19 Best 17th Century Books: Classics That Kickstarted the World of Writing

Dig into a golden age of literature with this collection of the best 17th century books.

The 17th century was an unparalleled time for literary work. The printing press spread throughout Europe, and Eastern hemisphere writers were experimenting with new forms of poetry and storytelling. The world was getting ready for the concept of novels.

What we have from this fascinating era is a mix of history, theater, folklore, some of the first fights for women’s liberty, and much more. If you’re looking for more suggestions, check out the best poetry books in our guide.

Here Are The 19 Best 17th Century Books

1. Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en (China, published in the 16th century)

Journey to the West spans multiple fascinating volumes, so you can break it down into separate reads if you want to give the first volume a try. It follows a famed mythical monk who, nearly a thousand years earlier, made a 16-year journey to India. The story is part religion, part fairy tale, and part history – with plenty of humor, satire, and romance, too! It’s one of the clearest looks English readers have at the Chinese approach to storytelling at that time, and well worth a read for those curious.

“In my opinion those who strive for fame will lose their lives on account of fame; those who live in quest of fortune will perish because of riches; those who have titles sleep embracing a tiger; and those who receive official favors walk with snakes in their sleeves.”

Anthony C. Yu (translator), Journey to the West

2. The Life of an Amorous Man by Saikaku Ihara (Japan, 1682)

Saikaku Ihara
Saikaku Ihara via Wikipedia, Public Domain

This famous book is an eastern equivalent of the European Don Juan, which was also published in the same century. It follows a popular Japanese man called Yonosuke. His many – and often complicated – relationships with women, and quite a few men, provide an enlightening view of Japanese views on sexuality during that era. It’s also an interesting look at how high society, in general, functioned.

“Sansaburo said: “I, too, have felt right along an emotion for you. Now that you have confessed to me, I am very glad. The feeling, I assure you, is mutual. How can I deny your wishes? Wait for the dawn, and your wishes shall be fulfilled. Come to my house in the morning.”

Saikaku Ihara, The Life of an Amorous Man

3. The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Bashō (Japan, 1694)

Matsuo Bashō
Matsuo Bashō via Wikipedia, Public Domain

If you like the idea of ancient travelogues, The Narrow Road has an interesting twist: Basho, a skilled poet who became a famed Zen master, travels the land to learn more about life, truth, and the great mysteries of reality. It’s also an excellent showcase of the Japanese haibun, linking verse and poetry to tell a story, including some of Japan’s finest haikus.

“Real poetry, is to lead a beautiful life. To live poetry is better than to write it.”

Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North

4. The Reply by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Mexico, 1691)

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz via Wikipedia, Public Domain

At first glance, a letter written by a Mexican nun may seem like an odd choice for the list. But, The Reply, also known as The Answer, among other titles, is famous as a masterful work of feminism by an incredibly brilliant woman. Her letter critiquing religious theory (and plagiarism of her past work) includes a historically powerful defense of women as poets, sages, and intellectuals.

“Who has forbidden women to engage in private and individual studies? Have they not a rational soul as men do?…I have this inclination to study and if it is evil I am not the one who formed me thus – I was born with it and with it I shall die.”

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, The Reply

5. Phèdre by Jean Racine (France, 1677)

Jean Racine
Jean Racine via Wikipedia, Public Domain

Europe was a hotbed of theater and plays during the 17th century. A particularly unique, powerful example is Phèdre by Poet Laureate Racine of France. The story does an incredible job of interpreting a Greek myth for the current age, sketching the tale of Phèdre’s hubris, her forbidden love for her stepson, and the destruction of her family at the hands of the gods.

“It is no longer a passion hidden in my heart: It is Venus herself fastened to her prey.”

Jean Racine, Phèdre

6. The Cid by Pierre Corneille (France, 1636)

Pierre Corneille
Pierre Corneille via Wikipedia, Public Domain

The Cid follows the life and death of one of Spain’s most popular folk heroes and warriors, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar. It’s considered one of the first and greatest examples of tragicomedy, something entirely unexpected in French theaters at the time – and caused quite a controversy.

“Men may reduce me to live without happiness, but they cannot compel me to live without honor.”

Pierre Corneille, The Cid

7. Tartuffe by Molière (France, 1664)

Molière via Wikipedia, Public Domain

Tartuffe’s blistering satire and wordplay may be famous today, but the tale was so scandalous at the time that it was banned for years. The play follows a con man who fools a wealthy family with his religious pretension and fake piety, something the church of the day did not care for. This is a classic novel that still resonates with modern readers.

“It’s a veritable Tower of Babylon, The way you people babble on.”

Molière, Tartuffe

8. Pensées by Blaise Pascal (France, 1670)

Blaise Pascal
Blaise Pascal via Wikipedia, Public Domain

Pensées is famous for clearly laying out an argument for humanity’s often despicable condition and need for improvement. It laid the groundwork for many moral arguments in later centuries, using careful logic and observation of humanity to make clear points. Readers may also find it darkly sardonic, with many quotable lines that are applicable today.

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Blaise Pascal, Pensées

9. Clélie by Madeleine de Scudéry (France, 1654-1660)

Madeleine de Scudéry
Madeleine de Scudéry via Wikipedia, Public Domain

You don’t have to read all of Clélie, which is essentially a romantic fiction series – one of the first of its kind – but picking up a volume or two is well worth your time. It’s a daring tale of a Roman beauty and her quest for love that also raised questions about modern-day France – and the ire of male novelists as it became one of the most popular fiction works of the time.

“The only rose without thorns is friendship.”

Madeleine de Scudéry, Clélie

10. Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes (France, 1641)

René Descartes
René Descartes via Wikipedia, Public Domain

Possibly Descartes’ greatest work, Meditations, offers a philosophical argument for human consciousness, the existence of the soul, and the existence of God. It attempts to argue based on completely empirical grounds of what the philosopher can directly observe and consider, forming a foundation for Western philosophy that would last for centuries.

“It is only prudent never to place complete confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived.”

René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy

11. Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems by Galileo Galilei (Italy, 1632)

Miguel de Cervantes
Miguel de Cervantes via Wikipedia, Public Domain

While the reasons for Galileo’s house arrest are complicated, a major factor was his Dialogue, where he infamously claimed that the earth revolved around the sun, something the Inquisition found to be the greatest heresy. Of course, this forbidden book of science was eventually proven highly accurate, a massive leap forward for medieval times.

“There is not a single effect in Nature, not even the least that exists, such that the most ingenious theorists can ever arrive at a complete understanding of it. This vain presumption of understanding everything can have no other basis than never understanding anything.”

Galileo Galilei, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems

12. L’Adone by Giambattista Marino (Italy, 1623)

Giambattista Marino
Giambattista Marino via Wikipedia, Public Domain

L’Adone is famous for being the longest poem in Italian ever written, but critics immediately declared it didn’t count. Why? Because while it was technically all one opera, it was more a collection of shorter, convoluted madrigals with little interconnection, making it impossible to perform live. That makes it easier for readers to sample part of the work to see why it was controversial – and how it inspired operas for years to come.

“Non esser alga in mar lieve e tremante che pieghi or quinci or quindi il tuo volere. Stabile ai venti, al’onde, in te raccogli la fermezza de’ tronchi e degli scogli.”

Giambattista Marino, L’Adone

13. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (Spain, 1605, 1615)

Miguel de Cervantes
Miguel de Cervantes via Wikipedia, Public Domain

While Quixote has become a household name for his feats like jousting at windmills, the novel itself is much more: A critique and mourning of the lost past, a treatise on the advantages of madness, a tragicomic look at how influential people are free to indulge their delusions – and that’s just the beginning. The length makes it a challenging read, so book clubs may want to settle for key excerpts…advice that works well for many of the picks on this particular list.

“Take my advice and live for a long, long time. Because the maddest thing a man can do in this life is to let himself die.”

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

14. Fuenteovejuna by Lope de Vega (Spain, 1619)

Lope de Vega
Lope de Vega via Wikipedia, Public Domain

One of Spain’s most prolific playwrights, some of Vega’s best work is seen in Fuenteovejuna, a play covering the rise of a brave village against a cruel garrison: Those who know Spartacus may find some parts familiar. You rarely see this powerful work in theaters outside of Spain, but it’s worth reading for those curious.

“He’ll win few friends playing that game. / When you treat a man with respect / You build a bridge into his heart / When you treat a man with contempt / You make an enemy for life.”

Lope de Vega, Fuenteovejuna

15. The Swindler by Francisco de Quevedo (Spain, 1626)

Francisco de Quevedo
Francisco de Quevedo via Wikipedia, Public Domain

The Swindler is one of the most famous examples of the picaresque movement in Spain, showcasing a riotous and colorful underworld that has you rooting for those who play outside of the rules – even if they are ultimately doomed by their inclinations and the circumstances of their birth. The Swindler may not have a happy ending, and some lessons are questionable today. Still, it remains a fascinating, enjoyable read, especially with an analysis of this era of Spanish history.

“Dear Reader, may God protect you from bad books, police and nagging, moon-faced, fair-haired women.”

Francisco de Quevedo, The Swindler

16. Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (Germany, 1604)

Aphra Behn
Aphra Behn via Wikipedia, Public Domain

Many versions of the Faust tale have been told over the years, and examining them is an excellent way to see how society and literature have changed over time. One of the most famous is the play Dr. Faustus: Here, Faust deals with the devil Mephistopheles not for love but out of arrogance and pursuit of power, believing he is worthy of dark knowledge: The beautiful prose soon shows how wrong he is to try it.

“I am Envy, begotten of a chimney-sweeper and an oyster-wife. I cannot read, and therefore wish all books were burnt; I am lean with seeing others eat.”

Christopher Marlowe, Dr. Faustus

17. Oroonoko by Aphra Behn (England, 1688)

Aphra Behn
Aphra Behn via Wikipedia, Public Domain

Oroonoko is a particularly interesting little novel that is an easy read with a powerful history. It claims to be the true tale of an African prince and his adventures. The titular prince falls in love, is enslaved, and fights for his freedom before ending in tragedy. It’s one of the first critiques of British colonization and slavery that was widely published and noted for its honesty regarding how Africans were being treated at the time.

“This old dead hero had one only daughter left of his race; a beauty that, to describe her truly, one need say only, she was female to the noble male; the beautiful black Venus to our young Mars.”

Aphra Behn, Oroonoko

18. Paradise Lost by John Milton (England, 1667)

John Milton
John Milton via Wikipedia, Public Domain

Paradise is famous both in and out of literary education as a perfect example of verse and a famous telling of the fall of Lucifer, although readers will soon find there’s much more to the tale. The beautiful descriptions of everything from the council of fallen angels in hell to the newly-created garden of Eden are spellbinding for any reader. Those with limited time should focus on the first few sections covering the most well-known parts of the work.

“A mind not to be changed by place or time. / The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.”

John Milton, Paradise Lost

19. Henry VIII by William Shakespeare (England, 1613)

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare via Wikipedia, Public Domain

How do you pick just one of Shakespeare’s plays to read? Everyone has their favorite. But for this particular list, Henry VIII is one of the best choices. It shows both how Shakespeare approaches the history of his own country and its romanticization, with plenty of political and passionate intrigue at work. Plus, it has what are arguably some of Shakespeare’s best lines from his plays. Become inspired by reading our round-up of the best life-changing books!

“Love thyself last: cherish those hearts that hate thee; Corruption wins not more than honesty.”

William Shakespeare, Henry VIII

  • Tyler has been published on Huffington Post and Motely Fool. His article and blogs experience includes working for The Content Standard, Mad Mobile, Digital Landing, and Apass Education, among many others.