We all have those books that we’ve been meaning to read – the ones that we have to finish before we die, the ones that we can’t wait to get to, but something always seems to get in the way. These bucket list books may be different for each person, but for many of us they include some of the greatest books of Western literature, the books that many of us may have read some of in high school, but few of us have ever managed to read all of, so that there’s always that one pesky title still sitting on our to-be-read shelf.
Are these 10 books on your bucket list? If not, maybe they should be…
To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee’s perennial classic about racial injustice is a relatively breezy read compared to many of the great works of the literary canon, and it is as renowned for its warmth and humanity as for its ferocious take on serious social issues.
It doesn’t hurt that Atticus Finch, the father of the book’s narrator, is considered one of the great heroes of literature. In fact, Gregory Peck’s performance of Finch in the 1962 movie adaptation of the novel was declared the #1 movie hero in AFI’s “100 Years… 100 Heroes & Villains” list.
The Great Gatsby
Many of us are “forced’ to read this novel in school, but for those of you who may have missed that particular rite of passage, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic is a much more enjoyable read than those who did go through it in high school might attest.
In many ways it is the novel of the Jazz Age and is one of the shorter books on this list, to boot. Plus, it has remained widely available and in print for nearly a century – gotta keep all those copies in high school classrooms somehow, after all!
Dating all the way back to 1605, Don Quixote is not only the oldest book on this list, it may be the most influential book that many people have never read. After all, Miguel de Cervantes’ satirical tale of the “man of La Mancha” not only served as an influence on such classics as The Three Musketeers and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it also has the unique distinction of adding a relatively common word to the English language – quixotic.
Which is a good way to describe the book’s unlikely protagonist, whose old-fashioned ideals about chivalry were already antiques by the time the book was written, rendered absurd by the realities of the modern (for 1605) world around him.
One need not look far on literature Twitter to find discourse aplenty surrounding Moby-Dick, one of the most famous books ever written and one on which everyone seems to have an opinion – even people who haven’t read it.
And it’s no wonder. Much more than just the story of one man’s obsession with the eponymous whale, Moby-Dick is a book that has informed so much of our popular culture, from classic films to more recent fare such as 2017’s Kong: Skull Island. How many of the books you read in high school can claim that?
It wouldn’t be a proper bucket list without something by Charles Dickens, would it? And Great Expectations is not only one of his most celebrated works, it’s also among the longer books on this list (though not even in the top 10 longest of Dickens’ works), which makes it prime bucket list territory.
A great doorstop of a book like this is easy to put off, after all. Yet, Great Expectations contains many of Dickens’ most famous characters and scenes, and it tops countless reading lists for good reason, so perhaps it’s time to finally make time for it.
War and Peace
Speaking of doorstops, if Great Expectations is one of the longer books on this list, War and Peace might just be the longest. Clocking in at more than one thousand pages, War and Peace is a book about, well, just about everything. As such, it can be a bit daunting to read, especially since, by the author’s own admission, it doesn’t conform to the traditional structure of a novel, and whole sections are given over to philosophical musings and other digressions.
Nonetheless, this insurmountable work is considered one of the greatest books ever written and is regarded as Tolstoy’s greatest literary achievement – no small feat, given the other books in his bibliography.
A Passage to India
Inspired by his own experiences in India, E. M. Forster’s classic novel about the British Raj and the Indian independence movement may have been timely when he was writing it, but its themes of racism, prejudice, colonialism, imperialism, and more remain unfortunately topical today, even while the book has sometimes been criticized by modern scholars for refusing to more thoroughly critique British colonial rule of India.
Fortunately, it’s also a perfect entry point for the works of Forster, a celebrated novelist who was nominated for the Nobel Prize on no less than 20 separate occasions.
Crime and Punishment
One of the great novels of psychology, Crime and Punishment follows Rodion Raskolnikov as he plans and commits a murder, one that he justifies to himself prior to its commission, only to find himself wracked with confusion, doubt, and paranoia after the fact.
Widely considered one of the greatest works of world literature, it is one that can feel imposing to newcomers to Russian literature or anyone who doesn’t think they would enjoy spending so much time inside one person’s tormented mind, leading it to spend a lot of time languishing on literary bucket lists.
Perhaps the most famous novel written by Mary Anne Evans under the pen name George Eliot, Middlemarch is also representative of her novels for its use of realism to evoke the everyday lives of people from disparate social and economic backgrounds in 1800s England.
Besides the day-to-day lives of its characters, Middlemarch touches upon major moments of historical import, such as the accession of King William IV or the Reform Act of 1832, giving modern readers a clear and detailed window into the world of the past.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Of all the great novels of gothic horror, few are as unlikely as The Picture of Dorian Gray. Not only is it the only novel from famed playwright and poet Oscar Wilde, it tells a unique variation on the classic “selling your soul” story, in which a painting takes on the sins (and the years) of the titular character, while he lives a life of amoral debauchery, remaining forever young and beautiful.
The story has become an iconic one, and the character of Dorian Gray himself has appeared in countless other works of fiction, including the recent TV series Penny Dreadful.