We’ve all been there. You’re out with a gang discussing the events of the day, and that one smug person always goes ‘Well it’s just completely Orwellian, wouldn’t you agree?’
And just once you'd like to reply and wipe the smug look off of their face, because you read too – but God, not Orwell, more like Jojo Moyes and Cecelia Ahern! Why can’t anyone ever say ‘Oh, that’s just completely ‘Moysian’ isn’t it?’
I love reading and books, and particularly because I’ve completed an English literature degree, everyone expects you to have read every classic ever written. As someone who’s a huge fan of contemporary fiction, fantasy and dystopian writing, I actually didn’t like classics for a long time. It feels like posturing a lot of it, like, ‘What do you mean you haven’t read this – it’s a classic!’ As if that’s some sort of justification for going on for a hundred pages talking about the plants around the area – I’m looking at you, Robinson Crusoe.
But what really made me get into classics, was actually films. I fell totally in love with historical dramas, and it started out with films like Kiera Knightley’s 2005 ‘Pride and Prejudice’ when I was sixteen. It made the classics sexy and dramatic and emotional – everything I thought they weren’t. I went straight out and picked up a copy the next day and tore through it, able to pick the plot out from the flowery language, because I already knew what was happening.
The key to reading the classics – and really appreciating them – is starting with what you like. I hate when there’s pressure put on people to read certain things because someone decided a hundred years ago that it was the bees knees. It’s not going to be for everyone, and reading is something that there shouldn’t be any snobbery about. You’ll just ruin the experience for yourself if you try to live up to another’s standards.
There’s no point in going out and picking up Metamorphosis or Ulysses straight of the bat to sound impressive. You have to understand and be invested in the story to start to learn the language and context behind them, in order to expand your classics palette further.
All of that being said, if you don’t want to read the classics, if you’ve given them a go and they’re not for you – fair enough! There is value in almost every book, regardless of how old it is – and you’re going to ace the contemporary fiction rounds in every pub quiz.
But if you want to know where’s a good place to start into the classics, I’ve compiled a list of my favourite ‘easy’ but notable classic reads. Some of them are more modern and relatable than you’d expect, and plenty have films to go along with them, to watch before or after, for context. So whether you want to dip a toe in the water or hurl yourself in, here are my top ‘Classics that don’t feel like “classics”’ reads;
‘Wuthering Heights’ – Emily Brontë
In a house haunted by memories, the past is everywhere…
As darkness falls, a man caught in a snowstorm is forced to shelter at the strange, grim Wuthering Heights house. It is a place he will never forget.
There, he will come to learn the story of Cathy: how she was forced to choose between her well-meaning husband and the dangerous man she had loved since childhood. How her choice led to betrayal and terrible revenge – and continues to torment those in the present. And how love can transgress authority, convention and even death…
This dark, stormy and romantic tale is told in the past and present, moving between two generations of young lovers, showing the past can haunt the present. Romantically gothic, it is a Brontë classic, and always a good one to be able to reference, as well as an absolute gem of a book. I think there was a recent film adaptation that’s on Netflix, starring Kaya Scodeliario of ‘Skins’ and ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ fame as Cathy. A tale of obsession gone wrong, it’s a fantastic read.
Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again . . .
The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. Orphaned and working as a lady's maid, she can barely believe her luck. It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realises how large a shadow his late wife will cast over their lives–presenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave.
Another gothic read, you’ve probably been hearing about this book a lot recently. It’s just been made into a movie starring Lily James (Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Cinderella) and Armie Hammer (Call Me by Your Name, The Social Network) and it has taken Netflix viewers by storm. Our nameless protagonist finds herself sucked deeper and deeper into a mysterious web of lies and deceit, falling prey to the creepy house mistress and an increasingly distant husband. A major twist will have your head spinning and wishing there were more.
The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison
The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison's first novel, a book heralded for its richness of language and boldness of vision. Set in the author's girlhood hometown of Lorain, Ohio, it tells the story of black, eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove. Pecola prays for her eyes to turn blue so that she will be as beautiful and beloved as all the blonde, blue-eyed children in America. And Pecola's life does change- in painful, devastating ways.
A vivid evocation of the fear and loneliness at the heart of a child's yearning, and the tragedy of its fulfilment. The Bluest Eye remains one of Toni Morrison's most powerful, unforgettable novels – and a significant work of American fiction.
Absolutely heartbreaking but cutting to the core of an issue that still exists today, Morrison’s novel addresses the cultural and racial biases that affect the beauty and media industries. A great starting point for understanding the need for diversity in media representations, Morrison’s work is definitely a tough read, but you will look at the standards of beauty around you completely differently afterwards.
Frankenstein – Mary Wollstonecraft-Shelley
A terrifying vision of scientific progress without moral limits, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein leads the reader on an unsettling journey from the sublime beauty of the Swiss alps to the desolate waste of the arctic circle.
Obsessed with the idea of creating life itself, Victor Frankenstein, a misguided medical student, plunders graveyards for the material with which to fashion a new being, shocking his creation to life with electricity. But this botched creature, rejected by its creator and denied human companionship, sets out to destroy Frankenstein and all that he holds dear.
You may think you know the bones of this story, but think again! Actually settling in for a proper read of Shelley’s masterpiece will show the moral corruption of man, making us ask who the true monster is here? Legend has it, Mary Shelley actually came up with this concept while stuck in Geneva due to a snowstorm with her poet husband and an allegedly insufferably arrogant Lord Byron (yes, that one). The men held a competition to see who could come up with the most terrifying ghost story, and Mary came up with Frankenstein, beating both men’s socks off. There is a fascinating film starring Elle Fanning that documents Mary’s tumultuous relationships and dark imagination and how they blend to create a portrait of truly remarkable woman.
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.' Thus, memorably begins Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, one of the world's most popular novels. ‘Pride and Prejudice’ -Austen's own 'darling child'- tells the story of fiercely independent Elizabeth Bennett, one of five sisters who must marry rich, as she confounds the arrogant, wealthy Mr. Darcy. What ensues is one of the most delightful and engrossingly readable courtships known to literature. Humorous and profound, and filled with highly entertaining dialogue, this witty comedy of manners dips and turns through drawing-rooms and plots to reach an immensely satisfying finale.
Aside from Lizzie Bennet being one of the better character perspectives to read from (feisty, hilarious and just a little judgey – which we love her for), there are so many other reasons to read Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s character construction is fantastic, with Lizzie’s cast of sisters and mother stealing the show with their ridiculous and not so ridiculous problems and missteps through society. Think Bridgerton, but less sexy, more historical, with meditations on class and society. Scandal dogs the family and love interests abound – plus it’s worth reading just for the movie alone – romantic, beautifully shot and full of twists, it’s a fantastic place to start. If you enjoy this one, ‘Emma’ is a great choice to move onto next!
Lord of the Flies – William Golding
A plane crashes on an uncharted island, stranding a group of schoolboys. At first, with no adult supervision, their freedom is something to celebrate; this far from civilization the boys can do anything they want.
They attempt to forge their own society, failing, however, in the face of terror, sin and evil. And as order collapses, as strange howls echo in the night, as terror begins its reign, the hope of adventure seems as far from reality as the hope of being rescued. Labelled a parable, an allegory, a myth, a morality tale, a parody, a political treatise, even a vision of the apocalypse, Lord of the Flies is perhaps our most memorable novel about “the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart.”
A super dark, but also realistic read, Lord of the Flies is an unnerving tale about the dark deeds we commit when the laws of polite society don’t hold us back. With moving rendering of characters, both sympathetic and just pathetic, social hierarchy wins out and presents itself in a dangerous way. Think a less dystopian Hunger Games; what happens when the jock and the nerd don’t have a teacher to pull them apart, and the only the strong – or the strong willed – survive?
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it.
Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, "To Kill A Mockingbird" takes readers to the roots of human behaviour – to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humour and pathos. Now with over 18 million copies in print and translated into forty languages, this regional story by a young Alabama woman claims universal appeal. Harper Lee always considered her book to be a simple love story. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.
An iconic story exploring the complexities of the American race issue through a child’s eyes in the deep south, this novel remains relevant today. Probably the most accessible of all the books I’ve chosen – because it’s probably the most modern – its strong and likeable characters allow you to see the world vividly and immediately through their eyes. One tip; don’t read the second book, ‘Go Set a Watchman’. Absolutely ruined one of my favourite characters for me. Atticus deserved better.
The Handmaid’s Tale
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now…
Funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing, The Handmaid's Tale is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force.
More than just a successful TV show, this is a fantastic and terrifying book to read as a woman, with its dystopian re-imagining of America under a patriarchal rule. A Wild West introduction to many feminist issues, this dark and compelling story sweeps you away with its paranoia, strange main character and creeping sense of dread. A modern classic, this book is a must read for any modern woman.
Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer
In April, 1992, a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, a party of moose hunters found his decomposed body. How McCandless came to die is the unforgettable story of Into the Wild.
Immediately after graduating from college in 1991, McCandless had roamed through the West and Southwest on a vision quest like those made by his heroes Jack London and John Muir. In the Mojave Desert he abandoned his car, stripped it of its license plates, and burned all of his cash. He would give himself a new name, Alexander Supertramp, and, unencumbered by money and belongings, he would be free to wallow in the raw, unfiltered experiences that nature presented. Craving a blank spot on the map, McCandless simply threw away the maps. Leaving behind his desperate parents and sister, he vanished into the wild.
Ever wanted to convert an old bus or camper van and just go wherever you want, whenever you want? Ever just wanted to fall off the map entirely? This is defiantly the book for you. Based on a true story, this cult classic warns of dangers and addictive beauty of a life unencumbered by societal expectations and relationships. A modern novel of wanderlust in the extreme, this heartbreaking tale will stay with you long after finishing.
Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro
Hailsham seems like a pleasant English boarding school, far from the influences of the city. Its students are well tended and supported, trained in art and literature, and become just the sort of people the world wants them to be. But, curiously, they are taught nothing of the outside world and are allowed little contact with it.
Within the grounds of Hailsham, Kathy grows from schoolgirl to young woman, but it’s only when she and her friends Ruth and Tommy leave the safe grounds of the school (as they always knew they would) that they realise the full truth of what Hailsham is.
Never Let Me Go breaks through the boundaries of the literary novel. It is a gripping mystery, a beautiful love story, and also a scathing critique of human arrogance and a moral examination of how we treat the vulnerable and different in our society. In exploring the themes of memory and the impact of the past, Ishiguro takes on the idea of a possible future to create his most moving and powerful book to date.
This powerful and strange book will have you on the edge of your seat with a gripping mystery, an unnerving secret and a sense of dread that the character’s worlds could crumble any second. Full of characters that move and infuriate you, lies and pasts that shock you and a twist that leaves your jaw hanging open, this book is a perfect one to start out on for modern classics. The movie stars Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Kiera Knightley as the trio of friends and their relationships draw you ever further into the complex and secretive world of Hailsham.
Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
Cloud Atlas begins in 1850 with Adam Ewing, an American notary voyaging from the Chatham Isles to his home in California. Along the way, Ewing is befriended by a physician, Dr. Goose, who begins to treat him for a rare species of brain parasite. . . .
Abruptly, the action jumps to Belgium in 1931, where Robert Frobisher, a disinherited bisexual composer, contrives his way into the household of an infirm maestro who has a beguiling wife and a nubile daughter. . . . From there we jump to the West Coast in the 1970s and a troubled reporter named Luisa Rey, who stumbles upon a web of corporate greed and murder that threatens to claim her life. . . . And onward, with dazzling virtuosity, to an inglorious present-day England; to a Korean superstate of the near future where neocapitalism has run amok; and, finally, to a post apocalyptic Iron Age Hawaii in the last days of history.
But the story doesn’t end even there. The narrative then boomerangs back through centuries and space, returning by the same route, in reverse, to its starting point. Along the way, Mitchell reveals how his disparate characters connect, how their fates intertwine, and how their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky.
I know, this one sounds crazy. But trust me, it’s it in the best of ways. The stories, though spaced across different eras and places, thread together to create a massive tapestry of interconnected lives. Like a giant jigsaw puzzle, we get a broad picture of life on earth over the span of almost a millennium, into times we haven’t even begun to imagine yet. A true tour-de-force, this modern classic is unforgettable. The film stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugh Grant, as if you needed more of an excise to pick up this book.