How Many of These 50 Classics Have You Read?

How Many of These 50 Classics Have You Read?

Photo courtesy of Fertas via Shutterstock

By Guest Post

April 18, 2023

Research shows that reading fiction encourages empathy.

While more high school curriculums should include modern, diverse writers like Amy Tan and Malala Yousafzai, certain classics—like John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and Sandra Cisneros’ “The House on Mango Street”—endure.

Some even make a comeback.

George Orwell’s “1984,” a novel published in 1949 about a dystopian future where the government controls the truth, even surged to #6 on the bestseller list in January 2021, selling more than 24,000 copies following the insurrection in Washington D.C.

While books are ostensibly for anyone with a yearning to learn, sometimes parents, teachers, and school board officials disagree on what kids should or shouldn’t read.

The result of the push and pull between these groups then shapes the reading lists of millions across the country.

According to Pen America, 1,648 different books were banned in schools across the United States between July 2021 and June 2022. These bans affected 138 school districts in 32 states, impacting the books an estimated 4 million students were allowed to read.

The top three most frequently banned books were Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” George M. Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” and Ashley Hope Pérez’s “Out of Darkness.”

(Iowa is facing book bans of its own, including by state legislators.)

Certain books deserve a first, second, or maybe even a third read. Using data from Goodreads released in January 2023, Stacker compiled a list of 50 timeless books, plays, and epic poems commonly found on high school reading lists. A total of 1,194 voters picked the most essential reading required for students. The final ranking is based on Goodreads’ score, which considers multiple factors, including total votes each book received and how highly voters ranked each book.

Read on to see which classics made the list.

#50. Their Eyes Were Watching God

– Author: Zora Neale Hurston
– Score: 4,143
– Average rating: 3.97 (based on 316,337 ratings)

A coming-of-age story set in early 1900s Florida, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” tackles a multitude of issues: racism, sexism, segregation, poverty, and gender roles, among others. Initially overlooked upon its release, Zora Neale Hurston’s best-known work is now considered a modern American masterpiece thanks to work done in Black studies programs in the 1970s.

#49. Mythology

– Author: Edith Hamilton
– Score: 4,148
– Average rating: 4.02 (based on 52,213 ratings)

Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology” has been a standard of both reference and pleasure reading since its publication in 1942. The book was commissioned by an editor at the publisher Little, Brown and Company in 1939 to replace the outdated 1855 collection on the subject, “Bulfinch’s Mythology,” and it remains a popular choice for educating students on the subject today. At nearly 500 pages, this hefty tome covers all the classic Greek, Roman, and Norse myths in one place, from the journeys of Odysseus and the Trojan War to Cupid and Psyche.

#48. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou’s Autobiography, #1)

– Author: Maya Angelou
– Score: 4,153
– Average rating: 4.28 (based on 492,982 ratings)

In the first of her seven memoirs, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Maya Angelou speaks of her early life growing up in the South, including the abuse and racism she faced. Before this, Angelou was known as a poet but was encouraged to try her hand at long-form writing following a party she attended with the legendary James Baldwin. This book sold 1 million copies, was nominated for a National Book Award, and spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list.

#47. Oedipus Rex (The Theban Plays, #1)

– Author: Sophocles
– Score: 4,211
– Average rating: 3.72 (based on 200,721 ratings)

The tragic Greek play “Oedipus Rex” tells the shocking tale of King Oedipus, who unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. The work of Sophocles has inspired many others across disciplines, including Igor Stravinsky’s 1920s opera of the same name. Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic concept of the Oedipus complex, a theory that children are sexually attracted to their opposite-sex parent, also derived from this work.

#46. Moby-Dick or, the Whale

– Author: Herman Melville
– Score: 4,240
– Average rating: 3.53 (based on 528,908 ratings)

Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick or, the Whale”—the lengthy tale of a sea captain on the hunt for this great beast—was inspired by a real-life sperm whale attack that sank the Essex in 1820. Although the book sold less than 3,000 copies during Melville’s lifetime, it is now considered an American classic. In September 2022, one collector paid a whopping $327,600 to obtain an 1853 edition of the novel.

#45. The Pearl

– Author: John Steinbeck
– Score: 4,421
– Average rating: 3.51 (based on 218,730 ratings)

John Steinbeck’s “The Pearl” tells the story of Kino, a poor diver trying to support his family by gathering pearls from gulf beds. He is only barely scraping by until he happens upon a giant pearl. Kino thinks this discovery will finally provide him with the financial comfort and security he has been seeking, but it ultimately brings disaster. The story addresses the reader’s relationship to nature, the human need for connection, and the consequences of resisting injustice.

#44. The Importance of Being Earnest

– Author: Oscar Wilde
– Score: 4,540
– Average rating: 4.18 (based on 345,903 ratings)

This comedic play by Oscar Wilde takes a satiric look at Victorian social values while following two men—Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff—as they tell lies to bring some excitement to their lives. “The Importance of Being Earnest” was Wilde’s final play, and some consider it his masterpiece.

#43. The Red Badge of Courage

– Author: Stephen Crane
– Score: 4,752
– Average rating: 3.28 (based on 99,854 ratings)

In “The Red Badge of Courage,” Henry Fleming enlists in the Union Army, enticed by visions of glory. When the reality of war and battle sets in, Fleming retreats in fear. In the end, he faces his cowardice and rises to leadership. This American war novel was published in 1895 and is so authentic that it’s easy to believe the author—born after the Civil War ended—was himself a veteran.

#42. The Taming of the Shrew

– Author: William Shakespeare
– Score: 4,822
– Average rating: 3.77 (based on 164,742 ratings)

This five-act comedy tells the story of the courtship of the headstrong Katherine and the money-grubbing Petruchio, who is determined to subdue Katherine and make her his wife. After the wedding, Petruchio drags his new wife through the mud to their new home in the country. He proceeds to starve and deprive her of sleep to make his new bride submissive. The play, one of Shakespeare’s most popular, has been both criticized for its abusive and misogynistic attitude toward women and praised as a challenging view of how women are supposed to behave.

#41. Slaughterhouse-Five

– Author: Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
– Score: 4,858
– Average rating: 4.09 (based on 1,284,145 ratings)

In “Slaughterhouse-Five,” Kurt Vonnegut tells the story of Billy Pilgrim—based on a real American soldier—who is “unstuck in time.” He travels throughout the timeline of his life in a nonlinear fashion, forced to relive certain moments. He is first pulled out after he is drafted and captured in Germany during World War II. The book, which explores how humankind repeats history, has been banned or challenged in classrooms throughout the United States. It even landed in the Supreme Court in 1982 in Board of Education v. Pico, and the court held that banning the book violated the First Amendment.

#40. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

– Author: Mark Twain
– Score: 5,170
– Average rating: 3.92 (based on 879,567 ratings)

“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” takes place in the fictional town of St. Petersburg, Missouri, during the 1840s. Tom Sawyer and his friend Huck Finn witness a murder by Joe. After the boys stay silent, the wrong man is accused of the crime. When they flee, the whole town presumes them dead, and the boys end up attending their own funerals. Mark Twain’s portrayal of Sawyer and Finn challenges the idyllic American view of childhood, instead showing children as fallible human beings with imperfections like anyone else.

#39. Crime and Punishment

– Author: Fyodor Dostoevsky
– Score: 5,537
– Average rating: 4.25 (based on 798,073 ratings)

This Russian classic, published in 1886, tells the story of a former student named Rodion Raskolnikov, who is now impoverished and on the verge of mental instability. To get money—and to demonstrate his exceptionalness—he comes up with a murderous plan to kill a pawnbroker. Considered one of the first psychological novels, “Crime and Punishment” is also quite political as it explores the character’s pull toward liberal views and his rebellion against them.

#38. A Separate Peace

– Author: John Knowles
– Score: 5,561
– Average rating: 3.59 (based on 209,325 ratings)

In “A Separate Peace,” John Knowles explores the friendship of two young men—the quiet, intellectual Gene Forrester and his extroverted, athletic friend Finny. Gene lives vicariously through Finny, but his jealousy ultimately ends in tragedy after he commits a subtle act of violence. The book examines themes of envy and the need to achieve.

#37. Death of a Salesman

– Author: Arthur Miller
– Score: 6,178
– Average rating: 3.56 (based on 217,183 ratings)

Arthur Miller introduces readers to an aging Willy Loman, a traveling salesman nearing the end of his career. Loman decides he’s tired of driving for work and asks for an office job in New York City, believing he is vital to the company. His boss ends up firing him. Loman is also faced with the fact that his son, Biff, is not as successful in life as he had hoped.

Ultimately, Loman takes his own life so his son can have the insurance money to jump-start a better life. After his death, only Loman’s family attends his funeral. “Death of a Salesman” won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

#36. The Little Prince

– Author: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
– Score: 6,838
– Average rating: 4.32 (based on 1,871,036 ratings)

In “The Little Prince,” a pilot whose plane has crashed in the Sahara desert meets a young boy from outer space. The boy is traveling from planet to planet in search of friendship. On the boy’s home—an asteroid—he lived alone, accompanied only by a solitary rose. Once on Earth, the boy meets a wise fox who tells him he can only see clearly with his heart. The book’s somber themes of imagination and adulthood have resonated with children and adults alike since it was published—it is now one of the most translated books of all time.

#35. The Old Man and the Sea

– Author: Ernest Hemingway
– Score: 6,848
– Average rating: 3.80 (based on 1,036,482 ratings)

“The Old Man and the Sea” was Ernest Hemingway’s final major work. The story follows an old man who catches a large fish, only to have it eaten by sharks before he can get it back to shore. Although many may see symbolism about life and aging in the book, Hemingway said there wasn’t a deeper meaning in the prose.

#34. The Canterbury Tales

– Author: Geoffrey Chaucer
– Score: 6,904
– Average rating: 3.52 (based on 211,378 ratings)

“The Canterbury Tales,” written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century, was one of the first major works of English literature. The story follows a group of pilgrims who tell tales during their journey from London to Canterbury Cathedral. The cast of characters—including a carpenter, cook, and knight, among others—paints a varied picture of 14th-century society. The stories inspired the modern film “A Knight’s Tale,” starring Heath Ledger as a poor knight and Paul Bettany as Chaucer.

#33. Othello

– Author: William Shakespeare
– Score: 6,966
– Average rating: 3.89 (based on 363,620 ratings)

Shakespeare wrote “Othello” in the early 17th century. The play tells the tragic story of Othello, a Moor and general in the Venetian army; and Iago, a traitorous low-ranking officer. Shakespeare tackles themes of racism, betrayal, and jealousy. While he refers to Othello as “Black,” Shakespeare most likely meant he was darker-skinned than most Englishmen at the time and not necessarily of African descent.

#32. Flowers for Algernon

– Author: Daniel Keyes
– Score: 7,235
– Average rating: 4.18 (based on 597,740 ratings)

The main character in “Flowers for Algernon” is Charlie Gordon, a man of low intelligence who becomes a genius after undergoing an experimental procedure. The experiment has already been performed on a lab mouse named Algernon. Gordon’s intelligence opens his eyes to things he’s never understood before, but he eventually loses his newly acquired knowledge. The mouse, who Gordon remembers fondly, dies. Daniel Keyes wrote the book after realizing his education was causing a rift between him and his loved ones, making him wonder what it would be like if someone’s intelligence could be increased.

#31. Beowulf

– Author: Unknown
– Score: 7,844
– Average rating: 3.47 (based on 283,839 ratings)

“Beowulf” is an epic poem—an original manuscript copy is housed in the British Library—of 3,000 lines. It was written in Old English somewhere between A.D. 700 and 1000 and tells the story of Beowulf, a nobleman and warrior in Sweden who is sent to Denmark to fight a swamp monster called Grendel.

#30. A Tale of Two Cities

– Author: Charles Dickens
– Score: 8,085
– Average rating: 3.86 (based on 901,761 ratings)

“A Tale of Two Cities” famously starts: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Set in the late 1700s, Charles Dickens vividly writes about the time leading up to and during the French Revolution. The historical novel describes death and despair but also touches on themes of redemption.

#29. Wuthering Heights

– Author: Emily Brontë
– Score: 8,214
– Average rating: 3.88 (based on 1,651,158 ratings)

“Wuthering Heights,” published in 1847, was the first and only novel by Emily Brontë, who died a year later at 30. Brontë tells the tragic love story between Heathcliff, an orphan, and Catherine, his wealthy benefactor’s daughter. Considered a classic in English literature, the novel shows readers how passionate and destructive love can be.

#28. The Hobbit (The Lord of the Rings, #0)

– Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
– Score: 8,552
– Average rating: 4.28 (based on 3,583,681 ratings)

The Hobbit” is the story of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who sets off on a journey through the fictional world of Middle-earth in search of adventure and treasure. J.R.R. Tolkien originally wrote this book for his own kids, and it was an instant success in the children’s book market. It also grew a keen following with older readers alongside the release of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy in the 1960s, when it offered a great reprieve from the tumult of the times, and the big screen adaptation in the early 2000s.

#27. A Midsummer Night’s Dream

– Author: William Shakespeare
– Score: 8,974
– Average rating: 3.95 (based on 507,482 ratings)

Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” explores the theme of love. This comedy shows the events that surround the marriage of Theseus, the duke of Athens, to Hippolyta, a former Amazon queen. The play also shares the stories of several other lovers influenced by the fairies who live in the forest near the wedding. The play is a favorite for actors and audiences, even today.

#26. The Grapes of Wrath

– Author: John Steinbeck
– Score: 9,047
– Average rating: 3.99 (based on 852,960 ratings)

“The Grapes of Wrath” is considered a great American novel partly because it brought to light the destruction and despair caused by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. The story follows Tom Joad after he is released from prison to find his family’s Oklahoma farmstead empty and destroyed. Joad and his family later set off for a new life in California, only to face struggles along the way. The book, which focuses on hard work, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1940.

#25. Great Expectations

– Author: Charles Dickens
– Score: 9,647
– Average rating: 3.79 (based on 751,833 ratings)

This Charles Dickens classic tells the story of Pip, an orphan who gets a chance at a better life through an anonymous benefactor. The plot mostly centers around Pip’s regular visits to Miss Havisham, a wealthy recluse, and his love for her adopted daughter Estella, who is cold toward Pip until years later. Many consider the novel a great masterpiece.

#24. Frankenstein: The 1818 Text

– Author: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
– Score: 10,277
– Average rating: 3.85 (based on 1,435,457 ratings)

At just 20, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley created what is often labeled as the first science fiction novel: “Frankenstein.” While staying with a group of literary comrades, Lord Byron challenged his fellow writers to craft ghost stories. Shelley’s story was sparked by a nightmare that ultimately became the classic novel about a mad scientist who created a monster from the body parts of corpses, then brought the creature to life.

#23. Julius Caesar

– Author: William Shakespeare
– Score: 10,472
– Average rating: 3.70 (based on 191,622 ratings)

Shakespeare takes on history with “Julius Caesar,” a tragic story of power and betrayal. Brutus, who worked closely with Caesar, joined his fellow conspirators to assassinate Caesar to save the republic from a tyrannical leader. The events had the opposite effect when, only two years later, Caesar’s grandnephew was crowned the first emperor of Rome. The play marked a political shift in Shakespeare’s writing.

#22. The Outsiders

– Author: S.E. Hinton
– Score: 10,564
– Average rating: 4.12 (based on 1,193,939 ratings)

S.E. Hinton introduced readers to 14-year-old Ponyboy Curtis in “The Outsiders,” a novel she started to write when she was 16. The plot centers around two rival gangs: the lower-class Greasers and the well-off Socials. It touches on teen angst, including the frustrations young people have when they can’t rely on adults to change things while also not knowing how to fix things themselves. Hinton’s publishers encouraged her to publish under her initials because they didn’t think the public would respect a book about teenage boys by someone with the feminine name of Susan Eloise Hinton.

#21. Brave New World

– Author: Aldous Huxley
– Score: 10,853
– Average rating: 3.99 (based on 1,711,789 ratings)

In “Brave New World,” published in 1932, Aldous Huxley paints a picture of a dystopian future where people consume pills called soma to get a sense of instant bliss without side effects. Emotions, individuality, and lasting relationships aren’t allowed. A preordained class system is decided at the embryonic stage, with certain people getting hormones for peak mental and athletic fitness. Some historians believe the book’s plot could represent the future in the next 100 years.

#20. Night (The Night Trilogy, #1)

– Author: Elie Wiesel
– Score: 11,080
– Average rating: 4.36 (based on 1,150,070 ratings)

“Night,” the first in a trilogy of books, is the most well-known of the more than 50 works Elie Wiesel produced in his lifetime. In just over 100 pages, Wiesel recounts his experiences at the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps during the Holocaust—a history he felt compelled to share, as he stated in his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “Because, if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.” The impact of this book has only grown since its publication in 1956, with educators teaching the book in schools for decades and book sales soaring alongside current events, including Wiesel’s death in July 2016.

#19. The Crucible

– Author: Arthur Miller
– Score: 11,619
– Average rating: 3.60 (based on 380,466 ratings)

This 1953 play is a dramatized version of the Salem witch trials of the late 1600s. In the novel, a group of young girls are dancing in the forest; when caught, they fake illness and shift blame to avoid punishment. Their lies set off witchcraft accusations throughout the town. Arthur Miller wrote “The Crucible” to protest the actions of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who set up a committee in the early 1950s to investigate and prosecute the Communists he thought had infiltrated the government. It won the 1953 Tony Award for Best Play.

#18. The Giver (The Giver, #1)

– Author: Lois Lowry
– Score: 11,635
– Average rating: 4.13 (based on 2,238,142 ratings)

The Giver” is the dystopian tale of a boy chosen to hold one of the most difficult and important professions in his community—the keeper of all memories from the time before, including the pain and difficulties that have been erased from the seemingly utopian world around them. In 1994, Lois Lowry was awarded the Newbery Medal—a prestigious award for children’s literature in the United States—for the first installation of her book quartet. The book’s complicated themes of racism, religion, and politics lend themselves more to older readers, creating rich discussion in high school classrooms.

#17. Jane Eyre

– Author: Charlotte Brontë
– Score: 11,990
– Average rating: 4.14 (based on 1,941,542 ratings)

Charlotte Brontë—sister to Emily—speaks directly to the reader in “Jane Eyre.” The Victorian novel follows the headstrong Jane, an orphan who lives with her aunt and cousins, on her quest to find her identity and true love. The novel, marketed as an autobiography and published in 1847 under the pen name Currer Bell, is written in the first person and introduces “the concept of the self” in writing.

#16. Fahrenheit 451

– Author: Ray Bradbury
– Score: 12,468
– Average rating: 3.97 (based on 2,162,063 ratings)

Ray Bradbury describes a futuristic world where books are banned and burned. Guy Montag, one firefighter tasked with extinguishing the books, questions the practice. When Bradbury wrote the classic in the 1950s, television sets were becoming ubiquitous in American households. The theme of the book was a warning about how mass media could interfere with people’s ability or desire to think critically, a theme that many think resonates with the social media-obsessed world of today.

#15. Pride and Prejudice

– Author: Jane Austen
– Score: 13,486
– Average rating: 4.28 (based on 3,854,915 ratings)

Published in 1813, “Pride and Prejudice” was Jane Austen’s second novel. The story follows the will-they-won’t-they relationship between the wealthy Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, who comes from meager means. Throughout the chapters, both change for the better as they fall in love. The book has inspired at least a dozen or more movie and television adaptations.

#14. The Odyssey

– Author: Homer
– Score: 15,087
– Average rating: 3.79 (based on 1,001,633 ratings)

“The Odyssey,” a Greek epic poem, follows Odysseus as he travels back to the island of Ithaca after fighting in the war at Troy—something addressed in Homer’s poem “The Iliad.” When he returns home, he and his son, Telemachus, kill all the men trying to marry Odysseus’s wife, Penelope. In the end, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, victory, and war, intervenes. Like many Greek myths, it focuses on themes of love, courage, and revenge.

#13. The Diary of a Young Girl

– Author: Anne Frank
– Score: 15,739
– Average rating: 4.18 (based on 3,425,782 ratings)

In 1944, a young Anne Frank recorded her thoughts and feelings as she and other Jewish citizens hid from the German Nazis during World War II. The coming-of-age diary, which chronicles Frank’s time hiding in the Secret Annex while she became a young woman, has been translated into 70 languages. While she and most of her family were killed, her father survived and helped publish her work, making it possible for millions to learn her story.

#12. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

– Author: Mark Twain
– Score: 16,638
– Average rating: 3.83 (based on 1,228,955 ratings)

Huckleberry Finn is the main character in this follow-up novel to “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” The book explores themes of racism as Huck Finn floats down the Mississippi River with a man escaping slavery. Like Huck at the end of his tale, Twain changed his views on slavery and rejected it as an institution.

#11. 1984

– Author: George Orwell
– Score: 17,337
– Average rating: 4.19 (based on 4,095,733 ratings)

George Orwell describes a dystopian future rife with war and one where the government—led by Big Brother—controls the truth and snuffs out individual thought. The protagonist, Winston Smith, becomes disillusioned with the Party, and he rebels against it. Although it was published in 1949, the novel had a resurgence in 2017.

#10. The Scarlet Letter

– Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
– Score: 17,684
– Average rating: 3.43 (based on 814,235 ratings)

Nathaniel Hawthorne published “The Scarlet Letter” in 1850. In the novel, based on historical events, readers follow the story of Hester Prynne, a woman who is forced to wear a red “A” on her clothes after she conceives a child out of wedlock. She bears the punishment alone when she refuses to name the baby’s father. Her character marked one of the first where a strong woman was the protagonist. Hawthorne’s novel also touches on themes of hypocrisy, shame, guilt, and love.

#9. Hamlet

– Author: William Shakespeare
– Score: 19,419
– Average rating: 4.03 (based on 875,058 ratings)

Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, becomes vengeful after attending his father’s funeral, only to find his mother has remarried Claudius, his uncle. The stepfather crowns himself king, a role that should have gone to Hamlet. The prince finds out his father was murdered, after which he kills the new king. Ambiguity runs through the play and the character of Hamlet, whose visions of ghosts are up for interpretation—are they real or a figment of the troubled man’s imagination? The tragedy, which launched the famous line “To be, or not to be… ” shines a light on some of the worst traits of humanity. Some consider the play Shakespeare’s greatest work.

#8. The Catcher in the Rye

– Author: J.D. Salinger
– Score: 19,450
– Average rating: 3.81 (based on 3,262,066 ratings)

J.D. Salinger aptly captures teen angst in “The Catcher in the Rye” when the reader gets a look at three days in the life of its narrator, the 16-year-old Holden Caulfield. The book was an instant success, but some schools have banned it from their libraries and reading lists, citing vulgarity and sexual content.

#7. Of Mice and Men

– Author: John Steinbeck
– Score: 19,958
– Average rating: 3.88 (based on 2,350,603 ratings)

“Of Mice and Men” tells the story of George and his simple-minded friend Lennie. The two have to get new jobs on a ranch because of some trouble in Lennie’s past. The novel, set during the Great Depression, tackles topics of poverty, sexism, and racism.

#6. Macbeth

– Author: William Shakespeare
– Score: 21,256
– Average rating: 3.90 (based on 822,057 ratings)

Another Shakespeare classic, “Macbeth” portrays the weakness of humanity. The character of Macbeth receives a prophecy that he will one day become king of Scotland. His unchecked ambition ends in murder; Macbeth kills King Duncan to steal the throne for himself. It shows the destructive influence of political ambition and pursuing power for its own sake.

#5. Animal Farm

– Author: George Orwell
– Score: 22,478
– Average rating: 3.98 (based on 3,491,043 ratings)

A group of farm animals organizes a revolt after they realize their master, Mr. Jones, is mistreating them and offering them nothing in return for their work. When they challenge the leadership, they are disciplined for speaking out. This classic isn’t about animal rights. It is a larger critique of Soviet Communism. Orwell wrote it as an attack against Stalinism in Russia.

#4. Lord of the Flies

– Author: William Golding
– Score: 24,079
– Average rating: 3.69 (based on 2,692,219 ratings)

“Lord of the Flies” tells the alarming story of a group of young boys who survive a plane crash, only to descend into tribalism on the island where they landed. Two of the boys—Ralph and Jack—clash in their pursuit of leadership. The novel, which has been challenged in schools, shows how struggles for power based on fear and division can result in a collapse of social order, themes that might seem relevant in the current fraught political climate.

#3. The Great Gatsby

– Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
– Score: 29,912
– Average rating: 3.93 (based on 4,737,607 ratings)

Nick Carraway, a Midwest transplant and Yale graduate, moves to West Egg, Long Island, and enters a world of extravagance when he becomes entangled with millionaire Jay Gatsby and socialite Daisy Buchanan. The novel is viewed as a cautionary tale about achieving the American dream of wealth and excess.

#2. Romeo and Juliet

– Author: William Shakespeare
– Score: 34,901
– Average rating: 3.74 (based on 2,430,511 ratings)

Two star-crossed lovers meet and perish in this tragedy. Juliet, a Capulet, falls in love with Romeo, a Montague. Because their families are rivals, they are forbidden to marry. They secretly wed before misfortune leads to their deaths. Losing their children inspires peace among the families. Some critics claim the play’s childish view of love hasn’t stood the test of time, but others think the story is multilayered and deserves its classic status.

#1. To Kill a Mockingbird

– Author: Harper Lee
– Score: 44,390
– Average rating: 4.27 (based on 5,584,470 ratings)

Harper Lee’s first novel, published in 1960, tackles issues of racial and social injustice in the South. Set in Alabama, it introduces readers to Atticus Finch, a lawyer who defends a Black man accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. The point-of-view comes from Atticcus’ daughter, Scout, while Boo Radley, their reclusive neighbor, adds another dimension to this classic story of racism and childhood. Lee’s work won her a Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Because of some racial language, the book has been challenged in many schools throughout America.

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