Books, books, and more books. They will extend your life expectancy, reduce your stress, and improve your cognitive abilities. They will make your hair appear fuller and thicker.
No matter how many sweeping generalizations are made about reading, one thing is certain: losing yourself in a great novel is one of life’s most enduring and reliable pleasures. Job satisfaction comes and goes, and partners enrapture and then abandon you, but you can always rely on literature’s timeless ability to transport you to another world when you’re feeling down and out. Novels, whether set in the mannered drawing rooms of Jane Austen or the airless tower blocks of 1984, accomplish something unique. They communicate with both the heart and the mind at the same time. They instill in you an understanding of the history of our world, the possibilities of our future, and the structure of our souls.
So, where do you even begin? As a result, the obvious answer – “the literary canon” – is fraught with difficulty because it implies a pantheon of mostly dead, white dudes. Because of the power structures that have been in place for centuries, only a small number of people have been given the opportunity to say something universal about the state of the human condition. These biases are impossible to ignore; the least we can do is acknowledge them, include a variety of viewpoints, and direct readers to some excellent resources, such as the ones listed below to discover more writers who should be on our reading list.
As things stand, narrowing down this list to 22 novels has been a laborious process that makes Brexit negotiations appear straightforward and amicable. We hope you enjoy the selection – or, at the very least, that you enjoy debating who should or should not have been included in it.
- Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice
It is a universally acknowledged fact that Pride and Prejudice must be included on any list of great books at some point. If you look past the bonnets and balls, you’ll find a tart exposé of the marriage market in Georgian England beneath the sugary surface. For every lucky Elizabeth who manages to tame the haughty, handsome Mr. Darcy while also discovering herself in the process, there is a Charlotte who is resigned to life with a driveling buffoon because she lacks a pretty appearance.
2. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾, Sue Townsend
If you read this book when you’re sufficiently decrepit, you’ll almost certainly die laughing. No one has ever done a better job of lampooning the self-absorption, delusions of grandeur, and sexual frustration of adolescence than Sue Townsend, and no one will ever do a better job of it. There’s a biting satire of Thatcherist Britain thrown in among the majestic poetry and the pimples, to be sure.
3. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
Although Harry Potter is more well-known, Willy Wonka is a far more bizarre character. From the overwhelming poverty that Charlie Bucket and his family are forced to endure to the spoilt, greedy, and brattish children who accompany Charlie on his journey to Willy Wonka’s phantasmagorical candy factory, there is nothing artificially sweetened in Roald Dahl’s startling work of fantasy and satirical fiction.
4. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
Achebe’s story analyzes what happens to a Nigerian town after European missionaries arrive, and it is considered a classic exposé of colonialism. The protagonist, the warrior-like Okonkwo, represents traditional beliefs that are eventually doomed. Missionaries had been stationed in Achebe’s hamlet for decades by the time he was born in 1930. He wrote in English and based his novel’s title on a Yeats poem, yet he interspersed Igbo proverbs throughout this beautiful work.
5. 1984, George Orwell
1984, the ultimate dystopian novel, was so predictive that it has become a cliché. But forget about TV’s Big Brother or the cliched disaster that is Room 101: the original hasn’t lost any of its ferocity. Orwell was fascinated by the mechanics of tyranny, imagining a society that carried the Soviets’ obsessive surveillance to terrifying extremes. Winston, our protagonist, struggles to fight a drab world in which a screen watches your every move, but bravery is pointless when the state infiltrates your head.
6. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
The narrator of Du Maurier’s marvelously gothic novel about a young woman who succeeds the deceased Rebecca as wife to the wealthy Maxim de Winter and mistress of the Manderley manor is the second Mrs de Winter. Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper who used to be loyal to Rebecca, approaches her and begins to torture her. It just grows worse and darker as an atmospheric, psychological nightmare.
7. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Don’t be frightened off by the fact that Dickens was the Victorian era’s social conscience. The tumultuous story of the orphaned Pip, the attractive Estella, and the thwarted Miss Havisham is told in Great Expectations. You hardly have time to recover from one cliffhanger before the next one appears, all conveyed in Dickens’ lush, witty, emotional style.
8. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Lee’s story generated a sensation because it was a timeless call for justice set in America’s racist South during the depression years. Look at the world through the eyes of a six-year-old, in this case, Jean Louise Finch, whose father is a lawyer defending a black man wrongfully accused of raping a white lady. Lee wished for “a fast and humane death at the hands of the critics,” yet she received the Pulitzer Prize and a spot on the curriculum.
9. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
Mantel inhabits a fictionalized version of Thomas Cromwell, a working-class child who climbed by his own ferocious intelligence to become a vital figure in the perilous world of Tudor politics, in an amazing act of literary ventriloquism. You can smell the fear and ambition in this historical fiction.
10. The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
Dashiell Hammett’s storylines may have been more complicated, but Raymond Chandler had a lot more style. The tension between private investigator Philip Marlowe, dressed in a powder-blue suit and dark blue shirt, and Miss Carmen Sternwood, who has “small keen predatory fangs” and lashes that she lowers and raises like a theatre curtain, sets the tone for a novel about bad girls and evil men.
11. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Frankenstein was written while Shelley was 18 years old, as part of a competition between her future husband, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron to write the best horror novel. Put the green face paint away: Frankenstein’s monster is a complicated creature who craves sympathy and companionship. The gothic tale feels more pertinent than ever 200 years after it was originally written, as genetic technology pushes the frontiers of what it means to create life.
12. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
Will a novel ever burn with the same passionate intensity as Wuthering Heights? The impulses that drive Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff together are violent and untameable, but they are rooted in a childhood devotion to one another, when Heathcliff obeyed Cathy’s every order. Emily Bront’s image of nature blazes with poetry, and it’s impossible to imagine her work ever encouraging calm slumbers.
13. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
As they read Golding’s classic, anyone who has ever suspected that children are primitive little beasties will nod wisely. His theory is to imprison a group of schoolboys on an island and observe how soon the trappings of decency slip away. Never before has a shattered pair of spectacles felt so ominous, nor has civilization seemed so vulnerable.
14. Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray
The teeming life of 19th century London is here in Thackeray’s masterwork, right down to the curry places frequented by Jos Sedley, an officer in the East India Trading Company who has developed a taste for the spicy stuff. However, it is Becky Sharp, one of literature’s most fascinating characters, who lends this work its enduring appeal. Becky is the ideal combination of wit, cunning, and cold-hearted brutality for a woman on the rise. Becky needs victims to thrive, no matter how much cinema and television try to humanize and excuse her. And as a result, she’s even more compelling.
15. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
The protagonist of Salman Rushdie’s most famous novel is born on the day India declares freedom. He, too, was born with abilities, and he isn’t alone. Rushdie portrays the story of India’s blood-soaked revival via a swath of infants born at midnight with extraordinary skills in a bold and evocative piece of magical realism.
16. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov’s astoundingly skilled and enduringly controversial work of fiction introduces us to literary professor and self-confessed hebephile Humbert Humbert, the maybe unreliable narrator of the novel, which was banned from entering the UK in its year of publication, 1955. He marries widow Charlotte Haze just to gain access to her daughter, 12-year-old Dolores, affectionately known as Lo by her mother, or “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins,” as Humbert refers to her. “My sin, my soul,” says the narrator. Humbert’s sins are not lessened by cloaking them in the allusive language of idealized love, but it allows Nabokov to skewer him where he hides.
17. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
If you don’t want to be moved by one of literature’s toughest heroines, you’ll need a cold, dead heart. Jane Eyre rises from the institutional cruelty of her boarding school to become a governess who fights for the right to think and feel. There aren’t many love stories that include a mad woman in the attic and a little of therapeutic deformity, but this one does so with mythological elegance.
18. Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The narrative of a charismatic young Nigerian woman who leaves her luxurious Lagos home for a world of challenges in the United States is a delicate and intriguing look at racial identity. Adichie traverses countries with all her customary depth of feeling and lightness of touch, capturing both the hardscrabble existence of US immigrants and the brazen divisions of a booming Nigeria.
19. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
An sheer comedic delight of a novel. Flora, Stella Gibbons’ zesty heroine, is more concerned in basic hygiene than histrionics, and she cleverly pokes fun at sentimental navel-gazing. To put it another way, if you’ve “seen anything awful in the woodshed,” you should simply close the door.
20. Beloved, Toni Morrison
This is a cultural landmark and a Pulitzer-winning tour de force dedicated to the “60 million and more” Africans and their descendants who died as a result of the slave trade. The real-life story of an enslaved mother who killed her own daughter rather than watch her return to servitude inspired Morrison. In her story, a slain child returns to stalk a black community, implying America’s inevitable taint.
21. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
In this story about middle-class Charles Ryder, who meets upper-class Sebastian Flyte at Oxford University in the 1920s, Evelyn Waugh captures the seductive mist of a bygone period. If you remove the wartime prologue and Charles’ entire relationship with Sebastian’s sister Julia (Dear Evelyn, thank you for your current manuscript, a few proposed edits…), you’re left with one of the most moving love stories ever written.
22. Dune, Frank Herbert
As you enter the world of Frank Herbert’s Dune and encounter the desert planet of Arrakis, with its huge sandworms and mind-altering spice, you can almost feel your mouth dry with thirst. It’s the scene for an epic saga of feuding feudal houses, but it’s equally eco-friendly as it is thrilling. A fictional universe has rarely been so fully realized.
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