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There’s no better way to capture the self-contradictory nature of the English capital than through the disarming magic of literature. Both gritty and regal, historic and modern, authentic and commercial, London is a globetrotter’s utopia. It has a little bit of everything, and on a good day, you think it might as well be the whole world.
Mighty, moody London provides the perfect literary setting for writers keen to capture a feeling in a word—and many of them did just that. For your next trip to this cosmopolitan labyrinth, pack your bags (or load your e-reader) with the quintessential London reading list:
Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
Dickens’s London is as bleak as it is absorbing—and desperately in need of social reform. Near and dear to Dickens’s heart were issues such as poverty, children’s rights, crime, and the legal system. Victorian London was, to Dickens, a foul, unforgiving place, but it was also—crucially—his inspiration. In Oliver Twist, we find little orphan Oliver thrust into a life of petty crime at the industrious hands of corruption and exploitation. In a story arc that resembles the classic fairy tale, Oliver overcomes his hardships but never sheds his innocence, a moral feat for which life (at least, in literature) owes him a happy ending. For a quick trip into London’s sordid past, Oliver Twist is the perfect time machine.
Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
Set in Westminster, the historic district of central London cradling landmarks such as Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and the Houses of Parliament, Mrs. Dalloway follows the activities and internal musings of Clarissa Dalloway on a busy, sunny day in June. Her meandering thoughts sketch out a rudimentary map of the mind, highlighting especially the isolating nature of the human consciousness; communication, it seems, is the chasm we must cross, and keep crossing, on the quest for companionship and intimacy. Through these wandering meditations in the city streets, Woolf offers a candid glimpse into post-WWI, high-society London, emphasizing psychological and temporal themes in this reinvention of the novel.
High Fidelity, Nick Hornby
In High Fidelity, Hornby positions London within the music scene, instead of the other way around. Record store owner Rob Fleming, along with his part-time employees Dick and Barry, is—shall we say—obsessed with music. The trio spends much of their time creating music-themed lists and mixtapes, as well as driving out any potential customer with apparently poor taste. A break-up motivates Rob to explore his failed relationships, and music takes him in and out of pubs around the city. For a modern, witty, music-infused take on London, High Fidelity is the go-to choice.
1984, George Orwell
England, in Orwell’s 1984, has evolved into “Airstrip One,” a so-called province under tight control of a tyrannical political system known as “Ingsoc” (short for “English Socialism”). Led by “Big Brother,” the ruling Party maintains constant surveillance over the entire population of Airstrip One. Certain London locations are still recognizable in the text, such as “Victory Square” (Trafalgar Square) and a nearby museum of war propaganda (St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church). A classic of dystopian fiction, 1984 will make you appreciate contemporary London for its raw diversity, as well as its hearty welcome of all independent thinkers.
Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding
Single, thirty-something, and a few pounds heavier than she’d like to be, Bridget Jones inhabits the London that most of its 13 million residents identify best with today: ambitious, challenging, and somehow equally full of comfort and catastrophe. In her diary, Bridget Jones chronicles everything from the mundane (number of cigarettes smoked in a day) to the extraordinary (romance of the Austen-esque variety), gradually revealing the very essence of finding one’s place in an urban jungle: how adulthood becomes a (frequently hilarious) struggle; how “career” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be; and how friends become family, and then some.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sure, a sleepy little town in the middle of nowhere provides a setting well-suited to your average crime fiction. But when it comes to the one and only Sherlock Holmes, London alone can offer a criminal landscape varied enough, and exhilarating enough, to prompt the most famous mystery series of all time. In Sherlock’s Adventures, London is a place where disorder is ubiquitous, where truth is stranger than fiction, and where the most impenetrable enigma is merely “elementary.” In the best moments of this classic collection of short stories, we race across the city alongside Mr. Holmes—master of disguise, weaponry, and logic—in search of answers and, occasionally, justice.
In case that wasn’t enough to satisfy your appetite, insatiable literary wolverine that you are, pick up a few more outstanding reads at one of London’s spectacular bookstores. Daunt Books in Marylebone offers a great selection of international, regional, and local travel guides in an utterly beautiful space. Persephone Books, from within the literary haven of Bloomsbury, reprints “unjustly neglected” fiction and non-fiction by female writers, while nearby Waterstone’s is breathtaking in both size and aesthetics. And though it’s hard to believe that Foyles—with 1.4 million books in its flagship store on Charing Cross Road alone—is still an independent bookstore, you’re sure to find a few (hundred) pages of London to carry home with you.
Jamie Leigh is an obsessive traveller, an avid reader, and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her published works on literature, travel, and pop culture have appeared in magazines, blogs, anthologies, and webzines in the U.S. and abroad.