“Must read” – not in the sense that something Very Scary will happen if they don’t, and not in the sense that they won’t be allowed to die if they don’t (read about the “struldbrugs” in Gulliver’s Travels for this possibility). No, what we mean is books which enrich your life and allow you to connect with Western culture.
All lists are controversial and we are hoping for a lot of comments on ours. Here are our criteria: they had to be interesting, enriching and short, particularly short. Brevity rules out a lot of great books. Clarissa, one of the great novels of the 18th century, is four volumes long. Most Victorian novels are at least 500 pages. All Russian novels are at least 600 pages.
Furthermore, in an age when a lot of the younger set, especially the males, seem to have lost a love for reading, the books have to be immediately appealing. All of the ones below may not fit the bill, but surely some will. Finally, no author has more than one book in the list and all of them are in prose (no drama or poetry).
Thanks to everyone who volunteered suggestions as we prepared the list. With your help we hope to generate further lists on narrower topics in the months to come.
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
A novella about a dual personality much depicted in plays and films.
The Happy Prince and other tales, by Oscar Wilde (1888)
Oscar Wilde had a few problems in his personal life, but he was one of the great geniuses of his time. These fairy tales are sublimely written and very touching.
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad (1899)
One of the most influential novels of the 20th Century, this relates a journey up the Congo, into unfathomable evil.
The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1943)
The most widely read and most translated book in French, this is a deceptively simple fable about the loneliness and friendship that a prince from another world experiences when he falls to Earth.
The Pearl, by John Steinbeck (1947)
A Mexican pearl diver finds a pearl the size of a seagull’s egg. Is it worth it? Can he keep it?
The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway (1952)
A simple but compelling story about an ageing down-on-his luck Mexican fisherman who finally catches the biggest of all marlin.
Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe (1719)
A shipwrecked Englishman struggles to survive on a desert island. A classic of the self-reliant individualism which characterises the “Anglo-Saxon” approach to social issues.
Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe, by George Eliot (1861)
A keen psychological portrait of a recluse who discovers love when he adopts a foundling girl.
Short Stories, by Henry Lawson (1896)
Australia’s first world-class writer, Lawson chronicled the hardscrabble lives of outback settlers in dusty towns and minefields. Required reading for all Aussies.
Short Stories, by Anton Chekhov (1900)
One of the greatest of Russian writers, who introduced a wholly new way of writing to fiction.
Kim, by Rudyard Kipling (1901)
A vivid portrait of India, its teeming cities, religions, and superstitions, and bazaars in the days of the Great Game.
The Call of the Wild, by Jack London (1903)
During the Kondike Gold Rush, a sled dog reverts to the savagery of his wolvish forebears in this Darwinian fable about survival of the fittest.
Dubliners, by James Joyce (1915)
These brilliant depictions of middle-class life in the early years of the 20th Century served as a dress rehearsal for Joyce’s great novel Ulysses.
Selected Short Stories, by Katherine Mansfield (1920)
Memorable snapshots of human experience by New Zealand’s greatest writer.
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
A classic snapshot of the corrupting power of wealth set in the Roaring Twenties.
The Diary of a Country Priest, by Georges Bernanos (1937)
The spiritual life of a sickly young priest in a forgotten French village. A book of great spiritual depth.
A House for Mr Biswas, by V.S Naipaul (1961)
The story of a ne’er-do-well Indian living in Trinidad.
The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguru (1989)
A wonderful elegiac novel about the true meaning of human dignity, told through the unlikely person of an ageing English butler.
Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson (2004)
The fictional autobiography of an elderly pastor in the secluded town of Gilead, Iowa, who knows that he is dying of a heart condition.
Comedy and satire
Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift (1726)
Bizarre, imaginative, insightful, entertaining: Lemuel Gulliver finds all sort of worlds in his voyages.
The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith (1766)
A gentle comedy about an Anglican priest and his six children who falls on hard times. One of the most popular of 18th century novels — perhaps because it was short.
Penrod, by Booth Tarkington (1914)
The delightful misadventures of Penrod Schofield, an 11-year-old boy growing up in the pre-World War I Midwest.
Short Stories, by Saki (1930)
Malicious, cynical and supremely entertaining tales from Edwardian England.
Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh (1938)
Everything you need to know about how journalists think. Side-splitting and gloriously written.
The Code of the Woosters, by P.G. Wodehouse (1938)
Hilarious and fluffy, like all of Wodehouse’s novels, this features his best-known characters, the feckless Bertie Wooster and his resourceful valet Jeeves.
A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor (1955)
Gothic short stories about characters of surpassing strangeness in the American South.
The Sign of the Four, by Arthur Conan Doyle (1890)
All of Conan Doyle’s four novels and 56 short stories about Sherlock Holmes are fascinating, but this one has a fantastically involved plot which Holmes unravels with ease.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie (1926)
A classic whodunnit which will leave you guessing to the last page.
The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett (1930)
The ultimate hard-boiled detective.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John Le Carré (1963)
This is probably the finest novel about the bleak and cynical world of espionage, set in the early 60s, at the height of the Cold War.
A Thief of Time, by Tony Hillerman (1988)
Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee are sent to investigate sales of ancient Anasazi pottery on the black market.
Firewall, by Henning Mankell (1998)
The Swedish detective Kurt Wallander uncovers a plot to bring the world financial system to its knees.
A Stillness at Appomatox, by Bruce Catton (1953)
A Pulitzer-prize winning account of General Grant’s bloody campaign in Virginia during 1864 to the end of the war in 1865.
The Great Siege: Malta 1565, by Ernle Bradford (1961)
Stirring narrative of how a heroic handful of Knights of Malta saved Europe by holding off a Turkish invasion.
The Blue Nile, by Alan Moorehead (1962)
History of a 19th century exploration in East Africa to headwaters of the Nile.
The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman (1962)
An historian who specializes in the great follies of history narrates how the events of the first month of World War I unfolded.
Modern Times: A History of the World from the 1920s to the 1980s, by Paul Johnson (1984)
Beautifully written history of the 20th century — from a rather conservative point of view.
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1818)
The novel is engrossing as a story, but it is also a debate about the conflict between science and humanity.
A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens (1843)
All of Dickens’ genius for creating memorable characters is deployed in this story of how Ebeneezer Scrooge recovers his humanity.
Tales of Mystery and Imagination, by Edgar Allen Poe (1845)
Bizarre and incredibly imaginative stories from a troubled 19th century American genius.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll (1865)
A mind-blowing story of what Alice did in a world where logic no longer seems to exist. You can tell it was written by a famous mathematician.
The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James (1898)
A governess. A creaky old mansion. Two children. Two ghosts. A supremely artistic tale of the supernatural.
The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells (1898)
Martians attack. The world sinks into terror and despair. And salvation comes from an unexpected source. A classic.
The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame (1908)
An enchanting picture of the adventures of Mole, Ratty, Mister Toad and Mister Badger in the English countryside. Full of memorable characters and wisdom.
Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka (1915)
A travelling salesman wakes up one day and finds that he has become a gigantic cockroach. One of the seminal works of 20th century literature.
The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham (1951)
A post-apocalyptic novel about aggressive plants which take over the world after most people are blinded by meteor shower.
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (1953)
The title signifies the temperature at which paper ignites. In a dystopian future, television rules and books are banned and burned. How will civilised values survive?
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (1955)
Too long for this list, but too good to be omitted. Nothing more to be said.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick (1968)
Not great literature, perhaps, but an exploration of what it means to be human if you are surrounded by androids.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams (1979)
Slapstick satire about an interplanetary travel guide and the meaning of life.
The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien (1940/1967)
This loopy novel defies description, so I won’t try. But we won’t spoil the plot if we disclose that it involves three policeman, bicycles, and a narrator obsessed with de Selby, whoever he was.
The Conquest of New Spain, by Bernal Diaz del Castillo (1632)
An eyewitness account of Hernan Cortes’s battles against the Aztecs.
Life of Mr Richard Savage, by Samuel Johnson (1744)
An unforgettable portrait of a minor poet who wasted his money and his talent on cards and drink. But he was Sam Johnson’s friend.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, by Frederick Douglass (1845)
A harrowing first-person account of American slavery.
My Early Life, by Winston Churchill (1930)
In 1929 Churchill was voted out of office and set to writing his autobiography. A wonderful story of his education.
Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell (1938)
Orwell served with the Trotskyites during the Spanish Civil and observed at first hand how Communism ate its own children.
Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl (1946)
A deeply moving book about why some lived and some died amidst the horrors of Auschwitz.
Hiroshima, by John Hersey (1946)
This slim book traces the lives of six people who survived the world’s first atomic bomb blast.
If this is a man, by Primo Levy (1947)
A poignant meditation on the meaning of humanity by a man who spend the last year of World War II in Auschwitz.
A Fortunate Life, by Albert Facey (1981)
The autobiography of an Australian who grows up in the Outback under conditions of unbelievable hardship and then fights in the First World War.
The Road from Coorain, by Jill Ker Conway (1989)
An American college president reminisces about her childhood in the harsh Australian outback.
Wild Swans, by Jung Chang (1991)
A family history of three generations of Chinese women, spanning the era of the warlords, the Revolution and the Cultural Revolution.
Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela (1995)
The best-selling autobiography of the great man who became the first black president of South Africa after serving 27 years in prison.
John Adams, by David McCullough (2001)
The life and character of John Adams, America’s second president. An incredibly popular biography.
The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)
A deep psychological portrait of sincerity, guilt and redemption in Puritan New England.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (1885)
Hemingway, no mean writer himself, said that “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”
The Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Leon Tolstoy (1886)
The best book ever written about what happens to us all — death.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder (1927)
Beautifully written novella about 5 people who die in a tragic accident in 18th century Peru.
The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene (1940)
The story of the weakness and courage of a “whiskey priest” in 1930s Mexico when Catholicism was fiercely persecuted.
Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton (1948)
A black Anglican priest from rural Natal searches for his son Absalom in the slums of Johannesburg. A moving retelling of the story of the Prodigal Son.
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960)
Classic novel of a lawyer in the Deep South defending a black man charged with the rape of a white girl.
Philosophy and religion
Job, by Bible (500BC)
A timeless exploration of the meaning of suffering and one of the most poetic books of the Bible.
Ecclesiastes, by Bible (300BC)
A sombre Biblical reflection on the futility of much of our striving under the sun.
The Gospel according to Mark, by Bible (40)
The first of the four eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus Christ.
Pensées, by Blaise Pascal (1669)
Classic reflections on the truth and meaning of Christianity.
Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton (1908)
A highly original approach to Christianity in GKC’s rollicking paradoxes.
The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis (1942)
Letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, a junior “tempter” named Wormwood, on how to drag souls to hell. Surprisingly shrewd and entertaining.
Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder (1991)
14-year-old Sophie receives two anonymous messages: “Who are you?” and “Where does the world come from?”. A history of philosophy in the form of novel.
Questioning the system
Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler (1940)
Rubashov, an Old Bolshevik, is tried for treason against the government whose rise he once helped to create. A searing critique of Communism.
All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren (1946)
The dramatic political ascent and governorship of Willie Stark, a driven, cynical populist in the American South during the 1930s.
The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (1951)
The baby-boomers’ signature novel about phoniness, alienation and teenage angst.
Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe (1958)
A sombre tale of a man in a Nigerian village whose character disintegrates as his culture clashes with the encroaching English colonial government
The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958)
This top-selling novel in Italian history deals with the decline of the Sicilian nobility.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Aleksandr Solzhenitysn (1962)
An extraordinarily moving account of a single day in a Siberian work camp for political prisoners under Stalin.
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (1813)
The touchstone novel about courtship and marriage.
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte (1847)
The quintessential romantic novel about unrequited passion on the dreary moors of the English countryside
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte (1847)
Childhood, adolescence, courtship and marriage. Cruelty, mystery, tragedy and undying love. A perennial favourite.
My Ántonia, by Willa Cather (1918)
The final book of a prarie trilogy about immigrant families moving to start new lives in Nebraska.
The classical world
The Histories, by Herodotus (420BC)
Herodotus was “the father of history” and his rivetting account of the Persian invasion of Greece is an inspiring adventure. Just read Books VII, VIII and IX.
The Apology, by Plato (400BC)
The deeply moving story of the death of Socrates.
The Peloponnesian Wars, by Thuycidides (390BC)
The world’s greatest historian. Read Book II, with Pericles’ speech about the glory of Greek culture and Books VI and VII about the tragic failure of the invasion of Sicily.
Anabasis, by Xenophon (340BC)
Ten thousand Greek mercenaries fight their way from Persia back to their homeland in one of the greatest adventures of all time.
On Friendship, by Cicero (44BC)
One of the greatest minds of the ancient world reflects on the meaning of true friendship.
Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, by Plutarch (100AD)
Browse through and pick a few. These brief sketches of the lives of the great men of the ancient world have been very influential.
The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper (1826)
Fenimore Cooper created a heroic past for Americans out of the savagery of the French and Indian Wars in the mid-18th century.
Billy Budd, by Herman Melville (1891/1924)
The author is best known for writing Moby Dick, but all of his genius is evident in this novella about the hanging of an innocent seaman during the Napoleonic War.
The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane (1895)
An intense psychological portrait of a young soldier under fire in the American Civil War.
All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich-Maria Remarque (1929)
The classic novel about World War I, still as gripping and engaging as when it was first published in the 1920s.
The Bridge on the Drina, by Ivo Andric (1945)
The author won the Nobel Prize in Literature — mostly for this fictional account of the turbulent history of Bosnia.
The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding (1954)
British schoolboys on a deserted island turn into savages: a memorable allegory of world politics.
Master and Commander, by Patrick O’Brian (1969)
The first in the series of addictive novels about Captain Jack Aubrey and the naval surgeon Stephen Maturin during the Napoleonic Wars.
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
A post-apocalyptic novel about a father’s abiding love for his son narrated in stunning prose.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. (firstname.lastname@example.org)