I recently bought two huge bookshelves, and I’ve spent the last couple weeks mired in the task of stocking them (bye-bye, random-piles-of-books-in-every-corner-of-my-house!). I had a stab at a few different organisational systems; I salivate over the gorgeous rainbow arrangements I see on bookstagram, but ultimately I had to stick with alphabetical by author surname. The ways of a library-lover never really leave us! Still, the process got me wondering, in my organisational fugue state, whether I could pull together a list of classic books for every letter of the alphabet, by title.
It was a fun little challenge that niggled at the back of my mind until I sat down and gave it a go. I couldn’t even cheat by searching the gorgeous Penguin Drop Caps editions, because they’re all coded by author. I found the first fifteen or so quite easy, but it got harder and harder after I locked in all the “easy” letters. Finding the last three were absolute torture! But I got there in the end, and that’s what matters. Here’s the final result, an A-Z list of classic books: a classic read for every letter of the alphabet!
A: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Why not start off with some lighthearted fun? Most people my age are familiar with the Disney cartoon version, but I highly recommend checking out the original book. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland is full of really clever wordplay that you can only truly appreciate when you see it on the page. Plus, the nostalgic kick you’ll get out of it is second to none!
B: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Now, let’s plunge into some classic dystopian fiction. Brave New World depicts Huxley’s imagined future, where the world population is separated into castes, controlled with drugs and sex, and one man tries to break free… with tragic results. Dystopian fiction is really having A Moment, so it’s a great time to revisit this one!
C: Clarissa by Samuel Richardson
In its full form, Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady is literally one of the longest novels in the English language (going by estimated word-count). Luckily, I managed to pick up an abridged edition to read for Keeping Up With The Penguins (my review coming soon!). Phew! From what I know so far, it’s an epistolary novel about a young heroine and her rotten family.
D: Dracula by Bram Stoker
This letter is another epistolary novel, but one significantly more spooky! Stoker didn’t write the first vampire novel, but Dracula is definitely the most enduring of the genre. In it, a young doctor finds himself the house-guest-slash-prisoner of a creepy count, and he has to gather a band of friends to save his wife from falling into the guy’s evil clutches…
E: Emma by Jane Austen
Austen referred to Emma as her heroine that no one but her would like very much, but she didn’t count on the subsequent generations of fans who love and adore this subtle social satire. Emma was rich, beautiful, and a touch self-absorbed, but she also loved her friends and family, and she didn’t succumb to the social pressure to marry until she was sure she found the right bloke. Sounds like an admirable heroine to me!
F: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Frankenstein is the grand-daddy of science fiction, the first novel where the “monster” was not born of fantasy but of man’s own scientific experiments. And, of course, the story behind the story is perhaps the best part: Mary Shelley was on holiday with her husband and Lord Byron, and she wanted to win a bet by coming up with the scariest story. She was just a teenager at the time!
G: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
Don’t let the movie adaptations fool you, Gulliver’s Travels is hardly for kids! It’s actually a searing social commentary, and a deeply complex and layered one at that. Swift covers everything from religion to politics to economics to philosophy, and it was very controversial in its time for the bleak conclusion he reached about the nature of humanity.
H: Heidi by Johanna Spyri
Heidi’s original subtitle described it as a book “for children, and those who love children” – turns out there are plenty of those! It has gone on to become one of the best-selling books ever written. It’s certainly one of the best-known works of Swiss literature. It’s the heart-warming story of a young girl who lives with her grandfather in the Swiss Alps.
I: In Search Of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
You could probably spend a lifetime studying In Search Of Lost Time (sometimes translated as Remembrance Of Things Past, which is a prettier title, but I already had a book for “R”), and still struggle to summarise its seven volumes into just a sentence or two… so I won’t even try. Rest assured, Proust can be a bummer, but this magnum opus is comprehensive and life-changing and at least worth a look.
J: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
For a while, Charlotte was the shining jewel in the Brontë family crown. She was described as the “first historian of personal consciousness” for her incredible talent in depicting a character’s internal world, particularly that of Jane Eyre. While poor Charlotte has fallen a little out of favour, now often overlooked for her also-wildly-talented sisters, I still count this classic book among my all-time favourite reads.
K: Kim by Rudyard Kipling
While Kipling is probably better known for his poetry and his children’s stories (like The Jungle Book), he also painted an incredible portrait of India in Kim. Against that stunning backdrop, he tells the story of a young orphan boy who follows a spiritual master, but somehow finds himself swept up in a world of military espionage, and has to extricate himself to pursue his spiritual life.
L: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
“A moral book for girls”, Alcott’s publishers demanded of her, and she delivered… but not without her own cleverly-veiled barbs and controversial life lessons contained therein. Little Women, for too long, was excluded from the American literary canon, written off as schmaltzy crap, but it’s finally getting its moment in the sun and the recognition it deserves. A brilliant book!
M: Moby Dick by Herman Melville
This book is, ironically, many a reader’s white whale. Like its titular leviathan, it is huge, it is unwieldy, and you must follow it to places you’d never expect or imagine. While I completely understand it’s a slog to get through, there’s also a certain magical quality about Moby Dick for me. Being as long and as complex as it is, you’ll find something new and different inside every time you pick it up. Be brave, give it a go, and maybe it won’t be as bad as you think (or, at least, the slog will be worth it!).
N: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is an incredible mid-19th century memoir by former slave Frederick Douglass, generally held to be the most famous such work of that period. It serves as an incredible treatise on abolition as well as a beautiful account of an enslaved man’s ambitions for freedom.
O: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
A typically-cheerful Dickens novel, Oliver Twist is about the life of a young boy, born in a workhouse and sold into an apprenticeship with an undertaker. When he reaches London, he falls in with a gang of juvenile delinquents, and that’s where his adventures really begin… It was Dickens’s second novel, and it’s wonderful to see his signature style emerge through these pages.
P: Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen
Yes, Austen features twice in this list, because if there’s a book that’s synonymous with the words “classic English literature” in the minds of most readers, it’s this one: Pride And Prejudice. The romance of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy has become so pervasive in pop-culture that it’s now considered archetypal, and even those who haven’t (yet!) read this book can recognise its features.
Q: Queen Victoria by Lytton Strachey
This is the original and definitive biography of one of Britain’s longest-serving monarchs. Queen Victoria probably had more influence on our lives today than you and I would know, were it not for classic portraits of her life and rule, like this one. She’s been an object of fascination for a long time (since her birth, really, in 1819), and many books have been written about her, but almost all of them inevitably refer back to this one as a source text.
R: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Have you ever dreamed of sailing away to a desert island, and living out the rest of your life alone with the beach views? Well, try living vicariously through Robinson Crusoe and you’ll soon think twice: that castaway life ain’t all beer and skittles! This is widely considered to be one of the first – if not the first – novels of the English language, and it’s still in heavy circulation today.
S: Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Yes, Stevenson deliberately omitted the preposition (“The”) from the original book title, which means technically this one counts for S! Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was the prototype for the niche-sub-genre of “doppelgänger lit”, and while it’s short, it packs one hell of a punch. It’s worth picking this one up if only to find out where the idiom of being a “Jekyll and Hyde character” comes from… (and you can read about more literary origins of idioms here, too!).
Fine, if you’re going to insist that it doesn’t count, because most contemporary editions include the preposition, how about Sandition by Jane Austen?
T: Tess of the D’urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Here’s another classic that was underappreciated in its time (I swear, they all were, almost!). Tess of the D’urbervilles wasn’t published in full for many years; the first editions that appeared in the late 1800s were highly sanitised and censored. Luckily, today we get to enjoy it in its full filthy glory, the story of a young woman forced (by poverty) to seek out her rich relatives and try to stake a claim on part of their fortune.
U: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
President Abraham Lincoln once met Harriet Beecher Stowe, and asked her if she was the “little lady” who had “caused so much trouble”. He was referring, of course, to this incredible book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which fanned the fires of the abolitionist movement in American, and (ultimately) the Civil War that ended legally-sanctioned slavery in the South.
V: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
“A novel without a hero” proclaims the cover page, and indeed, there are very few likeable characters in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. While rambling and meandering at times, it mostly follows the lives of two dichotomous young women, the saintly martyr-slash-doormat Amelia Sedley, and the mischievous calculating Becky Sharp. Guess whose side I’m on…!
W: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
If all you know of the love story of Cathy and Heathcliff has been drawn from the Kate Bush song, you’re missing out! Wuthering Heights is dark, weird, gothic, and confronting, but also incredibly layered and scarily realistic at times. Come for the “great romance” of the love song, stay for the stark Brontë vision of the darkness that stirs within us all…
X: Xantippe and Other Verse by Amy Levy
They said it couldn’t be done, but I did it! I found a classic book for “X”! It’s perhaps not as well known as the others on this list, it’s barely in circulation, and technically Xantippe is a poetry collection, but it counts! The title poem, Xantippe, is an imagined monologue from Socrates’ wife as she lay on her death bed. It’s the star of the show, and well worth checking out for that reason alone…
Y: Yeşil Gece by Reşat Nuri Güntekin
Yeşil Gece is a story told against the backdrop of the Turkish War of Independence, and the formation of the Turkish Republic, a beautifully evocative setting. A devoutly Muslim man sends his son, Şahin (the protagonist), to a nearby Islamic school, where he starts causing trouble and openly rebelling, spouting secularist ideals. It’s a startlingly relevant read, nearly a hundred years after its initial publication.
Z: Zaynab by Muhammad Husayn Haykal
Zaynab was first published in 1913, and is now widely considered to be the first modern Egyptian novel. A beautiful young peasant girl, Zaynab, is the object of three different men’s affections: a plantation owner’s son, a peasant foreman, and the man destined to become her groom in an arranged marriage. As I’m sure you can imagine, romantic misadventures abound…
Are there any you’d like to add? Let’s see if we can get up to two per letter! Drop your suggestions in the comments below (or share them over at KUWTP on Facebook!).
Are you a chronic alphabetiser, too? Find out what that says about you in my post on bookshelves as personality types.