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5 books for London

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

One of her lesser known but most beautiful and accessible novels, Orlando: A Biography–written for Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West–is the fantastical biography of a young noble(wo)man named Orlando who is born during the reign of Elizabeth I, and decides never to grow old. As the history of England unfolds,  Orlando falls in and out of love, wakes up one morning not terribly surprised to discover he’s become a woman, travels with gypsies, writes poetry, and hobnobs with Britain’s most interesting and powerful figures. Both amusing and profound, Orlando is a fascinating and innovative book by one of London’s most brilliant writers.

Virginia Woolf
To experience a bit of Woolf’s London, visit the National Gallery (and the National Portrait Gallery) in Trafalgar Square to see paintings by Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell and fellow Bloomsbury artist Duncan Grant. Walk around Kensington, Richmond, Bloomsbury and St. James Square, the areas of London where Virginia Woolf lived and whose inhabitants populate so many of her novels.

London: A Biography by Peter Ackroyd

A bit hefty if you’re backpacking but well worth the weight, Peter Ackroyd’s  London: A Biography covers two millennia years of London history, from its beginnings as the Roman city Londinium through its evolution into the global metropolis it is today. Want to know more about the founding of the city, life there during the Black Plague, the reign of Henry the VIII or Elizabeth I? Interested in the history of the buildings or beheadings, battles or bridges, or simply in the development of the neighborhoods and districts that still exist today? You’ll find all kinds of answers here, skillfully woven by Ackroyd into a narrative as interesting and eloquent as the city itself.

Much Ado about Nothing by William Shakespeare
Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare's Globe

One of Shakespeare’s funniest comedies, Much Ado About Nothing is the story of Beatrice and Benedict, two witty and irascible people determined to hate each other at all costs, and not shy about declaring their animosity for each other either. Obviously they end up falling madly and confusedly in love, much to the amusement of everyone around them, audience included. Hijinks ensue, hilarity reigns and there are happy endings for all. A production of Much Ado is playing at Shakespeare’s Globe this summer.

Books at the South Bank Book Market credit: gemb1
Make a day of it on the Southbank: ride the London Eye, visit the Tate Modern, browse for used books at the Southbank Book Market beneath Waterloo Bridge, buy lunch from the vendors at Borough Market, and then circle back and purchase groundlings tickets at the Globe. For 5 pounds you get the best seat (well–the best spot–its standing room only, which is why you should arrive early to queue!) in the house. The best deal in London, bar none.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

A beautifully written portrait of London during the Blitz, The Night Watch is  one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read in years. Waters book moves backwards through the 1940s, detailing the lives of four Londoners and weaving a passionate and heartbreaking web of jealousy, friendship and love against the backdrop of World War II.

Saturday by Ian McEwan

Set on a single day–February 15, 2003–in London, McEwan’s novel follows Henry Perowne, a successful surgeon and contented husband and father, as he moves through his day on London streets crowded with thousands of anti-war protestors. A small, seemingly inconsequential traffic accident escalates into a dangerous confrontation in his own home later that evening. Set on a day most travelers, Londoners or no, will remember, this novel explores the consequences of human actions on both personal and global scales, in McEwan’s precise, keenly observant and urgent prose.

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Daunt Books credit: swiv


For classics, try Dickens’ Bleak House, The Old Curiosity Shop, Oliver Twist, or The Christmas Carol, Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, Arthur Conan Doyles’ The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, or Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. If you’re looking for something more recent try Iris Murdoch, Zadie Smith, P.D. James,  Nick Hornby or any number of other writers. And whatever you do, make sure not to miss Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street (or at one of its other London locations), one of the best travel book shops in the world.