Here at the Big Read Lakeshore team, we are united by our love for books. During one of our last meetings, the topic of our favorite classic works came up, and it was awesome to see the wide variety of works that have left an impact on our team members in many ways. We decided to share some of our favorite classic books along with some similar recommendations to help you find a new read that sounds interesting to you!

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

From Maggie Hartman

Les Misérables is a 5-volume book that is almost 1,500 pages long. The story begins in 19th century France with the main character “Jean Valjean”, who was imprisoned for stealing food to feed family members. The story includes Valjean’s release from prison and return to the world. He makes the most out of his new life while his prison inspector, Javert, believes that he will forever be a criminal. As he journeys through the world, he meets many different characters with stories of their own, such as Fantine, a single mother who was forced to become a prostitute to provide for her young daughter, and Marius (and his revolutionary friends) who falls in love with Valjean’s adopted daughter, Cosette. This is a story of love, redemption and reconciliation.

I love this book because of the intricate character development and interactions. It is fascinating to re-read this book and focus on a new character each time to get a whole different experience, new themes and takeaways, and even a different understanding of the book that you already read. I have read Les Mis every single summer since 7th grade, and it is amazing every time. The aspect of the book that intrigues me the most is the idea that “good people” aren’t always good and “bad people” aren’t always bad. The purposeful mix of these attributes in the story makes each character so rich to read about and it makes me think about the world we live in now. People aren’t all good or all bad and, in this book, Hugo gives a very unique perspective on this fact which still relates to the world today!

Similar Recommendations:
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy *Very similar to Les Mis and my personal second favorite
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871)

From Deb Van Duinen

Considered by some to be the greatest Victorian novel, Middlemarch follows the lives of ordinary people in a fictional rural England town in the 1800s. The characters, flawed as they are, wrestle with various issues, including politics, religion, art, romance, marriage, and a fast-changing world.
I love this book because of the social commentary, the complex characters, and how it challenges me to think about my own vocational callings. One of the last sentences in the book makes it worth the read (though you need to read the whole book to appreciate it fully): “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Similar Recommendations:
Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851)
Great Expectations by Charles Dickins (1860)
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)
My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead (2014)
Middlemarch and the Imperfect Life by Pamela Erens (2022)

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

From Alex Goodwin

Little Women is a coming of age story about the March sisters, who are growing up in 1860s Boston during and after the American Civil War. The novel is divided into two parts: Part One, which is a tale of childhood, family, and growing up, and Part Two, which follows the sisters into young adulthood, where they grow into independent people who experience love, heartbreak, and loss. The main protagonist, Jo, keeps readers on their toes with her often comedic (and always heartwarming) antics, while her sisters Meg, Beth, and Amy navigate growing up in their own roundabout ways. Readers of all ages have enjoyed Alcott’s most popular novel for generations, and the story boasts the unique quality of having characters that nearly everyone can relate to in some way.

I love this book as a classic because even though it was written as a contemporary novel, the themes it explores are still relevant today. As a child, I always enjoyed reading the story because there was more adventure in it than my own life. Now, as a young adult, I still love the story because some of the characters’ struggles I can relate to personally. Little Women lets readers imagine a simpler time, where letters worked as well as texting, and having a community of friends and family was really all a person needed.

Similar Recommendations:
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Emma by Jane Austen
Eight Cousins by L.M. Alcott

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

From Rachel Leep

In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the young and handsome Dorian Gray makes a wish to remain eternally youthful while his portrait ages in his place. Under the influence of the charismatic and hedonistic Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian embarks on a life of indulgence and moral decay, with each sin reflected in his portrait while he remains as beautiful and pure looking as the day it was painted. Throughout the novel, Dorian’s actions lead to the ruin of several people, including himself, as he spirals deeper into a life without moral restraint. It explores themes of vanity, the superficial nature of beauty, and the dark consequences of a life devoid of ethical boundaries, serving as a critique of Victorian society’s values.

I really appreciate how Wilde was able to capture an idea that is still so prevalent in society today, almost more so now then when it was originally published. This book shows how the obsession with youth, beauty, and outside appearances can be extremely toxic, especially at the cost of truth or moral standards. In such a technologically driven society where social media has such a prevalent place, there are a lot of connections you can make to surface looks versus what the true story actually is. It is a bit of an ambiguous book, which makes every reading of it enjoyable to dive into other possible interpretations. It features tragic love, murders, and just the right amount of the supernatural to really draw you into the storyline.

Similar Recommendations:
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
The Birth-Mark by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

From Addie Wilcox

Written in 1854, Walden is Henry David Thoreau’s reflective account of his experiment in simple living, conducted over two years in a small cabin he built near Walden Pond in Massachusetts. Through this experience, Thoreau explores themes of self-sufficiency, nature, and personal introspection. He advocates for a life of simplicity and mindfulness, criticizing the materialism and societal pressures of his time. Thoreau’s observations on nature, philosophy, and the human condition are woven throughout the narrative, emphasizing the importance of individualism and the need to reconnect with the natural world. Walden remains a seminal work in American literature, inspiring readers to consider the values of simplicity and self-reliance.

I love Walden because it asks the reader to explore the deeper meaning of life, the important questions of life, and what it means to live deliberately. As Thoreau says, in his chapter “Economy,” “I mean that students should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living?” I love this quote because I order to understand life and it’s purpose, we first must live it, and not just study or learn about it.

Similar Recommendations:
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Kimmerer
The Outermost House by Henry Beston
Into the Wild by Jon KraKauer

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