Life on the inside: 10 classic novels you always meant to read

There are certain novels that just feel incredibly familiar. Giants of literature, they’ve spawned so many adaptations and permeated Western culture so deeply, we can’t help but be aware of them.

However, is it possible you’ve never actually got round to reading these bona fide classics? Maybe you thought you had (but actually hadn’t), or perhaps they’ve just forever been on your to-read list? Quarantine is a great opportunity to finally tick a few of these greats off.

Here are 10 novels you should absolutely read during lockdown, if you haven’t already…

1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

We could have easily put War And Peace on this list, but let’s face it: if you haven’t read War And Peace yet, it’s doubtful quarantine will change that.

Anna Karenina is another Tolstoy classic, and is arguably a better read. Anna, a bored high-society lady, has an affair with cavalry officer Count Vronsky. Meanwhile, Konstantin Levin, a country landowner pines after his love Kitty. Set in Imperial Russia in the 1870s, it’s a gripping story of love, betrayal and the burden of society’s expectations.

2. 1984 by George Orwell

So many aspects of 1984 have become part of common lingo – whether it’s “doublethink”, being forced to believe something that’s obviously a lie, or Big Brother, a reference to being constantly watched by a ruling power – 1984 never ceases to feel timely.

Telling of a dystopian future where the world is ravaged by war, protagonist Winston Smith lives in a totalitarian state governed by Big Brother. Propaganda rules supreme and the Thought Police brutally squash independence of any kind. Winston works for the ruling Party and harbours feelings of rebellion, which grow when he falls in love with Julia.

3. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

If you enjoyed the latest movie adaptation of Little Women by Greta Gerwig, now’s the time to get stuck into the book. It’s a funny and moving coming of age tale that follows the four March sisters into womanhood.

At the centre is bold, brilliant Jo, who doesn’t want to be tied down by a husband, and dreams of being a writer. Even though the novel is set during and after the American Civil War, the themes of family, love and striving for independence still ring true today.

4. Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

While Little Women might be a cosy read, Crime And Punishment is not – but there’s a reason it’s one of the most famous books ever written.

It’s a thrilling and disturbing look into the mental state of St Petersburg student Raskolnikov, before and after he decides to kill a pawnbroker for money. Beforehand, he tries to justify the murder to himself, and after, descends into a spiral of guilt, shame and disgust. If you don’t believe Russian literature written in the 1860s can be impossible to put down, let Crime And Punishment prove you wrong.

5. The Colour Purple by Alice Walker

Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for The Colour Purple in 1983. Set in America’s deep south in the 1930s, it follows the intertwining stories of black women. Written in the form of letters, it explores the subjugation of women, domestic abuse, sexual violence and racism in Georgia. A deeply harrowing read, but there is so much beauty within it and the relationships Walker portrays.

6. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

You can totally listen to the Kate Bush song, but the book is even better. Wuthering Heights is ostensibly a love story between Cathy and Heathcliff, but don’t expect a romcom.

Instead, it’s a dark tale of obsession, desire and revenge. Heathcliff is adopted into a wealthy family but is soon reduced to the status of servant and runs away when Cathy marries someone else. Years later, he returns to wreak his revenge.

7. Beloved by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s most famous book is dedicated to the “Sixty Million and more” – a reference to the estimated number of people killed because of slavery. Beloved tells the story of Sethe, a former slave who killed one of her children to save her from the horrors of enslavement. After the Civil War, Sethe lives with her youngest daughter in a haunted house in Ohio and reflects on her life. It’s a beautiful, tough and incredibly necessary read.

8. Middlemarch by George Eliot

Don’t be put off by the hefty length of Middlemarch, because it’s well worth dedicating some time to. George Eliot’s classic is set in the fictional rural town of Middlemarch, from 1829 up until the Reform Bill of 1832, which significantly changed life in England.

It tracks Dorothea, a young woman who marries a stuffy reverend and realises it might not be the big romantic love she envisioned. There’s also the tense relationship between the young doctor Tertius and Rosamond, which is at complete odds with the pleasant romance between Rosamond’s brother Fred and Mary.

The subtitle of Middlemarch is A Study Of Provincial Life, and that’s exactly what it is: a nuanced look at personal relationships, love and marriage in a time of political upheaval.

9. The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Artist Basil Hallward paints a portrait of the beautiful Dorian Gray, who falls in with the hedonistic lifestyle of Lord Henry Wotton. Gray essentially sells his soul to the devil to stay beautiful and young forever, while the portrait ages horribly with time and every crime he commits.

Wilde grippingly considers whether beauty should be valued above all else. This is his only novel – he was seemingly more comfortable with plays – but it’s some of his most arresting writing.

10. One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One Hundred Years Of Solitude is lauded as one of the best examples of magical realism, which works fantastical elements into the story of seven generations of one family in the fictional town of Macondo, Colombia.

As well as a diving into interpersonal relationships in a unique and memorable way, One Hundred Years Of Solitude is an accidental lesson in the history of Colombia, many aspects of which – like colonialism – Marquez is hyper critical.

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