There will be disagreements among literary experts, historians, voracious readers, and even casual readers as to which book is the “best book ever written.” Is it a novel that uses lovely, engrossing metaphorical language? Or one that is realistically grim? A book that has significantly impacted society? Perhaps one who has had a more subtle impact on the world? Below is a list of 12 books that, for various reasons, have been hailed as some of the best literary works ever produced.
1. Anna Karenina
Any person who enjoys reading books with juicy themes like adultery, gambling, love triangles, and, uh, Russian feudalism, would immediately put Anna Karenina at the top of their list of all-time great books. And since the novel’s full publication in 1878, it is precisely the ranking that periodicals like Time magazine have given it. The eight-part, monumental work of fiction by Russian author Leo Tolstoy chronicles the tale of two central figures: Konstantin Levin, a besotted landowner who wrestles with issues of faith and philosophy, and the tragic, disillusioned housewife Anna, who flees with her young lover. Tolstoy weaves a large cast of characters praised for their realistic humanity into profound debates on love, suffering, and family in Russian culture. The work was particularly groundbreaking in how it treated women, portraying the prejudices and social problems of the era with intense passion.
2. To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee, regarded as one of the most influential writers ever, is known for having only ever released one book (up until its controversial sequel was published in 2015 just before her death). When Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was released in 1960, it instantly became a literary classic. The book explores racism in the American South through the eyes of Jean Louise (“Scout”) Finch, a bright little girl. At a period when there were significant racial tensions in the United States, its well-known characters, most notably the empathetic and just lawyer and parent Atticus Finch, served as role models and altered perceptions. The novel To Kill a Mockingbird won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and went on to win the 1962 Academy Award for best picture, giving the narrative and the characters more life and influence over American society.
3. The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is regarded as one of the best books for teaching students how to read literature critically (which means you may have read it in school). The story is recounted from the viewpoint of a young guy named Nick Carraway who has just relocated to New York City and becomes friends with his eccentric nouveau riche neighbor with a shrouded past, Jay Gatsby. The Great Gatsby critiques the notion of the “American Dream” while offering an insider’s view of the Jazz Age of American history in the 1920s. The novel’s cover art, which has a piercing face projected above a night sky of deep blue and city lights, is arguably its most well-known feature. This image appears as a key symbol throughout the text in a slightly different arrangement.
4. One Hundred Years of Solitude
The most well-known novel by the late Colombian author Gabriel Garca Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, was released in 1967. The Buenda family’s seven generations are covered in the book, along with the founding of their town of Macondo and its eventual demise along with the final member of the family. The novel explores magic realism in fantasy form by highlighting the exceptional nature of everyday objects while mystical objects are revealed to be widespread. The importance and influence of myth and folktale in connecting history and Latin American culture are highlighted by Márquez. One Hundred Years of Solitude is frequently hailed as Márquez’s most illustrious work, and the novel gained him many accolades, paving the path for his eventual honor of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 for his complete body of work.
5. A Passage to India
A Passage to India was the result of E.M. Forster’s several visits to India throughout his early years. The 1924 book centers on a Muslim Indian doctor named Aziz and his interactions with Cyril Fielding, an English professor, and Adela Quested, a visiting English teacher. Tensions between the Indian community and the colonial British community increase when Adela thinks that Aziz has raped her while they are visiting the Marabar caves close to the fictional city of Chandrapore, where the story is set. Despite their cultural disparities and colonial tensions, the conflict explores the possibility of friendship and connection between English and Indian people. The novel’s vivid depictions of nature and the Indian terrain, as well as the text’s use of these images to convey meaning, establish it as a remarkable work of fiction.
6. Invisible Man
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which is frequently confused with the science-fiction novella of the same name by H.G. Wells (simply remove a “The”), is a seminal work in the expression of identity for the African American male. The book’s unnamed narrator, who feels socially “invisible” to others, describes his transition from the South to college and finally to New York City. He experiences great hardship and discrimination in each place, as well as drifting into and out of romantic relationships, questionable social movements, and work. The book is well known for its experimental and surrealistic literary style, which analyzes the symbolism associated with African American identity and culture. The 1953 National Book Award for Fiction went to Invisible Man.
7. Don Quixote
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes was first published in its entirety in 1615 and is arguably the most famous and important masterpiece of Spanish literature. The book, which is frequently cited as one of the greatest literary works ever written, relates the tale of a man who adopts the persona of “Don Quixote de la Mancha” and sets out in a fit of chivalric passion to restore the practice and become a hero himself. Since the publication of the novel, the character of Don Quixote has grown to be a hero and even something of an archetype, inspiring numerous significant works of literature, music, and art. The book has had such an impact that a word was coined to characterize someone who is “foolishly unrealistic, especially in the pursuit of ideals; notably: distinguished by impulsive lofty idealistic beliefs or extravagantly chivalrous conduct,” quixotic, after the figure Don Quixote.
In her spiritual and melancholy book Beloved from 1987, Toni Morrison tells the tale of a fugitive slave named Sethe who has fled to Cincinnati, Ohio, in the year 1873. With Sethe’s shame and emotional suffering after killing her own kid, whom she named Beloved, to save her from leading a life as a slave, the tale explores the trauma of slavery even after liberation has been achieved. The child’s name-bearing spirit presence enters the lives of the protagonists, taking on the burden and suffering of the family and making their emotions and history inevitable. The book received praise for discussing the psychological repercussions of slavery and the value of family and community in fostering healing. The 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction went to Beloved.
9. Mrs. Dalloway
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, arguably the most eccentric book on this list, focuses solely on one day in the life of British socialite Clarissa Dalloway. The work is written in a stream-of-consciousness format throughout, mixing third-person narration with the ideas of numerous characters. With the work largely depending on character development rather than plot to tell its story, this writing approach produces a very intimate and illuminating view into the characters’ minds. The characters’ thoughts frequently revolve around their regrets and the past, as well as their difficulties with mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related to World War I and the impact of social pressures. The work is one of the most revered because of its distinctive tone, theme, and historical context.
10. Things Fall Apart
The Western canon of “great literature” sometimes excludes outstanding writers and incredible works of literature from other regions of the world in favor of authors from North America or Europe. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, which was released in 1958, is an example of a Nigerian literary work that had to overcome the prejudice of some literary circles but yet managed to win respect on a global scale. The story centers on an Igbo man named Okonkwo and tells the reader about his family, his Nigerian town, and the effects of British colonialism on his home nation. The book is an illustration of African postcolonial literature, a subgenre that has gained popularity and readership since the middle of the 20th century as Africans have had the opportunity to tell their frequently untold histories of empire from the perspective of the colonized. In classes on international literature and African studies, the novel is commonly assigned reading.
11. Jane Eyre
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, another book that is frequently prescribed reading in schools, was first published in 1847 under the pen name Currer Bell in an effort to conceal the author’s gender. Fortunately, a lot has happened since 1847 regarding the representation of women in literature, and Bront is being given the recognition she merits for one of the most revolutionary novels about women in history. At a time when the author was forced to conceal her true identity, Jane Eyre offered a tale of female individuality. The title character in the book transforms from an orphan and an impoverished person to a prosperous and self-sufficient woman. The novel revolutionizes the art of the novel by focusing on the development of Jane’s sensibility through internalized action and writing, combining elements from both Gothic and Victorian literature.
12. The Color Purple
With her 1982 book The Color Purple, which received a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, Alice Walker emerged as a proponent of the epistolary novel, which is a narrative written in the form of letters written by one or more characters and was most popular before the 19th century. The book, which is set in the American South after the Civil War, follows young Celie, an African American girl, as she grows up via the letters she writes to God and to her sister Nettie. Celie experiences sexual assault at the hands of her father and later her husband; she documents her own pain and development as well as those of her friends and family. The book groups downtrodden and broken characters to investigate themes of sexism, racism, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. In 1985, the narrative was made into a movie that was nominated for an Academy Award, but despite receiving a ton of positive reviews, it was infamously overlooked for all 11 Oscars.