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20 Classic Books to read before you die

Written by son of rambow on Wednesday, April 20, 2011

1: Moby Dick
"Call me Ishmael." With these three words, Herman Melville began Moby Dick - perhaps the most important American novel of the 19th Century. Yet this great writer was almost forgotten by the time he died, and was even listed as Henry Melville in the New York Times obituary.

The downturn in his career was actually due to Moby Dick. Melville had previously been a successful writer of maritime adventure stories, but then he penned this ambitious tale of a maddened sea captain, obsessed with hunting down a white whale, and it proved a little too much for readers at the time.

Even critics were puzzled by Melville’s poetic, almost Biblical style of writing. It was only after his death that the book became accepted as the masterpiece it is - a compelling story that that also tackles big ideas like man’s place in nature, the need for meaning in life, and the nature of America itself.


2: 19 Dead Souls

Don’t be fooled by the morbid-sounding title: Dead Souls is actually one of the wittiest books of the 19th Century. It was written by Nikolai Gogol - not particularly famous outside Russia, but actually a major influence on both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

Dead Souls is his only novel, and tells the story of an enterprising young man who travels around Russia buying up "dead souls" – that is, peasant workers who have died, but who are still registered as living in the census records. He purchases them from landowners, hoping that it will create the illusion that he owns many workers himself, and so allow him to extract huge loans from the government.

A broad and brilliant satire on society – Gogol caricatures and parodies nearly everyone, from gossiping housewives to cruel landowners to pompous officials - Dead Souls is also considered the first-ever Russian novel.


3: Bleak House

It may not be as famous as Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, but Bleak House has got to be Charles Dickens’s greatest novel. He crammed in everything he knew about Victorian London, and reading the result is the next best thing to time travel.

On the surface it’s a satirical (and still relevant) assault on the British legal system – how corrupt lawyers, aristocrats and businessmen use the courts for their own ends. Satire makes up just one layer of the novel however - it’s also a story of forbidden love, family secrets and intrigues.

And, being Dickens, the book is jam-packed with unforgettable characters, not least of all London itself– the sprawl of the city and the curling tentacles of fog have never been depicted so powerfully. This is escapism at its most beguiling.


4: Moll Flanders

Daniel Defoe’s best-known book will always be Robinson Crusoe, but a far bigger and more exciting read is Moll Flanders, his other great novel.

Moll is the daughter of a convict who's determined to become a respectable, wealthy lady and what follows is an often amusing, often tragic tale, as Moll gets married (repeatedly), commits accidental incest, becomes a prostitute, con woman and thief, and is made all too familiar with the walls of a prison cell.

A breathless ride through the muck and glitter of the 18th Century, the novel also gives us one of the most charismatic leading ladies in literature. Beautiful, witty and ruthless, Moll is thoroughly ahead of her time. Yet she’s also endearingly sweet and vulnerable, and you’ll find yourself egging her on, even as you wish she’d sort herself out.


5: Pride and Prejudice

Most people know a thing or two about Pride and Prejudice – if only because of Colin Firth’s dip into that pond. But, if you're only familiar with the story from seeing it on the screen, it’s well worth going back to the source.

Jane Austen’s best-loved novel is funny from the first page, and is just as much a comedy as a romance. Austen manages to sum up pretty much everything about romance and courtship – the awkward flirtation, the mixed messages, the way love can make fools of even the smartest and strongest of us.

Everyone knows Darcy, of course: one of the great romantic heroes of literature (which is quite an achievement considering how stuffy and humourless he is). But there are a whole gallery of characters to savour, from the grotesque Lady Catherine de Bourgh right up to the heroine Elizabeth Bennet – a sassy, witty gal who’d fit into the 21st Century with ease. This is chick-lit at its best!


6: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Anne Bronte has never found the same fame as her sisters Charlotte and Emily, which isn’t really fair because The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is one of the great 19th Century novels.

With it, Anne struck an early blow for women’s lib - it tells the story of a beautiful woman who leaves her womanising husband to make her own way in life. The heroine, Helen Huntingdon, has got to be one of the strongest female leads in English fiction – she’d certainly give Lizzy Bennet a run for her money.

However, this is a far cry from the wry, ordered world of Jane Austen. Helen’s story takes in alcoholism, decadent sex and social scandal, and the emotional turbulence of the novel almost rivals that of Wuthering Heights.


7: Vanity Fair

Charles Dickens may have been king of literary London in the mid-19th Century, but one arch-rival and pretender to the throne was William Makepeace Thackeray.

Determined to out-do Dickens, Thackeray produced a storming, rip-roaring epic of British life, gave it an utterly wicked heroine and called it Vanity Fair. While Dickens was certainly the writer with the wider scope and bigger heart, Thackeray was crueller, cooler and completely unsentimental.

Vanity Fair is the story of Becky Sharp, a deliciously wicked social climber who uses her looks, charm, and a fair bit of deceit, to bewitch men and amass as much money as possible. It's a biting satire on British society, and the hypocrisies of the upper classes, and definitely the Victorian novel for those looking for a proper page-turning romp.


8: Middlemarch

On the face of it, a novel subtitled "A Study of Provincial Life" may not sound like the most exciting read in the world. But George Eliot's Middlemarch is a strong contender for the title of greatest British novel of the 19th Century.

Eliot uses a small, fictitious town as a model for civilisation in general, exploring the nature of love, integrity, family, goodness and corruption. The central character, Dorothea, is a living saint – or at least wants to be one. Yet the irony is that choosing the right path for the right reasons is exactly what leads her into all kinds of trouble.

This is as big as British novels get – if the epic Russian novelist Tolstoy had been born in the UK, he would have come up with something like this. Luckily, we had the remarkable Eliot to do it instead, and she gave us what none other than Virginia Woolf later called "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people."


9: War and Peace

Here it is: the daddy of classic novels, the epic tale that many have called the greatest book of all time. But don’t be put off by its reputation, because this is a feast you’re going to enjoy.

Set in the early years of the 19th Century, Leo Tolstoy's masterpiece follows a cluster of Russian aristocrats as they face an invasion by Napoleon’s army. While the many battle scenes are vivid and suitably bloody, the book really excels when it comes to the conflict in human relationships. After all, Tolstoy was fascinated by one premise above all others - how does one keep one's morals intact when faced with a flawed and evil world?

With a book as wide-ranging as this, it’s no wonder so many other writers have compared Tolstoy to Shakespeare (although, ironically, Tolstoy himself never liked Shakespeare that much). War and Peace is one of those books you live rather than simply read. Make time for it, and you’ll see what all the fuss is about.


10: Madame Bovary

Shy, arrogant and disgusted by society - that was French novelist Gustave Flaubert. But this same misanthrope was also the man behind one of the most sensitive and moving portrayals of a woman’s life ever written.

Emma Bovary's husband is the classic “nice guy” – reliable, comforting and utterly dull. So Emma, desperate for passion and excitement, embarks on a series of heated affairs - but tragedy is the inevitable outcome. This exquisite book caused a scandal when it was published, and French public prosecutors wanted it banned for obscenity. Instead it became a bestseller and its clean, crisp style has influenced countless writers since.

That style was the result of Flaubert’s obsessive perfectionism – he would literally spend a week writing a single page, re-writing each sentence until everything was just right. The result is perhaps the ultimate story of adultery, and what drives people to betray each other.


11: Crime and Punishment

Few novels have been as influential and adored as Crime and Punishment. It was written by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the legendary Russian novelist who was worshipped by everyone from Sigmund Freud to Einstein.

The novel itself tells the intense tale of a young impoverished student who sees himself as "extraordinary" and exempt from the normal rules of society. This gives him the right (he feels) to murder a pawnbroker and take her money. But, after butchering the unfortunate victim with an axe, he's plunged into guilt and self-loathing, while a sly detective closes in on him all the while...

Despite the weighty themes of guilt and redemption, Crime and Punishment is a gripping rollercoaster of a book. A thriller with brains, it’s something that will stay with you long after you reach the dramatic climax.


12: Daniel Deronda

Not content with having produced the gobsmacking masterpiece that is Middlemarch, George Eliot ended her career with yet another great novel: Daniel Deronda. It's famous now as one of the first – and most sympathetic – novels about British Jews.

Daniel Deronda, the sweet-natured and handsome hero, rescues a beautiful singer from killing herself in the Thames, and this leads him to explore and become a part of the Jewish community in London. Eliot cleverly weaves Daniel's journey of self-discovery into the story of Gwendolen, a young woman who begins as a spoilt society girl but slowly redeems herself by helping others.

For a book about Victorian society, it is startlingly relevant to today’s world events – one of the great themes is the migration of Jews to that part of the Middle East where Israel would later be formed. Yet is also a love story, and Eliot never allows the political and philosophical ideas to overshadow the people she creates.


13: Scarlet and Black

The French writer Stendhal had a way with 19th Century ladies. In fact, he was almost addicted to romance and seduction, which might explain the womanising hero of his classic novel Scarlet and Black.

It follows the unscrupulous young cad Julian Sorel as he uses his looks and intelligence to charm his way through French society in the years following Napoleon’s fall. Unfortunately, he’s less than wise in his choice of conquests, and his affair with the wife of a mayor begins a chain of events that put a bit of a dampener on his quest for wealth and power.

But is Julian to be admired or not? This question is what makes the novel so intriguing. The book challenges our own ideals by presenting a person who is guilty of deceit and selfishness, but who is no worse than many of the people he manipulates. By examining his motives, you’ll find yourself questioning your own take on the world.


14: Persuasion

Jane Austen’s novels are all incredibly famous – except this one. For some reason, Persuasion has never enjoyed the same adulation as Emma, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, yet in some ways it's her richest work.

That could be because it was her last and was, in fact, published after her death. Unlike Austen's other books, which focus on budding society girls experimenting with first loves, this one delves into the life of a more mature woman. The heroine, Anne Elliot, is persuaded to refuse an offer of marriage because her suitor isn't 'respectable' enough. Many years later, Anne's former love returns as a wealthy man - but is it all too late?

Persuasion is thoughtful and nostalgic - it’s fascinating to see Austen tackle themes of regret and lost love, rather than straightforward courtship. For that reason, it’s the perfect complement to her other masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice.


15: Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad produced a number of genuine classics but his best work is the relatively short Heart of Darkness - perhaps the single finest attack on colonialism ever written.

It tells of Marlow, an Englishman who takes a consignment of ivory down the Congo River in a Belgian-occupied area of Africa. During the journey he witnesses many atrocities carried out on the native Africans by the colonialists, and learns of an ivory trader named Kurtz who has set himself up as a demigod among the tribes of the region.
With Kurtz, Conrad shows us how colonialism – and the idea of "civilising" other races – can backfire and corrupt the occupying forces. It's a potent fable that can be applied to many other moments in history - Francis Ford Coppola famously used it to study the Vietnam war in Apocalypse Now.


16: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. There was nothing before, there has been nothing as good since."

That was Ernest Hemingway's opinion and, while he was probably being a bit over-the-top, it does say something about just how important Huckleberry Finn is. Twain intended it as a simple adventure yarn, but the book actually ended up being a call to freedom and rebellion.

Written from Huck’s point of view (and the American slang style is one of its many marvels), the story follows the teenager as he and a freed slave named Jim sail down the Mississippi on a raft. Along the way they encounter all manner of undesirable people and situations, which strengthens their resolve to reject mainstream society.

The book’s savage attack on the evil of slavery is what gives it power, but it’s also a beautiful tale of childhood, contrasting the innocent idealism of the young with the violence and corruption of the adult world. Take a look, and see why Hemingway was in such awe...


17: The Picture of Dorian Gray

This is the one-and-only novel published by the legendary wit Oscar Wilde and it's just as deliciously wicked as you’d expect a Wilde work to be. Dorian is a strikingly beautiful and vain young man who wishes he'd never grow old. The wish comes true, and instead it's a portrait of Dorian which begins to age – and then bears the signs of his growing cruelty and corruption.

This is Wilde’s take on the old Faust myth and it's a classic of late Victorian literature, full of debauched dandies smoking opium cigarettes whilst discussing art, sex and morality. Indeed, it was considered somewhat shocking in its day, particularly because of the undercurrent of homosexuality.

It's a great read but, if nothing else, you should give it a go if only to arm yourself with some killer one-liners to deploy at your next dinner party!


18: Tristram Shandy

When a clergyman named Laurence Sterne published Tristram Shandy in the mid-18th Century, the sheer originality (and strangeness) of the text caused many a critic to roll their eyes. Even Samuel Johnson pronounced: "Tristram Shandy will not last!"

But it did last - perhaps because the book’s sense of humour is shockingly modern, filled with so many clever tricks, bawdy gags and wantonly silly interludes that you’d think the Monty Python team wrote it (while drunk).

The plot itself is simple - it’s the story of the life of a chap named Tristram Shandy, as recounted by him. But it’s the blissfully chaotic style that makes it so extraordinary. Shandy begins with his parents in bed, conceiving him, and goes off on so many wild tangents that he’s not even born until hundreds of pages in.

Packed full of sly jokes, strange drawings and crazed misadventures, it’s perhaps the wackiest classic of all time. It was also Virginia Woolf’s favourite book, so isn’t it time you had a dose of Shandy?


19: Dracula

It may not be as beautifully written as some of the other books on our list, but Dracula is probably the best known of them all. After all, Bram Stoker’s novel gave the world a character so iconic that we’ve seen him in films, TV shows, comics, cartoons, musicals and computer games.

Yet the book is much more than just the story of a blood-sucking count - it’s a fascinating study of Victorian morality and sexuality. Dracula himself is a tempter who utterly corrupts sweet Victorian maidens, and it’s up to the gang of waistcoated heroes to see off this wild creature and restore proper etiquette and order.

Dracula remains a great horror story, taking us from Transylvania to England and back again, so forget Buffy, Interview with the Vampire and all the countless imitators - snuggle up with the original Dracula and get to know the vampire who started it all!


20: Wuthering Heights
And finally... well, we couldn't really leave Emily Bronte's ubiquitous tale of passion, tragedy and temperamental tantrums off the list, could we?

As surely everyone knows, at the heart of Wuthering Heights is Heathcliff – the ultimate literary bad boy, whose love for Yorkshire maiden Cathy is balanced only by his hatred for just about everybody else. And, when Cathy chooses a more respectable man as her husband, it drives Heathcliff into a fury that destroys both their lives.

But that’s not even the half of it. Because, while everyone thinks of the Bronte novel as the story of Cathy and her rough, dangerous, scheming suitor, it also chronicles the lives of a second generation who are affected by Heathcliff’s need for vengeance. It’s an epic, compelling and quietly complex tale.

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