From Zero to Well-Read in 100 Books

This is one of the 213 lists we use to generate our main The Greatest Books list.

  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

    The novel follows the journey of a young boy named Huckleberry Finn and a runaway slave named Jim as they travel down the Mississippi River on a raft. Set in the American South before the Civil War, the story explores themes of friendship, freedom, and the hypocrisy of society. Through various adventures and encounters with a host of colorful characters, Huck grapples with his personal values, often clashing with the societal norms of the time.

  • The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

    This book is a comprehensive collection of all 56 short stories and four novels centered around the brilliant detective, Sherlock Holmes, and his loyal friend, Dr. John Watson. Set in late 19th and early 20th century London, the stories follow Holmes as he uses his exceptional deductive reasoning and astute observation skills to solve a variety of complex and intriguing mysteries. From murder and theft to espionage and the supernatural, no case is too challenging for this iconic detective.

  • The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

    Set in the 1870s, the novel revolves around Newland Archer, a young lawyer from New York's high society, who is engaged to the beautiful and conventional May Welland. His life takes a turn when he meets May's cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, who has returned from Europe after leaving her scandalous husband. Torn between his duty and passion, Archer struggles with the constraints of the society he is a part of. The book offers a vivid portrayal of the struggle between individual desires and societal expectations in the upper-class New York society of the late 19th century.

  • All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

    The novel tells the story of a young German soldier, Paul Bäumer, and his experiences during World War I. The narrative explores the physical and emotional toll of war, the camaraderie between soldiers, and the disillusionment of a generation thrown into a brutal conflict. The protagonist and his friends grapple with survival, fear, and the loss of innocence, providing a stark and poignant critique of the futility and destructiveness of war.

  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

    The book follows the lives of two Jewish cousins, one a skilled escape artist and the other a talented artist, before, during, and after World War II. They create a popular comic book superhero, which brings them fame and fortune. However, their success is complicated by personal struggles, including the escape artist's attempts to rescue his family from Nazi-occupied Prague and the artist's struggle with his sexuality. The narrative explores themes of escapism, identity, and the golden age of comic books.

  • American Pastoral by Philip Roth

    This novel tells the story of Seymour "Swede" Levov, a successful Jewish-American businessman and former high school athlete from Newark, New Jersey. Levov's happy and conventional upper middle class life is ruined by the domestic social and political turmoil of the 1960s during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, which in the novel is seen through the eyes of the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, a budding writer who idolizes the Levovs. The novel portrays the impact of this turmoil on Levov and his family, particularly his rebellious daughter who becomes involved in revolutionary political activities.

  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

    Set in 19th-century Russia, this novel revolves around the life of Anna Karenina, a high-society woman who, dissatisfied with her loveless marriage, embarks on a passionate affair with a charming officer named Count Vronsky. This scandalous affair leads to her social downfall, while parallel to this, the novel also explores the rural life and struggles of Levin, a landowner who seeks the meaning of life and true happiness. The book explores themes such as love, marriage, fidelity, societal norms, and the human quest for happiness.

  • Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery

    The book follows the life of a young orphan girl who is mistakenly sent to live with an elderly brother and sister who originally wanted to adopt a boy to help them with their farm in Prince Edward Island. Despite the initial disappointment, the girl's charm, vivacity, and imagination soon win over her new guardians. The story details her adventures and mishaps in her new home, her struggles and triumphs at school, and her gradual maturing into a smart, independent young woman.

  • Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

    This novel unfolds in a dystopian United States where society's most productive citizens, including inventors, scientists and industrialists, refuse to be exploited by increasing social and economic demands. As a response, they withdraw their talents, leading to the collapse of the economy. The story presents the author's philosophy of objectivism, which values reason, individualism, and capitalism, and rejects collectivism and altruism. The narrative primarily follows Dagny Taggart, a railroad executive, and John Galt, a philosophical leader and inventor, as they navigate this societal breakdown.

  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

    The novel follows the story of a young woman who wins a guest editorship at a magazine in New York City and, after a series of personal and professional disappointments, suffers a mental breakdown and returns to her family, where she continues to struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts. The protagonist's experiences in psychiatric institutions and her attempts to reclaim her life are depicted with brutal honesty, making it a poignant exploration of mental illness and the societal pressures faced by women in the mid-20th century.

  • Beloved by Toni Morrison

    This novel tells the story of a former African-American slave woman who, after escaping to Ohio, is haunted by the ghost of her deceased daughter. The protagonist is forced to confront her repressed memories and the horrific realities of her past, including the desperate act she committed to protect her children from a life of slavery. The narrative is a poignant exploration of the physical, emotional, and psychological scars inflicted by the institution of slavery, and the struggle for identity and self-acceptance in its aftermath.

  • Beowulf by Unknown

    "Beowulf" is an Old English epic poem that tells the story of the eponymous hero, a Geatish warrior who comes to the aid of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, whose mead hall is under attack by a monster known as Grendel. Beowulf fights and defeats Grendel and his mother, earning the gratitude and friendship of Hrothgar. Later in his life, Beowulf becomes king of the Geats and faces his final battle with a deadly dragon. The poem explores themes of heroism, fate, and mortality, and is considered one of the most important works of Old English literature.

  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

    Set in Nazi Germany during World War II, the novel follows the story of a young girl who finds solace in stealing books and sharing them with others. In the midst of the horrors of war, she forms a bond with a Jewish man her foster parents are hiding in their basement. The story is narrated by Death, offering a unique perspective on the atrocities and small acts of kindness during this period. The girl's love for books becomes a metaphor for resistance against the oppressive regime.

  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

    Set in a dystopian future, the novel explores a society where human beings are genetically bred and pharmaceutically conditioned to serve in a ruling order. The society is divided into five castes, each with its specific roles. The narrative follows a savage who rejects the norms of this new world order and struggles to navigate the clash between the values of his upbringing and the reality of this technologically advanced, emotionless society. His resistance prompts a deep examination of the nature of freedom, individuality, and happiness.

  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

    This novel tells the story of Oscar de Leon, an overweight Dominican boy growing up in New Jersey who is obsessed with science fiction, fantasy novels, and falling in love, but is perpetually unlucky in his romantic endeavors. The narrative not only explores Oscar's life but also delves into the lives of his family members, each affected by the curse that has plagued their family for generations. The book is a blend of magical realism and historical fiction, providing a detailed account of the brutal Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic and its impact on the country's people and diaspora.

  • The Call of the Wild by Jack London

    This book tells the story of a domesticated dog named Buck who is stolen from his home in California and sold into service as a sled dog in Alaska. As he faces harsh conditions and brutal treatment, Buck must learn to adapt to the wild and harsh environment, ultimately reverting to his ancestral instincts in order to survive. The book explores themes of nature versus nurture, civilization versus wilderness, and the struggle for dominance.

  • Candide by Voltaire

    "Candide" is a satirical novel that follows the adventures of a young man, Candide, who is living a sheltered life in an Edenic paradise and being indoctrinated with Leibnizian optimism by his mentor. When he is expelled from the paradise for kissing a baron's daughter, he embarks on a journey around the world, witnessing the horrors of war, natural disasters, and human cruelty. Throughout his journey, Candide maintains his optimistic philosophy, despite the constant hardships he faces, ultimately concluding that one must cultivate their own garden, a metaphor for taking control of one's own destiny.

  • The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

    The Canterbury Tales is a collection of 24 stories that follows a group of pilgrims traveling from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. Told in Middle English, the tales are narrated by a diverse group of pilgrims, including a knight, a miller, a reeve, and a pardoner, who share their stories to pass the time during their journey. The tales, which range from chivalrous romances to bawdy fabliaux, provide a colorful, satirical, and critical portrayal of 14th century English society.

  • Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

    A British secret agent is tasked with bankrupting a French communist and paymaster of a Russian secret agency at a high-stakes card game in a casino. As he navigates the dangerous world of espionage, he encounters a beautiful woman who is being blackmailed by the enemy. The agent must outwit his opponents and survive numerous attempts on his life, all while grappling with his growing feelings for the woman.

  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

    The book is a satirical critique of military bureaucracy and the illogical nature of war, set during World War II. The story follows a U.S. Army Air Forces B-25 bombardier stationed in Italy, who is trying to maintain his sanity while fulfilling his service requirements so that he can go home. The novel explores the absurdity of war and military life through the experiences of the protagonist, who discovers that a bureaucratic rule, the "Catch-22", makes it impossible for him to escape his dangerous situation. The more he tries to avoid his military assignments, the deeper he gets sucked into the irrational world of military rule.

  • The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

    The novel follows the story of a teenager named Holden Caulfield, who has just been expelled from his prep school. The narrative unfolds over the course of three days, during which Holden experiences various forms of alienation and his mental state continues to unravel. He criticizes the adult world as "phony" and struggles with his own transition into adulthood. The book is a profound exploration of teenage rebellion, alienation, and the loss of innocence.

  • Charlotte's Web by E. B. White

    A young girl named Fern saves a runt piglet from being slaughtered and names him Wilbur. When Wilbur grows too large, he is sent to live in her uncle's barn, where he befriends a clever spider named Charlotte. When Wilbur's life is in danger again, Charlotte weaves messages into her web to convince the farmer that Wilbur is too special to kill. The book explores themes of friendship, sacrifice, and the cycle of life.

  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

    This novel is a unique blend of six different stories, each set in a different time and place, spanning from the 19th century South Pacific to a post-apocalyptic future. Each tale is written in a different style, reflecting the time and setting it represents, and they are all connected through shared themes and recurring motifs. The stories are nested within each other, with each interrupted by the next, only to be concluded in the second half of the book. The novel explores themes of predacity, civilization, reincarnation and the eternal recurrence of the same behaviors throughout history.

  • Poems of Emily Dickinson by Emily Dickinson

    This collection of poetry encapsulates the works of a renowned 19th-century American poet, known for her unique style and themes. The poems, often characterized by their unconventional punctuation and capitalization, explore a wide range of topics including death, immortality, love, and nature. The poet's introspective and often cryptic style has made her one of the most studied and celebrated figures in American literature.

  • The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe by Edgar Allan Poe

    This collection brings together all of the author's most famous works, including poems, short stories, and novellas. Known for his macabre and gothic storytelling, the author's works are filled with themes of death, love lost, and human frailty. Notable inclusions are the haunting poem "The Raven," the chilling stories "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Fall of the House of Usher," and his only complete novel, "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym."

  • The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor by Flannery O'Connor

    This comprehensive collection of short stories showcases the author's exploration of the human condition, particularly in the American South. The stories, known for their dark humor, religious themes, and grotesque characters, delve into the complexities of morality, ethics, and the struggle between good and evil. The author's unique blend of Southern Gothic style and religious allegory creates a vivid portrait of a society grappling with its own contradictions and shortcomings.

  • The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

    The novel revolves around the lives of the Lambert family, an old-fashioned midwestern couple and their three adult children. The parents, Alfred and Enid, are dealing with Alfred's Parkinson's disease and their own marital problems, while their children are each facing their own personal and professional crises. The narrative explores the themes of family dynamics, societal expectations, and the struggles of modern life. The story climaxes with the family's last Christmas together at their childhood home.

  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

    A young, impoverished former student in Saint Petersburg, Russia, formulates a plan to kill an unscrupulous pawnbroker to redistribute her wealth among the needy. However, after carrying out the act, he is consumed by guilt and paranoia, leading to a psychological battle within himself. As he grapples with his actions, he also navigates complex relationships with a variety of characters, including a virtuous prostitute, his sister, and a relentless detective. The narrative explores themes of morality, redemption, and the psychological impacts of crime.

  • The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

    This thriller novel follows symbologist Robert Langdon and cryptographer Sophie Neveu as they investigate a murder in the Louvre Museum in Paris. The murder leads them to a trail of clues hidden in the works of Leonardo da Vinci, revealing a religious mystery protected by a secret society for two thousand years. The mystery involves a conspiracy within the Catholic Church and threatens to overturn the foundations of Christianity.

  • Death Of A Salesman by Arthur Miller

    This classic play explores the life of a failing salesman who, in his quest for the American Dream, struggles with his relationships and his own sense of reality. The protagonist's life spirals into despair as he grapples with his unfulfilled ambitions, strained family dynamics, and ultimately, his own mortality. The narrative delves deep into the themes of identity, illusion, and the destructive nature of the American Dream.

  • Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

    This classic novel follows the adventures of a man who, driven mad by reading too many chivalric romances, decides to become a knight-errant and roam the world righting wrongs under the name Don Quixote. Accompanied by his loyal squire, Sancho Panza, he battles windmills he believes to be giants and champions the virtuous lady Dulcinea, who is in reality a simple peasant girl. The book is a richly layered critique of the popular literature of Cervantes' time and a profound exploration of reality and illusion, madness and sanity.

  • Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin

    "Dream of the Red Chamber" is a classic Chinese novel that provides a detailed, episodic record of life in the aristocratic Jia family. The story revolves around the love triangle between the family's heir, his sickly cousin, and his other cousin who is raised to be his wife. It is also a critique of the family's decline and a reflection on the societal norms of the time. The novel is famous for its vivid characterization and psychological depth, and its unique portrayal of Chinese society during the Qing dynasty.

  • Dune by Frank Herbert

    Set in a distant future, the novel follows Paul Atreides, whose family assumes control of the desert planet Arrakis. As the only producer of a highly valuable resource, jurisdiction over Arrakis is contested among competing noble families. After Paul and his family are betrayed, the story explores themes of politics, religion, and man’s relationship to nature, as Paul leads a rebellion to restore his family's reign.

  • Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

    The novel is a richly layered narrative about a young man's quest to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis during World War II. The story is told from two perspectives: a Ukrainian translator with a unique grasp on the English language and the young man himself who is also a budding writer. The book explores themes of memory, history, and the power of storytelling, all set against the backdrop of a tragic and tumultuous period in world history.

  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

    In a dystopian future where books are banned and burned by the government to prevent dissenting ideas, a fireman named Guy Montag, whose job is to burn books, begins to question the society he serves. After a series of events, including meeting a free-thinking teenager and witnessing a woman choosing to die with her books, Montag begins to secretly collect and read books, leading to his eventual rebellion against the oppressive regime. The narrative serves as a critique of censorship, conformity, and the dangers of an illiterate society.

  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

    This novel follows the poignant journey of two teenagers, both cancer patients, who meet in a support group and fall in love. Their shared experiences and unique outlook on life and death bring them closer together, and they embark on a trip to Amsterdam to meet a reclusive author they both admire. Through their journey, they explore the harsh realities of living with a terminal illness while also experiencing the beautiful and tragic aspects of first love.

  • Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

    The book is a tragic play in two parts that tells the story of a scholarly man named Faust, who becomes dissatisfied with his life and makes a pact with the devil, Mephistopheles. In exchange for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures, Faust agrees to give his soul to Mephistopheles after death. The narrative explores themes of ambition, despair, love, and redemption, ultimately leading to Faust's salvation.

  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

    This classic novel tells the story of a young scientist who creates a grotesque but sentient creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. The scientist, horrified by his creation, abandons it, leading the creature to seek revenge. The novel explores themes of ambition, responsibility, guilt, and the potential consequences of playing God.

  • A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

    This epic fantasy novel is set in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, where 'summers span decades and winters can last a lifetime'. The story follows three main plot lines: the Stark family's struggle to control the North; the exiled Targaryen siblings' attempt to regain the throne; and the Night's Watch's fight against the supernatural beings beyond the Wall. As these stories intertwine, a game of power, politics, and survival unfolds, where you either win or you die.

  • The Golden Bowl by Henry James

    The Golden Bowl is a complex narrative that revolves around an American woman and her daughter who marry a father and son. The daughter's husband previously had a romantic relationship with the mother's husband, leading to a tense and intricate web of relationships. The novel explores themes of marriage, adultery, and familial bonds, and is renowned for its detailed characterization and intricate plot structure.

  • The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

    The novel centers around a woman named Anna Wulf, a writer who keeps four notebooks, each representing a different aspect of her life: her experiences in Africa, her current life in London, a novel she is writing, and her personal experiences. As Anna's mental state deteriorates, she attempts to unify her fragmented self in a fifth notebook, the golden notebook. The novel explores themes of mental breakdown, communism, the changing role of women, and the fear of nuclear war.

  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

    This thrilling novel revolves around the sudden disappearance of a woman on her fifth wedding anniversary. As the investigation unfolds, all evidence points to her husband as the prime suspect. However, the story takes a twist as the wife's diary entries reveal a darker side to their seemingly perfect marriage. The narrative alternates between the husband's present-day perspective and the wife's diary entries, leaving readers in suspense about what truly happened. The book explores themes of deceit, media influence, and the complexities of marriage.

  • The Bible by Christian Church

    This religious text is a compilation of 66 books divided into the Old and New Testaments, forming the central narrative for Christianity. It encompasses a variety of genres, including historical accounts, poetry, prophecy, and teaching, telling the story of God's relationship with humanity, from creation to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the early Christian church. It is considered by believers to be divinely inspired and serves as a guide for faith and practice.

  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

    The book follows the Joad family, Oklahoma farmers displaced from their land during the Great Depression. The family, alongside thousands of other "Okies," travel to California in search of work and a better life. Throughout their journey, they face numerous hardships and injustices, yet maintain their humanity through unity and shared sacrifice. The narrative explores themes of man's inhumanity to man, the dignity of wrath, and the power of family and friendship, offering a stark and moving portrayal of the harsh realities of American migrant laborers during the 1930s.

  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

    A young orphan boy, living with his cruel older sister and her kind blacksmith husband, has an encounter with an escaped convict that changes his life. Later, he becomes the protégé of a wealthy but reclusive woman and falls in love with her adopted daughter. He then learns that an anonymous benefactor has left him a fortune, leading him to believe that his benefactor is the reclusive woman and that she intends for him to marry her adopted daughter. He moves to London to become a gentleman, but his great expectations are ultimately shattered when he learns the true identity of his benefactor and the reality of his love interest.

  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    Set in the summer of 1922, the novel follows the life of a young and mysterious millionaire, his extravagant lifestyle in Long Island, and his obsessive love for a beautiful former debutante. As the story unfolds, the millionaire's dark secrets and the corrupt reality of the American dream during the Jazz Age are revealed. The narrative is a critique of the hedonistic excess and moral decay of the era, ultimately leading to tragic consequences.

  • The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

    Set in a dystopian future, this novel presents a society where women are stripped of their rights and are classified into various roles based on their fertility and societal status. The protagonist is a handmaid, a class of women used solely for their reproductive capabilities by the ruling class. The story is a chilling exploration of the extreme end of misogyny, where women are reduced to their biological functions, and a critique of religious fundamentalism.

  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare

    This classic play revolves around the young Prince of Denmark who is thrown into a state of emotional turmoil after his father's sudden death and his mother's quick remarriage to his uncle. The prince is visited by the ghost of his father who reveals that he was murdered by the uncle, prompting the prince to seek revenge. The narrative explores themes of madness, revenge, and moral corruption as the prince navigates the complex political and emotional landscape of the Danish court.

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

    The story follows a young boy, Harry Potter, who learns on his 11th birthday that he is the orphaned son of two powerful wizards and possesses unique magical powers of his own. He is summoned from his life as an unwanted child to become a student at Hogwarts, an English boarding school for wizards. There, he meets several friends who become his closest allies and help him discover the truth about his parents' mysterious deaths, the dark wizard who wants to kill him, and the magical stone that holds immense power.

  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

    This classic novel follows the journey of a seaman who travels up the Congo River into the African interior to meet a mysterious ivory trader. Throughout his journey, he encounters the harsh realities of imperialism, the brutal treatment of native Africans, and the depths of human cruelty and madness. The protagonist's journey into the 'heart of darkness' serves as both a physical exploration of the African continent and a metaphorical exploration into the depths of human nature.

  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett

    Set in the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi, the story revolves around three main characters: two black maids and a young white woman. The maids, who have spent their lives taking care of white families and raising their children, agree to share their experiences with the young woman, who is an aspiring writer. The book offers a poignant and humorous look at the complex relationships between these women, while also exploring the racial tensions and social changes of the era.

  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

    This comedic science fiction novel follows the intergalactic adventures of an unwitting human, Arthur Dent, who is rescued just before Earth's destruction by his friend Ford Prefect, a researcher for a galactic travel guide. Together, they hitch a ride on a stolen spaceship, encountering a range of bizarre characters, including a depressed robot and a two-headed ex-president of the galaxy. Through a series of satirical and absurd escapades, the book explores themes of existentialism, bureaucracy, and the absurdity of life, all while poking fun at the science fiction genre and offering witty commentary on the human condition.

  • The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

    In this fantasy novel, a timid and unadventurous hobbit named Bilbo Baggins is whisked away on a grand adventure by a wizard and a group of dwarves. Their mission is to reclaim the dwarves' homeland and treasure from a fearsome dragon. Throughout the journey, Bilbo grows in courage and cunning, proving himself a true hero as he encounters trolls, goblins, giant spiders, and other perils. The novel culminates with a great battle involving various races of Middle Earth, after which Bilbo returns home, forever changed by his experiences.

  • House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday

    The novel delves into the life of a young Native American man named Abel who returns home to his New Mexico Pueblo reservation after serving in World War II. Struggling with the trauma of war and the cultural dislocation caused by years away from his traditional tribal life, Abel tries to find his identity and place in a world that is torn between ancient tribal traditions and the modern white society. His journey of self-discovery and redemption is poignantly narrated, highlighting the struggles faced by Native Americans in the contemporary world.

  • Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg

    "Howl and Other Poems" is a collection of verse that critiques and challenges societal norms and conventions, particularly those of post-World War II America. The title poem, "Howl", is a raw and passionate indictment of capitalist society and its suppression of individuality and human freedom. The collection also explores themes of mental illness, sexuality, spirituality, and the human condition, with a focus on the beatnik and countercultural movements of the time.

  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

    Set in a dystopian future, the novel revolves around a teenager named Katniss Everdeen, who lives in a post-apocalyptic nation where the government, in order to maintain control, forces each of its twelve districts to send a boy and girl to participate in a televised annual event. This event, known as the Hunger Games, is a fight to the death. When Katniss's younger sister is selected to participate, Katniss volunteers to take her place. The book follows her struggle for survival in the cruel game, against the backdrop of a brewing rebellion against the oppressive regime.

  • If on a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino

    The novel is a postmodernist narrative that follows the adventures of the reader, who is trying to read a book called "If on a Winter's Night a Traveller." However, the reader keeps encountering obstacles that prevent him from finishing the book, including printer's errors, censorship, and interruptions from other characters. The story is interspersed with the beginnings of ten different novels, each interrupted at a moment of suspense. The book is a meditation on reading, writing, and the nature of narrative itself.

  • The Iliad by Homer

    This epic poem focuses on the final weeks of the Trojan War, a conflict between the city of Troy and the Greek city-states. The story explores themes of war, honor, wrath, and divine intervention, with a particular focus on the Greek hero Achilles, whose anger and refusal to fight have devastating consequences. The narrative also delves into the lives of the gods, their relationships with humans, and their influence on the course of events.

  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

    In this epic poem, the protagonist embarks on an extraordinary journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Paradise (Paradiso). Guided by the ancient Roman poet Virgil and his beloved Beatrice, he encounters various historical and mythological figures in each realm, witnessing the eternal consequences of earthly sins and virtues. The journey serves as an allegory for the soul's progression towards God, offering profound insights into the nature of good and evil, free will, and divine justice.

  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

    This novel is a complex, multi-layered narrative that explores themes of addiction, recovery, and the human condition in a near-future society. The story is set in a tennis academy and a halfway house for recovering addicts, and it intertwines the lives of its numerous characters, including a gifted but troubled teenage tennis prodigy, his filmmaker father, and a group of Quebecois separatists. The book is known for its length, intricate plot, and extensive use of footnotes.

  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

    The novel is a poignant exploration of a young African-American man's journey through life, where he grapples with issues of race, identity, and individuality in mid-20th-century America. The protagonist, who remains unnamed throughout the story, considers himself socially invisible due to his race. The narrative follows his experiences from the South to the North, from being a student to a worker, and his involvement in the Brotherhood, a political organization. The book is a profound critique of societal norms and racial prejudice, highlighting the protagonist's struggle to assert his identity in a world that refuses to see him.

  • Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

    "Leaves of Grass" is a collection of poetry that celebrates the human form and condition, while also exploring themes of democracy, nature, love, and friendship. The book, known for its departure from traditional poetic form, features a free verse style and the use of everyday language. The poet presents himself as both an individual and a universal figure, representing the collective American experience and identity. The collection is also notable for its controversial content at the time of its publication, including candid depictions of sexuality.

  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel

    A young Indian boy named Pi Patel survives a shipwreck and finds himself adrift in the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Over the course of 227 days, Pi uses his knowledge of animal behavior and survival skills to coexist with the tiger, ultimately leading to an unusual and deeply spiritual journey. The story explores themes of faith, survival, and the interpretation of reality.

  • The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

    Four siblings are evacuated from London during World War II and sent to live with an old professor in the countryside. In his house, they discover a magical wardrobe that serves as a portal to the land of Narnia, a world filled with mythical creatures and ruled by an evil White Witch. The children are soon caught up in a struggle to free Narnia from the witch's eternal winter, aided by the majestic lion Aslan. The story combines elements of fantasy, adventure, and Christian allegory.

  • The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

    A young prince from a tiny asteroid embarks on a journey across the universe, visiting various planets and meeting their strange inhabitants. Along the way, he learns about the follies and absurdities of the adult world, the nature of friendship, and the importance of retaining a childlike wonder and curiosity. His journey eventually leads him to Earth, where he befriends a fox and learns about love and loss before finally returning to his asteroid.

  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

    The novel tells the story of Humbert Humbert, a man with a disturbing obsession for young girls, or "nymphets" as he calls them. His obsession leads him to engage in a manipulative and destructive relationship with his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Lolita. The narrative is a controversial exploration of manipulation, obsession, and unreliable narration, as Humbert attempts to justify his actions and feelings throughout the story.

  • Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

    This novel follows the story of Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, who fall passionately in love in their youth. However, Fermina eventually marries a wealthy doctor, leaving Florentino heartbroken. Despite this, Florentino remains devoted to Fermina for over fifty years, patiently waiting for her husband's death to have another chance at her love. The story is set against the backdrop of a cholera epidemic, serving as a metaphor for the transformative power of love and the destructive power of obsession.

  • Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

    Madame Bovary is a tragic novel about a young woman, Emma Bovary, who is married to a dull, but kind-hearted doctor. Dissatisfied with her life, she embarks on a series of extramarital affairs and indulges in a luxurious lifestyle in an attempt to escape the banalities and emptiness of provincial life. Her desire for passion and excitement leads her down a path of financial ruin and despair, ultimately resulting in a tragic end.

  • Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

    The novel tells the story of Saleem Sinai, who was born at the exact moment when India gained its independence. As a result, he shares a mystical connection with other children born at the same time, all of whom possess unique, magical abilities. As Saleem grows up, his life mirrors the political and cultural changes happening in his country, from the partition of India and Pakistan, to the Bangladesh War of Independence. The story is a blend of historical fiction and magical realism, exploring themes of identity, fate, and the power of storytelling.

  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville

    The novel is a detailed narrative of a vengeful sea captain's obsessive quest to hunt down a giant white sperm whale that bit off his leg. The captain's relentless pursuit, despite the warnings and concerns of his crew, leads them on a dangerous journey across the seas. The story is a complex exploration of good and evil, obsession, and the nature of reality, filled with rich descriptions of whaling and the sea.

  • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

    The novel chronicles a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a high-society woman in post-World War I England, as she prepares for a party she is hosting that evening. Throughout the day, she encounters various characters from her past, including a former suitor and a shell-shocked war veteran. The narrative jumps back and forth in time and in and out of different characters' minds, exploring themes of mental illness, existentialism, and the nature of time.

  • Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

    A renowned Belgian detective finds himself embroiled in a complex murder case aboard the luxurious Orient Express train. The victim is a wealthy American businessman with numerous enemies, and the train's diverse passenger list includes individuals of varying nationalities and backgrounds, each with their own secrets. As the train is halted due to a snowdrift, the detective must race against time to solve the murder before the train reaches its destination and the murderer has a chance to escape.

  • The Odyssey by Homer

    This epic poem follows the Greek hero Odysseus on his journey home after the fall of Troy. It takes Odysseus ten years to reach Ithaca after the ten-year Trojan War. Along the way, he encounters many obstacles including mythical creatures, divine beings, and natural disasters. Meanwhile, back in Ithaca, his wife Penelope and son Telemachus fend off suitors vying for Penelope's hand in marriage, believing Odysseus to be dead. The story concludes with Odysseus's return, his slaughter of the suitors, and his reunion with his family.

  • Oedipus the King by Sophocles

    "Oedipus the King" is a tragic play that revolves around the life of Oedipus, the king of Thebes, who is prophesied to kill his father and marry his mother. Despite his attempts to avoid this fate, Oedipus unknowingly fulfills the prophecy. When he discovers the truth about his actions, he blinds himself in despair. The play explores themes of fate, free will, and the quest for truth, highlighting the tragic consequences of human hubris and ignorance.

  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac

    This novel follows the story of a young man and his friend as they embark on a series of cross-country road trips across America during the late 1940s and early 1950s. The protagonist, driven by a desire for freedom and a quest for identity, encounters a series of eccentric characters and experiences the highs and lows of the Beat Generation. The narrative is a testament to the restlessness of youth and the allure of adventure, underscored by themes of jazz, poetry, and drug use.

  • A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

    The novel takes place in British-ruled India, where the cultural divide between the British and the Indians is explored. The story focuses on the experiences of an Indian Muslim, Dr. Aziz, and his interactions with an English woman, Miss Quested, and her elderly friend, Mrs. Moore. After an expedition to the Marabar Caves, Miss Quested accuses Dr. Aziz of assault, leading to a trial that deepens the racial tensions and prejudices between the colonizers and the colonized. The novel is a critique of British imperialism and a study of the cultural and racial misunderstandings and ill-will between the British and the Indian people.

  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

    Set in early 19th-century England, this classic novel revolves around the lives of the Bennet family, particularly the five unmarried daughters. The narrative explores themes of manners, upbringing, morality, education, and marriage within the society of the landed gentry. It follows the romantic entanglements of Elizabeth Bennet, the second eldest daughter, who is intelligent, lively, and quick-witted, and her tumultuous relationship with the proud, wealthy, and seemingly aloof Mr. Darcy. Their story unfolds as they navigate societal expectations, personal misunderstandings, and their own pride and prejudice.

  • Rabbit, Run by John Updike

    The novel follows the life of a 26-year-old former high school basketball star, who is dissatisfied with his current life. He impulsively leaves his wife and son and embarks on a journey in the hopes of finding a more meaningful existence. His decisions, however, lead to a series of tragic events that impact the lives of those around him. This mid-20th-century novel explores themes of freedom, responsibility, and the tragic consequences of impulsive decisions.

  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy

    In a post-apocalyptic world, a father and his young son journey through a desolate landscape, struggling to survive. They face numerous threats including starvation, extreme weather, and dangerous encounters with other survivors. The father, who is terminally ill, is driven by his love and concern for his son, and is determined to protect him at all costs. The story is a haunting exploration of the depths of human resilience, the power of love, and the instinct to survive against all odds.

  • Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

    This classic play tells the tragic love story of two young individuals from feuding families in Verona, Italy. Despite their families' ongoing conflict, the pair secretly marry and vow to be together, no matter the cost. Their commitment leads to a series of unfortunate events, including misunderstandings, banishments, and ultimately, their untimely deaths. Their demise, however, reconciles their feuding families, leaving a poignant message about the destructive power of hate and the redemptive power of love.

  • The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

    Set in 17th-century Puritan Boston, this novel tells the story of a woman who conceives a daughter through an affair and struggles to create a new life of repentance and dignity. She is forced to wear a scarlet "A" on her dress as a sign of her adultery while her lover, a revered local minister, remains unnamed and unpunished. Throughout the book, themes of sin, legalism, and guilt are explored.

  • Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

    The novel follows the life of Billy Pilgrim, a World War II veteran who has become "unstuck in time," experiencing his life events out of order. This includes his experiences as a prisoner of war in Dresden during the Allies' firebombing, his post-war life as a successful optometrist, his abduction by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, and his eventual death. The book is a critique of war and a demonstration of the destructive nature of time, with a nonlinear narrative that reflects the chaos and unpredictability of life.

  • The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

    The novel is a complex exploration of the tragic Compson family from the American South. Told from four distinct perspectives, the story unfolds through stream of consciousness narratives, each revealing their own understanding of the family's decline. The characters grapple with post-Civil War societal changes, personal loss, and their own mental instability. The narrative is marked by themes of time, innocence, and the burdens of the past.

  • The Stand by Stephen King

    This post-apocalyptic horror/fantasy novel presents a world devastated by a deadly plague, killing 99% of the population. The survivors, drawn together by dreams of a charismatic and benevolent figure, gather in Boulder, Colorado to form a new society. However, a malevolent figure also emerges, attracting a following of his own and setting the stage for a classic battle between good and evil. The story delves into themes of community, morality, and the capacity for both destruction and regeneration within humanity.

  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

    The novel is a poignant tale set in the 1920s post-World War I era, focusing on a group of American and British expatriates living in Paris who travel to Pamplona, Spain for the annual Running of the Bulls. The story explores themes of disillusionment, identity, and the Lost Generation, with the protagonist, a war veteran, grappling with impotence caused by a war injury. The narrative is steeped in the disillusionment and existential crisis experienced by many in the aftermath of the war, and the reckless hedonism of the era is portrayed through the characters' aimless wanderings and excessive drinking.

  • In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

    This renowned novel is a sweeping exploration of memory, love, art, and the passage of time, told through the narrator's recollections of his childhood and experiences into adulthood in the late 19th and early 20th century aristocratic France. The narrative is notable for its lengthy and intricate involuntary memory episodes, the most famous being the "madeleine episode". It explores the themes of time, space and memory, but also raises questions about the nature of art and literature, and the complex relationships between love, sexuality, and possession.

  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

    This novel follows the life of Janie Crawford, a young African-American woman, in the early 20th century. She embarks on a journey through three marriages and self-discovery while challenging the societal norms of her time. The narrative explores her struggle for personal freedom, fulfillment, and identity against the backdrop of racism and gender expectations, ultimately emphasizing the importance of independence and personal growth.

  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

    This novel explores the life of Okonkwo, a respected warrior in the Umuofia clan of the Igbo tribe in Nigeria during the late 1800s. Okonkwo's world is disrupted by the arrival of European missionaries and the subsequent clash of cultures. The story examines the effects of colonialism on African societies, the clash between tradition and change, and the struggle between individual and society. Despite his efforts to resist the changes, Okonkwo's life, like his society, falls apart.

  • The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

    The book is a collection of linked short stories about a platoon of American soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War. The story is semi-autobiographical, based on the author's experiences in the war. The narrative explores the physical and emotional burdens the soldiers carry during the war, as well as the lingering effects of war on veterans. It delves into themes of bravery, truth, and the fluidity of fact and fiction.

  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

    Set in the racially charged South during the Depression, the novel follows a young girl and her older brother as they navigate their small town's societal norms and prejudices. Their father, a lawyer, is appointed to defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, forcing the children to confront the harsh realities of racism and injustice. The story explores themes of morality, innocence, and the loss of innocence through the eyes of the young protagonists.

  • Ulysses by James Joyce

    Set in Dublin, the novel follows a day in the life of Leopold Bloom, an advertising salesman, as he navigates the city. The narrative, heavily influenced by Homer's Odyssey, explores themes of identity, heroism, and the complexities of everyday life. It is renowned for its stream-of-consciousness style and complex structure, making it a challenging but rewarding read.

  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

    Set against the backdrop of the Prague Spring period of Czechoslovak history, the novel explores the philosophical concept of Nietzsche's eternal return through the intertwined lives of four characters: a womanizing surgeon, his intellectual wife, his naïve mistress, and her stoic lover. The narrative delves into their personal struggles with lightness and heaviness, freedom and fate, love and betrayal, and the complexities of human relationships, all while offering a profound meditation on the nature of existence and the paradoxes of life.

  • A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

    "A Visit from the Goon Squad" is an interconnected collection of stories about a group of characters whose lives intersect in the music industry. The narrative spans several decades, tracing the characters' journey from their youth to middle age. It explores themes of time, change, and the impact of technology on human relationships and the music industry. The novel is known for its experimental structure, including a chapter written as a PowerPoint presentation.

  • Waiting for the Barbarians by J M Coetzee

    The novel is set in a small frontier town of an unnamed empire, where the magistrate lives a life of civil service and relative peace. His world is disrupted when the Empire declares a state of emergency due to rumors of barbarian uprising. The magistrate becomes a critic of the Empire's brutal and inhumane methods of dealing with the perceived threat, which leads to his arrest and torture. As he tries to understand his role in the vast political machinery, he also grapples with questions of power, justice, and humanity.

  • Watchmen by Alan Moore

    Set in an alternate history where superheroes emerged in the 1940s and 1980s, the story follows a group of retired superheroes who are brought out of retirement after the murder of one of their own. As they investigate, they uncover a plot that could change the course of history and the balance of world power. The book explores complex themes such as the morality of power, the definition of heroism, and the value of human life.

  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

    A man's search for his wife's missing cat evolves into a surreal journey through Tokyo's underbelly, where he encounters a bizarre collection of characters with strange stories and peculiar obsessions. As he delves deeper, he finds himself entangled in a web of dreamlike scenarios, historical digressions, and metaphysical investigations. His reality becomes increasingly intertwined with the dream world as he grapples with themes of fate, identity, and the dark side of the human psyche.

  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

    This classic novel is a tale of love, revenge and social class set in the Yorkshire moors. It revolves around the intense, complex relationship between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, an orphan adopted by Catherine's father. Despite their deep affection for each other, Catherine marries Edgar Linton, a wealthy neighbor, leading Heathcliff to seek revenge on the two families. The story unfolds over two generations, reflecting the consequences of their choices and the destructive power of obsessive love.

  • Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell

    Set in a dystopian future, the novel presents a society under the total control of a totalitarian regime, led by the omnipresent Big Brother. The protagonist, a low-ranking member of 'the Party', begins to question the regime and falls in love with a woman, an act of rebellion in a world where independent thought, dissent, and love are prohibited. The novel explores themes of surveillance, censorship, and the manipulation of truth.

  • Fifty Shades of Grey: by E L James

    A young, innocent college student interviews a handsome, enigmatic billionaire for her campus newspaper and soon finds herself drawn into his world of dominance and submission. As she navigates the unfamiliar territory of BDSM, she must also grapple with her own desires and the emotional complexities of their unconventional relationship. This erotic romance novel explores themes of power, control, and the nature of love and desire.

About this list

Jeff O'Neal at Bookriot.com, 99 Books

100 books that, in the opinion of Bookriot.com editor-in-chief Jeff O'Neal, one should read before deeming themselves "well-read".

Added about 9 years ago.

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