalloway primarily follows two characters: Clarissa Dalloway (an upper-class Londoner) as she prepares to host a party, and Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked soldier. The story explores a variety of themes like mental illness, memory, time, and the inevitability of death.
Virginia Woolf is widely considered to be one of the greatest novelists of all time. As a pioneer of the Modernist movement and an important figure in feminist literature, her writing was (and still is) incredibly influential.
Mrs Dalloway provides a perfect introduction to Woolf’s work, as well as the wider Modernist movement. If you enjoy this novella, you could progress on to her weighter work, To the Lighthouse, or explore stories from other Modernist writers like James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, and D.H Lawrence.
2. The Call of the Wild - Jack London (1903)
The Call of the Wild is a little different to the rest of the books on this list because its main protagonist is not a person, but a dog named Buck.
Set during the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s, when prospectors were heading into the wilderness of Northern Canada to search for gold, we follow Buck as he’s snatched from his home in California and sold to be used as a sled dog in the Yukon.
The Call of the Wild chronicles Buck’s transformation from a pampered pet to a primitive animal – doing what he needs to do to survive. If you’re excited by stories of frontier and adventure, then this novel is for you.
3. Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe (1958)
Considered by many to be one of the greatest African novels of all time, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe chronicles the rise and fall of Okonkwo, a prominent figure of an Igbo community in Southeast Nigeria.
There are many reasons to pick up this novel. Firstly, Achebe’s depiction of Nigerian tribal societies gives readers a unique insight into a part of history that, sadly, not many of us know about – especially here in the UK. It’s fascinating learning about the Igbo community’s customs, traditions, and legends.
Secondly, set in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, Things Fall Apart explores the effects of European colonialism and the influence of Christian Missionaries on the people of Africa.
Although upsetting, this is a vital part of Britain’s history that’s not discussed or taught enough. Achebe’s book will give you an understanding of the destructive influences of colonialism that are still being felt to this day.
4. Breakfast at Tiffany’s - Truman Capote (1958)
You might be reading this list and thinking, ‘What about Breakfast at Tiffany’s?’, because you remember the film and, as you recall, you kinda liked it. But before it was an iconic movie and, later, a slightly puzzling yet undeniably catchy 90s anthem, it was a book by Truman Capote.
Written from the perspective of an unnamed writer living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan just after the Second World War, Breakfast at Tiffany’s tells the story of his neighbour, Holly Golightly – a dazzlingly dysfunctional New York socialite with a painful past.
Capote’s novel is essentially a character study; a portrait of a complicated young woman that prompts us to question why we are the way we are. And although it’s soapy at times (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if that’s what you’re into), it’s also poignant and written in a beautiful, fluid style that’ll carry you from the first page to the last.
5. A Study in Scarlet - Arthur Conan Doyle (1887)
Sherlock Holmes is one of the most famous and enduring literary creations of all time. As well as the original four novels and 56 short stories written by Conan Doyle in the late 1800s and early 1900s, we’ve seen countless incarnations of the ingenious detective in the 100+ years since his introduction. But it all started in 1887’s A Study in Scarlet.
Readers of A Study in Scarlet will be treated to a puzzling murder mystery. They’ll also witness how Holmes meets other iconic characters, like his sidekick, Doctor John Watson, and Detective Inspector Lestrade.
Although it might not be Doyle’s finest work, at 160 pages, it’s a short and sweet introduction to the character – plus, who doesn’t like starting at the beginning? If you enjoy this story, then you can move on to more critically admired works like The Hounds of Baskerville.
6. The Bluest Eye - Toni Morrison (1970)
Clocking in at 223 pages, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is one of the longer books on this list, and it’s also one of the most difficult to read.
This has nothing to do with Morrison’s prose – which is poetic, haunting, and sweeps you along like a gentle current – but because the novel tackles some very heavy, though undeniably important, topics.
Morrison’s debut novel follows the story of Pecola, a young black girl growing up in Ohio following The Great Depression. It chronicles a time in her life when she is navigating poverty, sexual abuse, and racism, and how these all affect her understanding of her identity and her place in the world.
Though an undeniably challenging read due to its unflinching, visceral treatment of the difficult subject matter, The Bluest Eye is a perfect introduction to the work of one of the most important and impactful writers in recent times.
7. The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemingway (1952)
Ernest Hemingway is considered by many to be the greatest American writer of all time. Like Shakespeare, his name has become synonymous with those who can wax lyrically on the page. However, if you’ve not read his work, you might be surprised at what you find upon opening a Hemingway novel.
Hemingway is famous for his sparse and trimmed-back writing style. There are no unnecessary frills in his work and he’s only interested in the truth or the essence of the story. This makes his work relatively easy to read and perfect for those who aren’t avid readers to get stuck into classic literature.
While his writing is accessible, it’s by no means simple. In fact, Hemingway’s work is poetic, complex, and often devasting – and this is demonstrated in his classic tale of man vs nature, The Old Man and the Sea, which won him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
8. Giovanni’s Room - James Baldwin (1956)
James Baldwin is a powerhouse figure in American history. Not only was he a celebrated novelist and literary critic, but an activist that played huge roles in both the civil rights movement and the gay liberation movement.
As an African American gay man in the mid-20th Century, Baldwin’s novels were famous for tackling issues of race and sexuality, and giving voices to the underrepresented.
Giovanni’s Room is a short novel told from the perspective of David – a young American man who enters into an affair with an Italian bartender. It’s a marvellous and heartbreaking exploration of the complexities and difficulties of the queer experience in the mid-20th century.
9. Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck (1937)
In the 1930s, John Steinbeck became the unofficial chronicler of displaced people during the Great Depression – particularly after the publication of his magnum opus, The Grapes of Wrath, in 1939.
Although, if you’re looking to dip your toe into the works of this literary heavy-hitter, there’s no better place to start than Of Mice and Men.
Taking place during the height of the Great Depression, this novella follows nomadic migrant workers George and Lenny. George is sharp, intelligent, and short-tempered, while his beloved friend Lenny is a mentally-challenged gentle giant. When the two friends arrive at a ranch in the Salinas Valley, they find their bond tested to the absolute extreme.
Of Mice and Men is taught at GCSE level in schools all over the UK because of its depth and complexity, as well as its accessibility in terms of length and language.
10. The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath (1963)
Sylvia Plath is one of the most revered poets, short story writers, and novelists of the 20th Century. Though, as she struggled with clinical depression – which ultimately led to her suicide in 1963 – she led a very unfortunate life.
The Bell Jar, which was published the same year as her death, is a novel that’s based heavily on Plath’s experiences as a young female writer, struggles with mental health, and experiences being institutionalised and consequently treated with electroconvulsive therapy.
It’s a pioneering text in the study of feminist literature as it investigates the conflicting expectations society places upon women, particularly in regard to motherhood and sexuality.
At 244 pages, it’s the longest novel on this list, but it’s well worth it for anyone looking to get stuck into some classic, influential literature.
11. The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald (1924)
The 1920s in America were a time like no other. Nestled neatly between the First World War and the Great Depression, it was a time of economic prosperity – and the members of the upper class were living to excess.
The Great Gatsby is the groundbreaking novel of this time. It follows a young war veteran, Nick Carroway, as he becomes embroiled in the extravagant lives of the rich residents of New York’s Long Island – particularly an enigmatic and mysterious millionaire named Jay Gatsby.
Other than a defining depiction of what later became known as the Jazz Age – in both its glamour and ugliness – The Great Gatsby is a tragic love story that’s perfect for all kinds of readers.
12. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
If horror and psychological thrillers are more of your bag, then you won’t go wrong with Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Set in the misty streets of Victorian London, this novella explores the relationship between the amicable, respected Dr Henry Jekyll and the mysterious, depraved Mr Hyde.
This gothic novella is one of the shorter ones on this list; clocking in at under one hundred pages – but each one is filled with creepy suspense and intrigue, as well as insightful commentary on the duality of human nature. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is an important part of the history of literature; still influencing the horror genre even to this day.
If you enjoy Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, then you might want to graduate to some other staples of the gothic horror genre, like Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and if you find yourself ready for a longer novel, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
If you’re looking to sink your teeth into some accessible classic literature, but you’re not sure where to start, then we hope this article has given you some inspiration. Remember that this list isn’t exhaustive and there are plenty of classic novels out there that are perfect for readers of a wide range of abilities.
It’s also worth noting that all the books in this list are from the 19th and 20th centuries. This is because the further back you go in time, the less accessible the style and language of classic novels become. Plus, older novels also tend to be pretty lengthy.
Though, if you’re an avid reader of classic literature you just fancy a challenge, you might want to explore novels from centuries longer ago.
For more literary inspiration, you might also want to visit the arts and culture section of our website. Here, you’ll find a wide range of articles, from 27 of the best must-read novels to 15 inspiring self-development books.