Must reads: 50 best books of all time

Our edit of the best books to read is the perfect literary bucket list. From prize-winners to controversial classics that got everyone talking – these are must read books before you die. 

So many books, so little time. Many book lovers know the temptation of buying a beautiful new hardback, but what are the essential must reads? Spanning all genres and periods, our edit of the best books to read before you die is here to help.  

Looking for more great reads? Discover the best fiction books here.

Literary books to read before you die

Shuggie Bain

by Douglas Stuart

Book cover for Shuggie Bain

Set in a poverty-stricken Glasgow in the early 1980s, Douglas Stuart’s Booker Prize-winning debut is a heartbreaking story which lays bare the ruthlessness of poverty and the limits of love. Agnes Bain has always dreamed of greater things, but when her husband abandons her she finds herself trapped in a decimated mining town with her three children, and descends deeper and deeper into drink. Her son Shuggie tries to help Agnes long after her other children have fled, but he too must abandon her to save himself. Shuggie is different, and he is picked on by the local children and condemned by adults. But he believes that if he tries his hardest he can escape this hopeless place.


by Raven Leilani

Book cover for Luster

One of Barack Obama’s Favourite Books of 2020, Raven Leilani's razor-sharp yet surprisingly tender debut is an essential novel about what it means to be young now. 

Edie is messing up her life. She’s messing up in her dead-end admin job in her all-white office, she's sleeping with all the wrong men and has failed at the only thing that meant anything to her, painting. And no one seems to care. Then she meets Eric, who is white, middle-aged and comes with a wife who has sort-of-agreed to an open marriage and an adopted black daughter who doesn’t have a single person in her life who can show her how to do her hair. And as if life wasn’t hard enough, Edie finds herself falling head-first into Eric’s family. 


by Emma Donoghue

Book cover for Room

Shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and the Women’s Prize for fiction, Room is a unique novel, about survival, innocence and the bond behind mother and son. You might have seen the film adaptation, which won the Best Actress Oscar for Brie Larson. The book is definitely gong-worthy, too.

To Paradise

by Hanya Yanagihara

Book cover for To Paradise

A number one Sunday Times bestseller and one of Barack Obama's Favourite Books of 2022, To Paradise is the eagerly awaited latest novel from author of modern-classic A Little Life, Haniya Yanagihara. Bold and brilliant, it spans three centuries and three different versions of the American experiment, and holds lovers, family, loss and the elusive promise of utopia at its heart. Following narratives set in 1893, 1993 and 2093, within an alternate America ,To Paradise is a page-turning and thought-provoking work of emotional genius. 

The Line of Beauty

by Alan Hollinghurst

Book cover for The Line of Beauty

This Booker Prize-winning novel bottles the essence of the 1980s, as the story follows a quest for beauty against a backdrop of politics, greed and friendships turned toxic. Alan Hollinghurst’s writing style is somehow stripped back and poetic at the same time, and its sensitivity makes this book a true standout.

The Lovely Bones

by Alice Sebold

Book cover for The Lovely Bones

This book has an almost unbeatable opening line: “My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.” Unspooling the story from there, Alice Sebold’s murder mystery, solved by the victim from heaven, is a masterclass in empathetic storytelling and suspense.

A Little Life

by Hanya Yanagihara

Book cover for A Little Life

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and celebrated as ‘the great gay novel’, Hanya Yanagihara’s immensely powerful story of brotherly love and the limits of human endurance has had a visceral impact on many a reader. Willem, Jude, Malcolm and JB meet at college in Massachusetts and form a firm friendship, moving to New York upon graduation. Over the years their friendships deepen and darken as they celebrate successes and face failures, but their greatest challenge is Jude himself – an increasingly broken man scarred by an unspeakable childhood. This is a book that will stay with you long after the last page.

Discover our edit of the best literary fiction.  

Classic books to read before you die

Pride and Prejudice

by Jane Austen

Book cover for Pride and Prejudice

A copy of Pride and Prejudice is a worthy addition to any bookshelf. Jane Austen serves up laughs, romance, sharp observations, life lessons and characters that still feel vividly alive today. A universally acknowledged classic.

A House for Mr Biswas

by V. S. Naipaul

Book cover for A House for Mr Biswas

Written in 1961 and set in post-colonial Trinidad, this is the story of Mr Biswas, a man born into misfortune, and his quest to find a worthy home of his own. A House for Mr Biswas is a multi-faceted read that is all-at-once satisfying, lyrical and humorous.

Jane Eyre

by Charlotte Bronte

Book cover for Jane Eyre

When orphan Jane Eyre takes a position as governess at Thornfield Hall, the last thing she expects is to fall in love with the brooding master of the house. An enduring love story and undisputed classic, Jane Eyre is full of passion, mystery, tragedy, and a strong-willed and beloved heroine.


by Nella Larsen

Book cover for Passing

Immerse yourself in 1920s New York through Nella Larsen's distinctive and revealing novel. The story centres around identity, belonging and two childhood friends who’ve long grown apart – Clare Kendry who is proud of her Harlem roots, and Irene Redford who has abandoned them altogether, ‘passing’ as white to her racist husband in the upper classes of New York. As their worlds intertwine once again, tensions lead up to a truly shocking conclusion. A classic far ahead of its time, Passing reads like the best of contemporary literary fiction.

Don't miss our full selection of classic books to tick off your bucket list.

Historical fiction books to read before you die

Burial Rites

by Hannah Kent

Book cover for Burial Rites

Based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who was executed for murder in 1829, Burial Rites is a masterful novel set against the stark landscape of rural Iceland in the nineteenth century. When Agnes arrives at Jón Jónsson's farm to live out her final days, his family initially shun her, until they realise that the truth may be more complicated than they were led to believe. A novel about otherness and belonging, Hannah Kent's story is as compelling as it is heartbreaking and a must-read for everyone. 

A Thousand Ships

by Natalie Haynes

Book cover for A Thousand Ships

A must-read retelling of one of the most significant conflicts in history, in A Thousand Ships Natalie Haynes puts the women at the centre of the story of the Trojan War for the first time. Charting the fates of the Trojan women who had to adapt to defeat and live under the Greeks, to the women who proved the catalyst for war, Haynes breathes new life into the classic tale in this compellingly readable novel. 

The Lamplighters

by Emma Stonex

Book cover for The Lamplighters

Cornwall, 1972. Three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from the shore. The entrance door is locked from the inside. The clocks have stopped. The weather log describes a mighty storm, but the skies have been clear all week. Twenty years later, the women they left behind are still struggling to move on, but only in confronting their darkest fears can the truth begin to surface . . . Inspired by true events, The Lamplighters is an intoxicating mystery and an unforgettable story of love and grief.

The Miniaturist

by Jessie Burton

Book cover for The Miniaturist

A heady story of obsession and retribution, The Miniaturist is set in seventeenth-century Amsterdam. A young woman named Nella arrives at a home in the richest area of Amsterdam, where she is to be married. She is met not by her husband, but by his spiky sister. Later her merchant trader fiancé gives Nella a strange gift - a perfect replica of their home, which is to be furnished by a talented miniaturist. Soon these tiny figures begin to prefigure events in the house, including the rising danger that threatens to swamp them all. A sequel to this gripping read – The House of Fortune – has just been released.

Wolf Hall

by Hilary Mantel

Book cover for Wolf Hall

A Booker-Prize winner, set during the Tudor period and closely following the life of Thomas Cromwell, son of a blacksmith and advisor to the King. Its opening line, “So now get up”, captures the immediacy with which Mantel brings the period to life. With so much richness, bringing complex characters to life alongside the ideological battles of the day, it’s one to read and then come back to for more. 


by C. J. Sansom

Book cover for Dissolution

This is the first book to feature Matthew Shardlake, Sansom’s insightful Tudor lawyer. Set in 1537 as Henry VIII becomes Supreme Head of the Church and the bloody dissolution of the monasteries is beginning, Shardlake investigates the shocking murder of one of Thomas Cromwell’s commissioners. Start this series, and you’ll have the pleasure of getting to know Shardlake and his companions more closely over the next six books (and counting).

The Burning Chambers

by Kate Mosse

Book cover for The Burning Chambers

Beginning in Carcassonne in 1562, The Burning Chambers is a thrilling adventure and a heartbreaking love story set against the backdrop of the religious wars in France. When nineteen-year-old Minou Joubert receives an anonymous letter reading only SHE KNOWS THAT YOU LIVE, she knows she must decipher this mysterious message. But before she has a chance she meets Piet Reydon, a young Huguenot convert with a dangerous mission of his own, and her world is changed forever . . . 

A gripping story of love and war, if you're looking for a new romantic historical fiction series to sink your teeth into, this is the book to read.

The Pillars of the Earth

by Ken Follett

Book cover for The Pillars of the Earth

Set in medieval England, this classic of historical fiction tells the story of a cathedral as it is being built, and the skill, ambition and chaos surrounding it. Ken Follett brings history to life through human stories, and this is his most popular book, introducing readers to the world of Kingsbridge, the city where the cathedral is constructed.

The Four Winds

by Kristin Hannah

Book cover for The Four Winds

Delia Owens, author of Where the Crawdads Sing, called Kristin Hannah's novel ‘powerful and compelling.’ Elsa Martinelli finally has everything she had wished for – a family, a home and a livelihood on a farm on the Great Plains. But when drought threatens her family and community, Elsa must decide whether to stay and fight for the land she loves or flee to California in search of a better life. 

If you love historical fiction, don't miss the best historical fiction books of all time.

Dystopian books to read before you die

Station Eleven

by Emily St. John Mandel

Book cover for Station Eleven

This book opens with an actor dropping dead on stage, and it only gets more surreal and dramatic from there. Emily St John Mandel has a real talent for combining the real and the unreal, and this book, set in the near future after a pandemic changes the world forever, is the perfect example of that.

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

Book cover for The Handmaid's Tale

This novel has become a cultural byword for all things dystopian. It’s set in the fictional totalitarian Republic of Gilead, but, chillingly, Atwood only included within her invented regime methods of control which had been carried out at some point in history, somewhere in the world. 

If you love The Handmaid's Tale, discover what to read next

The End We Start From

by Megan Hunter

Book cover for The End We Start From

As apocalyptic floods submerge London, a woman gives birth to her first child. Soon the family are forced to flee in search of safety, moving from place to place on a journey of fear and wonder, as the baby grows and thrives against the odds. Megan Hunter's beautiful, spare prose paints an imagined future which is terrifying in its realism.

The City & The City

by China Miéville

Book cover for The City & The City

A mind-bending tale of two cities which exist alongside each other in the same time and space, this book has won numerous awards and has been likened to that cornerstone of dystopian fiction 1984. China Miéville combines crime fiction with the metaphysical in this strange and gripping tale of murder and conspiracy.

Nineteen Eighty-Four

by George Orwell

Book cover for Nineteen Eighty-Four

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of the most famous and influential novels of the 20th century. This terrifying dystopia, which he created in a time of great social and political unrest, remains acutely relevant and influential to this day.

Discover more of the best dystopian fiction.

Sci-fi and fantasy books to read before you die 

The Atlas Six

by Olivie Blake

Book cover for The Atlas Six

Dark-academia fantasy novel The Atlas Six was originally self-published by Olivie Blake, and was then snapped up for re-publication after it shot to fame on TikTok.

The story follows six young magical practitioners as they compete to join the secretive Alexandrian Society, whose custodians guard lost knowledge from ancient civilizations. Their members enjoy a lifetime of power and prestige. Yet each decade, only six practitioners are invited – to fill five places. Ff they can prove themselves, over the course of a year, they’ll survive. Most of them.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

by Douglas Adams

Book cover for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Totally hilarious, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has been a radio show, TV show, stage play, comic book and film, and is and a work of utter comic genius from Douglas Adams.

This year marks the 42nd anniversary of the first mind-expanding The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy book, and since publication, it quickly became what can only be described as a phenomenon.

A comedy sci-fi classic, this laugh-out-loud romp through space is the first of five books in the 'trilogy', and sees protagonist Arthur Dent narrowly escape the destruction of Earth by hitching a ride on a spaceship with his alien best friend Ford Prefect.

Find out everything you need to know with our guide to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.


by Ted Chiang

Book cover for Arrival

From a soaring Babylonian tower that connects a flat Earth with the heavens above, to an alien language that challenges our very perception of time and reality – Ted Chiang's masterful first collection, deftly blends human emotion and scientific rationalism in eight remarkably diverse short stories. With one story from this collection now adapted for the big screen in a major motion picture starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, Arrival is science fiction at its most thought-provoking.

Books in translation to read before you die

Before the Coffee Gets Cold

by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Book cover for Before the Coffee Gets Cold

In a small back alley in Tokyo, there is a café which has been serving carefully brewed coffee for more than one hundred years. But this coffee shop offers its customers a unique experience: the chance to travel back in time. But this opportunity is not without risks: customers must sit in a particular seat, they cannot leave the café, and finally, they must return to the present before the coffee gets cold . . . Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s beautiful novel stole the hearts of readers the world over. Through it, we meet four visitors to the café and explore the age-old question: what would you change if you could travel back in time? 

The Master and Margarita

by Mikhail Bulgakov

Book cover for The Master and Margarita

This book has caused waves since it was first published in the 1960s, though it was written earlier in the 20th-century in a Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule. The action sees the Devil, disguised as a magician, arriving in 1930s Moscow on a mission. Surreal, satirical and surprising – the literary equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

Breasts and Eggs

by Mieko Kawakami

Book cover for Breasts and Eggs

This literary debut, which Haruki Murakami called ‘breathtaking’, is a must-read for fans of feminist literary fiction. Mieko Kawakami paints a radical picture of contemporary working-class womanhood in Japan as she recounts the heartbreaking stories of three women who must survive in a society where the odds are stacked against them.

A Whole Life

by Robert Seethaler

Book cover for A Whole Life

This book is slim and mighty. It tells the quiet yet memorable story of Andreas, who grows up in the Austrian Alps, falls in love and fights in the Second World War, only to find his home changed upon his return. With its steady strength and constant heart, this is one to reach for in times of uncertainty.

Autobiographical and non-fiction books to read before you die

Queen of our Times

by Robert Hardman

Book cover for Queen of our Times

In Queen of Our Times, Robert Hardman tells the definitive story of the life of Queen Elizabeth II, the United Kingdom's longest-reigning monarch. Charting the late Queen's childhood, her unlikely ascension to the throne, her family life, and her lifetime of service, Queen of Our Times is a compelling and intimate portrait of one of the most remarkable women in British history. 

This is Going to Hurt

by Adam Kay

Book cover for This is Going to Hurt

Scribbled in secret after endless days, sleepless nights and missed weekends, comedian and former junior doctor Adam Kay’s This Is Going to Hurt provides a no-holds-barred account of his time on the NHS front line. Hilarious, horrifying and heartbreaking by turns, these diaries are everything you wanted to know – and more than a few things you didn't – about life on and off the hospital ward. Now an award-winning multi-million copy bestseller, in 2022 This is Going to Hurt was adapted by the BBC into a TV series starring Ben Whishaw. What's more, you won't want to miss the audiobook, which is read by Adam himself and includes an expanded interview with comedian Mark Watson.

The Happiest Man on Earth

by Eddie Jaku

Book cover for The Happiest Man on Earth

This heartbreaking yet hopeful memoir shows us how happiness can be found even in the darkest of times. In November 1938, Eddie Jaku was beaten, arrested and taken to a German concentration camp. He endured unimaginable horrors for the next seven years and lost family, friends and his country.  But he survived. And because he survived, he vowed to smile every day. He now believes he is the ‘happiest man on earth’. This is his story. 

Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands

by Mary Seacole

Book cover for Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands

Mary Seacole was a pioneering nineteenth-century nurse, who travelled from her home in Jamaica to reach England, and went on – despite many obstacles – to fulfil her ambition of tending to soldiers fighting on the front line of the Crimean War. Overcoming prejudice, she became the toast of London society. An invaluable testimony.

Too Many Reasons to Live

by Rob Burrow

Book cover for Too Many Reasons to Live

The inspirational memoir from rugby league legend Rob Burrow on his extraordinary career and his battle with motor neurone disease.

This is the story of a tiny kid who adored rugby league but never should have made it  and ended up in the Leeds hall of fame. It's the story of a man who resolved to turn a terrible predicament into something positive  when he could have thrown the towel in. It's about the power of love, between Rob and his childhood sweetheart Lindsey; and of friendship, between Rob and his faithful team mates. Far more than a sports memoir, Too Many Reasons to Live is a story of boundless courage and infinite kindness.

Don't miss the best biographies and autobiographies and the best non-fiction books.

Crime and thriller books to read before you die

The Passenger & Stella Maris: Boxed Set

by Cormac McCarthy

Book cover for The Passenger & Stella Maris: Boxed Set

The long-awaited new novel from Cormac McCarthy and its masterful follow-up, this limited edition boxset presents hardback editions of The Passenger and Stella Maris in an exclusive slipcase. Introducing Bobby Western, a salvage diver who travels through Mississippi, the American South and the Gulf of Mexico, in The Passenger, McCarthy tackles questions of ethics, science, memory, and the impact our family histories can have upon our existence. In Stella Maris, we meet Bobby's sister Alicia who is as equally haunted by her father's past as her brother is, with devastating consequences. 

The Vacation

by John Marrs

Book cover for The Vacation

Sun, sea, secrets and murder. When eight strangers meet at a beachfront hostel in the heart of Venice Beach, Los Angeles, an idyllic holiday is not on the cards. Each of the hostel's guests is running away from a secret from their past that they'll kill to keep . . . if they have to. John Marrs' unputdownable thriller, The Vacation, has everything you need to transport you away from the cold British winter and into the sun. 

American Psycho

by Bret Easton Ellis

Book cover for American Psycho

One of the most controversial and talked-about novels in modern history, American Psycho is the story of Patrick Bateman, a New York City high-flier with a penchant for fine wines, slickly cut suits and brutal murder. As Bateman's obsession with his hedonistic passions comes to a head, he descends into madness, with macabre and darkly comedic repercussions. 

Read more about the controversial history of American Psycho.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

by Arthur Conan Doyle

Book cover for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

This collection of short stories featuring legendary sleuth Sherlock Holmes are great fun to read. Get to know Holmes, his quirky habits at 221b Baker Street and his one-step-ahead attention to detail, while working on your own powers of deduction.

Absolute Power

by David Baldacci

Book cover for Absolute Power

This conspiracy thriller imagines the dark heart of the White House, and an unsettling cover-up ordered by the president himself. The book kicked off American crime giant David Baldacci’s career. Absolute Power is a powerful shot of exactly what he does best.

Crime and thriller fans will love our edit of the best thriller books and the best crime fiction books.  

Romantic books to read before you die

You've Reached Sam

by Dustin Thao

Book cover for You've Reached Sam

A viral TikTok hit, You've Reached Sam is the bestselling debut novel by Dustin Thao. A heartbreaking and unputdownable story of love and loss, You've Reached Sam stars Julie, a seventeen-year-old who has to deal with the devastating death of her sweetheart Sam. Packed with romance and a diverse, loveable cast of characters, this is the perfect read to lift your spirits this winter.  

The Nightingale

by Kristin Hannah

Book cover for The Nightingale

Set in France during the Second World War, The Nightingale is a story of two sisters, Viann and Isabelle. The pair are reunited after Viann’s husband is sent to fight, with Isabelle travelling from Paris to rural France to support her sister. Together, they face extraordinary hardships and heartbreak. A multi-million copy bestseller, this is a 20th-century-set romance for the 21st century and beyond.

Lost and Found

by Danielle Steel

Book cover for Lost and Found

Danielle Steel is one of the world’s bestselling authors, having written nearly 200 books exploring the intricacies of relationships, between lovers, friends, husband and wives and parents and their children. Lost and Found is a tale of looking for lost love, and one woman’s adventure to answer the question: what might have been? Sweet, true-to-life and heartwarming, this story will give you an even deeper understanding of happy ever after.

Discover more unmissable romantic reads here.

Self-care books to read before you die

The Kindness Method

by Shahroo Izadi

Book cover for The Kindness Method

If the past twelve months have taught us anything, it's the value of compassion, both to others and to ourselves, and if you're looking to make a change in your life, Behavioural Change Specialist Shahroo Izadi believes there’s only one way to make change last, and that’s to be kind to yourself. 

The Kindness Method was developed through a combination of professional training and personal experience and will leave you feeling empowered, positive and ready to make a change, whether it’s weight loss, cutting down on alcohol or improving your relationships. 

Here, Shahroo shares five ways to be kinder to yourself today. 

Solve For Happy

by Mo Gawdat

Book cover for Solve For Happy

Mo Gawdat tackles the problem of how to be happy using his engineering training, coming up with an equation for lasting happiness. When his son died, it became Mo’s mission to spread his happiness principles, and he has bottled those in this book. An answer to one of life’s great challenges, his message and methods will offer solace and a new way of looking at the world.

Discover the best self-care books.

Horror books to read before you die

The Shining

by Stephen King

Book cover for The Shining

One of the best known horror novels of all time, partly thanks to the film adaptation starring Jack Nicholson. Stephen King, a genius of the genre, here tells the story of the Overlook Hotel, cut off from the world by winter storms, where five-year-old Danny starts having powerful and disturbing visions… Not one for after lights out. 

The Rats

by James Herbert

Book cover for The Rats

The title is enough to send a chill down your spine. This is the book that launched the career of James Herbert, one of the giants of British horror writing, and it has sold millions of copies worldwide. The story of rats who begin to have the upper hand over humans, it will have you dreaming of razor-sharp teeth, while putting your own very much on edge.


by Bram Stoker

Book cover for Dracula

More gothic than true horror, this book nonetheless launched a thousand nightmares (and a whole century’s worth of vampire fiction). Published in 1897, Jonathan Harper’s encounter with an ancient evil still chills the blood more than a hundred years after publication.