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. 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.
1. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
It is a fact universally acknowledged that every list of great books must include Pride and Prejudice. Don’t be fooled by the bonnets and balls: beneath the sugary surface is a tart exposé of the marriage market in Georgian England. For every lucky Elizabeth, who tames the haughty, handsome Mr Darcy and learns to know herself in the process, there’s a Charlotte, resigned to life with a drivelling buffoon for want of a pretty face.
2. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾, Sue Townsend
Read this one when you’re decrepit enough, and chances are you’ll die laughing. No one has lampooned the self-absorption, delusions of grandeur and sexual frustration of adolescence as brilliantly as Sue Townsend, and no one ever will. Beyond the majestic poetry and the pimples, there’s also a sharp satire of Thatcherist Britain.
3. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
It’s not often an idiom coined in a novel becomes a catchphrase, but Joseph Heller managed it with his madcap, savage and hilarious tour de force. War is the ultimate dead end for logic, and this novel explores all its absurdities as we follow US bombardier pilot Captain John Yossarian. While Heller drew on his own experience as a WWII pilot, it was the McCarthyism of the Fifties that fuelled the book’s glorious rage.
4. Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
A good 125 years before #MeToo, Thomas Hardy skewered the sexual hypocrisy of the Victorian age in this melodramatic but immensely moving novel. Tess is a naïve girl from a poor family who is raped by a wealthy landowner. After the death of her baby, she tries to build a new life, but the “shame” of her past casts a long shadow. Read this if you want to understand the rotten culture at the root of victim blaming.
5. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
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.