35 Of The Best Books To Read For Some Escapism

The 35 Must-Read Books

by William Lobley |
Updated on

There's nothing quite like binging on boxsets, marathoning a few feel-good movies and adventuring with video games. But, as much as this is highly recommended by Empire, it’s good to step away from the screen now and again. Thankfully, this doesn’t mean stepping away from entertainment.

When you've got a bit of time on your hands, it’s great to sink into a book or two. With that in mind, we’ve brought together some of the best reads available. It’s a varied buffet, offering up lengthy fantasy series, unmissable classics, and little-known gems.

If you're looking for something a little more specific, we've previously rounded up the best sci-fi novels, the books which inspired film adaptations, and the graphic novels which inspired film adaptations.

Just so you know, while we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this page, we never allow this to influence product selections.


Empire's Must-Read Books

Earthsea: The First Four Books by Ursula K. Le Guin1 of 35

Earthsea: The First Four Books by Ursula K. Le Guin

This collection of novels is a classic true fantasy adventure from Le Guin. The tale follows Ged, a goatherd turned all-powerful wizard who battles with uncharted oceans, dragons, religious cults, and his own self. Why you should read it: Arguably as important to the fantasy genre as The Lord of The Rings, Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle influenced countless authors, including Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and Christopher Paolini. Get the audiobook here

Dune by Frank Herbert2 of 35

Dune by Frank Herbert

Dune follows Paul Atreides as he and his family take up the stewardship of the planet Arrakis, home to a drug which allows the user to comprehend intense multidimensional thinking. This makes the planet worth protecting – and seizing. Why you should read it: Herbert's Dune is a true and epic classic of the science-fiction genre and was the winner of the first ever Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1966. The novel has had a huge impact on the world of sci-fi – without it, there would be no Star Wars. Get the audiobook here

IT by Stephen King3 of 35

IT by Stephen King

This hefty tome is a truly unique horror story that combines a terrifying clown with cosmic machinations to take a creepy peek at childhood innocence and free will. Why you should read it: King's IT is a masterwork of surreal and out-there horror writing at time in an almost Lovecraftian spirit. The film adaptations stand tall in the horror cannon, too, so it's probably time you read the source material. Get the audiobook here

The Colour of Magic (A Discworld Novel: Book One) by Terry Pratchett4 of 35

The Colour of Magic (A Discworld Novel: Book One) by Terry Pratchett

The Discworld balances on the back of four elephants which stand on the shell of a giant turtle. The fine equilibrium that exists in the universe is, however, under threat thanks to the arrival of the first tourist. While there are great powers in world, it's unfortunate for the people of the Disc that their fate rests in the hands of an incompetent wizard. Why you should read it: If you've never read a Discworld novel, then The Colour Of Magic provides a brilliant foundation for exploring the wider universe. In truth, any one of the Discworld novels is a wacky, hilarious and joyful read, thanks to the adept and knowing imagination of Terry Pratchett. Whichever you read, you're in for a marvellous time. Get the audiobook here

The Godfather by Mario Puzo5 of 35

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

The 1940s were a time of great change in America, and the same is true for its criminal underworld. The Corleone family sits at the centre of the American Mafia, but can family values stand up against the weight of money, blackmail and murder? Why you should read it: The Godfather is a non-stop ride of drama, betrayal and violence which tests loyalties and family bonds. It's also one of the finest examples of crime fiction ever put into print. Get the audiobook here

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea by Yukio Mishima6 of 35

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea by Yukio Mishima

Thirteen year old Noboru Kuroda hates normality, has hyper-realised sense of honour and a penchant for spying on his widowed mother. When a sailor beds his mother, Noboru believes he has found a hero – an aloof, romantic figure representing honour, adventure and masculinity. However, when the sailor begins to treat his mother as more than a mere conquest, Noboru and his cohort of intellectually twisted friends seek to redress the sailor's imbalance with the sea. Why you should read it: This novel brilliantly explores codes of honour and glory, was well loved by David Bowie, and is a short read with a slow burn that'll leave the reader chilled to the very core.Get the audiobook here

Perdido Street Station by China Miu00e9ville7 of 35

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

New Crobuzon is a city thick with pollution at the heart of an industrial police state, in which magic and steampunk Victorian technology coexist. Isaac is a researcher whose life is changed when he is visited by a bird-human hybrid from another land. Why you should read it: In a typically Miéville and New Weird style, Perdido Street Station combines fantasy and steampunk themes with a sharp political sensibility which is convincing, captivating and hugely entertaining. Get the audiobook here

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami8 of 35

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami

With a distant wife, bizarre anonymous phone calls and a missing cat, Toru Okada's life is unravelling. His seemingly innocent life is further thrown into disarray as he is taken on a journey lead by a stream of odd characters. Why you should read it: Murakami hasn't gained international renown for nothing - his writing is hypnotic, funny, strange and compellingly philosophical. The only way to truly understand why you should read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles is to read The Wind Up Bird Chronicles. Get the audiobook here

The Devil All The Time by Donald Ray Pollock9 of 35

The Devil All The Time by Donald Ray Pollock

The American Midwest. A married couple haunt the highways, killing. A dishonest preacher and his sidekick run from justice. A WW2 veteran prays for his dying wife, while a good little boy with a violent streak grows up.Why you should read it: This award winning read is a triumph of the American Gothic literary tradition. The apparently disparate tales seamlessly entwine into a visceral, grotesque and violent read which never lets up, building into a hugely satisfying climax. Get the audiobook here

The Name Of The Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle Book One) by Patrick Rothfuss10 of 35

The Name Of The Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle Book One) by Patrick Rothfuss

Kvothe is an innkeeper with a history. Once an orphan in an uncaring city of Tarbean, he made his way into the school of magic – disregarding the danger that lay within. Over his difficult and troubled life, Kvothe would come to be known as a powerful magician, thief and slayer of dragons. Why you should read it: When writing the first instalment of the Kingkiller Chronicle, Rothfuss wanted to refresh the fantasy genre. The intrigue, world-building and mystery that is built in this book will have you turning pages and euphorically ploughing through the follow instalment of the trilogy. Get the audiobook here

The Blade Itself (The First Law Book One) by Joe Abercrombie11 of 35

The Blade Itself (The First Law Book One) by Joe Abercrombie

Logen Ninefingers is a barbarian with one too many enemies. Captain Jezal dan Luthar is a card playing egotistical nobleman with dreams of glory. Inquistor Glotka is a torturer with nothing but hate in his heart and a vendetta against Jezal. As if these three didn't have enough to contend with, their lives will be made a lot harder by the appearance of the mysterious wizard Bayaz. Why you should read it: The Blade Itself, and the masterful First Law series, is a marvel of the grimdark fantasy genre. It's bloody, violent and grotesque, yet it's also funny, light and packed with well-presented and adrenaline-fuelled action sequences. Get the audiobook here

Blood of Elves (The Witcher Saga Book One) by Andrzei Sapowski12 of 35

Blood of Elves (The Witcher Saga Book One) by Andrzei Sapowski

For over a century peace has reigned. But now, the humans, elves, dwarves and gnomes are at each other's throats. Into this bloodshed, a child with incredible power is born. When the power of this young girl is sought by malicious powers, Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher, is charged with her protection. Why you should read it: Sapowski distils his passion and knowledge for everything fantasy into this novel and makes it feel fresh and exiting. The book is enthralling, funny and will certainly draw you into reading the rest of the brilliant _Witcher Saga._Get the audiobook here

Catch-22 by Joesph Heller13 of 35

Catch-22 by Joesph Heller

Captain John Yossarian and is men are trying to keep sane whilst trapped on an island towards the close of WW2. The biggest threat to their minds? Their own mission, which is laced with futility and paradox. Why you should read it: Heller's satire of war, conflict and military authority is a delight that will have any reader nodding, laughing and wailing in equal measure. There really isn't an experience quite like reading Catch-22 for this first time. It's fantastic.Get the audiobook here

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis14 of 35

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

Patrick Bateman is an investment banker. He's a yuppie with a passion for etiquette, 1980's pop music and his own appearance. He's also passionate about his evening hobbies, which include but are not limited to sadism, murder, torture and cannibalism. Why you should read it: Ellis's novel is a violent and gruesome ride, full of bizarre asides and prolonged bouts of graphic violence. It continuously tests the boundaries of what a reader can handle, whilst also providing a hilarious and searing satire of capitalism and masculinity. Get the audiobook here

The Stand by Stephen King15 of 35

The Stand by Stephen King

The Earth we know has ended. A deadly influenza has left the human race decimated, with only one percent surviving. In this new world, allegiances are forged or forced as all strive to rebuild civilisation for themselves, or for God. Why you should read it: King's post-apocalyptic horror fantasy tale is biblical, in every sense of the word. A pillar of apocalyptic fiction, and a darkly humorous and pertinent read for those who're so inclined in the current climate. Get the audiobook here

Consider Phlebas (A Culture Novel) by Iain M. Banks16 of 35

Consider Phlebas (A Culture Novel) by Iain M. Banks

As war rages between the Iridiains and the Culture, a fugitive Mind hides in the legendary labyrinthian world known as the Planet Of The Dead. Bora Horza Gobuchul is an enemy of the Culture, and is sent along with a band of mismatched mercenaries to retrieve the hyperintelligent AI. It isn't going to be all that simple, as betrayal, personal interest and high-stakes board games litter the path to his quarry. Why you should read it: Iain M. Banks' debut Culture novel is a space opera full of plot points as ruthless as the character enacting them on the page. The book isn't flawless, but that matters not – the universe Banks is building, The Culture, is one that you won't want to leave. Get the audiobook here

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky17 of 35

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Raskolnikov is a destitute man who believes that some are born superior, and therefore are capable of enacting certain deeds – in his case, murdering a lowly and morally corrupt pawnbroker. The brutality of the crime and the guilt attached to it haunts Raskolnikov and he begins to contemplate the consequences of nihilism, rationalism and utilitarianism. Why you should read it: Crime and Punishment is undoubtably a heavy read, but the truth, warmth and pertinent moral discussion at the centre of the book is hugely important. Besides, it's not all doom and gloom – Dostoevsky actually writes a very readable, witty and enjoyable book. Get the audiobook here

Out by Natsuo Kirino18 of 35

Out by Natsuo Kirino

Out follows four discontent women working the night shift at a Tokyo bento-packaging factory. When one of the women, the meek young mother Yayoi, murders her husband she calls on the others to help her dispose of the body. Eventually, the disappearance of the man draws the attentions of the police, yakuza-affiliated loan sharks, and a mysterious sinister force.Why you should read it: Natsuo Kirino's novel is a tale of burden, social inequality, perverse freedom and the magnetism of violence. Though seemingly huge topics, each is explored breathlessly with a razor sharp wit that drives the reader on and on. This twisted tale of sisterhood shouldn't be missed.

The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien19 of 35

The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Firstly, Bilbo Baggins finds the One Ring on his journey to Smaug the Dragon. Then years later when dark forces long forgotten arise, Frodo Baggins is given the quest by the wizard Gandalf to destroy the ring in the fires of Mt. Doom, no matter what the cost. Why you should read it: The Lord of the Rings is a story loaded with intrigue, drama, high-stakes fantasy action and is a true testament to the power of imagination. Its epic adventure credentials are only matched by its vast and unwavering influence. Get the audiobook here

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin20 of 35

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

The Seven Kingdoms may seem relatively at peace, but behind closed doors plans are being hatched to overthrow the current order and install a new king. Meanwhile, in the far north behind a towering wall of ice, a threat as old as time begins to stir, while over the narrow sea an exiled prince attempts to build an army. Why you should read it: The contemporary popularity of HBO's adaption Game of Thrones is well deserved, but it would've been nothing without the expansive source material. A Game of Thrones is a compelling and twisting read, complex yet well told, that will be sure to inspire any reader continue with rest of the, as yet unfinished, series. Get the audiobook here

Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel Garcu00eda Mu00e1rquez21 of 35

Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

Florentino Ariza is in love with Fermina Daza when Fermina's father sends her away. Years later, she returns to the city and marries another man. Despite wooing hundreds of other women, Florentino never stops loving Fermina, and continues to track her movements and reminisces on his love with a passion bordering on sickness. Why you should read it: This isn't some tragic love story, but a pointed and humorous deconstruction of love, obsession and lusts. Márquez deftly weaves a tale that demonstrates the irrational heart that beats in every romantic's chest. Get the audiobook here

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell22 of 35

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Winston Smith lives in Great Britain, now called Airstrip One, a domain of Oceania. Airstrip One is ruled by The Party, a seemingly omnipotent political party headed by Big Brother whose power is enforced by the Thought Police. Yet, when Winston starts to write in secret, the power that the party line holds over him begins to loosen. Why you should read it: This iconic of dystopian literature has left a trail of influence rarely matched by any other artistic creation.Get the audiobook here

Frankenstein: The 1818 Text by Mary Shelley23 of 35

Frankenstein: The 1818 Text by Mary Shelley

Victor Frankenstein is a student of science who happens upon the ability to bring life to non-living matter. Disregarding society's moral and religious preoccupations, he creates a being from pieces of the dead and gives it life. Horrified by his monstrous creation, Frankenstein casts it out. The monster, initially a peaceful being, is corrupted and seeks retribution from his cursed creator. Why you should read it: Mary Shelley amended Frankenstein several times during her life, editing and adding to the text in a way which ultimately softened and romanticised the original 1818 uncensored texts directness, violence, horror sensibilities and unashamedly humanist message.

Human Acts by Han Kang24 of 35

Human Acts by Han Kang

In Human Acts, the victims and survivors of the 1980 Gwangju uprising in South Korea have their stories told. The narrative fragments between the then and now, the dead and surviving, the active and the passive all have their say in a book which is in part a eulogy for the world that was, a lament on what was to come. Why you should read this: You don't need to be versed in true and tragic events of this book to be touched, moved and enthralled by Human Acts unique, gothic-tinged retelling. It's a credit to Han Kang's writing that the novel never feels like a treatise or history lesson, but a concise and piercing human tale.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy25 of 35

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

When "the kid" affiliates himself with the Galton gang, a scalp-hunting band of hunters, he becomes darkly fascinated with their leader, Judge Holden. Tramping the Texas-Mexico border in the 1840s, the gang unleashes a wave of increasingly nihilistic, unrighteous and unflinching violence and blood.Why you should read it: Cormac McCarthy is often cited for his harsh, mesmeric and masculine writing style, akin to a modern day Ernest Hemingway. In Blood Meridian, this tough writing style serves as a compelling medium for the exploration and destruction of the romantic wild west and cold monolithic heroes. Get the audiobook here

On The Road by Jack Kerouac26 of 35

On The Road by Jack Kerouac

On The Road tells the story of the young Sal Paradise and the carefree Dean Moriarty as they drive back and forth across the United States between 1947 and 1950. It's a ceaseless Americana adventure fuelled by poetry , jazz, drugs and coffee. Why you should read it: Kerouac's One The Road is a unwaveringly authentic tale which, on its publication in 1957, immediately cemented itself as the defining representation of the Beat Generation. Get the audiobook here

The Painted Man (The Demon Cycle Book One) by Peter V. Brett27 of 35

The Painted Man (The Demon Cycle Book One) by Peter V. Brett

The demonic corelings stalk the night, consumed by only one desire – to kill the human herd. For years, humankind has hidden behind the protective barrier provided by the wards, but as the human population and hope begins to dwindle, there are those who dare to step beyond the protection of wards, and to fight. Why you should read it: The Painted Man is a truly unique take on fantasy. The demons, the wards and the main character, Arlen, all transcend what you would typically expect from the genre, and the plot is laced with politics, drama and personal development. A great read, and great start to The Demon Cycle.

Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling28 of 35

Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

This bestselling fantasy series charts the life of Harry Potter who, while not studying at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, engages in potentially fatal battles against his arch-nemesis Lord Voldemort, a psychotic and fascistic wizard whose heinous desires know no bounds. Why you should read it: J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter is not only the bestselling book series of all time, but a wonderfully fantastical tale that deserves to be read and shared between readers young and old. Get the audiobook here

Killing Floor (Jack Reacher Book One) by Lee Child29 of 35

Killing Floor (Jack Reacher Book One) by Lee Child

Jack Reacher, a down-on-his-luck ex-cop, passes through Georgia and is arrested after an eyewitness pegs him for a murder. Jack didn't kill anyone, but he's going to find out who did. Why you should read it: Killing Floor, as with the entirety of Child's Jack Reacher series, is a fast-moving read that is loaded with action-hero set pieces and over the top…well, everything. Huge fun, and a brilliant pulpy escapist read. Get the audiobook here

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace30 of 35

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest isn't just one tale. It's four. Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents, The Wheelchair Assassins, are planning a violent revolution. An elite tennis school plays host to a number of students and is ran by James and Avril Incandenza. Falling into drug and alcohol addiction, various Bostonians enter recovery programs. The Incandenza family history is told. These threads coalesce around 'Infinite Jest', and film that demands continuous reviewingWhy you should read it: This is potentially one of the most experimental novels ever written, using endnotes, footnotes and multi-strand narratives to construct a world and story like no other. The fact this is categorised as an encyclopaedic novel should give you an insight into its weight and thoroughness. It's brilliant, but good luck. Get the audiobook here

The Eye Of The World (The Wheel Of Time Book One)31 of 35

The Eye Of The World (The Wheel Of Time Book One)

The ultimate tale of good versus evil. After their village is attacked by soldiers, Rand, Mat, Perrin, and Egwene flee. But they're still followed, they're still hunted. Why are these unassuming folk sought by forces of evil?Why you should read it: In The Eye Of The World, Jordan twists and changes conventional fantasy tropes with masterful wit and ease. It's packed with distinct and memorable characters, and serves as a gateway to the following 13 (yes, THIRTEEN) books in the Wheel Of Time series. Get the audiobook here

Atonement by Ian McEwan32 of 35

Atonement by Ian McEwan

In 1935, Briony Tallis utters words that are untrue. These simple words fundamentally change the direction of three lives, estranging a member of the family, sending another into war and overshadowing another with shame and regret. Why you should read it: Atonement is in some ways a sentimental novel, and in other a hard deconstruction of upper class morality, and a shocking and profound contemplation of forgiveness and regret. Get the audiobook here

Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger33 of 35

Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger

Holden Caulfield is an adolescent alienated from a world he despises. Having been expelled from his boarding school, Holden walks the streets of New York, musing on life and its shortcomings, and occasionally crossing paths with old friends and school teachers. Each is a let-down, being ultimately nothing more than a phoney. But can he sustain this mindset as he matures out of his youthful innocence and naivety? Why you should read it: This cult classic has a chequered history, which is simultaneously fascinating and distracting. A Catcher In The Rye is fundamentally a coming-of-age tale told in the lingering shadow of violence and alienation resulting from WW2.

Ulysses by James Joyce34 of 35

Ulysses by James Joyce

Ulysses follows the life of Leopold Bloom as he makes his way around Dublin on the 16th June 1904, thinking, talking, observing and drinking. It's an intense and playful novel that tests and toys with language, structure and expectation. What's it about? Who knows, maybe everything. Why you should read it: Joyce's opus was hugely controversial at the time of publication and it changed the face of modern literature. To this day academics are still trying to work out what he was on about, plus there's no denying that saying you've read Ulysses is a great boast. We'd recommended reading it alongside the 1982 real-time dramatisation from RTÉ Radio to get the full experience.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville35 of 35

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Ahab is a whaling captain with one ambition – hunting down and killing Moby Dick, a white sperm whale who took his leg. This obsessions soon gives way to a madness which sees his force his ship and crew into an unholy war with the sea. Why you should read it: Melville's novel, now considered a masterpiece, was unsuccessful in his lifetime. There's no doubt that its apparent failure was due to being decades ahead of its time. Moby-Dick combines literary styles, biblical references, humour and realism to create a book that is beloved by readers and envied by writers. Get the audiobook here

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