Classic books to read at least once in your lifetime

From the gothic horror of Frankenstein to the social satire of Pride and Prejudice, here is our edit of the classic books to read at least once in your life.

13/07/2021
2 minutes to read
Young girl sits at a table smelling a rose - taken from the cover of Vanity Fair

What makes a classic? In his book Why Read the Classics? Italian writer Italo Calvino defined classics as ‘books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.’ Pan Macmillan’s own Harriet Sanders, Publisher of Macmillan Collectors’ Library, believes that a classic ‘has to have endured and stood the test of time . . . they will deal with themes that are still relevant today – universal themes.’

From gothic horror to romance, literary fiction to science that changed the world, here’s our edit of the classic novels you should be adding to your reading bucket list. For more on what makes a classic, don’t miss the Book Break episode below.

Frankenstein

by Mary Shelley

Book cover for Frankenstein

Often copied but never bettered, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the influential and shocking story of a monster created by a mad scientist. Born out of a competition between Mary Shelley and the poets Shelley and Byron over who could write the best horror story, Frankenstein is more relevant than ever in today’s world of boundary-pushing genetic experiments.

Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

Book cover for Great Expectations

One of the most renowned novels by this literary great, if you're looking for a Charles Dickens book to tick off of your literary bucket list, Great Expectations is a must-read.

It tells the story of Pip, an orphan boy who wishes to transcend his humble origins and finds himself unexpectedly given the opportunity to live a life of wealth and respectability thanks to a mysterious benefactor. As time goes on, Pip comes to realise that the money he was gifted is tainted and the girl he has loved since childhood will never return his affections. Perhaps happiness can only be found in the very things he gave up in pursuit of a more sophisticated life. . .

The Time Machine

by H. G. Wells

Book cover for The Time Machine

H. G. Wells was among the first to express a plausible scientific method of time travel, and he also coined the term ‘time machine’ in this science fiction novella. The book has been adapted into three different films, and still influences science fiction writers today. The Time Machine is a pioneering classic that is considered by many to be the most influential sci-fi book of all time.

Greyfriars Bobby

by Eleanor Atkinson

Book cover for Greyfriars Bobby

When Auld Jock, a shepherd, loses his job, he moves to Edinburgh in search of work. But the city isn’t kind to him and he falls into a life of poverty. Lonely, old and ill, his only companion is a plucky little Skye terrier named Bobby, who belonged to the farmer that dismissed Jock. When the farmer tries to take the dog back, Bobby escapes and finds his way back to town. From that day on, he stays devoted to Auld Jock, even guarding the old man’s grave in Greyfriars kirkyard for many years. Inspired by true events, Eleanor Atkinson's Greyfriars Bobby is the deeply touching story of an inseparable bond and a wonderful evocation of Edinburgh in the late nineteenth century.

Little Women

by Louisa May Alcott

Book cover for Little Women

Thousands of teenagers around the world have fallen in love with Marmee and her four daughters: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. This semi-autobiographical novel charts the highs and lows of the four sisters as they navigate their way from childhood to adulthood.

On the Origin of the Species

by Charles Darwin

Book cover for On the Origin of the Species

Darwin’s record of his theory of evolution which revolutionised our understanding of humanity's place in the natural world. On the Origin of Species is considered the foundation of evolutionary biology and is still hugely influential to this day.

Kidnapped

by Robert Louis Stevenson

Book cover for Kidnapped

Headstrong David Balfour, orphaned at seventeen, sets out from the Scottish Lowlands to seek his fortune in Edinburgh. Betrayed by his wealthy Uncle Ebenezer, he is carried away to sea to be sold into slavery in the Carolinas. On board, he secures a timely alliance with Jacobite adventurer Alan Breck, and together they make an epic escape across the western Highlands. Inspired by real events, Kidnapped is a swashbuckling adventure of bizarre encounters, political assassination and wild carousings with Robert Louis Stevenson’s unique counterpoint of low morals and high comedy threaded throughout.

Pride and Prejudice

by Jane Austen

Book cover for Pride and Prejudice

A tour de force of wit and sparkling dialogue whose characters and themes still resonate today. Ostensibly a romance full of gowns and balls, this social satire of marriage and relationships in 19th century England is much more cutting and incisive than it first appears.

Wuthering Heights

by Emily Bronte

Book cover for Wuthering Heights

Heathcliff and Cathy are one of the most romantic and passionate couples in literature and Wuthering Heights is unsurpassed in depiction of destructive love. This haunting gothic romance is one of the great novels of the twentieth century, and has influenced numerous songs and film adaptations.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

by Lewis Carroll

Book cover for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

Alice, The White Rabbit, The Cheshire Cat and The Queen of Hearts have kept readers spellbound for more than 150 years. This much loved book has never been out of print since it was first published, and has been adapted into dozens of films and TV series, plays and ballets, as well as influencing countless fantasy writers.

The Great Gatsby

by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Book cover for The Great Gatsby

The book that best captures the flamboyance, the carelessness and the cruelty of the wealthy during America’s Jazz age. Evoking the glitz, glamour and the dark side of 1920s, The Great Gatsby is a cynical look at the limits of the American Dream which still resonates today.

Madame Bovary

by Gustave Flaubert

Book cover for Madame Bovary

This 1856 novel about being trapped in a loveless marriage is still so poignant today, and remains one of the best, and saddest, portraits of a woman ever written. Flaubert’s debut novel is a pioneering work of literary realism which faced obscenity charges when it was originally published but is now considered a masterpiece.

Vanity Fair

by William Makepeace Thackeray

Book cover for Vanity Fair

Another unforgettable literary female character is Becky Sharpe – a woman willing to use everything in her arsenal to secure a rich husband and live like a queen. This dazzlingly entertaining satire of early nineteenth century high society is as popular now as it was upon publication.

For more from Macmillan Collector’s Library, check out this episode of Book Break where Emma talks to MCL Publisher Harriet about what makes a classic.

Book Break - What Makes a Classic?