Top Ten Classics for Beginners

Christine at Better Novel Project put out a request on Twitter for a post on the 10 best classics someone could begin reading. I developed some criteria:

  • The book must be short enough to sustain interest and momentum.
  • I must have read it. This is why your list would look different from mine.
  • Teenagers in my classroom must read it by choice (rather than as an assignment).


  • Shakespeare has been omitted from this list because of its obviousness.
  • Texts range up to the modern era, but none are contemporary, because they must be time-tested.
  • I’m defining classic as a book that has had a lasting impact (or represents the collective impact of many authors over time) on culture, media, and literature.
  • While I have read texts from around the world, most of them are contemporary. Due to generations of language and publishing barriers, as well as systematic oppression and censorship, I am not qualified make this list more representative of the international community. Please share more international classics below.

Category 1: Staying Power

beowulf The Perils of Sherlock Holmes grimmsfairytales

1. Beowulf

This classic hero tale inspired many fantasy authors.

2. The Perils of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

These stories are hilarious, and a must-read for any fan of mystery, the Sherlock TV series or movie franchise, or retelling (House, Elementary).

3. Grimm’s Fairy Tales by The Brothers Grimm

Because of how we are inundated with fairy tales as children, reading this gritty, page-turning source material will keep you interested.

Category 2: Love Stories

Gatsby_1925_jacket PridePrejudice423x630

4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Both sweet and hilarious, this classic romance will have your heart fluttering by the end.

5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

People might argue that this is not really a love story, and in the sense of “happily ever after,” it’s not. But it is about what we are willing to do for love, as well as why we love what and who we love.

Category 3: Social Commentary

TFA araisininthesun Animal Farm

6. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

This classic African novel tells the tragic story of Okonkwo, a revered and ruthless leader, whose village is forever changed by missionary colonists.

7. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

In this play, a family’s dream collides with the racism involved in real estate.

8. Animal Farm by George Orwell

With the dystopia craze in YA, this is my go-to recommendation to enter into dystopia as a social critique.

Category 4: Thrills and Chills

Tell-Tale-Heart cold blood

9. The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Stories by Edgar Allen Poe

Start with “The Tell-Tale Heart” or another one you’ve heard of before, like “The Raven.” You’ll be able to use what you know to figure out the confusing parts and enjoy the rhythm of the language in the process.

10. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

This nonfiction piece created a genre. Follow Capote as he narrates the true story of a homicide from the perspective of the victims–and the killers.

What would you recommend to someone who wants to dip into classic reading?

4 thoughts on “Top Ten Classics for Beginners

  1. betternovelproject says:

    Great list, Jennifer! I wouldn’t have thought to put the Grimm’s fairy tales in there but that’s an excellent idea.

    I would add The Catcher in the Rye, unless that’s too modern. There are also some Sci Fi /dystopian classics like The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, and 1984. Not sure I could bump any from your list to make room for those though! 🙂

    Thanks for putting this together.
    Best, Christine


  2. Jennifer Brinkmeyer says:

    Thanks! You suggested a TOUGH job. Grimm’s always gets interest from my students. Reading the fairy tales are fun because they inspire conversation, as any good classic should. I personally love Catcher, but a lot of teenagers hate his whiny voice (the irony of this is lost on them). Certainly it’s an important classic for YA. I agree about the dystopian suggestions too. Again, I have not had near as much success recommending 1984 or Brave New World as Animal Farm. Once someone reads Animal Farm, I can get them to go on to those two. I had a lot of fun putting this together. Thanks again!


  3. lastdazeman says:

    Dracula – Bram Stoker
    Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Harriet Beecher Stowe
    All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Ramarque
    Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
    Gone With the Wind – Margarett Mitchell
    Cry The Beloved Country – Alan Paton
    Lawrence of Arabia – Anthony Nutting
    The Virginian – Owen Wiste
    Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan
    The Razor’s Edge – W. Somerset Maugham
    Lost Horizon – James Hilton
    The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway


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