The 28 books everyone should read at least once

In our list of books everyone should read in their lifetime, you'll find everything from enduring greats to popular modern reads

a collage image featuring eight of the books everyone should read from w&h's round-up
(Image credit: Future/Amazon)

It's no mean feat to select a series of books everyone should read at some point in their lives. Where do you begin? How do you choose? While no list can ever really be exhaustive—or agreed upon universally—we've rounded up books we believe cover universal themes, from a range of genres by some of the best authors in the world. 

Penned by great authors, each of the novels listed here have been chosen by our expert Books Editor. You'll find many of the best historical fiction books, as well as best thriller books, sweeping love stories, and gripping dystopian reads—there is something for all preferences. All will that move you, challenge you, and thrill you, regardless of whether they were written in 1813 or 2022. So whether you're committed to reading paperbacks, or prefer using one of the best eReaders, here are the 28 books we reckon everyone should read.

28 books everyone should read

Love and romance

Love stories speak to us all on some level, because relationships—in all their beauty, complexities, messiness, and joy—are part of all of our lives. Each of these romantic novels made it onto our list because they look at love with a piercing, unflinching, and (in some cases) humorous gaze. 

Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

Love stories do not come more brilliantly observed, more entertaining or more joyful than that of the wry and prejudiced Elizabeth Bennet and the stern and proud Mr Darcy. As with all of Austen’s works, it is the author’s wit, charm and intelligence that reels the reader into the lives of her flawed-yet-lovable characters. The enduring popularity of 1813 novel means it's become the archetype for many other stories based upon matters of the heart. To read it is to love it, which is why it's one our of books everyone should read and one of the best romance books of all time.


Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Oozing with atmosphere, this dark and intense gothic romance follows Cathy and Heathcliff, who meet as children when the former’s father takes in the young boy. They spend their youth traversing the wild moors, exploring, growing up, and eventually falling in love. When life conspires to tear the couple apart, however, it is not simply their own lives that will end up devastated. As a love story, it’s undoubtedly brutal, but there is a majesty to its unashamed wildness, to Brontë’s poetic storytelling, and to the idea of a shared emotion being so potent that it has the power to destroy everything else in its path.


I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith

Long before writing One Hundred and One Dalmatians, author Dodie Smith wrote this witty and warm-hearted debut about a young girl growing up with her bohemian family and falling in love for the first time. Quite rightly, it became a classic, and one that deserves to be read and enjoyed multiple times. Set in the 1930s, the journal-style story chronicles the daily capers, emotions and observations of Cassandra Mortmain, who lives in a crumbling, isolated castle in the middle of the English countryside with her father, stepmother, sister, brother and Stephen, who is hopelessly in love with her. Pure unadulterated joy, and certainly one of those books everyone should read at least once.


Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Orphaned in childhood and raised by a cruel aunt, it is little wonder that the eponymous heroine of this classic Victorian gothic romance novel grows up tougher than most. Having accepted the position of governess for the young ward of the brooding and sour-tempered Mr Rochester, Jane Eyre moves to the remote Thornfield Hall determined to stay the course. When her feelings for her master begin to change and the house begins to reveal its secrets, however, Jane must decide whether to stand by the man she’s grown to love, or abandon him to stay true to her own convictions. A quietly intense and powerful read.


Persuasion by Jane Austen

Ask someone which of Jane Austen’s novels is their favorite, and you will invariably hear a reply of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. Occasionally, Emma will win the vote—and why not? They are all wonderful stories. Less often though do you hear the merits of Persuasion being extolled, but there is so much to enjoy about Austen’s last completed work. It follows the 27-year-old Anne Elliot, who is persuaded by a friend into ending her engagement with a naval officer called Frederick Wentworth, a decision that Anne goes on to regret. When Mr. Wentworth returns from a long voyage as a prosperous sea captain, his and Anne’s lives collide once again—but will it prove too late for them to reunite romantically?


Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

First published in 1928 but banned in the UK until 1960 because it was deemed to be pornographic, you may feel obliged to approach this controversial novel with caution. Of course, the world has moved on in the intervening years, and what was once considered smut would now barely cause a ripple. The story follows an affair between Constance Chatterley and the gamekeeper on her estate. Her husband, Clifford, was paralyzed by an injury in the Great War and is now confined to a wheelchair—a situation that has resulted in a growing disconnect between the two. It is Constance’s frustration and loneliness that lead her towards gamekeeper Oliver, but what begins as a casual dalliance soon takes a darker turn.


Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

This is not a romance, but we include it here because the narrator believes it is a love story. Lolita is an incredible work of fiction, but a story about a 37-year-old man pursuing with a 12-year-old girl is going to be strong stuff. However, Lolita is modern classics, and that is perhaps more to do with its conspiratorial tone—and our unavoidable fascination with the outwardly abhorrent Humbert Humbert and his obsession with Dolores “Lolita” Haze—than its troubling subject matter. You get a sense while reading that the author is playing tricks on you, urging you to keep reading so that you might be smart enough to uncover secrets. It's a ploy that proves irresistible.


Fantasy and futuristic

Dystopian fiction allows to consider our society at a remove, although these days some dystopian novels can seem a little closer to life than we'd like to admit. But when you want to dive headfirst into an entirely different world, these great fantasy novels offer a fascinating escape.  

1984 by George Orwell

Chilling from the opening line, Orwell’s ninth and final novel is set in the dystopian future country of Oceania, where free will, free thought and even love are forbidden. Like many, Ministry Of Truth employee Winston Smith is opposed to the regime but has so far managed to avoid detection by the Thought Police and the all-seeing eye of Big Brother. That is, until he embarks on an affair with his colleague Julia. First published in 1949, this novel is still provocative. 


The Power by Naomi Alderman

When the reigning queen of dystopian fiction, Magaret Atwood herself, describes a novel as "electrifying", you're going to take notice. Published in 2017, this award-winning piece of feminist fiction considers what would happen if girls and women woke up one day with a power that makes them stronger than their male counterparts. Struggles between the genders and traditional hierarchies are pulled apart and rebuilt, but whether it's for the better—well, see how you feel when you close out the final page. A no-brainer for our books everyone should read list, and one of the best science fiction books of the last few years.


The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe by CS Lewis 

Forty-seven years before a certain boy wizard arrived to dominate the children’s fantasy book market, author CS Lewis introduced readers to a magical world every bit as exciting as the one featuring hippogriffs and Hogwarts. The Chronicles Of Narnia is a collection of seven books, but it is this, the first one published, which remains the best known and most popular. It tells the tale of four children—Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy—who are evacuated during wartime to a rambling mansion, where they find a hidden door to another world in the back of a wardrobe. One of the most fun books everyone should read—it's a novel that more than warrants a re-read in adulthood if you only read it as a child.


Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

No list of the books everyone should read at some point would be complete without Harry Potter. There is barely a corner of the world that remains untouched by the magical world of Harry Potter—a series of seven novels about an orphaned wizard destined to do battle with the evil Lord Voldemort. Now a cultural phenomenon that has spawned Hollywood movies, a sequel theatre show, a Wizarding World theme park, the Pottermore website and acres of merchandise, it is almost hard to fathom that it all began with the publication—and subsequent word-of-mouth success—of this book all the way back in 1997. That is, until you read it, and are instantly reminded of just how enchanting, inventive, wise, and wonderfully escapist it genuinely is. Plus, it makes for one of the best audiobooks too, read by the captivating Stephen Fry.


The Lord Of The Rings by JRR Tolkien

Wizards, hobbits, dragons, talking trees, orcs, elves, trolls, dwarves and all manner of other mythical beasts and beings inhabit the colorful world of Middle Earth, where this  bestselling book, and the first in a trilogy of three Lord Of The Rings novels, is set. Betrothed The One Ring of power by his uncle Bilbo—who discovered it during his own quest in Tolkien’s earlier work, The Hobbit—Frodo Baggins and his band of supporters must journey from The Shire to the dark lands of Mordor in order to destroy it once and for all. A fantastical adventure created by a genius mind.


Life Of Pi by Yann Martel

Pondicherry born Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel is traveling by ship with his family and a collection of animals from their now-defunct zoo when the vessel capsizes, killing everyone on board save for Pi, and a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. The two are forced to share a raft in the Pacific Ocean for 227 days, an experience that brings into question everything that Pi thought to be true. On its surface, Life Of Pi is simply a fantasy adventure story, but take the time to consider the meaning behind Yann Martel’s beautifully crafted words and the book becomes deeply philosophical. It’s also delightfully funny, and the imagery is utterly transportive.


Circe by Madeline Miller

Circe is born to the mighty Helios, God of the sun, and his alluring nymph wife Perse, though she seems to possess none of their power. Shunned by the world of gods, Circe seeks companionship with mortals and discovers her true calling: witchcraft. Now viewed as a threat to those who raised her, Circe is banished by her father to a deserted island, where over time she encounters all manner of mythical beasts and characters, from the Minotaur to Odysseus, and unwittingly earns herself a terrifying adversary. Soon, Circe will have to choose once and for all which world she belongs to—that of the gods who ostracised her, or the humans she has come to love. Bewitching, inventive, and completely enthralling, it’s a story in which to utterly lose yourself, and one of the best fantasy books on this list.


Contemporary

Books that delve into the world around us, reflecting the times and society that we live in can have a truly powerful impact. Whether depicting lives lived around the corner or on the other side of the world, they are books everyone needs to read because they offer us food for thought and can help us gain perspective. 

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Centering around two wartime friends—one English and one Bangladeshi—and their families, Smith's debut novel is filled with themes of friendship, love, war, and the relationships not only between generations but between cultures. While it takes a close and thought-provoking look at Britain's relationships with people from its former colonies, it does so with humor. The multi-award-winning book became an instant bestseller, cementing its place in must-read book lists for the past 20 years. 


The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Released in 2003, two years after the original invasion of Afghanistan, this book was a timely reminder of the complex history and culture of a place that, frankly, most of us know little about. The action in this novel begins in Kabul in 1975, just before the Russian military invasion of Afghanistan. Twelve-year-old Amir has dreams of winning the local kite-fighting tournament with the help of his friend Hassan. But neither boy knows how the events of that afternoon will alter the courses of their lives. A gripping and much-loved read, the world over—if you haven't already spent time with it, you should. It's also made it onto our list of the best books of all time.


The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Richard has not been at the prestigious Hampden College long before he notices them; the clique, a group of rich, glamorous, and alluring Classics majors who exude magnetic energy. Drawn in by the promise of something far more tantalizing than the sad and abusive life he left behind in California, Richard tries his hardest to become part of this elite circle and, as we learn very early on, it is this that leads him directly to murder. Told in two parts, which chronicle both the events leading up to the death and what transpires afterward, this immersive tale is bewitching in its intensity, shocking in its content, and unflinching in its dissection of humanity. A literary classic that should be read by all.


Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

Compassionate, grimly humorous, and with moments of such poignancy that they leave a scorch mark on your heart, this astonishing Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir tells the story of Frank McCourt. Born in Depression-era Brooklyn before traveling to his parents’ native Ireland to be raised in Limerick, Frank’s childhood is pitted with episodes of grief, illness, and extreme poverty. His mother Angela is doing her best to feed and clothe her brood, but it’s a struggle when her husband Malachy rarely works and drinks all his wages when he does. The one thing Malachy does excel at, however, is storytelling, and it is this that maintains his status as a hero in Frank’s young eyes. Despite being unflinching in its depiction of how brutal life was, the book is not presented as a cry for sympathy, and it is precisely the author’s straightforward narrative style that makes his account so utterly and completely moving.


The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

The world in which 14-year-old Ponyboy has grown up does not feel like a fair one. Having lost his parents, he guesses he is fortunate in some ways to have two older brothers—Darry and Sodapop—who are doing their best to raise him. Other “Greasers” (the term given to those from the so-called wrong side of the tracks) don’t have any support network around them other than their friends. Friendship means everything. The Greasers struggle daily against poverty, violence, and discrimination, but they also have another problem—the “Socs”—those who were born into a world of affluence and privilege. The Socs do not like the Greasers and the feeling is mutual. Clashes are inevitable. One night, however, a scuffle goes too far, a man ends up dead, and life for Ponyboy changes forever.


One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey 

Over ten years after this genre-defying novel was published in 1962, it was still being banned from various libraries and schools up and down the length of America. Critics deemed it too shocking, too sick, and too likely to persuade young readers that a life of crime was a glamorous option. How they reached the latter conclusion is baffling, given the fate of the story’s central protagonist, McMurphy, under the tyrannical rule of Nurse Ratched. Unlike the Oscar-winning film version, starring Jack Nicholson, the book is told through the eyes of half-Indian fellow inmate Chief Bromden, who observes the power struggle playing out at the Oregon State mental hospital. Often hilarious yet profoundly moving, the novel may have its roots in harsh societal satire, but is, at its heart, a story about what it means to be human.


Crime and thriller

The demand for a gripping page-turner—one that will have you right on the edge of your seat—never fades. Luckily, the crime/thriller genre offers up nearly endless options. 

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Expertly plotted and beautifully written, Fingersmith is the story of Sue Trinder, an orphan raised in a ‘baby farm’ in Victorian London—a place that also plays host to all manner of folk living in the underbelly of the East End. One such crook is petty thief—or ‘Fingersmith’—the Gentleman, who convinces Sue to pose as a maid for a rich heiress and help him seduce and later rob her. Part love story, part riveting mystery book, the novel also boasts one of, if not the, best twists in historical crime fiction, which is why it's one of our books everyone should read.


The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

A coming-of-age tale, with many (so many) more layers than your average teen drama, this psychological thriller was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014, which is why it has made our list of the books everyone should read. When 13-year-old Theodore Decker survives a deadly bombing that kills his mother at an art museum, he stumbles away in shock, taking with him a valuable Dutch painting called The Goldfinch (hence the title). This theft, and the subsequent inability to report it or return the work, starts a descent into a long-running web of lies. This is a hefty novel that examines the complexities of life, society, and relationships in modern-day America. One of the best book club books on this list. 


We Begin At The End by Chris Whitaker

Thirteen-year-old Duchess hasn’t had much chance of a normal childhood. With a drug-addicted mother and no father to speak of, she’s become sole carer to her six-year-old brother, Robin, and has learned the hard way to do whatever she must to survive. When the man convicted of murdering her mother’s sister is released from a 30-year jail term and arrives back in their small Californian town, Duchess makes a decision that sets off a chain of devastating events. Brutal yet beautiful, this painfully human tale cements New York Times bestseller Chris Whitaker’s status as one of the most talented authors writing today.


In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In November 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were murdered. Their killers, two young men named Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock, had been given a false tip-off about a safe full of cash at the property. In the end, the men made away with less than fifty dollars, making their crime one of the most senseless and savage in US history. But what has made this case linger on in the minds of many is journalist Truman Capote’s blistering account of what happened during the trial, including his own interactions with the two murderers. Brutal and chilling, there is also an undeniable and haunting beauty to this book, which once read is impossible to forget.


Historical fiction

Global history is a rich source of inspiration for writers—and one that offers a specific form of escapism for avid bookworms everywhere. Whether they explore events from centuries ago, or write from more recent history, these picks are truly books everyone should read at some point.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Set in Germany at the start of the Second World War, this deeply affecting novel follows Liesel, who is rescuing books from the Nazis, and her family, who are hiding a Jewish fighter in the basement of their home. What makes it so remarkable is not simply the story and its impact, but the fact that the piece is narrated by Death, who is looking down on the characters and observing their actions. Haunting, extraordinary and beautifully human.


Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Winner of the 2020 Women’s Prize For Fiction and a Waterstones Book of the Year, Hamnet reimagines the life of Shakespeare’s only son, who died in 1596 aged just 11 and gave his name to one of the most celebrated plays ever written. As with all O’Farrell novels, it is bewitching, immersive and lyrical, beckoning the reader into a world that feels both vital and authentic.


The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Inspired by the display of a dolls’ house at the Rijksmuseum, Jessie Burton crafted a tale about a young woman, Petronella Oortman, who in 1686 enters into an arranged marriage with an older man named Johannes Brandt and goes to live with him, his sister and their household staff in Amsterdam. While her husband does not seek affection from her, he does give Nella a gift—a model replica of the house in which they live—plus the funds to fill it with tiny furniture, which Nella orders from a local miniaturist. Before long, however, items begin to arrive that she has not requested, items that appear to hint at events that have yet to happen. This international bestseller is an intoxicating historical mystery that enthralls and delights in equal measure.


Small Island by Andrea Levy

This beautiful and moving novel was adapted for the stage, at the National Theatre in London, extending its reach far beyond the page—and the post-war period it depicts. Considered by many to be the definitive account (in fiction) of the Empire Windrush Generation, this story follows the fortunes of Gilbert and Hortense Joseph, newly arrived to London from Jamaica, and their landlady Queenie Bligh. Simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming, horrifying and humorous, this is 100 percent one of the books everyone should read in their lifetime. 


Isabelle Broom is the author of eight escapist fiction novels. She won the Romantic Novelist’s Association Best Contemporary Romance Novel award in 2019 and The Great British Write Off short story competition in 2015, with her winning entry, The Wedding Speech, later being adapted into a short film. 


As well as heading off on adventures abroad—a pastime she now gets to call ‘research’—Isabelle is lucky enough to write book reviews and travel features on a freelance basis.