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Literary critics and avid readers will all have different opinions on which truly are the “best books of all time”. So where can one start? I chose to present a diverse collection of must-read books: some of them have the ability to change the way you think; some of them have captivating language that can speak to the soul; some novels had a huge social impact, taught us about the history of our world and the possibilities of our future.
So, to help you create the perfect reading list, below are the best 24 books of all time everyone should read at least once in their life, from celebrated classics, to modern masterpieces:
1.’To kill a mocking bird’ by Harper Lee
Harper Lee’s classic is a favorite book of pretty much everyone who has ever read it, which by itself makes it a must-read. Moreover, this 20th-century American masterpiece went on to win the Pulitzer Prize just a year after its publication.
The plot revolves around a young small town girl, Scout, and her older brother, whose lives are continuously marginalized by the power structure of the society they live in. Their struggle with racism, injustice and destruction of innocence remains disturbingly current, which is what makes this book an everlasting read.
2. ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky
If you’re going to read only one grand Russian novel in your life, make it The Brothers Karamazov. Even the great Einstein considered this novel to be, quote, “the supreme summit of all literature”.
The story revolves around the murder of one of the vilest characters ever created, Fyodor Karamazov, the father of the Karamazov brothers.
Through this plot, Dostoevsky deeply examines a dozen of major themes, touching spirituality, human psychology, moral laws and economics. The Brothers Karamazov is a highly existential work that can teach you almost everything you need to know about life.
3. ‘1984’ by George Orwell
The ultimate masterpiece of the 20th century, George Orwell’s dystopian novel sold millions of copies worldwide and terms like “Big Brother” and “doublespeak” have nowadays become common expressions.
The novel tells the story of Winston Smith, a man whose daily work is re-writing history, that struggles to live in a totalitarian future society and in a world governed by surveillance, censorship and propaganda. Although 1984 has passed us by, George Orwell’s masterwork remains eternally fresh and relevant.
4. ‘Anna Karenina’ by Leo Tolstoy
Considered by many critics to be Tolstoy’s finest accomplishment, Anna Karenina tells the story of a love affair between a rebellious and disillusioned housewife, Anna, and a cavalry officer, Count Vronsky.
Any fan of juicy stories that involve excruciating love, adultery, plots and Russian society will instantly fall in love with this 1878 classic novel. The book was particularly groundbreaking in its treatment of women, describing prejudices and social restrictions of the time with great intensity.
5. ‘Madame Bovary’ by Gustav Flaubert
Condemned as “obscene” by the French government upon its release, Madame Bovary tells the tragic story of a chronically unhappy woman, Emma, who engages in extramarital relationships in an attempt to escape from a loveless marriage and a tedious life.
An exposé of bourgeois mentalities, with Madame Bovary Flaubert produced what is not regarded as the fundamental works of the Realism movement.
6. ‘War and Peace’ by Leo Tolstoy
A legendary masterpiece of 1200+ pages, War and Peace is a famously difficult read, so this one is a suggestion for all those readers out there looking for a challenge.
War and Peace opens in the Russian city of St. Petersburg in 1805, and follows the fates of five noble families during the Napoleonic wars. It contains 559 characters, commemorates significant military battles related to the French invasion of Russia, portrays many famous historical personalities and looks at the many psychological effects of the war.
7. ‘Lolita’ by Vladimir Nabokov
One of the most famous and controversial novels of all time, Lolita touches a rather dark subject — a middle-aged man’s devouring obsession with a little girl, with whom he later engages in a sexual relationship.
Nabokov’s Lolita is not a love story, but rather an unabashed look at a deviant, perverted mind written in some of the most witty and sharp English ever published. It certainly makes for an uncomfortable reading, and yet it is a literary classic that has even inspired many movies adaptations.
8. ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fizgerald
Set in the 1920s decadent Jazz Age, the Great Gatsby is a tale of luxury, lust, excess and pretence. The famous Fizgerald’s novel follows a series of characters living on prosperous Long Island, NY: Jay Gatsby, mysterious millionaire, Daisy, former debutante and Mr. Gatby’s romantic obsession, and finally Nick, a Midwesterner who moves right next to Mr. Gatsby.
A good deal of the shocking behaviour described in the novel was actually reflective of Fitzgerald’s personal life. The book is wonderfully written, it explores themes as materialism, excess and idealism, and is regarded as Fitzgerald’s finest work.
9. ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
This brilliant landmark novel is praised as the literary piece that market the creation of a totally new genre known as “magical realism”, in which extraordinary events are treated as common occurrences.
The novel tells the story of seven generations of Buendia family, whose patriarch founded the town of Mocondo in Colombia. Their tale highlights the contrasts between one’s need for solitude and one’s need for love. Márquez won many awards for this masterpiece, leading the way to his eventual honor of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982.
10. ‘The Diary Of A Young Girl’ by Anne Frank
One of the most moving and influential accounts of the Holocaust, Anne Frank’s diary is the record of two years in the life of an extraordinary Jewish girl, Anne, as she hides from the Nazis in the back of an Amsterdam warehouse.
She was only thirteen when her family moved into the Secret Annex, and in the diary, Anne grows to be a young woman and a clever observer of human nature.
What’s exceptional is that, despite her situation, Anne still believes that people are good at heart and remains heartbreakingly optimist, leaving a deeply touching testament to the resilience of the human spirit.
11. ‘In Search of Lost Time’ by Marcel Proust
In Search of Lost Time follows Marcel Proust’s recollections of his own life, from childhood to adulthood, in the late 19th century aristocratic France. In this narrative experiment, Proust narrates his tales as an allegorical search for the truth, reflecting on the loss of time and lack of meaning to the world.
The book consists of seven different parts for a total of over 4000 pages, so it makes for an extensive journey! You are likely to run out of motivation at times, but to dive deeply into this French masterpiece is well worth the effort.
12. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood
Atwood’s classic dystopian novel narrates the story of a terrifying near-future America in which a totalitarian state, Gilead, has overthrown the United States government. The narrator, Offred (“Of Fred”, because women can no longer have names), is both survivor and reporter, and jumps between past and present as she recaps the incidents leading up to the fall of women’s rights.
The Handmaid’s Tale narrates the injustices suffered by subjugated women in a patriarchal society and their various attempts to regain dignity and independence. This novel is as relevant today as it was when Atwood wrote it, in Berlin, in 1985.
13. ‘The Master and Margarita’ by Mikhail Bulgakov
Written during Stalin’s reign, this underground masterpiece of Russian fiction and political satire was actually not published until many years after its author’s death. The plot is extraordinarily intricate and bizarre, broken up among several sets of characters.
First of all, it’s Moscow circa 1930 and the devil arrives in town, bringing with him very odd associates. Meanwhile, the Master, author of an unpublished novel about Pontius Pilate, grieves in a psychiatric hospital, while his faithful lover, Margarita, decides to sell her soul to be with him. Bulgakov’s masterwork is absurd, deeply ironic, and a must-read for anyone looking for an entertaining and refreshing read.
14. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ by J.R.R. Tolkien
One of the best-selling novels of all time, The Lord of the Rings tells the story of Frodo, a modest hobbit, who, along with his companions, embarks on a journey through Middle Earth to destroy the One Ring, evil tool belonging to the Dark Lord Sauron.
Tolkien constructed a huge, unthinkable and magnificent fantasy world, and even invented from scratch two languages, Elvish and Dwarvish. The Lord of the Rings has basically defined and ruled over the Fantasy genre for a hundred years and still today continues to have a permanent impact on the literary world.
15. ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen
One of the most famous novels of all time and original rom-com, Pride and Prejudice details the courtship between the quick-to-judge Elizabeth Bennet and the arrogant aristocratic Mr. Darcy, as they both learn to look beyond social status in a world where manners and class are of the utmost importance.
In this classic of English literature, Jan Austen writes about her world with incredible accuracy, incisive wit and superb satire.
16. ‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Bronte
Arguably one of the most beloved romantic novels of all time, Jane Eyre tells the tale of a strong, courageous women, Jane, and her passionate love for the brilliant and mysterious Rochester.
Through the eyes of one of the most memorable female heroines, Charlotte Brontë explores themes as class, society, relationships and religion. Above all else, she highlights the challenges that every young woman rising above difficult conditions had to face to find a place in the world.
17. ‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell
One of Orwell’s finest works, Animal Farm is a political satire that focuses on Communism, revolutions and injustices. On the surface level, the book tells the tale of a group of barnyard animals who rebels against their human master and set up an apparently egalitarian society of their own.
Beyond the genius plot, Animal Farm is actually a figurative representation of the events of Russia’s Bolshevik revolution of 1917 that led to the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union, and the constitution of a brutal dictatorship enforced by a reign of terror. Props to Orwell for writing not one, but two of the best books of all time!
18. ‘Gone with the Wind’ by Margaret Mitchell
Set in The South during The Civil War, Gone With the Wind is a timeless story about love and survival, but also and mostly a story about murder, starvation and slavery.
Yet, Scarlett O’Hara is one of the most optimistic characters in literature, a symbol of the human resilience that fiercely holds up through the worst times. It is no surprise that Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel won the Pulitzer Prize and went on to give one of the most popular and celebrated movies of all time.
19. ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ by J.D. Salinger
The Catcher in the Rye is a classic in coming-of-age novels. Starring the original cynical teenager, Holden Caulfield, as he fights through life after being expelled from prep school, Salinger’s masterpiece explores the challenges and loneliness of adolescence.
Lost and disenchanted, Holden searches for his truth and rejects what to him is the hypocrisy of the adult world. The Catcher in the Rye manages to deliver a beautiful novel about the depth of the human need for connection, and about the disorienting sense of loss we face when we leave childhood behind.
20. ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Bronte
Initially criticized as immoral and excessive, Wuthering Heights has proved to be one of the nineteenth century’s most popular yet upsetting novels. The novel tells the tale of Heathcliff, an enigmatic orphan, and his obsessive love for Catherine Earnshaw, daughter of Heathcliff’s benefactor.
Bronte’s masterpiece blends romance and realism, portraying also the cruel sides of love, which was inadmissible for novels of the era. Today, Wuthering Heights is celebrated as classic of English literature and has been widely adapted for the stage and screen.
21. ‘Moby-Dick’ by Herman Melville
Everyone knows about Ishmael and the Great White Whale, but how many readers have actually made it through the end of Moby Dick? Written by American novelist Herman Melville, the novel depicts a sailor’s obsessive mission to gain revenge on the massive whale that had previously bitten off his leg, Moby Dick.
Through his vivid descriptions and clever writing style, Melville not only manages to deliver one of the most thrilling books of all time, but also to delicately explore themes of ethics, sociology and religion.
22. ‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding
A timeless classic, the Lord of the Flies is an allegorical novel about the conflicts between civilization and savagery, the one that underlies even the most educated human beings. William Golding wrote a tragic mockery of children’s adventure stories: in the middle of the Cold War, a plane carrying a group of British school boys crashes on a deserted island.
Without adult control these boys must work together and organize themselves to survive, but a series of event will turn this cheerful escape into something disturbing and evil.
23. ‘The Prince’ by Niccolo Machiavelli
The Prince is a classic political essay from the 15th century written by the Italian diplomat, Niccolo Machiavelli. In only 100 pages Machiavelli offers advice on how aspiring autocratic leaders can thrive and gain increasing political power, even through brutal means.
This book is definitely controversial, as Machiavelli goes far beyond the lines of morality, ethics, even humanity. However, if you are interested in politics, you may find it very interesting, as it may shed some lights on many of the current political affairs around the world.
24. ‘Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe
Written in 1958, Things Fall Apart gives voice to the oppressed people in Nigeria and their fight for the preservation of cultural history against Western domination. In particular, the novel centers on the conflict between native African culture, the colonial government in Nigeria and white Christian missionaries.
Okonkwo, the main character, struggles to come to terms with the revolutions colonialism brought to his village. Since the first publication the book was a startling success and became a required reading in many schools around the world.
Alright, these are our 24 best books of all time! But which are in your opinion some great books we should have included in this list? Let us know in the comments below!