Here is a list of some of the best and most influential novels of all time. Gathered below are books which are widely considered to have had an enormous impact on the novels that were written in their wake.
Don Quixote by Cervantes
Written in 1605, this astonishing novel is sometimes referred to as the first novel, and also weirdly the first novel with post modern tropes (the second part contains characters who are self reflexively aware of the existence of the first half, and Don Quixote’s delusions arise from reading too many tales of knights etc). So many elements of this work have found their way in contemporary parlance: ever heard the phrase ‘tilting at windmills’? Don Quixote, a man who under a delusion believes he is knight-errant, attacks windmills, believing them to be his enemy. Now the phrase means attacking imaginary foes. It’s actually a really funny novel, and listed as many author’s favourite work!
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Hemingway said that all modern American literature stems from this work, and the way it brought ‘real’ American language to the page. No longer were US citizens going to pay homage to the British press, they had their own homegrown heroes and way of life. Mark Twain, real name Samuel Clemens, is still a towering figure of American letters, and this is a great introduction to his work. For bonus fun, check out his travel books: The Innocents Abroad actually became the best selling of his works during his lifetime.
Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway won the Nobel prize in 1954, and many believe the pared back elegance of this work, published in 1952, contributed significantly to that win. I believe Hemingway’s seemingly simple style is probably the single greatest influence on contemporary literature. Many writers are inspired by his dedication to ‘truth’ in his writing, and there are endless Hemingway quotes to search through that outline his various influential theories of literature. Not least among those is his ‘iceberg theory’: he noted that the dignity of the movement of an iceberg arises from the fact that nine tenths of it resides underwater. So with prose, the vast majority of the work goes unsaid, or remains as subtext. Can’t go too far wrong with Hemingway! Check out his complete works.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
This is your go-to for fantasy writers. It took the man fifteen or so years to write it, and when he’d finished apparently no one was interested in publishing! Is it a story for children or adults? Jury is still out on that one. Personally, I remember reading it feverishly when I was thirteen or fourteen, completely spellbound. Tolkien had a famous difference of opinion re the nature of fantasy writing with C.S. Lewis of Narnia fame, which is definitely worth researching! Keep in mind that the lengthy Lord of the Rings trilogy is in fact only a tiny slice of the overall lore Tolkien developed – the world is immense, and very inspiring! Find the whole history here.
War and Peace by Tolstoy
This entry is really to acknowledge Tolstoy’s entire body of work. Many list this as their favourite novel, and the greatest work of literature of all time. It’s a vast sweeping epic depicting, amongst many other things, Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Witness the decline of the Tsarist regime, and the ancient way of life of the Russian aristocratic families. It’s such a long tale that my experience of it is almost dreamlike: quite frequently I’ll think of a small moment from the work that perfectly encapsulates a particular human experience. If you’d like to crack into a bit of Russian lit but this tome is just too weighty, check out Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina!
Madame Bovary by Flaubert
Hard to overestimate the importance of this work. Many of the leading writers in the western tradition attribute the birth of modern fiction writing to Flaubert. Influential literary critic James Woods has written “Flaubert established, for good or ill, what most readers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible.” Give it a look!
In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
Many of the most influential works of literature are long works of literature. Why is this? If you took a normal length novel and increased it’s length ten fold is there a greater chance of it becoming more influential? Proust will veer away from his plot suddenly to describe something in the character’s presence in minute detail for several pages. It’s a love letter to language itself. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever read prose in which the emotions come across more powerfully, so definitely check this out.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Highly influential on global letters, this is one of the jewels of African literature. Written in 1958, it’s the Nigerian author’s debut work, and is studied extensively around the world as one of the greatest works exploring the impacts of colonialism. It’s sold more than twenty million copies, and tops a lot of lists, so definitely check this one out.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
No best-of list is complete without Moby Dick. Have you read it? Don’t worry, no one else has either. But you’ve heard the line ‘Call me Ishmael’ and you know it’s got a guy called Ahab who hunts a great white whale. It also has entire chapters on whale biology! Yay. Melville’s reputation wasn’t very great while he was alive. His work was experimental in a lot of ways, and pushed boundaries in a way that wasn’t properly appreciated until after his death. Moby Dick has a habit of entering the subconscious and becoming an immovable piece of mental real estate. What does it all mean? Trying to figure it out is half the fun. This is regularly held forth as The Great American Novel. Check out his complete poems here.
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Impossible to overestimate the impact of this novel. It sparked a whole genre called the ‘Robinsonade’: stories about castaways and desert islands. Think Tom Hanks naked yelling at Wilson the volleyball. BTW they are called desert islands because they are deserted. You’re welcome.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The story of this foundational work of science fiction goes that it was written by Mary Shelley when she was eighteen years old, as part of a bet, or competition to write a ghost story with Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. To read the opening sentences of this novel is to be smashed in the face with the mallet of Shelley’s undeniable genius.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
As the comedian Hamish Blake noted, ‘the higher you go, the more you wuther.’ This stunning work of Romantic / Gothic literature published in 1847 was controversial at the time of publication for challenging Victorian morality, and is still a little controversial for its depictions of physical and mental cruelty. An emotional rollercoaster that shook me to the core in the days before social media when I used to spend an entire weekend by myself completely isolated with tea and still had the ability to be moved by things. Check out the work of all incredible Bronte sisters here.