The 42 best books to read before you die – our favourites

Our personal favourites, and why you should add them to your bookshelf

Books are deeply personal things. Each of us form unique bonds with the characters we read about, relate to storylines and personalities in different ways and enjoy all sorts of genres from crime to romance, gothic to fantasy. 

Those of us here at The Independent HQ had a long, hard think about the books that are closest to our hearts and together, we’ve come up with a list of 42 novels that mean the most to us, from the classics to less well-known stories deserving of a wider audience.

Take a look at our picks and see if any of them grab your fancy. Pour yourself a cuppa and enjoy.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

I have read it to three-year-olds who learn about friendship and confronting fear, to seven-year-olds who ponder about nature and wistfulness and for me, to reflect on other-worldliness and personal space. Martin King

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

I cried reading this book. Hemingway’s story of the anguished, hopeless love affair between American war veteran Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley is set against the backdrop of the San Fermin bull festival in Pamplona, Spain. The writer is more present in this work than he is in any other, in Jake’s cold, slightly bitter voice; in his friend and Brett’s ex-loved Robert Cohn you can picture Hemingway’s former boxing partner Harold Loeb. At the place of his first obsession, Hemingway succeeds in distilling the passion and life to be found there. Roisin O'Connor

Naïve. Super by Erland Loe

I have lent this book to friends so many times that I've ended up having to buy 5+ copies. It is written from a child-like perspective and yet has this incredible profundity. A simple story of a Norwegian man trying to gather some sort of semblance of meaning in the world, it has a completely disarming honesty and truth like no other I have come across in literature. It also extols the simple joy of bouncing a ball against a wall, which I think is nice. It might be a cliche, but reading this will change your life. Christopher Hooton

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

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One of the most heart-wrenching books I have ever read that transcends cultural gaps to touch the darker areas within us all. Betrayal, guilt and redemption are the strongest themes here, with Hosseini's second, mother-daughter novel A Thousand Splendid Suns also strongly recommended, so long as youre willing to let the tears keep falling. Definitely try and read this before watching the also excellent film. Jess Denham 

All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen 

I was brought up an Orthodox Jew and this story about a man's journey out of Orthodoxy was compelling both because of its value and how it did and did not reflect my childhood. One for anyone who has ever felt lost. Dina Rickman

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

I am infinitely astonished that English isn't Nabokov's first language given his absolute mastery of it. His language comes in such rich torrents and his ornate, stylish sentences are so enviable. If Lolita had been released today it would have been subject to 10,000 think pieces accusing it of, at best, insensitivity, at worst, paedophilia, so I'm glad it wasn't. Through its story of a pompous, middle-aged man's lust for a young girl, Lolita lays the burn of human desire completely bare. Christopher Hooton

Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres

Expect some hefty historical chapters about the Italian and German occupation of Cephalonia in World War II. Wade through these, interesting as they are, and you'll find many fascinating explorations of love, including my favourite passage about love in literature. “Love is a temporary madness...” Jess Denham

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

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Books ‘staying with you long after the final page’ might be a cliche but could not be truer in the case of Chad Harbach’s all-consuming, all-American novel. Every fully-developed character slowly becomes a friend whether you love them, hate them or somewhere in between and it’s hard not to empathise with the crippling self-doubt that threatens to destroy Henry’s future.

Prior baseball knowledge is not a necessity: The Art of Fielding sparked the most heated debate yet at my monthly Book Club and not one of us knew what a shortstop was before reading it. If the human condition fascinates you, turn to this one next. Jess Denham

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Carroll’s work is the greatest paradise for dreamers there is. Reading and re-reading Alice’s adventures taught me, each time, that imagination is an infinite thing and the word ‘impossible’ belongs to the vocabulary of the uninspired. Clarisse Loughrey

Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby Jr

An utterly depressing read but one that is necessary to understand no one is infallible to an addiction. Selby’s descriptions are outstanding; you truly experience the harrowing lives of these four unfortunate New Yorkers. This book is a train crash - uncomfortable to read but gripped by its gruesome reality. Ryan Ramgobin 

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

This quintessential jazz age novel is about so much more than a shallow bunch of rich people hosting lavish parties. Fitzgerald explores crushed idealism, hopeless love and the elusiveness of the American Dream. The green light at the end of Daisy's dock will speak to everyone's unfulfilled dreams. Jess Denham

Vanity Fair by William Thackery

I dearly love Austen, but she’s forgivingly attached to her creations. She mocks them with a smiling nod and an effusive warmth. Not Thackeray though; Becky Sharp is despicable, calculating, and relentlessly cruel. And, boy, do I love her for it. Clarisse Loughrey 

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

One of the most ambitious books ever written, a synopsis for which would itself take up most of a novella. Set in a very American dystopia and lurching from tennis academies to rehab centres, it skewers the sadness of capitalism just by looking blankly at it. Wallace possessed Pynchon-like wittiness no matter what the topic. He could literally spend three pages describing a paving slab and you'd be scintillated. Christopher Hooton

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

When I was a wee nipper my Dad gave me a copy of The Hobbit for my birthday, marking my first foray into the fantastical world of Middle Earth. Immediately, I fell in love with Bilbo’s adventure into the Lonely Mountain, the characters being so loveable and, unlike The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s writing was so easily accessible. Now, every time I return to the Shire its like revisiting an old friend; I just wish I could forget about those awful film adaptations. Jack Shepherd

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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This classic was forced upon me as a 15-year-old as it was part of the GSCE syllabus. I’m very thankful it was. Where else would I have learnt so vividly about racial tension in the southern US and the importance of fighting injustice and prejudice? They were topics that in a predominantly white, middle-class, British commuter town were not exactly on my radar.

But told through the eyes of Scout, the trial of Tom Robinson got me hooked on American history and forever cemented the name Atticus Finch as a byword for moral decency. I still haven’t read Go Set A Watchman, that shows a darker side to Atticus, as I really don’t want to shatter my teenage illusions. Sally Newall

Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird - Best Quotes

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

A handsome, narcissistic young man enthralled by hedonism commits himself to indulging in every pleasure in life: both moral and immoral. Roisin O'Connor

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

The power of female relationships is at the heart of this Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the leading part sisterhood can play in encouraging women to be the best person they can be. Set mainly in rural Georgia in the 1930s, it follows the life of poor African-American girl Celie and the sexism, racism and violence she endures. Deeply troubling throughout, but inspirational and life-affirming too. Jess Denham

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Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor

Gentle sophisticated humour covering the fictional history of a small Minnesotan town, with a War and Peace sweep but a ‘Small is quite good’ ethos. Slightly sentimental and Thurberesque, this is the genuine Great American Novel. Alex Johnson

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

This is one of those books which made me laugh out loud with its wordplay and witty dialogue. It all seems a bit absurd at first but it builds towards a clever conclusion. Samuel Osborne

Middlemarch by George Eliot

A marathon of a book, it plods along until suddenly you are utterly gripped, involved and entertained to the last flourish of its finale. There’s no Victorian epic with a better pay-off for those willing to persevere. Adam Withnall

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

Even though it’s a pretty radical and famous book from the 1960s, I only read The Golden Notebook two years ago, when I was 24 and had already had my heart broken once or twice. What Lessing managed to do was take everything I’d learnt so far about the modern world - conflict, politics, how men and women interact - break it down, show me how it’s all interconnected, and put it back together again. She sharpened my understanding of so many things I’d only just begun to get to grips with. Bethan McKernan

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I silently took in the final lines of The Age of Innocence; carefully closed the book, and then threw it against a wall. Not a smart reaction considering I’d borrowed it from the library; but Wharton’s words had devastated me, body and soul. There is no other novel in existence that better reminds me regret is the most poisonous of emotions. Clarisse Loughrey

The Stand by Stephen King

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The Stand is probably the only book that has made me cancel plans. Comprised of sections placing the microscope on survivors of a pandemic based in varying locations, the epic remains gripping throughout, achieving more tension across its 1,000 plus pages than most TV shows can muster in a single season.

King’s words are as infectious as the plague at the centre of the story and, as a springboard for many of the author’s future projects, is as essential as they come. Jacob Stolworthy

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The deep, unjust sense of inequality that permeated the Deep South in the 1960s runs true throughout the book but so does the importance of the relationships formed. The most special in my mind is between house maid Aibleen and two-year-old Mae Mobly, who she educates about not judging on skin colour and in the face of a distracted mother, tells her everyday: “You a smart girl. You a kind girl.” The ending breaks my heart every time. Olivia Blair

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

Prophet Almustafa has lived in a foreign city for 12 years and is about to board a ship home when he stops to tell a group of people everything he has learnt about all areas of life, from love and marriage to joy and sorrow, crime and punishment, reason and passion, good and evil and everything in between. Once discovered, this spiritual bible is impossible to live without. Jess Denham

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

It shows the absurd futility of trying to do anything in life. And that makes me happy. Steve Anderson

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Gothic literature beautifully poses a single question to my own mind: are ghosts merely a distraction from what truly frightens us? The true horror lies within our own hearts and minds, and the phantom of Rebecca is a merely a pointed finger towards that revelation. Clarisse Loughrey

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Morrison might be best known for the also brilliant Beloved, but her first novel about the harrowing effects of white beauty standards on black self-acceptance and identity is arguably her most profound. Jess Denham

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

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I hadn’t read a Hemingway book until last year, For Whom the Bell Tolls serving as my first foray; what I didn’t expect from the Spanish Civil War-set story was such a thrilling, accessible read that would transport me into a time and place I had no previous knowledge of. It’s ending, shrouded in ambiguity, has had me thinking about it more than most books I’ve read in my lifetime thus far. Jacob Stolworthy

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

No-one does teen angst quite like Salinger in this short but seminal Fifties novel. Holden Caulfield's story beautifully explores the struggle to accept death and lost innocence while making the tough journey into adulthood. Jess Denham

Women in Love by DH Lawrence

Many more knowledgeable, respected critics would choose The Rainbow, Lady Chatterley's Lover or Sons and Lovers as DH Lawrence’s best work, but Women in Love holds a special power over this reader. It follows the tumultuous lives and loves of the Brangwen sisters; while Gudrun pursues her destructive relationship with the handsome Gerald Crich, intellectual Rupert Birkin becomes involved with Ursula, the latter of whom tears him apart in most of their exchanges. Lawrence’s tortured characters are filled with self-loathing, the landscape is bleak, and yet the beauty to be found in chapters such as “Water Party”, or the electrifying wrestling scene, makes this novel stand on its own as a literary masterpiece. Roisin O'Connor

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Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Murakami wows with his ability to portray love, loss and melancholy through stark simplicity and minute descriptions (e.g. “As we ambled along, Naoko spoke to me of wells.”) Perfect. Victoria Richards

Miss Wyoming by Douglas Coupland

The seediness of LA, fading celebrity and the all-American dream provide the backdrop to this story of a screenwriter and jaded TV star’s search for a real connection in a superficial world. The mystery at the centre of this novel keeps you intrigued all the way through until a life-affirming resolution that ultimately presents love through a more hopeful lens. Heather Saul

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Just how big an influence the ultimate beat generation novel still has on young people became clear while travelling on my gap year aged 19. Everyone had their cherished, dishevelled copy crammed into their backpack. Prepare for serious wanderlust. Jess Denham 

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The Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien

There isn't really a central narrative, it's mostly a list of unpronounceable names, and will probably confuse even the most ardent fans of the genre, but nothing comes close to matching the fantastical breadth of Tolkien's legendary precursor to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. When I finished Silmarillion for the first time and put it down, I couldn't believe an entire mythology had been contained within a single, smallish book. Matt Champion

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged that this love story is an enduring classic, exquisitely written with Austen's characteristic pen of irony. But fans of the BBC adaptation be warned, Darcy does not emerge from the lake in a wet white shirt in the 1813 original (a travesty, in my opinion). This novel taught me what Austen herself learned long ago: that charm can be the ultimate deceiver. Jess Denham

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The Beach by Alex Garland

No book will add more excitement to your commute than The Beach. With its exotic locales, sense of adventure and gradual descent into the nightmarish, author Alex Garland (who directed last year’s sublime sci-fi Ex Machina) presents the book equivalent of going on a holiday you won’t want to forget. It remains the only book I’ve revisited in my adult years. Jacob Stolworthy

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides 

I wish every teenage girl could read The Virgin Suicides. Every woman, even. There’s this strange quality to Eugenides’ outsider perspective that captures, like otherworldly magic, the feminine experience as both the sublime dream and monstrous nightmare it’s come to be. Clarisse Loughrey

Bobby Brewster by HE Todd

Scandalously out of print, Bobby Brewster is a timeless primary school-aged boy who has mildly magical adventures – nothing as serious as Harry Potter, they usually involve everyday objects such as spoons or conkers coming to life. He is also very partial to sardine sandwiches. Alex Johnson

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I read this while travelling around Steinbeck’s California stomping ground, which helped bring his dusty world to life. The Grapes of Wrath is set during the Great Depression and follows an Oklahoma family as they trek across America in search of a better future. Humanity at its rawest and most unflinching. Jess Denham

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Carey Mulligan's recent movie was great but, as is often the case, it didn't have anything on the book. One independent female farmer and three hugely different suitors make for a first-rate story. Hardy’s fourth and arguably least depressing novel has unrequited love, death, insanity, murder and, finally, the happy ending you were wanting all along. Jess Denham

The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa

This is an exquisitely told story of Ricardo Somocurcio and his decade-long obsession with a Peruvian expatriate: the woman he first fell in love with when he was just 15-years-old. Roisin O'Connor

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