In Depth

The books which should be on your reading bucket list

Ignore the outside world and immerse yourself in these classic novels

While millions of Brits were spending hours watching TV and films during lockdown, for many others the time at home brought the opportunity to catch up on some reading.

Research conducted by Nielsen Book UK, and reported by The Guardian, found that people increased the amount of time reading books from around 3.5 hours per week to six. 

Of the 1,000 adults surveyed 41% said they were reading books more and genres such as crime and thrillers were the most popular.  

According to an Amazon list of the ten best-selling books, Normal People by Sally Rooney, The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary and Blood Orange by Harriet Tyce topped the charts during lockdown.

As the Independent says: “Losing yourself in a great novel is one of life’s most enduring and dependable joys.”

With this in mind we’ve compiled a list of some of the finest novels ever written.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (1960)

With more than 18 million copies in print and translated into 40 languages, Harper Lee’s classic novel set in America’s racist south won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and is today regarded as a “masterpiece of American literature”, says GoodReads

Through the young eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, Lee explores with exuberant humour the irrationality of adult attitudes to race and class in the Deep South of the 1930s. The conscience of a town steeped in prejudice, violence and hypocrisy is pricked by the stamina of one man’s struggle for justice.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl (1964)

Grab your golden tickets and head to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory for a grand tour. Described as a “startling work of fantasy” by the Independent, Dahl’s classic features Charlie Bucket as the hero and he is joined at the chocolate factory by some nasty little beasts called Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt, Violet Beauregarde and Mike Teavee. 

The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu (1012)

Written by the noblewoman and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu during the early 11th century, The Tale of Genji is often referred to as the first novel, although it wasn’t translated into English until the 19th century.

Despite its age, the book remains a remarkable and insightful read, telling the story of Prince Genji, the son of an emperor, whose love affairs and shifting political fortunes offer a glimpse of the golden age of Japan. The Washington Post calls it a “world-class masterpiece of fiction” that “rivals the classic novels of the West in artfulness and psychological depth”.

Emma, Jane Austen (1815)

When it comes to Austen, it is a “near-impossible choice” between Emma and her seminal novel Pride and Prejudice, says The Observer’s Robert McCrum. But he chooses Emma, saying it “never fails to fascinate and annoy”.

The protagonist Emma Woodhouse, from the fictional village of Highbury, plays matchmaker and meddles in the lives of her fellow inhabitants to devastating effect.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte (1847)

First published under the pseudonym Ellis Bell, Wuthering Heights was the only novel written by Emily Bronte, the second-youngest of the Bronte siblings, and she died a year after its publication at the age of 30.

“The scope and drift of its imagination, its passionate exploration of a fatal yet regenerative love affair, and its brilliant manipulation of time and space put it in a league of its own,” writes McCrum in The Observer. “This is great English literature, the fruit of a quite extraordinary childhood.”

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens (1861)

Great Expectations is a sprawling epic that tells the coming-of-age tale of the orphan Pip, with a few biting social critiques along the way. The jilted Miss Havisham, with her faded wedding dress and decaying cake, is also among the writer’s most intriguing characters.

“Dickens achieved perfection with this gothic masterpiece,” says The Independent.

Middlemarch, George Eliot (1871)

Middlemarch is quintessentially British, taking the number one spot in BBC Culture’s greatest British novels poll in 2015.

A book of sweeping historical importance, it details some of the more significant geopolitical events of the early 19th century, including the 1832 Reform Act, the beginnings of the railways and the death of King George IV.

“Anti-romantic, yet intensely passionate, it is one of the greatest novels of all,” says Booker Prize winner A.S. Byatt in The Guardian.

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (1878)

Leo Tolstoy’s idea for this tale of a doomed adulteress's affair with a rich count reportedly grew from a daydream of “a bare exquisite aristocratic elbow”, says The Daily Telegraph. The result was what Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner believed was the finest novel ever written.

The book tells the story of the “sensuous and rebellious” titular character in her affair with the dashing officer Count Vronsky, before tragedy unfolds as Anna rejects her passionless marriage and must endure the hypocrisies of society.

My Antonia, Willa Cather (1918)

My Antonia is the final book in Willa Cather's “prairie trilogy” of novels - along with O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark - lyrical, sweeping epics of the prairie, whose vivid evocation of the untamed Midwest and the pioneers who made it their home can stir up a powerful sense of nostalgia even in a reader who has never set foot in the US.

“A writer of great skill, Cather produced a lush, romantic work that is a superb read,” says the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Ulysses, James Joyce (1922)

One of the most important modernist novels of all time, James Joyce’s bizarre, dense magnum opus Ulysses has been described by The Atlantic as “a deeply humanistic novel which is bursting with the enormous variety of life”.

The story, characterised by a stream of consciousness narrative that changes focus wildly, concerns the meeting of two Irishmen, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, in 1904 Dublin.

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (1939)

The storms of the Great Depression - and the subsequent Dust Bowl - had barely settled when Steinbeck penned The Grapes of Wrath, an astonishing work of realist American writing.

The book follows a family of impoverished “Okies” as they head out west in hope of a better life but, as Time says, they “find only bitterness, squalor and oppression as migrant agricultural workers living in Hoovervilles”.

The magazine says it is “both a record of its time and a permanent monument to human perseverance”.

The Stranger, Albert Camus (1942)

A list of 100 Books of the 20th Century compiled by French publication Le Monde places Albert Camus’s existential, absurdist debut novel L’Étranger (The Stranger) at the top.

Through the story of an ordinary man “unwittingly drawn into a senseless murder on an Algerian beach”, Camus used his seminal 1942 novel to explore what he termed “the nakedness of man faced with the absurd”, says GoodReads.

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (1955)

Nabokov’s extraordinary - and controversial - novel Lolita is a work of such poetic agility that it makes perhaps the most taboo subject tackled by 20th-century literature seem almost normal.

In it, poet Humbert Humbert becomes obsessed with 12-year-old Dolores Haze and seeks to possess her by becoming her stepfather.

“Published in 1955, it is many things: a love story; by its own admission a disturbing tale of child abuse; an elaborate game of language, rhythm and subtext, and much more,” The Independent says.

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe (1958)

“The theme of preserving cultural history in the face of Western domination in this novel gave voice to the oppressed people in Africa and caught the attention of the world,” says the Open Education Database, of Things Fall Apart, written by Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe.

This classic novel is still widely read and studied as a searing and poetic critique of the damaging colonialist attitudes that permeates geopolitics.

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy (1997)

Set in 1969 in the southern Indian state of Kerala, Arundhati Roy’s debut novel The God of Small Things starts with a harrowing scene: memories of a family grieving around a drowned child's coffin.

This story of family in the Indian caste system won the Man Booker Prize upon its release, and was described by The New York Times as “so extraordinary - at once so morally strenuous and so imaginatively supple - that the reader remains enthralled all the way through to its agonising finish”.

The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen (2001)

In 2009, literature site The Millions polled a panel of writers, editors and critics to determine the best book of the 21st century. The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen’s satirical family drama based in the Midwestern United States, was the winner “by a landslide”.

“At its centre is the Lambert family, dominated by Alfred, the difficult patriarch, and Enid, the yearning and frustrated matriarch,” The Guardian said in a review at the time. “Three grown-up children, Gary, Chip and Denise, labour to live adult lives under the long shadow cast by their unhappy parents.”

Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2006)

“Are we ready for a novel about an imploding nation riven by religious strife and bloody wrangling over who controls the military, the civil service, the oil; a novel about looting, roadside bombs, killings and reprisal killings, set against a backdrop of meddling foreign powers?” The New York Times asked upon the release of Half of a Yellow Sun in 2006.

The book tells the story of the Biafran War (or Nigerian Civil War) and its impact on civilian life through the eyes of Odenigbo, a radical university professor, his young girlfriend Olanna and a shy English writer Richard.

The Seattle Times calls the book “a sweeping story that provides both a harrowing history lesson and an engagingly human narrative”.

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