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The 100 greatest novels of all time: The list / The 100 greatest non-fiction books


The 100 greatest novels of all time: The list


From Don Quixote to American Pastoral, take a look at the 100 greatest novels of all time

The 100 greatest non-fiction books

Looking for great book recommendations? Our critics and experts pick the best books, and give the definitive subject lists. And don’t forget to look at our list of the 100 greatest non-fiction books

La Mancha windmills don quixote

The greatest novel of all time? … windmills in La Mancha feature in Miguel de Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote. Photograph: Victor Fraile / Reuters Victor Fraile/REUTERS

Robert McCrum

The Cuardian, Sunday 12 October 2003 Last modified on Wednesday 28 January 2015

1. Don Quixote Miguel De Cervantes

The story of the gentle knight and his servant Sancho Panza has entranced readers for centuries.

• Harold Bloom on Don Quixote – the first modern novel

2. Pilgrim’s Progress John Bunyan

The one with the Slough of Despond and Vanity Fair.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: The Pilgrim’s Progress

3. Robinson Crusoe Daniel Defoe

The first English novel.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: Robinson Crusoe

4. Gulliver’s Travels Jonathan Swift

A wonderful satire that still works for all ages, despite the savagery of Swift’s vision.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: Gulliver’s Travels

5. Tom Jones Henry Fielding

The adventures of a high-spirited orphan boy: an unbeatable plot and a lot of sex ending in a blissful marriage.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: Tom Jones

6. Clarissa Samuel Richardson

One of the longest novels in the English language, but unputdownable.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: Clarissa

7. Tristram Shandy Laurence Sterne

One of the first bestsellers, dismissed by Dr Johnson as too fashionable for its own good.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

8. Dangerous Liaisons Pierre Choderlos De Laclos

An epistolary novel and a handbook for seducers: foppish, French, and ferocious.

• Jason Cowley on the many incarnations of Dangerous Liaisons

9. Emma Jane Austen

Near impossible choice between this and Pride and Prejudice. But Emma never fails to fascinate and annoy.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: Emma

10. Frankenstein Mary Shelley

Inspired by spending too much time with Shelley and Byron.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: Frankenstein

11. Nightmare Abbey Thomas Love Peacock

A classic miniature: a brilliant satire on the Romantic novel.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: Nightmare Abbey

12. The Black Sheep Honoré De Balzac

Two rivals fight for the love of a femme fatale. Wrongly overlooked.

• Balzac drank 50 cups of coffee a day: Daily Rituals of Creative Minds

• Jason Bourke on France’s tradition of art imitating life

• Nick Lezard on a translated collection of short stories and Balzac’s influence on other literary greats

13. The Charterhouse of Parma Stendhal

Penetrating and compelling chronicle of life in an Italian court in post-Napoleonic France.

• The Charterhouse of Parma – review

14. The Count of Monte Cristo Alexandre Dumas

A revenge thriller also set in France after Bonaparte: a masterpiece of adventure writing.

• Dumas’s five best novels

15. Sybil Benjamin Disraeli

Apart from Churchill, no other British political figure shows literary genius.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: Sybil

16. David Copperfield Charles Dickens

This highly autobiographical novel is the one its author liked best.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: David Copperfield

17. Wuthering Heights Emily Brontë

Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff have passed into the language. Impossible to ignore.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: Wuthering Heights

18. Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë

Obsessive emotional grip and haunting narrative.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: Jane Eyre

19. Vanity Fair William Makepeace Thackeray

The improving tale of Becky Sharp.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: Vanity Fair

20. The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne

A classic investigation of the American mind.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: The Scarlet Letter

21. Moby-Dick Herman Melville

‘Call me Ishmael’ is one of the most famous opening sentences of any novel.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: Moby-Dick

22. Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert

You could summarise this as a story of adultery in provincial France, and miss the point entirely.

• Julian Barnes rewrites the ending to Madame Bovary

• The Everest of translation, by Adam Thorpe

23. The Woman in White Wilkie Collins

Gripping mystery novel of concealed identity, abduction, fraud and mental cruelty.

• The Woman in White’s 150 years of sensation

24. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland Lewis Carroll

A story written for the nine-year-old daughter of an Oxford don that still baffles most kids.

Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

25. Little Women Louisa M. Alcott

Victorian bestseller about a New England family of girls.

•Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: Little Women

26. The Way We Live Now Anthony Trollope

A majestic assault on the corruption of late Victorian England.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: The Way We Live Now

27. Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy

The supreme novel of the married woman’s passion for a younger man.

• Rereading Anna Karenina, by James Meek

28. Daniel Deronda George Eliot

A passion and an exotic grandeur that is strange and unsettling.

• A new novel from George Eliot – the Guardian’s first review of Daniel Deronda, from 1876

29. The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoevsky

Mystical tragedy by the author of Crime and Punishment.

• Stuart Jeffries on the incorrect title

In Pictures: Readers suggest the 10 best long reads

Author snapshot: Fyodor Dostoevky

30. The Portrait of a Lady Henry James

The story of Isabel Archer shows James at his witty and polished best.

• Profound and flawed: Claire Messud on rereading The Portrait of a Lady

• Hermione Lee on the biography of a novel that changed literature

31. Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain

Twain was a humorist, but this picture of Mississippi life is profoundly moral and still incredibly influential.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels – Huckleberry Finn

32. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Robert Louis Stevenson

A brilliantly suggestive, resonant study of human duality by a natural storyteller.

• Ian Rankin on The Strange Story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

33. Three Men in a Boat Jerome K. Jerome

One of the funniest English books ever written.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels – Three Men in a Boat

34. The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde

A coded and epigrammatic melodrama inspired by his own tortured homosexuality.

• Fiona MacCarthy on the inspiration behind The Picture of Dorian Gray

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: The Picture of Dorian Gray

35. The Diary of a Nobody George Grossmith

This classic of Victorian suburbia will always be renowned for the character of Mr Pooter.

Buy The Diary of a Nobody at the Guardian Bookshop

36. Jude the Obscure Thomas Hardy

Its savage bleakness makes it one of the first twentieth-century novels.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: Jude the Obscure

37. The Riddle of the Sands Erskine Childers

A prewar invasion-scare spy thriller by a writer later shot for his part in the Irish republican rising.

• Classics Corner – The Riddle of the Sands

38. The Call of the Wild Jack London

The story of a dog who joins a pack of wolves after his master’s death.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: The Call of the Wild

39. Nostromo Joseph Conrad

Conrad’s masterpiece: a tale of money, love and revolutionary politics.

• Chinua Achebe and Caryl Phillips discuss the case against Conrad

40. The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame

This children’s classic was inspired by bedtime stories for Grahame’s son.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: The Wind in the Willows

41. In Search of Lost Time Marcel Proust

An unforgettable portrait of Paris in the belle époque. Probably the longest novel on this list.

• Melvyn Bragg rereads In Search of Lost Time

42. The Rainbow D. H. Lawrence

Novels seized by the police, like this one, have a special afterlife.

• Rachel Cusk rereads The Rainbow

• Adam Thorpe on The Rainbow

43. The Good Soldier Ford Madox Ford

This account of the adulterous lives of two Edwardian couples is a classic of unreliable narration.

• Jane Smiley on The Good Soldier, stylistic perfection

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: The Good Soldier

44. The Thirty-Nine Steps John Buchan

A classic adventure story for boys, jammed with action, violence and suspense.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: The Thirty-Nine Steps

45. Ulysses James Joyce

Also pursued by the British police, this is a novel more discussed than read.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: Ulysses

46. Mrs Dalloway Virginia Woolf

Secures Woolf’s position as one of the great twentieth-century English novelists.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: Mrs Dalloway

47. A Passage to India EM Forster

Forster’s great love song to India.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: A Passage to India

• Damon Galgut on the unrequited love at the heart of A Passage to India

48. The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald

The quintessential Jazz Age novel.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: The Great Gatsby

• What makes Gatsby great? by Sarah Churchwell

49. The Trial Franz Kafka

The enigmatic story of Joseph K.

• John Banville on the story behind Kafka’s great novel of judgment and retribution

50. Men Without Women Ernest Hemingway

He is remembered for his novels, but it was the short stories that first attracted notice.

• Chis Power salutes some of the greatest short stories ever written

51. Journey to the End of the Night Louis-Ferdinand Celine

The experiences of an unattractive slum doctor during the Great War: a masterpiece of linguistic innovation.

• Tibor Fischer on Celine’s journey to the cutting edge of literature

• Celine: great author and absolute bastard

52. As I Lay Dying William Faulkner

A strange black comedy by an American master.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: As I Lay Dying

• Alison Flood on the anniversary edition of The Sound and the Fury in coloured ink

53. Brave New World Aldous Huxley

Dystopian fantasy about the world of the seventh century AF (after Ford).

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: Brave New World

• Read the original Guardian review from 1932

54. Scoop Evelyn Waugh

The supreme Fleet Street novel.

• Ann Pasternak Slater on the journalistic experiences that shaped Waugh’s novel

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: Scoop

55. USA John Dos Passos

An extraordinary trilogy that uses a variety of narrative devices to express the story of America.

• Charlotte Jones on New York in books

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: Nineteen Nineteen (the second book in the trilogy)

56. The Big Sleep Raymond Chandler

Introducing Philip Marlowe: cool, sharp, handsome – and bitterly alone.

• John Dugdale on Chandler’s crime-writing revolution

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: The Big Sleep

57. The Pursuit Of Love Nancy Mitford

An exquisite comedy of manners with countless fans.

• Olivia Laing on Mitford’s genius wicked humour

58. The Plague Albert Camus

A mysterious plague sweeps through the Algerian town of Oran.

• Marina Warner’s review of The Plague

• Tony Judt on the man behind the novel

• Ed Vulliamy on The Plague, 55 Years later

59. Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell

This tale of one man’s struggle against totalitarianism has been appropriated the world over.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: Nineteen Eighty-Four

• Sam Jordison discusses Will Self’s criticism of Nineteen Eighty-Four

• From the Archives: the original review from 1949

60. Malone Dies Samuel Beckett

Part of a trilogy of astonishing monologues in the black comic voice of the author of Waiting for Godot.

• Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels: Murphy (the first part of the trilogy)

• Keith Ridgway rereads his favourite Beckett

• Peter Conrad and Philip Hensher review the Collected Letters, vols 1 and 2

61. Catcher in the Rye J.D. Salinger

A week in the life of Holden Caulfield. A cult novel that still mesmerises.

• Ten things you should know about The Catcher in the Rye

• Stephen Bates on the possible sequel to The Catcher in the Rye

• David Barnett offers his take on the controversy

• Anne Roiphen rereads Salinger’s novel

62. Wise Blood Flannery O’Connor

A disturbing novel of religious extremism set in the Deep South.

• The Reading Group takes on O’Connor’s debut

• Peter Wild takes a look at O’Connor’s cartoons

• Is Flannery O’Connor a Catholic writer?

63. Charlotte’s Web EB White

How Wilbur the pig was saved by the literary genius of a friendly spider.

• John Updike on EB White

• Stephen Amidon remains enchanted with Charlotte’s Web 50 years after its publication

• Alison Flood on the spider that inspired Charlotte’s Web

64. The Lord Of The Rings J. R. R. Tolkien

Enough said!

• Claire Armitstead remembers reading The Lord of the Rings in Lagos

• Visuals: The Lord of the Rings family tree and demographics chart

• Sarah Crown’s guide to The Lord of the Rings

65. Lucky Jim Kingsley Amis

An astonishing debut: the painfully funny English novel of the Fifties.

• Olivia Laing on not reading Amis on the bus

• John Mullan analyses Lucky Jim for the Guardian Book Club

• John Crace "digests" Lucky Jim for the Guardian Podcast

66. Lord of the Flies William Golding

Schoolboys become savages: a bleak vision of human nature.

• Writers’ desktops: William Golding’s former home in pictures

• Steven Morris on the composition history of Lord of the Flies

67. The Quiet American Graham Greene

Prophetic novel set in 1950s Vietnam.

• Zadie Smith on the genius of Graham Greene

• Terry Eagleton reviews the collected letters of Graham Greene

68 On the Road Jack Kerouac

The Beat Generation bible.

• Read more about Kerouac and his coterie in the Beats week special

• David Mills’ response to Beats Week

69. Lolita Vladimir Nabokov

Humbert Humbert’s obsession with Lolita is a tour de force of style and narrative.

• From the archives: Lolita and its critics

• David Lodge on Nabokov’s sexual style

• Baddies in Books: Humbert Humbert

70. The Tin Drum Günter Grass

Hugely influential, Rabelaisian novel of Hitler’s Germany.

• The Tin Drum summarised the 20th century in three words

• Jonathan Steele on Grass’s influence on Germay’s conscience

• A life in writing: Günter Grass by Maya Jaggi

71. Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe

Nigeria at the beginning of colonialism. A classic of African literature.

• Read the first page of Achebe’s great novel here

Nadine Gordimer remembers Achebe

Chinua Achebe in pictures

72. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Muriel Spark

A writer who made her debut in The Observer – and her prose is like cut glass.

• James Wood on Muriel Spark

• Muriel Spark didn’t just write novels. Adam Mars-Jones reviews Spark’s short stories

• Martin Stannard writes about the influence of Spark’s life on her fiction

73. To Kill A Mockingbird Harper Lee

Scout, a six-year-old girl, narrates an enthralling story of racial prejudice in the Deep South.

• To Kill A Mockingbird has been in and out of classrooms for decades. Read John Sutherland on Lee’s and other American classics

74. Catch-22 Joseph Heller

‘He would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.’

• Stephen Bates on surprises in Heller’s Letters

• Chris Cox reads Catch-22 fifty years after its publication

75. Herzog Saul Bellow

Adultery and nervous breakdown in Chicago.

• Alex Clark reviews Bellow’s short stories

• John Crace ‘digests’ Herzog

• James Wood on Saul Bellow

76. One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel García Márquez

A postmodern masterpiece.

• Gabriel Garcia Marquez – 5 Must reads

• Gabriel García Márquez – a life in pictures

• From the archive: the 1970 review of One Hundred Years of Solitude

• One Hundred Years of Solitude tops world literature polls

77. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont Elizabeth Taylor

A haunting, understated study of old age.

• Charlotte Mendelssohn celebrates the other Liz Taylor’s short stories

• Read Natasha Tripney’s review of an early novel here

78. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy John Le Carré

A thrilling elegy for post-imperial Britain.

• William Boyd on the A-Z of Tinker, Tailor

The Reading Group discusses Tinker, Tailor and the spy novel genre

79. Song of Solomon Toni Morrison

The definitive novelist of the African-American experience.

• Take the Toni Morrison quiz

• Morrison on America, by Rachel Cooke

•Read interviews with Morrison here and here

80. The Bottle Factory Outing Beryl Bainbridge

Macabre comedy of provincial life.

• Laura Potter interviews Beryl Bainbridge at 74

• Kate Kellaway on Bainbridge’s art beyond writing

• Alex Clark asks, which is Bainbridge’s best novel?

• Beryl Bainbridge earns a Booker at last

81. The Executioner’s Song Norman Mailer

This quasi-documentary account of the life and death of Gary Gilmore is possibly his masterpiece.

• Dead Calm: Gordon Burn rereads The Executioner’s Song

• Alpha Mailer: McCrum meets Mailer

Jay Parini weighs up Mailer’s journalistic and novelistic qualitites

82. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller Italo Calvino

A strange, compelling story about the pleasures of reading.

• John Sutherland (and quite a few Guardian readers) just can’t get to the end of the novel

• David Mitchell thinks back on Calvino’s novel about writing

• Chris Power writes about Calvino’s short fiction

• Ian Thomson reviews the new collection of Calvino’s letters

83. A Bend in the River VS Naipaul

The finest living writer of English prose. This is his masterpiece: edgily reminiscent of Heart of Darkness.

• Robert McCrum’s World of Books column on Naipaul

• Naipaul as the summer read of 2008

• The Shadow of Empire: DJ Taylor’s look at recent post-colonial novels

84. Waiting for the Barbarians JM Coetzee

Bleak but haunting allegory of apartheid by the Nobel prizewinner.

• James Meek writes about Coetzee’s alter-egos

• Rory Carroll on the South African novelist who’s unread at home

• The Voice of Africa: Robert McCrum on Coetzee

85. Housekeeping Marilynne Robinson

Haunting, poetic story, drowned in water and light, about three generations of women.

• Notes to Self: Robinson and others look back on their work

• Read Emma Brockes’s interviews here

• Marilynne Robinson talks to Robert McCrum

• John Mullan on Housekeeping

86. Lanark Alasdair Gray

Seething vision of Glasgow. A Scottish classic.

• Janice Galloway rereads Lanark

• William Boyd on Lanark at 25

• John Mullan considers Lanark’s cover for the Guardian Book Club

• An interview with the ‘Clydeside Michaelangelo’

87. The New York Trilogy Paul Auster

Dazzling metaphysical thriller set in the Manhattan of the 1970s.

• Hadley Freedman interviews Paul Auster about New York

• Alison Flood in conversation with Paul Auster

• Charlotte Jones on New York in literature

88. The BFG Roald Dahl

A bestseller by the most popular postwar writer for children of all ages.

• Listen to Roald Dahl read from The BFG

• Read about Chae Strathie’s favourite nonsense words in children’s books

• Read Alison Flood’s piece on the planned film adaptation of The BFG

89. The Periodic Table Primo Levi

A prose poem about the delights of chemistry.

• From the Archive: Michael Joseph’s review

• Ian Thomson considers Levi’s influence on our moral history

• The Periodic Table made its way into the hands of a Guardian Science journalist…

•…and to the top of the Science book favourites list

90. Money Martin Amis

The novel that bags Amis’s place on any list.

Buy Money at the Guardian Bookshop

91. An Artist of the Floating World Kazuo Ishiguro

A collaborator from prewar Japan reluctantly discloses his betrayal of friends and family.

Buy An Artist of the Floating World at the Guardian Bookshop

92. Oscar And Lucinda Peter Carey

A great contemporary love story set in nineteenth-century Australia by double Booker prizewinner.

• Read Angela Carter’s review of Oscar and Lucinda here…

• …and find out what Sam Jordison thinks the second time around here

• In Pictures: See Carey’s own annotations on his novel

• Emma Brockes interviews the Booker winner

93. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Milan Kundera

Inspired by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, this is a magical fusion of history, autobiography and ideas.

Buy The Book of Laughter and Forgetting at the Guardian Bookshop

94. Haroun and the Sea of Stories Salman Rushdie

In this entrancing story Rushdie plays with the idea of narrative itself.

Buy Haroun and the Sea of Stories at the Guardian Bookshop

95. LA Confidential James Ellroy

Three LAPD detectives are brought face to face with the secrets of their corrupt and violent careers.

Hear Ellroy talk about the first novel in his LA quartet on the Guardian Books Podcast

• Read a short interview with Ellroy here

96. Wise Children Angela Carter

A theatrical extravaganza by a brilliant exponent of magic realism.

• Read an extract from Susannah Clapp’s memoir of Carter

Kit Buchan’s piece on Wise Children for the Families in Literature series

97. Atonement Ian McEwan

Acclaimed short-story writer achieves a contemporary classic of mesmerising narrative conviction.

• Read the first chapter online

• John Mullan writes on the weather in Atonement for the Guardian Book Club

• John Sutherland’s interview with the author can be found here

• Geoff Dyer is won over by Atonement, while Nick Lezard is less sure

98. Northern Lights Philip Pullman

Lyra’s quest weaves fantasy, horror and the play of ideas into a truly great contemporary children’s book.

• Baddies in Books: Mrs Coulter might just be the mother of all evil

• Northern Lights named the ‘Carnegie of Carnegies’

• Read Kate Kellaway’s interview with Philip Pullman

99. American Pastoral Philip Roth

For years, Roth was famous for Portnoy’s Complaint . Recently, he has enjoyed an extraordinary revival.

• Tim Adams’s review of American Pastoral

• From our My Hero series: James Wood on Philip Roth

100. Austerlitz W. G. Sebald

Posthumously published volume in a sequence of dream-like fictions spun from memory, photographs and the German past.

• Read the 2001 review of Austerlitz here

• The Last Word: Maya Jaggi interviews Sebald

• Robert McCrum on Sebald’s legacy

Who did we miss?

So, are you congratulating yourself on having read everything on our list or screwing the newspaper up into a ball and aiming it at the nearest bin?

Are you wondering what happened to all those American writers from Bret Easton Ellis to Jeffrey Eugenides, from Jonathan Franzen to Cormac McCarthy?

Have women been short-changed? Should we have included Pat Barker, Elizabeth Bowen, A.S. Byatt, Penelope Fitzgerald, Doris Lessing and Iris Murdoch?

What’s happened to novels in translation such as Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Hesse’s Siddhartha, Mishima’s The Sea of Fertility, Süskind’s Perfume and Zola’s Germinal?

Writers such as JG Ballard, Julian Barnes, Anthony Burgess, Bruce Chatwin, Robertson Davies, John Fowles, Nick Hornby, Russell Hoban, Somerset Maugham and VS Pritchett narrowly missed the final hundred. Were we wrong to lose them?

Let us know what you think. Post your own suggestions for the 100 best books on the Observer blog.



The 100 greatest non-fiction books

After keen debate at the Guardian’s books desk, this is our list of the very best factual writing, organised by category, and then by date.

Looking for great book recommendations? Our critics and experts pick the best books, and give the definitive subject lists

British Museum Reading Room

The greatest non-fiction books live here … the British Museum Reading Room. PR

Tuesday 14 June 2011 Last modified on Tuesday 20 May 2014

The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes (1980)

Hughes charts the story of modern art, from cubism to the avant garde

The Story of Art by Ernst Gombrich (1950)

The most popular art book in history. Gombrich examines the technical and aesthetic problems confronted by artists since the dawn of time

Ways of Seeing by John Berger (1972)

A study of the ways in which we look at art, which changed the terms of a generation’s engagement with visual culture


Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects by Giorgio Vasari (1550)

Biography mixes with anecdote in this Florentine-inflected portrait of the painters and sculptors who shaped the Renaissance

The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell (1791)

Boswell draws on his journals to create an affectionate portrait of the great lexicographer

The Diaries of Samuel Pepys by Samuel Pepys (1825)

"Blessed be God, at the end of the last year I was in very good health," begins this extraordinarily vivid diary of the Restoration period

Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey (1918)

Strachey set the template for modern biography, with this witty and irreverent account of four Victorian heroes

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves (1929)

Graves’ autobiography tells the story of his childhood and the early years of his marriage, but the core of the book is his account of the brutalities and banalities of the first world war

The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas by Gertrude Stein (1933)

Stein’s groundbreaking biography, written in the guise of an autobiography, of her lover


Notes on Camp by Susan Sontag (1964)

Sontag’s proposition that the modern sensibility has been shaped by Jewish ethics and homosexual aesthetics

Mythologies by Roland Barthes (1972)

Barthes gets under the surface of the meanings of the things which surround us in these witty studies of contemporary myth-making

Orientalism by Edward Said (1978)

Said argues that romanticised western representations of Arab culture are political and condescending


Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)

This account of the effects of pesticides on the environment launched the environmental movement in the US

The Revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock (1979)

Lovelock’s argument that once life is established on a planet, it engineers conditions for its continued survival, revolutionised our perception of our place in the scheme of things


The Histories by Herodotus (c400 BC)

History begins with Herodotus’s account of the Greco-Persian war

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (1776)

The first modern historian of the Roman Empire went back to ancient sources to argue that moral decay made downfall inevitable

The History of England by Thomas Babington Macaulay (1848)

A landmark study from the pre-eminent Whig historian

Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt (1963)

Arendt’s reports on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, and explores the psychological and sociological mechanisms of the Holocaust

The Making of the English Working Class by EP Thompson (1963)

Thompson turned history on its head by focusing on the political agency of the people, whom most historians had treated as anonymous masses

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown (1970)

A moving account of the treatment of Native Americans by the US government

Hard Times: an Oral History of the Great Depression by Studs Terkel (1970)

Terkel weaves oral accounts of the Great Depression into a powerful tapestry

Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuściński (1982)

The great Polish reporter tells the story of the last Shah of Iran

The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 by Eric Hobsbawm (1994)

Hobsbawm charts the failure of capitalists and communists alike in this account of the 20th century

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Familes by Philip Gourevitch (1999)

Gourevitch captures the terror of the Rwandan massacre, and the failures of the international community

Postwar by Tony Judt (2005)

A magisterial account of the grand sweep of European history since 1945


The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm (1990)

An examination of the moral dilemmas at the heart of the journalist’s trade

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe (1968)

The man in the white suit follows Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters as they drive across the US in a haze of LSD

Dispatches by Michael Herr (1977)

A vivid account of Herr’s experiences of the Vietnam war


The Lives of the Poets by Samuel Johnson (1781)

Biographical and critical studies of 18th-century poets, which cast a sceptical eye on their lives and works

An Image of Africa by Chinua Achebe (1975)

Achebe challenges western cultural imperialism in his argument that Heart of Darkness is a racist novel, which deprives its African characters of humanity

The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim (1976)

Bettelheim argues that the darkness of fairy tales offers a means for children to grapple with their fears


Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter (1979)

A whimsical meditation on music, mind and mathematics that explores formal complexity and self-reference


Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1782)

Rousseau establishes the template for modern autobiography with this intimate account of his own life

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass (1845)

This vivid first person account was one of the first times the voice of the slave was heard in mainstream society

De Profundis by Oscar Wilde (1905)

Imprisoned in Reading Gaol, Wilde tells the story of his affair with Alfred Douglas and his spiritual development

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by TE Lawrence (1922)

A dashing account of Lawrence’s exploits during the revolt against the Ottoman empire

The Story of My Experiments with Truth by Mahatma Gandhi (1927)

A classic of the confessional genre, Gandhi recounts early struggles and his passionate quest for self-knowledge

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938)

Orwell’s clear-eyed account of his experiences in Spain offers a portrait of confusion and betrayal during the civil war

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1947)

Published by her father after the war, this account of the family’s hidden life helped to shape the post-war narrative of the Holocaust

Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov (1951)

Nabokov reflects on his life before moving to the US in 1940

The Man Died by Wole Soyinka (1971)

A powerful autobiographical account of Soyinka’s experiences in prison during the Nigerian civil war

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi (1975)

A vision of the author’s life, including his life in the concentration camps, as seen through the kaleidoscope of chemistry

Bad Blood by Lorna Sage (2000)

Sage demolishes the fantasy of family as she tells how her relatives passed rage, grief and frustrated desire down the generations


The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud (1899)

Freud’s argument that our experiences while dreaming hold the key to our psychological lives launched the discipline of psychoanalysis and transformed western culture


The Romantic Generation by Charles Rosen (1998)

Rosen examines how 19th-century composers extended the boundaries of music, and their engagement with literature, landscape and the divine


The Symposium by Plato (c380 BC)

A lively dinner-party debate on the nature of love

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (c180)

A series of personal reflections, advocating the preservation of calm in the face of conflict, and the cultivation of a cosmic perspective

Essays by Michel de Montaigne (1580)

Montaigne’s wise, amusing examination of himself, and of human nature, launched the essay as a literary form

The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (1621)

Burton examines all human culture through the lens of melancholy

Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes (1641)

Doubting everything but his own existence, Descartes tries to construct God and the universe

Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion by David Hume (1779)

Hume puts his faith to the test with a conversation examining arguments for the existence of God

Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant (1781)

If western philosophy is merely a footnote to Plato, then Kant’s attempt to unite reason with experience provides many of the subject headings

Phenomenology of Mind by GWF Hegel (1807)

Hegel takes the reader through the evolution of consciousness

Walden by HD Thoreau (1854)

An account of two years spent living in a log cabin, which examines ideas of independence and society

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill (1859)

Mill argues that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others"

Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche (1883)

The invalid Nietzsche proclaims the death of God and the triumph of the Ubermensch

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn (1962)

A revolutionary theory about the nature of scientific progress


The Art of War by Sun Tzu (c500 BC)

A study of warfare that stresses the importance of positioning and the ability to react to changing circumstances

The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli (1532)

Machiavelli injects realism into the study of power, arguing that rulers should be prepared to abandon virtue to defend stability

Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (1651)

Hobbes makes the case for absolute power, to prevent life from being "nasty, brutish and short"

The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine (1791)

A hugely influential defence of the French revolution, which points out the illegitimacy of governments that do not defend the rights of citizens

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft (1792)

Wollstonecraft argues that women should be afforded an education in order that they might contribute to society

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848)

An analysis of society and politics in terms of class struggle, which launched a movement with the ringing declaration that "proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains"

The Souls of Black Folk by WEB DuBois (1903)

A series of essays makes the case for equality in the American south

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir (1949)

De Beauvoir examines what it means to be a woman, and how female identity has been defined with reference to men throughout history

The Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon (1961)

An exploration of the psychological impact of colonialisation

The Medium is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan (1967)

This bestselling graphic popularisation of McLuhan’s ideas about technology and culture was cocreated with Quentin Fiore

The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer (1970)

Greer argues that male society represses the sexuality of women

Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman (1988)

Chomsky argues that corporate media present a distorted picture of the world, so as to maximise their profits

Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky (2008)

A vibrant first history of the ongoing social media revolution


The Golden Bough by James George Frazer (1890)

An attempt to identify the shared elements of the world’s religions, which suggests that they originate from fertility cults

The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James (1902)

James argues that the value of religions should not be measured in terms of their origin or empirical accuracy


On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)

Darwin’s account of the evolution of species by natural selection transformed biology and our place in the universe

The Character of Physical Law by Richard Feynmann (1965)

An elegant exploration of physical theories from one of the 20th century’s greatest theoreticians

The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

James Watson’s personal account of how he and Francis Crick cracked the structure of DNA

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (1976)

Dawkins launches a revolution in biology with the suggestion that evolution is best seen from the perspective of the gene, rather than the organism

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (1988)

A book owned by 10 million people, if understood by fewer, Hawking’s account of the origins of the universe became a publishing sensation


The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pisan (1405)

A defence of womankind in the form of an ideal city, populated by famous women from throughout history

Praise of Folly by Erasmus (1511)

This satirical encomium to the foolishness of man helped spark the Reformation with its skewering of abuses and corruption in the Catholic church

Letters Concerning the English Nation by Voltaire (1734)

Voltaire turns his keen eye on English society, comparing it affectionately with life on the other side of the English channel

Suicide by Émile Durkheim (1897)

An investigation into protestant and catholic culture, which argues that the more vigilant social control within catholic societies lowers the rate of suicide

Economy and Society by Max Weber (1922)

A thorough analysis of political, economic and religious mechanisms in modern society, which established the template for modern sociology

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1929)

Woolf’s extended essay argues for both a literal and metaphorical space for women writers within a male-dominated literary tradition

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans (1941)

Evans’s images and Agee’s words paint a stark picture of life among sharecroppers in the US South

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963)

An exploration of the unhappiness felt by many housewives in the 1950s and 1960s, despite material comfort and stable family lives

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)

A novelistic account of a brutal murder in a town in Kansas, which propelled Capote to fame and fortune

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion (1968)

Didion evokes life in 1960s California in a series of sparkling essays

The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1973)

This analysis of incarceration in the Soviet Union, including the author’s own experiences as a zek, called into question the moral foundations of the USSR

Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault (1975)

Foucault examines the development of modern society’s systems of incarceration

News of a Kidnapping by Gabriel García Márquez (1996)

Colombia’s greatest 20th-century writer tells the story of kidnappings carried out by Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel


The Travels of Ibn Battuta by Ibn Battuta (1355)

The Arab world’s greatest medieval traveller sets down his memories of journeys throughout the known world and beyond

Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain (1869)

Twain’s tongue-in-cheek account of his European adventures was an immediate bestseller

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West (1941)

A six-week trip to Yugoslavia provides the backbone for this monumental study of Balkan history

Venice by Jan Morris (1960)

An eccentric but learned guide to the great city’s art, history, culture and people

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1977)

The first volume of Leigh Fermor’s journey on foot through Europe – a glowing evocation of youth, memory and history

Danube by Claudio Magris (1986)

Magris mixes travel, history, anecdote and literature as he tracks the Danube from its source to the sea

China Along the Yellow River by Cao Jinqing (1995)

A pioneering work of Chinese sociology, exploring modern China with a modern face

The Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald (1995)

A walking tour in East Anglia becomes a melancholy meditation on transience and decay

Passage to Juneau by Jonathan Raban (2000)

Raban sets off in a 35ft ketch on a voyage from Seattle to Alaska, exploring Native American art, the Romantic imagination and his own disintegrating relationship along the way

Letters to a Young Novelist by Mario Vargas Llosa (2002)

Vargas Llosa distils a lifetime of reading and writing into a manual of the writer’s craft

What have we missed? Help fill in the gaps and join the debate on the blog

• This article was amended on 18 July 2011. The original entry for Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood referred to an account of a brutal murder in Kansas city. This has been corrected. The article was further amended on 27 November 2012. The original said Durkheim argued that less vigilant social control within catholic societies lowered the rate of suicide. This has been corrected.




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