Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

50 Books To Read Before You Die

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 50 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…

50 Books To Read Before You Die - Text Overlaid on Image of Bookshelves Leading To Heavens - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Affiliate links below – if you buy a book (or fifty), I’ll be forever grateful!

1. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Charlotte's Web - EB White - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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. A pig is rescued by a young girl who doesn’t have the heart to see him served up as bacon, and he goes on to live an extraordinary life. He befriends a spider who has the talent to weave words describing him – radiant, humble, ‘some pig’ – into her web, keeping him safe from the butcher’s block. Even as grown-ups, this book has much to teach us about friendship, diversity, and determination.

2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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, and (if you set your feminist ideals aside) your heart might just be set aflutter by the narrator’s romance with the dastardly Mr Rochester. Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.

3. How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie

How To Win Friends And Influence People - Dale Carnegie - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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? Sure, some of the advice is a bit outdated and quaint, but the fundamentals remain the same. Remember names, look people in the eye, and listen when they talk – that’s the kind of advice that never goes out of style, and always comes in handy.

4. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In Cold Blood wasn’t the first true crime book, but it’s definitely a foundational stone or a load-bearing pillar of the genre. Truman Capote took thousands of pages of notes and conducted hundreds of interviews (assisted by his buddy Harper Lee), and distilled them into this iconic account of a mass murder on a farm in Kansas. In his version of the story, we can see the origins of contemporary true crime and investigative journalism. Set aside your qualms about his liberal creative license – it’s a cracking yarn! Read my full review of In Cold Blood here.

5. Diary Of A Young Girl by Anne Frank

The Diary Of A Young Girl - Anne Frank - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

A Game of Thrones - George R R Martin - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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 of A Game Of Thrones here.

7. A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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 biggest 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 of A Short History Of Nearly Everything here.

8. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway - Virginia Woolf - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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. It can be tough to persist through the layers of metaphor and dense accounting of pathos, but it’s still a book well 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 of Mrs Dalloway here.

9. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah - Chimananda Ngozi Adichie - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’ve seen her TED talk, you already know that Adichie is impressive, 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, though the story of a soul connection that transcends it all.

10. The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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 him out to be; he’s just proof that Gen Z didn’t invent the idea of teenage angst and trauma. Read my full review of The Catcher In The Rye here.

11. The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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 of The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes here.

12. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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 of My Brilliant Friend here.

13. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

The Satanic Verses - Salman Rushdie - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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? This is one of the most controversial and acclaimed novels ever written, a key work of our times that seems to become ever-more relevant with each passing year since publication. The London Review Of Books called it “damnably entertaining and fiendishly ingenious”, too.

14. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

1984 - George Orwell - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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. So, naturally, I reckon it’s a book everyone should read before they die! 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. Plus, it’s a source text for a lot of the idioms and cultural shorthand we use in our day-to-day lives (“Big Brother is watching”, for instance).

15. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

The Fault In Our Stars - John Green - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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, so I think we should all read it now. We all need to have something in common to discuss with the doctors who care for us in our nursing homes. Plus, a whole bunch of those doctors were probably inspired to go into the medical profession by this very book. Read my full review of The Fault In Our Stars here.

16. Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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. When you do, you’ll discover it’s actually a fascinating read, an allegory with any number of meanings and readings that could keep you entertained for years. Read my full review of Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde here.

17. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

Lady Chatterley's Lover - DH Lawrence - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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. Still, reading it will give you the delightfully sinful feeling that comes with sticking it to the man. Read my full review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover here.

18. Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Moby Dick - Herman Melville - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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 of Moby Dick here.

19. The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Year Of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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). It highlights how thin the membranes are that separate life from death, and sanity from madness, in Didion’s signature style of stunning prose.

20. Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride And Prejudice - Jane Austen - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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 of Pride And Prejudice here.

21. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee - Book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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 (and legal societies) named Atticus, after the eternal patriarch and impassioned lawyer. Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.

22. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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 of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves here.

23. Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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. It’s the one that Oprah picked for her book club, after all, and it’s got a passionate true love story that will keep you more entertained than a century of family drama.

24. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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. It’s a powerful coming-of-age story, especially for fellow bookworms, and it’s impossible to read this one without feeling uplifted. Read my full review of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings here.

25. Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter And The Philosophers Stone - JK Rowling - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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. That said, I will completely respect your decision if you decide to abstain from this one due to J.K. Rowling’s disgusting decline into transphobic gender fascism.

26. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s a crying shame that most 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 on the literary scene, 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 of Cold Comfort Farm here.

27. Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett

Waiting For Godot - Samuel Beckett - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A couple of blokes stand around, chatting, waiting for their mate – don’t you want to know if he ever shows up? Waiting For Godot is a tragi-comedy, sure to tickle the funny bone of all readers with a darker sense of humour. It’s “a comical wordplay of poetry, dreamscapes, and nonsense, which has been interpreted as mankind’s inexhaustible search for meaning”. Plus, it’s a play and playwriting was definitely Beckett’s natural talent, the best way to experience his (at-times very esoteric) writing. Read my full review of Waiting For Godot here.

28. Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman

Call Me By Your Name - Andre Aciman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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 (with a not-unproblematic age gap) in 1980s Italy. Feel the heady intoxication of first love, the creeping unease of new distance, and the unthinkable tragedy of first heartbreak. Read my full review of Call Me By Your Name here.

29. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women - Louisa May Alcott - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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! This is a story about four young women that subtly nudges the reader to consider lives for them outside what society expects and tradition demands. Read my full review of Little Women here.

30. Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert M Pirsig - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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! It might be a more dense and traumatic read than you’re expecting, with fatherhood fault-lines and mental illness and inherited trauma, but it will definitely resonate for anyone searching for meaning. Read my full review of Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance here.

31. How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

How Proust Can Change Your Life - Alain de Botton - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families - Philip Gourevitch - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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. Take care reading this non-fiction book, as the content is confronting (to say the least), but remember always that you can choose to be inspired by the stubbornness of the human spirit and determination to survive.

33. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes, I’m including yet another children’s book in this list of books to read before you die, 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!). Plus, the nostalgia will warm your heart after some of the other more traumatic reads on this list. Read my full review of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland here.

34. The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Grapes Of Wrath - John Steinbeck - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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. As the family migrates to the promised land, losing member after member along the way, the futility of their struggle will break your heart. Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.

35. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

The Feminine Mystique - Betty Friedan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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 behooves 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. Friedan draws attention to the insidious beliefs and institutions that undermined women’s confidence in their intellectual capabilities and kept them in the home, many of which are still at play today.

36. The Trial by Franz Kafka

The Trial - Franz Kafka - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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. This story has fascinated and frustrated readers, in equal measure, for decades, forcing us to consider the true nature of justice and whether independent thought is possible within the machinations of The System.

37. Leaves Of Grass by Walt Whitman

The Complete Poems of Walt Whitman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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. If you’re alone and you don’t feel too silly, try reading some (or all!) of the poems out loud to truly appreciate Whitman’s rhythm and mastery of free form.

38. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy - Douglas Adams - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s another slim tome that we should all read before we die 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”. Slip this one in your pocket and pull it out during quiet moments on your next great travel adventure for the best reading experience. Read my full review of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy here.

39. Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterley

Hidden Figures - Margot Lee Shetterley - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Margot Lee 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. Read my full review of Hidden Figures here.

40. Atonement by Ian McEwan

Atonement - Ian McEwan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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. It’s a challenging read, and there’s certainly no neat happily-ever-after at the end, but it’s a great introduction to McEwan’s oeuvre. Read my full review of Atonement here.

41. The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The God Of Small Things - Arundhati Roy - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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! It probably took everyone about that long to truly digest the content of her debut anyway, so maybe it’s just as well. The story is one of forbidden love and piercing political drama, centered on the tragic decline of an Indian family. The way it unfolds feels inevitable, and yet you’ll still be taken by surprise.

42. Inferno by Dante Alighieri

The Divine Comedy - Dante Alighieri - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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. Read my full review of The Divine Comedy here.

43. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

The Color Purple - Alice Walker - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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! Read my full review of The Color Purple here.

44. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jeffrey 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. Read my full review of Middlesex here.

45. I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

I Am Malala - Malala Yousafzai - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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. You’ll finish this book understanding exactly why Malala Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.

46. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Handmaid’s Tale was originally published in 1985, but boy-howdy did it come into its own these past few years! For a while there, it felt like you 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. It’s unfortunate that this dystopian novel about power and control over women’s bodies has become so relevant in the present day, but that’s what makes it one of the books you should read before you die. Read my full review of The Handmaid’s Tale here.

47. This House Of Grief by Helen Garner

This House Of Grief - Helen Garner - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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. All of her writing is brilliant, but her non-fiction crime writing is where she shines the brightest. This is 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

Beloved - Toni Morrison - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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. Toni Morrison came across Margaret’s story, and she was driven to write this imagined account of a former slave living in Ohio. She was already considered one of America’s great novelists, but this is the book that tipped her into icon territory. She dedicated it to “sixty million and more” – the number of Africans, and their descendants, who died as a result of the slave trade. Read my full review of Beloved here.

49. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Anita Loos - Books Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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 of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

50. Ulysses by James Joyce

Ulysses - James Joyce - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes. It’s here. On this list of books to read before YOU die. If I have to read Ulysses (and the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list dictates I must), then you have to read it, too. 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! Read my full review of Ulysses here.

Want more books worth reading? Check these out:


  1. I’ve read several of the books on this list and thanks to this post, I’ve just added a couple more to my Want to Read List (“We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” and “We Wish to Inform You…”).

    I’m currently reading The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time, but I haven’t gotten far enough into it to really immerse myself in the story yet. I also got a copy of The Testaments a couple of months ago, so I plan on reading those back-to-back.

    The Diary of a Young Girl is hands-down my favorite book of all time, and you’re pretty spot-on on how historical fiction set in the same period when Anne Frank wrote her diary doesn’t quite come close to the emotional impact of Anne’s diary. I read it for the first time when I was about 13, and it amazes me how relatable she is, despite her circumstances. It still saddens me that she never got the chance to build upon her potential after the war and the Holocaust, but the fact that her father chose to publish and share his beloved daughter’s words with the world stands as a testament to what the Nazis took away. Each of those millions of souls killed in their senseless genocide (not just Jews, but also political minorities, the disabled, LGBT, and ethnic minorities like the Romani) had a story, a family, a name, and they had dreams and ambitions. I like to think she would have made an amazing journalist had she survived the war.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      January 3, 2020 at 6:34 PM

      Oh Crystal, yes! I read Diary Of A Young girl at exactly the same age, and it had exactly the same effect on me – still does, all these years later. Would really love to hear what you think of We’re All Completely Beside Ourselves, and The Handmaid’s Tale, and all the rest – please do come back and let me know! 😉

  2. Wait no Charles Dickens or Brave New World? I’m a little suspect.

  3. I loved “Middlesex”!
    I hated “The Great Gatsby” (so shallow). I’ll pick up “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” on your recommendation.

  4. I don’t even know how I ended up on this site but I love me some ShereeKUWTP! I {heart emoji} that you respond to your commenters. And now I have to sadly say I read ‘We are all…’ you know the rest and (sorry) I kinda forgot about it. Now I feel bad ’cause you loved it so much. But…I’m gonna throw ‘ atcha CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES; FIFTH BUSINESS; REBECCA

    • ShereeKUWTP

      August 2, 2020 at 7:59 AM

      Hey, no need to feel bad – not every book is for every one! 😉 Love your additions (I’ve had a copy of Rebecca on my to-be-read shelf for the LONGEST time!). Thanks, Christine!

  5. Love the list. Have read 20 of suggested list. Thought to add Their Eyes were watching God. What a super read. Really got me into American authors.

  6. No Charles Dickens or Mark Twain; what about Victor Hugo or Balzac? Have you heard of Dostoyevsky or Pushkin? You should read Blasio Ibanez; Benito Perez Galdos; Reynaldo Arenas o Alejo Carpentier probably one of the best author of all times.

  7. Anita Stallings Allen

    September 23, 2021 at 12:42 PM

    Love reading! Always have (I am 87 at this time). My very favorite book is THE SPARROW (I’ve read it 14 times) by Mary Doria Russell. Another favorite is A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES by John Kennedy Toole (have read 7 times).
    A dream come true would be to be in a room totally full of books—on all four walls from floor to ceiling and scattered on the floor in piles, with a box of chocolates and my cat.
    I just read your list of books to read before you die, and made a note of several that I definitely want to read ASAP.
    On a list of things necessary for survival would be 1. Food and water 2. Books.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      September 25, 2021 at 10:49 AM

      Hahaha my list would look very similar, Anita! My house is starting to look very much like your dream, I must say 😅📚 Happy reading!

    • I completely agree with you!!!!😊😊😊 I am 83 and am never seen without a book in hand!!!

  8. Hi,
    What about:
    The Glass Bead Game, Herman Hesse ;
    The Loved One, and Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh;
    Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell ;
    Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T. E. Laurence;
    Fair Stood the Fields for France, H.E Bates;
    The Cruel Sea, Nicholas Montserrat;
    Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome;
    The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry;
    The Narnia Chronicles?

  9. How about short stories? One that comes to my mind is “Flowers For Algernon” from school but I don’t remember the author.

    • Sheree

      February 7, 2022 at 12:01 PM

      Excellent idea, Robert! Flowers For Algernon was written by Daniel Keyes, he won the Hugo award for it if I recall correctly!

  10. Pamela Brucker

    May 9, 2023 at 12:00 AM

    Great List. I did read some of these when I was in school, but going back and rereading as an older adult puts a whole new slant on them. My mother had a pile of books on her bedstand, and I would sneak them out and read them. I read The Imperial Woman by Pearl Buck at age 10, Parrish by Margaret Savage at age 12, and many others. The two I missed and read as an adult were A Tree Grows In Brooklyn and Rebecca. Both would be good additions to this list.

    • Sheree

      May 25, 2023 at 8:32 PM

      Awwww that’s such a sweet story! And yes, absolutely, two fantastic additions – thank you!

  11. Can you make this into a 1-2 page list?

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