This is part of a project to create themed reading lists.
The aim of this list is to make "classic" novels (whatever we mean by that) a bit more approachable for readers who are just dipping a toe in the water. We don't need to create yet another comprehensive list of books everyone should have read: it's rather a question of providing a few starting points in different categories with a very short explanation of what they are all about.
Please feel free to add to this list or create new categories within it! To avoid things getting out of hand, maybe we should arbitrarily limit "classics" to novels published before 1960.
 British novels
 20th century
- D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930) - Lawrence was a miner's son from a Nottinghamshire pit village. He became something of a posthumous cult figure in the 1960s because of his fascination with sex, but his novels are also very interesting for what they tell us about social class and working-class life in early-20th century England.
- Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) - Polish-born sea captain who became one of the greatest English novelists of his time
 19th century
- Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) - Hardy's novels are set mostly in agricultural communities in the south-west of England. The characters are shepherds, farmers, milkmaids, and stonemasons, and we get a lot of detailed description of traditional rural life, but the plots are often taken from Greek tragedy.
- George Eliot (1819–1880) - actually a woman, despite the name: she was one of the most intellectual of the English Victorian novelists, and you might find her novels hard going at first, but it's well worth the effort if you want to get to grips with what the Victorians thought.
- Middlemarch (1872) - a study of a small English town around the beginning of the railway age, with a group of characters trying to get to grips with the social and intellectual changes going on around them. Long, but rewarding.
- Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) - Grew up with her sisters in a Yorkshire parsonage; between them they established that it was OK for fiction to involve passion and heart-fluttering as well as ironic detachment.
- Jane Eyre (1847) - So, you think the school you went to was bad? Jane survives the appalling Lowood School and goes to work for the dishy Mr Rochester. But there's something he hasn't told her about...
- Charles Dickens (1812-1870) - A popular novelist in every sense: his novels were written for ordinary people to enjoy. Both the comedy and the sentimentality can seem a bit overdone sometimes to modern readers, but the characters are unforgettable.
- Great Expectations (1860) - Young Pip has a memorable encounter with an escaped convict; Miss Haversham missed out on a wedding. Probably the best place to start with Dickens.
- David Copperfield (1850) - autobiographical novel, worth it for Mr Micawber, Uriah Heap, and Mr Dick, but gets very weepy in places.
- The Pickwick Papers (1837) - Dickens's first success, a loose, formless, but very enjoyable romp through England in the closing years of the stagecoach era.
- Jane Austen (1775-1818) - Probably the most approachable "classic" novelist for many modern readers, her novels are sharply-observed domestic comedies with romantic plots, in many ways the ancestors of modern chick-lit. Enjoyed by men as well as women for her wonderful barbed wit.
- Pride and Prejudice -Austen's most famous novel, and the obvious starting-point if you haven't read it yet.
- Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) - the novelist whose huge popularity in the 19th century effectively started the Scottish tourist industry. Somewhat out of fashion nowadays, but his historical novels are still entertaining and readable. There's much more to Scott than just tartan and bagpipes.
- Ivanhoe (1819) - Scott didn't put as much historical research into this medieval romp as into his more serious novels of the 17th and 18th centuries, but it's great fun if you like knights, tournaments, castles, fair maidens and bad barons. Oh, and Robin Hood as well!
- The Heart of Mid-Lothian (1818) - a crime story full of legal, political and psychological complexities, set in Edinburgh at the time of the Porteous riots (1736)
- Waverley (1814) - The first real historical novel; Scott tries to show us how a young Englishman caught up in the 1745 rising in Scotland would have seen the world.
 18th century and earlier
- Henry Fielding (1707-1754) - a very respectable London magistrate: his writing promoted the idea of the novel as an art-form.
- Tom Jones (1749) - baby Tom is left, mysteriously, in the squire's bed. Despite many complicated and often very funny misadventures, he somehow finds his way to happiness and fortune.
- Daniel Defoe (1670-1731) - Merchant, traveller, political pamphleteer who was always getting into trouble, Londoner, Defoe was a pioneer of the novel in English. His stories of sailors, pirates, loose women, and criminals are as exciting and entertaining now as they were 300 years ago.
- Robinson Crusoe (1719) - The original shipwreck novel.
- Moll Flanders (1722) - The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, Etc. Who Was Born In Newgate, and During a Life of Continu'd Variety For Threescore Years, Besides Her Childhood, Was Twelve Year a Whore, Five Times a Wife (Whereof Once To Her Own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon In Virginia, At Last Grew Rich, Liv'd Honest, and Died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums.
 American novels
 20th century
- Harper Lee (1926- ) - Daughter of an Alabama lawyer
- To kill a mockingbird (1960) - A black man is unjustly accused of raping a white woman in a Southern small town in the 30s; the story is told from the point of view of the young daughter of the lawyer who defends him.
 19th century and earlier
- Herman Melville (1819–1891) - son of a Boston merchant; worked as a school-teacher and surveyor before becoming a sailor and heading for the Pacific in a whaling ship.
- Moby-Dick (1851) - A great story of Captain Ahab's obsessive pursuit of the great white whale, together with more background information than you could ever imagine needing about whales and the whaling industry of the time.
 French novels
- Emile Zola (1840-1902) - wrote a long series of novels about a seriously dysfunctional family, the Rougon-Macquarts, each of which examines in naturalistic detail one particular aspect of French society in the second half of the 19th century.
 German novels
 Russian novels
 Novels from other countries
 Spain and Latin America
- Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547–1616) - Soldier, novelist, tax-collector. Fought the Turks at the battle of Lepanto.
- Don Quixote (1605, 1615) - usually considered the first modern novel. An impoverished country gentleman of a certain age has had his mind warped by reading too many chivalric romances. He sets out to put the world to rights, with ludicrous consequences.
- Chinua Achebe (1930- ) - Great Nigerian novelist, probably the best-known African writer to date
- Things fall apart (1958) - a novel with the plot of a Greek tragedy, set in an isolated Igbo community in the early days of colonialism. Serves as token African book on every college reading list, but still a pretty good read in spite of that.
 Novels in particular genres
 Comic writing
- Dodie Smith (1896-1990) - Shop-girl from Lancashire who sold Walt Disney the rights to a spotty-dog story
- I capture the castle (1948) - Wonderful whimsical and very funny story about a young girl growing up in an eccentric, impoverished family in a semi-ruined castle.