10 must-read classic books for beginners

Your gateway to enjoying literature.

Large old library (Photo: Getty Images)
Extravagant Library (Photo: Getty Images)
  • Classical literature constitutes a notable piece of work that has enduring quality over the years.
  • The ranks of classics encompasses a small number of works over many languages.
  • These works are accessible and timeless.

Classic literature isn't usually on a leisure reader's list. Classics tend to evoke views of dusty tomes, unapproachable texts or mere ornaments in some ersatz library. Mention to someone that you're reading Moby Dick, Brave New World, or some other renowned classic and you're sure to get lamentations of their experience reading said book in school.

Largely wasted on high schoolers with no true life experience and in extended adolescence through college, the classics remain for many an untapped source for growth, knowledge and generally just a good read.

Many of these novels are genuinely hilarious, thought-provoking and have commentary you wouldn't expect coming out of time periods sometimes decades, centuries, or even millennia prior to our modern day world.

Why should we read the classics?

A lesson by Professor Jeffrey Brenzel

This is by no means a definitive list. Classics abound in many genres and eras. You could spend your whole life reading just the Latin and ancient Greek great works or tumbling through the golden age reservoir of seminal science fiction works for that matter. Merely picking up one of these books will get you started reading something of the classic variety. And the best part is, it's all on your own volition this time!

Here are 10 classic novels that will hopefully begin you on a never-ending journey into the heart-soul of literary excellence.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Ernest Hemingway once remarked on Huckleberry Finn that: "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."

Twain's tour de force and most famous novel delves into a number of issues. Exploring racism, war, religion and so much more, the book is Americana canon. It's no stretch to say Huckleberry Finn is synonymous with American literature. Following an orphan boy and runaway slave in the Southern United States, Twain delved into the heart of so many important moral issues. With many poetic descriptions and the allure of once being a banned and censored book, Huckleberry Finn is a foundational classic.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Published just a year after Emily Brontë's death, Wuthering Heights would go on to become the archetype of the doomed romance. Continuing and ascending past the dark prince himself, Lord Byron, Brontë weaved a tremendous classic in the Gothic strain of literature. The tormented love and grief between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw has become a model for many great works since.

Written during the Victorian era, the characters and authorship of this book explores behavior that would have certainly made a Victorian blush to say the least. Brontë created an eerie and obsessive love story that transcended its time and genre.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Written with hilarious wit, Moby Dick is a profound meditation on the human condition. Filled with 19th century whaling lore and other periodic cultural artifacts and customs, Herman Melville's epic is unmatched. The prose is dense, allusive and cunningly archaic. Moby Dick isn't a book to be read, it's an experience to be had. Don't let any detractors stop you from diving in because of the supposed tediousness of whaling chapters. Within the never-ending treatises on whaling lines, cetology rambles and minute observations, there are sparkling lines of philosophical observations and timeless humor.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Literary excellence seemed to run in the Brontë family. Jane Eyre was an incredible breakthrough for an English novel at the time. Right away, the reader is brought into a very personal account of the story. Many literary critics believe that it is a forerunner for novels that heavily invest us into the internal monologues and consciousness of the character as the main prose point. Jane Eyre has all the workings of a Victorian novel as the romance between Jane and Rochester is told through an enchanting Gothic element.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice centers around a family with five unmarried daughters and their familial estate has been promised over to a male line descendant of the family. When the appearance of a rich Mr. Darcy comes to town, the action commences and we're left with this wonderful tale.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters."

Colin Firth and the many excellent and so-so adaptations of this book aside, Pride and Prejudice proves to be a literary masterpiece.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Just 18 years old at the time of writing this novel, Mary Shelley was in quite the literary posse at the time. As the infamous story goes, she wrote the book on a bet with a number of renowned literati greats. She most definitely won that bet. Both a Gothic thriller and cautionary tale on the unbounded powers of science, Frankenstein paved the way for generations of writers to come. Drawing on biblical references such as the 16th-century Jewish Golem, in Frankenstein, Shelley shows her writing prowess and historical knowledge.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

A book of impassioned fancy and fantasy, Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, told quite the modern tale through Don Quixote. The real and illusory are blended and mixed to perfection. Don Quixote has had an enormous effect on many writers through the years. William Faulkner once remarked he would reread it once a year, quipping that he'd read it, "just as some people read the Bible."

Homer's The Odyssey

An outlier in our list of classics, The Odyssey deserves a special mention. Regarded by many to be the first novel of all time, this Greek oration withstood the test of thousands of years. It is the quintessential epic saga. All great works must pay their dues to the original. Lattimore's translation is what brought this book to a contemporary world audience. Technically spoken (or written) as a long-form poem, The Odyssey is a great and thrilling read after all of these years.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

An unforgettable novel that is an easy read for many just getting into the classics. By no means a light-hearted book, To Kill a Mockingbird deals with some heavy themes like racial inequality, rape and moral ethics. Harper Lee's inaugural novel was an instant bestseller and award winning book. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 after being published in 1960. There was later a thrilling adaptation and equally compelling classic film made a few years later – a rarity when it comes to some of the classics.

1984 by George Orwell

One of the most important works of the 20th century, 1984 brought many words into the cultural vernacular. Big Brother, doublespeak and the infamous slogan of War is Peace. George Orwell's masterpiece only grows more haunting and relevant as we move into the future. Political satire was never meant to be this real.

As our main character Winston Smith loses himself in the bureaucratic nightmare of Ingsoc, we look on in horror and disdain. Yet, taking a look around our world today when despotic regimes are implementing social capital systems, and the politics of the English language degrades in so many ways, 1984 starts to take on a disconcerting prescience.

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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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