Bucket list: 25 unforgettable books to read at least once in your lifetime

Feb 15 2022, 12:56 am

When does a novel become a classic? Well, to be called a classic, a novel has to have been in continuous print for at least one hundred years. However, there’s been a shift to what we consider a classic, and that’s a deeply moving story, quality penmanship, global distribution, and a cult following. There are some classics on our list, like the works of Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll, but also some others that have shaped modern literature, like the fictional worlds created by George Orwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

A list of books we suggest reading at least once in your lifetime, these 25 remarkable titles are memorable works of art, each one a masterpiece, and if together they were to be curated and hung in a gallery, they would be referred to by critics as an extraordinary display of talent.

Note that since these books have been out for a number of years and gone through numerous reprints and redesigns, the covers in the links may vary from those seen below.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Published in 1960, Lee’s unforgettable Pulitzer Prize-winning novel takes place in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the Great Depression. Told from the perspective of a six-year-old named Jean Louise Finch, the book, which is widely read in schools around the world, addresses themes of southern life, racial injustice and the class system. There are more than 18 million copies in print in over 40 languages, and since its release, it’s been adapted into an Academy Award-winning film starring Gregory Peck. 

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

One of the most significant reads on our list, Anne Frank’s diary entries, written in the style of letters to a person named “Kitty,” form the foundation of this book. Frank wrote in her diary over a period of two years while in hiding with her family during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.

Although Anne sadly died of typhus in a concentration camp at the age of 15, her story lives on. The Diary of a Young Girl has been published in more than 70 languages since the first edition was released in 1947, and it’s estimated to have sold more than 30 million copies.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Released almost a hundred years ago, this show-stopping romance novel centres around three protagonists. There’s first-person narrator Nick Carraway, a young and charming millionaire named Jay Gatsby, and his former lover, Daisy Buchanan. It’s a richly atmospheric and glamorous tale set on Long Island near New York City. Fitzgerald’s novel received favourable reviews when it was first released, and has since been adapted for stage, film, and television.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

George Orwell is known for his imaginative prose and dystopian storytelling. Nineteen Eighty-Four was released in 1949 and resurfaced on the bestseller lists just a few years ago. The novel follows the life of a man named Winston Smith, a low-ranking member of the ruling party in London who is under the watchful eyes of Big Brother. Smith begins to rebel by keeping a diary of his thoughts, which is a crime that will have him sent to Room 101, where he will be forced to confront his worst fear. Orwell finished the novel while severely ill, battling tuberculosis, which only worsened in the years following the book’s release.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Novelist John Steinbeck takes us to California during the Great Depression in this moving book that follows two displaced migrant ranch workers named George Milton and Lennie Small. Steinbeck, who based the novel on his own experiences as a teenager, addresses themes of independence, loneliness, and companionship in this heartwarming tale. A tale that almost wasn’t told, as John’s dog apparently ate his first draft, which he was thankfully able to re-write. 

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

With over 65 million copies sold in a record-breaking 80 languages, Brazilian author Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist is a transformative novel. It tells the story of an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago who seeks out the help of a Gypsy fortune-teller, asking her for the meaning of a recurring dream. She tells Santiago it’s a prophecy and that he’ll discover a treasure at the Egyptian Pyramids. The boy sets off on a journey, encountering many people and obstacles along the way. It was announced at the Cannes Film Festival last year that Hollywood stars Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith had acquired the rights to the film.

The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton

This coming-of-age novel is set in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Author S.E. Hinton started writing the book when she was 15, and had it published when she was 18. Often questioned for its themes of gang violence and strong language, The Outsiders, told from the perspective of protagonist Ponyboy Curtis, details the conflicts between two rival gangs, the working class “greasers” and the upper class “Socs.”

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

You might have seen the recent Netflix series Ratched, which is based on a fictional character called Nurse Ratched popularized by Ken Kesey in his book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Set in a psychiatric hospital in Oregon, Kesey’s book is considered by many as one of the greatest novels ever written. 

The book was written in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, and shortly after its release, there was a controversial movement towards deinstitutionalization, which would have impacted Kesey’s characters. The novel has since been adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher.

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

Mitch Albom is an internationally renowned and best-selling author, journalist, screenwriter, playwright, radio and television broadcaster and musician. His memoir, Tuesdays with Morrie, is about a series of visits made every Tuesday to his former sociology professor Morrie Schwartz, as Schwartz gradually lost his life to ALS. The book, which topped the New York Times bestseller list for a combined 23 weeks, was apparently written to help Schwartz’s estate pay off his medical bills.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Written in 1931 and published one year later, Aldous Huxley’s dystopian science fiction novel is an imaginative and futuristic tale often compared to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The book has been banned and challenged many times since its release due to insensitivity, offensive language, nudity, and racism; however, it still remains one of the most influential novels of all time. 

It’s six hundred years in the future, and Brave New World opens at the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, an institution that plays an essential role in the artificial reproduction and social conditioning of the world’s population. The book has since been adapted for TV and is streaming on Amazon Prime with a Stack TV subscription.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

Irish novelist John Boyne had been a serious student of Holocaust-related literature for many years. When asked about what sparked the idea for his young adult book, Boyne told the Irish Times it was “Tuesday, April 27th, 2004 when an image came into my head of two little boys sitting on either side of a fence. I knew where the fence was, I knew what each boy represented, and I wanted to write about them.

This heartbreaking novel tells the story of a strong bond between two boys, one called Bruno and the other called Shmuel. Bruno’s father, Ralf, is the commandant of the death camp Auschwitz, where Shmuel is imprisoned.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Written by American novelist Louisa May Alcott, this coming-of-age novel follows the lives of the four March sisters from their birth into womanhood. Originally published in two volumes, in 1868 and 1869, Little Women was an immediate success. Apparently, the book took just ten weeks to write, with Alcott devoting day and night to her writing and oftentimes becoming so consumed with it that she would forget to eat. The book has been adapted for TV and film several times, with the most recent movie adaptation starring Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson.

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White

Charlotte’s Web was published by Harper & Sons on October 15, 1952, and tells the story of a livestock pig named Wilbur and his friendship with a barn spider named Charlotte. Although considered a children’s book, E.B. White’s novel is often enjoyed by adults as well. The book sold 100,000 copies in the first 16 months after its release, even though its editor, acclaimed publisher Ursula Nordstrom, had no idea that he was even writing the book. When she found out, she told the New York Times, “I couldn’t believe that it was so good!”

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

Jerome David Salinger was an American writer best known for this novel, which follows a 16-year-old protagonist named Holden Caulfield for two days after he has been expelled from prep school. The book chronicles Caulfield’s struggles while growing up in the 1950s in New York. The Catcher in the Rye has sparked controversy because of the novel’s use of profanity and sexual references. 

Although he never responded to the banning attempts, Salinger published little else, stating, “There is a marvellous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Written by Lewis Carroll in 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a wonderfully imaginative fiction novel that chronicles the journey of a young seven-year-old girl named Alice who falls through a rabbit hole into a fantasy world, where she meets many magnificent creatures. The book has never been out of print and has been translated into 174 languages. There have been many adaptations for stage, TV, and film, the first of which was a 12-minute film made in 1903. 

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

A coming-of-age story set in Kent and London in the early to mid-19th century, Great Expectations is Charles Dickens’ thirteenth novel. It portrays the education of a young orphan nicknamed Pip, who is also the narrator. The book addresses themes such as social class and human worth. It was an immediate success upon its publication, with Irish dramatist and critic George Bernard Shaw calling it the “most compactly perfect book.”

The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis

Next on the list is a series of seven fantasy novels written by British writer Clive Staples Lewis and illustrated by Pauline Baynes. Set in the fictional world of Narnia, it details the adventures of different children who play main roles in the unfolding history of the Narnian world. The series has sold over 100 million copies and been translated into 47 languages. 

According to Barnes & Noble, Lewis began work on the first book in 1939 and showed an early version to friends and colleagues, but the reaction was so negative that he burned the manuscript. He later stated that the missing ingredient was the character Aslan, who, when added, everything fell into place.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

A brilliant fantasy romance novel by American writer William Goldman. The book is about a young woman named Buttercup who lives on a farm in the country of Florin. She falls in love with the farm hand, called Westley. The two are torn apart, and Buttercup reluctantly agrees to marry Prince Humperdinck. Goldman is uniquely talented when it comes to blending adventure, comedy, drama, and fairy tales. The film adaptation, starring Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin, is a must-watch.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Canadian author Yann Martel is a master storyteller. He won the Man Booker Prize for this novel, which sold more than 12 million copies worldwide and spent more than a year on the bestseller lists of the New York Times and The Globe and Mail, among many other best-selling lists.

The protagonist is Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel, an Indian boy from Pondicherry who survives 227 days after a shipwreck while stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. In a 2002 interview with PBS, Martel spoke of being lonely and needing direction in his life, and he found that writing the novel met this need.

Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

One of the bestselling books ever written and perhaps the one with the largest cult following on this list, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a legendary fantasy novel. Good and evil, death and immortality, and fate and free will are the foundational themes uncovered in the book. Readers will find Tolkien’s prose to be unique and poetic and his illustrations intriguing and thought-provoking. A philologist by trade, Tolkien kept his mind busy by inventing new languages.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Another George Orwell novel making the list is this one, which tells the story of a group of farm animals at Manor Farm who rebel against their human farmer. Once they are free of him, life on the farm is good for a while, and there is hope for a happier future. The novel is said to reflect the events of the Russian Revolution of 1917, with the animals being clever representations of politicians, voters, and workers. The book has inspired many musicians, including Coldplay, The Beatles, and Pink Floyd.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

First published in 1843 by Chapman & Hall, A Christmas Carol tells the story of protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge, a grumpy old man, who is visited by the ghost of his former business partner and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. After their visits, Scrooge is transformed into a kinder more gentle being.

The first stage adaptation of the book was performed two months after it was published and since then it’s been adapted numerous times for stage, opera, TV, and film. 

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini’s #1 New York Times bestselling fiction novel tells the tale of Amir, a young boy from the Wazir Akbar Khan district of Kabul. He spends his days flying kites with his best friend, Hassan. Both motherless, the two boys grow up as close as brothers. However, their fates are different. Amir’s father is a wealthy merchant, and Hassan’s father is his manservant. The Kite Runner is an unforgettable story of love and companionship.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

A coming-of-age story released in 1969, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the autobiography of American writer and poet Maya Angelou recounting the story of her life from the age of 3 to 16. She explores themes of identity, rape, racism, and literacy in her tragically moving book, which remained on the New York Times bestseller list for two years after its release.

She was inspired to write the book after the assassination of her friend Martin Luther King, Jr., and was encouraged by writer and friend James Baldwin and cartoonist Jules Feiffer.

Love You Forever by Robert Munsch

A departure from many of the other books on this list, but an important one to include. American Canadian children’s author Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever is a captivating and unforgettable children’s picture book illustrated by Sheila McGraw. The story details the cycle of life by chronicling the experiences of a young son and his mother. Munsch, who has written 50 successful children’s books throughout his career, told readers on his website that he wrote the book after his wife had two stillborn babies. You won’t make it through this one without crying.

Sean LoughranSean Loughran

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