Classic books to read at least once in your lifetime

Looking to cosy up with a classic? 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.

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 coming-of-age tales 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.

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.

A Christmas Carol

by Charles Dickens

Book cover for A Christmas Carol

First published in 1843, Charles Dickens' classic Christmas novella was an overnight success. It is the tale of miserly Mr Scroog who – through a series of eerie, life-changing visits from supernatural companions – begins to see the error of his cold-hearted ways one fateful Christmas Eve. With heart-rending characters, rich imagery and evocative language, the hopeful message of A Christmas Carol remains as significant today as when it was first published.

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.

Orlando

by Virginia Woolf

Book cover for Orlando

Following it’s immortal namesake through three centuries of history, Orlando is an whimsical exploration of perceptions of gender and love through the ages. It’s also a love letter, written by Virginia Woolf to her long time female companion and fellow novelist Vita Sackville-West, who inspired the character of Orlando.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

by Frederick Douglass

Book cover for Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Portraying a key moment in the anti-slavery movement, this unique memoir tells the incredible story of a man's escape from slavery and journey to freedom. 

Maryland 1818, Frederick Douglass is born into a life of slavery. Spending his youth being passed from master to master, city to field, he is subjected to unimaginable cruelty. But, coming to the realisation that education might be the key to his salvation, he learned to read and write. Using everything he learned, Douglass managed to escape and eventually become a free man. This memoir was hugely influential in the abolition of slavery, a goal that Douglass devoted his live to. 

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.

Women of the Harlem Renaissance

by Marissa Constantinou

Book cover for Women of the Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement that saw an explosion of Black art, music and writing, yet few female creatives are remembered alongside their male counterparts. This vital anthology celebrates the women of colour at the heart of the movement, with poems and stories that explore subjects from love, loss and motherhood to jazz, passing and Jim Crow law. Showcasing popular authors alongside writers you might discover for the first time, this collection of daring and disruptive writing encapsulates early twentieth-century America in surprising and beautiful ways.

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.

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

by James Weldon Johnson

Book cover for The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

This groundbreaking novel examines race and class in America at the end of the nineteenth century. The narrator, who has lost his mother at a young age, is forced out of his comfortable middle-class life and into the world. His love of music takes him from an all-Black church in Georgia, to ragtime performances in New York, to the threats of the South. Here, the narrator abandons both his passion for music and his race, deciding to pass for white to survive.

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.

The Invisible Man

by H. G. Wells

Book cover for The Invisible Man

In this masterpiece of science fiction, a mysterious stranger arrives at a rural Sussex inn on a cold winter’s night with his face obscured by bandages and his body cloaked in a long, heavy coat. He locks himself in his room and spends his stay labouring over chemicals in intricate glass bottles. The villagers, bewildered by what lurks under the bandages, could never be prepared for the terrible truth: that the man is a scientist who has rendered himself invisible and is desperately struggling to find an antidote. He flees to the rugged, cliff-lined coast where, pursued by police and an angry mob, he is intent on murderous revenge.

Passing

by Nella Larsen

Book cover for Passing

Immerse yourself in 1920s New York through Nella Larsen's distinctive and revealing novel. The story centres around identity, belonging and two childhood friends who’ve long grown apart – Clare Kendry who is proud of her Harlem roots, and Irene Redford who has abandoned them altogether, ‘passing’ as white to her racist husband in the upper classes of New York. As their worlds intertwine once again, tensions lead up to a truly shocking conclusion. A classic far ahead of its time, Passing reads like the best of contemporary literary fiction.

Persuasion

by Jane Austen

Book cover for Persuasion

Persuasion was the last novel completed by Jane Austen. Published posthumously, it is believed by some to be her most refined work, and follows the story of Anne Elliott, who as a teenager was engaged to a seemingly ideal man, Frederick Wentworth. But after being persuaded by her friend Lady Russell that he is too poor to be a suitable match, Anne ends their engagement. When they are reacquainted eight years later, their circumstances are transformed: Frederick is returning triumphantly from the Napoleonic War, while Anne's fortunes are floundering. Will their past regrets prevent them from finding future happiness?

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.

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.

Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands

by Mary Seacole

Book cover for Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands

Mary Seacole was a pioneering nineteenth-century nurse, who travelled from her home in Jamaica to reach England, and went on – despite many obstacles – to fulfil her ambition of tending to soldiers fighting on the front line of the Crimean War. Overcoming prejudice, she became the toast of London society. An invaluable testimony.

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.