A photograph of three classic texts side-by-side

How to start building your classics collection

Want to break into the canon but not sure where to start? John Self talks you through the things to consider to find the classic books to suit you.

Are you too busy catching up on the latest prize-winners, TikTok buzz-books and word-of-mouth blockbusters to read anything older? Or are you simply overwhelmed about where to start with classic fiction? If this sounds like you, we’re here to help.

Classics are worth getting into. They were, after all, the talked-about books of their day, and ones that talk to us still. Or as classic author Italo Calvino put it more elegantly, “a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

That doesn’t mean you have to like everything – but until you try, you won’t find the ones you do like. Here’s our plan for how to start your classics collection.

Rule 1: Don’t be afraid

Classics can seem daunting, partly by their very status, partly by their look – black covers with old paintings can scream “this is good for you” rather than “this is a good read”. But classics are always surprising, and never quite what we think.

A book that’s old doesn’t have to be unapproachable. Take a few examples of favourites that remain accessible even as they approach their hundredth birthday: Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, with perhaps the finest closing lines in 20th century fiction; Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, which pulls you along so hungrily that you forget how new it all is; and Waugh’s Vile Bodies, still regularly cited as one of the funniest books of all time, proving that great comedy never ages.

For older books, new translations are your friend. Thomas More’s satire Utopia – the only classic book to be made into a cake on The Great British Bake-Off – was published in Latin in 1516, but is rendered clear and open to the modern reader in Dominic Baker-Smith’s translation. Or how about Heinrich von Kleist’s The Marquise of O, 18th century tales of passion and madness brought to vivid life in English by David Luke and Nigel Reeves?

Modern English-language fiction is a melting pot of other cultures, so it makes sense to seek out the sources

Rule 2: Cover the continents

Speaking of translations, they allow us to see other countries and how they do things differently there. Modern English-language fiction is a melting pot of other cultures, so it makes sense to seek out the sources. There’s already a handy guide on this site to the best classics in translation, but here’s a continent-by-continent starter pack:

●     Africa: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart depicts cultural conflict between Igbo warrior Okwonko and white missionaries in West Africa (and its final paragraph rivals Gatsby).

●     Asia: Kōbō Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes blends a driving storyline with metaphysical surprises and is a perfect introduction to his weird world.

●     Australasia: Katherine Mansfield’s Collected Stories are blissful evocations of a lost time by the only writer Virginia Woolf ever felt jealous of.

●     Europe: Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts, a satire so fresh it’s impossible to believe it was written 85 years ago.

●     North America: Nella Larsen’s Passing, a short, explosive story about a Black woman who passes for white.

●     South America: Maryse Condé’s Crossing the Mangrove takes us on a riotous tour of Guadeloupean society following a murder.

Or you can explore writers who straddle two cultures, like the charming eccentricies of Anglo-American Russell Hoban, the detective novels of American-in-France Chester Himes, or Buchi Emecheta’s novel about a Nigerian woman coming to Britain, Second-Class Citizen.

Rule 3: Travel through time

Classics provide a window to the past. Most obviously they tell us about their own time: think of Charles Dickens’s great campaigning social novels (starting point: Great Expectations; next step: the epic Bleak House) which perfect the synthesis of comedy, tragedy, character and plot. But they also look further back: it’s easy to forget, for example, that George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871) is an historical novel, about people responding to the social changes of the 1830s.

And it’s fascinating to look at past visions of the future, from H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, depicting a polarisation of society that looks very timely, to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We – the book that inspired Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – and John Wyndham’s greatest novel The Chrysalids, a gripping allegory of difference and intolerance. These future visions don’t tell us what the authors predicted would happen, but offer insight into the issues that preoccupied them in their own time, most of which still persist.

We also see the birth of genres in classic fiction, from horror to detective stories and hardboiled crime

Rule 4: Feel the variety

Classics come in all shapes. If you’re in the mood for a long, engrossing read that becomes a friend for life, try Tolstoy’s real masterpiece Anna Karenina – a great tragic love story – or a comic page-turner of death, money and the media, The Bonfire of the Vanities. Or for a quick literature hit, you can’t top short stunners like A Month in the Country – the shortest novel ever to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize – or the stories of Ryunosuke Akutagawa, which can provide dazzlement and delight in a dozen pages.

We also see the birth of genres in classic fiction, from horror (in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher) to detective stories (in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone) and hardboiled crime (Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place). And because the classic canon reflects the world, there are books by authors as varied as Nobel laureates (Doctor Zhivago), working-class heroes (The Grass Arena) and gay Black pioneers (Giovanni’s Room).

Rule 5: Try something new

Above all, starting a classics collection is a chance to find something you didn’t know you loved: it’s easy to forget that all our favourite books were once strangers.

How about a book about the drink that unites England and Japan (The Book of Tea), tales of the unexpected (Someone Like You), a vivid account of Jewish childhood in London (Journey Through a Small Planet), a twisted masterpiece of seduction and manipulation (Dangerous Liaisons) or life advice (Meditations) from the second century BCE (“you always own the option of having no opinion” – I must remember that next time I’m on Twitter)?

And don’t forget - it’s perfectly all right, even a good idea, to choose a book just because you like the look of it, from the bright illustrations on Iris Murdoch’s smart comedies to Patricia Highsmith’s stylish, cinematic thrillers. Chance encounters, after all, are sometimes the most enduring. Now: read on!

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Image: Alexandra Francis/Penguin

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