100 monumental novels from literary history
Almost 4,000 years ago, an unknown scholar in ancient Mesopotamia wrote the first known book on a series of clay tablets. The story was “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” a fictionalized recounting of the life of an ancient king of Uruk. While the art of telling stories dates back even further, this singular epic poem is in large part responsible for the development of literature as we know it today.
In the millennia since this story was first written down, there have been millions, if not billions, more books written and published. A voracious reader could charge through a stack a day and not even make a dent in the world’s literary canon. This truth poses a problem for many readers: How does one know which few thousand books to read in a lifetime? How do you determine which are worth the time and brain space, and which are not?
Today, Stacker helps readers solve this age-old quandary—at least when it comes to novels. We’ve dug through the literature of the world, using sources like Goodreads, awards lists, and New York Times Best Seller columns to round up 100 monumental novels everyone should read before they die. These books are important for a variety of reasons. Some made the list because of the powerful stories they tell. Some made the list because of the way their form or style changed writing as a whole. Some made the list because of the representation they give to underseen and undervalued cultures or identities, and some made the list simply because, like “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” their very existence changed the course of the world.
Two caveats to note before diving into the following pages. Only novels (including some ancient epic poems) were considered for the list. So many important and influential authors, like William Shakespeare and Niccolò Machiavelli, have been left out, not because their contributions aren’t great but because they never authored long-form fictional narratives. Also, for many of these works, especially the earlier ones, an exact publication date is difficult to nail down. In an effort to remain consistent, we consulted Goodreads for all publication years.
So, from ancient Greek epics like “The Odyssey” to modern hits like “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” read on to find out which novels Stacker considers must-reads.
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The Epic of Gilgamesh
- Author: Anonymous
- Date published: 1800 B.C.
Literary scholars agree that “The Epic of Gilgamesh” is the oldest existing piece of written fiction in the world. Early versions of the text, which is an epic poem detailing the adventures of a real-life Sumerian King named Gilgamesh, date as far back as approximately 1800 B.C. However, the most complete versions of this foundational text are more recent, dating from the 12th century B.C.
- Author: Homer
- Date published: 750 B.C.
“The Iliad” is an epic poem about the roles of men and gods during the Trojan War. Another foundational text of world literature, the poem is attributed to the blind poet Homer. For centuries, scholars have debated whether Homer really existed, with many believing the poem may have actually been written by a group of individuals over a long period of time.
- Author: Homer
- Date published: 700 B.C.
You can hardly mention “The Iliad” without also mentioning “The Odyssey.” The epic poem tells the story of Odysseus’s journey home from the Trojan War, as he battles monsters, fates, and gods to return to his home and family. Just as “The Iliad” set the stage for future groundbreaking pieces of war literature, so did “The Odyssey” set the stage for adventure tales.
- Author: Vishnu Sharma
- Date published: 300 B.C.
Originally written in Sanskrit, “The Panchatantra” is a collection of fables and folklore that gives instruction on how to live. While the book itself is an important piece of Indian literature, it’s also representative of an entire genre of folklore, fairy tales, and fables that began to be transcribed around this time. Eventually, these types of stories went on to be the foundation for today’s fantasy genre.
- Author: Virgil
- Date published: 19 B.C.
Another epic poem originally written in Latin, “The Aeneid” tells the story of Aeneas and includes legend of the founding of Rome. This tale from 19 B.C. is one of the earliest known examples of historical fiction.
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- Author: Ovid
- Date published: 8 A.D.
No list of monumental novels would be complete without Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” a masterpiece of ancient literature. A narrative poem, the book chronicles the history of the world, tying together all existing myths and histories from the beginning of the world up through the rule of Julius Caesar. It is thought to have inspired later literary greats like William Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri, and Salman Rushdie.
- Author: Petronius
- Date published: 66
“The Satyricon” is a satiric mock epic about an impotent man’s quest to regain virility. It built on the satire established by the Roman writers who first introduced it. Similar in tone to books by authors like David Sedaris, the hilarious, tongue-in-cheek tale surely inspired other famous comic writers in the millennia since.
Daphnis and Chloe
- Author: Longus
- Date published: 150
One of few surviving examples of an ancient Greek novel, “Daphnis and Chloe” is Longus’s only known work. A pastoral romance, the book follows two young orphans, a shepherdess, and a goatherd as they attempt to figure out how to consummate their love. The work has inspired dozens of artists since, including Shakespeare, Henry Fielding, and Maurice Ravel.
The Golden Ass
- Author: Apuleius
- Date published: 158
“The Golden Ass” is the only novel written in Latin that has survived in its entirety. A story of magic and romance, it follows a young man who attempts to turn himself into a bird but ends up as a donkey instead. By turns bawdy, sweet, and fantastic, this early novel will hold your attention from beginning to end.
- Author: Anonymous
- Date published: 900
Jumping ahead several hundred years, we come to “Beowulf,” an Anglo-Saxon epic poem. Written in Old English, the story follows the titular hero as he fights a monster, the monster’s mother, and a dragon, eventually becoming the king of modern-day Scotland. The book is similar to books like “Le Morte d’Arthur” and “The Once and Future King” in that it mixes fantasy with history.
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