Best Herman Melville Books, recommended by Hester Blum

Today it is celebrated as one of America’s great novels, but when it came out, Moby-Dick was received with little acclaim and none of the commercial success of Herman Melville’s first book, Typee. Here, Hester Blum, Professor of English at Penn State, introduces the 19th century American novelist and recommends which books to read by and about him.

Best William Faulkner Books, recommended by Ahmed Honeini

Where to start with the novels of the American writer William Faulkner, chronicler of the Old South and winner of the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature? Here, Faulkner scholar Ahmed Honeini of Royal Holloway, University of London, recommends the best books by and about the man who tried to capture “the agony and sweat of the human spirit”.

The Best Goethe Books, recommended by David E. Wellbery

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) has been described as ‘the last true polymath to walk the earth’. A defining figure in German literature, Goethe coined the concept of world literature. And his literary and dramatic achievements are matched by his scientific work. David E. Wellbery, Professor of Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago and recipient of the Golden Goethe Medal, introduces us to the life and work of Goethe. He explores why figures such as Beethoven and Napoleon were magnetised to him, how Rousseau influenced Faust, and why Goethe’s Faust does not sell his soul to the devil.

The best books on Virgil, recommended by Sarah Ruden

Virgil is one of the most influential poets in the history of Western literature. Here, another poet, Sarah Ruden, talks about the challenges of translating the Aeneid and why, although we know little about Virgil as a man, his great poem’s take on the violence and power struggles it depicts is deeply ambivalent.

The Best Franz Kafka Books, recommended by Stanley Corngold

“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin”—Kafka, The Metamorphosis. This is one of the most famous opening lines in all of world literature, but how ‘Kafkaesque’ was Franz Kafka? What are our misconceptions about his life and work? Professor Stanley Corngold, one of the most influential Kafka scholars, introduces us to an “athlete of anguish”.

The Best Fyodor Dostoevsky Books, recommended by Alex Christofi

His father had clawed his way up into the minor aristocracy, but Fyodor Dostoevsky chose to live the life of an impecunious author. He was sentenced to death, but his execution was stayed and he spent years in a Siberian labour camp instead. His books are about human compassion, but he was a difficult man who had trouble with his own personal relationships. Alex Christofi, author of a brilliant new biography of Dostoevsky, one of Russia’s greatest novelists, recommends five books to learn more about the man and his work—including the novel of which Tolstoy said he ‘didn’t know a better book in all our literature’.

The Best Iris Murdoch Books, recommended by Miles Leeson

Iris Murdoch gained fame as a novelist, a philosopher and, perhaps most prominently of all, for her public and rapid decline (and posthumous immortalization by her husband John Bayley) after an early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. But now, a hundred years on from her birth, the attention is returning back to her work: Miles Leeson, Director of the Iris Murdoch Centre at the University of Chichester, recommends what books to read from her canon of 27 novels.

The Best George Orwell Books, recommended by D J Taylor

Seventy years on from its initial publication, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is just as resonant in today’s era of misinformation and fake news as it was in the incipient Cold War era. D J Taylor, author of a lauded biography of Orwell and a forthcoming biography of Nineteen Eighty-Four, takes us through the extraordinary impact of the author’s fiction and reportage.

Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer: A Reading List, recommended by Jenni Nuttall

Troilus and Criseyde has a centuries’ old backstory. Long before Renaissance dramas or realist novels, Chaucer wrote a love story set in a besieged city that was a deep psychological exploration of character and human relationships. Jenni Nuttall, author of Troilus and Criseyde: A Reader’s Guide, shares her reading recommendations after over a decade of teaching the poem to Oxford undergraduates.

The best books on Ralph Waldo Emerson, recommended by James Marcus

Known to many of us as the American Transcendentalist champion of individualism and self-reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson is a much more soulful and sorrowful, brilliant but deeply contradictory thinker than we often give him credit for, says James Marcus, as he recommends the best books by – or about – Emerson.

Robert S Miola on Shakespeare’s Sources

William Shakespeare has a strong claim to be the most influential writer of all time. But whose works influenced him? And how? Robert S Miola discusses the breadth of Shakespeare’s reading, the vexed question of how we can reconstruct what he read, and the staggeringly innovative ways that Shakespeare shaped his sources

The Best Daphne du Maurier Books, recommended by Laura Varnam

Daphne du Maurier is one of the most overlooked writers of the twentieth century, says Oxford University’s Laura Varnam. As Rebecca celebrates its eightieth anniversary and du Maurier enjoys a critical renaissance, Varnam explores the books which highlight this novelist’s sheer range and brilliance—from biography and fiction to history and horror.

The Best Samuel Beckett Books, recommended by Mark Nixon

Samuel Beckett remains one of the most significant writers of the twentieth century. Ruthlessly experimental, his plays, novels, and poems represent a sustained attack on the realist tradition. Dr Mark Nixon looks at the mutating nature of Beckett’s literary style and explains why he didn’t choose Waiting for Godot.

Shakespeare’s Best Plays, recommended by Emma Smith

Shakespearean scholar Emma Smith picks her five favourite plays of the Bard, and controversially argues that not only are some of his plays just too long, but also that the most moving moments in Shakespeare’s oeuvre are where we might not expect them

The Best Books by Muriel Spark, recommended by Alan Taylor

This year marks the centenary of the birth of the novelist, poet and essayist Muriel Spark, a singular voice of 20th century literature. Her 22 novels are slim and entertaining says Alan Taylor, author of Appointment in Arezzo, but beneath the jeux d’esprit lies a fearsome intellect. Here he selects five of her key works.

The Best George Eliot Books, recommended by Philip Davis

George Eliot is all but synonymous with Victorian realism; for D H Lawrence, she was the first novelist to start ‘putting all the action inside.’ Here, Philip Davis, author of The Transferred Life of George Eliot, selects the best books by or about one of the greatest novelists of all time: ‘If you want to read literature that sets out to create a holding ground for raw human material—for human struggles, difficulties, and celebrations—read George Eliot’

The best books on Dante, recommended by Nick Havely

Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy has inspired countless thinkers and writers since it was first published almost 700 years ago. Here, Dante scholar and author Nick Havely picks the best five books on how one medieval poet had such a lasting impact on world literature, and how Dante’s vitality transmits into modern culture.

Devoney Looser on The Alternative Jane Austen

Thanks to her ability to be many things to many people at once, Jane Austen is one of the vast minority of writers who manage to be both eternally popular and canonical. Here, Austen scholar Devoney ‘Stone Cold Jane’ Looser presents alternative Austens, from subversive youngster to video-game heroine

The best books on D H Lawrence, recommended by Catherine Brown

Although less flamboyantly experimental than his contemporaries Joyce and Woolf, D H Lawrence was a modernist, says literary scholar Catherine Brown. Here, she selects five books that make the case for this most contradictory, and often divisive, of writers—a man whose fictions and ‘philosophicalish’ works were by turns brilliant and bewildering, sublime and ridiculous

The Best Charles Dickens Books, recommended by Jenny Hartley

He was the most popular novelist of the Victorian era, a convivial family man who always championed the underdog. But he also harboured dark secrets that only came out after his death. Jenny Hartley recommends the best books by and about Charles Dickens and discusses Dickens the phenomenon, past and present.

The Best H G Wells Books, recommended by Roger Luckhurst

Often described as the ‘father of science fiction’, H G Wells was a man of extraordinary charisma and vivid imagination. Yet he suffered terribly from class anxiety and subscribed to political beliefs we now find abhorrent, says the editor and author Roger Luckhurst. He recommends the best books to learn more about the life and work of the British writer H G Wells.

The Best Virginia Woolf Books, recommended by Hermione Lee

Virginia Woolf was long dismissed as a ‘minor modernist’ but now stands as one of the giants of 20th century literature. Her biographer, Hermione Lee, talks us through the best Virginia Woolf books, novels and essays, and diaries, of Virginia Woolf.

René Weis on The Best Plays of Shakespeare

In the second of a Five Books series marking the 400th year since the world’s most popular playwright’s death, eminent Shakespearean René Weis picks his five favourite plays, and explains why King Lear will change your life.

The Best Books by Wilkie Collins, recommended by Jason Hall

Wilkie Collins, the sensationalist author and inventor of the detective novel, knew precisely how to “make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, make ’em wait”. Jason Hall, Victorian literature expert and editor of a new edition of Jezebel’s Daughter, chooses the five best books from Collins’s extensive oeuvre – and considers the voracious appetites and unorthodox lifestyle of this intriguing Englishman.

The Best PG Wodehouse Books, recommended by Sophie Ratcliffe

A prolific writer sometimes oblivious to events going on around him, PG Wodehouse remains so well loved because of his enduring characters and inimitable style, says Sophie Ratcliffe, associate professor of English at Oxford University and editor of his letters.

The Best Agatha Christie Books, recommended by Mathew Prichard

Agatha Christie wrote some 80 mysteries and short story collections, nearly all designed to entertain and delight readers with their ingenious plot twists. Here, her only grandson, Mathew Prichard, who oversaw her literary estate for many decades, recommends books that give a good sense of the range of her work, from Miss Marple to Hercule Poirot to mysteries featuring neither, and including her best short story.