We know not everybody’s incurably addicted to reading – though it’s a way of life we’d recommend! – and we know, too, that if you want to ease your way into books, it can be difficult to know where to start, with so many choices available; read the wrong one, and you might be put off once again. So we’ve compiled a short list of classic books both old and new that we think are clever and exciting and, above all, accessible.
John Steinbeck, The Red Pony (1933)
This is a group of linked stories about a ten year-old boy named Jody who lives on his father’s ranch in California (the pony in the title is called Gabilan); it’s a coming of age story that’s as absorbing as it is sad. It’s often bought for teenage boys, but really, nobody can go far wrong with Steinbeck. Like Westerns? You’ll love this. And later, try some Cormac McCarthy!
Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1985)
A coming-out and coming-of-age novel about a young girl in the North-West of England who’s raised by a mother who’s a Christian evangelist (and a wrestling fan). It’s sad, but also hilarious, and it’s partly based on the author’s own experiences, so if you get on well with this (and you will!) try Winterson’s later memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)
This caused no small degree of outrage when it was first serialized in 1890, so that Wilde included in the novel version a preface explaining his artistic intent; it’s not especially shocking now, but it’s still an excellent and easy read. Dorian sells his soul – in the form of a painting – in order to stay young and beautiful forever. While he’s partying down, his portrait grows older and more hideous reflecting every last hedonistic sin. If you like Wilde’s style, but fancy something less dark, try The Importance of Being Earnest – laughter guaranteed.
Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)
This is set in Georgia in the 1930s and tells the story of deaf-mute John Singer and four of his friends. It’s not a love story, despite the title, but a gripping tale of a crew of lonely misfits in the American South. The writing is simple, but poetic. If you like it, and fancy something longer, try some later Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath would fit the bill.
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)
You know the score here: Scrooge, three ghosts, Tiny Tim? Well, even if you’ve seen all the movies and the word ‘Dickens’ makes you think ‘very long books’, you’ve got to try it: Charles was a truly funny guy, even when the stories were sad, and the energy and wit in his writing will make you see the story afresh. After this, if you want something funny, try Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat.
S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders (1967)
One for the rebels: this is another coming-of-age story but this time set amongst the rival Oklahoma gangs of the Greasers and the Socs; fourteen year-old Ponyboy is jumped by the Socs and saved by his brothers Darrel and Sodapop, but trouble follows them as the violence escalates. Will Ponyboy get out? You better read the book… If you like it, try Louis Sachar’s Holes – also marketed at teens, but an excellent book for any age.
Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961)
The war novel to beat all war novels and the satire to beat all satires, this whopping, amazing, life-altering glory of a book will hook anyone who so much as tries the first page. It’s got a character called Major Major Major Major! It’s sharp and bitter and as funny as they come, and despite both the topic and the length, a really simple book to get into. If you want something more straight-laced, try Normal Mailer’s brilliant The Naked and the Dead.
Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (1920)
Set in upmarket 1870s New York, this is about a tense marriage and the scandalous cousin who threatens up upend everything – though it’s really about conformity and desire and betrayal: the stuff of soap operas. It’s got a lot of historical detail and it’s more dense than some of the titles above, but it’s full of savage wit and is well worth a little patience. Try Jane Austen for something similar but a little less intense.
William Golding, The Lord of the Flies (1954)
A boys’ adventure gone catastrophically wrong: when a group of British schoolboys crash-land on a deserted island their attempts to establish order amongst themselves soon descend into brutal tribalism and violence. Are we inherently good or evil? What happens when the rules are gone? After this, move onto Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange.
Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird (1960)
Two siblings, Scout and Jem Finch, live in the Deep South with a recluse neighbour, Boo, and a lawyer father, Atticus, who’s been tasked with the defense of a black man, Tom Robinson, who’s been accused of raping a white woman. It’s about inequality and understanding and tolerance and compassion and for all the heavy themes, it’s a really engaging read: Scout, the narrator, is unforgettable, and we all secretly want to grow up to be her dad, Atticus. This is Lee’s only novel to date, but it’s recently been announced that a new manuscript is to be published this year – so if you like this, just wait for that!
What books would you recommend to a nervous new reader?