If you’re daunted by the words “classic literature,” we have good news for you. Classic literature is for everyone! The stories that stand the test of time to become “classics” are both diverse and universal. You can find a classic in any genre and know that the story will offer you a deep, human connection.
But you don’t have to take our word for it. Try reading one of these 20 of the best classics for book club, and we bet you’ll be ready to spread the good news too.
For convenience, we’ve broken our these easy to read classics into groups based on your interests. If you’d like to test the waters with a short read, we’ve got you covered. If you know you love romances, romantic comedies, culturally diverse reads, mysteries, or sci-fi, we’ve got that too!
Wherever you choose to start, we hope you find the novel that opens your heart to classic literature. Once you’ve found the classics, your book list will never run dry.
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Short, Easy to Read Classics
In addition to the storylines and characters, part of what makes these book club classics easy to read is that they’re short and sweet. Some classics are veritable bricks, like War and Peace, which clocks in at over 1,200 pages! No so with these suggestions. All of them are under 250 pages and several are even under 100. You can get in, get out and find out what you like.
The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
A tough outdoorsman and ruthless editor, Hemingway built his legacy on lean, masculine prose. His style is showcased at its best in The Old Man and the Sea, a novella that paints a picture of life in the young city of Key West.
Santiago was once a great fisherman, but he’s fallen on hard times. Day after day, Santiago sets out to sea in his wooden boat, only to return empty-handed to a cot and a bowl of broth provided by a neighborhood boy who still believes in him. Finally, Santiago hooks a monstrous marlin. Reeling the fish in might break his body. Losing it would break his spirit.
Quick, vivid, tropical, and historically interesting, The Old Man and the Sea is perfect for book clubs who enjoy a deep dive into short texts.
The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
Drafted into the US army during World War II, JD Salinger saw more combat than any other American author. Salinger never wrote about his wartime experience, but the shadow of war is strong in his brooding young characters like Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye.
Holden Caulfield has a hard time regretting his expulsion from Pencey Prep School. After all, he’s been expelled from three other schools, and life went on. In the short respite before news of his expulsion reaches his parents, Holden drifts through Manhattan, observing the adult world with a unique blend of angst and innocence. He says he doesn’t care if the adult world he’s being fast tracked towards is full of phonies, but his longing for the sincerity of childhood strains his nerves to a breaking point.
A simple but deeply emotional story, The Catcher in the Rye will lead your book club to turn a critical eye on adult institutions. The novel serves as a reminder to protect your inner child and to recognize the child in other adults you meet.
The Awakening, Kate Chopin
One of America’s first feminist writers, Kate Chopin detailed the problems that nineteenth century women faced while moving in a seemingly gentle, delicate sphere of the world.
Every summer, Edna Pontellier travels with her husband and her two sons to a resort town on the coast of Louisiana. Sensitive Edna always falls in love with the colors of the sea, the local children hauling in crab pots, and the piano music drifting through open windows, but one summer, Edna falls in love with a much more dangerous object: a young gentleman named Robert Lebrun. Fearing the disgrace he and Edna might bring upon themselves if they can’t control their emotions, Robert travels to Mexico. But Edna has already awakened to a desire for freedom. When Robert returns months later, he finds a changed Edna, capable of making startling decisions.
A love story with a dreamy setting and feminist undercurrents, The Awakening is a good choice for book clubs who have an interest in discussing women’s rights.
Animal Farm, George Orwell
Nicknamed the father of dystopia, George Orwell wrote with a warning: be on the lookout for governments that sound too good to be true. In Orwell’s universe, totalitarian rulers often masquerade as benevolent socialists. Nowhere is this disguise as heavy as in Animal Farm.
When a group of farm animals successfully rise up against their human overlords, the future seems bright. The clever pigs who planned the rebellion begin teaching the other animals to read, write, and manage their newfound wealth. Soon, the animals have drafted a constitution that promises equality for all species. But as the pigs continue creating laws, life on the farm grows harder for the other animals, and they begin to question their beloved new government.
A memorable allegory for the corruption of socialist regimes, Animal Farm is perfect for book clubs who want to find a way to bring political theory into their discussion of fiction.
Romance Classics for Book Club
Romance is by far the most popular genre in American fiction and these romance classics paved the way for that massive genre machine.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
A staple of the romantic movement in England, Thomas Hardy was the son of a stonemason and later became a church architect. His passion for pastoral landscapes and rural people shines in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a novel that brings romance to the English countryside.
Tess Durbeyfield is skeptical when her father, the town drunk, comes home claiming their family is related to the aristocratic d’Urbervilles who live a county over. Nevertheless, when the family horse is killed in an accident, Tess fears her siblings will go hungry and agrees to plea her family’s case to the d’Urbervilles. Alec d’Urbervilles sees more in Tess than a charity case. After he assaults Tess in the woods, she gives birth to a child who dies shortly thereafter. Hardened, Tess flees from the small town to make a new life for herself as a dairy maid. But when true love steals up on Tess years later, her past makes her afraid to trust.
If you’re looking for a rural romance with equal parts beauty and despair, Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a great choice. The novel was initially published in a censored form, and it still brings up challenging questions about the safety of women in a society where beauty triggers proprietary instincts.
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
Born into the New York aristocracy of the Gilded Age, it would’ve been easy for Edith Wharton to turn a blind eye to high society’s faults. Instead, she became a sharp critic of classism, writing multiple short stories and novels and becoming the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature for The Age of Innocence.
Newland Archer is happily engaged to society darling May Welland. Young, rich, and graceful, May is the perfect match for Newland until her cousin Ellen Olenska arrives in town on the heels of a messy divorce from a European count. Hoping to hush up the scandal, Newland meets with Ellen to offer legal advice about her divorce, but he is unprepared for the independent, darkly intelligent woman he meets and the emotions that flame inside him, burning away his attachment to May.
If you’re drawn to Gilded Age romances, The Age of Innocence will reel you in and raise important questions about the value of individuality vs. loyalty and etiquette.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
A legendary member of the Paris Writers Salon, F. Scott Fitzgerald is best known for his glamorous imagery. He was equally masterful at capturing a mood the French named ennui, which is vividly represented in The Great Gatsby.
Fresh out of World War I, Nick Caraway moves to Long Island with no real goal in mind but to make money as a bond salesman. At first, it seems Nick has landed in the right place. His elegant cousin Daisy welcomes him into her social circle, and his neighbor, Jay Gatsby, is clearly a multimillionaire, though Nick has yet to meet him. When an invitation to one of Gatsby’s lavish parties finally arrives, Nick is curious to see inside the mansion next door. But it seems Gatsby has been watching Nick even more closely than Nick has been watching Gatsby. When Gatsby begs Nick to reunite him with Daisy, his long lost sweetheart, Nick begins to suspect that the bright shine of Gatsby’s fortune is hiding dark secrets.
This famous romance glitters on the surface, but scratch a little deeper, and you’ll find a cautionary tale about obsessive love. Opinions on Gatsby vary widely. Some people see him as a symbol of heroic devotion. Others see him as manipulative or delusional. It’s a great conversation starter for any book club!
Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin
A pioneer in literature and politics, James Baldwin wrote from the perspective of a Black man during the civil rights movement and from the perspective of a gay man well before the gay liberation movement. His second novel, Giovanni’s Room, incorporates both themes in a groundbreaking (and heartbreaking) LGBT romance.
As a child in a Black neighborhood in Brooklyn, David bullies boys who seem effeminate, but when he arrives as a young man in Europe, he is able to breathe life into the desire he has always felt for other men. Putting his girlfriend temporarily out of mind, David begins an affair with a young, warmhearted Italian named Giovanni, but when their affair is discovered, David learns that life as a gay man is just as dangerous in Italy as it was back home in Brooklyn.
Giovanni’s Room offers a unique and painful perspective from a group of people whose stories have been mostly lost to time. If your book club can handle the heartache, this is a romance novel you won’t forget.
Romantic Comedy Classics
Lots of classics (like Crime and Punishment, the Iliad, and everything by Kafka) are pretty chewy reads. Their dense subject matter can be off-putting you’re looking for an easy classic for book club. Which is why we think romantic comedies make a great entre. These books offer plays of words, social satire and they keep it all moving at a fast clip.
Emma, Jane Austen
One of the most widely adapted authors of all time, Jane Austen’s satirical romances continue to spawn new movies every few years. Though she wrote in the 1800s, her attention to human nature created timeless characters who we can all laugh at.
High-spirited, clever, and independent Emma has yet to meet a man who can lure her away from her father’s house. Still, she sees plenty of men who would make good matches for her friends. When Emma takes poor and charming Harriet under her wing, she is determined to make her best match yet, but one embarrassing mistake after another thwarts Emma’s plans, and in her distraction, the man whose friendship she cherishes most begins to slip away.
Emma is a sweet and comical love story with a heroine you love to hate. The cast of characters will provide plenty of fodder for book club conversations. You’re sure to recognize them in your own friends!
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
A prominent feminist and abolitionist who lived through the grim days of the Civil War, Louisa May Alcott’s most famous novel, Little Women, is a surprisingly sweet and comical story centered around the daily life of a group of sisters.
Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy may be bound together by their love of their parents and their home, but their personalities gallop in opposite directions. Beautiful Meg dreams of being a wife and mother, while tomboyish Jo wants to write stories that will shock the world and ambitious Amy would like to study art and fashion in Paris. Meanwhile, Beth, the most gentle daughter, only hopes her sisters won’t leave her too far behind as they chase their dreams. Diaries are burned, haircuts are butchered, and true loves are stolen as the sisters grow up together in the shadow of the Civil War.
If your book club is looking for a wholesome novel with strong female characters, you can’t do better than Little Women. The theme of sisterhood is especially appealing to those who have sisters of their own.
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Originally employed to write serials for a newspaper, Charles Dickens was a master of sprawling plots with plenty of twists, turns, and witty one-liners to keep his readers waiting for the latest installment of series like Great Expectations.
Pip’s life could be better, but it could be worse. Orphaned at a young age, he is raised by his quarrelsome sister and her infinitely patient blacksmith husband. Pip receives little education until he is summoned by the eccentric Miss Havisham, who lives in a mansion with her beautiful and aloof ward, Estella. After years of visiting Miss Havisham, Pip has made little progress towards befriending Estella, but the old woman must feel differently. She leaves Pip money for his education, but as much as he strives to improve himself, Estella is mysteriously determined to keep him at a distance.
If you don’t mind a long read for your book club, Great Expectations provides plenty of discussion points. The characters rattle along a roller coaster plot, meeting fates that you may or may not find fair. Be prepared to change your opinion about all of them more than once!
Book Club Classics with Cultural Diversity
Many lists of “top classics” can reasonably be criticized for over-representation of Dead White European Dudes. So, if you like to read more broadly than that, or you enjoy works in translation, this selection will be a refreshing change for you.
Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
A beloved Colombian author who climbed to world fame, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels are threaded with the political history of Colombia and grounded in the daily lives of Colombian people.
As a girl, Fermina Daza fell in love. Though her father disapproved, she spent her adolescent years sneaking letters to Florentino, until the day they were finally reunited–and Fermina realized she had grown up. She was no longer in love. Now, just a few short days after her husband’s death, Fermina has received a new letter from Florentino. He says he has been devoted to her for decades, but Fermina’s long and not-always-happy marriage has left her skeptical of romance. She isn’t sure she wants to give her new freedom away to a man, even one as remarkable as Florentino.
Rich with mangoes, parrots, love affairs, and yes, cholera, this is the perfect read for book clubs who are looking for a mix of education and entertainment.
If you are keen to read more books from this region, try our list of books set in Colombia.
Like Water for Chocolate (Book #1), Laura Esquivel
An endlessly creative novelist who helped create the genre of “magical realism,” then moved on to serve in the Legislature of the Mexican Congress, Laura Esquivel’s influence spills far beyond the borders of Mexico.
Tita is the youngest daughter in a family ruled by the ruthless Mama Elena. According to tradition, Tita should remain unmarried, so she can care for Mama Elena in her old age, but Tita has inherited a fair share of Mama Elena’s strength. When Mama Elena arranges a marriage between Tita’s true love and her older sister, Tita can’t contain her outrage. Strange things begin happening to anyone who eats the food Tita prepares on the family ranch.
If your book club is up for a wild ride, you’ll love Like Water for Chocolate. The magical hijinks, intense family dynamics, and ties to Mexican tradition make this novel pure, unpredictable fun to read.
Paradise, Abdulrazak Gurnah
A Nobel prize winner who survived the Zanzibar Revolution in his youth, Abdulrazak Gurnah is the perfect author to introduce you to East African literature.
Yusuf has spent his life in the shady alcoves of his father’s hotel in Kawa, Tanzania. Despite the peaceful appearance of the hotel, Yusuf’s father is deep in debt to an Arab merchant. To settle the debt, Yusuf must travel as a servant on the merchant’s caravan deep into Africa, but his sheltered life hasn’t prepared him for the wild continent he is going to meet.
Africa is a huge continent, so it’s tough to find a single piece of literature to represent it. Paradise is a great starting place if your book club wants to explore African literature. You will get to travel alongside Yusuf, encountering a variety of places and cultures while learning about Yusuf’s identity as a Tanzanian.
The Color Purple, Alice Walker
The first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Alice Walker writes with deep emotional impact about the generational trauma of slavery, segregation, and poverty on African Americans. She advocates strongly for women’s rights as well, pointing out the physical and sexual abuse that disproportionally affects women, in addition to racism.
Celie has been abused by men for as long as she can remember: first by her father, Alphonso, and now by her husband, Mister. The other women in Celie’s life fair no better. Her beautiful little sister is presumed dead, and her independent daughter-in-law has sunk under the responsibility of caring for five children. When a jazz singer named Shug washes up on Celie’s doorstep, Celie doesn’t know how to process her glowing pride in being a woman. But little by little, Celie learns. She can no longer tolerate her old way of life, no matter how dangerous the alternative is.
If you or your book club is looking for a read that empowers women, people of color, and LGBT couples, The Color Purple will check all the boxes. Just be prepared to discuss heavy topics like racism and abuse.
An interesting parallel read would be Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson. In it, she address the thorny legacy of caste and race in America.
Snow Country, Yasunari Kawabata
Although he is best known in his home country, Japan, Kawabata Yasunari has won prestigious international literary awards, including the Nobel Prize for Literature. His writing draws on the long and varied history of Japan and on the poetic connection Japanese people have with their landscape.
In a stark, snow-covered mountain lodge, Shimamura, a wealthy socialite, meets Komako, a geisha bound to entertain the men who cross her path. The connection between Shimamura and Komako quickly becomes more than a way to pass time. Komako knows she can’t follow Shimamura down from the mountain and back to his everyday life, but she pours herself into the love affair while it lasts, hoping for a miracle.
Snow Country is a slow, soulful read built on the rhythm of haikus and the graceful, carefully structure life of the geisha. If you enjoys literary fiction, world history, and tragic romances, this book could be a good fit for you.
And if all of that doesn’t convince you….how about that beautiful cover!
Mystery & Speculutive Fiction Classics
Who says that the best classics for book clubs can’t also be genre fiction. Genre fiction can definitely withstand the test of time if it’s well-conceived, intelligently plotted and stocked with cool characters. And the following classics for your book club will do just that.
The Hound of Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle
When Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, even he, the master of the mystery plot, probably didn’t know what was coming. Today, Sherlock Holmes is one of the most recognizable fictional names in the world. If you’re a mystery fan, you have to tip your hat to Holmes.
In The Hound of Baskervilles, Sherlock is sought out by a young man named Henry who witnessed the death of his father as a child. According to Henry, his father was killed by a giant hellhound. When Sherlock learns that Henry has been treated by a military psychotherapist for years, he questions the reliability of Henry’s memory, until Sherlock and Watson encounter the hound one foggy evening by themselves.
And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie perfected the “cozy” mystery over the course of sixty-six novels. Though her approach may seem formulaic–an isolated setting, a collection of quirky characters, one of them a murderer–her novels continue to surprise and delight readers.
In And Then There Were None, eight guests respond to personal invitations to an island off the coast of Devon. Each guest is looking forward to the retreat, but excitement soon turns into terror, as the guests begin to die, one by one. Desperate, the surviving guests search each other’s history to catch the murderer before they all meet the same, dark fate.
And if your book club loves a tensely plotted locked room mystery, check out our discussion guide for The Guest List by Lucy Foley for a storm tossed wedding gone terribly wrong.
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
An avid reader who eschewed college and took on his own education at the local library, Ray Bradbury grew into one of the most celebrated sci-fi writers of his time. Given his background, it’s no surprise that his breakthrough novel, Fahrenheit 451, was a fierce protector of books.
In a futuristic city, Guy Montag is a fireman who makes a living burning books. Books, in his world, are useless. Cars, television, and the mandates of the totalitarian government are important, until Montag meets a young girl named Clarisse whose unusual questions provoke a feeling of emptiness he can’t seem to fill. Curious about the books Clarisse loved before he burned them, Montag begins hiding away books until he can learn to read them. He should know, better than anyone, how dangerous his growing collection is.
This book has a disturbing relevance in today’s age of book challenges. If your book club has an appreciation for sci-fi, dystopian fiction, or you’re just nervous about censorship, Fahrenheit 451 is a great read.
If you like the whole meta thing, we’ve also got a whole list of books that are about books.
Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke
Knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his role in popularizing science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke was an out-of-the-box writer who encouraged his readers to look to the future. Childhood’s End is one of his most poignant novels, asking readers to consider the survival of the human spirit as well as the human species.
When a group of aliens calling themselves the Overlords make contact with Earth, they mingle with humans in a surprisingly peaceful manner. The Overlords are interested in learning about human culture. One Overlord even comes to a ouija board party, where he meets a like-minded astrophysicist named Jan Rodrick.
After the party, Rodrick hides away on the Overlord’s ship and takes a short tour of their home galaxy, but when he returns, Earth has transformed. Children have developed telepathic powers and merged into a collective consciousness, rather than living as individuals. Meanwhile, the desperate parents have been separated from their children and are losing their minds from grief. To save Earth, Rodrick must beg the Overlords for advice, but their guidance may come too late.
If your book club is looking for a novel with a sci-fi plot that raises philosophical questions, Childhood’s End is an excellent choice. It’s an especially interesting read for those of us who have secretly longed for psychic powers!
And if you want more sci-fi, we’ve also got a list of books like Project Hail Mary, which includes a lot of thoughtful reads.
More Book Club Resources
- How to Run a Book Club Discussion: 10 Top Tips
- How to Start a Book Club: 6 Tips for Getting it Going
- 10 Rules & Expectations for a Smooth Running Book Club
- How to Choose Books for Book Club: 10 Tips for Great Picks
- Travel Reading List Challenge: 2023 Edition
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