It's hard to say exactly what makes a book great; they are after all, pieces of art that are just as subjective as anything else. However, there are some books that seem to endure for longer and resonate with more readers. Whether or not you're a fan of literature, these are the stories that some might consider required reading. So, did you read all the best ones, and did your favorite make the list? Read on and see!
30. "Moby-Dick" by Herman Melville
Herman Melville's literary classic Moby Dick has a Goodreads ranking of 3.54/5. The novel follows the whaling ship Pequod and its crazed captain on his quest for vengeance against a great white whale. In his rage, the captain slowly slips further and further into maniacal tyranny, endangering himself and those he's charged to protect. When the book was first released in 1851, it was wildly ahead of its time, featuring the same-sex marriage of the book's narrator, Ishmael.
Part of the story's enduring appeal is that it can be interpreted in many different ways, with themes touching on man's relationship with nature, power, and God, as well as racism and friendship. "For there is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men"
29. "Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe
Chinua Achebe's book, Things Fall Apart is one of the best examples of how literature can put you into someone else's shoes and unlock the intimacies of a culture different from your own. The novel, which has a Goodreads rating of 3.73/5, follows Okonkwo and his village as both struggle with identity and culture during a time of imperialism in late 19th century Nigeria. However, this is no simple story, and the complexities quickly become apparent after you start reading.
The book, which is as much about man's internal struggle as colonialism, is available in both print and as an e-book and you won't be sorry you picked it up. “There is no story that is not true.”
28. "The Old Man and the Sea" by Ernest Hemingway
Earnest Hemingway considered The Old Man and the Sea his greatest work, and for good reason. The tale follows a down-on-his-luck fisherman and his battle with a Marlin off the coast of Cuba. The book has a Goodreads score of 3.80/5. It's a story about grit and the triumph of the human spirit but also a poignant lesson about defeat. When it comes to telling a universal story, there aren't many that are able to match it.
The book is shorter than most other novels, but there are some excellent narrated audiobooks. “Now is no time to think of what you do not have.
Think of what you can do with that there is”
Think of what you can do with that there is”
27. "The Catcher in the Rye" by J. D. Salinger
This coming-of-age story manages to capture all of the angst and disillusionment associated with being a teen in a way that no other book does. J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye has a Goodreads score of 3.80/5. It doesn't take long after you first start reading to realize that Salinger has a gift for dialogue, which he uses to great effect as you follow the story's protagonist, Holden Caulfield, after his expulsion from school.
The story was once one of the most censored in America, but today, you can find it available on just about any app, tablet, or Kindle. “Certain things, they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.”
26. "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain
Mark Twain is widely considered one of America's greatest humorists, but his greatest novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn deals with very real issues. The book, with a Goodreads score of 3.83, follows Huckleberry Finn and a runaway slave named Jim. Together, the two travel the Mississippi and Deep South after Finn fakes his own death. It's another coming-of-age story, but one that touches on issues of racism, class, society, and America at the time.
The book itself is written in the Southern dialect of the time, so it might be a better choice to read than to listen to an audiobook. “Hain't we got all the fools in town on our side? And hain't that a big enough majority in any town?”
25. "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov
It's not uncommon to see Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov and with a Goodreads score of 3.88/5 among the the top five books of all time on some lists. However, the story is also a controversial one, and it follows Humbert Humbert as he obsesses (to put it extremely mildly) over his stepdaughter. However, the book's genius is to slowly have you empathize with a character that, in any other setting, would elicit nothing but disdain.
Despite its controversial nature, it can be found on most apps, tablets, and on Kindle. “I need you, the reader, to imagine us, for we don't really exist if you don't.”
24. "Don Quixote" by Miguel De Cervantes Saavedra
Don Quixote, with a Goodreads score of 3.89/5, is probably one of the most important books in Spanish literature and its author, Miguel De Cervantes Saavedra is often compared to Shakespeare. The book follows the travels of an aging knight who, inspired by tales of romance and chivalry, sets off on an adventure to revive those ideals. He takes his old horse and a squirrel named Sancho Panza with him on his journey.
Many also consider the book the first modern novel, so you can find it on any app, tablet, and on Kindle. “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness."
23. "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald died before he could see The Great Gatsby gain commercial success. The book has a Goodreads score of 3.93/5, and it documents American life during a time of excess. Through the story's main protagonist, Jay Gatsby, we get a glimpse into the Jazz Age and issues of class, wealth, love, and the American Dream. When it was first released, it only sold 25,000 copies. Since then, some 25 million have bought and read the book.
The book recently entered the public domain, so it's free. However, there are also some good paid-for audiobook versions. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
22. "Beloved" by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison's Beloved follows a mother and a mysterious teenage girl named Beloved as they resettle after escaping slavery. This Southern Gothic tale explores the past's influence on the present, motherhood, community, and slavery. In 1998, a movie version was made starring Oprah, and the book itself was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. It has a 3.94/5 score on Goodreads and there's also an audiobook version with a forward by the author.
Morrison's prose in Beloved is a bit difficult to get into, but once you do, you won't regret it. “Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.”
21. "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley
Even if you've never read Aldous Huxley's dystopian novel, you've likely heard of it. Published in the 1930s, the book envisioned a world run by the World State. Individualism is rooted out and efficiency and technology are the sole focus. It's also a story about staying true to yourself. It has a Goodreads score of 3.99/5 and despite it being written during the early half of the 20th century, it still very much resonates with readers today.
Huxley wrote the entire novel in a mere four months. “But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
20. "Catch-22" by Joseph Heller
Catch-22 is a satirical novel about one pilot's desperate attempts to stay alive during WWII. Despite the satirical tag, Joseph Heller's book deals with some pretty heavy issues. Some of the most powerful scenes deal with what happens when bureaucracy is given too much authority and the effect the loss of words or censorship can have. The book has a 3.99/5 rating on Goodreads, and there's also an audiobook version.
The book was first published in 1961, but its comments on the nature of war are universal. “The enemy is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he is on.”
19. "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is set during the Great Depression and has a Goodreads score of 4/5. Despite the setting, the novel is incredibly relevant today. We follow the main protagonists as they set out for California with a migrant caravan after their livelihoods were destroyed in the Dust Bowl. Steinbeck uses the setting to touch on environmental issues and how man's greed harms his fellow man.
Reading the book, you might be struck by just how little has changed since it was first published. “And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.”
18. "Dracula" by Bram Stoker
There's really no need to introduce Bram Stoker's Dracula. The story has inspired countless tales and horror stories since it was first published in 1897. However, while most have heard of the novel or of its central character, not as many have actually read it. It's much more than just a scary story; it explores issues of modernity, sexuality, and the fear of outsiders. It has a Goodreads score of 4.01/5.
The book is in the public domain, so you can get it on apps and tablets and for a small fee on Kindle. “I sometimes think we must be all mad and that we shall wake to sanity in strait-waistcoats.”
17. "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenina is a massive work of fiction by Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. Some consider it the best book ever written and it has a Goodreads score of 4.09/5. It follows the story of Anna Karenina and her effort to break free from conventionality. The book explores a lot of different themes and provides insight into Russia during a time of great upheaval. However, despite all of this, Tolstoy doesn't take sides, instead letting the reader make their own interpretations.
However, if you plan on reading it, prepare to set aside time. It's 864 pages long. “All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.”
16. "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel García Márquez
One Hundred Years of Solitude has a Goodreads score of 4.11/5. It's one of the best-selling books in the Spanish language of all time. Gabriel García Márquez novel follows different generations of the Buendía family as they settle and live alone in a town. Through the different generations, readers get a glimpse of the cyclical nature of time and life. It's also credited with contributing immensely to the genre of magical realism.
Because it's so popular, you can pretty much find it on any reading app or tablet and there is an audiobook. “A person does not belong to a place until there is someone dead under the ground.”
15. "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray might just be one of the most original premises of all time. What would happen if you could stay young and beautiful while your portrait soaked up all of your vices? The result is a chilling novel that comments on excess and societal morals. The book has a Goodreads score of 4.12/5. When it was first published, it was a bit controversial for its allusions to homosexuality.
Wilde himself was quite the character, having a reputation for wit and spending a bit of time in jail. “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
14. "The Handmaid’s Tale" by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale gives readers a look into a dystopian world where women are made to bear children for infertile couples. The story is poignantly written in a way that the world Atwood builds is all too real. Like other dystopian novels, there's an emphasis on what could happen when the state is given too much control and when education and words are taken away from the people. It has a Goodreads score of 4.13/5.
The book was released in 1985 and there's even a recent TV adaptation. “A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.”
13. "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Brontë
Charlotte Brontë gave us Jane Eyre all the way back in 1847 and it was revolutionary for its time. The book is often held up as one of the first examples of feminism in literature and its central character's break from societal norms and desire for equality inspired many. The book has a Goodreads score of 4.15/5 and there have been a ton of adaptions since it was first released.
The book is in the public domain and can be downloaded for free as an e-book on reading apps and tablets. “I would always rather be happy than dignified.”
12. "Memoirs Of A Geisha" by Arthur Golden
Arthur Golden's historical fiction gives readers a glimpse into life as a geisha in pre-WWII Japan. It's both a fascinating look and a tale of the extent of man's greed as girls are auctioned off and forced into a life of only pleasing others. It's since been made into a movie, and it's hard to find a critic who hasn't praised its portrayal. It has a Goodreads score of 4.15/5.
It can be found on Kindle and on other reading apps and tablets. “We don't become geisha because we want our lives to be happy; we become geisha because we have no choice.”
11. "The Secret History" by Donna Tart
The Secret History might seem like a classic campus novel, but it's so much more. The book trails a group of students at an elite college after they've committed a murder. It touches on how relentless pursuit, especially of beauty or knowledge, can corrupt and lead people to do terrible things. The book has sold over 5 million copies since it was first published in 1992. It has a Goodreads score of 4.17/5.
Despite its huge popularity and rather recent publication, it has never been made into a film, but you can still check it out in print and as an e-book. “Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.”
10. "Nineteen Eighty-Four" by George Orwell
George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of the most popular dystopian novels of all time, if not the most popular. The book was released in 1949 amid the Cold War, but many of Orwell's fears still resonate with readers today, such as mass surveillance, propaganda, and the loss of individuality. It's a novel that will have you questioning not only the world of then but also the world of now. It has a Goodreads score of 4.19/5.
The book has also recently seen a surge in popularity and can be found on just about any reading app. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
9. "Les Misérables" by Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo's Les Misérables has seen a number of adaptions in films and musicals since its publication in 1862. It's set during France's turbulent revolutionary period and follows Jean Valjean as he attempts to turn a new leaf and live a respectable life. However, life has different plans, and it isn't long until he's presented with a decision that tests his convictions. The book has a Goodreads score of 4.20/5.
The book is in the public domain, and it's available for download as an e-book. “To love or have loved, that is enough. Ask nothing further. There is no other pearl to be found in the dark folds of life.”
8. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" by Ken Kesey
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest takes place inside a ward and revolves around a newly arrived patient who takes it upon himself to break the hold a tyrannical nurse has on the patients. It was eventually made into an award-winning movie starring Jack Nicholson, which is a masterpiece in its own right. The book has a Goodreads score of 4.20/5 and it's defintely worth a read, even if you've already seen the iconic movie.
“All I know is this: nobody's very big in the first place, and it looks to me like everybody spends their whole life tearing everybody else down.”
7. "Murder on the Orient Express" by Agatha Christie
Murder on the Orient Express is both a classic whodunit story and so much more. If you enjoy mystery novels then it doesn't get much better than this. Writer Agatha Christie uses the traditional tropes of the genre to do all the work for her and readers are sure to enjoy this original take. It has a Goodreads score of 4.20/5, and it's also been made into a film.
The novel is copyright-free and can be downloaded on apps and tablets for reading. “Some of us, in the words of the divine Greta Garbo, want to be alone.”
6. "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is an epic sci-fi adventure story filled with laughs. The plot goes a little something like this: Arthur Dent and his friend are taken off the Earth right before it's destroyed. It's not just a funny story and offers commentary on things like technology and philosophy. It's as much a story about modern life as it is about some far-off galaxy in the future. It has a Goodreads score of 4.23/5.
The book has proven to be extremely popular over the years, and it was made into a film that was released in 2005. “He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.”
5. "Papillon" by Henri Charrière
Sometimes life truly is stranger than fiction, and the main protagonist in Papillon would give Earnest Hemingway's characters a run for their money when it comes to grit and perseverance. The story is an autobiography and includes harrowing stories about escaping from prison, gangs, and isolation. The story is as chilling as it is inspiring. It has a Goodreads score of 4.25/5 and its been made into a film of the same name.
There's probably no better book for when you feel like you're down on your luck. You can pick it up on apps, tablets, and as an e-book. “The important thing was that we were alive...”
4. "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker
The Color Purple has been praised for its tale of two Black women and their hardships in rural Georgia. It also broke barriers with its willingness to touch on domestic violence and sexual abuse. In 2023, it was made into a movie featuring stars like Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. However, you won't want to miss out on author Alice Walker's prose. The book has a Goodreads score of 4.26/5.
There is an audiobook, and the novel is also available on Kindle. “People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”
3. "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is a simple yet powerful tale set in Jim Crow-era Alabama. It explores the loss of innocence, racism, and poverty after a Black man is falsely accused and convicted of a crime. Lee's novel was eventually made into a film of the same name. The book was published in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement and helped shed light on life in the South at the time. It has a Goodreads score of 4.27/5.
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”
2. "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak
Author Markus Zusak's novel, only one of four, The Book Thief's plot is original in a way that's wholly refreshing. The story follows a girl who finds solace in reading during the lead-up to WWII, and the story is narrated by a compassionate death. It has a Goodreads score of 4.39/5, and it's a must-read for anyone who enjoys learning about WWII history or simply reading a good story.
It was made into a movie, but reading the text keeps just as glued. “I have hated words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”
1. "The Lord of the Rings" by J. R. R. Tolkien
There's really not much we can say about The Lord of the Rings that you probably haven't already heard. J.R.R. Tolkien's novels pretty much created the building blocks for fantasy as we know it. The movies are probably one of the best trilogies ever made, but if you've never read the books, you should really give them a try. The first book in the series has a Goodreads score of 4.52/5.
While the movies definitely have some good dialogue, Tolkien's writing is simply on another level. “But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow; even darkness must pass.”
The non-fiction list
Now that we've covered all of the fictional titles, we thought it'd be fun to delve into some non-fiction. So, we've put together a smaller list detailing some of the best memoirs out there, as well as some of the highlights of each one. These might be even more subjective than the former list so take these more as recommendations or personal choices than rankings that are set in stone.
From books about royalty to memoirs about being pop culture icons, here are some of the best memoirs out there and how we think they rank with one another.
10. "The Beauty of Living Twice" by Sharon Stone
The Beauty of Living Twice has a Goodreads score of 3.70, and it documents the actress's life and her attempts to recover after she suffered from a stroke. Sharon Stone opens up about not only her recovery but also about her life as a child and the abuse she suffered while in Hollywood. The memoir in a touching look at what it takes to not only survive but to prosper.
The audiobook is also narrated by Stone. “I have learned to forgive the unforgivable. My hope is that as I share my journey, you too will learn to do the same.”
9. "Greenlights" by Matthew McConaughey
Alright, Alright, Alright. Sorry, we just couldn't resist. Actor Mathew McConaughey decided to open his memoir with what might be one of the biggest opening revelations we've seen. He wrote, "I was blackmailed into having sex for the first time when I was fifteen. I was certain I was going to hell for the premarital sex. Today, I am merely certain that I hope that's not the case." The rest of the book is just as honest. It has a Goodreads score of 4.21/5.
And yes, the audiobook version is narrated by McConaughey to great effect. “Me? I haven't made all A's in the art of living. But I give a damn. And I'll take an experienced C over an ignorant A any day.”
8. "Going There" by Katie Couric
Katie Couric's Going There is a heartbreakingly honest look into both her life and what life was like behind the scenes at one of the biggest news organizations in the world. Even before she ascended to her roles at 60 Minutes and CBS, Couric had enjoyed a very successful career. So, her revelations about workplace harassment, hazing, and Matt Lauer's fall from grace were shocking. The book has a Goodreads score of 4.04/5.
Couric's memoir makes for easy reading that's sure to keep you glued to the page. “I think my zygomaticus major might be major. I smile big and I smile a lot—even my resting bitch face is a smile.”
7. "I’m Your Huckleberry" by Val Kilmer
Val Kilmer's memoir is filled with memorable stories, but one of the most memorable might just be when he writes about meeting an angel. He describes an "amorphous black figure," adding that “It will ruin the absolute gravity of this moment, but in truth, this dark angel looked very like Darth Vader, though without the helmet.” His stories about working in Hollywood aren't quite as wild but they're still a lot of fun. The book has a Goodreads score of 3.63/5.
Kilmer's memior can be picked up on Kindle and other apps and tablets as an e-book. “I don't know at what point you stop hurting and start healing”
6. "The Meaning of Mariah Carey" by Mariah Carey
Mariah Carey is one of the biggest superstars to ever do it, so when her memoir was released and she revealed that her first marriage was extremely toxic, it came as a bit of a surprise. She also talks about her troubled childhood and experiencing domestic violence. Carey is brutally honest in her book, and it's refreshing to hear her stories of hardship and perseverance. The book has a Goodreads rating of 4.06/5.
The author narrates her own book and even sings to highlight sections of her life. “My father taught me that words have meaning and thus, they have power.”
5. "Madly, Deeply: The Alan Rickman Diaries" by Alan Rickman
Alan Rickman's Madly, Deeply: The Alan Rickman Diaries was released after the actor's death and put together using extensive diaries he'd kept. In it, fans were given a very candid glimpse into what he thought about the other actors working on one of his biggest hits, Harry Potter. He'd said that Daniel Radcliffe was not "really an actor but he will undoubtedly direct/produce." The book has a Goodreads score of 3.60/5.
Because of the intimate source material, it gives incredible insight into the actor's views on pretty much everything. “I hate it when my head, heart and aspirations are filled to the brim only with career. The rest of me hangs around like a jacket on the back of a doorknob.”
4. "You Got Anything Stronger? " by Gabrielle Union
Gabrielle Union chose a fitting title for her memior, You Got Anything Stronger? In a heartbreaking admission, she opens up about when Dwayne Wade got another woman pregnant while the two were on a break. She and Wade are now married. She wrote: "The experience of Dwyane having a baby so easily — while I was unable to — left my soul not just broken into pieces, but shattered into fine dust scattering in the wind." The book has a Goodreads score of 4.13/5.
Reading it, you get the sense that Union is being as open and vulnerable as any writer really can. “The right thing to do is, as usual, the hard thing to do.”
3. "The Answer Is... Reflections on My Life" by Alex Trebek
The world was shocked when longtime host of Jeopardy, Alex Trebek announced he had cancer. Trebek has since passed, but before he did, he wrote a memoir detailing his life and the time he spent on America's favorite game show. The host told fans about how he'd discovered he had a half-brother he'd never met right after coming to Jeopardy, adding, "He and I have communicated over the years, but we are not close." It has a Goodreads score of 4.20/5.
The audiobook is narrated by both Trebek and former Jeopardy contestant Ken Jennings. “A good education and a kind heart will serve you well throughout your entire life.”
2. "Call Me Crazy" by Anne Heche
While unfortunately, actor Anne Heche has since passed away, her memoir, rated 3.57/5 on Goodreads, made a big splash when it was revealed she had a split personality. "No one in L.A. had any idea that I had completely split from myself and become another entity inside called Celestia," she wrote, adding, "No one could tell from the way I walked or talked that I was from the fourth dimension."
Heche also opened up about the sexual abuse she suffered when she was a child. Hech has a posthumous memoir that was recently released in 2023 and can be picked up as an e-book.
1. "Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing" by Matthew Perry
Mathew Perry is most famous for his work portraying a responsible and always cheerful Chandler Bing on Friends. However, in his memoir, Perry opened up to the world about his struggles with addiction in real life. He estimated that he'd spent as much as $7 million trying to get clean and that he once had to pay more than half a million when he caused a set to shut down. The book has a 3.84/5 score on Goodreads.
Reading the book provides a close look into Perry's personal life and his long fight with his own demons. “And if you’re going to blame your parents for the bad stuff, you also have to give them credit for the good stuff.”