15 classic books that you have to read at least once

On our hunt for the newest and hottest reads, it can be easy to forget that there's already a wealth of timeless classics just waiting for us to dive in.

In honour of Harper Lee, who sadly passed away this month at the age of 89-year-old, let’s revisit this…

As founder of The Girly Book Club I spend a lot of my time reading books that are nominated to be the next big thing, but when life gets me down, or I need a little perspective, I’ll always find comfort in the classics. Every now and then, when I am tired of the nuances of modern fiction, I pick up a classic and I go back, back to some of my favourite books and favourite memories. Classics are a bit like the scent of perfume to me; certain smells remind me of times and events from my past and it’s very much the same for books. I pick up a dog-eared copy of one of my favourite classics and away I go…

Here is a list of my 15 favourite classics that are bound to make you think twice.

1. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1961): A sombre coming of age story where the protagonist, Esther, deals with a series of life-changing experiences most would approach with pleasure and excitement, but as Esther moves forward on her journey she descends deeper into madness. This book provides an in-depth look at mental health and the conventional expectations placed on women at the time. Just don’t take this book to the beach with you.

2. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1936): One of my absolute favourite books of all time – it’s not a light read and the sheer size of it (1000+ page) may put even the most devout literary buffs off, but once you get into the world of Scarlett O’Hara you’ll fall in love with the South and all its trimmings. A historical novel that has you rooting for a rich spoilt heroine whose bound and determined to survive. Read this book when you need that extra bump of determination and may there be a little Scarlett O’Hara in all of us.

Margaret Mitchell holding a copy of her infamous novel, Gone with the Wind

Margaret Mitchell holding a copy of her infamous novel, Gone with the Wind

3. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850). Hawthorne can be a bit tedious at times but who doesn’t like a sultry book about sin and lust? He was writing about the Puritan society of 1642 so don’t think you’re in for a sequel to 50 Shades of Grey. Once you figure out the language of the time you’ll uncover that poor Hester Prynne must wear a scarlet ‘A’ on her chest at all times to signal to the world that she is an adulteress – imagine that in today’s London!

4. 1984 by George Orwell (1949): Written 35 years before its dated title, 1984 is a dystopian prediction of what the future holds, which is a lot of tyranny, censorship, mind control, public surveillance (Big Brother) and war. Orwell explores what used to be England and is now an authoritarian state. Translated into more than 65 languages, this is an important work of science fiction. A book that helps us examine what our fundamental freedoms are and will question just about everything you thought you knew.

5. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger (1951): Holden Caulfield is a 16-year-old undergoing treatment in a mental facility. The story takes place in New York where Holden spends three days prior to returning to his parents home for Christmas, after he’s recently been expelled from school. What follows is a diatribe of meetings, calls and random occurrences when he seems to be obsessed with where the birds from central park go when the water freezes. The story explores alienation and loneliness as well as the struggle of growing up.

6. Animal Farm by George Orwell (1949): George Orwell was a crafty fellow. I read this for the first time when I was in high school and I had no idea it went any deeper than a bunch of animals bound together to take over a farm from a farmer. Of course, it soon became clear that this is an important piece of historical literature. It’s a critique of the Russian Revolution and symbolizes better than anything else I’ve ever read, the rule of a dictator (Joseph Stalin in this instance) in their country. Set aside your personal political views to get a better understanding of the ideologies this book presents on freedom and equality.

7. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (1847): If you’ve heard the name Heathcliffe then you have likely already been introduced to this epic novel. Referred to by some as the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ of the Yorkshire Moors – Wuthering Heights is not your run-of-the-mill love story, but rather a poignant story of revenge.

8. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868): This is an absolute gem of a story. If you read it when you were young, pick it up again now and it will appeal to you on a whole new level. Alcott has a way of telling her story so that you’re smitten with all of her characters. This novel explores the many roles of women by allowing each daughter to take a different path and lets you explore themes of duty versus individual growth.

Film still of Little Women

Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon and Claire Danes in Little Women

9. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (1937): Set during the great depression in California, this is the story of George and Lennie, two transient ranch workers just trying to find their own place in the world to settle down. Steinbeck examines themes of humanity and friendship in this book – a very powerful and moving read.

10. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960): Winner of a Pulitzer Prize and an all-American Classic. If you’ve never come across this book before then it’s possible you live in a cave. It’s the story of Atticus Finch and his children Jem and Scout growing up in a small town in Alabama, and it’s loosely based on the author’s own life. It’s a captivating read, but not for the light hearted; Lee deals with strong themes of rape, racism and social injustice.

11. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899): Again, not a book to take on vacation with you unless you’re up for an intense thematic probe. The main character, Charles Marlow, transports Ivory down the Congo River in Central Africa. During one of his trips he meets Mr. Kurtz, a man well known to the natives, with whom he develops an unhealthy obsession. Heart of Darkness is an exploration of colonialism and the brutality and racism that is deemed necessary to maintain power.

12. Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (1891): The full title of this book is Tess of the D’Urbervilles – A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented. Judging by the title it’s not surprising that the book was initially censored because of the explicit sexual themes that were not commonplace at the time. The story follows Tess’s own journey through a life full of folly and misfortune – and although you’re unlikely to identify with any one of her hardships you will come away with a bit of perspective at the very least.

13. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925): This book may be style over substance and it’s unlikely you’ll revel in its profound life statements but at least you’ll know what Leonardo Dicaprio is doing on all the poster boards. This is one of those books that will constantly be alluded to and you’ll be left out in the rain until you read it yourself. The Girly Book Club actually read this as a book of the month in preparation for the movie to come out and I am glad I finally did. The Great Gatsby? Check.

Leonardo Dicaprio and Carey Mulligan in The Great Gatsby

Leonardo Dicaprio and Carey Mulligan in The Great Gatsby

14. Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954): Deserted island anyone? A quick and somewhat pessimistic view on human goodness. The story of a group of young boys who crash on a deserted island someplace in the South Pacific – yes, this is beginning to sound a lot like LOST – the popular television series. The boys must build a shelter, eat and most difficult of all – find a way to govern themselves. Sadly all doesn’t go according to plan, but perhaps that presents a more realistic, if a slightly ‘glass half empty’, view of human nature.

15. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls (2005): Right, written in 2005 this is NOT a classic – but I do believe this belongs in any great book list. This is my favourite book of all time and the book I’ve read at least 15 times. Since, Walls has written an additional two books which I’ve also devoured but none compare to her first. The Glass Castle is a memoir and an absolutely shocking tale of growing up in rural America. Every time you think things can’t get any worse – they do. Your own childhood will seem like a rose-coloured tale after you make your way through this book. I challenge you to not read it in one sitting.

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Do you want a more recent book to take on your summer holiday? Here are the 8 new reads you won’t be able to put down.


For your opportunity to learn from some of the UK’s most distinguished writers on the essential components of novel writing, over the course of an intensive weekend in central London (22–23 October 2016). Find out more at: http://www.marieclaire.co.uk/news/creative-writing-weekend-the-essential-components-of-novel-writing-1747#2qqQfqbb7e8lpRqh.99

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