Top 12 Books
The 12 best books to read during lockdown
Losing yourself in a great novel is one of life’s joys. Here our critics Ceri Radford and Chris Harvey pick the books you need to read
Books, books, books. They will increase your lifespan, lower your stress and boost your intelligence. They will give you fuller, thicker hair.
Whatever the breathless claims about reading, one thing is certain: losing yourself in a great novel is one of life’s most enduring and dependable joys. Job satisfaction comes and goes, partners enrapture and abscond, but you can always fall back on the timeless ability of literature to transport you to a different world. From Jane Austen’s mannered drawing rooms to the airless tower blocks of 1984, novels do something unique. They simultaneously speak to the heart and mind. They teach you about the history of our world, the possibilities of our future and the fabric of our souls.
So where do you start? It’s a fraught question, because the obvious answer – “the literary canon” – means a pantheon of predominantly dead, white dudes. The power structures at play for centuries have meant that a very narrow band of people have been given the opportunity to say something universal about the human condition. It’s impossible to ignore these biases: the least we can do is acknowledge them, include different perspectives, and point to some excellent resources her e, here and here to discover more writers we should be reading.
As it stands, whittling this list down to 12 novels has been a process that makes Brexit negotiations look simple and amicable. We hope you enjoy the selection – or at least enjoy arguing about who should or should not have made the cut.
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Harry Potter may be more popular, but Willy Wonka is altogether weirder. From the overwhelming poverty experienced by Charlie Bucket and his family, to the spoilt, greedy, brattish children who join Charlie on his trip to Willy Wonka’s phantasmagorical sweet factory there is nothing artificially sweetened in Roald Dahl’s startling work of fantasy. CH
A classic exposé of colonialism, Achebe’s novel explores what happens to a Nigerian village when European missionaries arrive. The main character, warrior-like Okonkwo, embodies the traditional values that are ultimately doomed. By the time Achebe was born in 1930, missionaries had been settled in his village for decades. He wrote in English and took the title of his novel from a Yeats poem, but wove Igbo proverbs throughout this lyrical work. CR
The ultimate piece of dystopian fiction, 1984 was so prescient that it’s become a cliché. But forget TV’s Big Brother or the trite travesty of Room 101: the original has lost none of its furious force. Orwell was interested in the mechanics of totalitarianism, imagining a society that took the paranoid surveillance of the Soviets to chilling conclusions. Our hero, Winston, tries to resist a grey world where a screen watches your every move, but bravery is ultimately futile when the state worms its way inside your mind. CR
The second Mrs de Winter is the narrator of Du Maurier’s marvellously gothic tale about a young woman who replaces the deceased Rebecca as wife to the wealthy Maxim de Winter and mistress of the Manderley estate. There she meets the housekeeper Mrs Danvers, formerly devoted to Rebecca, who proceeds to torment her. As atmospheric, psychological horror it just gets darker and darker. CH
Dickens was the social conscience of the Victorian age, but don’t let that put you off. Great Expectations is the roiling tale of the orphaned Pip, the lovely Estella, and the thwarted Miss Havisham. First written in serial form, you barely have time to recover from one cliffhanger before the next one beckons, all told in Dickens’ luxuriant, humorous, heartfelt prose. CR
A timeless plea for justice in the setting of America’s racist South during the depression years, Lee’s novel caused a sensation. Her device was simple but incendiary: look at the world through the eyes of a six-year-old, in this case, Jean Louise Finch, whose father is a lawyer defending a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Lee hoped for nothing but “a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers”: she won the Pulitzer and a place on the curriculum. CR
Anyone who has ever suspected that children are primitive little beasties will nod sagely as they read Golding’s classic. His theory is this: maroon a bunch of schoolboys on an island, and watch how quickly the trappings of decent behaviour fall away. Never has a broken pair of spectacles seemed so sinister, or civilisation so fragile. CR
All the teeming life of 19th century London is here in Thackeray’s masterpiece, right down to the curry houses frequented by Jos Sedley, who has gained a taste for the hot stuff as an officer in the East India Trading Company. But it is Becky Sharp, one of literature’s great characters, who gives this novel its enduring fascination. As a woman on the make, Becky is the perfect blend of wit, cunning and cold-hearted ruthlessness. Try as film and TV might to humanise and make excuses for her, Becky needs victims to thrive! And she’s all the more compelling for that. CH
You will need a cold, dead heart not to be moved by one of literature’s steeliest heroines. From the institutional cruelty of her boarding school, the “small, plain” Jane Eyre becomes a governess who demands a right to think and feel. Not many love stories take in a mad woman in the attic and a spot of therapeutic disfigurement, but this one somehow carries it off with mythic aplomb. CR
A subtle and engrossing look at racial identity, through the story of a charismatic young Nigerian woman who leaves her comfortable Lagos home for a world of struggles in the United States. Capturing both the hard-scrabble life of US immigrants and the brash divisions of a rising Nigeria, Adichie crosses continents with all her usual depth of feeling and lightness of touch. CR
An absolute unadulterated comic joy of a novel. Stella Gibbons neatly pokes fun at sentimental navel-gazing with her zesty heroine Flora, who is more interested in basic hygiene than histrionics. In other words, if you’ve “seen something nasty in the woodshed”, just shut the door. CR
Dedicated to the “60 million and more” Africans and their descendants who died as a result of the slave trade, this is a cultural milestone and a Pulitzer-winning tour de force. Morrison was inspired by the real-life story of an enslaved woman who killed her own daughter rather than see her return to slavery. In her plot, the murdered child returns to haunt a black community, suggesting the inescapable taint of America’s history. CR