Fellow book lovers, I ask you: What do we read for if not the experience of being utterly swept away from our own run-of-the-mill lives (no offense) and into the mesmerizing, captivating, vibrant details of a well-told story? I don’t know about you, but books with really beautiful imagery are one of the main reasons I fell in love with reading to begin with. And not only that, but on particularly challenging days (like when I’m out of gas, and have 74 cents in my bank account, and haven’t done laundry in approximately two months, and it’s cold out) gorgeously imagined stories become one of my main motivations for keepin’ on keepin’ on.
There’s just something about the feeling of getting entirely lost in a good book — you really can’t beat it. Plus, books don’t make you do the laundry. And they definitely don’t care if you’ve eaten mac ‘n cheese for breakfast four days in a row. The books on this list are the kind of books that will take you on an amazing journey of the senses; propelling you out of your cozy armchair and into landscapes of color and light and taste and sound.
Here are 14 books to read for their really beautiful imagery — and hey, the stories they tell are pretty darn good too. You definitely won’t want to skip these.
1. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Not only is the subject of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Le Cirque des Rêves, filled with dazzling images, her novel will take you on a mind-blowing sensory journey as well. Gardens of ice, mazes of clouds, brilliantly decorated performance artists, and an olfactory bombardment of the most delectable of circus treats (think: that state fair funnel cake you dream about all winter long, only better). Morgenstern’s artful imagery, plus her thrilling plot, make this feast of images a cannot-miss read.
2. The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel
If you completely loved The Life of Pi (and seriously, who didn’t?) then you’ve probably been counting down the days until this dazzling gem of a novel hit bookstore shelves. Filled with all the vivid, brilliant description you’ve come to love in Yann Martel’s writing, The High Mountains of Portugal tells the story of Tomás — a man living in turn-of-the-century Portugal who discovers an old journal that leads him on a quest filled with treasure, ghosts, politics, mystery, and of course unforgettable images.
3. The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty by Amanda Filipacchi
A LOT of words have been written about the ever-fluctuating cultural standards of beauty in the world — but few stories approach the endless pursuit of physical perfection quite like Amanda Filipacchi’s The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty. The novel is equal parts magical realism, murder mystery, all-too-identifiable melodrama, and utterly hilarious. Following a group of artistic friends (and one professionally unfulfilled police officer) as they struggle to mold their outward appearances at their will, this book will definitely make you think about beauty differently — all while you enjoy Filipacchi’s completely captivating imagery.
4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This classic of F. Scott Fitzgerald was probably required reading back in high school — but you may not have appreciated all the mesmerizing imagery The Great Gatsby had to offer back then. (Let’s face it: we all had a lot going on in high school.) But if you’re in the mood to devour some really beautiful writing, now is a great time to give the tragic tale of Jay Gatsby, his unrequited love for flaky Daisy Buchanan, and their once-in-a-lifetime parties another read.
5. Daryl Hall Is My Boyfriend by Erica Lewis
Quick: What pop song was playing during your first slow dance, let’s say, circa eighth grade or so? Don’t even pretend like you don’t remember the complete euphoria of placing your hands on the shoulders of your then-crush, and swaying back and forth while arm’s length apart. Erica Lewis’s Daryl Hall is My Boyfriend is all about those pop song memories; a gorgeous and candid poetry collection that digs deep into the music-filled nostalgia of your past, and reframes those memories — and their accompanying soundtrack — for who you’ve grown into today.
6. The White Album by Joan Didion
Joan Didion’s The White Album is another collection of beautifully composed images that stakes it’s jumping-off point in the realm of music and memories. A haunting exploration into the post-Summer of Love years in America, Didion’s essay collection tackles everything from one of the last recording sessions of infamous band The Doors, to the Manson murders and the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party. Though Didion’s subjects might not always be beautiful, the imagery she uses to invoke them certainly is.
7. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
This literary classic is filled with imagery you’ll want to indulge in over and over again. Madame Bovary is the story of Emma Rouault, whose married life is not at all the experience of comfort and passion she expected. Taking on a lover in the wake of her disappointing relationship with husband Charles Bovary, Emma moves in and out of both passion and despair, with writing that’s so alive you’ll be experiencing it all right alongside her.
8. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
When a devastating flu outbreak changes the course of civilization forever, a traveling band of artists and actors take it upon themselves to perform works of Shakespeare throughout the remote communities of survivors. Blending timeless works of art into a world fighting its way back from the brink of collapse, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is a mesmerizing tale of survival, beauty, and the sustainability of artistic creation.
9. We Are Water by Wally Lamb
Author Wally Lamb is kind of my automatic go-to when I’m in the mood for some really gorgeous writing, vivid images, and a well-told story. We Are Water definitely meets those expectations, and more, telling a story that centers around wife, mother, and artist Annie Oh, who can no longer exist within the family of her making, and instead decides to alter the course of the Oh’s lives forever — by marrying her lover, Vivian. Told from the alternating perspectives of each member of the Oh family, We Are Water is a novel about love and loss, passion and forgiveness.
10. Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón
This poetry collection is one you will undoubtedly want to turn to again and again throughout the course of your life. Written with great complexity, vibrancy, and mindfulness of the present moment, Bright Dead Things is a poetry collection dedicated to the evolving self — what it means to be a woman; what it means to construct one’s own identity throughout changing landscapes and unfamiliar cities; what it means to grow up, fall in and out of love, and lose loved ones. Constructed of sharp, vivid images, this poetry collection is simply gorgeous.
11. Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit
Seven-year-old Anna Łania finds herself utterly alone after her father, a Polish linguistics professor, is taken from her when German soldiers are imprisoning and/or murdering all the scholars and intellectuals of Poland. When she meets the Swallow Man, he takes on an almost mystical, father-like figure in her life. Anna and the Swallow Man is written like a love song for language — heartbreaking and entrancing and filled with characters whose survival is intimately, sometimes tragically, tied to their love of words.
12. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
If you haven’t yet falling in love with Oskar Schell — either via the pages of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, or by way of its on-screen adaptation — then it’s about time you were introduced. After his father is killed on September 11, Oskar heads out on a "round the city odyssey" to discover the meaning of a mysterious key he found in his father’s closet. Written as a love story for New York City in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, the imagery in this novel will place you not only in the heart of NYC, but will take you around the world and back into the heart of Oskar as well.
13. The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie has always been a master of creating captivating images from words, but his novel The Enchantress of Florence might just be one of his very best. Filled with the very best qualities shared by all great fairy tales, this novel tells a story of unexpected travelers, long-lost princesses, lovers and soldiers and enchanted sorceresses and men with too much power. You’ll be utterly swept away not only by the story, but the magic of Rushdie’s language.
14. Chronicler of the Winds by Henning Mankell
When a young member of a Mozambique street gang, Nelio, is found bleeding to death from a gunshot wound on the street outside a theater, his only wish is to be taken to the building’s roof in order to watch the skyline of his beloved city as he dies. Over the course of Nelio’s nine remaining days, he tells his rescuer, José Antonio, his entire life story — an unforgettable tale filled with mysticism, ancient wisdom, strength, and survival. Chronicler of the Winds is a vividly imagined tale that will take you all the way from the streets of an African city into a world of magic.