Based on curated lists from The Guardian, Flavorwire and more, suggestions from readers on Goodreads, Quora and Reddit, and picks from philosophical fiction authors like Khaled Hosseini, Irvin D. Yalom, Rebecca Goldstein and Daniel Quinn, here is a roundup of the 105 best philosophical novels ever written. To compile the final rankings, I assigned a weighted score to each novel appearing on a previous list and combined these scores with votes from readers and authors to produce a cumulative score that distinguished 105 novels as standouts from the pack of over 400 novels that garnered at least one vote. (Books in a series were considered a single entity and are listed by the title of the first book in the series. Categories of books are just for fun and do not reflect anything about a book’s ranking.)
As a bonus feature, I’ve produced two downloads: 1) the favorite works of philosophical fiction from twelve contemporary philosophical fiction authors and 2) a one-page PDF shopping guide to The Best Philosophical Novels. You can access both of these free resources below. And now, on with the list!
105. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)
This dystopian novel about a woman forced to procreate with an official in a repressive paternalist government won the 1985 Governor General’s Award for English fiction by a Canadian writer and the first British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987. It was also nominated for the 1986 Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Nebula Award, the 1986 Man Booker Prize for best original English novel published in the UK, and the 1987 Prometheus Award for best libertarian science fiction novel. It has been adapted for the cinema, radio, opera, stage and an upcoming television series.
104. Anthem by Ayn Rand (1937)
103. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)
102. Jacques the Fatalist by Denis Diderot (1796)
101. Death on the Installment Plan by Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1936)
100. Watt by Samuel Beckett (1953)
99. The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut (1959)
98. The Castle by Franz Kafka (1926)
Of individuals, rivals and family units—these books delve into the mystery of the human condition, both in solitude and community.
97. The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1774)
Napoleon Bonaparte carried this novel about a young man’s self-destructive love affair with him on his campaign to Egypt and considered it one of the great works of European literature. The novel also inspired “Werther Fever” throughout Europe, which led to young men imitating Werther’s clothing style and the production of Werther merchandise like prints, decorated Meissen porcelain and a perfume.
96. Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse (1930)
95. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)
Modern Library ranked this story of the tensions and conflicts within the Ramsay family during the early 1900s fifteenth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century, and TIME Magazine chose it as one of the 100 best English novels from 1923 to 2005.
The Cult Favorites
An odd smattering in this group, from contemporary science fiction to inspirational to a mind-bending thought experiment by a comic creator to a few literary stalwarts, but all of them devotedly enjoyed by a few die-hard fans.
90. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992)
90. The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma (1997)
90. God’s Debris: A Thought Experiment by Scott Adams (2001)
90. Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess (1995)
90. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (1961)
This novel about a New Orleans stockbroker’s quest to find his inner self won the 1962 U.S. National Book Award in fiction. It was ranked sixtieth on Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century and included in TIME’s 100 best novels from 1923 to 2005.
89. White Noise by Don DeLillo (1985)
Another U.S. National Book Award winner in fiction (1985), this postmodern tale of a college professor, his fourth wife and their four children and step-children also ranked on TIME’s 100 best novels from 1923 to 2005.
88. The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa (1982)
This category includes many favorites of high school reading lists, though the characters and stories themselves usually resist the status quo.
87. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
Iconic prep school deserter Holden Caulfield stars in this novel, which ranked fifteenth on the 2003 BBC survey “The Big Read” and made TIME’s list of the 100 best novels from 1923 to 2005 and both the editors’ and readers’ lists of Modern Library’s 100 best novels of the twentieth century.
86. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)
85. The Sacred Band by Janet E. Morris (2010)
84. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003)
82. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick (1965)
82. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1963)
This alternate reality tale about a post-World War II America divided between the Nazis and Japanese won the World Science Fiction Society’s Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1963 and was recently adapted into a television series.
81. Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman (1992)
80. Ubik by Philip K. Dick (1969)
This novel about a team of anti-psychic spies unraveling a series of strange phenomena including the reversal of time was chosen by TIME as one of the 100 best novels from 1923 to 2005.
79. Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis (1946)
78. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877)
Tolstoy considered this tale of love and adultery in high society Russia his first true novel (believing War and Peace to be more than a novel). Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Nabokov both declared it “flawless.” William Faulkner described it as “the best [novel] ever written,” a consensus shared by a 2007 TIME poll of 125 contemporary authors.
The Diamonds in the Rough
These books showcase authors telling great stories about horrifying or seemingly mundane events. If the subject matter doesn’t attract you (or even repulses you), the writing will.
77. The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1869)
Eschewing the ironic title reference to the central character of the novel, Dostoevsky set himself the task of depicting “the positively good and beautiful man” and ended up with the kind-hearted and simple Prince Lyov Nikolaevich Myshkin. The result, according to philosopher A.C. Grayling, is “one of the most excoriating, compelling and remarkable books ever written; and without question one of the greatest.”
76. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (1985)
Considered McCarthy’s masterpiece, this novel follows the fourteen-year-old Kid through a nightmarish Wild West where Indians are murdered and their scalps sold for considerable profit and was ranked on TIME’s list of the 100 Best novels from 1923 to 2005.
75. Thérèse Philosophe by Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, Marquis d’Argens (1748)
74. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (2006)
73. Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach (1977)
71. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000)
71. Blindsight by Peter Watts (2006)
A crew of astronauts investigates an unidentified radio signal emanating from a comet in this nominee for a Hugo Award, Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel and John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. Download Peter Watts’ philosophical fiction recommendations using the form at the top or bottom of this post.
70. Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)
This novel about a group of British boys stranded on a deserted island trying and miserably failing to govern themselves made both of Modern Library’s lists of 100 best twentieth century novels (forty-first on the editors’ list and twenty-fifth on the readers’ list), ranked seventieth on BBC’s “The Big Read,” and was chosen by TIME as one of the 100 best novels from 1923 to 2005.
69. Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals by Robert M. Pirsig (1991)
The Fifteen-Minute Club
Novels that defined an author’s career, brought a writer into the limelight (Eco and Huxley), or was the only novel produced by an author (Wilde).
68. Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (1940)
67. When Nietzsche Wept by Irvin D. Yalom (1992)
Doctor Josef Breuer and the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche explore the depths of their psyches to discover the power of friendship in this fictional meeting in 1882 Vienna. Download Irvin D. Yalom’s philosophical fiction recommendations using the form at the top or bottom of this post.
66. Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco (1988)
65. Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit by Daniel Quinn (1992)
This novel, which explores humanity’s origins and its relationship with nature to discover how we can save the world from ourselves, received the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship in 1991 for the best work of fiction offering positive solutions to global problems. Download Daniel Quinn’s philosophical fiction recommendations using the form at the top or bottom of this post.
64. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (1924)
Lynne Sharon Schwartz, author of Disturbances in the Field, says this novel of ideas which uses a Swiss sanatorium to symbolize the whole of early twentieth century Europe “has one of the best long discussions of time that I’ve ever read.”
63. The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993)
Winner of the Association for Library Services to Children’s 1994 Newberry Medal for best children’s literature, this novel about a twelve-year-old boy who discovers the secrets of his apparently utopian society remains a staple of middle school reading lists despite ranking eleventh on the American Library Association’s list of the most challenged books of the 1990s.
62. Thomas the Obscure by Maurice Blanchot (1941)
61. Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1932)
60. Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001)
This novel about a teenage boy who finds himself alone in a lifeboat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger after a shipwreck won the 2002 Man Booker Prize, the 2003 South African Boeke Prize and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Best Adult Fiction for 2001-2003. It was adapted into a 2012 Academy Award-nominated feature film directed by Ang Lee and written by David Magee.
59. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)
A nameless black narrator describes his journey from a black community in the American South to New York City and the fight for equal rights in this winner of the 1953 U.S. National Book Award. Modern Library ranked Invisible Man nineteenth on its list of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century and TIME included it in its 100 best novels from 1923 to 2005, calling it “the quintessential American picaresque of the 20th century.”
58. After Many a Summer Dies the Swan by Aldous Huxley (1939)
This satire about humanity’s desire to live forever won the 1939 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, one of the oldest British awards for English-language fiction.
57. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890)
The Social Critiques
There’s a healthy dose of science fiction and dystopian fiction in this collection of novels that directly attack some aspect of popular society.
56. A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick (1977)
A law enforcement agent hunts a drug dealer, but both are the same person whose mind has been split by Substance D in this 1978 BSFA Best Novel winner.
55. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke (1910)
54. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)
A brutal teenage criminal is brainwashed by the state in this novel that made TIME’s list of the 100 best novels from 1923 to 2005 and both the editors’ and readers’ lists of Modern Library’s 100 best twentieth-century novels. It was adapted into the 1971 Academy Award-nominated film by Stanley Kubrick.
53. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899)
52. Solaris by Stanislaw Lem (1961)
51. Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945)
Overworked, mistreated farm animals organize and revolt in this political satire that won a Retrospective Hugo Award in 1996, ranked thirty-first on Modern Library’s list of best twentieth-century novels and was chosen by TIME as one of the 100 best novels from 1923 to 2005.
50. Anathem by Neal Stephenson (2008)
49. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
This novel about a society devoid of sexual prejudices won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel in 1970 and was ranked the third-best science fiction novel behind Frank Herbert’s Dune and Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End in a 1975 poll in Locus magazine and second behind only Dune in a 1987 Locus poll.
48. Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)
Still eking out The Left Hand of Darkness, this tale of a young man leading a political and spiritual revolution to avenge the traitorous plot against his family tied with Roger Zelazny’s This Immortal for the 1966 Hugo Award and won the inaugural Nebula Award for Best Novel in the same year.
A graphic novel? A murder mystery wrapped in philosophy? A parable about geometric shapes? Vonnegut? These books will give your brain a workout in more ways than one.
47. A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch (1961)
46. The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899)
45. Watchmen by Alan Moore (1987)
44. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein (1961)
The U.S. Library of Congress named this novel about a human being raised on Mars discovering the quirks and prejudices of Earthlings as one of eighty-eight “Books that Shaped America.”
43. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (1963)
42. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
Centered around the World War II firebombing of Dresden while also following protagonist Billy Pilgrim’s journey through time, this novel ranked eighteenth on Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century and appeared on TIME’s list of the 100 best novels from 1923 to 2005.
41. The Last Puritan by George Santayana (1935)
40. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (1980)
39. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
This novel about a physicist who travels to the utopian planet Anarres to challenge the isolation and hatred of his home planet was named Best Novel at the 1974 Nebula Awards, the 1975 Hugo Awards and the 1975 Locus Awards.
38. Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon (1937)
37. Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott (1884)
36. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)
35. Utopia by Thomas More (1516)
The subtitle says it all. Some of the most popular and famous books of all time in any genre can be found in this group.
34. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1943)
Part allegory, part autobiography, this novella is the fourth most-translated book in the world and the best-selling single-volume book ever written.
33. The Age of Reason by Jean-Paul Sartre (1945)
32. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (1943)
31. Under the Net by Iris Murdoch (1954)
This novel about the adventures of a broke hack writer and a silent philosopher was chosen by TIME as one of the 100 best novels from 1923 to 2005 and named by Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century.
30. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1996)
TIME included this sprawling novel split between an addicts’ halfway house and a youth tennis academy in its list of the 100 best novels from 1923 to 2005. Rebecca Goldstein, author of The Late-Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind, calls it “an extraordinary book.”
29. The Fall by Albert Camus (1956)
28. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (1988)
This novel about an Andalusian shepherd boy whose quest for treasure leads him to a far different and more fulfilling wealth is the third best-selling single-volume book ever and holds the Guinness World Record for most translated book by a living author.
27. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968)
Peter Watts, author of Blindsight, calls this novel about a bounty hunter pursuing rogue androids “a rumination on the essential nature of humanity.”
26. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
In a future American society, books are outlawed and “firemen” burn the ones they find in this winner of the 1954 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature, a 1984 Prometheus Hall of Fame Award and a 1954 Retro Hugo Award in 2004, one of only four Best Novel Retro Hugos ever given.
25. Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth by Hermann Hesse (1919)
24. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)
“Call me Ishmael” is perhaps the most famous opening sentence in literature in this tale of Captain Ahab’s obsessive pursuit of revenge against the white whale that bit off his leg. William Faulkner confessed he wished he had written the novel himself, and D. H. Lawrence called it “one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world” and “the greatest book of the sea ever written.”
Absurd, unique, revolutionary—these books turned the world on its head and created a lasting impact.
23. The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925)
22. The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse (1943)
When Hesse won the 1946 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy said this novel about a man consumed with mastering a game that combines aesthetics, science, mathematics, music, logic and philosophy “occupies a special position” in Hesse’s work.
21. The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil (1943)
20. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1869)
When Napoleon Bonaparte invades Russia in 1812, peasants, nobility, civilians and soldiers struggle with problems unique to their era, their history, and their culture. Newsweek ranked this novel first in its 2009 list “Top 100 Books,” while TIME ranked it third (two places behind Anna Karenina) in its poll of the ten greatest books of all time.
19. Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1864)
18. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (1915)
17. The Republic by Plato (380 BCE)
In 2001, a survey of over 1,000 academics and students voted Plato’s argument for the ideal state (and the oldest book on this list) the greatest philosophical text ever written, with philosopher Julian Baggini arguing that although the work “was wrong on almost every point, the questions it raises and the methods it uses are essential to the western tradition of philosophy. Without it we might not have philosophy as we know it.”
16. The Plague by Albert Camus (1947)
15. Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder (1991)
14. 1984 by George Orwell (1949)
This classic cautionary tale of a totalitarian surveillance state ranked thirteenth on Modern Library’s editors’ list and sixth on its readers’ list of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century, and was chosen by TIME as one of the 100 best novels from 1923 to 2005.
13. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (1927)
“Oh if I could write like that!” marveled Virginia Woolf about this gigantic story of a nameless Narrator growing up, learning about art, participating in society and falling in love. Alain de Botton, author of Essays in Love, calls this book, also known by the title Remembrance of Things Past, “the ultimate novel of ideas,” and says it “tackles the meaning of life.”
12. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)
11. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (1957)
10. Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse (1927)
The Magnum Opuses
The most famous books by four big-name writers (and Dostoevsky’s so good he gets two).
9. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)
Joining its dystopian partner 1984 on both the editors’ (fifth) and readers’ (eighteenth) lists of Modern Library’s 100 best twentieth-century novels, this book anticipates modern developments in reproductive technology, sleep-learning, psychological manipulation and classical conditioning. Jack Bowen, author of The Dream Weaver, says “I read this for a Bioethics course at Stanford and is one of the things that really piqued my interest in philosophy in general.”
8. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1880)
7. Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre (1938)
6. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert M. Pirsig (1974)
This novel about a father and son’s summer motorcycle trip across the American Northwest has sold five million copies worldwide despite being rejected by 121 publishers, a Guinness World Record for a bestselling book.
5. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866)
The Three Wise Men
Beginning with these three novels, there was some clear separation at the top of the list. These books are the crowning works of three great philosophical thinkers.
4. Candide by Voltaire (1759)
James K. Morrow, author of Towing Jehovah, says this tale of a young man’s indoctrination and slow disillusionment with optimism as he experiences hardships in the world “came along just when it was needed, delivering our species from the illusion that the world has been optimally arranged from On High.”
3. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (1922)
2. Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche (1891)
This story about the ancient Persian prophet Zarathustra descending from the mountains to announce the death of God and rise of the Superman, the human embodiment of divinity, is the quintessential example of a great philosopher expressing his ideas through fiction.
In the end, one book stood head and shoulders above the rest. Almost every list of philosophical novels included this title, which earned great popularity among readers, editors and authors alike.
1. The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942)
Camus’ famous tale of an ordinary man drawn into a senseless murder on an Algerian beach is approachable enough to reach a wide audience while still putting forth a coherent philosophical position, making it a clear-cut choice for the top philosophical novel.
For more philosophical fiction, download the favorite philosophical novels of twelve philosophical fiction authors and a one-page PDF shopping guide to The Best Philosophical Novels using the form below. And to stay up-to-date with your philosophical reading, check out the best philosophical novels published in the years after this list: