Books are incredible things. They have the power to change how you view the world; they can ferry you away to a place where your problems cease to exist; they are, as Stephen King said, “uniquely portable magic.” But there are so, so many of them that picking the one that you want to, scratch that, need to read is a difficult task. To make matters easier for those of you who face this dilemma, we decided to compile a list of 50 must-read books that are some of the most lauded and critically acclaimed works of literature in history. In this list you’ll find books on genres ranging from fantasy and fiction to philosophy and science to ones that can’t be constrained to one particular genre. There are, of course, many books that deserve to be on this list but didn’t make the cut; not because they were in any way inferior, but simply because this list had to be limited to 50 books. So, have at it:
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
The tale of an architect who resolutely refuses to abandon the way he feels his work should be done despite facing ceaseless opposition from society, The Fountainhead presented to the world Rand’s ground-breaking, and often controversial, philosophy of Objectivism through an incredible and enduring tale.
1984 by George Orwell
One of, if not the most, critically acclaimed dystopian narratives, 1984 shines light on what a world governed by fear and oppression would look like. With independent thought, much less freedom, almost non-existent in his created world, Orwell paints a harrowing picture of the future with such asperity that it is simply impossible to forget.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
While Orwell’s dystopia imagined a future where people are controlled by fear of punishment and false information, Huxley’s dystopia is the exact opposite. In his ‘brave new world’, genetically engineered people are ascribed certain roles in a consumerist society from birth and are subdued by an overload of pleasure and comfort.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde’s scandalous tale about an amoral, vain, selfish, and cruel man who sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty, The Picture of Dorian Grey is one of the best works of Victorian literature the world has seen. Wilde later revealed that the three main characters in the story are the persons are characterisations of ‘who he thinks he his’, ‘who the world thinks of him’, and ‘who he wishes to be.’
Stoner by John Williams
An existentialist tale of a poor boy who becomes a scholar of English literature and faces a slew of disappointments in life, Stoner is a simple yet incredibly powerful narrative that tackles the questions of death and life’s meaning. Unlike his Russian contemporaries whose tales on such topics always end in sorrow, Williams’ novel is surprisingly inspiring despite the sense of foreboding it carries through its pages.
IT by Stephen King
The unchallenged master of horror, Stephen King’s IT is one of the most terrifying stories ever written. A sewer-dwelling creature haunts a quaint town, scaring its young residents by taking the shape of their worst nightmares and revisiting them once again when they grow up. Despite being a horror story, however, IT manages to perfectly capture the essence of childhood and what it’s like to grow up.
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
A 13-year-old Jewish girl’s thoughtful, moving, and amusing account of life written when she was hiding from Nazis in her home country of Holland, The Diary of a Young Girl is a brilliant testament to the horrors of war and the power of the human spirit. This book is unarguably one of the most profound works of writing ever witnessed.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
An unrestrained exploration of human behaviour through a love story set in a quaint, racially-divided town in the American South, To Kill a Mockingbird is Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece of American literature.
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
“Would it save you a lot of time if I just gave up and went mad now?” Adams’ smart, well-written, and hilarious novel is one of the best works of science fiction ever written. In it, he explores the questions of existence and death through a series of fantastic characters in absurd scenarios framed in a thoroughly entertaining and gripping narrative.
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
A collection of nine science fiction short stories that revolve around robots, humans, and the questions of morals and ethics that spring up when they interact, I, Robot is a brilliant read by one of the foremost authors of this genre.
Cosmos by Carl Sagan
“How did we get to where we are? Where are we headed next?” In Cosmos, Carl Sagan traces 15 years of cosmic evolution to the development of civilisation and science on Earth. His book touches upon cosmology, biology, anthropology, history, and philosophy through anecdotes and Sagan’s reflections on the topics.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
A deceptively simple story about a fisherman who displays grit and courage in an agonising battle against a giant marlin that he’s trying to catch, The Old Man and the Sea is by far Hemingway’s best-known work and is a true classic of the twentieth century.
Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell
One of Orwell’s lesser-known works, Keep the Aspidistra Flying narrates the tale of a man who, frustrated by the power money holds over him and others, rages war against the ‘money god’. Filled with dark, quintessentially British humour, the book sees Gordon Comstock fruitlessly battle against poverty, pity, and the need for love.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
A non-fiction crime novel about four horrific murders that shocked a small farming town in Kansas, USA, In Cold Blood details Capote’s reconstruction of the crime and the trial, conviction, and execution of its perpetrators through a suspenseful and empathetic narrative.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Regarded as Dickens’ best novel, Great Expectations tells the tale of a poor, orphaned boy who dares to dream of one day overcoming his wretched situation. This mesmerising story touches upon crime, guilt, revenge, and reward through incredibly well-defined characters.
Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer
A saga of two men who are separated by geography, wealth, and circumstances, Kane and Abel is a roller-coaster of a story. It follows the story of each person since his birth, taking the reader on a journey of their experiences till death through an incredible plot that effortlessly weaves between the two narratives and never once threatens to bore.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
A captivating, moving, and incredibly well-written story about a boy who gets stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with only a tiger to keep him company, Life of Pi transcends typical literature and plunges the reader into questions of spirituality and existence; with each unique perspective yielding a different life-altering paradigm.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Six seemingly disconnected stories divided by time and space tell the tales of characters as they voyage through their lives, which are ultimately revealed to be connected in a way that readers could never have imagined. Mitchell adapts his language and prose in accordance with each era to tell a truly unforgettable story.
Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne
A scientist and his lackeys embark on an epic undersea adventure on the eccentric Captain Nemo’s incredibly advanced submarine. The story sees them hunt in an underwater forest, visit the South Pole, and even explore the lost city of Atlantis; all the while keeping an eye on Nemo who, thoroughly disenchanted by the world, is waiting to exact his revenge.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury creates a dystopian future in which the American society has outlawed critical thought and the objects that spur them: books. With an almost poetic prose, Bradbury recounts the story of a fireman whose job is to burn all the books that the Fire Department can find.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
A charming story about a little boy who leaves his safe, tiny planet to explore the vast universe in hopes of curing his loneliness, The Little Prince explores the meaning of life, and the absurdity and narrow-mindedness of adult behaviour in an unsuspectingly profound manner.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Rife with Twain’s signature humour, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn tells the story of two friends and their adventures in the Mississippi Valley with incredibly rich detail. The first major work in American literature to feature vernacular English throughout, it is often hailed as ‘The Great American Novel’.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
An incredibly imaginative novel of epic proportions, War and Peace sees Leo Tolstoy narrate the tales of Russian individuals during the Napoleonic Wars and the French invasion of the country. Tolstoy, as he’s known for doing in his stories, explores questions of free will and fate while portraying his characters’ daily lives with unabashed truth and realism.
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Set in modernising Russia, The Brothers Karamazov is a novel that plunges its readers into ethical and moral struggles concerning faith, free will, reason, morality, and God. Dostoyevsky’s last and greatest novel, it is considered among the best pieces of Russian literature ever written.
The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
Inspired by the myth of a man condemned to ceaselessly push a rock up a mountain and watch it roll back to the valley below, The Myth of Sisyphus is Albert Camus’ essay on how to live life while dealing with the absurdity of it all. A landmark work of 20th century philosophy, the book is one of those rare works that has the power to entirely change the reader’s worldview.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor E Frankl
Man’s Search for Meaning is Victor Frankl’s first-hand account of life in a Nazi concentration camp and how he and his fellow prisoners survived it. As a psychiatrist, he manages to share with his readers invaluable insights on life, arguing that everyone suffers and that one must find a ‘meaning’ in his life that makes the suffering worth it.
Harry Potter by JK Rowling
Never has a story captivated the world’s readers, both young and old, as Harry Potter has. You would be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t escaped into the magical world created by Rowling at least once. The series is indescribably brilliant and its massive fan base, record-shattering sales, and movie adaptations are testament to its popularity.
The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
Tolkien’s unparalleled fantasy saga, The Lord of the Rings, tells the story of good versus evil in a magical land with vivid characters and detail. Tolkien not only came up with an unbelievable epic in The Lord of the Rings, he created an incredibly detailed origin story for his fantasy world in other works like The Hobbit and The Silmarillion.
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
A startling highlight of American society and the class issues that permeate it, The Great Gatsby is a wonderful tale of a mysterious, wealthy man who is attempting to win back his lost love. But the story is not that straightforward; Fitzgerald’s greatest work is really a tragic tale of harsh reality disguised by a simply superb prose.
The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis
CS Lewis’ series of seven books is one of the most imaginative and enrapturing works of fantasy fiction ever written, so much so that they’re now a part of the canon of classic literature. With a simple and direct yet engaging writing style, Lewis manages to kick the reader’s imagination into overdrive with ease.
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
The world’s bestselling mystery penned by history’s bestselling novelist, And Then There Were None is Agatha Christie’s masterpiece. In the novel, ten people who are complicit in murder but have escaped legal punishment are lured to an isolated island under various premises to face justice meted out by an unknown entity.
Tales of Mystery & Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe was a writer far, far ahead of his time. The inventor of detective fiction and among the first to dabble in what we now call science fiction, Poe crafted superlative stories that entrance readers with his mastery of horror and macabre. This particular book is a collection of 22 enthralling stories with themes that range from murders and treasure hunts to ghosts and demons.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Using a group of schoolboys stranded on a remote island, Golding invites readers of the book to explore questions of law and community in a society unencumbered by social, political, or moral constructs and rules.
The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
The first and foremost book to challenge the established theological theory of Creationism, The Origin of Species details Darwin’s theory of natural selection through a scientific yet easy-to-read narrative. Considered one of mankind’s most important scientific works, the book also explains the interrelatedness between the countless life forms that inhabit Earth.
Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Among the greatest works of German literature, Faust is a drama which sees an alchemist wagering the Devil that no amount of magic, sensuality, experience, or knowledge can lead him to a moment he would wish to last forever. A two-part masterpiece by perhaps the greatest polymath to have ever lived, Faust is a thoroughly captivating story by a master writer.
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
In Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut takes on science, religion, politics, and man’s ability to destroy himself as he tells the tale of a man who wants to write a book about the creator of an weapon capable of annihilating the planet in a style that is drily humorous and darkly ironic.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
A historical epic that begins with a gifted child being born at the stroke of midnight, at the very moment India gained independence from British rule, Midnight’s Children is a book that tells a captivating story through a wavering narrative set against a tableau of modern Indian history.
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
The bestselling fiction novel of all time, Don Quixote is recognised as the first modern novel. In it, Cervantes, with an experimental and playful prose, recounts the story of a sane madman and a wise fool as they embark on a grand adventure.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Considered to be the greatest play ever written by the greatest writer of all time, Hamlet is the story of a Danish prince and his struggles when he discovers that his uncle murdered his father for the royal throne.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
This book is a Pulitzer Prize winning epic that chronicles the disparities of how the powerful and powerless in the United States were affected by the Great Depression 1930s. Steinbeck’s novel portrays a moral drama that calls into question the nature of equality and justice in America.
A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin
Kings and queens fight over lands with dragons and magic while a zombie apocalypse threatens to catch them unawares. George RR Martin’s epic fantasy series of power, betrayal, and family in the medieval ages may have been popularised by the TV show, but those who don’t read the books are missing out on a lot on the exquisitely crafted tale that Martin has weaved.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Bell Jar is an emotionally jarring and uncomfortably realistic tale of a brilliant and successful woman’s slow descent into insanity. In her most acclaimed masterpiece, Plath draws inspiration from her own life and draws the reader into the inescapable dark corners of the human psyche.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
The story of American Gods follows an ex-convict with nothing left to lose as he accompanies a mysterious and eccentric man known as Mr Wednesday on the strangest of road trips. Gaiman’s epic explores theological myths and legends that ultimately culminates in a battle between the old gods and the new.
The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine
Penned by one of America’s Founding Fathers, The Age of Reason is a book that challenges the place and power of religion in society. A deist himself, Paine shines a light on the corruption of the Christian Church and the supposed divinity of the Bible while asking people to follow rational thought and reason in place of blind religious faith.
The Odyssey by Homer
The book is a story of Odysseus as he journeys home to Ithaca from Troy after the Trojan War and all the wild adventures he has on the way. In his best-known work, Homer crafts a Grecian epic that is filled with benevolent and malevolent Gods, irate sons, despairing wives, and conniving kings.
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
In this book, Hosseini tells the story of two maltreated women in Kabul, Afghanistan, who are brought together by war, loss, and fate. A heart-wrenching tale if there ever was one, A Thousand Splendid Suns draws in the reader with its incredibly descriptive and mesmerising writing.
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
A narrative poem that paints an imaginative picture of the afterlife as it was viewed in medieval Italy, The Divine Comedy is considered the greatest work of Italian literature. It follows Dante’s travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven — which comprise the three parts of the novel — as an allegory of the soul’s journey to God.
The Trial by Franz Kafka
A master surrealist, Kafka tells the tale of a respectable banker as he is accused of having committed a crime that he, nor anyone else (not even his accusers), knows of. The Trial is a confusing and chilling story about the absurd nature of bureaucracy and totalitarianism that leaves readers wondering what exactly Kafka’s message is.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson
This self-help book by popular blogger Mark Manson challenges the idea espoused by conventional self-help books that positive thinking is the solution to life’s problems. In his hilarious and hard-hitting book, Manson minces no words while telling his readers just what they must do to leave a good life.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Catch-22 is now a common term to describe a paradoxical situation from which an individual cannot escape because of contradictory rules, and it was Joseph Heller who invented it with this book. In it, Heller tells the story of an air force pilot who’s doing all he can to avoid participating in a war in an incredibly funny yet horrifying narrative.
How many of these have you read? Which ones do you want to read first? And which ones do you think should be there on this list? Tell us in the comments below.