The novels featured in our best books of all time list are the books that defined a generation, offering a unique perspective on life through unforgettable storytelling and characters. In our round-up, we've compiled our definitive list of must-read novels, spanning throughout the decades and from a variety of genres, from the romantic to the historic. So if you're looking for the ultimate must-read list—this is it.
While the best books of 2021 keep us plugged into the here and now, picking up one of those novels that never fall out of fashion—be it an unforgettable classic from Charles Dickens or a haunting reflection of wartime from Sebastian Faulks—can be deeply fulfilling. The books we've included below are ones everyone should read at least once in their lifetime, and picks that will stay with you long after the closing lines. Whether you're looking for a beautiful love story, a magical adventure, a dystopian exploration of the future, an emotional thrill-ride, or a tale that makes us reflect on our real-world values—there's something for everyone on this list.
So, load up your eReader and prepare to delve into another world with w&h's round-up of the 35 best books of all time, as chosen by an expert Books Editor. Whether you choose to explore the Regency era with Jane Austen, discover '90s Edinburgh with David Nicholls, or decide on an epic journey into Narnia with C.S.Lewis, you'll no doubt be entertained.
W&H's pick of the best books of all time
1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Beautiful, vivacious, irresistible Anna is married to cold, dull Karenina. Her life is given meaning by an overwhelming love for her son—and she shines in society. But when she meets Count Vronsky, a soldier and aristocrat, a passion overtakes them and ultimately proves irresistible. Anna’s new position as a mistress cuts her off from her son, her old life, and friends, and a heartbreaking decline begins. Alongside this story of broken promises and broken rules, runs the story of Levin and his tremulous love for Kitty—and their story follows a very different course.
2. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
When a plane crashes on a desert island, the only survivors are a group of schoolboys. At first, the boys are jubilant—there are no adults to tell them what to do. But before long, their attempt to govern themselves falls apart, and terror sets in. A thought-provoking classic that looks at the end of innocence, what it means to create a civilized society, and human relationships without the confines of the law. This classic from 1954—and Golding's debut novel—well deserves its place on a list of the best books of all time.
3. Atonement by Ian McEwan
This beautifully written novel reveals how a ‘misunderstanding’ on the part of 13-year-old Briony Tallis in 1935 catastrophically affects the lives of two lovers, her glamorous older sister Cecilia, and handsome Robbie, the housekeeper's son. The interplay of personal and political plays out in a world that is about to change irrevocably in WW2. In this, McEwan questions guilt, atonement, and how we all construct our narratives. One of the best historical fiction books (opens in new tab) of all time that will leave you pondering for days (or weeks) afterwards. It's a modern classic, but one we couldn't leave off our best books of all time list.
4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Another iconic read, and a popular book club book (opens in new tab), The Great Gatsby is one novel everyone should read in their lifetime. Written in 1925 by acclaimed American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, the book is set in the Jazz Age on Long Island and depicts narrator Nick Carraway’s interactions with Jay Gatsby, a mysterious millionaire, and Gatsby’s desire to reunite with Daisy Buchanan, the love he lost five years earlier. A lyrical thrill ride that isn't to be missed.
5. The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger
Our best books of all time list wouldn't be complete without this American classic. Set in 1950s New York City, this coming-of-age story centers on Holden Caulfield, who, like Huck Finn, speaks to us straight from the page giving the reader a raw insight into the mind of a teenage boy. Expelled from school and writing from a mental hospital, he’s caught between the lost innocence of childhood and the decidedly unappealing world of adults.
6. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel later turned into a film directed by Steven Spielberg, is powerful and deeply compassionate. In a story set in the deep American South, we meet Celine, a young girl born into poverty and segregation—and one who suffers at the hand of her abusive ‘father’ and is later trapped in an ugly marriage. When she meets the glamorous Shuga and her neighbor, Sofia though, everything changes as she discovers the true meaning of female empowerment. Magnificent storytelling, vividly drawn characters and touching moments make this modern American classic unforgettable, and one of the best feminist books (opens in new tab) on our list.
7. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Written as a ghost story when Mary Shelley was only 19, her creation has become one of the most recognizable names in fiction. Dr. Victor Frankenstein becomes obsessed with the idea of forming a new, living person from body parts, but the monster he ends up with is not only hideous but vengeful. Everything Victor loves is lost—and yet we must still have pity on the creature who is desperately lonely, longs for a wife, and craves acceptance that will never come. This truly goes beyond your typical 'monster' story.
8. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Perhaps it was something you were forced to read in school, but we promise you—coming back to Jane Austen’s iconic love story Pride and Prejudice in later life provides newfound joy. An 1813 romantic novel of manners, this book is one of the most popular novels in English literature and inspired a whole wave of literary traditions, popular films, and TV adaptations. Telling the story of the relationship between Elizabeth Bennett (one of three Bennett sisters), and the aloof Mr Darcy, it's one of our best romance books (opens in new tab), too.
9. One Day by David Nicholls
The best books of all time don't all need to be written decades ago. This 21st century novel from best-selling author David Nicholls crafts a beautiful love story that will stay with you long after you've closed the page. Each chapter covers the lives of two protagonists Emma and Dexter on the 15th of July, St Swithin's Day, for 20 years, for a romance story that spans decades. Spoiler alert: there will be tears.
10. The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Time Traveller's Wife is the debut novel by the American author Audrey Niffenegger, published in 2003. It follows the story of Clare, a beautiful art student, and Henry, a librarian, who have known each other since Clare was six and Henry was thirty-six. Moving and imaginative, this novel addresses questions of life, love, and the effect of time on relationships in a refreshingly original way. Another of the books on our list that will leave you sobbing.
11. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K Rowling
A Harry Potter book needs to be at the top of everyone’s best books of all time list—and this one is a must-read. The novel that has sold in excess of 120 million copies, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is the first in the Harry Potter series, which chronicles protagonist Potter’s journey from an unwanted child at the Dursleys to a student at Hogwarts, an English boarding school for wizards. This also makes for one of the best audiobooks (opens in new tab) to listen to as well, with Stephen Fry's dulcet tones guiding you on the journey to Hogwarts.
12. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Goldfinch is a coming-of-age novel by American author Donna Tartt. First published in 2013, it’s a first-person narrative of Theodore Decker, who survives a terrorist bombing at an art museum where his mother is killed. This is quite a love-it-or-hate-it kind of book, but many believe it has Dickensian echoes in its scope and ambition.
13. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Arguably the most famous confidence-boosting book ever written; How to Win Friends has sold over 16 million copies worldwide and improved millions of readers’ lives. This book will explain how to make friends quickly and easily, boost your popularity, become a better public speaker and get people to follow your way of thinking. Basically, it’s a how-to manual for leading an easier, more impactful life—a sort of self-help book (opens in new tab) must-read.
14. Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Wild recounts the tale of Cheryl Strayed who, at twenty-two, thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s passing and divorce, Strayed choose to embark on a life-changing journey—hiking more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State, alone. What follows is a tale of epic journeying, healing, self-discovery, and, ultimately, strength.
15. Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Another tale of self-discovery, Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is a memoir by American author Elizabeth Gilbert. A memoir that recounts one woman’s journey into the unknown, through travels across Italy, India, and Indonesia, it was an international bestseller, so it's no surprise it's one of the best books of all time. A book that proves that sometimes the best way to find yourself, is by getting lost.
16. A Brief History of Time by Steven Hawking
An internationally-acclaimed masterpiece by world-renowned physicist Steven Hawking, this book explores some of the biggest questions about the universe and time—with surprisingly easy-to-follow answers. A truly enlightening read, the book covers topics such as dark energy, theories around space and time, the information paradox, and the cosmos. A must-read if you want to learn and explore the universe around us in a way you never have before.
17. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
This semi-autobiographical novel is a beautifully rendered exploration of how a brilliant and successful woman, Esther Greenwood, struggles to find her place and identity in 1950s America and sinks into mental illness. Making our list as one of the best books of all time, it speaks of a woman struggling against society’s pressure to assert her true self—one of the best autobiographies (opens in new tab) of sorts in our round-up.
18. Beloved by Toni Morrison
Winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Beloved is set after the American Civil War and is a haunting tale—literally—of the legacy of slavery. Sethe is haunted by the ghost of the child she murdered to save from enslavement, and the background to this terrible act is told in heartbreaking flashbacks. Motherhood, repressed memory, and identity all come to the fore in this moving tale inspired by a true story.
19. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
An epic and emotional tale set during World War 1, this is unputdownable. Arriving in France, Englishman Stephen Wraysford falls in love with unhappily married Isabelle. Despite running away together, the relationship falters, and, heartbroken, Stephen volunteers to fight on the Western Front, where the tragic drama of personal stories are swept up in the horror of war. In a parallel story, a young woman in 1970s London discovers the moving truth of her family history.
20. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Arguably one of the best science fiction books (opens in new tab) of all time, Brave New World takes place nearly 600 years in the future, where the World Controllers have created the 'ideal' society. Humans are grown inside bottles, then brainwashed to believe certain moral 'truths'. Recreational sex and drugs mean that everyone is a happy consumer. But one man—Bernard Marx—longs to break free. A novel that presents a nightmarish vision of how things could be, to make us all reflect on life as we know it now.
21. Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
In this beautifully-written novel that later became a film starring Scarlett Johanssen and Colin Firth, Chevalier conjures up a magical story inspired by one of Johannes Vermeer’s most famous paintings. Set in the atmospheric city of Delft in 17th century Holland, we see servant girl Griet catch the eye of Vermeer and become both student and muse. It is when he presents her with a pearl earring to wear for the painting that scandal erupts. A work of art, the novel is as captivating as the image on which it is based.
22. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Exquisite detail characterizes all Dickens's work—it’s what gives us such memorable characters and scenes. This mid-nineteenth-century coming of age story is a delight, as we follow Pip from Joe’s forge in Kent to London. Haunted by an encounter with an escaped convict, he meets the eccentric Miss Havisham, falls for haughty Estella, and becomes a ‘gentleman’. Wealth, poverty, love, kindness, and rejection all play out. There's no doubt that this is one of the best books of all time.
23. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
This dystopian tale tells of a world where female fertility is too highly prized to be left in the control of women. Offred is one of the ‘handmaids’ assigned to produce offspring for high-ranking men in the totalitarian state of Gilead. Defiance means death, but nothing can quell the human spirit—or its desires—completely. One of the best books of all time—and one of the bestselling books (opens in new tab)—it's an examination of how society views women even in our real world.
24. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
American author Maya Angelou wrote seven volumes of autobiography, and this is the first. It’s a superb evocation of her childhood in the 1930s of America’s south, where the wealthy white folks live at the other end of town. The book has been banned and censored many times, not least because of its unflinching portrayal of racial injustice, rape, and abuse. But it's an important read, and Angelou still manages to convey her own indomitable spirit, and at the heart of her work is an exploration of what it is to be a human being.
25. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
This wonderful classic had to be on our best books of all time list. It chronicles the lives of four sisters in New England during the Civil War. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March are being raised in genteel poverty by their mother Marmee, while their father serves as an army chaplain. An enchanting family drama, Little Women is brimming with life and enduring characters that young (and older) readers have loved for generations.
26. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Nuanced, intimate, captivating, and quietly beautiful, Jane Eyre is consistently found at the top of many a reader's most-loved list. The story follows orphan Jane from her troubled beginnings in the house of her disinterested uncle, to her position as governess at Thornfield Hall, where she encounters and slowly falls under the spell of the darkly brooding Mr Rochester. Charlotte Brontë made history by adopting a close first-person narrative voice to tell her story, inviting readers to not only view Jane's life but also be permitted access to her innermost thoughts and feelings. The result is nothing short of mesmerizing.
27. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Set during the closing months of the Second World War at a US Army base in Italy, Catch-22 tells the story of disenchanted bombardier Yossarian, who comes up with increasingly outlandish ways to avoid being put in harm's way. The Catch-22 of the title refers to a ludicrous rule that states a man must be insane if he continues to fly dangerous missions, and therefore shouldn't be permitted—but that the truly insane cannot know they are, which means the missions continue. A satirically genius, funny, disjointed read that requires a certain amount of perseverance from its reader that will really pay off.
28. Alice's Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Most of us enjoyed the story of bored little Alice, who followed a white rabbit with a pocket watch into a hole in the ground and found herself in a strange Wonderland, as children—but it is a classic tale that is well worth a repeat read in adulthood. As well as the perpetual silliness, madcap antics, magical encounters, and joyously nonsense characters, there are moments of deep pathos, too—notably the personification of dementia in The Mad Hatter, who blithely declares: "I'm never sure what I'm going to be, from one minute to the other." A true nostalgic treat and one of the best fantasy books (opens in new tab) of all time.
29. The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe by CS Lewis
The fantastical notion of finding a hidden door into a secret world in the back of a wardrobe does not dim in its potency as you grow from an idealistic child into a cynical adult. If anything, the pull of escape is stronger, and one place you're sure to become lost is within the pages of this inventive story. Narnia may be populated by misguided fauns, talking beavers, messianic lions, and evil witches, but each of these characters has been carefully constructed to teach the reader a lesson about life. After all, none of us are ever too old to learn something new.
30. Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
Winner of both the Man Booker and the Booker of Bookers, Midnight's Children has long endured in the hearts and minds of readers since its publication in 1981. Charting India's transition into independence and the country's partition through the lively mind of its engaging—and telepathic—protagonist Saleem Sinai, the novel's three separate books blend postcolonial, postmodern, and magical realist literature styles into an absorbing, humorous, and thought-provoking tale. With sales of over one million in the UK alone, it's a must for any reader keen to expand their literary canon.
31. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Tudor life is often portrayed in books, TV shows, and movies as gloomy, cutthroat, and widely depressing, but when Mantel sat down and wrote Wolf Hall, she radicalized those associations with lashings of wry humor and wonderful wit. Told in deliciously immersible third person through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, the novel—which is the first in a series of three books—charts King Henry VIII's reign from 1500-1535, including his ill-fated union with the infamous Anne Boleyn. As riveting and sexy as it is violent and murderous, it is an extraordinary feat that deserves to be enjoyed by all.
32. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
A New York Times bestseller for the best part of two years, this deeply affecting novel follows young Amir as he grows up throughout Afghanistan's transition from a monarch-ruled country to one reshaped by revolution, and how the events that unfolded during the winter of 1975 changed his life in unimaginable ways. As well as tackling weighty themes such as friendship, regret, guilt, and redemption, the novel enthralls with its cultural richness, demonstrating how vibrant life in Afghanistan was for so many before the political stack of cards began to topple. A story that once read can never be forgotten.
33. The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time by Mark Haddon
It takes a mere few lines to be whisked under the spell of this 2003 award-winning novel's narrator, Christopher Boone—and once the intrepid teenager has you in his grasp, there's little you can do but sacrifice yourself fully to however many hours it takes to read his story. Describing himself as a 'mathematician with behavioral problems', Christopher invites the reader along to solve the mystery of who killed next door's dog. It is a journey that sees Christopher face arrest, uncover shocking secrets, and be reunited with a person he thought lost to him. A very special book indeed and well-deserving of a place on our best books of all time list.
34. Of Human Bondage by W Somerset Maugham
Philip Carey is just nine years old when we join him at the start of this 1915 novel. He has become orphaned after the death of his mother—a seismic event that launches him on a quest to rediscover the happiness he's lost. Along the way, Philip dabbles in art, struggles with a physical disability, studies to become a doctor, battles with faith, and falls both wildly and quietly in and out of love. As with life itself, the book contains moments of great sorrow alongside those of joy, making it not only a relatable read but an important one too.
35. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Stories about teenage girls being murdered have been told and retold endlessly, but what makes The Lovely Bones stand out from the crowd is the fact that the novel's victim is also our narrator. Susie Salmon knows who killed her, and now she is watching from heaven as her family and friends try their best to come to terms with what happened and discover who committed the crime. Far from dwelling on death, Sebold shines a light into the darkest corners of grief and illustrates how hope can flourish, courage can prosper, and tragedy can alter perspective in magical ways.
Sharon has worked in lifestyle magazines for many years and is passionate about sharing information, whether that’s about great places to discover, books to read, performing arts, or how to live a greener life. She has written for The Guardian and BBC Homes and Antiques, interviewed authors such as Isabelle Allende, and was a contributing editor to The Beekeeper’s Bible.
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