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18 classic books everyone should read (or reread) at least once in their lifetime

Want to mix up your reading pile? Throw in some of these classic books

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Who among us is not looking for an escape? Scrolling through your social media may briefly give you one. In buying yourself a pick-me-up treat, you likely find a fleeting respite. Bingeing a show is always fun, and you may be able to spend a few hours checking out the best classic movies. But one truth remains: The greatest escape — and the most rewarding one — is reading and finishing a good classic book.

We challenge you to read (or re-read) these essential books everyone should know. There are fashion choices that never go out of style, and there are books that need to be read by every generation. Get cozy and crack open one of these must-read classic books when your TBR pile starts to look a little stale.

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The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

We think there’s a bit of teenager Ponyboy Curtis in all of us. The boy grapples with the unfairness of tragedy and the rights and wrongs of a society he feels excluded from in this two-week glimpse into his life as a greaser. Running away with his best friend after a dangerous fight with a rival preppy gang the Socs, Ponyboy is faced with even more heartache, while all along he hopes for peace. One of the best books we’ve ever (ever) read.

In a quote: “Stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold.”

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The Aliens by Annie Baker

Plays absolutely count as books, and you should definitely add this one to your “Proudly Read” shelf. Annie Baker is a master of dialogue and is in a league of her own when producing conversations that sound like real life.

While her play The Flick likely received the most publicity, The Aliens just might be her masterpiece. The whole play takes place just outside the back of a small town coffee shop, and we follow the men who hang out there and the young man who’d rather they not. The story that unfolds is tender, quiet, and powerful. 

In a quote: “Maybe you’re a genius, too.”

There, There by Tommy Orange
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There, There by Tommy Orange

There, There is a book that plays by its own rules. It knocks you down in a way we all need to be from time to time, and is simply gut-wrenching. Tommy Orange shifts stories and perspectives, telling 12 narratives of life as an “urban Indian.”

The momentum makes it read like a thriller, and once the stories converge, you find yourself blown away by violence and heartache. It’s a deep (deep) dive into the stereotypes that bind Native Americans. Expect to be educated and moved in a way that leaves you swaying.

In a quote: “This was what it sounded like to make it through these hundreds of American years, to sing through them. This was the sound of pain forgetting itself in song.”

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Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

You probably already have a copy of this from school lying around somewhere. You may have even read it in high school. Either way, we highly suggest returning to it, no matter how dog-eared your copy is.

Austen was a genius for dozens of different reasons, and Pride and Prejudice shines still today because of how the story unfolds. People would have you believe 19th-century literature is proper and dry, but Austen’s work reads like delicious, juicy gossip that’s as fresh as ever. After you finish the book, take a break and watch the stunning 2005 movie adaptation.

In a quote: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing other than of a book! When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”

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The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

We’ll bet you first glimpsed the vibrant red cover of Catcher in the Rye sometime in high school, but don’t let your memory fool you into thinking it’s a kid’s book — it’s quite possibly the best coming-of-age tale in all of literature. Salinger writes of the young and relatable protagonist Holden Caulfield and his first-person commentary on the world as he struggles between embracing adulthood and hiding in his childhood memories.

In a quote: “Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.”

“Yes, sir. I know it is. I know it.”

Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game, all right — I’ll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot-shots, then what’s a game about it? Nothing. No game.

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Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

You were probably made to read The Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dying in high school. While those are both classics in their own right, Faulkner best novel is — in our humble opinion — Absalom, Absalom!.

There may be five different books going on in this one book (and probably more narrators), but you’re going to love it all. It is a fascinating and ultimately more readable study of Faulkner, Faulkner’s fiction, and Faulkner’s understanding of the American South. 

In a quote: “I was wrong. I admit it. I believed that there were things which still mattered just because they had mattered once. But I was wrong. Nothing matters but breath, breathing, to know and to be alive.”

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Native Son by Richard Wright

Read works by author Richard Wright as often as possible, aiming to read one of his books at least once a year. A genius in his own time, Richard Wright was years ahead of social issues the United States still fails to grapple with, and Native Son is the place to begin and return to frequently.

In a quote: “Literature is a struggle over the nature of reality.”

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The Sellout by Paul Beatty

In this modern classic, Beatty writes with a sense of humor and urgency unmatched by basically any of his contemporaries. While all of his books are hysterical, it’s when his absurdist humor dives so deep it becomes social commentary where Beatty stands out, and none of his work does that more than The Sellout.

In a quote: “That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book — that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you.”

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The Beach by Alex Garland

Let’s be honest, classic books take a ton of time to read because the language is dated, and the story isn’t always plot-driven. We’re sneaking in this kinda-sorta classic novel by Alex Garland because it’s one of the best books of the early 2000s that will resurrect your passion for reading — and that’s the goal.

A young guy sets out to backpack Thailand and finds an idyllic isolated beach of fellow world travelers. Like all paradises, perfection is short-lived, and death, murder, and sickness son follow. Garland was directly influenced by Lord of the Flies and Heart of Darkness, so if you like this semi-classic read, head to those two books next.

In a quote: “If I’d learned one thing from traveling, it was that the way to get things done was to go ahead and do them. Don’t talk about going to Borneo. Book a ticket, get a visa, pack a bag, and it just happens.”

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An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Tayari Jones’ 2018 novel was one of the most notable from the last decade. Hailing from Atlanta, Jones’ beautiful, tender, crushing novel takes place in the ATL and shows a full portrait of relationships, race, and how these things coexist in a society such as ours.

An American Marriage was a finalist for the National Book Award, the winner of the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction, and the winner of the 2019 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Fiction for a reason, so read it to know why.

In a quote: “But home isn’t where you land; home is where you launch. You can’t pick your home any more than you can choose your family. In poker, you get five cards. Three of them you can swap out, but two are yours to keep: family and native land.”

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
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Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Need something less daunting than a novel? Try letters. Dig into Letters to a Young Poet— a collection of 10 prophetic letters penned by the profound and gifted German-language poet, Rainer Marie Rilke. These letters were reprinted after a student sent Rilke a selection of poems to be reviewed. The response was a series of insightful, true, creative, and wise revelations by the brilliant poet on solitude, nature, sadness, and love.

In a quote: “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart … live in the question.”

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Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Much of what can be said about Kazuo Ishiguro has already been said. One of the most decorated living authors, Ishiguro was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017. The prize committee spoke much better than we could when they talked of the book Never Let Me Go, stating, “in novels of great emotional force, [he] has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”

In a quote: “You have to accept that sometimes that’s how things happen in this world. People’s opinions, their feelings, they go one way, then the other. It just so happens you grew up at a certain point in this process.”

True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart by Thich Nhat Hanh
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True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart by Thich Nhat Hanh

Don’t read Nicholas Sparks to learn about love. Instead, take your notes from Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist Zen master who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King Jr. In his small and short book True Love, Hanh outlines simple yet profound principles of love, kindness, joy, compassion, and freedom.

His approach is clear and unadorned, which is a breath of air for a book about the big L-word. Offering unassuming techniques from the Buddhist tradition, this book is a fast, easy read that will change you forever.

In a quote: ” … be there is the first step, and recognizing the presence of the other is the second step.”

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Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Sci-fi meets antiwar fiction meets psychological and sociological ruminations combust across the page in Vonnegut’s classic Slaughterhouse-Five. Exactly. This book follows Billy Pilgrim as he travels back and forth through time after being kidnapped by aliens. Past clashes into the present and rips back to the past in a disorderly timeline that stitches together Pilgrim’s life, including his time as a World War II prisoner of war. There’s more, of course, but we respect the no-spoiler law.

In a quote: “So it goes.”

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Seven Plays by Sam Shepard

Do yourself a favor and get seven books in one collection and have your TBR pile taken care of. With each play more devastating and enthralling than the last, Sam Shepard’s voice as an American playwright is seminal, and his work is as funny as it is daunting, as challenging as it is compelling. Reading a play feels as rewarding as reading a series of novels, and you’ll want to finish reading these plays in one sitting. 

In a quote: “When you consider all the writers who never even had a machine. Who would have given an eyeball for a good typewriter? Any typewriter. All the ones who wrote on a matchbook cover. Paper bags. Toilet paper. Who had their writing destroyed by their jailers. Who persisted beyond all odds.”

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In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

There’s nothing wrong with having some good old-fashioned American classics on your shelf. Don’t let people tell you the entire canon has to go, and don’t ever let someone tell you to get rid of your Capote classic.

In Cold Blood changed the American understanding of reportage of what a novel can be and what a novel can do. There are a dozen new takeaways every time you read this book, and it never gets less compelling.

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Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman

Lucy Ellman has created a post-modern tome. An experimental, long, loud, unbelievable work of fiction, Ducks is unlike anything you’ve ever read while simultaneously a definitive document of what it felt like to be alive in Trump’s America. Ducks bursts off the page with neuroses and rage.

In a quote: “The fact that it’s unbelievable but every single thing alive has its own center of being, and looks out on the world from that point of view, even a worm, or a jellyfish, hamsters, owls, the fact that even a leaf has feelings, the fact that you know the leaves are enjoying this warm sun going right through them,”

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Open City by Teju Cole

Teju Cole is one of the most important writers on the planet. Few writers, especially since the turn of the century, have been able to capture the spirit of the flaneur in the way that Cole does. So much of Cole’s work is about traveling and how to look at the world, and his novel, Open City, is the best place to start to get in the right mindset.

In a quote: “Each neighborhood of the city appeared to be made of a different substance, each seemed to have a different air pressure, a different psychic weight: the bright lights and shuttered shops, the housing projects and luxury hotels, the fire escapes and city parks.”

What classic books have been banned?

This is always an interesting concept, as many classic books have been banned throughout history for various reasons, such as for challenging social norms, religious objections, political dissent, and for the protection of children. Here’s a short list of some famous examples of classic books that have been banned:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has been challenged for its portrayal of racism and violence.
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: This classic novel has been banned for its use of racial slurs.
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (yes, this one is listed above): This novel has been banned for its portrayal of teenage angst and rebellion.
  • 1984 by George Orwell: This dystopian novel has been banned for its critique of totalitarianism.
  • Ulysses by James Joyce: This experimental novel has been banned for its obscenity and difficulty.

It’s not only a way to look smart at parties or wow during your next trivia night, but reading at least some of these classic books will help you be a more rounded person. Books help us unlock truths, secrets, and possible stances on topics we wouldn’t know we had if we hadn’t read a certain author. These classic books will help you to get there when you mix them into your reading rotation.

Editors' Recommendations

Dannielle Beardsley
Dannielle has written for various websites, online magazines, and blogs. She loves everything celebrity and her favorite…
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