When puzzling over what the best Ernest Hemingway books are, a reader might not be burdened by a mountain of publications — as with trying to determine the best Stephen King novels, for instance. However, that doesn’t make the task any easier. And that’s because when someone connects with a Hemingway book, they really connect with it. For example, you will have a hard time convincing someone who holds The Old Man and the Sea above all else that For Whom the Bell Tolls is the best Ernest Hemingway book.
That’s why we’ve decided not to pick favorites. Instead, this list covers 11 of our favorite Ernest Hemingway books in order of publication, not preference. Eight were published during his lifetime, and three posthumously. And to kick things off, let’s start with a fun fact: did you know that Hemingway’s fourth wife and widow, Mary Hemingway, discovered about 332 unpublished work after Hemingway’s death? So much more potential Hemingway to read! And on that note...
1. The Torrents of Spring (1926)
Often overlooked for his other works (and because it was published the same year as the much-praised The Sun Also Rises), The Torrents of Spring is a novella that parodies Sherwood Anderson’s Dark Laughter — a novel Hemingway viewed as pretentious. But the book doesn’t only focus on Anderson. It satirizes many American and British “great writers” of the day, including John Dos Passos and James Joyce.
Many view this novella as Hemingway’s attempt to break away from his roots, for various reasons: firstly, because Anderson played a key role in Hemingway’s early successes as an author; secondly, because many of Hemingway’s Chicago contemporaries subscribed to a distinct “Chicago School of Literature” style, which is mocked in The Torrents of Spring; and finally, it is widely discussed that Hemingway published the parody in order to get out of his contract with his publisher at the time, Boni & Liveright.
“Take for yourself what you can, and don't be ruled by others; to belong to oneself - the whole savour of life lies in that.”
Fun fact: The Torrents of Spring was written in just ten days.
2. The Sun Also Rises (1926)
As an author whose works have been studied and referenced at length, Hemingway’s novels are often referred to in the same style of Friends episode titles (“The One Where Ross and Rachel Take a Break,” for instance). In the case of The Sun Also Rises, it’s “the quintessential novel of the ‘Lost Generation.’” In other words, it’s about the generation of people who suffered disillusionment and angst following the First World War.
Over the course of the novel, unlucky Jake Barnes and extravagant Lady Brett Ashley travel from the jazzy Parisian parties of the Roaring 20s to the harsh and brutal bullfighting rings of Pamplona, Spain, with a ragtag crew of American expatriates.
“Oh Jake," Brett said, "We could have had such a damned good time together."
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly, pressing Brett against me.
"Yes," I said. "Isn't it pretty to think so?”
Fun fact: While the book initially received mixed reviews for its modern and sparse approach to prose, many Hemingway scholars feel that The Sun Also Rises was his “most important work,” defining the writing style that would come to be known as the “iceberg theory” — writing that is simple on the surface, but contains deeper meanings between the lines.
3. A Farewell to Arms (1929)
Sticking with the aforementioned theme: this is the bestselling novel that not only turned the spotlight onto Hemingway as a modern American writer, but also the book that was dubbed “the premier American war novel” from WWI. Set against the backdrop of that very war, the novel is narrated from the first person perspective of expatriate Frederic Henry. Frederic serves as a lieutenant in the ambulance corps of the Italian Army and embarks on a love affair with an English nurse called Catherine Barkley.
The novel was heavily inspired by Hemingway’s own life: he also served in the Italian campaigns during WWI and fell in love with a nurse who cared for him in a hospital in Milan.
“Often a man wishes to be alone and a girl wishes to be alone too and if they love each other they are jealous of that in each other, but I can truly say we never felt that. We could feel alone when we were together, alone against the others. But we were never lonely and never afraid when we were together.”
Fun fact: Before A Farewell to Arms was published, Hemingway sent the manuscript to his good friend Scott F. Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald responded with ten pages of notes, to which Hemingway responded, “Kiss my ass.” Apparently this was par for the course in the teasing friendship between the two authors.
4. Winner Take Nothing (1933)
Think this bleak title masks the bright and cheery nature of the short stories within? Think again. Hemingway’s final short story collection takes readers on a somber journey, with many dark themes throughout — such as disillusionment, despair, dishonor, and death. While many of his novels feature sweeping heroic figures, the stories of Winner Take Nothing zero in on the darker parts of life.
“Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.”
Fun fact: This collection includes one of Hemingway’s best-known short stories, "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” about an old, Spanish beggar.
5. To Have and Have Not (1937)
A bare-bones explanation of this novel brings to mind the plot of AMC’s Breaking Bad: a good man falls on hard times and turns to crime in order to support his family. However there’s no meth-cooking or New Mexico backdrop in this tale. Instead, the novel takes place during the Great Depression — during which fishing boat captain Harry Morgan is forced to run contraband, and then illegal immigrants, between Cuba and Florida as a means of fighting the depravity and hunger of the time.
“The moon was up now and the trees were dark against it, and he passed the frame houses with their narrow yards, light coming from the shuttered windows; the unpaved alleys, with their double rows of houses; Conch town, where all was starched, well-shuttered, virtue, failure, grit and boiled grunts, under-nourishment, prejudice, righteousness, inter-breeding and the comforts of religion; the open-doored, lighted Cuban boilto houses, shacks whose only romance was their names.”
Fun fact: the book has been loosely adapted into five different films — most famously a 1944 version starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and then again in 1950, 1958, 1977, and 1987.
6. For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)
Regarded as one of the best-written war novels of all time, Hemingway completed For Whom the Bell Tolls three years after covering the Spanish civil war for the North American Newspaper alliance.
The story follows Robert Jordan, a young American working with republican guerrillas in the mountains of Spain. Their assignment is to blow up a major bridge during an attack on the city of Segovia, and the novel tracks the four days leading up to this event. Exploring themes of death, political ideology, and camaraderie, the novel inspired Maxwell Perkins (editor and discoverer of Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and more) to write of Hemingway: "If the function of a writer is to reveal reality, no one ever so completely performed it."
“There is nothing else than now. There is neither yesterday, certainly, nor is there any tomorrow. How old must you be before you know that? There is only now, and if now is only two days, then two days is your life and everything in it will be in proportion. This is how you live a life in two days. And if you stop complaining and asking for what you never will get, you will have a good life.”
Fun fact: The book’s title is taken from a poem by John Donne, who wrote meditations and prayers about health, pain, and sickness. The full poem is quoted in the epigraph of For Whom the Bell Tolls: "No man is an Island, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."
7. Across the River and Into the Trees (1950)
Do you ever read negative reviews of a book and then decide to read it anyway, to see whether you agree with the criticism or feel it was unjust? If you do, check out Across the River and Into the Trees, the final full-length novel published by Hemingway. It was the first of his novels to be met with unenthusiastic reception and negative press. (Despite this, it spent seven weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list — and was the only one of Hemingway’s books to reach the #1 spot).
The book centers on Richard Cantwell, a middle-aged, war-ravaged American colonel. He is stationed in Italy at the end of the Second World War, and about to embark on a duck-hunting trip in Trieste. Through flashbacks, readers get to know Richard — particularly, about a young Venetian countess he fell in love with and his experiences during the First World War. The novel is a love letter to Italy, a love letter to love, and an examination of the different ways in which people meet death.
“He smiled as only the truly shy can smile. It was not the easy grin of the confident, nor the quick slashing smile of the extremely durable and the wicked. It had no relation with the poised, intently used smile of the courtesan or the politician. It was the strange, rare smile which rises from the deep, dark pit, deeper than a well, deep as a mine, that is within them.”
Fun fact: The title, Across the River and Into the Trees, comes from the final documented words of U.S. Civil War Confederate General Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson: “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”
8. The Old Man and the Sea (1952)
The final novella published during Hemingway’s life, The Old Man and the Sea is also one of his most popular books — compared by critics of the time to Moby-Dick. The novella won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953, and was a large factor in Hemingway being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.
The Old Man and the Sea examines themes of courage in the face of hardship and perseverance in the face of apparent defeat through Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman who is down on his luck. He also happens to be in the middle of his life’s greatest struggle — a high-stakes battle with a relentless marlin out the Gulf Stream. (You can understand the Moby-Dick comparison).
“Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.”
Fun fact: The book was featured in a September 1952 edition of Life magazine — an edition which then sold over five million copies in just two days.
9. A Moveable Feast (1964)
If you want to learn more about Hemingway’s youth from the man himself, check out this posthumously published memoir. A Moveable Feast deals with the author’s years as a struggling journalist and writer in 1920s Paris. It’s comprised of various journal entries, personal accounts, and stories written by Hemingway — and features a remarkable cast of notable figures, including: Sylvia Beach, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and more. Finally, if you want to see Paris in the 1920s as Hemingway did, simply make a note of the apartments, bars, cafes, and hotels the memoir mentions, as many still stand proudly today.
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
Fun fact: There is some controversy surrounding Mary Hemingway’s posthumous publication of A Moveable Feast. Some feel that she removed significant passages — including a lengthy apology — about his first wife, Hadley Richardson. Other scholars have stood up for Mary, asserting the memoir was published just how Hemingway had intended it.
10. Islands in the Stream (1970)
Islands in the Stream was meant to be published after Across the River and Into the Trees, with the hope that it would revive Hemingway’s reputation after the bad press of the latter book. However, despite the fact that book was basically finished, it wasn’t published until almost 20 years later — long after Hemingway had passed away.
The novel is comprised of three parts. The first act, “Bimini,” introduces the main character Thomas Hudson: a renowned painter living in the Bahamas. The second act, “Havana,” jumps to the end of the Second World War, and sees Thomas receiving news of his son’s death. In the third act, “At Sea,” Thomas tracks the survivors of a sunken German U-boat, bent on bringing them to justice.
“He thought that he would lie down and think about nothing. Sometimes he could do this. Sometimes he could think about the stars without wondering about them and the ocean without problems and the sunrise without what it would bring.”
Fun fact: The original third act of Islands In the Stream was titled "The Sea in Being" — which was eventually published separately as The Old Man and the Sea.
11. The Dangerous Summer (1985)
Cited as Hemingway’s last book, The Dangerous Summer is a nonfiction title which was written in 1960 and published posthumously over 20 years later. It describes the rivalry that occurred during the “dangerous summer” of 1959 between two bullfighters: Luis Migual Dominguín and Antonio Ordóñez (Hemingway’s brother-in-law, and a major inspiration for the bullfighting depicted in The Sun Also Rises).
'Contento Ernesto?' he asked. 'Muy contento.' 'So am I,' he said. 'You saw how he [the bull] was? You saw everything about him?' 'I think so,' I said. 'Let's eat at Fraga.' 'Good.' 'Be careful on the road.' 'See you in Fraga,' I said."
Fun fact: Are lengthy introductions your thing? Then you’ll love the 33-page intro that author James Mitchener provided for the beginning of The Dangerous Summer.