How to get into classic books

I've never read a classic book. Where should I start?

It very much depends on your own tastes. Here at White Chapter, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland is a particular favourite - reading it for the first time, you'll discover the origins of so many quotes and characters you never realised you knew. You'll also discover that, although it might look like a book of nonsense (and it is), almost every sentence is more than it seems. Lewis Carroll was a logician and mathematician, and he littered the books with layers of meanings you might not pick up on until your second, third or fourth read. In fact, there are so many intricacies to Alice’s adventures that Martin Gardner compiled them into the excellent Annotated Alice, which we highly recommend for avid Alice fans (a new deluxe edition was published in 2016 for Alice’s 150th anniversary, complete with an array of new illustrations and annotations to decode Carroll’s ingenious wordplays). If you fancy taking a trip down the rabbit-hole, it’s worth noting that Alice in Wonderland comprises two books: start with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, then head Through the Looking-Glass if you haven’t quite got your fill of nonsense. They’re both great.

Alice in Wonderland - Cheshire Cat

If you’re looking for something a little more high-brow, then look no further than Charles Dickens. An author that needs no introduction, he’s perhaps more famous than the array of books he wrote. Now, you may think works from the master of classic fiction will be difficult to get into, full of Victorianisms and anachronistic language. In fact, Dickens’ style is quite the opposite: surprisingly accessible, still relevant today and, in fact, often quite humorous. The man has so many classics to choose from you can’t really go wrong, from the ever-loved and much-adapted Oliver Twist (we’ll forgive you for skipping it if you at least watch the Academy Award-winning 1968 film, because we love it) to the “veiled autobiography” that is David Copperfield (widely regarded as Dickens’ favourite of his own works). If it’s getting near Christmas and you fancy a ghost story, or a lesson in how to embrace the festive period, A Christmas Carol tells the tale of Scrooge and his visits from the Ghosts of Christmas. Or you could dive straight in to some historical fiction with A Tale of Two Cities, which features perhaps the most famous opening line of all time (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”). But, if we had to give one Charles Dickens recommendation, it would be Great Expectations, a story that covers pretty much every Dickensian base – including orphans, criminals, moral redemption and social critique – and is a perfect introduction to the colourful characters that make every Dickens novel unique.

Despite the near-universal acclaim that Dickens’ novels achieved, not everyone was a fan. One of his most notable critics was Oscar Wilde, a man almost as controversial as his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. He criticised Dickens for a lack of psychological depth, and to his credit this is where Oscar Wilde’s book really shines – the inner workings of his characters’ minds are as enjoyable as the plot itself, and pretty much everything said by Dorian’s hedonistic mentor Lord Henry is a great paradoxical quote in itself (“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”). The story follows Dorian’s decadent pursuit of carnal, libertine pleasures, having sold his soul to stay forever young while his portrait ages with every new dose of immorality. The original was heavily censored after the editor deemed it too controversial, so it’s a great place to start if you want to dive in to the Victorian mindset and be offended / have your eyes opened, depending on your stance. And if you’re interested in the fascinating mind of Oscar Wilde, the novel provides an unrivalled insight: the author was well-known for being a proponent of aestheticism and he moved in all the most fashionable social circles of his day – before being imprisoned for “gross indecency with men” and dying in poverty and exile.

If your preferences are for love and morality rather than decadence and hedonism, there’s no better place to start than Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen’s classic continually bounces around the upper reaches of the “most loved books” lists, and for very good reason. It’s accessible, relevant and – let’s face it – we all want to have a Mr. Darcy or Elizabeth Bennet in our lives. The story follows the change in sentiments each has for the other, and it will take Mr. Darcy overcoming his pride and Elizabeth putting aside her prejudice in order for their relationship to blossom. Since publication in 1813 the novel has been adapted for film and TV countless times, with Keira Knightley giving an Oscar-nominated performance of Elizabeth in one adaptation and Colin Firth proving to be a popular Mr. Darcy in another.

Of course, you might be of the sort that needs a little more action in a story. If that’s the case, Robert Louis Stevenson is your man. Treasure Island is a swashbuckling adventure full of pirates, intrigue and – believe it or not – treasure. The language may be a little archaic, but hey, they’re pirates – what did you expect? If anything, the style of the prose helps throw you headlong into the buccaneer world in much the same way Jim Hawkins is suddenly embroiled upon his discovery of the treasure map. The story follows his pursuit of the treasure, with the nefarious Long John Silver as a companion, and through reading it you can discover the origins of many classic pirate tropes that still pervade popular culture today, from “X marks the spot” to pirates with a wooden leg and a parrot on their shoulder. It was originally written as a young adult novel, but this doesn’t detract from its appeal, and may in fact make it more accessible to a modern reader.

Treasure Island - Jim Hawkins in Barrel

However, if you want something a bit darker and more "adult", Robert Louis Stevenson still has your back – we recommend The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Being a novella it’s a bit shorter than Treasure Island, and you could easily fly through its 100-or-so pages in an evening. Not only is it a great introduction to the Gothic genre, it’s also particularly interesting to see the origin of a character that has been popularised by Hollywood; the hulking, grotesque depictions of Mr Hyde in film and TV make it all the more fascinating to read the original depiction of Dr Jekyll’s sinister alter ego.

And if Dr Jekyll’s penchant for the macabre unearths in you a taste for the Gothic, there are two clear options for your next stop: the Transylvanian castle of Count Dracula, or the ominous laboratory of Dr Frankenstein. Bram Stoker’s vampiric classic is about twice the length of Mary Shelley’s grimly romantic tale, but it is written in the style of journal entries by the story’s protagonists so is very easy to get engrossed in. Alternatively, if you fancy a quick injection of Gothic horror, take any of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories – most can be read in under ten minutes, and the “Master of the Macabre” really knows how to give you that creeping sense of dread. We recommend The Tell-Tale Heart for a chilling dose of madness and paranoia.

Finally, if you’re really feeling up for a challenge – if you want to jump into some of the deepest depths of classic literature – then take the plunge with Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Just to be clear, we’re not recommending you start with this. This behemoth isn’t for the faint-hearted, and it will suck weeks out of your life. But it will really deliver along the way. At over 655,000 words, it’s one of the longest novels ever written, but it’s also hailed as one of the greatest. If you’ve climbed its mountain of pages and lived to tell the tale, you should count that as an achievement in itself – and we’d love to hear your thoughts with a comment below!

The above recommendations are very much a jumping off point. They are the novels that we think are the most accessible, relevant and engaging to the modern reader, and finishing each one will open the door to a world of classic books just waiting to be digested. All of the above books are available to read for free on Kindle or via a Google search, and you can check out many of them in our Chapter collections here.

We’d love to hear your own opinions on the above classics, and if you have any others that you think are a great place to get started then please share them below!

Leave a comment