30 Books Some Folks in England Say To Read Before You Die

Like Poodlerat, I like lists. British librarians were asked to come up with a list of books adults should read before they die. Like all of these lists, it’s weird.

Books I’ve read are in bold; books I’ll almost certainly never read are crossed out.

1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
2. The Bible
3. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by JRR Tolkien
4. 1984 by George Orwell

5. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
6. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
7. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

8. All Quite on the Western Front by E M Remarque
9. His Dark Materials Trilogy by Phillip Pullman
10. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
11. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
12. The Lord of the Flies by William Golding (I feel no need, honestly.)
13. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
14. Tess of the D’urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
15. Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne

16. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
17. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham
18. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
19. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
20. The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
21. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

22. The Prophet by Khalil Gibran–I saw someone reading this on the subway yesterday and it made me giggle almost as hard as the girl wearing the silver leggings.
23. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
24. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

25. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
26. Life of Pi by Yann Martel
27. Middlemarch by George Eliot
28. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
29. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

30. A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzenhitsyn

I think the librarians must’ve been going for “books you will enjoy reading,” but how can you really answer that for someone else? The person who loves The Alchemist is probably not one for a 700-page Dickens classic. People who read the Bible for fun find Philip Pullman’s anti-Christian trilogy a bit of a slog. I appreciate the concept that librarians are people who love books and might have a good recommendation, but these kinds of things can’t be issued in a simple list.

Additionally, a “what should I read list?” isn’t that helpful if it includes books you’re already familiar with, whether you’ve read them or not. I want to know about books I’ve never heard of that I have to read. And look, I love the Bible and everything, but it’s not a book that I’m going to check out of the library (mainly because we have like eight copies already). It’s certainly a book that one should read in one’s life, but I don’t need a librarian to tell me that.

17 thoughts on “30 Books Some Folks in England Say To Read Before You Die”

  1. Not another ‘must-read list’…
    …The problem with must read lists is that you have either read most of them (which is true for me on this occasion) or you have no interest in stressing yourself out to get through say ‘the top 100 books you want to read before you die’ There are so many lists out there you could spend your whole life and then some, trying to get through them all. However, I like the lists as it gives me a guideline to see whether I’m well read enough and something to talk about with literary peers.
    Lord of the Flies is actually a good book but was analyzed to its death at high school.

  2. It seems odd to me that there are librarians in the world who think “Life of Pi”, “The Time Traveller’s Wife” and “The Prophet” are vital texts. The sorts of thing that, should one die at this very moment, are the books one would deeply regret not to have known.

    *Anything* by Coelho? REALLY?

  3. Hi Nikki & welcome!! I agree that it can be valuable to be reminded of books that I haven’t read but probably should–Day in the life of Ivan D, for exmaple.


  4. Interesting question!

    The bold indicates books I’ve read. As far as those I liked, I’d reread all of them except for His Dark Materials and The Alchemist.

  5. What a funny list! Very british. And completely ridiculous to put all those books in the same category, and include a smattering of recently published popular British fiction alongside some of those greats. Have to disagree with you about Pullman, though, I think he’s brilliant and would reread him any day.

  6. I also love the, “If you liked Tess of the D’Urbervilles, you’ll love Winnie the Pooh!” philosophy.

    Pullman’s anti-Christian bias was just too upsetting for me to swallow. All the hate spoiled what really was a fabulously inventive story.

  7. Great blog and I am way jealous of your superpower. I am a slooooow reader. But I am a fast writer, so perhaps that makes up for it. Right now I’m reading Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and it’s taken the better part of a week… I like the book, though!

    If I wrote my own list of top 30 books to read it would probably be as diverse, so I don’t find that odd at all. Do people really read the Bible like a book (i.e. cover to cover?). I always thought of it more like reference material than literature.

    Perhaps it’s my spiritual background, but I didn’t see Pullman’s book as “hate-filled” at all. Without adding any “spoilers” – I saw it, on a metaphysical level, about the awakening of consciousness and the hope in rebirth. I’d put that one on books I’d like to read AGAIN before I die.

    That and all the Wizard of Oz books. No one reads the Wizard of Oz books any more.

  8. Welcome, OpenChannel–love your blog!! Will definitely be subscribing & adding to my blogroll.

    People definitely read the Bible cover to cover–and often more than once. I’ve read every book of the Bible at least once through, though I must admit that I don’t get quite as engaged with books like Deuteronomy and 1&2 Chronicles as I do with the Psalms and the Epistles.

    I can definitely see your point re: Pullman. I was just talking with some friends the other night about the trilogy, and we all agreed that it was beautifully written. For me, I went into the read knowing that his stated intention was to decry religion, particularly Christianity, so I ended up noticing all his jabs (and there are many). I got tired of the polemic, which spoiled the story for me.

    Wizard of Oz! I read those books over & over again as a child. In fact, I just got a box from my mom with my battered copy of The Land of Oz. My favorite was always Ozma of Oz, but I loved them all and hope Superfast Baby does too.

  9. Thanks! And vice versa.

    I just finished teaching a creative writing course for Middle Grade students and not one of them had ever read an Oz book! Just talking about it makes me want to read them again. Let’s bring them back in fashion! Ozma was one of my faves as a child, too.

    Re: Pullman, I had no knowledge of him or the trilogy at all before reading them, which was refreshing. I was just told by a friend that I must read these books. I do find it odd that it’s billed as young adult literature. There are some extremely sophisticated ideas I don’t think I would have understood as a teenage. But then again, I’ve heard these things are categorized by reading level, not things like “mature” content.

    I read parts of the Bible in high school comparing “genesis” stories and again in College as a requirement (I went to a Lutheran School for my undergrad), but everything was done in pieces. Psalms is my personal favourite, but I bet a lot of people say that.

    I’m just wondering if they place one religious text as “required” reading, why not others? Why not The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying or The Science of Mind?

    Do you have a “must” list? I couldn’t find one on your site. I was thinking of doing a “13 dessert island must haves.” Truly, if you were going to possess 13 books and 13 books only for the rest of your life, what would they be? You’d want a variety for different moods. Hmmm…

  10. I think it’s important to know the Bible because it’s a seminal document to both English and American literature. It’s an essential text for understanding Shakespeare, Joyce, Faulkner, and many others. It should be considered “required” not as a sacred text per se but as a foundational text for our culture’s literature.

    Must lists:
    Click the “lists” tag at the bottom of this post, or follow a link for a bunch of posts about books I like:


  11. This list seems to be about books that had an affect on society. Some reflect the human stories of great social events and changes – ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (bigotry and segregation), ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (war), etc. Others were at one point so ubiquitous, that they need to be revisited by the current generation to understand the decisions of the past.

    Rather than selecting titles for recreation, this appears to contribute to a ‘well rounded’ personality. Fiction is most often an expression of human capacities and frailties. Good fiction is an experience. The story will open up a life, or an experience, or a problem, and show the affects of people and events on others.

    The naive innocence about segregation of Mockingbird challenged the moral superiority of bigots. The casual intermingling of ‘races’ in LOTR, the distinction between evil and danger, elevate the reader to new realms, as the originals of the stories lulled Tolkein’s kids to bed.

    1984, Clockwork Orange, and other disaster novels, dystopias and utopias, are barely veiled calls to arms, stirring for social change and rebellion.

    If I were to nominate a couple others, I would mention Farnham’s Freehold (Heinlein), Wolf and Iron (Gordon R. Dickson). Brin’s ‘The Postman’ – the book, not the movie.

    What is tough is discerning the books important in my past, from those that were significant to my entire culture.

    Is it interesting to lump The Bible in with such a lot of fiction? Why not the Tibetan Book of the Dead (an interesting read), or Quoran?

  12. But then there are some other books that seem to be on the list just because they have been recently popular, like The Lovely Bones and The Life of Pi. Good reads, but will they stand the test of time?

    As for the Bible, as I said above I think it belongs in any “must” list for native English speakers, simply because of the extent to which it informs our literature, from Shakespeare to Eliot to Faulkner etc.

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