The best books about London for the curious

Who am I?

In a previous life, I was a City trader and as such have always been fascinated by the ridiculous and the absurd. Now a full-time writer and poet, I live on the west coast of Ireland and have written a number of books including A Curious Guide to London, A Splendidly Smutty Dictionary of Sex, and The Men Who Stare At Hens. I also have a blog on all matters arcane.


I wrote...

A Curious Guide to London: Tales of a City

By Simon Leyland,

Book cover of A Curious Guide to London: Tales of a City

What is my book about?

From petticoat duels and lucky cats to the Stiffs Express, Lord Nelson's spare nose, the Piccadilly earthquake, the Great Beer Flood of 1814, and the location of where a man died after a Jacob Epstein stone penis fell on his head, A Curious Guide to London takes you on a captivating, irreverent and wildly entertaining tour of the city you think you know, unearthing the capital's secrets and commemorating its rich, colourful, and unusual history.

Brimming with tales of London's forgotten past, its strangest traditions, and its most eccentric inhabitants, this book celebrates the unique, the unusual, and the unknown. Perfect for tourists, day-trippers, commuters, and the millions of people who call London home, this very alternative guidebook will make you look at the city in a whole new light.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of London: The Biography

Simon Leyland Why did I love this book?

The daddy of all London books, an encomium to a city of myth. Its buildings hold and hide legends. Its rivers are lost underground. Its backstreets vanish into fable. Its characters are blurred between fact and fiction. Truths have been twisted by fantasy. Tourists are rendered blind, stepping around beggars to photograph the past, and sit in parks reading of a city that only springs to life in the mind, for in reality only the faintest outline traces now remain. A truly remarkable tour de force.

By Peter Ackroyd,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked London as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Much of Peter Ackroyd's work has been concerned with the life and past of London but here, as a culmination, is his definitive account of the city. For him it is an organism with its own laws of growth and change, so this book is a biography rather than a history. Ackroyd reveals the dozens of ways in which the continuity of the city survives - in ward boundaries unchanged since the Middle Ages, in vocabulary and in various traditions - showing London as constantly changing, yet forever the same in essence.


Book cover of Street Haunting: A London Adventure

Simon Leyland Why did I love this book?

Written in 1927 it is one of the most entertaining accounts you will ever read of a typical day in London. Using the excuse of needing to buy a pencil, Woolf meanders through London taking in all the day-to-day activities of the populace. Admiring and also sometimes disapprovingly, she comments on the ordinary lives of every kind of Londoner from the sales girls at the haberdashery to the costermongers in the street.

By Virginia Woolf,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Street Haunting as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Little Clothbound Classics: irresistible, mini editions of short stories, novellas and essays from the world's greatest writers, designed by the award-winning Coralie Bickford-Smith.

'The hour should be evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful'. In such conditions, Virginia Woolf takes to London's streets in search of a pencil. The account of her journey - the people, the places, the pleasure - soon becomes one of the great paeans to city life. This collection also includes other wonderful essays, such as 'How Should One Read a…


Book cover of The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Simon Leyland Why did I love this book?

Through his jaundiced eyes we accompany our erstwhile hero into coffee shops, the arms of actresses, and experience the ebb and flow of London life. Later we watch as his beloved London undergoes the rigors of the plague of 1665 and then how he buries his beloved cheese in the wake of the Great Fire of London. A true classic.

By Samuel Pepys,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Diary of Samuel Pepys as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Kris Marshall and Katherine Jakeways star as Mr & Mrs Pepys in this BBC Radio 4 dramatisation of the world famous diaries.

Samuel Pepys was 26 when he decided to start keeping a diary, in January 1660. For the next ten years he faithfully recorded the day's events and confessed his innermost thoughts. That diary has since become one of our most important, and fascinating, historical documents.

Pepys gave us eyewitness accounts of some of the great events of the 17th century, including the Great Fire of London and the Second Dutch War. He also told us what people ate…


Book cover of London Labour and the London Poor

Simon Leyland Why did I love this book?

A sadly neglected masterpiece that describes a series of visits into the darker areas of the city where few rarely trod. In an extraordinary and vivid series of interviews, Mayhew gets the mudlarks, rat catchers, pure finders, and the whores of Shadwell and Seven Dials to tell their stories in their own voices.

By Henry Mayhew,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked London Labour and the London Poor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With an Introduction by Rosemary O'Day.

London Labour and the London Poor is a masterpiece of personal inquiry and social observation. It is the classic account of life below the margins in the greatest Metropolis in the world and a compelling portrait of the habits, tastes, amusements, appearance, speech, humour, earnings and opinions of the labouring poor at the time of the Great Exhibition.

In scope, depth and detail it remains unrivalled. Mayhew takes us into the abyss, into a world without fixed employment where skills are declining and insecurity mounting, a world of criminality, pauperism and vice, of unorthodox…


Book cover of London: A Social History

Simon Leyland Why did I love this book?

An interesting but idiosyncratic overview of the history and the resultant growth of London. The result is a book full of interesting insights, amusing anecdotes, and historical highlights. A vivid celebration of the city, but also an elegy for its decline, bubbling with statistics and anecdotes, from Boadicea to Betjeman.

By Roy Porter,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked London as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This dazzling and yet intimate book is the first modern one-volume history of London from Roman times to the present. An extraordinary city, London grew from a backwater in the Classical age into an important medieval city, a significant Renaissance urban center, and a modern colossus. Roy Porter paints a detailed landscape--from the grid streets and fortresses of Julius Caesar and William the Conqueror to the medieval, walled "most noble city" of churches, friars, and crown and town relationships. Within the crenelated battlements, manufactures and markets developed and street-life buzzed.

London's profile in 1500 was much as it was at…


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The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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