56 Books You HAVE to Read Before You Die!

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There are some concerns that the popularity of reading blogs and other short articles online reduces the interest of young people in old-fashioned classic book reading. It would be a pity if this is the case since reading classic works significantly improves the reader’s own English vocabulary. How many of these classic works have you read?

Two Years Before the Mast by Henry Dana

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Henry Dana’s tale of a nineteenth century voyage around Cape Horn is written is written in such beautiful English that you don’t need to be interested in the sea to enjoy it. Dana was a New England lawyer who later became a minor government official. He sailed to California as an ordinary sailor with hopes that the voyage would bring him health benefits. He does an excellent job describing the rigors and dangers of the sailor’s life and fascinating descriptions of California before its incorporation into the USA.

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

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Dickens tale explores the cruelty of a private schoolmaster in northern England and the struggles of teacher Nickleby to correct the injustices he encounters. As the name indicates, “Dotheboys Hall” with its cruel headmaster Squeers served as a vehicle for projecting the worst of private schooling in Victorian Britain. Nickleby soon discovers this school is a scam. He puts his job on the line through his dedication to his students including a simple and badly abused boy who turns out to be none other than the headmaster’s own son. In the end Squeers is brought to justice and sentenced to transportation to Australia.

Little Doritt by Charles Dickens

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Charles Dickens provides a vivid portrait of how the lives of people in a Victorian debtors’ prison intertwine. When Dickens was a young boy his father was imprisoned for debt in London so he knew the conditions and social structure of the debtor’s prison from personal experience. In addition to its vivid description of life within the prison’s walls the story also involves the revealing of family secrets, a sudden rise to riches and fall again into penury and the affection that developed between Little Doritt and her wealthy patron.

Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith

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The passage of more than a century has failed to dim the humorous appeal of this satire of middle class Victorian suburban life. George Grossmith co-wrote this classic with his brother Weedon. In addition to his skills as a writer Grossmtih rose to fame as a leading member of Gilbert and Sullivan’s D’Oyly Carte light opera company. He makes good use of his comic acting abilities to emphasize the pretensions and foibles of the central character Charles Pooter in his family relationships and hilarious misunderstandings with tradesmen and servants.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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A gripping tale of life in the South USA in the early 1900s, it brings out the humor as well as conflict in this racially divided society. This Pullitzer Prize winning novel was published in 1960 but it was set in the Depression-hit Alabama of the 1930s. The story is centered on the experiences of a six year old girl who lives with her older brother and widowed father. The father is a principled lawyer and his defending a black man accused of raping a white woman allowed Harper Lee to explore the racial prejudices of the period.

1984 by George Orwell

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This has become a classic portrayal of an individual’s struggle against a totalitarian regime that tries to control people’s thoughts as well as their actions. Journalist and broadcaster Orwell came from the left side of the political spectrum but he became disillusioned with the communist society he saw developing in Russia. Orwell saw in his lifetime the emergence of oppressive state control in Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany. He imagined how in future years state monitoring of the individual actions and thoughts could create the horrifying Big Brother society of 1984.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

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A contemporary children’s story where a boy named Harry Potter embarks on his career as an apprentice wizard. The first tale in the Harry Potter series has become a modern classic with a cult following, but its essential magical theme fits in well with medieval tales of King Arthur and Merlin the magician. In addition to the Rowling’s excellent writing the popularity of Potter might be seen as a reaction to the hi-tech, scientifically advanced twenty first century where everything is expected to have a natural explanation.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

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This trilogy is one of the most famous fantasy novels taking the reading into the fantastic world of Middle Earth with all its heroes and villains. The dwarfs, elves and other mythical creatures populating Tolkien’s world echo elements found in European mythology but his interpretation is unique. The author’s enthusiasm for the Welsh language is one of the many interesting influences on his choice of names for characters and places. Roman Catholic thought also influenced the philosophic approach taken in this book.

Anne Frank’s Diary

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A journal kept by a Jewish girl in Second World War Amsterdam describing her family’s ultimately unsuccessful struggle to survive the Nazi terror. Anne Frank and family manage to hide from the Nazi occupiers of Holland for two years. In her diary Anne describes her thoughts and relationships with her family in these tense times. Unfortunately in 1944 the Frank family was betrayed and sent to a concentration camp. Only Anne’s father Otto survived. After the war he discovered and published Anne’s diary.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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A story of the challenges four sisters face as they mature from girlhood to womanhood in nineteenth century New England. Alcott drew the characters in her novel from her own family with the four sisters portrayed being modeled loosely on herself and her own three sisters. The American Civil War setting was also familiar to the author since she lived through this period of history. The book is seen as forward-looking for its advocacy of women’s rights against the conventions of the time, although women’s traditional domestic role is not challenged.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

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The heroine of this story stands strong despite the sufferings of her childhood and the limitations opposed on her life by the conventions of early nineteenth century British society. Jane Eyre takes up a job as a governess. Despite her plain looks her wealthy employer, Mr. Rochester, is attracted to her. They are about to be married when his terrible secret is revealed – he is actually married to a woman who has gone insane. Jane runs away and uncovers the secrets surrounding her birth and family connections. She comes into wealth but cannot turn her back on her love for Mr. Rochester.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

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On the surface this is an entertaining children’s story but it was written to deliver a clear message about the totalitarian society that took shape in Communist Russia. The genius of this book is that it can be read on both its simple level and as a biting satire. Are you reading an amusing tale of pigs, dogs and horses, or a biting satire of the rise of Trotsky and Lenin? The old regime of the human farmer (the Russian Tsar) is successfully overthrown by the animals (the Russian workers) but the regime the pigs (Lenin and Trotsky) establish turns out to be no better.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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A poignant 1930s portrait of the sharp divides between the dirt poor and wealthy during the Great Depression in the USA. Tom Joad, a released prisoner, returns home to Oklahoma in the company of childhood friend Jim Casy. They discover that the local farms are being repossessed by the banks. Tom and Jim join the Joad and other family on the trek west with hopes of a better life in California. The book describes their experiences during this migration and the terrible situation in California where migrant workers are so badly exploited. Tom and Jim become involved with organized labor and a bitter and violent struggle for improved rights.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

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Children stranded on an island reveal the dark sides of their natures. The deterioration in their relationships contrasts with the beauty found in their surroundings. Through the medium of this tale Golding takes the opportunity to explore how even well-educated youth might cast aside the veneer of civilization and descend into savagery. The themes he focuses on include the conflict between the individual and the group and intelligence and emotion. The scene is set by a British plane crashing on a Pacific island during a wartime evacuation; only the younger passengers survive.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

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A friendship develops between two Californian migrant workers as they come to appreciate their different personalities and shared hopes of a better future. George Milton and Lennie Small dream of one day owning their own farm. The book describes the amusing interchanges between George who is intelligent yet poorly-educated, and the physically strong but mentally challenged Lenny. This is a tale of the friendship between these two very different characters. Readers looking for the happy ending are going to be disappointed to find that their dream is never realized for the story comes to a tragic ending.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

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A trail of romance and intrigue set in London and Paris around the time of the French Revolution of 1789. As he takes the novel’s lead characters through these events Dickens describes the oppression of the French peasantry under the Old Regime and the brutality of the revolutionaries towards their former aristocratic masters. He also uses the novel to put across his views on the abuse of the death penalty and to explore themes of death and resurrection as reflected in Christian thinking. As with many other Dickens’s novels, this book was originally published in serial form.

Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte

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This Victorian tale runs through gamut of emotions in its lively account of the stormy relationship between chief protagonists Heathcliff and Catherine. This is the only novel written by Emile Bronte – a member of the famous literary family of the vicar of Haworth in West Yorkshire. The novel was written in the mid-1840s and although today it is considered an undisputed literary classic at the time it was very controversial. While its Gothic theme catered for contemporary tastes the vivid descriptions of mental and physical cruelty and its portrait of religious hypocrisy were controversial.

Alice in Wonderland by Louis Carroll

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This nonsense tale of Alice’s descent into the topsy-turvy world of Wonderland has become one of the most popular works of children’s literature, but many adults also greatly enjoy it. Its author was a Victorian cleric and academic who is to this day highly respected for his work in mathematics. The fantasy stories that brought him international fame had their roots in stories he told to the young daughter of a fellow clergyman. Alice begged him to write them down and so Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass were written.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

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The man-made monster in this Gothic horror story has become synonymous with the destructive forces mankind is capable of releasing and allowing to get totally out of control. Lord Byron and others in his literary circle posed a challenge of who could devise the best horror story. Mary Shelly dreamt about a scientist who created a life form and then became terrified by what he had done. This formed the kernel of the idea for the novel. Her choice of setting was prompted by the places she visited on a tour of Europe, including Geneva in Switzerland. She was just 20 years old when Frankenstein was published.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

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While it remains an enjoyable tale of youthful antics in mid-nineteenth century it is also valued for its exploration of the friendship and changing social values. Although one of America’s most famous authors it is curious to note that he chose to publish this story first in England (1884) before the USA (1995). The use of conversational language with a regional flavor is one of the story’s features that cause it to stand out from American literature of earlier years. The tale is set along the Mississippi River in the mid-1800s. The author knew the area very well from his own travels, including working on the famous river boats.

Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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The most famous of all Victorian detectives finds solving even the most complex crimes quite “elemental.” Before becoming one of the world’s most famous writers Conan Doyle trained as a doctor in Scotland. His professor at medical school was known for his skills observing case symptoms and he provided the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle did such a good job of developing his character that many people were convinced he was a real-life detective. Even today people continue to address letters to Sherlock Holmes in Baker Street.

The Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey

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Despite the title this is no salacious account of a drug abuser’s crime but a fascinating exploration of how the author’s own childhood experiences made such lasting and deep impressions. The son of a prosperous Manchester businessman Thomas is sent to Manchester Grammar School but he runs away to travel round Wales. Eventually he makes his way to London where he is befriended by young prostitute. This account of his youthful adventures is interspersed with the surreal visions brought on by the author’s use of opium.

The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

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A hilarious eighteenth century tale featuring an English clergyman and a set of rogues who try to take advantage of his good nature. When the vicar gets into financial difficulties he is forced to relocate with his family to a parish of disreputable Squire Thornhill. The amusing conversations and misunderstandings between the vicar, his wife and his daughters and their suitors provide the most entertaining element in the book. Believe it or not Goldsmith’s friend Dr. Samuel Johnson sold this novel on his behalf for 60 pounds to save Goldsmith from eviction for not paying his rent.

Dr. Johnson by James Boswell

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One of this great literary figure’s figures faithful friends wrote this biography full of fascinating anecdotes of Johnson’s life and opinions. When Scottish squire Boswell arrives in London he is delighted by the opportunity to make the acquaintance of one of England’s leading literati Dr. Samuel Johnson. Despite the doctor’s well-known antipathy to Scotland a firm friendship develops between the two. Boswell becomes the chronicler of Dr. Johnson’s life and vividly portrays the fascinating host of poets, politicians and artists in his circle. At the same time the reader learns of Boswell’s own adventures and amongst the highs and lows of London society.

A Dictionary of the English Language by Dr. Samuel Johnson

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One of the most famous and earliest English dictionaries with many of its definitions highly personalized. Although Johnson’s choice of terms provides a rich source of entertainment to twenty first century reasons this should not detract from the serious scholarship involved. Johnson was commissioned to compose a new English dictionary by a group of London booksellers who were unhappy with the dictionaries previously published. They paid him over £1,500 (multiply 150 times for an idea of how much this is worth in today’s terms) for this groundbreaking dictionary which was finally published in 1755.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

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Stranded on a desert island Crusoe learns to be self-sufficient and eventually meets his faithful helper Man Friday. Defoe’s early eighteenth century novel was loosely inspired by the experiences of a real desert island castaway called Alexander Selkirk. Defoe makes Robinson the story narrator and did such a good job that many readers were convinced it was a genuine first person account. Literary experts view it as a milestone in the development of English fiction writing. Concepts and terms from the novel have entered our everyday language as it has gone through numerous reprints and stage and screen productions.

Silas Marner by George Eliot

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Mary Ann Evans, better known by her penname of George Eliot, recounts the moving story of how Silas Marner finds an abandoned baby girl and raises her as his own daughter. She also explores in this novel the harsh and judgmental Nonconformist Christian community of which Marner is a part, and the stirrings of political unrest threatening the stability of early Victorian society. Evans own personal life scandalized respectable Victorian society and the perceptive reader who knows the author’s own story can detect her views on religion and social order in the mouths of her literary creations.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

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The story of the heroine’s loveless marriage serves as a vehicle for challenging the moral and social conventions of the Victorian upper classes. Although the book was published in 1872 it was set forty years earlier in a time of political turmoil centered on the passing of the Reform Act. The novel thus provides an interesting glimpse into rural English society at this crucial time. At the center of Elliot’s story are the inhabitants of the mythical rural town of Middlemarch and in particular passionate Dorothea Brooke’s entry into a loveless marriage with cold intellectual Reverend Edward Casaubon.

Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott

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An exciting tale of banditry and political unrest set in eighteenth century Scotland. Sir Walter Scott did more than any other writer to create the popular image of Scotland of warring clans, kilts and bagpipers. Rob Roy is based on an actual character from eighteenth century history. Scott transforms him and his formidable wife Helen, into leading figures in the struggle against English domination in early eighteenth century Scotland. They fought hard against their enemies but with a certain chivalry that the reader can admire. Scott reproduction of the local dialect gives the story an added flavor of authenticity.

Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes

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A Spanish satire on the world of medieval chivalry that has lost none of its slapstick humor since it was first published in the 1600s.

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

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Romance intertwines with themes of jealousy and guilt set against the small town politics of nineteenth century England.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

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These tales of toad, mole, ratty and the evil weasels who live around the river bank have been entertaining young readers for over a century.

The Thirty Nine Steps by Sir John Buchan

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A captivating spy tale set at the time of the outbreak of conflict between Britain and Germany in 1914.

Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee

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Rich images from the life of ordinary people in the early twentieth century English countryside.

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

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Children living close to a country railway station team together to prevent a major railway accident.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

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This 1860s novel is often considered the first detective story. See if you can work out the criminal’s identify without jumping to the last chapter!

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

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A chance encounter with a woman dressed in white on a road outside London is the launching point for unravelling her mysterious tale.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

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This story of the evil count that can change into a vampire is loosely based on a medieval Rumanian ruler known for his cruelty.

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

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An early foray into the world of science fiction builds an interesting story around the concept of time travel.

A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur by Mark Twain

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A knock on the head sends a late nineteenth century American back to the medieval world of King Arthur. With guns and telephone exchanges he tries to improve the medieval world.

Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain

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He records his idiosyncratic impressions of an 1869 visit of a group of American tourists to the Middle East and other places of cultural and historical importance.

Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne

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A wonderful children’s tale all about Christopher Robin and his toy bear’s mischievous adventures.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

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This tale of the life of slaves in the Southern United States sound patronizing to modern readers but it was a revolutionary depiction of how slaves could be fine, pious people. Historians believe it played a role in bringing the end of slavery closer.

Self-Help by Samuel Smiles

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Although published in 1859, this guide to making the most of each person’s abilities continues to be reprinted and find new readers.

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

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A faithful administrator of a Victorian almshouse (old people’s home) is challenged by the corruptible churchmen who administer the institution.

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

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Gulliver is a man of normal height but when he arrives in the kingdom of Lilliput he appears to be a giant. This children’s story also contains subtle allusions to early eighteenth century English politics.

The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde

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This controversial Irish writer is at his best in this tale of an English ghost’s amusing encounters with a brash American family who come to live in its house.

The Irish RM by Somerville and Ross

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An English officer is appointed Resident Magistrate in rural Ireland. Here he has a succession of amusing encounters with his Irish relations and their friends.

Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

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This 1834 work brought Dickens fame. It tells the story of Mr. Pickwick and his friends as they travel across England by stagecoach.

The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells

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A scientist succeeds in making himself invisible but fails in his attempts to reverse the process. In the end the Invisible Man turns to a life of crime.

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell

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Orwell’s observations of poverty in Depression-hit north-western England formed the source material for this book.

The River War by Winston S. Churchill

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The famous politician was a young man when he wrote this action-packed account of his experiences in the 1898 war between Britain and the Sudan.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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This story of the punishment faced by a convicted adulteress in seventeenth century New England is considered Hawthorne’s finest work.

Through England on a Side Saddle in the Time of William and Mary

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This is the diary kept by Celia Fiennes during her horseback journey across late seventeenth century England.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

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This classic romantic tale of early nineteenth century England explores the protagonists’ relationships against the social conventions and manners of this time. The leading character, Elizabeth Bennet, is the daughter of a country gentleman. Although this gives Elizabeth social status in Regency England there is little for her and her sisters to hope for in terms of an inheritance. The plot revolves around the efforts to find the Bennet girls suitable suitors with their mother taking a very active role in this regard. Their prospective marriage partners and the interplay between them and the Bennet girls offer many interesting insights into life in that historical period.

History of the English Speaking Peoples by Winston S. Churchill

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Anyone who enjoys Churchill’s rhetoric will delight in this finely written account of the history of England and its colonies from Roman times until 1914.

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