It’s a new year, and that means it’s reading resolution time. I’ve written before about how to read more, how to read more classic books, and how to read more diversely, so you can check out those posts if that’s what you’re after. But if you’re setting a more general goal this year, or looking for a fun reading challenge, this is the list for you. I’ve pulled together this list of fifty books to read before you die.
Now, these aren’t necessarily the “best” books, they’re not even the books I enjoyed the most – heck, I haven’t even read a few of them myself (yet). I certainly wouldn’t say these are the only books you should read, or that reading this list will make you definitively “well read” somehow. These are simply fifty of the books I think are well worth reading, listed here (in no particular order) alongside the reason I think you should give them a go…
1. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
Let’s ease into it with a children’s book, something swift and sweet. Even if you already read Charlotte’s Web as a child, it’s wonderful to revisit it as an adult. This book has much to teach us about friendship, diversity, and determination.
2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
I know Jane Eyre isn’t without it’s problems (there’s the Creole wife locked in the attic by the romantic lead, for starters), but it’s a classic for a reason. It’s compulsively readable, beautifully rendered, and this Brontë sister has been called the “first historian of private consciousness”. Reading this book will show you where masterful first-person narration truly began. Read my full review here.
3. How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Oi! If you’re scrolling past this one, thinking “I don’t read self-help books” with a smug smile, you stop right now! How To Win Friends And Influence People isn’t so much a self-help book as it is a guide to being more polite and nice to others in your day-to-day life. I think the world could do with a bit more politeness and niceness, don’t you?
4. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
In Cold Blood wasn’t the first true crime book, but it can (probably) claim the title of the first “non-fiction novel” without much contest. In Capote’s account of a mass murder in Kansas, we can see the origins of all contemporary true crime and investigative journalism. Set aside your qualms about his liberal creative license – it’s a cracking yarn! Read my full review here.
5. Diary Of A Young Girl by Anne Frank
The first, and most obvious, reason to read Diary Of A Young Girl is an act of remembrance: the story of Anne Frank, and the countless others who perished and suffered alongside her, should be remembered by all who continue to populate this planet. I’d like to add a second, literary reason: I have yet to read a WWII historical fiction novel that comes even close to capturing the hope, horror, and heart-wrenching honesty of this young woman’s record of her experiences.
6. A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
Even if you’re not normally a fantasy reader – I’m certainly not! – A Game Of Thrones is a good one to start with, mostly due to the enduring popularity of the HBO series. If you’ve seen it (and probably even if you haven’t) you’ll find the plot and characters at least somewhat familiar. That makes the whole thing easier to follow. And, let’s be honest, the main reason to read this book before you die is so that you can look down your nose at the know-it-alls who claim they never watched the series because they read the books. Who are they kidding? Read my full review here.
7. A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Even if you don’t necessarily need to know, in your day-to-day life, the origins of our universe and everything in it… it can’t hurt to have some idea, can it? A Short History Of Nearly Everything will give you the beginner’s guide to answering some of the big scientific questions of our time. Bonus: it’s all written in a highly accessible, folksy style that lets the mind-boggling facts speak for themselves without bogging you down in academic jargon. Read my full review here.
8. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
You could probably read Mrs Dalloway fifty times over before you die, to the exclusion of all else, and still not understand quite everything Woolf was trying to say. I found it tough to persist with it when I knew that so much was flying over my head, but I still think it was a book worth reading. Mrs Dalloway has much to teach us about gender, perspective, human relationships – and even if we finish it having understood only a little, we still come out ahead, right? Read my full review here.
9. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
If you’ve seen her TED talk, you already know that Adichie is amazing, and her best known book – Americanah – will certainly give you a lot of food for thought. I realise that many of the books on this list are from the American literary tradition, so consider this book a kind of counterpoint to that. In it, Adichie examines the symbolism of America as a concept, and the ramifications of cultural imperialism across the world.
10. The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger
Almost everyone was forced to read The Catcher In The Rye in high school, but it’s worth re-visiting (and definitely worth reading for the first time, if you managed to escape that particular rite of passage as I did). It’s a gritty coming-of-age novel, without the sparkle we’ve come to associate with hopeful young adult offerings of the 21st century. Plus, Holden Caulfield isn’t half as unlikeable as everyone makes out. Read my full review here.
11. The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
This is the original collection of short stories that birthed a huge body of work around the world’s most famous fictional detective, and you should read it before you die on that basis alone. But if that’s not enough to lure you in, trust me when I say The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes is a fun read! The stories aren’t particularly scary or spooky, but they’re always delightful and clever. It’s also a great example of how we can say a lot with a few words: Doyle was the master of economical use of language. Read my full review here.
12. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Elena Ferrante, whomever she might be, is (in my humble opinion) one of the greatest writers of literary fiction in our time. Sure, it’s fun to venture down the rabbit-hole of sussing out her true identity, but the real reason to read My Brilliant Friend is bigger than that. These English editions are beautifully translated by Ann Goldstein (#namethetranslator), in a way that retains the rolling lyricism of the original Italian. They paint vivid pictures of life in mid-20th century Naples for two young girls growing into adulthood from poverty. A must-read before you die! Read my full review here.
13. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
This is the book that saw a fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie, forcing him into hiding for many years. And with a title like The Satanic Verses… come on, don’t you want to see what all the fuss was about?
14. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
This is the book that “activated” me as a teenager, the one that opened my eyes to the way my world could be manipulated and distorted by power structures beyond my young imagining. Nineteen Eighty-Four remains the pinnacle of dystopian fiction because it takes on startling new resonance every single year, with every crazy event of our increasingly mixed-up world.
15. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green
Look, The Fault In Our Stars isn’t a great work of literature. I’m not sure it’s even a good work of contemporary young adult literature. But it is beloved by an entire generation of teens that are growing up fast. I think we should all read it now so that we’ll have something in common to discuss with the doctors who care for us in our nursing homes. Read my full review here.
16. Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
I know – I know – that even if you’ve never read this classic novella, you’ve used the phrase “Jekyll and Hyde”, or heard it somewhere and (thought you) understood what it meant. I say you owe it to the English idiom to read its story of origin, Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde. For bonus points, you can check out Catch-22 as well! Read my full review here.
17. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
The trial(s) regarding the prohibition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover were world-changing, in the sense that they provided a legal basis upon which we get to access ground-breaking and subversive literature today, even when governments and school boards would prefer that we didn’t. However, when you actually read this supposedly-erotic tome, it really serves as a good reminder that controversy sometimes amounts to no more than a storm in a tea cup. Read my full review here.
18. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
I can feel you rolling your eyes! And, believe me, I understand. Moby Dick is a six-hundred page book about whales. The size of whales. The smell of whales. The slew of artworks featuring whales. The stories of whales in religion. There’s only so many whales a reader can take! But I would suggest you give it a go, and stick with it for as long as you can. Melville experimented with form and style throughout, so some chapters and passages read completely differently to the last – there’s surely something for everyone (even if they’re not that big on whales). Read my full review here.
19. The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
It’s a sad fact that at some point in life, each and every one of us will experience loss, grief, and mourning. The Year Of Magical Thinking is widely considered to be the epitome of memoirs on that experience, Joan Didion’s account of the year following the death of her husband. It’s a must-read before you die, so that you might be a little better prepared for another’s death (or better understand a long-ago passing).
20. Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen
If you ask a random stranger on the street to name a “classic book”, with no other prompting, most of them will probably say Pride And Prejudice. It’s another one of those books that we all think we “should” read, and sometimes that kind of pressure is too much. I know I tried many times, and failed, until I finally picked it up at the right moment. Austen penned a brilliant and timeless tale of a man who changes his manners and a woman who changes her mind – stick with it until it sticks with you! Read my full review here.
21. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Maybe it’s a cliche, but it’s a cliche for a reason: To Kill A Mockingbird is the poster-child of books you should read before you die. It was Harper Lee’s only true novel, and what a novel it was! It has shaped politics, legal thinking, and morality debates in America and around the world for decades now. Not to mention the legion of kids named Atticus, after the eternal patriarch and impassioned lawyer… Read my full review here.
22. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
This is a selfish inclusion on this reading list, I grant you, but I stand by it: I think everyone should read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, if for no other reason than I want them to. There’s a huge plot twist about 70 pages in, and – desperate as I am to talk about this book – I live in constant fear of spoiling it for someone. I won’t stop recommending this book until every reader has read it, and I can have spoiler-y discussions to my heart’s content! Read my full review here.
23. Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Most other lists of books to read before you die include Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude. It’s a great book, no contest here, but I think that Love In The Time of Cholera is a better one to start with, especially if you’re new to the literature of South America and the tradition of magical realism.
24. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a miraculously poetic autobiography (well, perhaps not so miraculous, given that Angelou was, in fact, a poet). You will want to clutch this book to your chest and give it a great big hug. It’s tells the (true!) story of a young woman transformed, how she overcame indignity and prejudice to reach a place of self-possession and determination.
25. Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling
OK, this is technically seven books (making this a list of 56 books to read before you die, if you want to be a rule ninny), but who could pick just one from the series that changed the world? And, come to that, who hasn’t read at least one of the Harry Potter books yet? Come on! Get caught up with the rest of the world, if you haven’t already. This one’s a gimme.
26. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
It’s a crying shame that more readers haven’t yet encountered Cold Comfort Farm. It lurks in the shadows of early 20th century classic literature, mostly because Stella Gibbons thumbed her nose at the “literati” (D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf in particular). She refused to play by the rules of networking and deference, and her sales and reputation suffered for it. You should read this book before you die, just to make sure Gibbons’s comedic brilliance won’t be forgotten, no matter how much the literary giants wanted it to be. Read my full review here.
27. Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett
A couple of blokes stand around, chatting, waiting for their mate – don’t you want to know if he ever shows up? It’s a tragi-comedy, sure to tickle the funny bone of all readers with a darker sense of humour. Plus, Waiting For Godot is a play, and that was definitely Beckett’s natural talent, the best way to experience his (at-times very esoteric) writing.
28. Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
If you could use a little romance in your life (without all the naff cliches that are normally found in the pages of Harlequins, or Fabio clutching a buxom blonde on the cover), Call Me By Your Name is the salve for what ails you. Your heart will wrench, your toes will tingle, as you read this beautiful account of a clandestine love affair in 1980s Italy.
29. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
For too many years, Little Women was written off as foolish, simplistic, fluff “for girls”, and excluded from the literary canon. My challenge to all of you is this: find an edition with a decent introduction that describes Alcott’s life and politics, and then read this subtle but subversive story. You’ll see it in a whole new light, as I did! Read my full review here.
30. Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance holds the world record (literally, it’s in the Guiness book) for being – get this – the most-often rejected book that went on to be a best-seller. I can only imagine the strength of will and self-belief it took for Pirsig to persist after receiving his 121st rejection letter… all that zen thinking must have done wonders!
31. How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton
Look, if we’re being honest (which, of course, we always are), the main reason to read this book before you die is to work out whether it’s worth giving Proust himself a go. In Search Of Lost Time is the longest book in circulation, too long to bind in a single edition, so let de Botton decide for you whether or not to pick it up. Hopefully, reading How Proust Can Change Your Life, you’ll get an idea of whether it’s worth it. It probably is, but even if not, it’s nice to know that Proust could change your life, at least.
32. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch
The literary world has dedicated millions and millions of pages to accounts of the world wars, but there are other conflicts just as worthy of our attention. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families is one such crucial account of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which over one million people met their untimely violent deaths.
33. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Yes, I’m including yet another children’s book, because sometimes they have more to teach us than anything written for grown-ups. In this case, read Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland to experience and marvel at Carroll’s masterful word play – it just doesn’t quite translate in its full glory to the Disney screen adaptation (or any other!). Read my full review here.
34. The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck
It’s rare that a book is so good that it makes me angry: The Grapes Of Wrath is one on that short list. I was so gripped by the story of the Joads, a family attempting to escape the economic desolation of the Dust Bowl, that I found myself furious that no one had ever told me how damn good it was! Plus, this book will (sadly) have a recurring timeliness as we inch closer to a climate change doomsday… Read my full review here.
35. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
Second-wave feminism has long been superseded, and it’s easy for us now to decry it for all its problems, but I think it still behoves us to examine its origins as we continue to beat a path towards gender equality. The Feminine Mystique is the book widely credited with kicking things off for the second wave, and it holds up surprisingly well compared to some other feminist texts of the time.
36. The Trial by Franz Kafka
If you can’t quite bring yourself to pick up Crime And Punishment (though you shouldn’t be afraid, it’s actually really good!), here’s a more accessible alternative. The Trial tells the story of a man who is arrested and put on (you guessed it) trial, answerable to a remote authority that we don’t quite understand, for supposed crimes that are never quite revealed to us.
37. Leaves Of Grass by Walt Whitman
Picking up a copy of Leaves Of Grass is kind of like opening a choose-your-own-adventure novel. Whitman first published it as a collection of twelve poems in 1855, but then spent many years re-writing and adding to it, so that the final compilation included well over four hundred pieces. Whichever edition you choose, you’ll find it to be a wonderfully sensual collection that straddles philosophies, movements and themes.
38. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Here’s another slim tome that we should all read for the pure fun of it: The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. It’s ridiculous, satirical, and comforting all at once – not to mention hilarious! Plus, you’ll finally get to understand all those hip references to taking towels on holiday, and the number forty-two, and that constant refrain “don’t panic”… Read my full review here.
39. Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterley
Shetterley spent six years working on this biographical story, an account of the lives and works of three NASA mathematicians that history might otherwise have forgotten (thus, the title: Hidden Figures). If you’re asking yourself why their figures may have been hidden from view: well, they were women, for one thing, and women of colour at that, working in a field heavily dominated by men. Their contributions to the space race were invaluable, and this book seeks to set the record straight.
40. Atonement by Ian McEwan
McEwan is pretty damn prolific, and yet somehow the premises of his stories are always jaw-droppers. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, I would recommend starting with this one, his best-known book, Atonement. In it, one young girl’s mistake has spiralling ramifications. Lives are ruined, including her own, and she has to contend with how to (you guessed it) atone for her role in the whole mess.
41. The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
The God Of Small Things was Roy’s debut novel, and it made one heck of a splash – can you imagine winning the Booker Prize your first time out? Not only that, she did a Harper Lee, and stepped back from writing and publishing for twenty years! Her follow-up wasn’t published until 2017 (sophomore slump be damned!). But for a fine examination of how small things affect our lives in big ways, you’ve got to go back to the start with this one.
42. Inferno by Dante Alighieri
It seemed only right to include at least one foundational text, a story that has influenced literature in such a way that we still hear its echoes today, in this list of books to read before you die. I chose Inferno, the first of Dante’s Divine Comedy trilogy. It’s a narrative poem, depicting Dante’s descent through the circles of Hell. Reading it as a contemporary reader, you’ll appreciate how it illuminates the endurance of human nature. We really haven’t changed all that much since Dante dreamed up fitting punishments for our sins in the 14th century…
43. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
It never ceases to amaze me how the wowsers can completely miss the point when it comes to literature. The Color Purple has been consistently censored and banned in various ways ever since it was first published in 1982, usually on the grounds of its “explicit” depictions of violence. And yet, the whole point of the story was to reveal to an indifferent audience the violence wrought upon black women in the American South in the 1930s. Read this book before you die, and show the nay-sayers where they can stick their “concern” for your delicate sensibilities!
44. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Eugenides reportedly sat down to write Middlesex, an intersectional bildungsroman and family saga, after finding that other accounts of intersex lives and anatomies were insufficient in promoting understanding. In so doing, he’s woven together two intricate experiences: that of intersex people, and that of Greek immigrants, in 20th century America. It’s a lot to tackle all at once, but Eugenides got a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts, and that ain’t no small thing.
45. I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
Remember the fifteen-year-old girl who was shot by the Taliban for standing her ground when it came to her right to an education? This is her story, I Am Malala. It plays out against the horrifying backdrop of the rise (and fall) of the Tehrik-i-Taliban in Pakistan. This book is so detailed, so earnest and fierce, that it is still banned in many schools of that region – making it, in my eye, all the more essential reading.
46. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid’s Tale was originally published in 1985, but boy-howdy did it come into its own these past few years! I felt like I couldn’t take a step in any direction without running into Gilead-themed protests, the HBO adaptation, the sequel, or some other homage to Atwood’s dystopian story of ideology and control.
47. This House Of Grief by Helen Garner
Helen Garner is an unimpeachable darling of the Australian literary community, and it’s tough to narrow down down this selection to just one book from her incredibly varied back-catalogue… but in the end, I went with This House Of Grief. It’s her account of the murder conviction of a man who drove his three children into a dam, killing them, in 2005. It is haunting in the extreme; you won’t be the same after reading it (just as Garner has said she was never the same after writing it).
48. Beloved by Toni Morrison
Did you know that Beloved is actually based on the real-life story of an African-American slave? Her name was Margaret Garner, and she escaped Kentucky in 1856. She fled to Ohio, by then a free state. Morrison, who by then was already regarded in some circles as America’s greatest novelist, came across Margaret’s story, and she was driven to write this imagined account of a former slave living in Ohio. She dedicated it to “sixty million and more” – the number of Africans, and their descendants, who died as a result of the slave trade.
49. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos
I will never, never, stop being bitter about the fact that The Great Gatsby is held up as the definitive Jazz Age novel, when Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is so much better! Why would you want to read about a miserable rich stalker throwing fancy parties, when you could instead read the fictional diaries of a woman willing to exploit the gender roles of 1920s America for all they’re worth? It’s hilarious, it’s brilliant, and it’s taught me more about that period than anything Fitzgerald ever scribbled down. Read my full review here.
50. Ulysses by James Joyce
Yes. It’s here. On this list. If I have to read Ulysses (and the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list dictates I must), then you have to read it. At least give it a go! I’m a firm believer that we should all read the books that intimidate us, like trying new foods or travelling someplace unfamiliar, and hey – it might not be as bad as we all think!
And there we have it! How many of these books have you already read? What books do you think everyone should read before they die? Add your recommendations in the comments below!