100 Must-Read Lesser-Known Classics

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Rebecca Hussey

Staff Writer

Rebecca holds a PhD in English and is a professor at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. She teaches courses in composition, literature, and the arts. When she’s not reading or grading papers, she’s hanging out with her husband and son and/or riding her bike and/or buying books. She can't get enough of reading and writing about books, so she writes the bookish newsletter "Reading Indie," focusing on small press books and translations. Newsletter: Reading Indie Twitter: @ofbooksandbikes

While we at the Riot take some time off to rest and catch up on our reading, we’re re-running some of our favorite posts from the last several months. Enjoy our highlight reel, and we’ll be back with new stuff on Tuesday, January 3rd.

This post originally ran August 22, 2016.

 Pillow Book coverEverything about this post is subject to debate: what constitutes a “must-read” book? What does “lesser-known” mean? What exactly is a “classic”? Hell if I know. But I thought it would be fun to make up a list of older books that are worth checking out that readers may have missed.

Here are my criteria: I decided on an arbitrary end date of 1950, in order to focus on earlier books and avoid the troublesome category of “modern classics.” (What is a modern classic, anyway? Who knows!) I also tried to pick books that aren’t commonly taught in high schools and colleges. Your mileage will vary with this one, obviously. But I wanted this list to be a source of suggestions for expanding your classics reading beyond the usual suspects from school. This list is also very much from a U.S. perspective: in other countries and cultures some of these books may be commonly read and taught. But since I’m familiar with the U.S. educational system, I’m using that as my starting point.

So, here’s the list! The books are arranged in chronological order, with the author’s nationality and the publication date (in many cases the approximate date) listed. Let me know what books you might add, or what books from this list you already love.

An Ethiopian Romance, by Heliodorus (Greece, c. 230)

The Recognition of Sakuntala, by Kalidasa (India, c. 4th century)

The Poems of T’ao Ch’ien, by T’ao Ch’ien (China, early 400s)

The Pillow Book, by Sei Shonagon (Japan, 990s – early 1000s)

The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu (Japan, early 1000s)

The Song of Roland, author unknown (France, c. 1040-1115)

The Essential Rumi, Jalal al-Din Rumi (Iran, 1200s)

The Bustan of Saadi, by Saadi (Persia, 1257)

Blazing World coverThe Táin, author unknown (Ireland, 12th-14th century)

Essays in Idleness, by Yoshida Kenkō (Japan, 1330-1332)

The Cloud of Unknowing, author unknown (England, later 1300s)

The Book of Margery Kempe, by Margery Kempe (England, 1420s)

Lazarillo de Tormes, author unknown (Spain, 1554)

The Heptameron, by Marguerite of Navarre (France, 1558)

The Blazing World, by Margaret Cavendish (England, 1666)

The Princess of Cleves, by Madame de Lafayette (France, 1678)

Oroonoko, by Aphra Behn (England, 1688)

Brief Lives, by John Aubrey (England, Late 1600s)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Matsuo Basho (Japan, 1694)

Love in Excess, by Eliza Haywood (England, 1720)

A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe (England, 1722)

Letters of a Peruvian Woman, by Françoise de Graffigny (France, 1747)

Fanny Hill, by John Cleland (England, 1748)

Dream of the Red Chamber, by Cao Xueqin (China, mid 1700s)

Olaudah EquianoThe Female Quixote, by Charlotte Lennox (Scotland, 1752)

Letters of Mistress Henley, by Isabelle de Charrière (Netherlands, 1784)

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, by Olaudah Equiano (Nigeria, 1789)

A Simple Story, by Elizabeth Inchbald (England, 1792)

Caleb Williams, by William Godwin (England, 1794)

A Voyage Around My Room, by Xavier de Maistre (France, 1794)

Jacques the Fatalist, by Denis Diderot (France, 1796)

Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, by Mary Wollstonecraft (England, 1796)

The Coquette, by Hannah Webster Foster (U.S., 1797)

Wieland, by Charles Brockden Brown (U.S. 1798)

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, by James Hogg (Scotland, 1824)

Bird Lady's Life coverHope Leslie, by Catharine Maria Sedgwick (U.S. 1827)

The Wide, Wide World, by Susan Warner (U.S., 1850)

Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell (England, 1851-1853)

Ruth Hall, by Fanny Fern (U.S., 1854)

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs (U.S., 1861)

Lady Audley’s Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (England, 1862)

The Story of Avis, by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (U.S. 1877)

A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, by Isabella Bird (England, 1879)

Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, by Robert Louis Stevenson (Scotland, 1879)

The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (Brazil, 1881)

Hester, by Margaret Oliphant (Scotland, 1883)

MacLane I await coverThe Story of an African Farm, by Olive Schreiner (South Africa, 1883)

Hunger, by Knut Hamsun (Norway, 1890)

Effi Briest, by Theodor Fontane (Germany, 1894)

Trilby, by George Du Maurier (France and England, 1894)

Elizabeth and Her German Garden, by Elizabeth von Arnim (Australia, 1898)

The Conjure Woman, by Charles Chestnutt (U.S., 1899)

I Await the Devil’s Coming, by Mary MacLane (Canada/U.S., 1901)

The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton (England, 1908)

Jakob von Gunten, by Robert Walser (Switzerland, 1909)

Kokoro, by Natsume Sōseki (Japan, 1914)

Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (U.S. 1915)

Tender Buttons, by Gertrude Stein (U.S., 1915)

The Home and the World, by Rabindranath Tagore (India, 1916)

Diary of a Madman, by Lu Xun (China, 1918)

Return of the Soldier, by Rebecca West (England, 1918)

Demian, by Hermann Hesse (Germany, 1919)

The Sheik, by Edith Maude Hull (England, 1919)

Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Unset (Norway, 1920)

Cane, by Jean Toomer (U.S., 1923)

Zeno’s Conscience, by Italo Svevo (Italy, 1923)

McKay Home to Harlem coverThe Home-Maker, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (U.S., 1924)

There is Confusion, by Jessie Redmon Fauset (U.S., 1924)

Bread Givers, by Anzia Yezierska (U.S. 1925)

Chaka, by Thomas Mofolo (Lesotho, 1925)

Lolly Willowes, by Silvia Townsend Warner (England, 1926)

Home to Harlem, by Claude McKay (Jamaica/U.S., 1928)

Quicksand, by Nella Larsen (U.S., 1928)

Doña Bárbara, by Rómulo Gallegos (Venezuela, 1929)

A High Wind in Jamaica, by Richard Hughes (Wales, 1929)

Dance Night, by Dawn Powell (U.S., 1930)

A Note in Music, by Rosamond Lehmann (England, 1930)

Devil’s Cub, by Georgette Heyer (England, 1932)*

Frost in May, by Antonia White (England, 1933)

Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain (England, 1933)

Street of Crocodiles, by Bruno Schulz (Poland, 1934)

Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata (Japan, 1935-7)

Jamaica Inn, by Daphne du Maurier (England, 1936)

Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes (U.S., 1936)

Journey by Moonlight, by Antal Szerb (Hungary, 1937)

Laxness Iceland's Bell coverThe Death of the Heart, by Elizabeth Bowen (Ireland, 1938)

Beware of Pity, by Stefan Zweig (Austria, 1939)

The Invention of Morel, by Adolpho Bioy Cesares (Argentina, 1940)

Dust Tracks on a Road, by Zora Neale Hurston (U.S., 1942)

Iceland’s Bell, by Halldór Laxness (Iceland, 1943)

Love in a Fallen City, by Eileen Chang (China, 1943)

Near to the Wild Heart, by Clarice Lispector (Brazil, 1943)

The Makioka Sisters, by Junichirō Tanizaki (Japan, 1943-1948)

Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina, 1944)

Miss Pym Disposes, by Josephine Tey (Scotland, 1946)

Trilogy, by H.D. (U.S. 1946)

In a Lonely Place, by Dorothy B. Hughes (U.S. 1947)

The Mountain Lion, by Jean Stafford (U.S., 1947)

The Slaves of Solitude, by Patrick Hamilton (England, 1947)

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith (England, 1948)

*This list originally included Georgette Heyer’s novel Venetia with an incorrect publication date.