There’s a real musty feeling to some old books, where the writing is as caked in dust as an ancient hardcover. But some old books still feel new. I asked well-known literary figures and critics to recommend one surprisingly fresh classic book—a book that’s lively, accessible, or relevant today. And because most of these books are in the public domain, you can read them for free or cheap.
All links in these quoted recommendations are added by Lifehacker. The text has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jenny Offill, author of Dept. of Speculation:
Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier was written in 1915 and has one of the boldest and best opening lines ever: “This is the saddest story ever told.”
I’d say read it for that alone, but it also has surprising narrative and emotional momentum. What makes the novel feel modern to me after all these years is how impressionistic it is and how you must constantly recalibrate your ideas about the narrator of the story. At first, it seems like a straightforward realistic novel, but Ford was interested in doing something stranger than that.
Branka Arsić, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University:
Definitely Moby-Dick. It is one of those “absolute” books, something like a secular Bible, in which one can find so much of consequence for thinking about various historical moments and contexts. But it is especially relevant in this historical context, where democracy is facing the danger of slipping into totalitarianism.
Betsy’s Wedding, by Maud Hart Lovelace! It’s the last of the Betsy-Tacy books, and is basically an after the Happily Ever After—Betsy and Joe have been on-and-off sweethearts all through high school and college, broke up and finally reconciled in a VERY romantic way just as World War I broke out in Europe, and they get married at the beginning of the book.
And then…they have to figure out how to live together, how to both have writing careers, how to deal with ups and downs and mood swings and family responsibilities and disappointments, and with the exception of some rigid gender roles, so much of it is completely relevant and fresh today!
Maris Kreizman, critic and host of The Maris Review:
Of Human Bondage by W Somerset Maugham. I want the first review on Goodreads to speak for the book:
Abigail Endler, crime fiction critic at Crime by the Book:
Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is my pick! This ingenious mystery novel delivers a puzzle that will stump even the most committed Law & Order fan. There are no bells and whistles here, just the author’s sharp wit and sharper plotting.
Robin Sloan, author of Sourdough and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore:
I think Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, first published in 1901, deserves a wider 21st-century readership. You don’t need me to tell you about the problems with Kipling, but/and no writer is a monolith, nor is any novel. It’s worth it to navigate Kim’s landmines in order to reach the rollicking, pluralistic road-trip adventure at its heart.
As a not-insignificant bonus, Kim is an acknowledged inspiration for Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series; he calls Kim a “book that never fails.” If you’re a fan of Lyra Belacqua—and you ought to be—you’ll find her prefigured in Kim.
Julia Pierpont, author of Among the Ten Thousand Things:
Anything by E. M. Forster: Even his less beloved novels are so rich with his humor and wicked observations. Howards End is his greatest, but in The Longest Journey, he describes a young man with the “figure of a Greek athlete and the face of an English one” like so: “Just where he began to be beautiful the clothes started.” I read it years ago, and I must think about that line at least once a month.
Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey: One of my dearest friends told me last year that she was done with Austen because her romances were antiquated and problematic for women. I pressed her and it came out that she was really talking about the film adaptations. The films in some way do a disservice because they can’t include what’s so sharp about her writing. Northanger Abbey is a good place to start for the skeptic because it’s openly satirical.