Top classic novels and nonfiction

Recently I’ve developed a strange desire to read some of the classic novels in literature and nonfiction. As the majority of Americans tend to only read through these while in high school or university, I believe we’ve missed out on so many great books. I have a number of classics on my shelf at home, but with my limited time to devote towards reading, need to be selective.

So my question for you is, what would you consider to be your top five favorite classics?

These can be works of fiction or non-fiction. I know there are lots of lists out there by the BBC, Guardian, etc, but I’d like to hear your own opinions. What are the works which have altered your perceptions?

  • Hmmm…literature is my life, so this is hard. But I love Nabokov’s Pale Fire because it’s a modernist/postmodernist masterwork. Hamlet because it’s the first and best internalized view of human intellect and psychology, and Hamlet’s character transcends the very bounds of the play. Heart of Darkness for it’s importance in the postcolonial discourse. Also: The Sound and the Fury or anything by Faulkner, The Sun Also Rises + Hemingway’s short stories, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Toni Morrison’s Beloved..ok, that’s more than 5.

  • Brandon

    Wow Preya, you really do have a grasp of this stuff. The only one of those that I’ve read is Catcher in the Rye. Sad huh? I’ll take a look at your suggestions.

  • Five and only five?

    Shakespeare: King Lear or Hamlet – take your pick; both are brilliant.

    John Irving: The World According to Garp.

    Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s Travels. Get an unabridged edition. Possibly the most vicious, searing satire ever written.

    Victor Hugo: Les Miserables.

    Patrick O’Brian: Master and Commander. The first of the Aubrey/Maturin novels, this one stands on its own. A unique perspective on the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, told from an intensely personal viewpoint.

  • Brandon

    Elisson, I appreciate the suggestions.

    I read Hamlet, but it’s been 15 years.

    I have “The World According to Garp”, but haven’t read it. I also have a few others by Irving, including “A Prayer for Owen Meany”, are they equally good?

    Is “Master and Commander” better than the movie? 🙂

  • Alicia

    *A Prayer for Owen Meany* is my all-time favorite book. It’s about predestination, and is infused with some of Irving’s most memorable characters. I mean, Owen Meany himself speaks in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS THROUGHOUT THE ENTIRE NOVEL.

    But since that’s not really a “classic”, here is my Top 5 list:
    1. The Grapes of Wrath (read it in 11th grade Am. Lit. and it inspired me to begin a journal of favorite quotes and passages from books, which I keep to this day)
    2. The Count of Monte Cristo (awesome tale of revenge- read it for the quickly-defunct NJIS book club)
    3. The Great Gatsby (another 11th grade Am. Lit., and in the movie Robert Redford is to die for)
    4. David Copperfield (love Charles Dickens, and according to something I read, this was his favorite of his novels0
    5. Les Miserables (I think this is one of Ian’s favorites, too)

    Let us know what you decide to read!

  • Irene

    As someone mentioned Hamlet previously, I was reminded of a really good play I read a long time ago. It is a spin off of two inconsequential characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which features their journey as they try to cope with their roles as two minor actors in a grand story. Sort of similar to how one would feel like as a seemingly insignificant individual dazed and confused in a complex world.

    The title of the play is “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” by Tom Stoppard. A highly recommended read.

    Another (unseemly) book to recommend is a biography of Karl Marx by Francis Wheen. It is long, but very entertaining and interesting to learn more about one of the world’s most famous (and often misunderstood) philosopher.

    Google Book has it if you don’t mind reading it online.


  • Two great classic novels:
    Joseph Heller’s Catch-22,
    Dune by Frank Herbert.

  • Maybe, I’ll ask how classic? 30, 100 years back?

  • Brandon

    Alicia: I remember you saying that was your favorite.

    I really enjoyed The Count of Monte Cristo. I’m sure you realize why I may have a correlation with that theme.

    I have read The Great Gatsby; Jack just finished it a couple weeks ago as well.

    Surprised you didn’t include Tolstoy on there. Was considering trying to read one of the two (just published) new translations of War and Peace. Read an article in Newsweek about them.

  • Brandon

    Marek – I have Catch-22 but haven’t read it. Is it similar to Slaughter-House Five in some ways?

    I don’t care how old these are; hopefully the best are timeless.

  • I agree…even newer novels, like Morrison’s Beloved, can be timeless because they are invaluable contributions to our culture and our understanding of what it means to be human. I know you have plenty of suggestions already, but I can’t resist recommending Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV; Falstaff is one of the finest tragic-comic characters EVER. It’s just really, really good stuff. Kafka’s The Trial will creep you out (as will In Cold Blood by Truman Capote) Have fun!! Can’t wait to find out which you decide to read first:)

  • Unfortunately I haven’t read Slaughter-House Five. What I think I like best about Catch-22 is its unique sense of humor. Some of the things also remind me Indonesia, especially the Catch-22 regulations.

  • Gabrielle

    The Three Musketeers
    Wide Sargasso Sea
    Jonathan Livingston Seagull
    Franny and Zooey
    Cannery Row
    Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

  • Five books that have rocked my world:

    “1984” by George Orwell
    “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley
    “Demian” by Herman Hesse
    “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad
    “Perelandra” by C.S. Lewis

  • Brandon

    I picked up “The World According to Garp” this morning. It was sitting on my bookshelf, and since Elisson mentioned it, I think I’ll give it a try. Maybe I should take a few photos of my bookshelves to give you guys an idea of what I have (but have yet to read). I have a serious problem with books – I buy way too many. If I walk into a bookstore, I rarely come out empty handed.

  • Indah

    I’ve got 5 classics and another 5 best books to read repetitively.

    1. Homer and Iliad
    2. Down and out in London and Paris and/or 1984 (it’s a tie) by George Orwell.
    3. The Great Gatsby
    4. The Buru Quartret (This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of Glass) by Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Indonesian classics
    5. Hamlet

    these aren’t classics, but def. my favourites..
    6. The Mandarins by Simone De Beauvoir.
    7. Tropic of Capricorn/ Cancer by Henry Miller.
    8. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
    9. Shantaram by Gregory David (not a classic but it’s briliant)
    10. Notes from Underground and the Double by Dostoevsky

  • Brandon

    Gabrielle – (always liked that name by the way) – I’ve only read Jonathan Livingston Seagull from those on your list. Funny seeing Fear and Loathing amongst the others, but I think it’s somewhere in my house.

    Billy – I’ve read 1984 and loved it. Such premonitions. I have Brave New World, but (once again) haven’t read it yet. I have Lord Jim by Conrad – is that any good?

    Indah – nice to see you on here! I appreciate the suggestions. Sadly the only think I’ve read on your list is Gatsby, Hamlet, and Kafka. I’ll have to look the others up on Amazon. It’s not the easiest to get books in Jakarta, but more familiar titles are pretty accessible. How do you find the time?!

    All these well read people are starting to make me feel so apa sih – bodoh? 😉

    I guess I need to make more of a commitment to reading. Now thanks to all your great suggestions, I’m going to get hit by the world Googling, “top classic novels” for years to come.

  • Indah

    Hi Brandon,
    I will be coming to Indonesia in a few weeks, let me know if there’s any particular book(s) in mind.. I can bring them.

    Yeah, I’m a bit of a book junkie. I carry books everywhere, even going out! I got rid off my teli 8 yrs ago, I also have a decent dose of insomnia. Plus the winter in NYC can be brutal, so when I stay in, I stock up with good books and good brandy…. you do the math. 🙂

  • Brandon,

    If you have The World According to Garp, wait no longer to read it! Irving’s other books, including A Prayer for Owen Meany, are excellent, but in my mind, none of them has the simplicity and power of Garp.

    Master and Commander: The movie was a pastiche drawn from Master and Commander as well as several other books in the Aubrey/Maturin series. As much as I enjoyed it, I found upon reading the books that the movie does not do the books justice.

    Separate topic: Congratulations on your fifth Bloggy-Versary. I’ve been enjoying your writing and photography ever since I discovered your site three years ago. I hope you continue to get satisfaction from your blogging: it’s a regular “little pleasure” for me. Terima kasih right back atcha – kembali!

  • Of course, I wrote that comment before I saw yours immediately above!

  • Brandon

    Indah – I appreciate the offer, but I know it’s very hard to pack for international travel (especially post 911 I’m told), so I won’t impose on you like that. I’m sure I can find a decent selection here. Thank you very much though!

    I’ve cut back on my reading a bit, cause I used to hang a hammock in the park in front of my house and spend hours out there soaking up good books – until last Christmas when I got Dengue Fever (most likely from sitting out there and getting bit). I need a new mosquito-free spot to crash.

    Elisson – Thanks for continuing with me despite my less frequent postings this year. I am really enjoying Garp.

  • Great post! Thought you might be interested in my classic reading list of novels.

  • Well, this discussion has now hit #2 out of 3,860,000 sites on if you type in “top nonfiction novel”. Hope your suggestions can help quench other people’s desire to explore fine literature. Thanks for you all your suggestions.

  • I have been on a similar search to read the greatest classics of all time. Keep it up. I’ve read many of the books mentioned by the other repliers and agree many of them are very good and worth the time to read. Here are just a couple more to think about. I’ve read many but these are just two that I read awhile back that were not mentioned yet.
    Siddartha – Herman Hess – about a spirtual journey
    The Brother’s Karamazov – Dostoevski – long but very good

  • I can’t believe nobody has mentioned Jane Austen. My fave of hers is pride and prejudiced but they are all good. And what about the Bronte sisters? Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is my all time favorite.SOOO romantic. Wuthering heights by Emily Bronte is also a favorite. Why do people forget the great women authors?

  • voltairerox

    Candide by Voltare