The best response to someone asking you about a book you haven’t read is to own up – immediately. The main reason for not lying about what you’ve read, of course, is that the lie somehow seems to stop you from actually getting round to the book. It’s also rather chic to be honest about this. I asked the bestselling novelist David Nicholls what he thought of DH Lawrence a few years ago and he said: ‘I would be more eloquent about this if I’d ever got to the end of one of his novels – and I never have.’ There was also the author of short, bleak novels in the style of Sylvia Plath who had to ride out my astonishment when she told me she hadn’t read Plath’s The Bell Jar. It’s not just professional authors who should feel emboldened to confess in this arena, however: I’m yet to embark on Pride and Prejudice.
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1866
The story of Rodion Raskolnikov, a broke former student who commits a random murder, should grip even the most reluctant reader. It’s widely considered to be the world’s first psychological thriller and has an uncanny ability to get under any reader’s skin. If you’re not going to read it and really want to bluff, you could always direct the conversation to Dostoyevsky’s own experience of crime and punishment: at 28, he was sentenced to death and stood before a firing squad but received a pardon at the 11th hour. This near-death informed the novel.
The End of the Affair, Graham greene, 1951
One of the greatest romantic novels of all time, Greene nonetheless states on the first page: ‘this is a record of hate far more than of love’. The affair of the title involves a self-absorbed novelist, Maurice Bendrix, and a married woman, Sarah Miles – their passionate relationship ends during the Blitz, leaving them both devastated. It’s a novel of doubt and faith as much as love, and while there’s a serviceable film starring Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore, you’ll miss out on so much – not least Greene’s use of flashback and stream-of- consciousness narrative – if you just watch that.
Catch-22, Joseph Heller, 1961
If a novel is powerful enough for its title to become an everyday phrase, it probably deserves to be read, doesn’t it? Set during the final months of World War II, the Catch-22 in Joseph Heller’s novel starts off as the paradox that meant airmen mentally unfit to fly did not have to do so, but could not be excused. The crazy logic of this has to be experienced first hand, but if you don’t have the stomach for it, you could always invoke the early reviewer who said Catch-22 ‘gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper.’
In Cold Blood, Truman Capote, 1966
If you’re a fan of true crime then this is where it all started. Capote’s exploration of the brutal murder of a family has been controversial since it was published. Questions have been asked about the writer’s relationship with the killers and to what extent he embellished facts. The book is now praised for Capote’s journalistic rigour and his imaginative skill. Either way, it possesses true narrative compulsion and is remarkable for the lack of judgement the author appears to display. The best of the films based on the book is Infamous, with Toby Jones playing Capote.
Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2006
You might know Adichie’s TED Talk We Should All Be Feminists was sampled on Beyonce’s track Flawless, but nothing compares to reading this, her masterpiece. Set following Nigerian independence from Britain in 1960 and during the Nigeria-Biafra war of 1967-70, this is a luminous and expertly plotted novel. If you pick this book up merely for politically correct reasons, that’s a shame, but at least you’ve picked it up. It will make you think about colonialism, class and race, but it’s also a brilliantly told story about relationships. Don’t imagine that you can just watch her TED Talk instead.
Alex Peake-Tomkinson is a literary critic