As I mentioned in my review of The Color Purple , there are some classics (and damn good modern stories) that are amazing reading experiences and some that take you on a journey that change you forever. This is a list of 20 of these books- books which are exceptional, books that make you laugh, cry, scream with anger and cheer for joy when good finally triumphs over evil after a long and difficult struggle. Unlike a lot of these lists, which include a lot of long and tedious classics that though are brilliant, the reading experience feels like slow water torture, the key rule of this list is that the books have to readable- and not an endurance test- as well as excellent.
1.To Kill A Mockingbird- Harper Lee
This is a thoroughly readable and touching modern classic. It examines prejudice in the Deep South through the eyes of child protagonist Scout, and it follows her journey as she slowly matures and learns to see the world through the eyes of an adult- and through the eyes of the oppressed. A love letter to the South pleading with it to do better, and one of the most masterful users of the unreliable narrator, I first read to Kill a Mockingbird when I was in secondary school and it’s stayed with me ever since.
2. Northern Lights- Philip Pullman
Forget The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe, this is one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written. An atheist rebuttal to the philosophy of The Chronicles of Narnia and a reinterpretation of Paradise Lost, this story follows Lyra’s adventure through a unique and gripping fantasy world. If the great writing, brilliant world building doesn’t sell it to you, then maybe these three words will: armoured polar bears. This book has armoured polar bears and they are even more awesome than they sound.
3. A Christmas Carol- Charles Dickens
There would be so many more Charles Dickens novels on this list, if it wasn’t for the fact that- for all their merits- reading them can be a grind (yee Gods, Hard Times). Most of his novels were written as monthly serials, so it was beneficial for Dickens to add in lots of padding and subplots to stretch out the stories for far longer than it needs to be told. A Christmas Carol, however, is Dickens at his best: none of the padding, but all of the energy and excellent writing. It is one of the greatest short stories ever written and I would recommend it to everyone.
4. 1984 (and every novel by George Orwell)
Do I even need to explain this one? This is the defining dystopian novel and perfectly captures the horror of living under big brother. His novels are all readable, clever and contain some of the best political parody ever written. I would recommend everyone read everything he’s ever written.
5. Mary Barton- Elizabeth Gaskell
Dombey and Son or Hard Times could very easily be on here instead, and if you want to read Dickens (I would recommend Hard Time of the two, because Mr Gradgrind’s change of heart and the ending made the long slog worth it). I chose Mary Barton for a couple of reasons. Firstly, although Dickens is acidic in his critique of class and abuse of the poor, he does have an overly romantic, sentimental view of the poor in his novels. Although this is clearly written by a middle class woman, this novel is narrated by working class characters and they are a lot more human than the ones who inhabit Dickens novels. Secondly, the novel is a lot more streamline and easier to read than Dickens and John Barton is an interesting character.
6. The Hogfather- Terry Pratchett
I didn’t say this was going to be a literary list, and some things you should read because they’re good, solid fun. I don’t think the late (and missed) Terry Pratchett is the flawless (small) god of writing like most people, as there are some characters and novels that I really don’t rate that highly (I couldn’t even finish the first Men at Arms). However, he is a very talented writer and introduced us to so many wonderful characters including Death, the Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully(I can’t even type his name without smiling), and Granny Weatherwax. I know The Hogfather is a bit obvious, but it centers around the brilliant Death, includes the Auditors (which I really love), a strong female character in the form of Susan, and you don’t need to have read any of his prior novels to jump right into this. This is great gateway book to one of fantasy’s most engaging worlds.
7. Under The Udala trees- Chinelo Okparanta
Too often, when we think of the greatest novels ever written, our list is chock full of DWEMS (dead white European males), with a few Americans and the odd white woman floating around. These books always focus on European/ American problems, such as the workhouse, the American Civil war (a very important issue to black people, but always told from a white POV) and the struggles of class. We forget that there are other voices, and other problems that are very real.
Under the Udala Trees is an important book, set in Africa where same sex love is seen as an abomination (for both men and women), and sees a young women try and escape her horrible circumstances by entering a loveless marriage, but soon learns she can’t cope with living a lie. Sad, thought provoking, but never boring, with homosexuality made punishable by death in Nigeria it is a heart wrenching story that is very, very relevant today.
8. Metamorphosis- Ted Hughs
Never has any collection of Gods been as apologetically flawed, corrupt, unreasonable, lascivious and utterly human as those of the Greek Pantheon. Ovid’s Metamorphosis brings to life some of their most sensual and fantastic myths in his collection of poetry. I have never seen any writer translate and retell the great poems as brilliantly as Ted Hughes, so this would be my number one version. It’s simple, and Ted Hughes manages to stay true to the spirit of the original while using his poetic skill to give the poems the same power and beauty in the English language as they did in the original Greek.
9. The Judge’s House- Bram Stoker
I could have recommended Dracula- and I do- because even though the writing is bogged down with a lot of bad renditions of accents and obsession with recording information, it is still a fascinating Gothic horror and the novel that defined the modern vampire mythology (when it still had its dignity, before). However, The Judge’s House is a short story that is less well known and every bit as good as Dracula, with a creepy gothic atmosphere and an ending that makes your stomach drop. It is only 17 pages (it can be found in a collection of short stories by Stoker named Dracula’s Guest) and is one of the greatest gothic horror stories ever written. Yet no one’s heard of it. This needs to change and I’d advise everyone out there to go out and read it.
10 The Colour Purple
The Color Purple is without a shadow of any doubt, one of the greatest novels I have ever read. It tells the journey of Celie, a poor, queer, black woman and her journey through life where she changes from a passive victim into a strong woman and finds self worth, love, and friendship thanks the support of the women around her. This isn’t a heavy novel- it is gripping and easy to read and had me turning the pages when I was half asleep or on the bus (and it almost made me late to work on numerous occasions). I go into a deeper exploration of the novel in my review here, but trust me when I say that if you give this novel a chance, you will not regret it.