With a few significant literary dates popping up in our calendar – World Book Day, the launch of the Library’s Leisure Reading Collection and Liverpool Students’ Union Book Swap – we thought it was a perfect time to find out what our students and staff consider to be the best fiction of all time.
Once the results of our poll were in, we sought out experts in the English department to give their views on what makes these books special and why they are loved by so many.
Our top ten favourite books:
1. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
A bestseller from 2003, Hosseini’s tale of childhood betrayal and adult atonement, is set in Afghanistan before its Soviet occupation and latter-day California among the Afghan-American community. Criticised for its paternalism (higher-class Amir and his moral struggle is our lens on the world throughout) and perhaps overly-neat parallels in plot and character, The Kite Runner and its filmic and theatrical incarnations have remained popular, the novel alone selling millions of copies across the U.S. and in Britain. Its charm for many lies with the depiction of ordinary life in Afghanistan, the careful characterisation of Amir and Hassan, Amir’s servant and best-friend, and the story of an agonising attempt at redemption. – Dr. Kate Walchester
2. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland marked the start of a golden age of children’s literature when it was published in 1865, although it is now perhaps more often read and appreciated by adults. Lewis Carroll’s original story takes the reader down the rabbit-hole into an anarchic Wonderland – a topsy-turvy world of riddling animals, word play and power games that is as entertaining as it is unsettling. Alice herself stands as a heroine for the modern age: a young girl who remains rational, cool-headed and assertive in the face of a world turned upside down. – Dr. Emily Cumming
3. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
As well as coming up with one of the best book titles ever, Harper Lee succeeds beautifully in getting inside the head of Scout, the six-year-old daughter of the lawyer Atticus Finch. As Scout narrates the tale, rough Southern justice and racism come to be seen through the relentless logic and thinking-from-first-principles of a child. It’s literary artifice of course—no six-year-old ever spoke or wrote like Scout. But it works like a charm. And Boo Radley, the reclusive neighbour who ends up saving the children in the end, gives hope to misfits and loners everywhere. – Prof. Joe Moran
4. 1984 – George Orwell
George Orwell’s dystopian novel is as relevant now as it was when first published in 1949. The totalitarian practices of his fictional ruling elite, “the Party”, are mirrored today by neoliberalism and its ceaseless deployment of coercion. Nineteen Eighty-Four depicts a world in which a police state that is forever at war abroad, tortures citizens at home, constantly rewrites history and controls thought by distorting language itself, all in the service of power. Governed as we now are by rulers who want to dictate reality according to their “alternative facts”, we have much to learn from this prophetic novel and its tale of doomed rebellion. – Dr Deaglán Ó Donghaile
5. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre is a novel of multitudes. Its style alternates between passages of realist social criticism, extraordinary melodrama and the heightened emotional registers of Romantic poetry. Its narrative blends together the autobiographical techniques of the bildungsroman, the pervasive anxieties of gothic fiction and the forensic analysis of the ‘condition of England’ novel. Brontë, stung by the failure of her first novel The Professor, sought to write a novel that satisfied the conventional demands of popular three-volume fiction but which also challenged then-dominant ideas about female sexuality, labour and agency. The novel’s central romance between Jane and the mysterious roué Rochester has proved sufficiently rich and ambiguous to sustain uncountable adaptations and reinterpretation for the stage, cinema, radio and television. Brontë would go on to outlive all of her siblings before her own death in 1855 at aged 38. She went on to write longer, more complex novels including Shirley (1849) and the remarkable Villette (1853). None, though, was able to match Jane Eyre’s sustained popularity or critical success. – Dr. Jonathan Cranfield
6. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
You could say that The Great Gatsby is about lots of things: the glamour of youth and money, the splendour of the American landscape, the bogus lustre of charisma, the painful desire for things you can never have, life as a long, slow-dawning disappointment. But really it’s about one thing: the power and beauty of its own sentences. No other book I have read gives me such a sense of the music that lies behind syntax, the poetry of prose. In one of his later stories, “Financing Finnegan”, Fitzgerald writes of one of his characters that “what he could actually do with words was astounding, they glowed and coruscated—he wrote sentences, paragraphs, chapters that were masterpieces of fine weaving and spinning.” Fitzgerald must have hoped that he was also describing himself—and he was. – Prof. Joe Moran
7. Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
A reviewer in 1848 referred to Wuthering Heights as ‘a strange book’ and certainly in the century and a half since it was published Emily Brontë’s fabulous account of power struggles and passion on the Yorkshire moors has challenged and disturbed many readers. Describing property transfers and marriages across two generations, this dark love story has prompted numerous sequels and alternative versions in print, art, film and music (cue Kate Bush, ‘It’s me oh, Catheee…’). – Dr. Kate Walchester
8. Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
We’re probably a bit too quick to attach the ‘cult’ label to books, but Catcher in the Rye seems to have earned its cultish status for all the right (and wrong!) reasons. Holden Caulfield is an anti-hero who still manages to capture the imagination of contemporary teenagers, even though Catcher was first published in 1951. We find traces of Holden’s voice in generation after generation of teenage narrators. This is certainly a book which invites intense identifications from its readers, and which – most infamously – is tragically linked with John Lennon’s killer, Mark Chapman, who left a copy of the novel at the murder scene. But there is much more to this book than adolescent angst, or pathological fandom. Salinger writes about coming to terms with the trauma of war, dealing with grief, and coping with the alienating effects of mass consumerism. Above all, he writes about the self-deluding double-speak of adulthood. As Holden wanders the streets of New York, railing against phonies or performing his eccentric acts of quiet rebellion, most of us find it hard not to like him, and to feel a bit like him. – Dr. Jo Croft
9. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
Perhaps one of the most admired, emulated, adapted and parodied books in the English language, Pride and Prejudice has shaped our romantic imaginations, defined our female heroines and advanced our understanding of marriage as a moral and business transaction. Yet while its narrative energy and engaging characters have fuelled translations into film, such as the Bollywood iteration Bride and Prejudice (2004), into the mock gothic of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Seth Graham-Smith, 2009 and subsequent film), and into a tale told from the perspective of a servant girl in the Bennett household (Jo Baker’s captivating Longbourn, 2014) none of these can match the faultless prose, perfect pace and knowing humour of Austen’s original. And no adaptation has equalled her crystal-cut dissection of domestic desire and its economic underpinnings. – Prof. Glenda Norquay
10. Lord of the Flies – William Golding
Most people know this story’s basics: a plane crash leaves a group of English schoolboys stranded on an island, where the head-boyish Ralph and the bespectacled Piggy try to set up a civil society, only for it to descend into barbarism. But being familiar with the story does not prepare you for the actual reading of it, which is compelling and disturbing even when you guess (or already know) the ending. Golding called his books fables and that is what they are: as inevitable-seeming as fairy tales, as lapidary as Scripture. – Prof. Joe Moran
Need a reminder of the books you voted on? Take a look at the complete list of results and suggestions.
Have you always got your head in a book? Thought about studying English Literature? Take a look at the courses you could study at LJMU.