The written word is a pillar of human civilization — it signals complex thinking, it’s a tool to record history, and it allows for the development of ideas. Throughout our existence, so much has been written down, whether carved into stone or printed on paper, immortalizing thrilling tales and imparting wisdom. Many are lost, weathered by time or withered in flames like in the case of the Library of Alexandria; though plenty remain for us to peruse.
Let’s take a trip through time and discover the world’s literary trends by looking at 115 of the best books of all time! It took a while to compile this list (there is simply too much great writing!) but you’ll see that there’s a bit of everything: from poetry to plays to novels, from Chinese classics to Renaissance gems.
Feel free to skip to your favorite era using this table of contents:
Literature in the modern age
1. The Story of Sinuhe by Unknown (c. 1800 BC)
More than three thousand years before the Bard was born, the Egyptian Shakespeare wrote the Hathor worshipper’s answer to Hamlet — and we don’t even know their name. Anonymously authored, the elegant and haunting Story of Sinuhe has been hailed as ancient Egypt’s best. This epic poem follows the titular Sinuhe, an official who goes AWOL when he gets some explosive intel about the assassination of his king. His new life in Canaan brings him glorious victories, a high-society marriage, and honorable sons…. but the guilt of his exit continues to eat away at him, and he never stops longing for his homeland.
2. Epic of Gilgamesh by Sin-liqe-unninni (c. 1700 BC)
This four thousand year-old page-turner flies under the radar compared to high school staples like the Odyssey, but the Epic of Gilgamesh is nothing short of, well, epic. It’s a must-read whether you love the redemptive power of a good bromance or have a taste for quirky math (the titular Gilgamesh is one-third moral and two-thirds divine)! Our genetically improbable protagonist begins the story as a a king who brutalizes his people — in other words, a true antihero. He rules over the city of Uruk with an iron fist until the gods themselves mold the wild man Enkidu out of clay and water to strike the wicked king down. But when Enkidu finally confronts his target, the two destined enemies become fast friends — inspiring Gilgamesh to mend his ways and go on a monster-hunting quest with his new bestie.
3. The Odyssey by Homer (c. 700 BC)
Speaking of the Odyssey, this timeless classic has it all: the heart-racing thrills of an adventure story and the psychological drama of a family saga. The Ithacan king Odysseus has spent the past ten years in Troy, fighting a war he never wanted to fight. Now that the enemy has been duly routed, it’s finally, finally time to go home. Too bad the journey back to Ithaca isn’t going to be smooth sailing because Poseidon is less than pleased with Odysseus after a certain… tragic incident involving the god’s Cyclops son. Meanwhile, Odysseus’ wife Penelope has spent the past decade holding a horde of pushy young suitors at arm’s length. In her husband’s long absence, all 108 of them are eager to insinuate themselves into her bed — and onto Ithaca’s throne. With gods and men standing in their way, will Odysseus and Penelope pull off a reunion?
4. Aesop’s Fables by Aesop (c. 500 BC)
City mouse and country mouse. Sour grapes. Slow and steady wins the race. Brought to life by an enslaved prisoner of war, Aesop’s Fables have shaped our everyday idioms and helped define how we see the world. These deceptively simple tales have clear moral messages that are served with a dash of darkness: in Aesop’s starkly enchanted world, anthropomorphic animals cavort, gambol, and sometimes die ignoble deaths, struck down by their own foolishness and arrogance. Whether you’re in the mood for Tweet-brief bedtime reading or hankering for a blunt reminder of life’s harshness, these timeless tales that have enriched the worlds of toddlers and philosophers alike will have you covered.
5. Oedipus the King by Sophocles (430 BC)
This bleak masterclass in dramatic irony gave its name to the most famous of Freudian complexes, and it’s been reminding readers — and playgoers — for ages that sometimes you just can’t fight fate. The great tragedian Sophocles wrote it more than 2,000 years ago, so forgive us if we don’t issue any spoiler warnings. In any case, we all know how this story ends — with the unlucky Oedipus blinded and weeping blood, after accidentally killing his father and marrying his mother. The bitter fascination of reading Oedipus the King lies in following him to that grisly and inevitable conclusion. Trust us — the dread that grips you because you know exactly what’s coming will make your blood run colder than many a horror movie.
6. The Mahabharata by Vyasa (c. 300 BC)
If your literary tastes run towards lengthiness, this 200,000-verse epic is the perfect read for you — stitch the Odyssey and the Iliad together and you’ll only have one tenth of the Mahabharata. No wonder it’s been called the longest poem ever written. But even those who don’t gravitate towards sprawling stories shouldn’t be put off by this Sanskrit classic’s sheer bulk! It’s a rich narrative storehouse in which love transcends status, dice games cost gamblers their kingdoms, and cousins turn their weapons against each other — and you certainly don’t have to read all 18 books to be fascinated and moved.
If you’re not quite sure where to start, we recommend diving into the Bhagavad Gita. In this philosophically rich, 700-verse passage from the sixth book, the warrior prince Arjuna struggles to master his emotions on the eve of battle. His enemies, after all, are also his own kinsmen. Can his friend and charioteer — who also happens to be a reincarnated god — help him find a way out of his turmoil?
7. Adelphoe by Terence (160 BC)
This quirky Roman classic proves two things: the ancients knew how to get a laugh out of theatergoers, and bumbling fathers and rebellious sons are literally) an age-old recipe for comedy. Adelphoe kicks off with a parenting experiment: rural patriarch Demea has two sons, and he sends one to be raised by his city-dwelling brother Micio while rearing the other himself. Thus the two brothers grow up apart: Ctesipho lives it up in Athens with his indulgent uncle, while Aeschinus stays in the countryside, under his despotic father’s thumb. In short, one brother becomes repressed, and the other has become a louche. But when Ctesipho falls in love with an enslaved musician, he turns to his brother for help. When Demea and Micio find out what their boys are up to, will they finally agree on the right way to raise kids?
8. The Aeneid by Virgil (c. 20 BC)
For Odysseus, the Trojan War led to a ten-year nightmare involving six-headed monsters, vengeful sea-gods, and a scorned witch capable of turning men into pigs — and he was one of the winners! Which makes you wonder what it was like to be on the losing side. Let’s just ask the Trojan hero Aeneas, whose own post-war adventures spawned another epic poem.
The star of the Aeneid, he flees Troy just after the murder of its king. For a while, destiny seems to be on Aeneas’ side: a prophecy dictates he’ll establish a glorious nation in Rome, and his own mother is none other than Venus herself. But even with divine blood flowing through him, he can’t count on support from all the gods: Juno, in particular, seems intent on turning his journey to Italy into a real ordeal. We know that Aeneas will make it to Rome. But what will he suffer in the process — and who will suffer with him?
9. The Satyricon by Petronius (c. 90 AD)
Film buffs likely know the Satyricon through Fellini’s 1969 adaptation, a surreal, peach-tinted fever dream filled with flower crowns and debauchery. The original Roman novel isn’t quite so reminiscent of a Lana del Rey music video, but its sharp, steamy satire still makes for a riveting read. Meet Encolpius, a famous ex-gladiator with strident literary opinions and an… active love life. He’s traveling around Greece with his friend (and ex) Asycltos when the two run into the handsome, sixteen-year-old slave Giton. Cue the love triangle, which ultimately culminates in an orgy. Things only get wilder from there, with sex cults, cannibalism, and magical cures for impotence thrown into mix. If you want some classicist-approved reading material that hits like reality TV, give the Satyricon a try.
10. The Tale of an Anklet by Unknown (c. 450 AD)
This Tamil answer to the Odyssey features one unforgettable heroine. Kannaki starts out as a long-suffering wife, but by the time the story’s done, she’s transformed into a goddess who sets cities on fire with her rage. But let’s rewind quickly to the start of The Tale of an Anklet, where she and the handsome Kovalan are married and living in bliss — as far as she’s concerned. Kovalan seems to feel differently: why else would he leave his wife at home to take up with a beautiful courtesan?
But when Kovalan faces financial ruin, Kannaki swallows her betrayal and prepares to bail him out. She offers him a jeweled anklet to pawn — but he’s falsely accused of stealing it from the queen. Can Kannaki save him from a flawed justice system, or will she be forced to seek revenge for the husband who broke her heart? From the bitterness of love to the brokenness of law, this gorgeous, heartrending drama brings age-old issues to passionate life.
11. One Thousand and One Nights by Unknown (c. 700)
This collection of Arabic-language folk tales shows the transformative power of a good cliffhanger — used right, it can apparently save your life! Over the course of, well, a thousand and one nights, the quick-witted storyteller Scheherazade (the latest in a long succession of King Shahryar’s unfortunate brides) draws on her imagination to stave off death. Embittered by a previous wife’s infidelity, King Shahryar has been marrying a new one every night — only to put her to death the next morning. Scheherazade, though, is different from these other one-night queens: she actually volunteered for the job. Every night, she regales her paranoid husband with a story but refuses to finish it — forcing him to push back her beheading in favor of the grand finale. And then she starts another one to keep him on the hook.
One Thousand and One Nights lets you listen in on these high-stakes bedtime stories. Scheherazade’s repertoire spans the spectrum from cozy childhood favorites (Aladdin, anyone?) to historical, tragic, and erotic tales fit to stir a royal imagination. It turns out, the way to a king’s heart isn’t through his stomach — it’s through the magic of plot!
12. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (c. 1010)
Often touted as the first psychological novel, The Tale of Genji was ahead of its time. Written by a pseudonymous noblewoman in the Japanese court, it follows the political and amorous (mis)adventures of a young official. Genji, the “shining” youth at the heart of the tale, was born to one of the emperor’s most beloved consorts. But with no place for him in the line of succession, he’s forced to make his way through life using his astonishing good looks and supernatural charm. Things could be worse, right?
Unfortunately for Genji, his gifts seem to bring him more sorrow than joy: he falls in love with the worst possible woman — his own stepmother, Lady Fujitsubo. Unable to forget her, he kidnaps her niece, the preteen Murasaki, to raise as a replacement Fujitsubo — all while continuing his affair with the real Fujitsubo. Elegant, immersive, and dense, this strange and captivating classic blurs the line between truth and fiction. Did Murasaki, the author, name herself after her heroine? Or is Muraski the character a reflection of the woman who brought her to life?
14. Lais by Marie de France (c. 1100)
If you’ve ever wanted to live out a courtly romance or daydreamed about saving lives as a dragon-slaying knight, you can thank Marie. This 12th-century poet — the first woman in French history to write verse — virtually invented chivalry through her Lais. Though we sadly don’t even know her real name today, we do know that her view of romance was subtle and even sometimes sinister — never sappy. In these twelve short narrative poems, werewolves suffer heartbreak, vassals betray their lords, and jealous husbands lash out against innocent wives with unimaginable cruelty. Love, Marie knew, could be as corrupting as it was powerful, making cunning and sophisticated beasts out of men.
15. The Knight in Panther’s Skin by Shota Rusteveli (c. 1190)
Up to a century ago, The Knight in Panther’s Skin was a part of every Georgian bride’s dowry. In this heart-stirring epic, medieval Georgia’s premiere poet uses a fictionalized Middle Eastern setting to glorify Queen Tamar, who presided over the kingdom’s golden age.
The poem opens on the warrior Avtandil as he takes on an unusual mission. Normally tasked with commanding the Arabian king’s armies, he’s been asked to spearhead a strange manhunt. His target? A mysterious knight dressed in a panther’s skin, whom the king’s men found weeping by a river — before he killed them and disappeared. Dangerous as he is, is this shadowy stranger a friend or a foe? The answer may surprise the noble Avtandil — and force him to turn against the king he’s served so faithfully.
16. The Song of the Nibelungs by Unknown (c. 1200)
You’ve heard of Roman epics and Greek tragedies, but have you heard of this heroic poem that shaped German nationalism centuries after being recorded? The Song of the Nibelungs tells the tale of King Gunther and his sister Kriemhild, whose marriage with foreign hero Siegfried proved troublesome for her kingdom. The siblings’ relationship soured as Kriemhild finds herself widowed and sent off to marry the ruler of the neighboring kingdom, and Kriemhild’s indignation brings the story to a tragic end.
Beyond the fascinating plot, this poem immortalized Siegfried and Hagen, Gunther’s loyal right-hand man, as the embodiment of the German spirit when the country unified in the late 1800s. Its influence on European culture attests to its status as one of the most impressive works of German Medieval literature ever created.
17. The Poetic Edda by Unknown (13th century)
You can thank this anonymous batch of poems for The Hobbit — not to mention the superhero Thor. The Poetic Edda, one of the most important sources for Nose mythology, surfaced in Iceland sometime during the 13th century. It’s since cast a vast shadow on western literature, with writers from Tolkien to Jorge Luis Borges touting it as a major influence.
This verse collection brings the deeds of gods and heroes to life. You’ll hear a witch’s prophecy foretelling Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods, see the All-father Odin match wits with the wisest of giants, and follow Heimdall, the divine watchmen, as he journeys through the land of mortals — fathering many children along the way. In the starkly beautiful world these poems sketch out, vows are binding, honor is everything, and not even the gods are safe from a painful death.
17. Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong (c. 1300)
If this glorious tale had to be described in three words, they would be: epic, tragic, and historical. One of the pillars of Chinese classical literature, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a mythicized account of 80 years of political intrigue and warfare between three dynastic families over rulership of Northern China. As beloved generals and cunning strategists form leagues and battle it out, we learn of their love, their righteousness, and their camaraderie. The riveting plot ends with a twist that’s too well-crafted to be true — although the story is based on real events.
This masterpiece and its philosophical explorations transcends time and borders, and it remains one of the most well-known novels in East Asian cultures today.
18. Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1320)
Divine Comedy is a colossal three-part narrative poem that sees Dante’s odyssey from the bottom of the afterlife to the top. In Hell, he escapes from writhing beasts with the help of the knowledgeable Roman poet Virgil. In Purgatory, he learns how subtle and psychological the manifestation of the Seven Deadly Sins can be. And in Heaven, he sees how the palace of peaceful eternity is built on the sturdy pillars of virtuosity.
Dante’s lyrical and intricate depictions of immorality are pertinent throughout history, inspiring writers in the craft of storytelling while provoking reflection among readers. It’s truly one of the greatest literary works of all time.
19. Piers Plowman by William Langland (c. 1380)
Taking a large leap across France, Spain and the Channel from Italy we arrive in England, where Langland recorded his take on Christianity in a colossal, alliterated poem.
Rather than delving into death as Dante had several decades prior, this poem explores human behaviors and morality through the visions of a man called Will. In his dreamscape, Will meets all kinds of “people” who are personified virtues — from the Seven Deadly Sins to Dowel (“do well”) and Dobet (“do better”). The metafictional quality of presenting vision within vision, the complexity of Middle English literature, and the depth of theological knowledge make Piers Plowman a difficult but very rich and sophisticated text.
20. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1400)
From knights to monks to cooks — Chaucer’s elaborate collection of 24 stories unravels the journey that people make to Canterbury and its majestic cathedral. While they embark on the same journey, the protagonists of these tales are as different as can be — each hails from a different background and represents a different tier in the social hierarchy of feudal society.
The Canterbury Tales are fascinating to read on their own, providing a magical portal to medieval villages and quests that came to be the inspiration for countless Hollywood movies. These odysseys shine the most, however, when they are experienced together, because that’s when Chaucer’s brilliance at displaying the complexities of society reveals itself.
21. The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan (c. 1405)
Vexed by the unkind objectification of women in popular literature, Christine de Pizan set out to give women the representation they deserve.
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In The Book of the City of Ladies, Reason, Rectitude, and Justice appear to the narrator — Pizan herself — and ask her to build a city just for women. It turns out that building this city requires the dismantling of the narrator’s own preconceived notions of gender and societal norms.
The resulting monumental literary work includes stories of legendary female figures in history and mythology — from the Virgin Mary to Helen of Troy — as Pizan reveals to readers that women are every bit as capable as men. Elegantly written and daringly conceived, this book will be a place of refuge for believers of gender equality.
22. Hamlet by William Shakespeare (c. 1601)
Though you may be familiar with the plot by virtue of The Lion King, it’s always worth getting back to basics with the source material — inasmuch as you can call Shakespeare’s longest and arguably most influential play “basic.”
For those unfamiliar, we’ll back it up: Hamlet is the son of the recently deceased king of Denmark, whose sudden death has been hastily papered over by his brother and successor, Claudius. Hamlet, of course, is suspicious, especially after a vision of his father claims that Claudius murdered him to take the throne. To distract others from his plan of revenge, Hamlet pretends that he’s gone mad, and what follows is a tangled web of deceit, violence, and tragedy for the royal family and their compatriots — especially as it becomes increasingly difficult to tell whether Hamlet is still faking his madness, or has genuinely gone off the deep end.
23. The Plum in the Golden Vase by Unknown (c. 1610)
Arguably the world’s most famous erotic novel, The Plum in the Golden Vase seems to shape-shift depending on the angle you view it from. It’s a lavishly illustrated handbook of sexual peccadilloes and a harshly punitive morality tale; an irreverent fanfic for a foundational novel and an eminent classic in its own right. You can think of it as the late Ming answer to Lolita: artful in its execution, perverse and learned in its tone.
The Plum in the Golden Vase shines a spotlight (or a blacklight) on a minor figure from The Water Margin, the adventuresome ancestor of Chinese martial arts fiction. This, however, is a very different novel: light on honor among thieves and heavy on steamy social satire, its characters are much more likely to die by aphrodisiac poisoning than by the sword. The fabulously wealthy, fatally dissolute merchant Ximen Qing shares his bed with a rotating cast of six lovers — and counting. Needless to say, his appetites don’t always make for the most… harmonious of households. As the novel tracks his social life with savage wit, the women around him take center stage, in all their cruel, bawdy complexity.
24. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1615)
Have you ever wondered if it’s possible to read so much you go mad? Well, Don Quixote proves the answer to that question is: yes. Inspired by tales of chivalrous adventures, Don Quixote abandons his low nobility status in a little Spanish village, this self-anointed knight travels the land to defeat giants and deliver justice. The only problem is the giants he sees are mere windmills, and his sworn enemies are typically passers-by who he provokes. His skewed view of the world takes him back and forth from home, and by the end of this voyage, you’ll be left to wonder if it’s Don Quixote who’s mad — and not the world he lives in.
Part two of the novel introduces an impostor — a writer who pretends to be Don Quixote the knight and publishes recounts of his imaginary adventures. As the metafiction develops, the lines and meanings of imagination and reality blurs even more, leaving only one thing crystal clear: Cervantes’ mastery of the art of storytelling.
25. The Imposter by Molière (1644)
The Imposter is a satirical play that stars Tartuffe, a pious and well-respected man who has won the love and adoration of Orgon, the head of a well-to-do family. As Tartuffe wines and dines with this family, it quickly comes to light that Tartuffe is not who he pretends to be; that behind his facade of civility is an array of selfish intentions. As the story goes on, Orgon’s family make many attempts to reveal Tartuffe’s true nature.
In a time when religiousness was never a quality not deserving of respect, the preachy and pretentious character of Tartuffe was so well-crafted that his name came to mean “hypocrite” in contemporary French. Molière also faced backlash from the Church and Christain community at the time, but his brilliance as a playwright refuses to be disregarded, and his play stands as a literary classic.
Literature in the modern age
26. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719)
In a rebellious act that has inspired the wanderlust of many, Robinson Crusoe denies the stability of life in England to travel the world. Thankfully, his colonial adventures feature encounters foreign to modern travellers: slave trades, cannibalism, and shipwrecks on foreign islands. Through this flurry of events, Crusoe comes to appreciate his own upbringing and culture more.
First published under the pseudonym Robinson Crusoe, Defoe’s vivid narration fooled many of its contemporary readers into thinking it was a travel memoir, which back then was a very popular genre. Defoe’s creativity marks this stunning novel as a trailblazer for adventure fiction.
27. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)
If Robinson Crusoe is a novel packed with optimism about human discovery and development, Gulliver’s Travels is a dark parody of that. Protagonist Lemuel Gulliver sets sail several times and stumbles upon four different societies: one of peculiar little people, one of benevolent giants, one of madly scientific people, and one of magical talking horses. Each society has some sort of drawback that reflects an aspect of English society during Swift’s time — some are blindly adhering to nonsensical faith, some to rigid political hierarchies, and others to wild experiments. Swift has always been known for his harsh social commentary, and nothing better epitomizes his satire than the irony of Gulliver’s disdain for other cultures, despite their similarities to his own.
28. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749)
Widely considered to be one of the earliest English comic novels, Tom Jones is also an elaborate bildungsroman detailing the upbringing of the titular Tom. Born to an unwed mother and raised by the kindhearted squire Allworthy, Tom grows into a spirited but similarly compassionate young man, eventually falling in love with a neighboring squire’s daughter, Sophia. But after being foiled by a rival for her affections, Tom sets off on a series of adventures through England that are equal parts thrilling and purely comical, from accidental encounters with both of his alleged parents to a very Oscar Wilde-esque ending (though of course, Fielding preceded Wilde by 150 years!) wherein his true parentage is revealed at last.
29. Candide by Voltaire (1759)
As a boy, Candide was taught that everything in the world happens for a reason: that things good and bad serve their purpose in the grand scheme of it all. But as he ventures out into the world and comes face to face with hardships and sufferings, Candide begins to wonder if this optimistic philosophy is a manifestation of ignorance and indifference.
Underneath this coming-of-age story is Voltaire’s brave effort to hold a mirror up to society, and make it examine its flaws. Hardly any author in his time dared to oppose the accepted virtues of the educated class — Voltaire even refused to take credit for this masterpiece until years after the publication — and none did it with as much wit and passion as Voltaire did.
30. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (c. 1767)
Perhaps the novel’s complete title — The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman — will give you a better taste of what this narrative is: long-winded and endlessly distracted. Usually, that’s not the description of a stellar book. Even though it’s written from the perspective of Tristam Shandy, we actually find out very little about his life through this recount. What is abundant on these pages are mundane events and petty feuds between his family and neighbors that reflect with ringing clarity the norms of 18th century society. In a way, Tristam is the perfect storyteller — he paints an intricate picture of his corner of the world, with its troubles and hardships, its virtues and development. Laurence Sterne defied conventions to create an extraordinary book about ordinary lives.
31. Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin (1791)
One of the longest and most treasured classics of Chinese literature, Dream of the Red Chamber centers around the life and loves of Jia Baoyu — heir of one of the most powerful families in the land. As with every dynastic family, there will always come a decline. And the Jias’ final days seem to be around the corner, as the political arena shifts and its heir appears bent on listening to his heart rather than his parents.
From battles of the matriarchs, to noble garden parties and corrupt murder trials, this tale unravels the deepest and darkest corners of Chinese high society in the time of the Qing dynasty — all inspired by the author’s own prestigious upbringing. Dream of the Red Chamber’s fame as a pillar of Chinese fiction extends far beyond its culture, astounding readers throughout the world with its thematic depth and allegorical intricacies.
32. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
You are probably familiar with Pride and Prejudice, the love story of the bright and beautiful Elizabeth Bennet and the stoic and aristocratic Mr. Darcy. If you read it when you were younger, it perhaps presented itself as a mere love story set in Regency England. But of course, that barely scratches the surface of all the book holds. Austen had gracefully weaved snarky commentary about wealth, social class, and individuality into the narrative. Austen’s attention to detail and her wonderful wit ultimately show how thought-provoking and entertaining a story can become if it falls into the hands of the right author.
33. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
One of the most culturally influential works of science fiction, horror, and indeed literature as a whole, Frankenstein recounts the tragic tale of Victor Frankenstein — a scientist who dreams of creating the perfect human being, but instead engineers a hideous, violent monster. The monster escapes after Victor abandons him and soon targets his family, threatening to kill them unless Victor builds him a mate. Facing tremendous moral and personal pressure, Victor must choose: foster a new race to possibly destroy mankind, or be responsible for the deaths of everyone he’s ever loved? Vividly colored by Mary Shelley’s own life and her brilliant imagination, Frankenstein was a groundbreaking novel in its time that remains riveting and resounding to this day.
34. Ivanhoe by Walter Scott (1819)
Often credited with renewing modern interest in the medieval period and its “romantic” culture, Ivanhoe tracks the adventures of its eponymous hero, who is disinherited by his Anglo-Saxon father for his allegiance to Richard the Lionheart. Undeterred, Ivanhoe accompanies his king on the Crusades as tensions mount back in England — and this is only the beginning of a rollicking ride full of trials and tournaments, secret identities and stormed castles, hard-won loves and loyalties, and much more. Coupling nineteenth-century sensibilities and style with a story that could otherwise have come straight from the quill of Chrétien de Troyes, Ivanhoe is a historical masterpiece that will enthrall fans of action, politics, and chivalric romance alike.
35. Faust by Goethe (1832)
We’ve all heard the phrase “a deal with the devil” — or, if you’re sufficiently literary, “a Faustian bargain.” The notion of a cursed contract did indeed originate with Faust, and was immortalized in this play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (though the story has much earlier roots). Goethe’s Faust, as he’s referred to, is a voracious scholar who desires to learn and achieve all that is possible in the human realm — yet suffers for the knowledge that he cannot. As another axiom goes, be careful what you wish for; Mephistopheles then appears to Faust, offering him all the worldly knowledge and pleasures that he can imagine, in exchange for Faust’s service in hell after death. Famously signing the contract in his own blood, Faust agrees… but how will their pact actually unfold? You’ll have to read this mesmerizing play to find out.
36. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (1844)
If you believe nothing is more satisfying than justice being served for grievous wrongdoings, you’ll find a new literary love in The Count of Monte Cristo. It kicks off with an innocent sailor, Edmond Dantès, being arrested en route to his wedding for treason. During his many years in prison, he befriends a wise old Italian priest, who bestows upon him a thorough education… and a dazzling fortune, which Dantès finally acquires upon his escape. Reentering society as the Count of Monte Cristo, he swears vengeance upon the men who falsely accused him, which he enacts in various creative and thrilling ways over the next several hundred pages — which readers will nonetheless fly through for their fantastic plotlines and propulsive prose.
37. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)
Arguably the first ever female bildungsroman, Jane Eyre is the story of a frail orphan girl who grows into a highly principled young woman. After a difficult childhood, Jane’s luck takes a turn when she’s employed by the wealthy and mysterious Edward Rochester, whose company she comes to enjoy a great deal. But just as Jane and Rochester become engaged to be married, increasingly frequent and disturbing occurrences take a toll on their relationship, and the revelation of a shocking secret forces Jane to reevaluate everything she once believed. (But fear not, dear reader; for all its Gothic overtones, this novel is still a superb romance above all.)
38. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackery (1848)
An incisive satirist, William Makepeace Thackery intended this book as both social commentary and a deconstruction of conventional literary heroism. Vanity Fair follows the intertwined lives of two women, Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp, as they forge their own paths in Regency society. Amelia is a sweet, simple girl who devotes herself to her husband, despite his flaws; Becky is a savvy social climber who uses her feminine wiles to further her personal interests, even after she is married. The stark contrast between them serves not so much to ridicule the characters, however, as to criticize the society that would make respectability so impossible — and to point out the rife ignorance, hypocrisy, and opportunism even in supposedly upper-class circles.
39. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850)
Speaking of social commentary, David Copperfield is perhaps the greatest work from one of the other major commentators of the mid-1800s, Charles Dickens. This semi-autobiographical novel tackles everything from child labor and debtors’ prisons to class structure and women’s rights, all smoothly embedded in the rich personal history of one David Copperfield. As for Copperfield himself, the story sees him evolve from uncertain boy to clever young man, and finally, to confident writer. Along the way, he learns what separates good from bad, which sorts of people can be trusted, and how to conduct himself resolutely even under the most dire of circumstances: an emotional battle that is rewarded handsomely with professional and marital happiness.
40. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)
“I hate metaphors. That’s why my favorite book is Moby-Dick.” Of course, anyone who’s actually read Moby-Dick will recognize the irony of this Ron Swanson quote — not only is the book packed with symbolism, but Melville’s prose is wonderfully ornate (albeit a little too descriptive when he gets into cetology, the study of whales). The surface story of Moby-Dick is thus: our narrator, Ishmael, boards a whaling ship and quickly discovers its maimed captain is bent on a mission of revenge. The captain, Ahab, spends the next three years searching for the white whale, Moby-Dick, unable to shake his convictions even as he and his crew start to unravel. A timeless tale of delusion and destruction, Moby-Dick does a particularly good job of juxtaposing the gritty everyday realities of whaling with the philosophical allegory of Ahab’s pursuit.
41. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (1862)
Though a 1,500-page tome promising certain misery might sound like an untenable read, we implore you to tackle this brick of a book for Victor Hugo’s glorious and masterful depiction of politics and the inherent tragedy of the human condition. The plot incites, as many likely know, with the peasant Jean Valjean stealing bread to feed his family and being imprisoned for 19 years. Upon his release, he remakes himself as an honest businessman, eventually growing wealthy and even rescuing a young girl, Cosette, from her abusive caretakers the Thénardiers.
All this occurs on the brink of Paris’s June Rebellion of 1832, a cause for which a young revolutionary named Marius risks his life. This event unexpectedly and movingly brings together a number of figures from the rest of the book… which is honestly impossible to explain in a mere synopsis. Just know this: for all the astonishing beauty and gut-wrenching emotion of the musical, Hugo’s source material makes it look like a joke on a candy bar wrapper. If you’re interested in a truly transcendent portrayal of humanity and history (and have enough time on your hands to fully appreciate it), please read Les Misérables.
42. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)
Follow that iconic white rabbit into a world of majesty and mayhem with Lewis Carroll’s sublime children’s novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The titular Alice is an imaginative girl who gets sucked into Wonderland, which at first seems like a glorious boondoggle, but soon reveals itself to be full of strange characters and situations. From mad tea parties to hookah-smoking caterpillars, not to mention the formidable Queen of Hearts, our Alice is in for a wild ride! This pioneer of the “literary nonsense” genre provides nonstop entertainment for adults and children alike, and even those who’ve seen it onscreen will get a kick out of Carroll’s lovely, loopy writing.
43. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866)
What is the true nature of man? According to Dostoyevsky, the answer might be “dark and twisted, yet still plagued by his conscience.” This is the tragic combination that befalls Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished young man who believes that he can rob and murder an elderly pawnbroker without any psychological consequences… only to botch the job and immediately begin agonizing over it (the “punishment” to which the title refers). As Raskolnikov descends further into madness and misery, he grapples with whether to turn himself in, especially with a policeman on his tail and his mother and sister’s reputations at risk. This classic tale of morality, mentality, and social values aptly criticizes the then-prominent notions of nihilism and egoism, while also making profound statements about what it means to be human.
44. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877)
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Such is stated the first of many contentious issues addressed in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, considered by many to be the greatest and best book of all time. The plot revolves around a tumultuous affair between the high-society Anna and cavalry officer Vronsky, with a parallel narrative detailing the religious and ethical quandaries of country landowner Levin. But even as these characters’ lives become increasingly intertwined, and their circumstances increasingly desperate — especially for Anna, whose fate has become a well-known literary reference point — this novel is so much more than an 800-page soap opera. Tolstoy’s exploration of relationships, family, sin, virtue, and the cultural contrast between city and country produces incredibly nuanced and brilliant ideas, many of which are still relevant today.
45. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)
Wildly controversial both upon its release and throughout the twentieth century, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has nevertheless cemented its place in the canon for Twain’s distinctive vernacular prose and ambitious critique of racial relations in the United States. The story follows young Huckleberry “Huck” Finn after he fakes his death to escape his abusive father and runs away with a slave called Jim. As Huck and Jim encounter a series of alternately silly and serious scenarios (and oftentimes both), Twain cleverly dispatches his observations on the hypocrisy of racism and the irrelevance of skin color in friendship — making clear that, if nothing else, this book was very much ahead of its time.
46. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
If you’ve ever heard someone referred to as “a real Jekyll and Hyde character,” you probably know this story has something to do with the duality of man… but what you may not know is how this duality comes to be. In Stevenson’s gothic novella, it’s the result of the scientific Dr. Jekyll’s attempts to indulge in his vices undetected — specifically, by drinking a potion that transforms him into the horrific Mr. Hyde. But the more frequently Jekyll yields to his alter-ego, the more powerful Hyde becomes, until even Jekyll cannot control him. The ensuing tale is both a thrilling feat of supernatural horror and a potent allegory that warns against giving into one’s dark side, even occasionally, for fear that one may never escape its compulsions.
47. Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
Long before Twilight and True Blood, vampires were no cause for swooning — or rather, they were, but in a manner more alarming than amorous. This is the iteration of vampires introduced by Bram Stoker’s genre-defining Dracula, an epistolary novel that traces the history and horrific deeds of the one and only Count Dracula. As more humans come into contact with Dracula, they start to understand what he is, and that he aims to infect and drink the blood of as many people as possible. Only Abraham van Helsing, a professor and bona fide vampire expert, has the power to stop him — and aided by his intrepid cohorts, that’s exactly what they set out to do.
48. The Call of the Wild by Jack London (1903)
One of the most enduring wilderness stories to grace bookshelves in over a century, The Call of the Wild is the bildogsroman (pardon the pun) of Buck: a St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix who must adapt to life as a sled dog after his domesticated upbringing. Despite a rough start, Buck soon recognizes the harsh realities of his situation and learns to trust his instincts in order to survive. But when his leash falls into the hands of a wise, experienced outdoorsman — a man who treats Buck kindly, after months of abuse from other sled drivers — Buck must make a decision: remain loyal to his newfound human master, or finally answer the call of the wild?
49. Nostromo by Joseph Conrad (1904)
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said of this book, “I’d rather have written Nostromo than any other novel.” The story commences with the titular Nostromo, an Italian seaman, transporting a wealth of silver so that it cannot corrupt the local affairs of Sulaco (a port city in a fictional Colombia-like country). But when Nostromo’s ship is compromised, he stashes the silver on a nearby island, leading everyone to believe it was lost at sea. What follows is an incredibly affecting account of Nostromo’s increasing disillusionment and paranoia, as he realizes that other men see him as a pawn and grows obsessed with his hoarded silver. If you loved The Great Gatsby, but wanted it to be even darker and more geopolitical — as Fitzgerald apparently did — you’ll devour Nostromo faster than you can say “quicksilver.”
50. Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence (1913)
The third of his published novels, Sons and Lovers brought D.H. Lawrence a new level of success and acclaim. It also established his reputation for bucking social mores — a talent which would eventually see him indicted for obscenity. Drawing from the author’s working-class upbringing, the book tells the story of Paul Morel, the son of an abusive father and a beloved mother. Escaping the trappings of the mining town where he grew up, Paul leaves for London and begins climbing the social ladder, even finding romance. But as the book’s title suggests, his attempts to separate his emotional identities of son and lover are futile, especially as his mother’s once-treasured affection poisons Paul against other women.
51. The Trial by Franz Kafka (1915)
Though commonly associated with his short story The Metamorphosis, many would consider Kafka’s true magnum opus to be The Trial. Of course, this surreal story of injustice and anarchy is equally wretched, if not more so. It begins with a bank cashier, Josef K., being accused of an unspecified crime and told to await a court summons. Josef attempts to figure out what he has “done” and how he will be tried for it, but is met only with chaos and despair; for example, he’s late to his hearing because he doesn’t know where to go, yet is still harshly reprimanded for his lateness. And as Josef’s sanity frays, so does his sense of humanity, culminating in a bleak third act of this novel that can only be described as quintessentially Kafkaesque.
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52. Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham (1915)
A wrenching, partially autobiographical account of the author’s own life, Of Human Bondage follows young Englishman Philip Carey in his quest to find meaning and love. Traumatized by the deaths of his parents, Philip struggles throughout his childhood; in later years, he rebels and pursues art instead of attending Oxford, but eventually returns to England for medical school. It is there that he meets his femme fatale, Mildred Rogers, who will break his heart over and over as Philip flits from job to job. But this sorrowful tale has a surprisingly uplifting ending, containing a powerful message about the bonds of society and expectations and how we can shed them by taking life one day at a time.
53. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915)
With this book, Ford Madox Ford reinvigorated two crucial narrative elements that would go on to become huge parts of modern literature: flashbacks and the unreliable narrator. Basically, he was the original Gillian Flynn — a comparison that seems even more apt upon knowing the plot of The Good Soldier. It consists of domestic drama between two seemingly perfect couples: John and Florence Dowell, and Leonora and Edward Ashburnham. Edward, the soldier, seems committed to Leonora, but in truth she manipulates and controls him; Edward, meanwhile, is actually having an affair with Florence. John, the narrator, gravely recounts the deterioration of both marriages and the tragic repercussions of their repressive Edwardian era… but also, all is not as it seems, and what’s on the page is seen in a whole new light by the book’s end.
54. The Real Story of Ah-Q by Lu Xun (c. 1920)
Lu Xun’s literature is a pillar of modern Chinese development — all of his works were written with the hopes of igniting the Chinese population into action at a time where it was unsure between adapting to a world system it had evaded up until the late 1800s, and reverting to its old ways. The novella The Real Story of Ah-Q is no exception; if anything, the protagonist Ah-Q embodies the failure of those who refused change. Ah-Q thinks of himself as superior to everyone, even those he capitulates to. His blind arrogance often reaches absurdity during a time when social status is far from constant and stable.
Accompanying The Real Story of Ah-Q in this collection are short stories just as poignant and impactful. Lu Xun’s unconventional view of development and his ability to flesh out nuances from simple plots makes his stories bleakly insightful.
55. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920)
Newland Archer — one of 1900s New York’s most eligible bachelors, with his upper-crust background and his established career as a lawyer — has been looking for a beautiful, traditional wife, and it appears May Welland is just the girl. She also grew up in high society, understands etiquette, and fits perfectly into his picture-perfect family. And yet, it is May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska — a dynamic character returning from her failed marriage in Europe — who catches Newland’s attention. The Age of Innocence follows Newland and his unprecedented dilemma between the two women — and by extension his struggle between upholding the prestige of old money, and seeking the real value behind the labels of social class.
56. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
If you are only going to read one book from this elephantine list, it should be James Joyce’s literary jewel Ulysses. The tale mirrors that of Homer’s the Odyssey (hence the title), only this time, it’s set entirely during one of Leopold Bloom’s days in Dublin. A cast of characters — namely Bloom’s friends and wife — make up others who draw comparisons to the mythical ones in the Odyssey. While Joyce’s ability to bring a literary classic and its themes into modernity is astounding, the true beauty of this action-packed novel is its writing. Scattered across his paragraphs are intertwining perspectives and puzzles enamelled with pun and alliterations. Joyce’s illustration of the human mind, its processes, and its guardians is impeccable and unmatchable.
57. A Passage to India by E. M. Foster (1924)
Adela Quested, a young English teacher, journeys abroad to India in the early 1920s, accompanied by the elderly Mrs. Moore. Their goal? To gauge whether Adela will be up for marrying Ronny Heaslop, Mrs Moore’s son and the British magistrate of Chandrapore. But Ronny isn’t the only person that Adela will meet: Dr. Aziz, a respected doctor and Adela’s guide, also becomes an unwitting player in the scandal that erupts one day in a distant cave on the outskirts of the city. Published in 1924, E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India is a masterpiece on two fronts: it deftly confronts the realities of imperialism and racism while immersing you in the richness of Indian society and culture.
58. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
Is it possible to now think of the Roaring Twenties and not think of The Great Gatsby? Fitzgerald’s magnum opus has been adapted to the big screen numerous times, and its “green light at the end of the dock” symbolism is perhaps too well-known to all of us. But let’s still go through a quick summary: Nick Carraway moves to West Egg in Long Island and learns about his new, mysteriously well-to-do neighbor, Jay Gastby. Through endless house parties, Nick comes to know this man, his odd past, and his tragic love story with the lady of East Egg, Daisy Buchanan. Fitzgerald’s tale of sightless dream-chasing is the epitome of something small and yet mighty: with his succinct prose, the extravagance of post-WWI America is stripped bare, revealing the heartlessness underneath it all.
59. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)
When Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself, she had no idea what a momentous day was in store for her — though of course, much of this book’s momentousness must be attributed to Virginia Woolf’s brilliant prose. But even besides the writing, it’s a fantastic little slice-of-life story: Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class, middle-aged woman in London, decides to host a party for her fellow society people, and spends most of the day prepping for said party. But what would have been a mundane tale in the hands of a less thoughtful author becomes remarkable in Woolf’s, her stream-of-consciousness narrative shifting ever so subtly between past and present, and rendering Clarissa’s emotions with unprecedented vibrancy.
60. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (1926)
There’s no need to mention how important Ernest Hemingway is as an author — any one of his works would easily make the list for the best books of all time; we are going with The Sun Also Rises (it wasn’t an easy decision) because of its role in defining Hemingway’s distinct style. The story follows Jake Barnes and his expatriate friends on their journey from exquisite Paris to convivial Pamplona to see the famous bull-fighting festival of Spain. Barnes is in love with one of his companions, Lady Brett Ashley, but she is married to another. As he reveals to you the complicated relationship of playful Brett and sombre Barnes, Hemingway gives you a peek into the social disorder that prevails during the 1920s. You won’t notice it all right away though, because this work is one of the best examples of Hemingway’s subtle “ice-berg theory” books.
61. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (c. 1927)
Composed of seven volumes written throughout a decade, In Search of Lost Time is a long novel detailing the development of the unnamed narrator from childhood to adulthood and his struggles to define himself. Said protagonist desires to be an author but is unsure of how to get there, he is seeing his relationships with his family in a new light while he’s discovering new connections with others. Memory is a recurring theme in this novel, especially the involuntary ones, whereby Proust shows how little details can trigger an outpour of thoughts and emotions. His impressive narrative revolutionized the way novels are written — Proust’s emphasis lies not in creating an airtight and sensational plot, but in exploring with astonishing depth the emotional experiences and development of his protagonist.
62. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929)
This classic Southern gothic novel might seem like a typical family saga, but its grim conditions and dark twists are unlike those of other tales. The story of The Sound and the Fury proceeds as follows: the Compson family are disgraced former aristocrats attempting to adapt now that they’ve lost their money, religion, and elevated reputation. Unfortunately, the four children of the Compson family perpetuate its fatal flaws of greed, selfishness, and outdated values and ideas about the world at large. As the story shifts among them, as well as back and forth in time, it becomes clear that the Compsons are beyond repair — but nevertheless, they continue to press on. With a tragic story on par with Macbeth (from which the book takes its title) and Faulkner’s revolutionary prose, it’s no wonder this story still looms so large in American literature.
63. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)
You might be surprised to discover that Brave New World was published in 1932. From genetic engineering to a society glutted on entertainment, Aldous Huxley predicted many of the developments that now trouble the world today. Little wonder that this novel almost single-handedly created the genre of dystopian books, alongside George Orwell’s 1984! Aside from being scarily prescient, Brave New World zeroes in on the dilemma of man who is only known as the Savage — an outsider to a culture captive to mindless pleasure and countless distractions. Make no mistake: this is one of the OG dystopian books — and it’s a giant in literary fiction altogether.
64. I, Claudius by Robert Graves (1934)
When it comes to historical novels, none is as well-celebrated as Robert Graves’s story of the Roman emperor, Claudius. Written in the first person perspective, this novel feigns an autobiography written by the nervous leader. Claudius is unlike his predecessors — he critically examined theirs and the corrupt system’s failures, exposing all the dramatic intrigue and high politics of this lauded empire to the world. He himself is spun into this entangled battle for the throne, although perhaps less willingly that his opponents. If you enjoy the political battles of Game of Thrones, you’ll without a doubt enjoy this novel, which would not only provide you with a good bit of entertainment, but also introduce to you the intricate structures of Roman civilization.
65. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller (1934)
Miller’s sombre novel was not well-received when it was first published — in fact it was banned in the US and not published until the late 1960s, decades after its conception. The basic storyline is simple — it’s a blend of Miller’s memories as a struggling writer in Paris, and fictional elements that he added. Miller focused on his feelings and perceptions, propelling the stream-of-consciousness style of writing that was gaining popularity among writers of the time. What made the book so controversial was its featuring of sexuality, which, along with descriptions of the desperation, the poverty, and the grief present in the lives of those without a clear sense of direction, is part of Miller’s candor. If a book can hold the soul of a writer, perhaps none is as potent as Tropic of Cancer.
66. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1936)
Perhaps the classic novel of love and sacrifice, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind follows young Scarlett O’Hara as she fights her way out of poverty in the American South of the Reconstruction Era. But her sheer will to survive amid the tumult might take a hit when the very way of life in the post-war South begins to change. If you’ve only ever watched the movie, you’re missing out: pick up the book now to inexorably immerse yourself in 900+ pages of glorious emotion and turmoil.
67. Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (1938)
The controversial author of Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh also wrote this rip-roaring satire that made waves when it was published in 1938. This time, Waugh’s target is the media, particularly the newspaper industry. As a promising little civil war erupts in the African Republic of Ishmaelia, Lord Copper sends his reporter in the continent to cover it — to hilarious consequences. Wickedly funny and not at all politically correct as it skewers Fleet Street and its overeager occupants, Scoop is a comedy that will never be old news.
68. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (1939)
First, there were ten who arrived on the island. Among the guests of the house in And Then There Were None were Mrs. Rogers, a homely cook; Anthony Marston, a handsome and irresponsible young man; Emily Caroline Brent, an old and religious spinster; Dr. Armstrong, a Harley Street doctor; and Philip Lombard, a soldier with money. Strangers to one another, they nevertheless shared one similarity: they had all murdered in the past. And when people begin dropping like flies and their numbers begin to thin on the island, they begin to suspect that they are the ones being murdered. But who is the murderer in their midst? That’s the question that will leave your head spinning in this timeless example of a mystery novel done right by no other than the Queen of Mystery herself.
69. Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)
Some books are so powerful that you can hardly bear to look at them. Richard Wright’s Native Son is one of them. Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Native Son is a brutally barefaced examination of institutionalized racism in America. At its heart is Bigger Thomas: a black man who, driven to desperate measures when circumstances spiral out of his control, becomes impossibly entangled in the criminal justice system. A star of the Harlem Renaissance, Wright writes with an unflinching intensity, exposing the racial divide in America in the 1940s that led Bigger to his fate — a societal crisis that remains starkly relevant to this day.
70. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (1940)
Carson McCullers’ debut novel — written when she was only 23! — was an instant classic when it was published. The author’s sheer prodigiousness is astonishing enough, but it is the rich wisdom and gentle insight that makes The Heart is a Lonely Hunter truly remarkable. You’ll probably never meet a protagonist quite as memorable as John Singer, a deaf and nonverbal man who sits in the same café every day. Here, in the deep American South of the 1930s, John meets an assortment of people: the café owner, Biff Brannon; Mick Kelly, a young girl who wants nothing more than to play music; Jake Blount, a desperate alcoholic; and Dr. Copeland, a frustrated and idealistic black doctor.
John is the silent, kind keeper of their stories — right up until an unforgettable ending that will blow you away, placing The Heart is a Lonely Hunter squarely beside such southern classics as Grapes of Wrath and To Kill a Mockingbird.
71. The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942)
Albert Camus’ own summary of The Stranger is perhaps the best way to describe this iconic book: “I summarized The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.’ I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.” And so The Stranger duly opens with Meursault, our hero, learning of the death of his mother. From this point onward, the reader is led in a strange dance of absurdism and existentialism that makes Meursault confront something even crueler than mortality: society’s expectations.
72. The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene (1948)
Graham Greene, author of such acclaimed books as The Quiet American and The End of the Affair, is regarded as one of the best English authors of the 20th century. And The Heart of the Matter might be the centerpiece in his glittering oeuvre. It opens in a British colony in West Africa, as the upstanding Henry Scobie, misses a promotion to become commissioner of police. Yet this single development has earthshaking consequences for both him and his wife Louise — who decides to leave him. Against his better judgment, Henry accepts a shady loan to help Louise gain passage to the ship that will take her away from him. But as he soon discovers, one bad decision will lead to many more.
73. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)
Big Brother is watching you: both the governmental slogan that has become synonymous with this iconic novel, and the eerie sense you’ll get as you’re reading it. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a landmark work in the dystopian genre for its affecting portrayal of a totalitarian state that strictly controls and surveils its citizens — though of course, few are content with such an existence. Our narrator, Winston Smith, is one such citizen; employed by the “Ministry of Truth” (which actually serves the opposite cause), Winston fully grasps the corruption of the government, yet feels powerless to stop it. Yet what’s most compelling about this book isn’t Winston’s individual experience, but the exceptional detail and social commentary Orwell injects into the story — potently warning readers of a reality that could all too easily come to pass.
74. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951)
One of the most iconic coming-of-age novels in literature, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is still a must-read today — and Holden Caulfield is still one of the most recognizable protagonists ever. Told from Holden’s point of view, this classic at first seems like a simple tale about a boy wandering the streets of New York with no plan in mind and nothing to do. Yet any reader who digs deeper will encounter a cry of teenage disillusionment — not to mention a moving story that confronts the reality of growing up.
75. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)
Another incredibly powerful coming-of-age story, Invisible Man is the seminal novel about a young black man in 1950s America. From a college in the Deep South to a raging Harlem in the North, our unnamed protagonist travels unseen in the public’s eyes, searching for an identity. But that’s not so easily found in a racist society that unilaterally denies selfhood to black men and women. A masterpiece that resonates with the raw emotion of a fever dream, Invisible Man demands your attention and asks you to confront the nature of bigotry — and the surreal experience of being black in America.
76. East of Eden by John Steinbeck (1952)
One of the perennial staples on “Books You Must Read Before You Die” lists, and possibly the best of John Steinbeck’s books, East of Eden fully deserves its acclaimed place in American literature today. A family saga that spans generations, it follows two families — the Trasks and the Hamiltons — whose fates desperately entwine in the wild American West. It’s also a modern retelling of the Book of Genesis — particularly the fabled and tragic story of Cain and Abel. Ambitiously epic and thought-provoking, East of Eden is simply Steinbeck at his masterful, astonishing best.
77. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
Firemen mean something different in Guy Montag’s world: they start fires. And (every bookworm out there, cover your eyes now) books are the illegal, radical property to be burned. As one such fireman, Guy is in charge of destroying every book remaining… until a series of events occurs in rapid succession, making Guy question the job for the first time. This is one of the most famous books ever written — a revolutionary and fiery work about the cost of censoring knowledge and the beauty of the written world. Just don’t read it next to your stove, because what’s the temperature at which books burn? Well, Fahrenheit 451.
78. In the Castle of My Skin by George Lamming (1953)
Written in 1953 when George Lamming was a precocious 23 years of age, In the Castle of My Skin is a semi-autobiographical novel long hailed as a cornerstone example of the black colonial experience. This insightful window into twentieth-century Barbadian life chronicles the turmoil, social change, and class tensions that rise in the colonial Caribbean as Lamming grows up.
Don’t walk into it expecting a straightforward story: Lammings’ style could be termed impressionistic, and he narrates many of his personal anecdotes and vignettes from the perspective of others. But this experimental effect is often dazzling, and it’s made In the Castle of My Skin one of the most important works of postcolonial literature in history.
79. Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)
Though William Golding’s Lord of the Flies wasn’t initially well-received and sold poorly, Golding had the last laugh: Lord of the Flies is today one of the must-read books in every school curriculum. Its story about a group of schoolboys who have crashed on a lonely island is enduring not only for its shocking plot developments, but also the way that it reveals the truths of human nature at our basest. Today, it remains one of the most terrifying depictions of how quickly a society can fail — and a reminder of the fragility of the systems that we build to reassure ourselves.
80. Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien (c .1955)
Lord of the Rings may be one of the most influential series ever written — not least for the way that it basically created the modern fantasy genre as we know it. The towering shadow that J.R.R. Tolkien cast over all fantasy books that followed in its path aside, Lord of the Rings should be read simply because it’s a rollicking good story. So if you also fall under the spell of Middle-Earth as you venture into Mordor with Frodo and his companions, don’t fear: there’s still a prequel (The Hobbit) and an origin story (The Silmarillion) to go.
81. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
In Lolita, Nabokov fulfills what many readers might consider to be an impossible task: he makes a tormented pedophile not only a tolerable narrator, but an entrancing and sympathetic one. Humbert Humbert is the man in question, and Lolita is his pre-adolescent muse. After marrying her mother to become close to the girl, the woman dies in a freak accident and Humbert is free to pursue a relationship with Lolita — which he agonizes over nonetheless, until she reveals that she’s less innocent than she appears (though obviously still very much a child). They embark on a sprawling, richly drawn tour of America, finally settling under the guise of Humbert as the girl’s father… but of course, true happiness eludes them, especially when another man appears to challenge her loyalties to Humbert.
82. On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)
On the Road is the example of a good book that didn’t take years and years to produce: Jack Kerouac wrote it all in a mad three-week period in 1951. Decades later, it is regarded as a classic of the postwar Beat movement that captures the heart and soul of an entire generation. You’ll meet Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty: alter egos for Kerouac himself and his friend, Neal Cassady — On the Road is, at its heart, a semi-autobiographical account of Kerouac’s own travels across America. From New York to San Francisco, Sal and Dean tear through the streets to a jazz rhythm all their own. Do they have any inkling of what they’re going to do with their lives? Heck no — but that’s the charm of On the Road, which will speak to the wanderlust in you, as it has done to millions of other readers since 1957.
83. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)
As the name of the novel suggests, protagonist Okonkwo might’ve had a good start in his youth as wrestling champion of his clan, but horrid things are waiting on the horizon for him. As he climbs to the top of the social hierarchy, Okonkwo faces tough decisions between his pride and his morality. Things become complicated as white men come in and begin tearing apart the fabric of his society.
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Things Fall Apart is a modern African classic: it’s poignant, nuanced, and moving. Okonkwo is not different from ancient literary heroes — he has virtues, he has gods to please, and he has obstacles to overcome. That’s a thought many wouldn’t have about Africans in the 50s and 60s, and Achebe was amongst the first writers who sought to challenge this.
84. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
An important part of the discussion during the Civil Rights era, To Kill a Mockingbird is now required reading in high schools across America — and for good reasons. Decades later, there’s still much to be taken away from this tale of young Scout as she comes to understand the racial tensions in the world around her.
Set in rural Alabama, this book centers around Scout as her father, Atticus Finch, takes on an important trial. He’s been tasked with defending a black man falsely accused of sexually assaulting a white woman — not an easy case in the South in the 30s. Scout’s innocence may have been shaken by these events, but she comes to ground herself watching Atticus’s passionate defense, something that continues to inspire lawyers to this day.
85. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
Although it takes place in World War II (and was loosely based on Heller’s own experiences), Catch-22 was actually a reaction to the Korean war and McCarthyism. This iconic satire follows Captain Yossarian, a bombardier who, along with his fellow service people, is attempting to navigate the absurdities of war in order to fulfill their service requirements so they can be sent home. Told in a non-linear, third person omniscient with plenty of anachronisms, it can seem a bit much to follow at first, but we promise it’s well worth the effort. This novel has been a staple of anti-war literature for decades, and with its perfectly tuned wit and wisdom, it’s not likely to be going anywhere anytime soon.
86. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961)
It’s tempting to describe The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as gender-bent Dead Poets Society, but that would be doing Jean Brodie a disservice — she predated the Robin Williams film by nearly three decades! Still, the comparison isn’t a bad one: set in Edinburgh during the 1920s and 30s, the novel explores what happens when a young teacher decides to take an active and unconventional interest in the futures of six of her students. Told through the eyes of these students, and full of tantalizing flashforwards, this book is a complicated, nuanced portrayal of mentorship and coming of age.
87. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (1962)
If you don’t already know the synopsis of this bizarre book from its critically-acclaimed movie adaptation, then here’s a quick summary: criminal Randle McMurphy feigns mental instability in order to serve his sentence in a psychiatric ward rather than in prison. However, the institution that he stumbled into, supervised by the totalitarian Nurse Ratched, is worse than jail itself — the patients are oppressed and manipulated rather than cared for. As a lawbreaker and the only person whose state of mind can recognize this abuse, McMurphy decides to challenge the authority and make life for Nurse Ratched living hell. Erratic and bleak, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest tackles a difficult and hidden issue in society, thus opening the floodgate for many works of the same genre in the years following its publication.
88. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)
Following in the chilling tradition set by 1984 and A Brave New World, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is its own terrifying vision of the future. In Anthony Burgess’ dystopia, the world is overrun by juvenile delinquents and ultra-violent gangs in the city. Anarchy reigns on any given day, but when Alex — a sociopathic “droog” who nevertheless longs for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony— is captured and taken in by the authorities, he’ll have to confront what free will really means to him, and what he’d give up himself to keep it.
89. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)
Written at the height of Stalin’s regime, The Master and Margarita is a daring, defiant satire that weaves together the spiritual and the supernatural to create a fantasy world at once chillingly real and utterly unique.
The story begins with the Devil arriving in atheistic Soviet Moscow, though the plot is split between those events and another thread taking place in ancient Jerusalem. As if that wasn’t surreal enough, there’s also a walking, talking black cat in league with the Devil, causing all sorts of trouble. This novel is a vivid portrait of life under Soviet regime, and an important reminder of the need for unfettered artistic expression.
90. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay (1967)
Since it’s initial publication in 1967, Picnic at Hanging Rock has been chilling and fascinating audiences across the globe. Set in 1900, the novel begins with a simple outing. A group of students from Appleyard College for Young Ladies set off to Hanging Rock for the eponymous picnic. While there, several of them set into the seclusion of a volcanic outcropping… and are never heard from again.
What follows is a gripping account of both the investigation as well as the impacts this event has upon the fate of the college itself. It’s a fascinating look into the impact that tragedy can have on ordinary circumstances, and a mystery that will leave you aching for answers that will never come.
91. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
In this surrealist tale, José Arcadio Buendía flees his city with his wife after committing murder, and is now seeking refuge. Rather than finding life in a new city, he decides to found his own utopia — Macondo. This little town functions in its own odd way, separate from the rest of the world, save for a few interactions via a band of gypsies. But solitude doesn’t necessarily mean peace, as José’s descendants would discover, and neither can that solitude remain forever…
One Hundred Years of Solitude is an outstanding blend of the fantastical and the real. Marquez’s prose will take you on a magical and sensational journey to discover the complex political developments of Latin America.
92. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974)
In this rendition of reality, Earth is at war with the alien-kind called Taurans. In preparation for this drawn out conflict, William Mandella is drafted and enters a rigorous training program, starting first on Earth and then later on a foreign planet. Mandella hopes to survive the training and the war to return to his family, but his life will never be the same again, whether because of the time dilation between the planets, or because of the new lens that he will see life through, after participating in a lengthy and pointless war.
Hats off to Haldeman for his creativity: he spectacularly spun his experiences as a drafted soldier in the Vietnam war into the moving interstellar story of The Forever War.
93. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1978)
This comedic sci-fi book series was first created as a podcast show, and it became so popular that the creator wrote everything down and published the story in several installments. The outer space adventurism that Adams instilled in these tales served as an inspiration for many subsequent works — books, movies, TV shows — in this genre. The series follows Arthur Dent, a human who is luckily saved by an interstellar friend, Ford Prefect, and who takes Arthur on his quest to create the ultimate guidebook to the Galaxy. What is Arthur saved from? Well, Earth is to be demolished to make way for the building of an intergalactic highway. If that doesn’t make Arthur realize how small his world had been, and how little he had known about its reality, his odyssey with his alien friends surely will.
94. So Long A Letter by Mariama Ba (1979)
So Long A Letter is a book of letters written by a Senegalese widow, Ramatoulaye Fall, to her friend during the time — four months and ten day, to be exact, as dictated by her religion and tradition — that she mourns her husband. As she explores her own emotions, Ramatoulaye reveals the complexities of the polygamous society that she lived in. Personal, raw, and unexpectedly relatable, this elegant novella extends beyond the illustration of the plight of women in 20th century Africa; Ramatoulaye’s sentiments and wonders are felt by all women.
95. Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath (1981)
Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems collates 274 pieces that she wrote from 1956 to the time of her death. Her poetry is intense and personal; in her writing she explored her relationships with her family and the state of her mentality. At a time where depression and bipolar disorder is hardly talked about as serious conditions, Plath’s verses bring ringing clarity to the detrimental effects that they may have on a person’s life. If you are a lover of poems, if you want to be moved by powerful, intricate images, then you will not want to miss out on this collection of poems.
96. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981)
Saleem was born in the first hour of India’s independence from Great Britain, and as a result, he is gifted with the extraordinary power of telepathy and a heightened sense of smell. He soon discovers that there are 1,001 others just like him — people imbued with different superpowers due to their births’ coincidence with the nation’s historic moment. As India begins building its new and separate identity, Saleem gathers those like him, who he named Midnight’s Children, to figure out their role in this process.
Using magical realism as a way to make the notion of common identity more tangible, Rushdie’s novel provides a fascinating inroad into the transition into modernity of a culture that has existed for many centuries.
97. The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982)
Set in early 1900s Georgia, The Color Purple is a striking story about the debilitating conditions of black women during the years of intense segregation. Celie and Nettie grew up in a broken household, and have long been separated and are living disparate lives. Despite the distance between them, they seek solace in one another through letters, and support each other through the abuses of domestic life and social tensions that they undergo as African American women.
The Color Purple deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Walker’s refusal to shy away from the difficult issues of violence and sexual abuse — problems that she presented from the perspective of the victims in the rawest and most powerful form available.
98. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)
In this philosophical novel, readers follow the “light” life of surgeon and womanizer Tomas. He lives to enjoy himself as much as possible because he believes his experience is a one-time and completely unique thing. In stark contrast to that is the perspective of Tereza, his wife, who’s a photographer who is faithful and puts “weight” on her every decision. Through the couple’s struggles to harmonize themselves, with 1960s Czechoslovakia’s internal turmoil rife in the background, The Unbearable Lightness of Being reflects the intellectual rediscovery and transition into postmodernity that Eastern Europe at that historic time.
99. Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)
This beloved, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel asks the question: “Can we ever really escape our past?”
It follows Sethe, a woman who escaped slavery by fleeing to Ohio eighteen years before the novel starts. Still, “Sweet Home,” the picturesque farm that was the scene of her many living nightmares, continues to haunt her. And it’s not the only shadow casted over her life. Sethe’s home is also haunted by the ghost of her baby whose tombstone displays a lone word: Beloved.
Beloved is a suspenseful, heartbreaking, and intimate story. It deserves a spot on all “best books of all time” lists for the way it stands as a monument to the “Sixty Million and More,” as the book’s dedication reads, who lost their lives to the Atlantic slave trade.
100. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
Kazuo Ishiguro is a Nobel Prize-winning author, and The Remains of the Day is a Man Booker Prize winner with a film adaptation starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, and which received eight Oscar nominations. No big deal, right?
Ishiguro’s impressive novel centres on Stevens, a butler who’s spent most of his life in service at Darlington Hall, a stately home near Oxford, England. When Stevens receives a letter from an old colleague who now lives in Cornwall, he decides to set out on a motoring trip through the West Country to visit her. Along the way, he reflects on England’s past, his own past, and his long-standing career serving Lord Darlington.
101. Angels in America by Tony Kushner (1991)
Angels in America is a two-part play and exploration of homosexuality and the AIDS crisis in America in the 1980s. The plays can be presented together or separately, and have been adapted for Broadway and as an HBO miniseries.
The story starts with a gay couple living in Manhattan — Prior and Louis. When Louis discovers that Prior has AIDS, he finds himself unable to cope. He leaves Prior to have an affair with Joe, a Mormon, Republican clerk whose valium-addicted, agoraphobic wife is desperate to save their marriage. Several other storylines blossom as the play unfolds, many of which intersect and involve angels and ghosts.
If you need any more convincing of the power behind Kushner’s work, John M. Clum, a playwright and professor of theatre studies has called Angels in America, “A turning point in the history of gay drama, the history of American drama, and of American literary culture.”
102. The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992)
Right from the start of Tartt’s inverted mystery, readers know there has been a murder. All of the details and events surrounding this crime are slowly revealed throughout the gripping novel narrated in retrospect by a student who was at the center of the case.
The six protagonists of The Secret History are a group of Classics students studying at a small, elite college in Vermont. Under the guidance of their favorite professor, the students begin to collectively challenge the norms of academia and society as a whole, questioning the way they’ve been taught to see the world. They blur the lines between good and evil, looking for the morally grey around them. But as they start to push the boundaries they’ve always known, their own moral compasses begin to veer, and unspeakable acts follow.
103. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (1995)
It’s 1975, and India has just declared a State of Emergency. In the midst of this bleak upheaval and political turmoil, the fates of four unlikely strangers intertwine: a courageous widow, a young, uprooted student, and two sailors who have escaped the violence of their native village — who all end up living in one, small apartment as they contend with their uncertain futures.
Just as the title suggests, A Fine Balance does a wonderful job paralleling the realism of the testing, cruel, and corrupt circumstances with compassion, humor, and insight into the power of love and friendship.
104. Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (1996)
Written by Canadian poet Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces is a two-part novel that begins with an absolutely heart wrenching image: the war has just swept through a Polish city where seven-year old Jakob Beer’s family has just been murdered. The only reason he has survived is because he buried himself under mud until the coast was clear. A Greek geologist eventually comes across Jakob and rescues him — but the man doesn’t actually realize that Jakob is a human until the boy begins to weep.
The first part of the book continues to follow Jakob as he becomes a traveling artist, while the second explores different facets of WWII’s repercussions: it centers around Ben, a Canadian professor whose parents both survived the Holocaust.
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Winner of the Lannan Literary Fiction Award, and Winner of the Guardian Fiction Award, Fugitive Pieces depicts tough subject matters with captivating elements of mystery and evocative prose.
105. The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy (1999)
Come for the delightfully illustrated book cover featuring the likes of Medusa and the Devil’s wife, and stay for the witty collection of poems by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy.
The World’s Wife is a modern, feminist reflection on many of history’s most well-known figures. Or rather, the great women behind those historical figures. From Mrs. Darwin to Queen Kong and Mrs. Midas, the counterparts of famous men are finally getting their day in the sun!
Take it from publisher Pan Macmillan: “Original, subversive, full of imagination and quicksilver wit, The World’s Wife is Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy at her beguiling best.”
106. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (1999)
Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of nine short stories, and winner of both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.
From marriage problems to the peculiar experience of returning to a home you hardly remember, these stories provide a window into the culturally complex lives of first and second generation immigrants. The thread that weaves the story together is that of adaptation: they portray the lives of Indians and Indian Americans striving to find a connection between their roots and the “new world.”In the title short story, an Indian American family tours the India of their ancestors, accompanied by an interpreter who gets an unexpected insight into the family’s life.
107. Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001)
On a hot summer day in post-World War Two England, 13-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses — and misinterprets — a private moment between her older sister Cecilia, and the son of their housekeeper, Robbie Turner. But with the precocious confidence of a young storyteller, Briony begins to weave what she believes she saw into fantasies that have long-lasting and rippling effects on her family. Told in three parts — the latter two during the Second World War and present-day England — Atonement is a brilliant and provocative reflection on the nature of writing itself.
108. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (2002)
Kafka on the Shore consists of two distinct storylines that eventually intersect. The odd-numbered chapters follow Kafka, a 15-year-old-boy who runs away from his father’s home to find his long-lost mother and sister.
The even-numbered chapters are about an aging war-vet called Nakata, who has an uncanny ability to find lost cats. One of his searches leads him out onto the road for the first time.
Both odysseys are vividly mysterious, and populated with imaginative accomplices and unexpected encounters that are characteristic of Murakami’s distinct and bizarre style.
109. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon (2003)
15 year-old Christopher John Francis Boone hates the color yellow and being touched by others. In fact, he’d much rather spend his time around animals and avoid complicated human emotions. He can also fire off all the countries of the world, their capitals, and every prime number up to 7,057. He thrives on logic, patterns, and carefully laid out rules.
One day, in an unexpected turn of events, his neighbor’s dog dies. While Christopher is not a fan of plot twists, he decides to take a leaf out of his favorite, deerstalker-wearing detective’s book, and to solve — you guessed it — The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.
110. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (2003)
Set against a backdrop of chaos and tumult — such as the fall of Afghanistan’s monarchy through the Soviet military intervention, the exodus of refugees to Pakistan and the United States, and the rise of the Taliban regime — this story details the unlikely friendship between Amir, the son of a well-to-do-family, and Hassan, the son of Amir’s father’s servant.
A sweeping tale of family, love, and friendship, it’s not uncommon for someone to clutch their heart or take on a sombre expression when someone brings up The Kite Runner. It’s an emotionally devastating read that stays with you long after you’ve finished it.
111. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005)
There is a vast selection of fictional works concerning World War II, but perhaps none quite as interesting at The Book Thief. Death tells this story: for some reason, little Liesel had caught his attention during a time that was surely busy for him. Separated from her family by the war, Liesel found her way to her new foster parents, picking up a book that would nurture in her a new relationship with words on the way. As she starts learning to read, she also starts noticing the violence and cruelty of the world that she is growing up in — something that Death can’t help her with, although he is the one person who will fathom how far she’s come.
Zusak’s spectacular humanization of this ominous narrator emphasizes perfectly the inhumanity of war and discrimination in a never seen before lightm despite this commonly-used setting.
112. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2006)
“Epic,” “ambitious,” “triumphant,” “masterful” are all adjectives that have widely been used to describe Half of a Yellow Sun — and for good reason! Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s haunting (another adjective for you!) novel is dedicated to retelling a seminal moment in modern African history: the Nigerian Civil War in the 1960s, and Biafra’s struggle to establish an independent republic in Nigeria.
Readers are guided through this conflict from the perspectives of three main characters: 13 year-old Ugwu, a revolutionary-minded houseboy who works for a university professor; Olanna, a young woman who’s abandoned her cushy life in Lagos to take up a passionate affair with said university professor; and Richard, a shy Englishman who quietly falls in love with Olanna’s twin sister.
As the war unfurls around them, Ugwa, Olanna, and Richard are all forced to flee for their lives, facing challenges and struggles that test their spirits, ideals, and trust for one another.
113. The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (2007)
Oscar Wao has big dreams: he wants to become the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien, and to fall in love. But the fukú curse stands in his way, as it has for generations of Waos, dooming his family to ill fates for centuries.
Told from the perspective of multiple characters, and interspersed with plenty of fantasy and sci-fi references, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao manages to capture a number of themes with warmth and honesty — from heartbreak to loss, and most strikingly, the Domincan-American experience — earning it the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
114. The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak (2009)
As do many titles on this list, The Forty Rules of Love is a book of two parallel narratives.
One takes place in the thirteenth century, detailing the experiences of Rumi when he first met Shams of Tabriz, his mentor.
The other story is set in present day, and is about Ella Rubenstein, an unhappily married woman who’s just landed a job as a reader for a literary agent. One of the books she’s tasked to read is about Shams of Tabriz’s search for Rumi, and the transformation of the latter from an unhappy cleric into a passionate advocate of love. Ella becomes fascinated by the book, and as she reads, she can’t help but feel as though this book landed in her hands for a reason…
115. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)
When performing King Lear on stage one night, a Hollywood actor drops dead. Shortly after, civilization begins to collapse. This event is the middleground of Station Eleven, as the book pendulates back and forth between the actor’s early years and a dystopian future in which the world as we know it has changed forever.
Hauntingly real and spellbindingly imaginative, it charts a theatre troupe called the Traveling Symphony as they roam wastelands and attempt to hold onto what it means to be human.
If you’d rather look at the latest hits, check out the 21 best books written in this century. Also, you might find the Kindle Cloud Reader useful in helping you make a dent to your reading lists.