Everyone’s got those books that they’ve been meaning to read for ages, so if you need a sign to get on top of your TBR list — this is it!
Whether you’ve kept these titles sitting in your Book Depository cart, or on a Notes list hidden away in the depths of your phone, everyone’s got a bunch of best books that they’ve been meaning to read — often held within the realm of a procrastinated, near-distant future.
We’ve collected a mix of classic and contemporary novels for you to feast your eyes on, and *maybe* act as a gentle nudge in taking on that huge TBR pile. Check it out, below.
War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy (1869)
I can understand why War and Peace has been perceived as a wildly intimidating novel — clocking in at 1,200+ pages, and blurring the lines between history, philosophical inquiry and fiction, it’s not an easy feat. However, having raised Leo Tolstoy to certified “genius” status, it’s also one of the most beloved novels in the Western canon. Set during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, War and Peace follows a myriad of characters as they navigate the emotional extremities of human experience during the turbulence of war. Exploring themes like power, spiritual suffering, the meaning of life, and humanity, it’s well worth the investment to finally pick up Tolstoy’s illuminating book.
WAR AND PEACE
Orlando – Virginia Woolf (1928)
Orlando is easily one of Virginia Woolf’s most successful novels. The book follows the titular character in Elizabethan England, as he undergoes a sex change halfway through his life, and proceeds to live through the next three centuries as a woman. One of the most widely analyzed novels in gender and literary studies, Woolf’s novel was a pioneering, satirical exploration into the gender roles, views on lesbianism (or “inversion” as it was known then), and class conditions of her time.
As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner (1930)
As I Lay Dying consists of 59 chapters, narrated by 15 separate characters, detailing the story of Addie Bundren’s family trying to fulfill her dying wish: to be buried in Jefferson, Mississippi. Consistently ranked amongst the greatest 20th-century novels on lists for the past 30 years, As I Lay Dying uses modernist techniques to create an intricate, explosively emotional book that explores mortality, class, language, and faith. As Dr. Sarah Gleeson-White writes of the novel on The Conversation: “What is particularly breathtaking about Faulkner’s novel is the way it fuses – somehow – regional forms (such as the tall tale) and at times really quite startling techniques we might more readily associate with an experimental modernism.”
AS I LAY DYING
Tender is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald (1934)
While you’ve probably heard of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final novel Tender is the Night is an equally dazzling piece of fiction — according to literary lore, Fitzgerald himself considered the latter as the best book he had written. As with his previous novels, Tender is the Night is semi-autobiographical and draws inspiration from the writer’s troubled relationship with his wife, Zelda.
Detailing the marriage, and subsequent disintegration, of protagonist Dick and his wife Nicole Diver, Tender is the Night draws from the darkest years of Fitzgerald’s life, dealing with themes of toxic codependency, sexual abuse, addiction, and the tragic dimension of mental illness.
TENDER IS THE NIGHT
Love in a Fallen City – Eileen Chang (1943)
Set in 1940s Hong Kong and Shanghai, Love in a Fallen City describes the triumph of love between Bai Liusu, a young widow, and Fan Liuyuan, a returning Chinese British expat, during the crisis of WWII. It explores themes such as East vs West, traditionalism, the role of marriage, feminism, and the class structures of mid-twentieth century China.
Widely considered to be Eileen Chang’s literary masterpiece, Love in a Fallen City profoundly examines the nature of relationships in one of the most turbulent milieus of history.
LOVE IN A FALLEN CITY
Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe (1958)
A groundbreaking milestone in African American literature, Things Fall Apart is now considered to be Chinua Achebe’s magnum opus. The book details pre-colonial life in Nigeria, the invasion by Europeans in the late 19th century, and the consequent Partition of Africa. Achebe’s novel explores themes such as intergenerational differences, language, faith, and colonial trauma.
Acclaimed writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Hilary Mantel cite the novel as favourites, with South-African revolutionary Nelson Mandela having read the book in prison, and describing Achebe as “the writer in the presence of whom the prison walls [came] down.” With all its critical acclaim and legacy on literary history, Things Fall Apart is definitely one to take of the “books you’ve been meaning to read” pile, ASAP.
THINGS FALL APART
The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing (1962)
The Golden Notebook follows the life of Anna — a successful novelist — through the eyes of her four coloured notebooks: black (detailing her experiences in Africa), red (her reflections on Communism), yellow (the meta-novel), and blue (her personal examination of her psyche). As the heroine borders on insanity, she is drawn to collecting her experiences into a single, gigantic volume: the eponymous golden notebook.
THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK
Season of Migration to the North – Tayeb Salih (1966)
First published in the Lebanese literary journal Hiwâr, Season of Migration to the North is a postcolonial novel written by Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih. Noted as one of Edward Said’s “six great novels in Arabic literature,” the book explores the impact of European colonialism on Sudanese culture and identity.
As reviewed for The Guardian: “This depthless, elusive classic …explores not just the corrosive psychological colonization observed by Frantz Fanon, but a more complex two-way orientalism, in which the charms of western thought, embodied in its poetry and liberal ideals, prove irresistible, even as the novel’s Sudanese narrators understand these as the tempting fruit of a poisoned tree.”
SEASON OF MIGRATION TO THE NORTH
Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon (1973)
Frequently ranked amongst the best books of the 20th century, Gravity’s Rainbow is a mammoth of a novel. Set at the close of World War II in Europe, the novel follows the journey of multiple protagonists to uncover the secret of a mysterious device, the Schwarzgerät (“black device”), which is slated to be installed in a rocket with the serial number “00000.”
If you’ve been meaning to read this book, I’ll warn you: Gravity’s Rainbow is most definitely an exhaustive read, but it’s also equally as worthwhile. Blending genres of historical, satirical, science, and encyclopedic fiction, it’s a deeply complex novel that has been considered a marker of the re-emergence of post-modern literature in the 20th century.
The House of the Spirits – Isabelle Allende (1982)
The House of the Spirits is a tumultuous epic that spans several decades as it details four generations of the del Valle and Trueba families, with each of their respective subplots being guided by romantic love.
Having been a bestseller upon release in the ’80s, and being translated into over 20 languages, Isabelle Allende’s iconic novel delicately explores the nature of love, fate, and family in the face of both triumph and tragedy.
THE HOUSE OF SPIRITS
The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie (1988)
We can’t really talk about this book without mentioning the “Rushdie Affair” — the controversy that emerged after the publication of The Satanic Verses, where a fatwa was placed on Salman Rushdie by Ayatollah Khomeini for “blasphemy,” due to the novel partly taking inspiration from the life of the Prophet Mohammed.
Conversely, the book was widely celebrated in the Western world for its creative frame narrative, use of magical realism, and detailed characterisations; it was a 1988 Booker Prize finalist and also won the 1988 Whitbread Award. If you’ve been meaning to read The Satanic Verses, despite its controversial response and social influence, it’s definitely a worthwhile literary masterpiece in its own right.
THE SATANIC VERSES
Possessing the Secret of Joy – Alice Walker (1992)
Possessing the Secret of Joy revolves around Tashi, a minor character in Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Color of Purple. Detailing her migration to American from the fictional Olinka — a country where female genital mutilation is a common practice — Possessing the Secret of Joy examines Tashi’s reckoning with her trauma and history, as well as exploring the tension between her immigrant and cultural identity.
POSSESSING THE SECRET OF JOY
A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth (1993)
Another day, another 1,300+ page novel to indulge in! While it’s easily one of the longest (and best) single-volume books written in the English language, A Suitable Boy is filled constructs a rich tapestry of newly-Partitioned India.
While discussing the political consequences of an independent India (Zamindari system, Hindu-Muslim conflict, caste system etc.), the narrative follows the stories of four families, with the central plot surrounding the marriage of the 19-year-old, headstrong Lata, to the “suitable boys” chosen by her mother: Haresh, Amit, and Kabir. So yes, it’s a long novel (which can often be intimidating) but it’s easily one of the most fascinating and intricately crafted novels in the world.
A SUITABLE BOY
Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace (1996)
Almost every person I know has never finished this book. It’s one of those novels that have gotten the reputation for being its readers being a *tad* — if I may be so bold to say — pretentious. To be fair, the perception probably arises from the fact that it’s notoriously difficult to read (there are so. many. footnotes.), rather than the actual quality of the work — which, to be honest, is quite spectacular.
Infinite Jest is easily one of the most innovative and iconic achievements in literature and subsequently made David Foster Wallace synonymous with the genre of post-modernism. A work of encyclopedic fiction, the novel explores a variety of themes like addiction, fame, mental health, and the nature of familial relationships. If Wallace’s masterpiece is on your list of best books you’ve been meaning to read — don’t fear! There are plenty of “how-to to read Infinite Jest” articles plastered all over the Internet.
DAVID FOSTER WALLACE
The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy (1997)
The God of Small Things is a must-read, remarkable work of fiction. Winning the Booker in 1997, the novel explores themes of misogyny, casteism, betrayal and love, set against the backdrop of the turbulent political climate of India in the ’60s, and late ’90s.
Publishers Weekly has described the novel as being written: “with sensuous prose, [and] a dreamlike style infused with breathtakingly beautiful images and keen insight into human nature, [The God of Small Things charted] fresh territory in the genre of magical, prismatic literature.”
THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS
Atonement – Ian McEwan (2001)
Atonement covers an ambitious length of time, beginning in 1930s England and concluding in the early 2000s. Exploring themes of class, love, and war, the novel follows the story of a young girl, Briony Tallis, whose adolescent ignorance drastically alters the lives of the people she loves. Adapted into the Oscar-nominated film of the same name, Atonement is a riveting classic that has been etched into the hearts of multiple generations.
Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2003)
Against the backdrop of a crumbling military regime, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus is a thought-provoking coming-of-age story that deals with the consequences of colonialism, the importance of family, and religious fanaticism.
One of the most urgent writers of our time, in Purple Hibiscus, Adichie uses evocative prose to weave a family drama into the brutal tapestry of a country’s civil unrest. If you’ve read some of Adichie’s later work, but missed out on her debut, don’t let this book remain on your “meaning to read” lists… it’s equally as stunning and provocative as any of her others.
CHIMANANDA NGOZI ADICHIE
A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini (2007)
While bringing together two generations of Afghan women, Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns is an astounding chronicle of three decades’ worth of war in Afghanistan. A New York Times Review described the author’s storytelling skills as “instinctive,” a talent that “mows down the reader’s objections through sheer momentum and will. He succeeds in making the emotional reality of Mariam and Laila’s lives tangible to us, and by conjuring their day-to-day routines, he is able to give us a sense of what daily life was like in Kabul — both before and during the harsh reign of the Taliban.”
A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS
My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante (2011)
The hype around Elena Ferrante (and her mysterious true identity, which still remains unknown) is fascinating, yet also completely warranted. In My Brilliant Friend, the first of her quartet of Neapolitan Novels, Ferrante is a ferocious, urgent writer who explores themes of womanhood, friendship, and class in a refreshingly unglorified way. Widely critically acclaimed, and technically striking, My Brilliant Friend has become a phenomenon around the world.
If you needed more incentive to move Ferrante’s books from the pile of ones that you’ve been “meaning to be read” to the ones you’ve “read,” one of her earlier novels just got adapted into a feature film, directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal.
MY BRILLIANT FRIEND
All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr (2014)
Winning a slew of awards upon publication, All the Light We Cannot See is a war novel set during the occupation of France during WWII. It follows Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind French girl, and Werner Pfennig, a German orphan, whose paths eventually cross amidst the backdrop of political violence.
As Amanda Vaill writes, the novel is “enthrallingly told, beautifully written and so emotionally plangent that some passages bring tears, it is completely unsentimental — no mean trick when you consider that Doerr’s two protagonists are children who have been engulfed in the horror of World War II. Not martyred emblems, like Anne Frank or the British evacuees on the torpedoed City of Benares, just ordinary children, two of thousands swallowed up in a conflict they had nothing to do with.”
ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE
The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (2019)
Liesel’s life is changed when she picks up an object, partially hidden in the snow next to her brother’s grave. It is The Gravedigger’s Handbook, and it is her first act of book thievery. So begins her obsession with books. And soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, and the mayor’s wife’s library. Her life is turned upside down, when her foster family hides a Jewish fist-fighter in their basement, which opens her eyes to new things.
THE BOOK THIEF