The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (1979) Tom Wolfe raised reportage to dazzling new levels in his quest to discover what makes a man fly to the moon.
Orientalism by Edward Said (1978) This polemical masterpiece challenging western attitudes to the east is as topical today as it was on publication.
An astonishingly personal and accessible account of how Cambridge scientists Watson and Francis Crick unlocked the secrets of DNA and transformed our understanding of life.
This powerful study of loss asks: “Where is God?” and explores the feeling of solitude and sense of betrayal that even non-believers will recognise.
Dorothy Parker and Stephen King have both urged aspiring writers towards this crisp guide to the English language where brevity is key.
This influential cultural study of postwar Britain offers pertinent truths on mass communication and the interaction between ordinary people and the elites.
Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin (1955) Baldwin’s landmark collection of essays explores, in telling language, what it means to be a black man in modern America.
The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art by Kenneth Clark (1956) Clark’s survey of the nude from the Greeks to Picasso foreshadows the critic’s towering claims for humanity in his later seminal work, Civilisation.
The Hedgehog and the Fox by Isaiah Berlin (1953) The great historian of ideas starts with an animal parable and ends, via a dissection of Tolstoy’s work, in an existential system of thought.
This landmark recipe book, a horrified reaction to postwar rationing, introduced cooks to the food of southern Europe and readers to the art of food writing.
The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care by Dr Benjamin Spock (1946) The groundbreaking manual urged parents to trust themselves, but was also accused of being the source of postwar “permissiveness”.
How to Cook a Wolf by MFK Fisher (1942) The American culinary icon was one of the first writers to use food as a cultural metaphor, describing the sensual pleasures of the table with elegance and passion.
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (1936) The original self-help manual on American life – with its influence stretching from the Great Depression to Donald Trump – has a lot to answer for.
Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed (1919) The American socialist’s romantic account of the Russian revolution is a masterpiece of reportage.
The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James (1902) This revolutionary work written by Henry James’s less famous brother brought a democratising impulse to the realm of religious belief.
Truly ahead of his time, the 17th-century historian and gossip John Aubrey is rightly credited as the man who invented biography.
The Scottish writer’s hike in the French mountains with a donkey is a pioneering classic in outdoor literature – and as influential as his fiction.
Arnold caught the public mood with this high-minded but entertaining critique of Victorian society posing questions about the art of civilised living that still perplex us.
New England’s inventor of “transcendentalism” is still revered for his high-minded thoughts on individuality, freedom and nature expressed in 12 essays.
An addiction memoir, by the celebrated and supremely talented contemporary of Coleridge and Wordsworth, outlining his life hooked on the the drug.
The Scottish explorer’s account of his heroic one-man search for the river Niger was a contemporary bestseller and a huge influence on Conrad, Melville and Hemingway.
Perhaps the greatest and certainly one of the most influential history books in the English language, in which Gibbon unfolds the narrative from the height of the Roman empire to the fall of Byzantium.
A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume (1739) This is widely seen as the philosopher’s most important work, but its first publication was a disaster.
A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift (1729) The satirist’s jaw-dropping solution to the plight of the Irish poor is among the most powerful tracts in the English language.
Readable, reliable, full of surprise and charm, Defoe’s Tour is an outstanding literary travel guide.
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke (1689) Eloquent and influential, the Enlightenment philosopher’s most celebrated work embodies the English spirit and retains an enduring relevance.
Areopagitica by John Milton (1644) Today, Milton is remembered as a great poet. But this fiery attack on censorship and call for a free press reveals a brilliant English radical.
Burton’s garrulous, repetitive masterpiece is a compendious study of melancholia, a sublime literary doorstop that explores humanity in all its aspects.