39 vital books to read before you die

Consider our edit of books to read before you die your literary bucket list. From literary prize-winners to the controversial classic that got everyone talking – and banned in the process – these are the books to read at least once in your life. 

30/07/2021
8 minutes to read

So many books, so little time. Many a book lover knows the temptation of buying a beautiful new hardback despite the shelves of unread books at home, but what are the books you really should be ticking off your literary bucket list?  If you’re looking for suggestions for books to read at least once in your life, our edit of the best books to read before you die is full of inspiration. 

Literary books to read before you die

Shuggie Bain

by Douglas Stuart

Book cover for 9781529019292

Set in a poverty-stricken Glasgow in the early 1980s, Douglas Stuart’s blistering, 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, fastidious and fussy, and he is picked on by the local children and condemned by adults as ‘no’ right’. But he believes that if he tries his hardest he can be like other boys and escape this hopeless place.

Luster

by Raven Leilani

Book cover for 9781529035988

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. 

Room

by Emma Donoghue

Book cover for 9781447276364

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.

Burial Rites

by Hannah Kent

Book cover for 9781447233176

Based on actual events, Burial Rites is an astonishing and moving novel about the truths we claim to know and the ways in which we interpret what we’re told.

In northern Iceland, 1829, Agnes Magnúsdóttir is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of her lover. Sent to wait out her final months on the farm of district officer Jón Jónsson, his wife and their two daughters, her hosts are horrified to have a convicted murderer in their midst and avoid all contact with her. Only Tóti, the young assistant priest appointed Agnes’s spiritual guardian, is compelled to try to understand her. As the year progresses and the hardships of rural life force the household to work side by side, Agnes’s story begins to emerge and with it the family’s terrible realization that all is not as they had assumed.

A story you'll remember for years to come, this beautifully written novel asks, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?

American Psycho

by Bret Easton Ellis

Book cover for 9781447277705

A controversial cult classic, American Psycho is one of the most talked-about novels of all time, taking it straight to the top of your 'to read' list. It was dropped by its original publisher just three months before publication due to the media storm it caused. Australian national censorship legislation still classifies American Psycho as ‘R18’, meaning it can be sold only to over-18s, and must be shrink-wrapped. Patrick Bateman has good looks, youth, a job on Wall Street – and he just happens to be a psychopath. This modern classic is a pitch-black comedy about the dark side of the American Dream, and is a must for your to-read list.

Read more about the controversial history of American Psycho. 

The Line of Beauty

by Alan Hollinghurst

Book cover for 9781447275183

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 9781447275206

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 9781447294832

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and celebrated as ‘The Great Gay Novel’ by author Garth Greenwell, 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. For those looking for literature that will stay with you long after the last page, this is undoubtedly the book to read.

Discover our edit of the best literary fiction.  


Classic books to read before you die

Pride and Prejudice

by Jane Austen

Book cover for 9781909621657

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 9781509803507

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 9781509827794

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.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

by Douglas Adams

Book cover for 9781529034523

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.

Passing

by Nella Larsen

Book cover for 9781529040289

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

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. 

The Burning Chambers

by Kate Mosse

Book cover for 9781509806850

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.

Dissolution

by C. J. Sansom

Book cover for 9781447285830

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 Pillars of the Earth

by Ken Follett

Book cover for 9781509848492

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.

Birdsong

by Sebastian Faulks

Book cover for Birdsong

Published to international critical and popular acclaim, this intensely romantic yet stunningly realistic novel spans three generations and the unimaginable gulf between the First World War and the present. It is the story of Stephen Wraysford, a young Englishman who arrives in Amiens in 1910. Over the course of the novel he suffers a series of traumatic experiences, from the clandestine love affair that tears apart the family with whom he lives, to the unprecedented experiences of the war itself.


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


Dystopian books to read before you die

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

Station Eleven

by Emily St. John Mandel

Book cover for 9781447268970

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 City & The City

by China Miéville

Book cover for 9781509870585

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 9781529032666

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.


Books in translation to read before you die

Breasts and Eggs

by Mieko Kawakami

Book cover for 9781509898206

When Mieko Kawakami appeared on the Japanese literary scene she posed a challenge to its male-dominated status quo. Her novella Breasts and Eggs (Chichi to Ran), published in Japan in 2008, was described as ‘unpleasant and intolerable’ by Tokyo’s then governor, Shintaro Ishihara but went on to win Japan’s most prestigious literary award, of which Ishihara had previously been a recipient.

Now a full-length novel, this literary debut, which Haruki Murakami called ‘breathtaking’, is a must-read for fans of contemporary 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.

The Master and Margarita

by Mikhail Bulgakov

Book cover for 9781509823291

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.

A Whole Life

by Robert Seethaler

Book cover for 9781447283904

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.


Autobiography and non-fiction books to read before you die

The Happiest Man on Earth

by Eddie Jaku

Book cover for 9781529066333

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. 

W-3

by Bette Howland

Book cover for 9781529035872

In 1968, Betty Howland was thirty-one, a single mother of two young sons, struggling to support her family on the part-time salary of a librarian; and labouring day and night at her typewriter to be a writer. One afternoon, while staying at her friend Saul Bellow’s apartment, she swallowed a bottle of pills. W-3 is both an extraordinary portrait of the community of Ward 3 and a record of a defining moment in a writer’s life. The book itself would be her salvation: she wrote herself out of the grave.

Becoming

by Michelle Obama

Book cover for Becoming

Former First Lady Michelle Obama tells her own story, from her childhood on Chicago’s South Side, to meeting a certain Barack Obama while working as a lawyer, right through to raising two daughters on the campaign trail, and life in the White House. The audiobook is read by Obama herself; by the end you’ll feel as though you have a new – and extremely wise – best friend.  

Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands

by Mary Seacole

Book cover for 9781529040326

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.

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


Crime and thriller books to read before you die

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

by Arthur Conan Doyle

Book cover for 9781909621732

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 9781447287520

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.

The Crow Trap

Book cover for 9781509815890

Ann Cleeves is the creator of the Vera and Shetland series of books, both of which have been turned into TV drama series. Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope makes her first appearance in The Crow Trap, and – with her unconventional ways – she’s a character you’ll want to keep coming back to.

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

The Nightingale

by Kristin Hannah

Book cover for 9781509848621

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.

The Notebook

by Nicholas Sparks

Book cover for The Notebook

This is the story of Noel Calhoun, who arrives back in his hometown after the Second World War and begins to rebuild an old plantation house, trying in vain to put an old flame out of his mind. When Allie returns to his life, they both realise their love is too powerful to pass up a second time. Framed by a much older Noel reading aloud the love story from an old notebook, this is a really emotional story about enduring love. The Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams film adaptation is also sure to have you shedding a tear or two.

Lost and Found

by Danielle Steel

Book cover for 9781509877935

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.


Self-care books to read before you die

The Kindness Method

by Shahroo Izadi

Book cover for 9781509881826

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 9781509809950

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 9781447264507

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.

Dracula

by Bram Stoker

Book cover for 9781909621626

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.