As someone who majored in English literature in undergrad and then got an MA in it, I’ve read my fair share of classic books. What makes a book a classic? According to a 2011 article in The Guardian, “It can’t just be that it’s old. A classic must have something else, something that has either caused it to endure or has, in the case of modern classics, inspired the faith that it will do so” (x). While a simple and vague definition, this is actually pretty helpful, as people across the literary world can’t always decide what a classic is. More specifically, the debate tends to be focused around how old a book has to be to be a classic. Well, as you can tell from the title of this post, I’m ignoring the age qualifier, as I’m going to share what I think are 17 modern classic novels, so we don’t need to worry about that part of the definition.
I’ve decided to include that were published after 1980 (40 years is actually pretty recent in terms of the world or the history of the canon), although there are also more recent novels on this list. I’ve also decided to focus on novels because, to be honest, I’ve read way more of those than I have of nonfiction. Some of these are novels that are already considered classics by many, but some are books that, to borrow the language from that Guardian article, inspire the faith that they will endure even if they weren’t published recently enough to show that they will endure. For example, I think we can all agree that the Harry Potter series will endure long-term. But enough on the definitions. Let’s get to the books!
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17 Modern Classic Novels
Harry Potter series (1997) – “Harry Potter has never even heard of Hogwarts when the letters start dropping on the doormat at number four, Privet Drive. Addressed in green ink on yellowish parchment with a purple seal, they are swiftly confiscated by his grisly aunt and uncle. Then, on Harry’s eleventh birthday, a great beetle-eyed giant of a man called Rubeus Hagrid bursts in with some astonishing news: Harry Potter is a wizard, and he has a place at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. An incredible adventure is about to begin! (x). Do I really need to explain the Harry Potter series? If I do, Amazon says, “The Harry Potter series has been hailed as ‘one for the ages’ by Stephen King and ‘a spellbinding saga’ by USA Today.” (x). Obviously I had to include Harry Potter! This book series has been a key part of many childhoods, including mine. It is popular enough to inspire not only the movies but also theme parks based on the series.
The English Patient (1993) – “With unsettling beauty and intelligence, this Golden Man Booker Prize–winning novel traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an abandoned Italian villa at the end of World War II. The nurse Hana, exhausted by death, obsessively tends to her last surviving patient. Caravaggio, the thief, tries to reimagine who he is, now that his hands are hopelessly maimed. The Indian sapper Kip searches for hidden bombs in a landscape where nothing is safe but himself. And at the center of his labyrinth lies the English patient, nameless and hideously burned, a man who is both a riddle and a provocation to his companions—and whose memories of suffering, rescue, and betrayal illuminate this book like flashes of heat lightning” (x). I have read this twice: once in high school and once in college. It’s very interesting but, understandably given the content, sad.
His Dark Materials series (2003) – “These thrilling adventures tell the story of Lyra and Will—two ordinary children on a perilous journey through shimmering haunted otherworlds. They will meet witches and armored bears, fallen angels and soul-eating specters. And in the end, the fate of both the living—and the dead—will rely on them” (x). I recently reread this series and it was better than I remembered. If you’re wondering why the name of the series sounds familiar, it’s because it’s currently a show on HBO. The first book is The Golden Compass: “Lyra is rushing to the cold, far North, where witch clans and armored bears rule. North, where the Gobblers take the children they steal—including her friend Roger. North, where her fearsome uncle Asriel is trying to build a bridge to a parallel world. Can one small girl make a difference in such great and terrible endeavors? This is Lyra: a savage, a schemer, a liar, and as fierce and true a champion as Roger or Asriel could want. But what Lyra doesn’t know is that to help one of them will be to betray the other…” (x).
The Sympathizer (2016) – This is the most recent book on this list, and I included it because it’s masterful and will definitely be considered a classic in 20 years. It absolutely deserved its Pulitzer Prize! “With the pace and suspense of a thriller and prose that has been compared to Graham Greene and Saul Bellow, The Sympathizer is a sweeping epic of love and betrayal. The narrator, a communist double agent, is a ‘man of two minds,’ a half-French, half-Vietnamese army captain who arranges to come to America after the Fall of Saigon, and while building a new life with other Vietnamese refugees in Los Angeles is secretly reporting back to his communist superiors in Vietnam. The Sympathizer is a blistering exploration of identity and America, a gripping espionage novel, and a powerful story of love and friendship” (x).17 modern classic novels you should read Click To Tweet
The Joy Luck Club (2006) – I actually haven’t read this one, but I’ve heard really good things. “Four mothers, four daughters, four families whose histories shift with the four winds depending on who’s ‘saying’ the stories. In 1949 four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, begin meeting to eat dim sum, play mahjong, and talk. United in shared unspeakable loss and hope, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Rather than sink into tragedy, they choose to gather to raise their spirits and money. ‘To despair was to wish back for something already lost. Or to prolong what was already unbearable.’ Forty years later the stories and history continue. With wit and sensitivity, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between mothers and daughters. As each woman reveals her secrets, trying to unravel the truth about her life, the strings become more tangled, more entwined. Mothers boast or despair over daughters, and daughters roll their eyes even as they feel the inextricable tightening of their matriarchal ties” (x).
Wolf Hall (2010) – I absolutely adored this book, although it took me a long time to read it. “England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?” (x). In my humble opinion, Wolf Hall is definitely deserving of its Man Booker Prize award!
The God of Small Things (2008) – “Compared favorably to the works of Faulkner and Dickens, Arundhati Roy’s modern classic is equal parts powerful family saga, forbidden love story, and piercing political drama. The seven-year-old twins Estha and Rahel see their world shaken irrevocably by the arrival of their beautiful young cousin, Sophie. It is an event that will lead to an illicit liaison and tragedies accidental and intentional, exposing ‘big things [that] lurk unsaid’ in a country drifting dangerously toward unrest. Lush, lyrical, and unnerving, The God of Small Things is an award-winning landmark that started for its author an esteemed career of fiction and political commentary that continues unabated” (x).
Outlander (1991) – As you know if you’ve followed me for a few years, I adore the Outlander series. But that’s not the only reason why I included it in this list. As the Amazon page for it says, “One of the top ten best-loved novels in America, as seen on PBS’s The Great American Read!” (x). Calling it “best-loved” is extremely accurate. But it can be hard to describe. This is a book and series that crosses genres; it’s definitely historical fiction, but it’s also sort of science fiction or fantasy because of time travel, and of course it’s also a love story, but there’s also a lot of war that goes along with it. “Scottish Highlands, 1945. Claire Randall, a former British combat nurse, is just back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon when she walks through a standing stone in one of the ancient circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach—an ‘outlander’—in a Scotland torn by war and raiding clans in the year of Our Lord . . . 1743. Claire is catapulted into the intrigues of a world that threatens her life, and may shatter her heart. Marooned amid danger, passion, and violence, Claire learns her only chance of safety lies in Jamie Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior. What begins in compulsion becomes urgent need, and Claire finds herself torn between two very different men, in two irreconcilable lives” (x).
Good Omens (1990) – This is an incredible and an incredibly funny book, centered around an angel and a demon who, after thousands of years on Earth, have decided to stop the Apocalypse. “According to The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (the world’s only completely accurate book of prophecies, written in 1655, before she exploded), the world will end on a Saturday. Next Saturday, in fact. Just before dinner. So the armies of Good and Evil are amassing, Atlantis is rising, frogs are falling, tempers are flaring. Everything appears to be going according to Divine Plan. Except a somewhat fussy angel and a fast-living demon—both of whom have lived amongst Earth’s mortals since The Beginning and have grown rather fond of the lifestyle—are not actually looking forward to the coming Rapture. And someone seems to have misplaced the Antichrist . . .” (x). If the name or synopsis sounds familiar, it’s because Good Omens is now a mini-series available on Amazon Prime.
Beloved (1987) – This is a book that I haven’t read, but it pops up on classic lists all the time. Toni Morrison was a masterful writer! “Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe’s new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement” (x).
Life of Pi (2001) – “The son of a zookeeper, Pi Patel has an encyclopedic knowledge of animal behavior and a fervent love of stories. When Pi is sixteen, his family emigrates from India to North America aboard a Japanese cargo ship, along with their zoo animals bound for new homes. The ship sinks. Pi finds himself alone in a lifeboat, his only companions a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and Richard Parker, a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Soon the tiger has dispatched all but Pi, whose fear, knowledge, and cunning allow him to coexist with Richard Parker for 227 days while lost at sea. When they finally reach the coast of Mexico, Richard Parker flees to the jungle, never to be seen again. The Japanese authorities who interrogate Pi refuse to believe his story and press him to tell them ‘the truth.’ After hours of coercion, Pi tells a second story, a story much less fantastical, much more conventional–but is it more true?” (x).
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) – This is one of only a handful on this list that is already considered a classic! “In Margaret Atwood’s dystopian future, environmental disasters and declining birthrates have led to a Second American Civil War. The result is the rise of the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian regime that enforces rigid social roles and enslaves the few remaining fertile women. Offred is one of these, a Handmaid bound to produce children for one of Gilead’s commanders. Deprived of her husband, her child, her freedom, and even her own name, Offred clings to her memories and her will to survive” (x). Before you read it, you should know that there isn’t much of a plot in this book, especially in comparison to the TV show. I still really enjoyed it, but just an FYI.
Atonement (2001) – This is definitely a sad book, and another one set in World War II. But it’s sooo good. I would describe it as hauntingly beautiful! “On a hot summer day in 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses a moment’s flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of a servant and Cecilia’s childhood friend. But Briony’s incomplete grasp of adult motives–together with her precocious literary gifts–brings about a crime that will change all their lives. As it follows that crime’s repercussions through the chaos and carnage of World War II and into the close of the twentieth century, Atonement engages the reader on every conceivable level, with an ease and authority that mark it as a genuine masterpiece” (x).Books published from 1980 on that should be considered classics Click To Tweet
Schindler’s List (1982) – There are a lot of World War II books on this list! I think it’s because it was recent enough (and horrible enough) for modern people to be fascinated by it, but it still feels like the 40s were a world away. But unlike books like Atonement, which feature the war but feature much more about life of average people during the war, Schindler’s List is right in the middle of the horrors. “A stunning novel based on the true story of how German war profiteer and factory director Oskar Schindler came to save more Jews from the gas chambers than any other single person during World War II. In this milestone of Holocaust literature, Thomas Keneally, author of Daughter of Mars, uses the actual testimony of the Schindlerjuden—Schindler’s Jews—to brilliantly portray the courage and cunning of a good man in the midst of unspeakable evil” (x).
The Giver (1993) – This is a classic for all 90s kids! “The Giver, the 1994 Newbery Medal winner, has become one of the most influential novels of our time. The haunting story centers on twelve-year-old Jonas, who lives in a seemingly ideal, if colorless, world of conformity and contentment. Not until he is given his life assignment as the Receiver of Memory does he begin to understand the dark, complex secrets behind his fragile community” (x).
The Color Purple (1982) – “Celie is a poor black woman whose letters tell the story of 20 years of her life, beginning at age 14 when she is being abused and raped by her father and attempting to protect her sister from the same fate, and continuing over the course of her marriage to “Mister,” a brutal man who terrorizes her. Celie eventually learns that her abusive husband has been keeping her sister’s letters from her and the rage she feels, combined with an example of love and independence provided by her close friend Shug, pushes her finally toward an awakening of her creative and loving self” (x).
The House on Mango Street (1983) – I read this many years ago in middle school and I remember enjoying it! “Acclaimed by critics, beloved by readers of all ages, taught everywhere from inner-city grade schools to universities across the country, and translated all over the world, The House on Mango Street is the remarkable story of Esperanza Cordero. Told in a series of vignettes – sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous – it is the story of a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, inventing for herself who and what she will become. Few other books in our time have touched so many readers” (x).
Here’s a quick recap of all of the books mentioned in this post:
- Harry Potter series
- The English Patient
- His Dark Materials series
- The Sympathizer
- The Joy Luck Club
- Wolf Hall
- The God of Small Things
- Good Omens
- Life of Pi
- The Handmaid’s Tale
- Schindler’s List
- The Giver
- The Color Purple
- The House on Mango Street
I’ve personally read 20 of 25 books, counting each book from the Harry Potter series and the His Dark Materials series (12 of 17 not counting the individual books). How many have you read? Want to know how many you have read and how that compares to others? Take the quiz! I pulled together this quiz on ListChallenges.com. This isn’t sponsored at all – you would have seen a disclosure way sooner than this if it was – but I have spent a lot of time on ListChallenges.com, taking book quizzes specifically.
What else have you read that would you consider modern classic novels?
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