Look at any list of the best books of all time, or perhaps more morbidly – the books you must read before you die, and it will be littered with ‘the classics‘.  However, it can be daunting to start reading the classics, and more than that – where do you start? What do we mean by a classic? I’ve been pretty relaxed on the term and left it to the panel to decide how they would define a classic.  This list of the best classic novels for beginners is for those of us who aren’t sure what a classic is. We’re going to help you know which one to start with.  

Now, let’s discover the best classic novels for beginners…

Catcher In The Rye - classic novels for beginnersThe Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Anthony Ryan:

The odyssey of self-involved fifteen-year-old Holden Caulfield from private school expulsion to a nervous breakdown in New York is probably best read when you are a self-involved fifteen year old (as I was when I read it). The first person narrative perfectly captures the paradoxical nature of adolescence whilst remaining accessible and engaging throughout. Caulfield is as full of uncertainty as he is firm in his condemnations of the phoneyness of the adult world. A traji-comic masterpiece.

Dracula by bram stoker - best classic novels for beginnersDracula by Bram Stoker

Eileen Cook:

When the Twilight book and film craze happened a few years ago, I didn’t get it.  I understood conceptually it was about the love Bella had for Edward, and the Romeo and Juliet quality to their romance, but….vampires are nasty.  Why in the world would you fall in love with them? I base my vampire dislike on having read the original- Dracula. A mix of creepy, mystery, and a tiny bit steamy. You need to read this book if you truly want to explore books that came later, from Salem’s Lot by Stephen King, to Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice- and yes- even Twilight.

Oliver twist by Charles DickensOliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Gina Wohlsdorf:

This novel was originally released as a serial, so each chapter ends on a cliff-hang, giving it a page-turner quality absent from most classics. Besides A Christmas Carol, this is Dickens at his most entertaining and approachable, although the character of Fagin is such a ridiculous antisemitic cliché it makes you want to grab Dickens by the lapels and head-butt him. 

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov - best classic novels for beginnersLolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Kayla Rae Whitaker:

In an age in which likeable characters are stressed as non-negotiable components of “good” novels, Lolita is a stellar example to the contrary: a compelling narrative told from the perspective of a reprehensible, sociopathic paedophile. The book is a master class on voice, dialogue, and plot momentum. You know a book is well-built when you reread it knowing that the contents may make you physically ill – and the experience of reading Lolita has certainly been known to turn stomachs – but I revisit it once a year, and learn something new and valuable about craft every time.

vanity fair - best classic novels for beginnersVanity Fair by W.M. Thackeray

Eileen Cook:

I was assigned this book in an English class. I remember dragging it home with dread. It was so long!  And it was so old! Then I started reading. I’m a sucker for a tale of friendships between girls/women- how they can be amazing, and also destructive. The two characters, Becky Sharp and Emma Sedley, are not to be fully trusted. While Becky is definitely skilled in manipulation, she also has a lot of good motivation to achieve.  It’s like Mean Girls- only with hoop skirts and the Napoleonic Wars.

slaughterhouse fiveSlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Gina Wohlsdorf:

Vonnegut’s very personal tour-de-force about his experience in the firebombing of Dresden. The book is written in a conversational voice that miraculously communicates the era’s horror, as does the hero’s abduction to an alien world and his extensive time-travel.

la confidential - classic novels for beginnersLA Confidential by James Ellroy

Anthony Ryan:

The third of Ellroy’s LA quartet, and the last of his novels to adopt a conventional prose style, is probably the most readable entry point to his work. Ellroy’s usual themes of obsession, guilt and corruption are fully present in this tale of three morally compromised detectives finding redemption as they uncover a murderous conspiracy amidst the cesspit of the 1950s LA underworld.

Charlotte Bronte - classic novels for beginnersJane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Kayla Rae Whitaker:

I was a bad English major, and so did not read Jane Eyre until I was in my thirties. I’m glad I waited so I could appreciate, with an adult’s eye, the sheer skill of the thing – its structure, its sense of voice, its rich, unexpected humour. The task of world-building in Jane Eyre seems effortless when, really, it is the result of intricate, demanding work. When one experiences Jane Eyre, one forgets that they are reading, which is the trick every writer is desperate to pull off.

the bell jar - classic novels for beginnersThe Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Gina Wohlsdorf:

Plath published this, her only novel, under a pseudonym. It chronicles a young woman’s descent into suicidal depression without flinching, sugar-coating or pandering to the miserable 50s feminine ideal beneath which the heroine slowly strangles. Like all of Plath’s work, it’s a study in clarity and economy of language.

the handmaid's tale - classic novels for beginnersThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Eileen Cook:

This book has become a modern classic. While it’s not a horror novel, the first time I read it I had nightmares. Like a dystopian Hunger Games, it showed a possible future that was both scary and also seemingly very realistic. It was one of the first books that felt “political” to me, a book that made me want to be more active in my community and consider how women are treated. Now, more than ever, there’s a value in understanding how power meant for a good purpose can be twisted, and how the distortion of reality can happen when people choose not to see the facts.

the 13th valley - classic novels for beginnersThe 13th Valley by John M. Del Vecchio

Anthony Ryan:

Often hailed as the most important novel to emerge from the Vietnam conflict, former war reporter John M. Del Vecchio weaves fiction and fact to paint a vivid picture of the soldier’s lot in the latter stages of US involvement. Shot through with a soldier’s habitual humour and cynicism, Vecchio’s clean, immediate prose weaves an utterly convincing portrayal of combat and the reality of day to day life in an alien landscape far removed from the corrupting touch of civilisation. By turns exhilarating and harrowing, the seductive insanity of war has rarely been better described.

charlotte's web - classic novels for beginnersCharlotte’s Web by E. B. White

Kayla Rae Whitaker:

After pressing Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style on anyone who would listen, I reread Charlotte’s Web to figure out why, twenty-five years after encountering it in elementary school, I still recalled the image of Fern and her brother Avery jumping from a hayloft in a barn, tongues streaked purple from blueberries. I was not disappointed. It is a technically magnificent work. Sturdy language and delicate, natural dialogue are used to render a story of devotion and loss and the capacity for goodness that resonates with everyone. There’s a good reason why the teacher cries with the kids when Charlotte dies. It’s a reminder that a beautiful whole can be assembled from simple components, used well.

Meet the Expert Panel

This expert panel has been hand-selected because of their love for classic novels. You can be assured that they are the best people when it comes to advising on the best classic novels for beginners.  So, before we discover the best classic novels for beginners, we must first meet that panel…

Kayla rae WhitakerKayla Rae Whitaker

Kayla Rae Whitaker is a writer who was born and raised in Kentucky, who went on to graduate from the University of Kentucky and of New York University’s MFA program. She has had her writing published in popular publications like Buzzfeed, Literary Hub, Split Lip Magazine and others.  Kayla Rae Whitaker has recently published her debut novel, The Animators, which has been received exceptionally well.

Anthony ryanAnthony Ryan

Anthony Ryan didn’t start writing books until he retired from a long career in the British Civil Services.  He starting full-time after he achieved some success with his self-published debut Blood Song, which would be book one of the Raven’s Shadow trilogy.  Later, Anthony would be offered a three book by the major publisher, Penguin Books. He has turned into an extremely popular author.

gina wohlsdorfGina Wohlsdorf

Gina Wohlsdorf, born in North Dakota and graduating from Tulane University, is an exciting new author who is currently riding the wave of acclaim her first novel has received. Security has been described as a shocking thriller, a brilliant narrative puzzle and a multifaceted love story unlike any other. Gina Wohlsdorf earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Virginia.

eileen cookEileen Cook

Eileen Cook is a wonderful author who’s multiple novels have been published in eight different languages.  On top of this, her books have also been optioned for film and TV, so stay tuned for that! She is an author on the rise.  Not satisfied with just writing books, she also is inspiring another generation of authors. She does this with her work as an instructor/mentor for the Simon Fraser University Writer’s Studio Program.

If you enjoyed this reading list, you may also enjoy the best historical fiction novels. What do you think are the best classic novels for beginners? Let us know which books you’d nominate as the best classic novels for beginners, in the comments below!