“Required Reading” — 100 Books You Should Read
Slightly more than 100 actually.
I’ve chosen these books for three reasons, broadly speaking, as follows:
Sources of our Shared Culture
Some books of European, African, Middle Eastern, South Asian or East Asian origin have spread their influence throughout the world, and these are as many of them as I could put on the list. You probably don’t need to read all of them, nor even read most in their entirety. But it’s important to know they exist, what they contain, and what their influence has been.
Many of these books are available for free, either via websites like Bartleby or Google Books; or a careful search on Amazon will often reveal a free Kindle version. Of course, some of the books in this section are translations, so be sure you get a good translation.
Stories and Storytelling
Some books are perfect examples of stories or storytelling of a particular kind, or have influenced storytelling in the Western tradition. A few of these are archetypal, or have created an archetype or have spawned an entire genre.
Some of these stories are old enough to be out of copyright. Where possible I’ve linked to editions that have free ebook versions. One or two may be out-of-print, in which case your best friend will be ABE.
Most of these books also fit the ‘Stories and Storytelling’ category, but I’ve singled them out as examples of specific storytelling techniques, approaches and conceits.
Order and Choice
The order is alphabetical, because most of these books are no more or less important than any other.
I’ve chosen these books because they come up in conversation, because I’ve recommended them to others, or people have recommended them to me, or because I’ve studied them, or discovered them while researching something else. So in some cases the choice is a little random, in others a little personal. If you have suggestions for books to add, email me.
Some people have claimed this list has a certain Science Fiction bias to it. This is, at the very least, more true than the accusation that my reference book, Edit Ready, has a fantasy bias.
Some of the books on the list have a star (asterisk, *) next to the title. It will be assumed if you’ve never read them that it was due to circumstances beyond your control, and that you will be rectifying this grave omission in short order.
Quite a lot of really good books were not originally written in English. Where this is the case, I have given their titles in the original language first, and then in English in brackets.
There are over 100 books on this page, and I have provided links to places you can obtain copies of them – which is also where most of the images come from. From time to time, those sources may change or become unavailable, and the links will break. I will replace them when I check the page, once every three or four months. But if you spot a broken link, feel free to email me.
The Required Reading List
Part 1: The Sources of Our Culture
The Bhagavad Gita (“The Song of God”)
Translated by Swami Prabhupada
The Bhagavad Gita often referred to as simply the Gita, is a 700-verse Hindu scripture in Sanskrit that is part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata (chapters 25 – 42 of the 6th book of Mahabharata).
Usually translated as “Butterball” or “Lump of Lard” – the title is the nickname of the main character. Maupassant is arguable the inventor of the modern short story.
Boule de Suif (“Lump of Tallow”)
Guy de Maupassant
Starred Book! Austen’s influence on storytelling continues to be profound to this day. But even without that, many modern writers could learn from her relaxed and natural relationship with the reader.
A star by the title indicates a book that you should read if you have not already.
Even if you were raised under a rock, you’ve heard of this, and probably know many of the stories.
The Brothers Grim
Perrault collected and re-told many of the best known European Fairy Tales. Without his work, we would not have Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty!
Along with Grim and Perrault, Andersen is the third colossus of European Fairy tales. The Little Mermaid is one of his.
Hans Christian Andersen
One of the most well-known stories, re-told in Opera, ballet, theatre and many, many films, some of which were even called ‘Faust.’
Also known under the title ‘Dr Faustus’
One of those books where you start reading and every few sentences you say to yourself, “Oh! That’s where that comes from!”
Gargantua and Pantagruel
Swift’s infamous satire had something of a renaissance in the latter years of the 20th century after having for a long time been abridged and bowdlerized as a children’s story. The political satire is as accurate and sobering as it was in his day.
The first of two Shakespeare plays, both of which reward careful reading, as well as making a good night out!
It’s a romp, frankly; bloody and fun. Oh, and you’re supposed to call it “The Scottish Play” to avoid bad luck or offending actors. Actors are easily offended. Which is part of the fun.
This probably isn’t the story you think it is – you’ll soon see if you read it. A good translation, though read it in the French if you can. This book’s influence continues to resonate.
Starred book. If you never read any other book by a Frenchman, read this.
Notre Dame of Paris* (The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
A satire on the Chansons de Geste by the likes of Chretien de Troyes (who is also on this list). The eponymous ‘Orlando’ is ‘Roland’ from the Chanson de Roland.
If you’ve heard of, but never read, this book, or Dante’s Inferno, read Dante. It’s shorter and more fun.
Perceval – The Story of the Grail
Chretien de Troyes
Chretien de Troyes established the noble romance as the dominant form of European literature from the middle ages onward. It is difficult to overestimate his influence.
The Fitzgerald translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyam may have been criticized for his “positive spin” on the philosophy, but there can be little doubt of the respect and influence this once very widely read book has had. It’s another of those books stuffed to the bilges with “oh! That’s where that comes from!”
Tales of Troy
A late nineteenth/early twentieth century equivalent of Perrault, Lang collected and retold both fairy tales and classics. Several recent generations grew up reading his stories.
Burton’s translation was frank, direct, and complete, but also remarkably poetic and respectful. In spite of its curious history, it was widely read and widely imitated, though most people know only much shorter versions with less sex and less violence.
Starred book. Read it.
The Arabian Nights, or The 1001 Nights, or as it should more properly be:The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night*
Translated by Sir Richard F Burton
The Account of Ibn Fadlan, or Ibn Fadlan’s Journey
Ibn Fadlan trans. Frye/others
A curiosity, but arguably a genre creator that spawned two (possibly more) genres: semi-fictional travel/exploration/adventure, and “Barbarian Hero”
For hundreds of years the definitive edition, and an immeasurable cultural influence. Traditionally the KJV is known as “Shakespeare’s Bible” though the chronology doesn’t match up, and Shakespeare’s was probably the 1568 “Bishop’s Bible” though there’s strong evidence he also had access to the 1560 “Geneva Bible.”Even so, none could dispute the influence of the KJV on stories and storytelling.
The Holy Bible, King James Edition
The Canterbury Tales
This and the next one are remarkably similar; medieval tales mixing noble romantic themes with, well, sex. I think we’re supposed to call it “bawdy humor” but it’s sex. Read it for the sex.
Supposedly tales told during a 100 day sojourn in a villa outside plague-ravaged Florence by a group of young men and women.Judging by the tales, the young men and women were a pretty horny bunch. I’m surprised they had time to tell eachother stories!
The Faerie Queene
A deliberate attempt to use layered allegory to educate. Probably not a successful one. And I find it a little impenetrable.
Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and Achilles, first fell out with one another.
C’mon people! Achilles! Gods! War! Wooden Horses!… um.
Homer, translated by Lattimore or Graves
An early work of literary and social satire. And quite funny. And full of lies. Influenced the much historical opinion as to what life was like in Ancient Rome. Which is rather like thinking that More’s Utopia was an accurate depiction of the court of Henry VIII.
It never fails to amuse me that this was a satire on idealism, and the land described, Utopia, far from perfect. And yet, the word we’ve inherited, “a utopia” is taken to mean a perfect place, and we’ve therefore coined the word ‘dystopia’ to mean a profoundly imperfect place. So More’s Utopia is in fact a dystopian satire.
Part 2: Stories and Storytelling
A Story Like the Wind
Laurens Van Der Post
A neglected author of broadly mixed influences, and true and great affection and respect for his subject matter and its setting.
Another of the several “odysseys” in this list, and a very, very funny silly book.
Candide, or Optimism
M A Seljouk
A little-known and strange collection of short stories in an informal and agreeable style. You will learn.
Do I need to tell you about this book? I’m going to assume you’ve already read it.
Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front)
Erich Maria Remarque
Often called ‘the greatest war story every written.’ You will see why.
As the author who could write all four kinds of Science Fiction, Harrison is essential in any list, and I could have picked several others. But this one is an excellent taster for people who don’t read Science Fiction.
A very sober cover, too. so on the right I’ve added the classic Chris Foss cover which was the edition I had and presumably still have… somewhere.
For those who read (and write) SF: five more Harry Harrison titles below.
In Our Hands the Stars
I hardly know what to say. A great, great book. Read it and see what makes it such a perfect story, perfectly told, and can try to imitate what Kipling does to make it so affecting and so effective. Starred*
Genre creator. And a genre that is I think largely untapped at the moment.
King Solomon’s Mines
H Rider Haggard
La Peste (The Plague)
Albert Camus (transl. Gilbert)
A surprising structure, and a surprising story, but from a simple and enduring premise.
The author is more famous for a book that isn’t as good as this, which explains why his name is bigger than the title on the cover.
J Meade Faulkner
In a genre undoubtedly instigated by Defoe and defined by RLS, Moonfleet stands out as a refined, elegant and beautifully symmetrical tale. It’s a lesson in itself.
JRRT brings his vast and profound knowledge of traditional storytelling to this short and apparently simple tale which is nonetheless a distillation of the state of fairy tales at the time of writing.
Smith of Wootton Major
J R R Tolkien
The Blue Fairy Book
More Lang, more fairy tales. There’s a reason for this.
Arguably the inventor of the post-apocalyptic survival genre, this book is the genre-defining moment. In some ways surprisingly dated. In others, still terrifying.
The Day of the Triffids*
The End of Eternity
An whimsical, occasionally regretful and nostalgic exploration of the history of science fiction through a science fiction story by arguably still the greatest name in the genre.
I often think of this as the first true YA book, as it is written with a gentle sensitivity that spans generations, and yet is accessible to the teenage mind, even though its events and themes are of an obscured adult world.
The Go Between
L. P. Hartley
The God of Small Things
To be experienced as an audiobook, I recommend.
The Day of the Owl or Equal Danger are probably better known, but I gravitate to this one probably because I love the Durer engraving (referenced in the title and a symbol in the story). Sciascia’s sense of humor appeals to me greatly – wry, bitter observation occasionally spiced with unnecessary but joyous word-play.
The Knight and Death
The Murders in the Rue Morgue
Edgar Allan Poe
I love this cover, because everyone gets his name wrong these days, but never like this cover does!
His surname is Allan Poe, so his initial form is E. Allen Poe, and it is painfully wrong to call him “Edgar Poe.” Poor lamb. A true innovator, very rare in the last couple of hundred years. And also a very important poet.
For all that I talk about Perkins, I’ve never really taken to Hemingway. Though there is much to learn from him, I don’t read his work for pleasure. That said, I rather like this story.
The Old Man and the Sea
The Once and Future King
T H White
We know (from Lewis’ letters) that C S Lewis read, and did not enjoy, The Sword in the Stone, though clearly respected White’s talent as a writer. TOFK could be seen as a good literary counterpoint to LOTR (which is only not on this list because you’ve already read it).
T H White has Kenneth Grahame’s talent for book and chapter titles that make your hair stand on end.
Another of several odysseys. Barth is, according to who you listen to, either an unsung hero of modern literary fiction or an overrated and pretentious academic posing as an author. Whichever way you take him, Barth has a great deal to teach you.
If you don’t take to TSWF, I also recommend The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor.
The Sot Weed Factor
not to be confused with the same title by Ebeneezer Cooke.
The Time Machine
H G Wells
One of the (much overlooked) influences that Wells had was the way he uses the narrator. Re-read this paying close attention to when and how he draws attention to the identity of the narrator.
A much overlooked masterpiece, that is often thought of as a book for children, but is really far more a book for the adults reading it to them.
An annual ritual for me, on a bright spring morning, is to take my battered copy of TWITW and walk out into the countryside, find a quite spot, and read the chapter entitled “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.”
The Wind in the Willows
Things Fall Apart
For a long time, TFA was the only African novel on European and North American school syllabuses. But far more than being an African novel, this is a Nigerian novel.
Nigerian culture is (at last) spreading rapidly beyond its borders, and is a growing source of excitement and inspiration. Read this book. It’s influenced a generation of Nigerian and other African writers; let it influence you.
Fielding’s legendary regency romp. One of the first true bestsellers. There’s a powerful and highly repeatable underlying structure in this book that’s well worth discovering.
And nothing too complicated. And fun to read.
The masterpiece of one of the greatest writers.
Part 3: Techniques
Often called the Father of Science Fiction, Verne was really the father of detail-obsessed geekery, and should be celebrated for it.
20kLUTS is a perfect example of how careful and detailed research can be incorporated into a narrative. The sheer amount of detail is either a delight or a horror…
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
A Clockwork Orange
Some inventive linguistic experimentation, and an exploration of alternative psychologies, results in an almost unique narrative voice.
Classic example of narration by a character.
A Study in Scarlet
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
An American Dream
The writing, and the author, will not please everyone. But that’s kind of the point. Mailer is all about both excess, and not trying to please.
There are plenty of books to choose from if you want examples of explicit allegory. This is just the most obvious one.
Bright Lights, Big City
The sustained intensity of the reading experience can be a little exhausting, but you won’t forget it. Also, 2nd person narration!
If you write that many books, over that length of time, you start getting pretty damn good at writing…
Joyce could turn his hand to many techniques. Among those on display in this collection of “short stories” is the use of vignette, and complete themes and ideas within incomplete stories.
Farewell My Lovely
Narration by character and 1st person narration, by one of the masters of both techniques.
A good example of a story arising from, or conceived around, the author’s personal values or socio-political beliefs and ideals.
From a natural storyteller, some narration both with and without actual stories.
Dickens is a master of addressing serious social themes both directly and indirectly, through a mixture of serious (and well researched) revelation with satire and straight-up humor.
Nickolas Nickleby, Great Expectations
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn*
Do you live, or have you ever lived, in the United States of America? Have you ever read this book?
If the answer to the second question is no, stop what you’re doing and go read it. NOW.
Yet another odyssey. Emma Darwin was right (as always).
Possibly a truly unique book, as his imitators have rarely tried to imitate everything he does that is out of the ordinary. Worth dipping into if only for the pleasure of the amount of 3rd party commentary you need to read…
A great example of the results of deep research by the author.
Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose)
Il Sistema Periodico (The Periodic Table)
A great example of exploiting the constraints of an imposed structure to tell thematically related autobiographical stories.
Yes, Kipling is on the list twice. He could easily be on any required reading list 10 times. In fact, you can get his complete works as an ebook (right). Hint hint.
Kipling’s apparently informal style is a carefully constructed register, using an implied reader AND an implied listener (the adult reading the stories to a child).
Just So Stories
Les Faux-Monnayeurs (The Counterfeiters)
Gide’s use of layered symbolism is well known. Ironic, as he was a vocal critic of symbolism. This is also known as “being French.”
linked book is an English translation
Best known for “Les Malheurs de Sophie” (“Sophie’s Misfortunes”), Sophie de Ségur is the absolute master at writing children’s stories that teach the parents. At times a little old-fashioned in her moralizing, the skill with which she shows parents what they are doing wrong (and her lessons in good parenting) are as true and right today as when they were written; and will teach you all about how to choose your story to do the work you want it to do.
The title is a deliberate play on words, whose meaning could either be “An example of well-behaved little girls” or “Typical little girls.” In reality, of course, it is both.
Les Petites Filles Modèles (The Model Little Girls)
Sophie Rostopchine, Comptesse de Ségur
L’Etranger (The Outsider)
(also, sometimes “The Stranger”)
As Albert Camus appears for the second time, you may be thinking “Harry, are there a lot of French authors on this list?” to which the answer is “Yes, yes there are. And the really great English language authors of all those classics on this list probably all read these French classics in French.”
L’Etranger is a great example of working with atmospherics (weather, temperature) as well as very, very close POV.
I almost put this in the “sources” category, but actually there are all sorts of strangeness in this book that make it a highly educational read for an author. Perhaps the most obvious is how the register of the narration seems at odds with the subject matter.
Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie
Stories are all about retelling, and much of our more adult fantasies are derived from the excitement and escapism of our childhood stories.
Graphic novels are not for everyone.
Except this one.
You’ve heard of an unreliable narrator?
In this book, everything is unreliable. I love it.
Everyone should try Burrough’s “Lunch”. Although you might not want to accept his dinner invitation.
Oedipus (The Eagle King)
An exceptional re-telling of the Oedipus story where Treece (known as a much loved, if underrated, author of historical novels for older children) seeks to present the characters of the Theban plays as they historically might have been, and explores the symbolism of birth repeatedly.
“The Bible of the Beat Generation” or something. Highly influential, sure, but worth reading for pleasure, and for the author’s passion for his central ideas.
On The Road
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Charmingly lampshades it’s own symbolism, and brimming with enjoyable narrative trickery.
‘ideas that are bigger than the story’
I rather like the meandering nature of the narrative, actually…
As important as Hemingway, Chandler or Twain. I love the focus of this story, which is why it is my go-to Gibson, rather than the better known (and more widely read Neuromancer)
An author from whom there is as much to learn as you have time to read. Rebecca is (among other things) an excellent example of a story driven by a symbolic central relationship.
Daphne du Maurier
Réquiem por un campesino español (Requiem for a Spanish Peasant)
Probably Sender’s best known book, and the easiest to get in English, his work is replete with motif and symbol. My personal favorite is The Dark Wedding.
Realism is a French movement, but there are already enough French people (and men) on this list without the likes of Zola and Balzac muscling in again. So here’s one in English that I’ve actually read, by an English woman.
Probably the most influential writer of the last 30 years, certainly one of the most successful. His unrelenting and unapologetic beliefs and values permeate his work, and give its energy. Probably also one of the most misunderstood authors, by those who have never read his work!
The inventor of the element narrativium and the principle of narrative causality. Er… read Witches Abroad (below).
An unconventional narrative, driven by a pedagogic philosophy.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics
Sometimes hard to tell if this is brilliantly executed or clunky and pretentious, but a fine example of a well-planned, well-researched book with a good eye for illusion.
Never shy of telling the same story more than once, sometimes in the same book, Moorcock, when read with a critical eye, will show you how stories really work.
The Adventures of Una Persson and Catherine Cornelius in the Twentieth Century
The Age of Magic
Pretending to be realism, but it’s a disguise…
Kundera is like a potted education in Eastern European literature. He distills and concentrates the style into an oily-black pavement-café espresso that leaves your head somewhere else for days at a time.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
The Catcher in the Rye*
J D Sallinger
For the way the narration by a strongly imagined character affects the story, and also because, well, The Catcher in the Rye!
For the effect of visual stylism, and the timeless storytelling technique of re-using old character’s and tropes with new themes.
The Dark Knight Returns
The Life and Loves of a She Devil
If you aren’t laughing, then the joke is on you. Actually Weldon can sometimes seem heavy going, if you’ve missed the point (which I did, for instance, the first time I read Down Among the Women). Weldon loves allegory and is very, very good at it.
More Poe, this time more for the techniques than the influence it’s had; for all his innovation, Poe’s basic toolkit is a classic one. In this case, lots of strong visual symbolism, and exploiting genre conventions even when the whole idea of genre was relatively new.
The Masque of the Red Death
Edgar Allan Poe
The Princess Bride
If this were a “must-see movies” list, then the film of the book would be a starred title.
Goldman’s book is based on the conceit it’s derived from; it takes what Kipling does in the Just So Stories to an almost absurd extreme. And is great fun.
Lawrence is not for everyone, but his focus and determination (and insistence on “continuous take” writing) are a solid lesson to all authors.
D H Lawrence
The Sea, The Sea
A precision writer with great character focus and a deep understanding of the role of memory in reading and storytelling.
Many of the basic elements of storytelling can be found in the (occasionally slightly trippy) works of Beatrix Potter. This one is a (sort of) retelling of Little Red Riding Hood.
The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck
Robert Louis Stevenson
All together now: “Arrrr! Jim lad…”
Big themes; strong central story focus; playful but deep and well-honed atmospherics.
Conspiracy theorists: is there a hidden message in my choice of books?
Um… no, there isn’t. Much of Alan Moore’s work could be described as a “reappraisal of culture” – here in Watchmen, the theme is writ large with a heavy hand.
The House at Pooh Corner, etc
A A Milne
People feel nostalgic about this book the first time they read it. A work of sleepy, lyrical philosophy. Occasionally surprisingly sharp observation of human foibles, but of molehills, makes nothing more than molehills, which is all the more curious, since there are no moles.
EOF: That, ladies and gentlemen, is the end of the list!
Feel free to comment. If there are any books you think don’t deserve to be on the list, please tell me why. If there are any you would like to add, convince me, I pray you. If you wish to take issue with any of my comments or remarks, knock yourself out!
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