The World’s Greatest Books … according to Folio

If bookshelves could talk, what would they ask to be filled with? Would they love to be weighed down with the words of Shakespeare, proudly hold up tales of human achievement, or display prose that nurtures the soul?

Some books are so powerful, poignant, loved and admired, that everyone should own a copy and, after much discussion, we’ve agreed on the five books that should be on your bookshelf.

5. Nineteen Eighty-Four – Big Brother is watching in Orwell’s satirical attack on the state.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, from The Folio Society

4. The Lord of the Rings – The trilogy that has sold over 100 million copies.

The Lord of the Rings, from The Folio Society

3. Shakespeare’s Sonnets – The master puts the English language through its paces in this intimate collection of work.

Shakespeare's Sonnets, from The Folio Society

2. A Tale of Two Cities – We’re spoilt for choice with Dickens but we’ve selected his tale of love and revolution over orphans and spinsters.

A Tale of Two Cities, from The Folio Society

1. Ulysses –James Joyce’s modernist masterpiece spans a single day; took seven years to write and is one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

Ulysses, from The Folio Society

 

‘Skimp and save, turn the heating down, starve if necessary; but don’t deprive yourself the unalloyed joy of this majestic edition’

  1. Russell, France

 

More books to peruse…

With so many titles to choose from, it was no easy task to pick out five favourites. The following were very close contenders – books with integrity and longevity, as well as those that are simply rollicking good reads.

Classic and modern fiction

Illustration © Sam Wolfe Connelly for The Great Gatsby, The Folio Society

Illustration © Sam Wolfe Connelly for The Great Gatsby, The Folio Society

Sense and Sensibility – Written when the author was just 20, Austen’s first novel is still a delight to read over 200 years later.

The Great Gatsby – Arguably the greatest American novel of the 20th century.

 

Big thinkers and hard hitters

The Folio Society edition of A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

The Folio Society edition of A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

On the Origin of Species Charles Darwin literally turned our world view upside down and his conclusions are well worth a read.

 

‘The book is beautifully bound and has become one of my prized possessions.’

  1. Richard, UK

 

A Brief History of Time – The late Stephen Hawking brought space and time to the masses and his legacy lives on.

 

Step back in time

The Folio Society edition of The Anglo-Saxons

The Folio Society edition of The Anglo-Saxons

The Anglo-Saxons – The most accessible and influential account of conquest and power struggles during the Anglo-Saxon era.

Pompeii – The Life of a Roman Town – Mary Beard makes history mesmerising and you’ll return to this biography of a doomed city again and again.

 

Children’s classics

Illustration © Eric Fraser for The Hobbit, The Folio Society

Illustration © Eric Fraser for The Hobbit, The Folio Society

The Hobbit – The epic adventures of Bilbo Baggins have captivated children and adults alike for decades.

 

‘This FS version is a tremendous tribute to Tolkien’s imagination, skill and dedication. Absolutely full marks.’

  1. James, UK

 

Winnie-the-Pooh – A. A. Milne’s timeless tales of Pooh, Piglet and friends are responsible for many people’s lifelong love of literature.

 

Gothic tales, sci-fi and fantasy

Illustration © Joe Wilson for 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2016, The Folio Society

Illustration © Joe Wilson for 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2016, The Folio Society

2001: A Space Odyssey – A sci-fi classic that inspired the genre.

 

‘This has to be the most beautiful edition of this book ever created’.

  1. Jack, UK

 

The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin’s incredible work of speculative fiction.

 

Whodunnit?

Illustration © Tim Laing for Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, The Folio Society

Illustration © Tim Laing for Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, The Folio Society

Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie at her finest with a disparate bunch of suspects confined in a fast-moving, small space.

 

‘This is probably the nicest book I own, a work of beauty’.

  1. Tom, UK

 

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – A spy novel with a literary leaning; everyone should own this book!

 

All these beautiful editions and more are available at foliosociety.com

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Comments from others

  • Daniel Hammond says:

    I would place THE GRAPES OF WRATH on the list. For me, Number One is PARADISE LOST. Your list got me thinking!

  • Dr Steven M Carr, BSc, CPhil, PhD says:

    Having thrown off the yoke of British tyranny nigh on 250 years ago, could we have a least one ‘Merican Folio book on the Gang of Five?
    1) Moby Dick,
    2) Grapes of Wrath / East of Eden (the latter edition ditto)
    3) “Tales of Earthsea” and fervently hope that you plan on doing the rest of the series

    NB: It is well to have Ulysses prominently displayed in one’s library. You can hide your good Jameson’s behind it, knowing it will be safe.

    • Michael Storry says:

      There’s an excellent “Great Courses” set of lectures on ‘Ulysses’ by an American professor which is really good in supporting the reading of this book. I highly recommend it.

  • Christopher Black says:

    Only one of those books deserves to be on the list-Ulysses-the rest are all good-Lord of the Rings is very good, Tale of Two Cities and the Sonnets are deserving but come on-what happened to Les Miserables, Germinal, Toliers of the Sea, Moby Dick, Don Quixote, War and Peace, Aenied, Iliad, Odyssey, Three Kingdoms, Tale of Genshi, Le Morte D’Arthur, Sound and Fury, -oh, what;s the point-to make such lists is nor a worthwhile exercise in any case-but this is not a list of the world’s greatest books by any stretch of the imagination.

  • Ronald Lenz says:

    Funny how the greatest books all seem to come from only those you have published. Here’s my list:
    Brothers Karamazov
    Les Miserables
    Tale of Two Cities
    Don Quixote
    Dombey and Son

  • Robyn Hill says:

    I would nominate Possession, by A.S. Byatt, as one of the great books written.
    The depth and complexity, together with consummately articulate writing, leaves one with a lasting sense of love and loss.

  • Edward Schramm says:

    Not a bad list. I would say Hawkins book is on my list, even though I do not currently have the Folio edition. Carrolls ,Alice in wonderland set is there, even though I gave my folio copies to my nieces years ago. The Winnie the Pooh volumes are there, as are Tom Sawyer and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Tolkien’s books. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths. The Wind in the Willows. The Folio history 4 volume, Caesar, Hannibal, Cleopatra and Nero for histories. The Cretan Runner and The Double Cross System all spring to mind. I was actually able to find thru Amazon copies of Dee Brown’s, Tales of the Native Americans for my sister in law who is Cherokee, and Letters to Vicky as my brother in law’s family is from England with strong U.S. historical roots. He is related to the western lawman, Tilman, the young aide to George Washington ( Tilamn ) and his father was the last surviving worker on Hoover Dam and recently had a street named for him in Boulder City, Nevada. Sorry about the name dropping:>) Ed Schramm

  • eileen byrne says:

    I agree with the titles listed but there are so many wonderful works out there that choosing a few must have driven the committee of choice to distraction, The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings is a must for anyone of reading age and imagination, The beautiful editions you produce take my breath away whenever I view them and whatever the subject astounds me with the sheer production and opening a new classic leaves me breathless with the anticipation of touching such wonderful art. When I first received Les Miserables and Toilers of the Sea I felt cautious as a genius had composed them and such people produced them for my benefit! I am almost jealous of anyone I know touching them.

    • V.A.Barnett says:

      How few of those books are written by women!!!! What about the Brontes? Jane Eyre , George Eliot’s Middlemarsh.
      The Heart of Darkness and Nostromo by Conrad , The Tiger in the Smoke, The Big Sleep, ( detective fiction is always undervalued) Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, In a Free State by Naipaul, Music and Silence by Rose Tremaine, The Odyssey . These are all fiction . Non fiction would require a separate list.

  • Brian Sludden says:

    No surprise to see James Joyce’s book at the top. Critics seem to love it but as an ordinary reader to me its about the worst novel I have ever read – total rubbish

  • James Speirs, MA says:

    My other five personal literary favourites are
    Bleak House by Charles Dickens
    On The Beach by Nevill Shute,
    On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Ian Fleming,
    The Collector by John Fowles
    The Game of Thrones by George RR Martin.
    I would love to see illustrated Folio editions of these superb novels.

    • S Lee-Bapty says:

      How delightful to find someone (else) who still admires Nevil Shute! It will, hopefully, be CP Snow next – preferably Strangers and Brothers in a similar format to the Society’s edition of Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time.

  • cyclops says:

    Not particularly impressed. Tale of Two Cities? Kinda melodramatic. 1984? Genre lit. Les Miz? French gothic with a hearty helping of schmaltz. Ulysses? Truly great, but I don’t believe enough people have actually read it to make it that popular. Lord of the Rings? Sure, but somehow in n extra-lit category of its own. Don Q? Meh. W&P? Very difficult to argue against — except Anna K may be better. It’s between those two.

  • Gary Barnes says:

    Impossible to name five favourites because my mood is also a factor, but here goes (not in any order):
    1. The Grapes of Wrath;
    2. The Hobbit;
    3. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy;
    4. Lord of the Flies;
    5. Germinal.
    … but then there are Revolt in the Desert, Rebecca, David Copperfield, Dracula, Swallows & Amazons and Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee. Oh, it’s tough!

  • Clio Marsden says:

    What! My friends and family have been discussing this question for decades and find the above extended list almost perverse, though Tale of 2 cities, Ulysses and Origin of the Species should be in the top 100. Where’s the Iliad, Montaigne or Divine Comedy which should be there in top 5-10. What about Paradise Lost, Gibbon, Don Quixote, Aeneid, Decameron, Herodotus, Shakespeare, Karamazov, Proust which should all be near the top? What about the Principia, il Principe, I Promesi Spozi, Faust? What about Jane Eyre, Gulliver, Candide, Bovary, Walden, Vanity Fair, Crime and Punishment… Moliere, Chekhov, Austen, Balzac, Brontes, etc etc etc… in the next tier….

  • Marius Grinius says:

    Re “The World’s Greatest Books”:
    I have no objection to your “top five” or all the others that are mentioned in subsequent comments. I do, however, note that some 95%+ of the titles named are originally in English as if great literature written in languages other than English is somehow not as great. I refer to writers such as Cervantes, Gogol, Kazanzakis, Homer, Bulgakov, Lorca, Camus or Kafka, many of whom have been published in translation by The Folio Society, and rightly so. As to the top five, among the few great pieces of literature that I do occasionally re-read is Lawrence Durrell’s “The Alexandria Quartet” in its original language.

  • Pamela Wallbridge says:

    I like your choices but let’s face it, there are too many great books to really narrow it down to so few. My all time favourite has to be Henry James’s ‘The Aspern Papers’. For James, this is a refreshingly short read, but a work of art nevertheless. And by the way, don’t let anyone talk you into nominating Moby Dick. If ever a book deserves a good cut, that one does.

  • John Mikel says:

    One surprising omission: Treasure Island by RL Stevenson -the best Ripping Pirate Yarn. Also, The Wizard of Eartsea is amazing because it’s a Trilogy. C’mon Folio! Get your act together and publish all three (or was there a fourth?). —-The tales of Earthsea. Ursula le Guin would never forgive you. Dracula for horror of course. The Lion Witch and the Wardrobe for children. The Count of Monte Crito for revenge! I rest my case. (Ulysses? Anyone I know who has tried , never finishes. The book is difficult too read).

  • Janet White says:

    I would love Les Miserables. You put out an expensive collectors edition, but a standard Folio version would be welcome.

  • Michael Gould says:

    With the exception of Ulysses, and maybe 1984, I do not agree with this list.
    Why the Sonnets and not the First Folio of Shakespeare?
    A Tale of Two Cities is not even close to being the best Duckens novel. Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, or David Copperfield would be better choices.
    The Hobbit is better that Lord of the Rings

    My List would be:

    First Folio of Shakespeare
    Middlemarch – George Elliot
    Moby Dick – Herman Mellville
    Ulysses – James Joyce
    Life and Fate – Vasily Grossman

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