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Books to Surprise and Delight: My Top Ten Classic Novels by Rebecca Huntley

Rebecca Huntley is a well-known Australian social researcher and her latest compelling book Still Lucky  is a xstill-lucky.jpg.pagespeed.ic.NrK1pAEuqqwise and engaging look at who we are now and where we are heading in the future… Here, Rebecca tells us about her love of classic books and reveals her all-time, top ten favourites. Rebecca will be joining us on Wednesday May 31, 8pm (AEST) for a special  Book Club where we’ll talk about those hard-to-pick, favourite classic books. 

When I was on maternity leave with my twin girls I decided I needed an even greater challenge than juggling two babies at once – to read the 100 greatest novels of all time.

Well, the genesis of this personal reading project dated a bit earlier than the birth of my twins. About eight years ago I decided to start a book group dedicated to reading classic novels. It was sparked by that slightly pissed off feeling I used to get when I came across lists of great novels, only to find I had read about 30 per cent of the list. I sent a message out on Facebook to see who was keen and received around 50 positive RSVPs. Initial online enthusiasm abated quickly however and the first face-to-face meeting involved about ten people. Over the years this whittled down to about four dedicated individuals who were prepared to work through everything from Northanger Abbey, to Moby Dick, to Middlemarch, to Peter Pan.

xthe-war-of-the-worlds.jpg.pagespeed.ic.anOO643-eqAfter the book club stopped meeting about four years ago, I decided to go it alone with a list I had found on the internet. I had collected different lists over the time but this one – 100 novels everyone should read by the Telegraph in the UK – seemed the most diverse and interesting, with inclusions from a broad spectrum of countries. There were the obvious ones (Pride and Prejudice, War and Peace) but also books I’d never heard of from Japan, India, China, South America, Africa.

My twins will be three this year and my progress is slow but sure. I have 29 left to read and some of them are quite daunting (James Joyce, Dostoyevsky, Proust). I am leaving some of those until last, like the final ascent of Everest, the hardest climb in the dark but, apparently, the most rewarding.

One of the things I love most about working my way through this list is discovering the original book behind the public image. So many of these books are entrenched in the public psyche, have been made into movies, TV series, comics, etc, we feel like we know the story even if we haven’t read the original. And sometimes our perception can be very wrong.

Here are my top 10 classic novels from that list that have surprised and delighted me.

The War of The Worlds by H.G. Wells

Picking this up, I guess I thought bad Tom Cruise move, bland science fiction, but this account of a Martian invasion is gripping and moving in equal parts.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins was a friend and contemporary of Charles Dickens but Dickens of course remains far better known. This is an epic drama and detective story. I think his other famous novel, The Woman in Wxdoctor-zhivago.jpg.pagespeed.ic.LmnTAfZ40shite, is slightly better but this was also something I just couldn’t put down.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

One of the saddest books I’ve ever read (not a lot of mirth) and such a sharp commentary on the corruption of high society.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Another one of the saddest books I’ve ever read but it made me want to start a revolution after I had put it down, I was so angry and upset. One of the best endings of any book ever.

Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

I was expecting cheesy Hollywood romance with Russian accents but the Russians are great at grand, complex stories about politics and personal relationships. It gets to the heart of the social and emotional damage wrought by revolutions, how the more things change, the more they stay the same. I felt like I understood a bit more about Putin after reading this one!

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler

I hadn’t heard of Anne Tyler before I picked this up and now I wonder, where has she been all my life? A small story about a dysfunctional family full of pathos and wisdom.

Txthe-three-musketeers.jpg.pagespeed.ic.2h3VbePN_6he Leopard by Giuseppe by Tomasi di Lampedusa

My great-grandfather told my mother to read this book before she set foot in Sicily. It’s written from the point of view of an ageing aristocrat as he contemplates his past and the fate of his country and it still feels so contemporary and relevant.

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

I thought this would be either a dry and serious piece of French literature or a drawn out, boys own adventure and it was more the latter than the former. It just romps along and while the antics of the men at the centre make the feminist in me a bit irritated, it’s a wonderful story.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre

I was expecting James Bond and got something darker, more political. He is such a great writer too.

The Home and the World by Rabindranath Tagore

I’d never heard of this writer or this book but it was so interesting. It’s about the relationship between three people – two men and a woman – but it’s also about India at a social and political crossroads.




  1. Natasha Coster

    It takes a really amazing book to make me cry. The Grapes of Wrath did it…more than once. Like you I was also furious and so upset. It should be recommended reading for all governments around the world.

  2. Kay Walker

    Five of your top Ten are in MY Top Ten also! I hadn’t heard of Tagore’s novel- only his copious poetry, so will give that story a read as it’s theme is quite relevant to me. Probably should try the Wharton and the Lampedusa as well- somehow I was always put off by Edith Wharton’s name as much as anything else. Thank you!

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