These are my 10 recommended books from the OCLC WorldCat Library 100 Novels that are in the public domain, meaning that anyone, anywhere should be able to access them.
The Library 100 is a list of the 100 novels that are held, in print form, by the most libraries in the world. They don’t say this, but they mean “in English.”
Reading these 10 books gives you an excellent introduction to American and British fiction and will enable you to hold your head up if you’ve ever felt “under read”. The added benefit is that you don’t even have to spend any money!!
This list includes no more than one book by any given author although several authors have more than one book that appears on the Library 100 list. The idea here is to pick 10 books that will give you breadth, so you’ll find a range of books from England and the United States, plus a couple in translation.
This is not a great post if you are looking for ethnic diversity; please check the tags at the bottom if that’s what you need.
I’ve provided links to a good paper edition on Amazon that may or may not be available on Kindle.
Note on e-books: When you see a bunch of cheap editions of a book on Amazon, it means the book is in public domain. If the paper edition is $10 and the Kindle edition is $1, you aren’t getting the same editions. The more expensive editions have notes and resources to help you understand the book, which costs money to produce. The cheap digital editions are put out by all kinds of hucksters. They are legal, but you can’t be sure you are getting a correct copy or even a complete copy. The digitizing method used may also make the book difficult to read. I’ve provided a link below each image that will take you to a high quality free digital version at Project Gutenberg that is verified complete and accurate. Giving them the dollar or two you might have paid at Amazon is a much better use of your money (although it’s not required).
Clicking on the images in this post and purchasing the book or anything on Amazon during the same visit earns us a small commission that keeps us going and costs you nothing.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
I limited myself to one book from each author even though almost all of Austen’s books made the list. Pride and Prejudice ranked highest on the list and is the most famous although I’ve always been partial to Persuasion.
For a better understanding of Austen’s wit and attention to social issues, read this: Jane Austen: Inventor of “Chick Lit” or Subversive Radical?
FREE e-book Pride and Prejudice
2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
I’ve long had the suspicion that people who care about these things are either Jane Eyre people or Wuthering Heights people. I’ve always detested Wuthering Heights myself although the more I think about it, the more I’m coming to think Heathcliff is a more honest character. Heathcliff thinks he’s bad, but Rochester is one of those guys who is a jerk but thinks he’s ok. I mean, seriously…ok, if you haven’t read it yet, I’m not going to ruin it for you.
FREE e-book Jane Eyre
3. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Traditionally, The Scarlet Letter is a must read part of the American high school curriculum. It’s a decent story although personally, I would skim long “Custom House” opening, or come back to it later, because it always bogs me down.
The reason it’s important is because The Scarlet Letter explains the origin United States and the particular brand of religion, guilt, and hypocrisy that forms the basis of much of the decisions we make as a nation today. It’s set during the colonial era, when the Puritans ran Massachusetts although it was written during the early 19th century, during the Romantic era.
Novels didn’t exist during the time this novel is set, and even if they did, the Puritans most definitely wouldn’t have allowed them!
When I taught IB English, my students liked to do The Scarlet Letter because they said that Hawthorne “hands you the symbolism on a plate.” Subtle it isn’t.
FREE e-book The Scarlet Letter
4. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one of those books that has gotten too famous for its own good. I think in Stowe’s lifetime it was too famous for its own good. It’s one of those books that you probably think you know because it’s so prevalent in popular culture, but really the actual book is much better than than any later version.
Even the use of the term “Uncle Tom” is totally misappropriate when it is used to designate a Black person who plays up to powerful people or has no individual will: Stowe’s “Uncle Tom” is a subversive character.
FREE e-book Uncle Tom’s Cabin
5. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
As far as I know, The Jungle is not taught in American high schools, but I read it in high school and thought it was pretty interesting. While the specifics of this novel, the Chicago meat packing industry, were reformed long ago, of course we still struggle with working conditions for those who prepare our food supply. We also struggle with fair treatment of immigrants, which this book also addresses.
FREE e-book The Jungle
6. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
A lot of people don’t like Hardy because they think he’s depressing, but I do, and I frequently made my students read Tess. When I was thinking about why it’s important, what came to my mind is the impotence that Tess faced. In Hardy novels, we frequently see the female character with the “fatal flaw” that the tragic hero must have, but in the case of these characters, the “flaw” is a genuine human need that is stifled by foolish restrictions laid down by religion and custom.
If you want something less heavy, try Hardy’s short stories.
FREE e-book Tess of the D’Urbervilles
FREE e-book Wessex Tales, an original collection of Hardy short stories
7. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The last four books on this list are the books I haven’t read, or at least completed, but are perennially on my “to read” list.
Frankenstein was written during the Gothic/Romantic era. You might know the story: Mary Shelley, wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, had a competition with her husband, Lord Byron, and some others to see who could come up with the best horror story. Horror stories fit right into this literary period, but the story Shelley wrote, Frankenstein, is also considered the first science fiction story….
…which Shelley wrote at age 18!
Science fiction is not usually my thing, but I’ve always been interested in the background of this story and also what Shelley has to say about the human condition.
Frankenstein is another one of those novels that has been rebooted, spun, and otherwise tortured that many people don’t know what the original is about…they even forget that Frankenstein is the creator of the monster, not the monster!
Shelley’s mother was feminist activist Mary Wollstonecraft, so the novel also shares her feminist point of view.
This is definitely a book I want to read even more after writing this post!
There are two versions of this novel, the 1818 version and the 1830 version. Both are in the public domain. For many years, the 1830 version was published, but now the 1818 version seems to be the thing because it more closely matches Shelley’s vision.
8. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
Les Misérables is without question one of the most important novels of the 19th century, but it is long, long, long, and I’ve never made it all the way through. If I ever do, I’m sure I’ll be the better for it.
I struggled a bit about whether to put this book on the list because it was written in French, but I decided that it’s so important it belongs on the list, and you, the reader, can figure out what to do if you want to read Les Misérables in English. I’ve explained the problem below.
If you read it in French, you can read Hugo’s original words in a FREE download.
There is also a public domain version of Les Misérables in English, but what you are going to get it is an old translation, which means that that translator would have selected English words that may have changed significantly in meaning since it was translated.
I looked at the Signet Classic version, which is the version I attempted to read years ago, and I see that it is actually an update of an old translation. Definitely not the ideal way to go, which might also explain my difficulty…or at least makes me feel better about my failure!
There is a new translation, published by Penguin, which is what I would recommend because it will give you the best understanding of the original; in fact, I’m tempted to try it myself.
It isn’t cheap, but if you are going to commit to reading this book, you will be with it for a while, so if you think of the money as prorated out over the entertainment value it gives you per hour, it’s a great deal. It’s also worth checking your library for this edition.
FREE e-book edition of Les Misérables in English (see warning above) and in French (The French edition is divided up into the five original volumes, so you will have to download them separately. This link is for the first.)
9. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
War and Peace is another epic novel I haven’t read, but frankly, I’m glad I did this post before reading it because I found out a lot about the book that might have given me problems.
You probably have some notion that War and Peace is a Russian novel about the Napoleonic wars. Let me tell you, one assumption you can make is that anything about Russia is going to be interesting. Based on the history I’ve read and anything else I’ve come across about Russia has led me to conclude that it’s a crazy place: always has been and always will be.
In addition to being a complicated novel about a complicated place, War and Peace is a complicated novel with a complicated translation history, so unless you are prepared to read this novel in Russian, you want to put some thought into which translation you get.
There seem to be at least 4 major translations, and the one that you are most likely to find in the United States is not necessarily the best.
When I pick this book up, I will go for the Aylmer and Louise Maude updated translation. In general, the Maude’s translation has long been considered the most authentic. The couple knew Tolstoy, and the author approved their translation. They also kept up with the numerous changes Tolstoy made to subsequent editions in Russian…I told you everything is complicated in that country. The Maude’s original translation has been criticized; however, because they Anglicized the names (if you have ever read a Russian novel, you know why) and presented the French passages in English
Note: The more appropriate method is to leave the French passages in French so that readers of French can read the original. There was a time, and still is in many places, that the assumption would be that anyone educated enough to read this novel could also read French. The French passages will be translated in a footnote if you can’t read French: don’t worry.
Oxford has extensively revised the Maude’s version; that’s the one I’ll look for. Note that the E-book edition available at Amazon is not for the updated Maude translation. The original translation is in public domain (hence the low price); the updated translation is not.
FREE e-book edition of the Maude’s ORIGINAL translation of War and Peace.
10. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
I have always wanted to read Moby-Dick, but I haven’t. I’m not sure why I want to read it, other than the fact that I do like sea adventures…for some reason they appeal to me more than “land” adventures…but as for the rest, I don’t know. I guess I like complications?
FREE e-book from Project Gutenberg: Moby-Dick