There’s a real musty feeling to some old books, where the writing is as dusty as an old hardcover. But some old books still seem new. I asked well-known literary figures and critics to recommend a surprisingly fresh classic – one that’s alive, accessible, or relevant today. And because most of these books are in the public domain, you can read them for free or at low cost.
All links in these cited recommendations are added by Lifehacker. The text has been slightly edited for clarity.
Jenny Offill, author of Speculation Department:
Ford Madox Ford The good soldier was written in 1915 and has one of the boldest and best opening lines of all time: “This is the saddest story ever told.”
I’d say it should be read for that alone, but it also has surprising narrative and emotional momentum. What makes the novel modern for me after all these years is how impressionistic it is and how you constantly have to recalibrate your ideas about the story’s narrator. At first it looks like a straightforward realistic novel, but Ford was interested in doing something stranger than that.
Branka ArsicProfessor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University:
Definitively Moby-Dick. It is one of those “absolute” books, something like a secular Bible, in which one can find so many consequences to reflect on various historical moments and contexts. But it is particularly relevant in this historical context, where democracy is in danger of descending into totalitarianism.
Jasmine Guillory, author of The date of the wedding, Proposaland The wedding party:
Betsy’s wedding, by Maud Hart Lovelace! It’s the last of Betsy-Tacy’s booksand is basically one after the Happily Ever After—Betsy and Joe were on-and-off lovers throughout high school and college, broke up, and finally reconciled in a VERY romantic way just when World War I broke out in Europe, and they get married at the start of the book.
And then…they have to figure out how to live together, how to both have a writing career, how to deal with ups and downs, mood swings, family responsibilities and disappointments, and except for some rigid gender roles, so totally relevant and fresh today!
Maris Kreizman, critic and host of The Maris magazine:
of human servitude by W Somerset Maugham. I want the first review on Goodreads to speak for the book:
Abigail Endler, crime novel critic at Crime by the Book:
Agatha Christie And then there was no more is my choice! This ingenious mystery novel delivers a puzzle that will amaze even the most committed Law and order fan. There are no bells and whistles here, just the author’s sharp wit and sharper plot.
Robin Sloan, author of Leaven and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore:
I think of Rudyard Kipling Kim, first published in 1901, deserves a wider readership in the 21st century. You don’t need me to tell you about problems with Kipling, but/and no writer is a monolith, nor any novel. Worth browsing Kim‘s landmines in order to achieve the exuberant and pluralistic road-trip adventure at its heart.
As a significant bonus, Kim is a recognized inspiration for Philip Pullman Its dark materials series; he calls Kim a “book that never fails”. If you’re a fan of Lyra Belacqua – and you should be – you’ll find her prefigured in Kim.
Julia Pierpont, author of Among the ten thousand things:
All by EM Forster: Even his least beloved novels are so rich in his humor and perverse observations. End Howards is his biggest, but in The longest journey, he describes a young man with “the figure of a Greek athlete and the face of an English athlete”: “That’s where he started to look good when the clothes started. I read it years ago, and I have to think about it at least once a month.
by Jane Austen 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 movies kind of do a disservice because they can’t include what’s so sharp about his writing. Northanger Abbey is a good starting point for the skeptic as it is openly satirical.