Literary London is a city all on its own. You could organize a whole visit to the city exclusively around visiting its bookish landmarks, from the Charles Dickens Museum to Kings Cross’ fictitious Platform 9 3/4 from the Harry Potter series. As you can guess, then, there’s no shortage of books about London. And if you’re looking for a way to explore the city when you’re not actually in the city, then look no further than your local library or bookstore.
The biggest question, probably, is where to start. To help you answer that, we’ve put together a list of 10 of our favorite books set in and around London, which span from fiction to nonfiction and all throughout time. It’s only a small sampling of the offerings out there, true. We tried to give you a diverse offering so that no matter what kind of reader you are, there’s something here for you.
Nonfiction Books About London
For The Historian: London By Peter Ackroyd
As with many of the entries in our Read the World series, we wanted to start with a book that gives you a general history of the city. There are countless options for that in London, but Peter Ackroyd’s London might be the most beloved. It’s filled with information on the past and present of the city, but it also doesn’t adhere to the usual chronological order of a history book. Instead, Ackroyd focuses on various themes, like the city at night or London’s radicals. It’s not a short read by any means, but it is possibly the best introduction to England’s capital you can find.
For The Diarist: The Diary Of Samuel Pepys By Samuel Pepys
A well-kept diary is one of the most useful historical documents we have. Londoner Samuel Pepys kept his diary in the middle of the 17th century, eloquently describing momentous events like the coronation of Charles II and the Great London Fire of 1666 as they happened. Like any diary, it also gives insight into his personal life and the more petty dramas of his day. Trying to read the whole diary is quite a task — he wrote an incredible amount — but you can focus on the most important material with an abridged version, like the one edited by Richard Le Gallienne.
For The True Crime Reader: The Five By Hallie Rubenhold
Jack the Ripper is likely the most written-about serial killer in all of history. Something about the story of these unsolved murders has attracted readers for literally centuries. While most of these books focus on the unknown killer, Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five turns this on its head with The Five. In this book, she looks instead at the victims and pieces together the lives of the five women who are all believed to be murdered by the same person. It’s an important shifting of the narrative that reminds the reader that these victims of a terrible crime were full, complex people.
For The Memoirist: One Way Ticket By Fotis Loizou
As a central hub of Europe, London has always attracted migrants from all around the world. Notably, these people often come from current or former colonies of the United Kingdom. In One Way Ticket, Fotis Loizou tells the story of his own family leaving Cyprus in the 1950s to start new lives in London. Rather than a heartwarming story of London as a place of opportunity, Loiszou presents the more difficult reality, detailing the many challenges they faced, from the regular obstacles one encounters in a new city to a racist populace.
For Those Looking For Esoteric Histories: Mudlark By Lara Maiklem
The Thames River winds its way through London, crossed at multiple points by the city’s famous bridges. As you might guess, quite a few things have fallen into the waters over the many millennia the city has stood there. In Mudlark, author Lara Maiklem wades into the muck to pull out trinkets from history. Using this random assortment of objects, Maiklem unveils the stories of the times and circumstances that led to their arrival in the river, making for a fascinating angle into London’s long past.
Fiction Books About London
For The Classics Reader: Oliver Twist By Charles Dickens
It’s hard to choose a single novel to stand in as the ultimate classic London book, but Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist — along with many other London-based novels of his — has perhaps left the most lasting impact on the public’s idea of the city. It’s a portrait of the city’s dark underbelly, as told through the story of a young street urchin who gets caught up in a gang of pickpockets. Dickens’ commentary on poverty and child labor has lodged itself into the canon of London stories.
For The Novella Devourer: Mrs. Dalloway By Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is a small book, but it covers an incredible amount of ground. It touches on early 20th century gender roles, mental health, relationships and more, all while reinventing the very concept of a novel. Set over the course of a single day, the book could be described as being about a woman preparing her house for a party, but it spins outward encompassing Mrs. Dalloway’s life, as well as those of other Londoners she encounters.
For The Reader Who Likes Multiple Perspectives: Small Island By Andrea Levy
In the aftermath of World War II, two very different couples are brought together by life’s circumstances. Hortense moves to London from Jamaica, joined by her husband, who is dismayed to find out that Black veterans are not as welcomed in the city as he’d hoped. They befriend their landlady Queenie, who is white but welcomes them with kindness, but they are less welcomed by her husband when he also returns from the war. Unfolding over decades through the four main characters’ points of view, Small Island tells a complex but graceful story of the immigrant experience in London.
For The Modern Reteller: Home Fire By Kamila Shamsie
The ability for a story to be retold over and over is a testament to its power. In Home Fire, author Kamila Shamsie takes Sophocles’ ancient tragedy Antigone and recenters it on a Muslim family in 21st century London. Her Antigone is Isma, the daughter of a jihadist who died after being sent to Guantánamo Bay. Caught between her two siblings — a sister in London and a brother who vanishes — and a potential love interest, Isma is forced to make complicated decisions about love, family and religion.
For The Lyrical Prose Lover: Open Water By Caleb Azumah Nelson
In Open Water, two young Black artists meet in a London pub and begin an intense romantic relationship. That love story remains at the heart of this debut novel, but it’s constantly tested by outside forces. It’s a beautifully written meditation on love, race, masculinity and art, all with the backdrop of contemporary London. It doesn’t shy away from the violence of modern society, but it also celebrates joy and creativity, with many references to major Black artists such as Zadie Smith and Kendrick Lamar.