1. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell. I read this for the first time years ago, but it’s still probably the best novel I’ve read all year. It’s a book about humanity’s lust for power with a unique narrative structure: six stories nested inside one another, Russian doll-like. Each of the stories (the genres as varied as 19th-century travelogues, 1970s pulp fiction and post-apocalyptic fantasy) would work on its own as a novella, yet combined they are greater than the sum of their parts. How they’ve managed to make it into a film I have no idea, but it’s been done, and enough critics like it for me to think that it could be good.
  2. The Shallows – Nicholas Carr. The only non-fiction on this list, The Shallows is unlike any book I’ve read. Carr jumps from the development of the printing press to modern developments in neuroscience, yet you never feel disoriented by the cognitive leap. His thesis in a nutshell is that the rise of the internet is affecting the way that we think, through training our minds to prefer shorter bursts of information to sustained argument, and by using electronic aids to find information rather than absorbing it and remembering it. I found this book scary because of how true to life I found it. This is essential reading for those who find they can’t read books as well as they used to, who struggle to remember anything without a search engine, and whose days are constantly interrupted by email and social networking.
  3. Hamlet – William Shakespeare. I’ve never read a Shakespearean tragedy before, though I’ve seen a couple on stage. You don’t need me to say that Shakespeare’s a brilliant playwright, but reading Hamlet gave me a far deeper appreciation of his genius. The early scenes where he mourns his father’s death are particularly moving, and I loved the colourful (not in that sense) language throughout.
  4. Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis. A quintessentially British and highly sophisticated farce about a young academic historian in a “new” university. The characterisation is laugh-out-loud in its exuberance, and I felt physical pain contemplating some of the awkward situations the title character finds himself in. (Trying to cover up cigarette burns in his hostess’s sheets by cutting off the edges is an early highlight.) I should have read this years ago.
  5. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald writes beautiful sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. There are parts of this book that left me revelling in his deft use of language (though there were others that left me searching for definitions in a dictionary). The story unfolds slowly, but in a good way, allowing you to enjoy the view as you travel to your destination, as it were. You’ll notice I’ve not even touched on the plot – that of a rich man living in Long Island luxury, but obsessively in love with the wrong woman. A great introduction to modern American literature, and I’m excited to see the new film when it finally arrives in the UK.