Reading classic literature doesn’t have to feel like homework, and you don’t always have to prepare for a bout of depression when picking up a time-honored book. Lighthearted classics exist! It’s an ongoing problem, the conflation of the serious and the good in literature. Still, there are plenty of books with humor and lightness in them that have stood the test of time. After all, people in the past wanted books on the frivolous and fun side, too.
There’s a wide range of lighthearted classic books in this list, ranging from ones you could read in an afternoon to ones that are much meatier but still delightful. Like lighthearted books of today, some still dabble in difficult topics, but these books don’t dwell on sadness. What I enjoy about classic lighthearted books are the ways they delve into daily life in times of yore. Big things may be happening in the background, but often, these books are drilled down on a single character, family, or community. You get to know these characters not at the saddest or most difficult times of their lives but just on regular days.
These books remind me that people of the past weren’t so different from us. They find similar things funny or annoying, they love gossip and stir up everyday drama, and they’re just doing their best. I often see books on this list mentioned as “comfort reads,” so I hope you find a book among these you could elevate to that elite status.
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Here’s a classic that’s not only lighthearted but downright hilarious. Like many a Disney princess, this book’s protagonist, Flora, has lost her parents. She goes to live with distant relatives at the titular farm in the fictitious village of Howling, in Sussex. There, she meets a lively cast of characters and discovers the farm is poorly run. Also, like many a Disney princess, Flora uses her level head to set everything to rights. The result is a book that is voicey, quotable, laugh-out-loud funny, and ultimately an utter delight.
Maurice by E.M. Forster
So “lighthearted” may be a bit of a stretch for this novel, but here is why I am standing by it. This is a novel from 1914 about a man’s queer awakening, and it ends happily! All too often, the books about marginalized identities attain the “classic” moniker with plotlines of characters enduring unspeakable hardship. In this book, Maurice is initially troubled by the discovery of his queerness, and he does attempt to “cure” himself of it, but he comes around to accepting himself in the end. It’s beautiful. It’s a bummer that this novel was only published posthumously, but it’s a wonderful addition to the canon nonetheless.
Botchan by Natsume Sōseki, translated by Joel Cohn
This book is a classic in Japan that should be read more widely. Botchan, which means “young master,” is the title character. He’s a rambunctious kid growing up in Tokyo who gets his comeuppance when he becomes a middle school mathematics teacher in a small town in Japan’s deep south. He clashes with his students, and they pretty much torture him. Botchan is sometimes likened to Catcher in the Rye because of the sarcastic narration and the coming-of-age storyline. Although it is a funny read, the book comments on morality and the westernization of Japan.
Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
If you love gossip, this is the book for you. Cranford is a series of interconnected vignettes about a small village town. The plot is absolutely not the point of the book; it’s really just about settling down and getting to know everyone in Cranford. While life was changing at a breakneck pace for people in the Victorian Era, this book generously portrays the decline of the genteel way of life. And it’s slyly funny in the process. This is a great pick for someone who likes gentle stories that still have some poignancy.
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
OK, so this book is definitely longer than War and Peace, which may not make you think it’s lighthearted. But this modern classic is an immersive and truly readable saga that is, at heart, a family drama. Lata Mehra is looking for a suitable boy to marry, and her mother is also on the hunt. The story follows four families linked by marriage and friendship and spares no detail about ways of life in India in the 1950s. The story is not without difficult content —there is political strife, religious conflict, class struggles, etc. But if you love to get invested in characters, this is a great pick. Don’t let the length scare you off; there is so much to enjoy within!
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
Have you ever read a book and started to plan a vacation to visit its setting? This book will hit you right in the wanderlust. When published in 1922, it even caused a tourism boom in Portofino, Italy. The book follows four English women who pool money to rent an Italian villa for a month. The women were initially strangers, but their time together is the catalyst for them all to make personal transformations. Read this one for the descriptions of Portofino and to appreciate the way travel can profoundly change people.
84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
If you want a quick dose of classic literature, this little slip of a book is perfect to gulp down in an afternoon. An epistolary memoir, the book compiles the correspondence between the author in New York and a book dealer at the titular address in London. Much like the aforementioned The Enchanted April, this will book Charing Cross Road on your list of places to visit. It’s charming and funny and a must-read for anyone who truly loves books and the way they can bring people together.
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
One bit of warning is that this book is on the violent side, including some dubious behavior that can be certainly considered sexual violence. But if you have the fortitude to face such content and you want a book that is a rollicking adventure, this one is a classic for a reason. In case you haven’t seen any of the one gazillion adaptations of this, the story follows D’Artagnan, who wants to join the Musketeers, including the three besties Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. It’s got duels and scheming villains and all manner of swashbuckling. If you’re in the mood for a “dudes rock” kind of book, you will have a blast with this one.
Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster
If you’re a fan of Anne of Green Gables, this is another classic to pick up because the vibes are similar. It’s a fairly short epistolary book following orphan Jerusha Abbott after an anonymous benefactor funds her education. When Jerusha gets to college, she begins to go by Judy. Her letters to her benefactor, whom she calls Daddy-Long-Legs, are sparklingly witty and packed with early progressive and feminist ideas. And if you like a character who hilariously lacks a filter, that’s our Judy.
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez
Like so many of the books on this list, this modern classic is nestled in daily life in a wonderful way. The four García sisters, Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofia, emigrate from the Dominican Republic to New York in 1960. The book has an unusual structure, starting with their adulthoods and moving backward in time. It’s also divided into vignettes that function like standalone short stories but also connect to each other. Throughout the book, the girls do have some difficult times, but overall, their story is told with warmth, humor, and a light touch.