The Classics Every 20-Something Needs To Read

by Charlotte Ahlin
Hannah Burton for Bustle

No one likes being told that they need to read something. Whether it's your eighth grade teacher handing you Great Expectations, your mom re-gifting you Eat, Pray, Love, or your best friend tearfully begging you to finally try Harry Potter, that feeling of obligation can just suck all the fun out of the reading experience. You only have so many reading hours in a day, and you should read what makes you happy. With that said... you need to read these books. Not just so you can sound well read at parties, or so you can better explain why all of western literature is vastly overrated (although both of those things are a plus). You need to read these classics because they are genuinely great, and your life will be better for it.

Now, I can understand if you feel like a lot of the "high school English class" books have just been done to death at this point. And it's true that a lot of the "classics" tend towards a pretty narrow worldview (spoiler alert: a lot of them were written by straight white men). But, for all of their flaws, there's a reason that these books have stood the test of time. There's a reason that people return to them, year after year, for comfort and beauty and a commentary on the human condition. Here are a few classics that you need to read, if you haven't already:


'One Hundred Years of Solitude' by Gabriel García Márquez

It's difficult to sum up One Hundred Years of Solitude in just a couple of sentences. Sure, it's about the rise and fall of one family and one town. But it's also about love, lust, death, revolution, beauty, storms of flowers, and all the other odd, semi-real details that make up a human life. Only Márquez can make you feel like you're gaining lifetimes of experience with every single page.

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'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Yes, you've been to a Great Gatsby party, but have you actually sat down and read the book since ninth grade? The Great Gatsby is more than just a stylish book about rich people, full of hidden sex scenes. It grapples with the promise of the American dream, and the entirely impossible, very human desire to go back to a fictional, "greater" time.

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'Beloved' by Toni Morrison

Beloved is perhaps the greatest American horror story every written. It is the story of Sethe, a woman who escaped slavery, but who is now haunted by the vengeful ghost of her infant daughter. Morrison's writing is simply a force of nature; to read Beloved is to fully, viscerally experience the horror and the haunted beauty of Sethe's life from beginning to end.

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'Jane Eyre' by Charlotte Brontë

Yeah, yeah, you probably already know about the "secret attic wife" reveal, and yes, Mr. Rochester and Jane don't exactly model the healthiest of relationships. But Jane Eyre still holds up as one of the greatest coming-of-age stories of all time: a young woman (and a deeply entertaining narrator) learns confidence and self-reliance, and only returns to her boyfriend once she's figured herself out.

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'The Odyssey' by Homer

This is it — the ultimate classic. It just doesn't get much more classic than The Odyssey, since it's the kernel of the "hero's journey" that so much of our literature is based on. And if that's not enough for you, it still stands as a zany road trip full of monsters, swashbuckling adventure, and sexy nymphs.

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'Pride and Prejudice' by Jane Austen

If The Odyssey is the basis of almost all modern literature, then Pride and Prejudice might be the basis of all rom-coms. It's the ultimate comedy of manners, the definitive romance, and one of the most popular novels of all time.

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'The Harry Potter Series' by J.K. Rowling

Pout all you want, but I'm going to maintain that the Harry Potter series is a modern classic and a must-read if you have even the most fleeting desire to participate in 21st century society. If you haven't read these books yet, you're not impressing anyone. Give it a try. There's a reason that everyone loves these books, and they are an integral part of our collective, cultural mythology.

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'Slaughterhouse-Five' by Kurt Vonnegut

Yes, I'm going to put this relatively short book about aliens on your list of "need to read" classics. Vonnegut always resented being stuck on the sci-fi shelf, and his story of time, war, and the nature of human experience definitely transcends any preconceived notions you have about what a science fiction story can be. There are few war novels are funny or as utterly affecting as Slaughterhouse-Five.

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'Hamlet' by William Shakespeare

Hamlet is probably best known for being about a guy who briefly talks to a skull. But give the play a chance, and (as long as you're reading a version with footnotes), you'll find that there is a lot more going on here. Hamlet is about nothing less than the human psyche, as the titular emo prince struggles to decide between taking revenge and going back to grad school. Those monologues may sound daunting at first, but take them one word at a time, and I guarantee you'll start to recognize all the thoughts and fears and questions that plague your own mind, too.

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