Choosing the best George Orwell books is no easy task. He was responsible for some of the most famous and influential books ever written.
Trying to narrow this list down to eleven presents a difficult challenge. However, after reading several of Orwell’s works, I feel I can give it a fair go.
Orwell is most famous for novels such as Nineteen Eighty-Four, but he also wrote about his time in Spain during the Civil War in Homage to Catalonia and numerous essays.
He was a prolific writer, one who wasn’t afraid to address the issues of his day and tackle them. There’s also an argument for him being the best writer in the English language.
His writing is clear and easy to read. He does not mince his words, nor does he add layers of long and fancy words, he gets to the point and moves on.
Orwell’s books are essential reading for anyone who loves books and in particular, those interested in history and politics.
Not everyone will agree with this list, but here are the eleven books by George Orwell that I consider to be among his best.
Best George Orwell Books
Nineteen Eighty-Four is arguably the most famous of all the Orwell novels. It’s set in a dystopian future where a totalitarian government is in charge of Britain and rules in the guise of Big Brother.
Orwell wrote the book in response to the totalitarian regimes of the Nazis and Soviets in the aftermath of the Second World War. It’s a brutal description of what life is like under such a regime.
It’s hard to understate how powerful this book is. Several of its passages have entered common thought such as the government asserting 2+2=5 and the opening line which states the ‘clock struck 13.’
Overall, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a view into a world where repression is rife, freedom of any kind is heavily restricted and what the ruling powers say is accepted as fact, regardless of whether it may be true or not.
The book is a warning on what can happen if democracies die and we don’t appreciate the hard-won freedoms many have thought fr over past generations.
Homage to Catalonia
If you’re looking for a lively account of life on the frontline, you’re in for a shock. Orwell’s description of war is much more mundane than you might imagine, which is what makes it one of the best European history books, as it offers a realistic portrayal of war.
What strikes you the most is just how boring it sounds. A lot of waiting around, incompetence and a realisation that the reality of war is markedly different from the often romanticised version we hear elsewhere.
As with most of the George Orwell books you’ll find on this list, he has a unique way of explaining the most complicated of stories and scenarios into the simplest to understand language.
Homage To Catalonia is not only one of Orwell’s most interesting works, but it’s also one of the best books on Spain, and its recent past.
Why I Write
Why I Write is one of the lesser-known George Orwell books, but if you’re a writer it’s worth reading.
In it, Orwell sets out his vision of how he came to be a writer and sets out some of Orwell’s motives for writing. He lists four; Sheer egoism, Aesthetic enthusiasm, Historical impulse and political purpose, which he believes exists in every writer.
If you want to get to the essence of what makes Orwell tick and why he’s one of the best political writers of all time, Why I Write is a sort of mini-autobiography into how this came to be.
The book is actually comprised of four essays, with others dealing with the peculiarities of the English character and the slipperiness of political language.
All of them are vital reading and other some of Orwell’s most searing insights in what is a short, but fantastic book on some important topics.
Animal Farm is the second of Orwell’s novels on this list and along with Nineteen Eighty-Four, it’s arguably his most famous work.
The book is a sort of parable of a revolution on a farm, as the animals overthrow the tyrannical farmer and set about creating a fair and just society. Orwell intended the novel to be a rumination on the workings of the Soviet Union and the parallels are clear.
The pigs represent the Soviet rulers such as Lenin and Stalin, while the other animals represent the ordinary citizens who buy into the rhetoric of the pigs, and suffer for it despite their belief in the utopia they aim to create.
Animal Farm is a fantastic novel and highlights the trappings of revolutions in that they rarely promise to deliver what they say they will. It’s also a useful insight into the Soviet Union, even if it is a fictional account, the inferences are clear and relevant to what occurred.
Books v Cigarettes
Books v Cigarettes is one of Orwell’s least-known essays but it’s one of his most profound. It’s also another example of his ability to take such a seemingly ordinary topic and turn it into fascinating prose.
This book is another collection of essays similar to Why I Write. In the titular essay, Orwell enquires why the working class in London don’t have the money to read.
Recounting a story from one of his friends, he hears that they spend most of their money on cigarettes and believe that books are too expensive to buy, so they don’t bother.
Orwell takes into account his own outgoings on cigarettes and concludes that this might not be wholly true. Books v Cigarettes is a fascinating essay, as are the others, and highlights how your priorities can determine your outcomes.
Burmese Days is the first novel Orwell published. It’s set in Burma as in the last years of the British Empire and portrays the dark side of colonial rule.
Orwell was stationed in Burma from 1922 to 1927 as a police officer, and it’s these experiences that form the basis of the novel.
In it, Orwell describes a colonial society that’s cruel and bigoted in its attitude to the Burmese people who are considered to be inferior.
Burmese Days is a fascinating insight into the British Empire from a man who was part of it. The book might be fiction but it reflects the reality of life under Empire regardless.
Orwell’s depiction is brutal and reflects attitudes widely held at the time.
The Road to Wigan Pier
The Road to Wigan Pier is a non-fiction book that’s split into two parts.
The first depicts Orwell’s investigation of the bleak living conditions experienced by those in Lancashire and Yorkshire, in the north of England, during the late 1930s. While the second part sees Orwell reflect on his middle-class upbringing and his political beliefs.
As an Englishman from the north of England, reading The Road to Wigan Pier is enlightening and depressing. Conditions are much better today than they were in the 1930s but I recognise much of what Orwell writes.
There are still large parts of the region that are deprived and have fallen behind the rest of the country. Orwell’s investigation is cutting and I can’t help but feel he would be dismayed to find the situation hasn’t markedly improved in relative terms in the near 90 years since he first published the book.
The second section is interesting and sees Orwell express his support for socialism. But he also makes a lot of prescient points about issues with the ideology which are still relevant today.
The book is another example of Orwell’s excellent social commentary and his political foresight. So much so that the book is still relevant today.
Decline of the English Murder
Decline of the English Murder is an essay by Orwell on the various forms of murder depicted in popular media and why they intrigue people s much.
The essay is the title of a book in the Penguin Great Ideas series that includes other essays that look at boys’ weeklies and seaside postcards. All of which exemplifies Orwell’s wide breadth of topics he covered.
The titular essay identifies multiple features which cause the public to become fascinated by gruesome murders. He satirises readers of the News of the World, who are enraptured by what he refers to as the perfect murder. A murder which usually involves middle-class criminals, sex and responsibility.
It’s an interesting and funny read and provides a useful insight into the psyche of pre-war England, some of which remains to this day.
Fascism and Democracy
Fascism and Democracy is the shortest of George Orwell’s books on this list but it’s one of the most profound.
The essay is one of five published in a short pamphlet by Penguin recently. All of them deal with Orwell’s thoughts on the world as the battle between fascism and democracy raged during the Second World War.
It’s clear from the essays that Orwell was concerned with where the world was heading at the time. The remarkable thing about his writing is that eighty years later, you find yourself agreeing with Orwell’s sentiment.
Whether that is a testament to the quality of Orwell’s insights, an indictment of our times or a combination of the two, I’m not sure. If there’s one quote to sum this up, I feel it’s this one:
“The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world…This prospect frightens me much more than bombs.”
Coming Up For Air
Coming Up For Air is a novel about a man who sees the Second World War coming, and tries to recreate his childhood in a time when the world was simpler.
The book is pessimistic and examines something all of us will have experienced from time to time, nostalgia.
It often seems like the past was a simpler time, especially if the past you’re looking back to was your childhood. Yet, this looking back often involves using rose-tinted glasses and doesn’t give an accurate reflection of the past.
Much like the main character, George Bowling, we tend to see the past as a haven from an uncomfortable present. The genius of Coming Up For Air is that it shows us how ridiculous and comical this longing is.
Down and Out in London and Paris
Down and Out in Paris and London is a memoir of Orwell’s time in both cities where he was eventually reduced to destitution in Paris.
The experience resulted in the book as Orwell recounts his experience of poverty in England and France. It’s a fascinating book and offers an illuminating look into the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Like most of Orwell’s non-fiction writing, he lifts the lid on what life was like in various situations. In Down and Out in Paris and London, we get a feeling of what poverty is like and how it impacts someone.
It may not have the power of The Road to Wigan Pier, but this book is still an excellent piece of historical reporting that is among Orwell’s best. His insights into a world a lot of us will never experience.