Top Ten: Classic Books I’ve Never Read

Every so often a new list of the 100 “best” books is released.  The most recent is World Book Night’s Top 100 and others include the BBC Big Read and the Telegraph’s Top 100.  To an extent these lists are popularity contests and many of the choices will change from year to year, but very often the same titles pop up over and over again.  Each time a list is released I go through it and work out how many I’ve actually read.  It’s usually between 35 and 50.  Just as the same novels pop up again and again, I notice the same unread books in most of the lists.

There’s lots of “classic” books I’ve not got round to reading, don’t particularly want to read or which I’ve started reading and given up.  This list contains ten of the must-reads that I want get round to reading sooner, rather than later.


1. Brave New World

I’m certain that this book is on one of my dad’s many bookshelves in Glasgow.  I remember picking it up and putting it back on several occasions thinking each time that it would be the “next” book that I read.  Written in 1932 but set in 2540 this imagines a world where the population are controlled by drugs to ensure happiness and peace.  Only one man feels like there may be something missing from life.  This is clearly a forerunner to 1984, which I absolutely loved so it seems that this should be quite a good read for me.


2. Catch-22

The phrase Catch-22 has entered every day speech and is now taken to mean a no-win situation of any kind.  Joseph Heller’s novel is a satirical look at the ridiculous ways that bureaucracy ties the individual up in knots and leaves them unable to make any decisions for themselves.  Set in 1943 it sill has plenty to say about the absurd ways that governments treat their citizens today.  While Brave New World influenced 1984, so 1984 influenced Catch-22 and it might be nice to read them as a series at some point.


3. The Gormenghast Trilogy

I’ve read less science fiction and fantasy than other genres of fiction, which comes as a bit of a surprise as the idea of both appeal to me greatly.  I think there was maybe a sense when I was younger that girls read romance and boys read science fiction/fantasy and that’s influenced my choices.  One of my aims with this website is to expand my horizons – it may turn out that there’s some genres I don’t like that much but I’m not going to be afraid to give them a go anymore.  Mervyn Peake’s Gothic trilogy appears to defy strict classification as a fantasy novel but has piqued my interest a number of times.  I’d love it if fantasy fans could let me know their thoughts on this.


4. I Capture The Castle

I didn’t realise that this was regarded by so many people as a must-read until I started looking at the different Top 100 lists – it appears on all of them.  I started reading I Capture The Castle for a book group I used to attend but gave up not long into it.  The story focuses on the family of a once successful writer living beyond their means in a dilapidated English castle.  I was the only person in my book group not to love this book and fans of the story are fierce in their defense of it.  I don’t like not finishing a book so I think it may be time for me to reassess I Capture The Castle, pick it up again and give it a fair crack before making a final judgement.


5. The Iliad

I love hearing stories of Greek and Roman myths, the battles, the heroes, the gods all fascinate me.  I adored Antigone when I saw it on stage at the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow and I thought Margaret Attwood’s feminisation of The Iliad, The Penelopiad, was sublime, yet for all that I’ve never read any of the classic works. I’m going to be honest, I do get a little overwhelmed by these epic works. The thought of a 443 page poem about a few days during the Trojan War does intimidate me.  Having said that, The Iliad is the only book on this last that I currently own so it’s clearly time for me to (wo)man up and fill this gap in my knowledge.


6. Jane Eyre

I studied feminism at university and read Simone de Beauvoir, Andrea Dworkin and Germaine Greer.  In English Literature we examined the works of female writers including Virginia Woolf, but I think that Charlotte Bronte was unfairly overlooked in both classes.  I know enough about the story of the poor, plain but principled moral governess to know that she was one of the first feminist characters in literature.  She refuses to become mistress to a married man but also there’s much to consider in the treatment of Mrs Rochester, locked in an attic because of insanity.  I did read a fascinating exploration of Victorian feminist writing called The Mad Woman In The Attic, so I really have let myself down a bit by not reading the source material.  The publicity surrounding the recent film adaptation has pricked my conscience yet again on this one….


7. The Lord of the Rings

I can almost hear the gasps of shock at this confession.  Other than my ingrained feeling that fantasy isn’t really a genre that girls read I can’t explain why I haven’t read The Lord of The Rings trilogy.  I love the films and their story of a brave group of people (and hobbits, dwarves and elves) on a quest to destroy the One Ring which can confer ultimate power on he who holds it.  I really enjoyed The Hobbit which I read when I was about 12 or 13 but I never moved on to the continuation of the story.  Maybe the size of the book put me off – or maybe that’s just an excuse.  No excuse now, I should get on and read it and see for myself exactly why so many people love this work.  I might get it on Kindle though – easier to hold on the train.


8. Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice is surely the most famous British love story of all time.  I think everyone knows the first line “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” and the story of the high-minded Lizzie Bennett and the handsome Mr Darcy who are the perfect, feisty couple but take their time to come together.  Of course,  knowledge of the story comes from the  film and television adaptations.  What girl my age didn’t fall in love with Colin Firth when he emerged from the lake in his sodden shirt?  Perhaps it’s this familiarity which has kept me from reading the book but it’s time for me to correct this longstanding oversight.


9. The Wasp Factory

Scottish writer Iain Banks has been suggested to me several times by friends who can’t understand why I’ve not read any of his books.  I do like to read books by my fellow countrymen (it’s a sign of Celtic solidarity) but Banks has so far eluded me.  I’ve been told that his debut novel, The Wasp Factory, is the place to start.  Described by one reviewer as “a work of unparalleled depravity” this is the story of Frank, the teenage perpetrator of murderous crimes against children in his own family.  Scottish – Check.  Depraved – Check.  Crime – Check.  Yep, right up my street.


10. Watership Down

People who know me will tell you that I’m an absolute animal welfare nut, but funnily enough I’ve not read many animal books.  Much like Animal Farm, Watership Down isn’t simply a fun story about fluffy creatures, it’s an allegory about freedom.  The adventures of Hazel, Fiver and the rest of the rabbits searching for a safe place to live can tell us much about society and how we treat each other.  I think of all the books on this list this is the one I most want to read.


Should you expect to see reviews of these 10 books on here any time soon?  Perhaps.  Maybe I need you to push me to really further my reading scope, not just read the books on my desk or the ones that look most interesting at any given time but to make sure I have a thorough grounding in the classics.  So that next time a top 100 is released I can tick off more than simply the same 35 I’ve been able to tick off for years.

What are the classics you’ve not got round to reading yet? Are you surprised at some of my omissions and what are the books that you think everyone should read? Let me know in the comments.

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  1. I’d be tempted to start reading Iain Banks with something like The Crow Road, or Complicity – Wasp Factory is good, but very much a first novel. And yes, the Kindle edition of LoTR is the way to go :)

  2. Catch 22 is brilliant. Very funny.

  3. Ooh goodness, you have a few of my favorites on there: I Capture the Castle (I think if you like the narrator, you’ll like this one — if not, maybe not), Jane Eyre, and Watership Down! The first two I’ve only read in the past year. Pride and Prejudice is on my own “read soon” list.

    I’ve never heard of the Gormenghast trilogy, but now I’m curious about it.

    I didn’t realize Brave New World influenced 1984 influenced Catch-22. That would make such a cool series to do! Would you have any interest in planning an informal three-book co-read? (That is, if Catch-22 doesn’t end up being the November Reading Buddies pick!) I really like tackling “harder” books like this with someone else.

  4. I was thrilled to see The Wasp Factory on your list as I just picked that up from the library yesterday. The blurb certainly looks very interesting – it was going to be one of my readathon reads but I was overly optimistic! I’m worried about Michael’s comments though as I just finished Crow Road by the same author and thought it was an ‘OK’ (3*) book. Easy to read but I became increasing annoyed with the characters’ decisions. I’m hoping The Wasp Factory is better.

    Thanks for the 1984 info too. If you and Erin do decide on a co-read of those 3 books, I would love to join in!


  5. Londiniensis says:

    2,3,4 and 9 are very minor classics, whose “sell by” has probably passed. Read if you want, or if you like the genre, but don’t beat yourself up abut them.

    1, 6 and 8 are definitely “classic” must-reads, but all three are “easy” reads, which pull you in as you read them and are unforgettable.

    5 is a must-read, but can be dipped into. I was brought up on the E V Rieu translation, but the new Fagles translation is supposed to be mind-blowing.

    7 is worth reading, but is an acquired taste. You probably miss out on a lot of conversational allusions if you don’t know it. If you really care, but don’t have the time to read the three books, see the (three) films.

    10 is utter rubblish, the “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” de nos jours. Don’t bother.

    My own list of shame includes the Mahabharata, Orlando Furioso, most of Racine and Corneille, Don Quixote, Moby Dick and A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. I suppose I’ll never get round to them …

  6. after you read Pride and Prejudice, you can read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies! it’s quite funny!!!

    I’m going to second the recommendation that you should read something by Banks that is NOT the Wasp Factory. How are you on science fiction? His is extraordinary.

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