Sex, violence, War and Peace: Penguin picks its classic hits

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They have been designed to guide nervous readers through the bookshelves of literary classics, but are more likely to provoke fierce academic debate. To celebrate its 60th anniversary, Penguin Classics has drawn up lists of the best books, in categories from the best sex to the best spine-tinglers. The idea is that with 17,000 titles published every month in the UK, people should be encouraged to choose something worth reading.

Adam Freudenheim, Penguin Classics' publisher, said: "As a nation, we're now busier than ever and have more demands on our time. So when we actually get time to sit down and read a book, we want it to be a good one and one worth reading."

Some suggestions are less contentious than others. Naming Heathcliff and Catherine from Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights and Lord Byron's Don Juan as best lovers is hardly to be challenged.

But given modern day reservations about the work of DH Lawrence and the average schoolboy response to Lady Chatterley's Lover, placing it among the best-sex novels ever written could be asking for trouble. Except, of course, that Lady Chatterley, like Homer's Odyssey, is one of the most important tomes in Penguin Classics' history.

The Odyssey was Penguin Classics' first title in 1946 when the founder, Allen Lane, began supplying books at an affordable price, which was sixpence at the time. Attempts to publish Lady Chatterley's Lover prompted a prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act in 1960. When the charges were dropped, the book went on to sell more than three million copies.

Research cited by Penguin suggests that even a heavy reader in the UK reads just four books a year. A light reader takes in one.

Yet people buy more than £200m worth of books a year. Retail sales have risen by 4.3 per cent a year on average in the past five years, but book sales have increased by 6.5 per cent a year.

Mr Freudenheim said: "This campaign is about helping people to choose the books that really are worth reading. To me, Penguin Classics are a foundational part of British culture."

The best-of lists have been devised according to what people are already buying and the views of the company's literary experts. Mr Freudenheim's own favourite classic, Middlemarch by George Eliot, fails to make any of the lists.

But there are plenty of other titles to choose from, including Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (tear-jerker), Dracula by Bram Stoker (spine-tingler) and The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (crime). Lesser-known options include Against Nature by the French writer J K Huysmans, about a wealthy aesthete living a life of pleasure.

Its rivals in the best decadence category include two Scott Fitzgeralds - The Great Gatsby and The Beautiful and the Damned - and Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh. Borders and some independents are offering the best-of sets with 35 per cent off.

Highly recommended: the publisher's choice

The Best Crazies

1. One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest - Ken Kesey

2. The Diary Of A Madman - Nikolai Gogol

3. Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys

4. Crime And Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

5. Notes From Underground - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Best Sex

1. Story Of The Eye - Georges Bataille

2. A Spy In The House Of Love - Anaïs Nin

3. Lady Chatterley's Lover - D H Lawrence

4. Venus In Furs - Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch

5. The Canterbury Tales - Geoffrey Chaucer

The Best Villains

1. The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

2. Heart Of Darkness - Joseph Conrad

3. Diamonds Are Forever - Ian Fleming

4. The Master And Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov

5. The Secret Agent - Joseph Conrad

The Best Lovers

1. A Room With A View - E M Forster

2. Wuthering Heights - Emily Brontë

3. Don Juan - Lord Byron

4. Love In A Cold Climate - Nancy Mitford

5. Cat On A Hot Tin Roof - Tennessee Williams

The Best Heroes

1. David Copperfield - Charles Dickens

2. Middlemarch - George Eliot

3. She - H Rider Haggard

4. The Fight - Norman Mailer

5. No Easy Walk To Freedom - Nelson Mandela

The Best Tear-Jerkers

1. Of Mice And Men - John Steinbeck

2. The Age Of Innocence - Edith Wharton

3. Notre-Dame De Paris - Victor Hugo

4. Jude The Obscure - Thomas Hardy

5. The Old Curiosity Shop - Charles Dickens

The Best Spine-Tinglers

1. The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson

2. Dracula - Bram Stoker

3. Frankenstein - Mary Shelley

4. The Castle Of Otranto - Horace Walpole

5. Turn Of The Screw - Henry James

The Best Minxes

1. Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray

2. Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov

3. Baby Doll - Tennessee Williams

4. Breakfast At Tiffany's - Truman Capote

5. Emma - Jane Austen

The Best Journeys

1. On The Road - Jack Kerouac

2. The Odyssey - Homer

3. The Grapes Of Wrath - John Steinbeck

4. Three Men In A Boat - Jerome K Jerome

5. Alice In Wonderland - Lewis Carroll

The Best Decadence

1. The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald

2. Vile Bodies - Evelyn Waugh

3. The Picture Of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde

4. The Beautiful And The Damned - F Scott Fitzgerald

5. Against Nature - J K Huysmans

The Best Rebels

1. The Autobiography Of Malcolm X - Malcolm X

2. The Outsider - Albert Camus

3. Animal Farm - George Orwell

4. The Communist Manifesto - Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels

5. Les Misérables - Victor Hugo

The Best Sci Fi

1. The Time Machine - H G Wells

2. The Man In The High Castle - Philip K Dick

3. The Invisible Man - H G Wells

4. The Day Of The Triffids - John Wyndham

5. We - Yevgeny Zamyatin

The Best Violence

1. A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess

2. Hell's Angels - Hunter S Thompson

3. A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens

4. Another Country - James Baldwin

5. In Cold Blood - Truman Capote

The Best Highs

1. Junky - William S Burroughs

2. The Moonstone - Wilkie Collins

3. Confessions Of An English Opium Eater - Thomas De Quincey

4. The Subterraneans - Jack Kerouac

5. Monsieur Monde Vanishes - Georges Simenon

The Best Subversion

1. 1984 - George Orwell

2. The Monkey Wrench Gang - Edward Abbey

3. The Prince - Niccolo Machiavelli

4. Bound For Glory - Woody Guthrie

5. Death Of A Salesman - Arthur Miller

The Best Crime

1. Maigret And The Ghost - Georges Simenon

2. Woman In White - Wilkie Collins

3. The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler

4. A Study In Scarlet - Arthur Conan Doyle

5. The Thirty-Nine Steps - John Buchan

The Best Adultery

1. Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert

2. Thérèse Raquin - Émile Zola

3. Les Liaisons Dangereuses - Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

4. The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne

5. Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy

The Best Debauchery

1. I, Claudius - Robert Graves

2. Hangover Square - Patrick Hamilton

3. The Beggar's Opera - John Gay

4. The Twelve Caesars - Suetonius

5. Guys And Dolls - Damon Runyon

The Best Action

1. Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson

2. Iliad - Homer

3. The Count Of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas

4. From Russia With Love - Ian Fleming

5. War And Peace - Leo Tolstoy

The Best Laughs

1. Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons

2. Diary Of A Nobody - George and Weedon Grossmith

3. The Pickwick Papers - Charles Dickens

4. Scoop - Evelyn Waugh

5. Lucky Jim - Kingsley Amis