The best books to read if you liked 1984 carry on its traditional of complex themes wrapped in interesting fiction. While 1984 is mostly about surveillance, there are plenty of other themes for the books on this list to draw on. These themes include thought control, war, and the ways that societal pressures can control everyone in a collective. If you’re ready to challenge how you view society, read on.
The Dispossessed (Hainish Cycle #1) by Ursula K. Le Guin
Kicking off the list of the books to read if you liked 1984 is this sweet sci-fi tale of dystopia and utopia. While modern fiction would make you think that dystopia is strictly the grounds of Young Adult Fiction (YA), that couldn’t be further from the truth. This classic sci-fi story is about adults and the choices that they have to make. It’s also about anarchy, and the nature of utopia. It’s the first in a series, but each book provides a good deal of resolution. You won’t be trapped into reading more if you find that The Dispossessed isn’t your cup of tea.
Be aware that this is a rather older sci-fi story. It may not be action-packed enough for today’s audiences. Much of the conflict happens within Shevek, the main character, as he constantly rewrites his understanding of the world he was born in and that world’s place in the universe. If you like Ursula K. Le Guin, you already know what you’re in for.
Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut isn’t most famous for his science-fiction work, but it’s how he paid the bills before Slaughterhouse-Five became the biggest thing in fiction at the time. This collection includes the short story of the same title that really started to cement his reputation—and this collection’s connection to 1984. As every high school student who had the pleasure remembers, 1984 is obsessed with sex. It’s the undoing of the main character, and the source of his ultimate betrayal. In just one of the creepy stories that plays into this, Vonnegut writes of a world where the government removes orgasm from sex. If that’s not enough to make you shudder, you’re made of stronger stuff than Vonnegut himself, who speculates on what a controlling world like that would look like!
A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift
First of all, before we can even get to the explanation for this book, we should take a moment to appreciate the actual title for this piece. A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public by Jonathan Swift. Well, we all know where this is going, right? This horrific piece of literature ends up encouraging parents to sell their children to rich lords and ladies if they were too poor to feed them. What did the rich lords and ladies get? To eat the children.
Before you start gagging, don’t worry--A Modest Proposal is actually a satire. The realistic language and definitive arguments lead to it being included in many English essay classes. It’s one of the best books like 1984 because you can so clearly see the calm, logical process towards evil. That’s a defining trait of Orwell’s future that we can see in this book that was actually published before 1984.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1984 and Brave New World present the same problem from alternate perspectives. In 1984, Big Brother rules the world through austerity. The government starves the population for news, information, food, heat, and intellectual stimulation. It keeps them weak and malnourished, so that every scrap of information is accepted as truth even when it’s an obvious lie. In Brave New World, the problem is the opposite. The World Controllers flood the world with everything you could need to be happy. Free drugs, easy sex, and an information overload that shortens the attention span of the population until they can’t follow the corruption that abounds. Some think it’s a lot closer to our society than 1984 is…
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
If what draws you to 1984 is the surreal aspects of the story, then The Master and Margarita is one of the best books like 1984 for you to read. Though it deals with the bleak realities of Soviet Russia, touching upon the reign of Stalin and government control, it’s also about the nature of man. Follow Satan through the streets, drink with a black cat, and see how a writer and his companion can make all the difference. This book is stark, beautiful, and has been enduringly popular since its debut all the way back in 1940.
In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster
Do you like your social commentary with a twist of personal pain? This book rides the line between sentimental and effective very well. It describes a twisted, dystopian city. Trapped in a war zone, the city is nothing but ruins. The inhabitants scavenge and scrounge for a living. The city government cares only for gathering human waste, including the bodies of those who have died. In a particularly cruel twist, much of the story line revolves around the main character wondering if she will ever find her missing brother. If her brother died, she may never know—bodies are turned into fuel. There may not be anything of him left. While mostly a description of a desperate place and time, the personal strings in this book keep it fresh.
The Aeneid by Virgil
What does a classic like The Aeneid have in common with 1984? References. The Aeneid is the source of many common expressions and thoughts that we still express today. It’s been referenced and restated so many times that most people don’t know that their expressions (like “Trojan Horse”) actually come from an ancient poem. While this definitely isn’t an easy read, if you can get through it you’ll have a much greater appreciation for Orwell’s master craftsmanship while he was putting 1984 together. Plus, so many references will suddenly make sense to you.
Notes from Underground, White Nights, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, and Selections from The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
This is another short story collection, but it’s going to be worth it. Dostoyevsky had a lot of opinions on the nature of humanity, politics, and religion. Some of his philosophies shaped the way that 1984 was written. The grasping nature of controlling sexuality that plays a huge role in 1984 is echoed here. If you really want to wrestle with the philosophies that shape 1984, this is the short story collection that you want to pick up. It’s on the list of best books like 1984 for philosophical content alone.
The Waves by Virginia Woolf
This deeply meditative story hits the same haunting strings that 1984 does. While the stories don’t overlap much in plot, they both centralize unseen forces and people. The Waves is thoughtful, emotional, and clear in depicting the effects of singular forces upon groups of people. It’s the kind of deep, meaty book that you can return to time and time again. You’ll get something new from it every time that you do. 1984 is also a book that gives more back the more you spend on getting to know the book and working with it yourself. Woolf was also influenced by the same time periods, giving her characters concerns that will resonate with fans of 1984.
The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
Fans of the Broadway musical might want to steer clear of the actual story. The Phantom of the Opera is a dark, fascinating story that will give you the creeps even as it keeps you coming back for more. Fans of 1984 will recognize the clinging sense of paranoia that permeates the work. What is real, and what is rumor, blend seamlessly in this dizzying story. This is no melodramatic opera or a Broadway musical; it’s dark, it’s compelling, and it plucks emotional strings that will keep you thinking about it long after you’ve finished reading it. All the best books like 1984 stick with you after you’ve closed the covers.