Masterfully-crafted prose, timeless themes, and unforgettable characters are the reasons why classic literary works endure for generations. They awaken the imagination and allow us to experience different places, time periods, triumphs, and struggles through the lens of a whole host of characters.
But the most excellent books are not limited to the old classics of Dante or Homer. Time and again, a book rises to the bestseller list and is considered at par with the classics of the past century. These are aptly termed modern classics.
What Is a Modern Classic Book?
A modern classic book is typically written after World War I, and possibly after World War II. This is because these two events marked the emergence of new ideas and ways of thinking, such as ideologies about gender, race, and class.
What makes a book a classic? A classic usually possesses high quality of artistic expression, and it usually serves as a representation of the time period it writes about, even though its themes remain “timeless”—making it worthy of lasting recognition.
Must-Read Modern Classics
With that said, here are some of the must-read modern classics to add to your collection:
1. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)
Often cited as Virginia Woolf’s best novel, the book tells the story of a single day in Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway’s life: she’s in the middle of last-minute party preparation, as she contemplates years of her life.
2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
Set during the Jazz Age, this story follows the rich Jay Gatsby and his love affair with Daisy Buchanan, during the Roaring Twenties when lavish parties, liquor, and sex were a mainstay on Long Island.
3. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)
This dystopian novel is set in a future World State where the citizens are genetically modified and the social hierarchy is based on intelligence. Eerily prophetic, the book imagines the leaps in scientific progress especially in the areas of reproduction, psychology, and classical conditioning.
4. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (1937)
George and Lennie are two friends looking for work. They have nothing but each other and their dream of one day having their own land. Both find work on a ranch, but Lennie ends up struggling with conflicting emotions and cruelty, showing a deep look at friendship and shared vision.
5. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)
Set during the Great Depression, this modern classic follows the Joad family’s migration from the Dust Bowl during the 1930s. Driven away from their homestead in Oklahoma, they’re obligated to move west to California.
6. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1943)
This short illustrated book deals with philosophical questions in an innocent, childlike way, following a little boy who leaves his tiny planet to journey around the universe.
7. Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945)
When a group of overworked animals rebels against their farmer and takes over the farm, they think everything will be perfect from then on. Little do they know that while they envision their paradise, another group of leaders—in the form of the heartless pigs—slowly take the rein.
8. 1984 by George Orwell (1949)
This dystopian novel has reached modern classic status with its thought-provoking premise and uncannily accurate predictions of a future world where totalitarianism reigns supreme.
9. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
The narrator of this modern classic is 16-year-old New Yorker Holden Caulfield, who leaves his Pennsylvania prep school and spends three days in underground New York City.
10. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952)
This short modern classic tells the tragic tale of a Cuban fisherman who catches a giant marlin but loses it. In 1954, Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature for this work.
11. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)
Inspired by Ralph Ellison’s own struggles with racial inequality, Invisible Man takes a hard look at bigotry, and how it affects both the victims and the perpetrators.
12. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952)
The story follows a minister’s daughter, Mildred Lathbury, who lives as a gentle spinster in England during the 1950s. The author portrays her as one of the “excellent women,” those who are smart and supportive, but highly repressed and taken for granted by the men around them.
13. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
The classic dystopian novel deals with what the world looks like post-literacy, when a fireman is tasked with burning all the books.
14. The Crucible by Arthur Miller (1953)
This classic play that tells of the witch-hunts and witch trials in Salem during the 17th century, painting a heartbreaking picture of what happens when a community is driven by illogical hysteria.
15. A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor (1953)
The book features the author’s apocalyptic view of life, using grotesque but often amusing scenes, with the main character grappling with the issue of salvation.
16. Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)
A group of children survive a plane crash and find themselves stranded on a deserted island. The initial freedom is exhilarating, but soon their struggle for survival shows a poignant look at the propensity of human nature toward sin and evil.
17. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
This book explores the issues of racial injustice, as seen through the eyes of a young girl, Scout, and earned Harper Lee a place among the greats. Published in 1960, it is often required reading in middle schools and high schools across the United States.
18. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
Set during World War II, this book tells the story of Captain John Yossarian, a bombardier struggling to keep sane in the midst of his assignment, with the goal of returning safely home.
19. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966)
Follow the heartbreaking story of Antoinette Cosway, a young woman who grew up protected and then sold to marry Mr. Rochester, a very proud man. The story effectively shows the struggles of a woman in a society with a skewed picture of sexual relations.
20. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967)
The novel follows the history of one family in the fictional town of Macando, giving us a glimpse of Latin America through the history and myths, growth and decay that the book portrays.
21. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1969)
This modern classic effectively captures the heart’s cry of children made lonely by the injustice of bigotry, and the power that the right words have to make everything all right.
22. Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya (1972)
Ultima, a woman who has the power to cure others using magic and herbs, comes to stay with six-year-old Antonio Marez and his family. Under her care, Tony tries out his bonds with his people and finds himself amid their pagan past and Catholicism.
23. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (1974)
This personal narrative highlights the author’s year of exploration in Tinker Creek, Virginia, enjoying nature in its fullness across the different seasons.
24. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor (1976)
This no-holds-barred look at racial inequalities in the South during the Great Depression is made slightly lighter by the fact that its narrator is Cassie, a pre-adolescent girl whose coming of age is also detailed in the book and its sequels.
25. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (1983)
This story is set in 1327, when a rich Italian abbey sees some of its Franciscans accused of heresy. Brother William comes to look into the case, but strange deaths suddenly propel him into the role of detective.
26. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)
This dystopian masterpiece follows a world where women function as handmaids in the Biblical sense—where they birth children to belong to other women—as a result of the dominance of Christian fundamentalism.
27. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (1988)
The main character is Santiago, a shepherd boy traveling from his home in Spain to the deserts of Egypt in search of a treasure. He meets interesting people along the way, all pointing him in the right direction.
28. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (1989)
Set in the late 1940s, four Chinese women who recently migrated to San Francisco start meeting regularly to play mahjong, have dim sum, and share their lives, hopes, and losses.
Reading Modern Classics
If you want to challenge your mind, try modern classics over lighter reads once in a while: the ideas they present will give you food for thought, and broaden your perspective of the world.
You can check out our list of 100 books to read before you die for more reading list inspiration!
Do you have a favorite modern classic? Share it with us in the comments below!