What makes a book a classic? Some books speak the truth about the human condition. Others speak truth to power. Still others make marginalized people feel less alone, and help privileged people understand the perspective of the “other.” And some are just too engrossing and well-written to put down.
From fiction to nonfiction, young markets to grown-up markets, classics and newcomers, here are our picks for some of the best books to read before you die …
When You’re Younger
1. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017)
The Hate U Give
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- WALKER BOOKS
Even more relevant now than when it was released in 2017, The Hate U Give pierces through the idea of a monolithic “Black Experience” to focus on a protagonist caught between two worlds. 16-year-old Starr is torn between her loyalty to her black family and childhood friend Khalil, who live in the poor, gang-afflicted fictional neighborhood of Garden Heights; and the private school she feels privileged to attend, with a white boyfriend and white best friends.
When a party turns violent, Starr and Khalil escape by car, only to be stopped by a white police officer. The cop shoots Khalil dead, with Starr as a witness. Shaken, Starr follows instructions to stay out of the public eye … until the cop is exonerated and Khalil is smeared in the media.
The ensuing protests and riots rock both Garden Heights and Starr’s privileged relationships, as she reconciles with her roots and realizes that people like her can’t hide if they want the cycle of violence to stop.
2. Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario (2006)
Enrique's Journey: The Story of a Boy's Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother
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Enrique’s Journey is one of the best books for anyone who wants to participate in the hot topic of illegal immigration to the United States. Whichever side you come down on, Nazario’s retelling of the incredible true story of a boy’s trek to reunite with his mother, across hostile territory and hunted every step of the way, adds tremendous human perspective to the plight of the undocumented immigrants themselves.
Enrique’s mother moves to the US when he is a child, leaving him in the care of relatives in Honduras. Pining for his mother’s care, as a teenager he embarks on a bold journey across the length and breadth of Mexico, stowing away on trains with other desperate pilgrims, hiding from bandits and corrupt cops, death ever on their heels. It’s the kind of story that is both stranger than fiction … and reflects a day-to-day truth of our society.
3. A Child Called “It” by Dave Pelzer (1995)
A Child Called It: One Child's Courage to Survive
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A Child Called “It” is not a book to read for fun, although it is gripping and entertaining. It’s a book you read to marvel at the cruelty people can display toward the helpless, and the ability of the helpless to survive under the worst circumstances.
Pelzer presents A Child Called “It” as a memoir, claiming that he indeed suffered the harrowing abuse that the small protagonist endured between the ages of 4 and 12 before he was rescued into foster care. The perpetrator of the abuse? The boy’s mother, an unstable alcoholic. She subjects the boy not only to stomach-turning physical abuse, but also mind games, dehumanizing her own son as “it” instead of “he.”
It’s one of the best books to read, though, as the boy learns to navigate his difficult circumstances until his eventual deliverance. Victims of abuse, in particular, will emerge from this work feeling heard, and perhaps gain greater strength in their recovery.
4. The Thief of Always by Clive Barker (1992)
The Thief of Always
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Having directed the film Hellraiser as an adaptation of one of his books, Barker is best known as an author of adult horror fiction. Indeed, The Thief of Always has a flair for the phantasmagoric, but it’s way too much fun to cause fright.
It tells the story of bored, rebellious 10-year-old Harvey who is tempted to run away from home and post up at “Hood House,” a garden of earthly delights for children, nothing but games and sweet food, fair weather every day and Christmas every night complete with magic presents.
How obvious does a trap have to be before you smell a rat? Harvey eventually learns that Hood House exacts a terrible price from its childlike victims in the form of time. Harvey’s flight to freedom and ultimate battle with the diabolical Mr. Hood is one of the most successful acts of world-building in print. The richly-satisfying final battle and conclusion is rich with lessons learned about the preciousness of every passing moment, even the dull or difficult ones.
5. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (1984)
The House on Mango Street
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Cisneros went from the only daughter among eight brothers to the only chicana in her MFA creative writing class. Her bold, virtuosic first novel drips with the anxiety of being different, the sadness of realizing you don’t belong, and the day-to-day dangers that marginalized communities live with.
She projects her disappointment onto the foundational idea of “home.” Esperanza, a preteen chicana girl who acts as Cisneros’ avatar, has been raised on promises from her working-class parents that one day they would have a house of their own. But the house they move into on Mango Street, in a poor, predominantly Latin district of Chicago, is shabby and rundown, a far cry from the house of her dreams.
We spend a year watching the world through Esperanza’s eyes as she rages against her family’s limited circumstances, develops a passion for writing, meets an indelible cast of friends, hits puberty, and discovers boys.
But the world she comes from is rough and violent, and The House on Mango Street does not shy away from the dangers Esperanza faces as she endeavors to escape … nor does it neglect the plight of the people Esperanza will leave behind if she does escape.
6. The BFG by Roald Dahl (1982)
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English kids-lit impresario Roald Dahl could be many things—scary, funny, whimsical, heartwarming. In The BFG, he is all of these things. He fulfills in children a wish they never knew they had—to be whisked away from a dreary orphanage, riding the ear of a “Big Friendly Giant,” to a land where dreams flit about like butterflies for the BFG to capture and puff into children’s heads at night.
There’s so much to love and remember about The BFG—the titular character’s folksy vernacular; the engrossing process by which he concocts dreams like a cocktail mixologist; the hilarious lengths to which the Queen’s footman goes to present the BFG with the correct size of civilized tableware while he is a guest at the palace. (The great sword makes a fine dinner knife for a giant, but it was last used to cut off the head of King Charles I, so watch out for dried blood.)
There’s terror in the BFG too—the BFG is actually the runt of a litter of bloodthirsty bigger giants who eat children instead of giving them happy dreams. But those scary giants make Sophie’s and the BFG’s story arc even more satisfying—it’s okay to be different, and kindness can trump cruelty.
7. The Neverending Story by Michael Ende (1979)
The Neverending Story
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This work is better known as the inspiration for a quintessential 1980s fantasy film. Do yourself the greatest kindness of your life by reading the source material, written by German author Michael Ende. It’s easily one of the best books to read before you die.
Fans of the movie will early-on recognize the structure. Bullied child Bastien steals a strange book, hides in his school attic to read it, and the book unfolds as a thrilling tale of Atreyu, Falkor the Luckdragon, the Childlike Empress, and the quest to defeat the Nothing.
If you feel like you’re approaching the end of the movie but there’s still a lot of book to go, you may suspect that this book actually is some kind of magical never-ending story. But Ende has much more in store than the movie had time to reveal. The plot of the book’s second act was very roughly adapted into a lackluster sequel film; the book is infinitely better.
Bastien himself enters the fantasy land of the book to become a prince among boys … only to risk losing more than he ever bargained for. It’s a stunning meditation on memory and hope, truth in stories and lies of rationality, with a payoff so satisfying that generations of readers have put the book down with regret, wishing it never would end.
8. Forever by Judy Blume (1975)
Forever . . . (Richard Jackson Book)
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Enshrined as a kids’-lit star, Judy Blume never wrote with kid gloves. By 1975 she had already “written the book” on menstruation (Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret), one of the best fiction books for young girls to read. She had also tackled divorce (It’s Not the End of the World, Just as Long as We’re Together), bullying (Blubber), racism (Iggie’s House) and masturbation (Then Again, Maybe I Won’t).
Still, few people in 1975 were ready for Forever, a frank book about teen sexuality that said the quiet part out loud—sex was everywhere, no amount of high-handed moralizing would stamp it out, and adults owed their teen children a thoughtful and practical view of sex. Barring their parents’ ability to do that, the teens owed the same to themselves.
“Forever” refers to the necklace that Katherine’s boyfriend Michael gives her after they finally stumble across the finish line after abortive, comical early attempts to lose their virginity together. It represents a kind of commitment society and literature attach to sex that is impossible to expect of teenagers. Blume’s sensitive, realistic take on the fragility of young sexual relationships, and the resilience of the teens involved, is still something many people aren’t ready to hear. This book is frequently banned from libraries and is regularly on the chopping block of censors. Don’t let it disappear.
9. The Cay by Theodore Taylor (1969)
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WWII was a banner era for dangerous transport and getting marooned on islands. Instead of a crew of cheeky British boys, as found in The Lord of the Flies, The Cay strands American boy Phillip on a tiny island (a “cay”) with two companions—a cat named Stew, and Timothy, an elderly black man who worked on the ship that was torpedoed while evacuating Phillip and his mother from Curacao.
Phillip, who has inherited racist values from his mother, distrusts the affable Timothy from the get-go, but grudgingly cooperates with him. Then circumstances turn against Phillip—he goes suddenly blind from injuries and exposure. Phillip must now depend entirely on Timothy, whose skin color he can literally no longer see, and whose lifetime spent living on the margins of island societies has imbued Timothy with a wealth of survival skills.
As they bond, and as Phillip’s racism melts away, it becomes clear that Timothy isn’t just caring for blind Phillip, but preparing him for independence—rigging the cay with ropes so Phillip can find his way around, teaching him to fish for lobsters without the use of his eyes. It becomes heartbreakingly clear that Timothy is trying to prepare Phillip for a possible future where Timothy is no longer around to protect him. One of the best books to read before you die.
10. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
A Wrinkle in Time (Time Quintet)
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L’Engle got the idea for A Wrinkle In Time when her family took road trips across strange desert terrain. She translated this into an epic journey across the very universe, catapulting protagonists Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace across vast gulfs of space, riding “wrinkles in time” created by magical Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsis, and Mrs. Which.
Considering how fantastic the novel is, populated by utopian centaurs and giant blobs of pure evil, it’s a concept surprisingly rooted in astrophysics, and is a good preparation for science-minded girls like Meg to meet Einsteinian relativity.
But first, Meg and her genius savant little brother Charles Wallace must find their dad, who disappeared on a planet-hopping journey, and who has fallen under the sway of an evil being called IT that threatens the entire universe, Earth included. It’s heady stuff, and when the book was first published many thought children were not ready to grapple with the concept of pure evil. But, this is an award winning science-forward fantasy novel, so love triumphs over all.
11. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (1961)
The Phantom Tollbooth.
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Some books targeted to young audiences seek to educate as much as entertain. Many of them fail miserably, and all of them look clumsy and heavy-handed compared to The Phantom Tollbooth, one of the best fiction books to read at any age. Primary school lessons are hidden in a fantasy tale so engrossing, it’s easy for parents as well as children to forget that they are learning between the lines.
The whimsical tale kicks off with discontented boy Milo bored in his room full of toys, when out of nowhere a strange toy car with an accompanying tollbooth arrives in the mail. Milo drives through the tollbooth and finds himself in the strange Kingdom of Wisdom, dominated by two warring kingdoms—letter-oriented Dictionopolis, and number-oriented Digitopolis.
He befriends a ticking “watchdog” named Tock, and they meet characters like the Dodecahedron and the Whether man as they quest to the Mountains of Ignorance to save the princesses Rhyme and Reason. By the time Milo returns to his bedroom, mind nourished by wisdom, he will never be bored again.
12. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
To Kill a Mockingbird
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Barring basic literacy, there is no age too young or too old to fall in love with To Kill a Mockingbird, the semi-autobiographical story of a precocious young white girl named Scout, growing up with her brother and her lawyer father in Depression-era Alabama—which, of course, is also the heart of the Jim Crow South.
Scout, her brother, and her friend Dill hunt for (or hide from) mysterious, creepy neighbor Boo Radley while on the periphery of their childhood, the town is riven by a charge of rape and assault leveled against a black man named Tom Robinson. The charge is nonsense; the victim was clearly beaten by her father; but no one will stand up for Robinson. No one, except Scout’s father Atticus.
Atticus Finch is one of the towering heroes of modern literature—a paragon of firm but tender fatherhood, of life lessons and common decency, a hero who needs no cape or superpowers because of his quiet authority. You don’t need Gregory Peck’s rightly famous film performance—the page is more than enough for readers en masse to adopt Atticus Finch as their spiritual second father.
13. Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)
Lord of the Flies
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Lord of the Flies speaks down the generations as a rebuke to the idea that human beings are basically good, with an especially large dose of acid for people who idealize childhood as a time of innocence. Such idolaters clearly never served time in a British boy’s school.
During a WWII evacuation, a plane crashes on a deserted island, leaving a group of young boys to fend for themselves. For a period of time, their stiff-upper-lip adherence to British values holds them together. They create rules and a semblance of order as they wait for rescue … but then things fall apart.
The boys discover a taste for violence as they learn to hunt pigs. A power struggle emerges, with advantage flowing to the boy leader willing to be the most ruthless as the boys begin to fear a mythic “beast” in the woods. And the “Lord of the Flies,” a demonym for Satan, speaks from the head of a slaughtered wild pig to the Christlike boy Simon, mocking him for thinking that the beast was in the woods, when it was actually in the boys’ hearts.
By the time rescue arrives, the boys are murderers. Their countrymen greet them as future upstanding Britons … but separated from the calming influence of society, they have become citizens of a whole new terrain of the soul. Here is one of the best fiction books to meditate on the darkness within.
14. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)
The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings (1)
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- The Fellowship of the Ring The Lord of the Rings Part One
Storytellers are still copying Tolkien. In reimagining his WWII experience as a titanic battle between outnumbered forces of good and supernatural forces of evil, Tolkien created a fully-realized world that is a brand unto itself. Whenever we tell stories of dragons and knights, kings and wizards, elves and dwarves, we’re telling Middle Earth stories whether we cop to it or not. Everything from Dungeons & Dragons to Game of Thrones is built on the foundation created by Tolkien.
The Hobbit is the easier and shorter read, but The Fellowship of the Ring is one of the best books to read before you die—a story played for keeps against titanic odds. This first book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy endures in popularity among audiences of all ages because it casts in the lead role not a stout warrior or shrewd wizard (despite the fact that it has both) but a team of tiny hobbits. Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin are as inconsequential on the world stage as children, but capable of astonishing courage when the chips are down.
15. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1952)
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl
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Colloquially known as “The Diary of Anne Frank,” The Diary of a Young Girl is a staggering treasure that cannot possibly be oversold. A true account written by German-Dutch Jew Anne Frank between the ages of 13 and 15, it requires no dragons or vampires to be enthralling as it chronicles two years of her life spent in hiding in an office attic in Amsterdam, crowded in with friends and relatives, hidden by Dutch friends from occupying Nazis during the Holocaust.
Possessed by crushes, boredom, and tumultuous emotions, Anne is as easy for young people to relate to as any school friend. Adult readers will not only marvel at a wisdom and eloquence far beyond her years, but at her optimism in the most terrifying of circumstances while under constant threat of capture by the cruel regime.
The diary withstands the punishing tragedy that occurred shortly after the last entry. Anne and her compatriots were captured by the Nazis, and she perished at age 15 in a concentration camp. But as long as people read this book, Anne’s immortality as a voice among the six million murdered Jews is ironclad:
“I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. How wonderful it is that nobody needs to wait a single moment before starting to improve the world. No one has ever become poor by giving.”
When you Get Older
1. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)
Between the World and Me
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Toni Morrisson declared Coates to be the intellectual successor of her friend James Baldwin. Between the World and Me is at least partially an homage to Baldwin, adopting the same structure as Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. It’s a long letter, partially to Baldwin’s nephew and partially to Coates’ own son.
The letter unpacks the experience of being black in the United States—the history of violence and its repercussions down through the generations; the over-policing of young black men and the attempts to shake them loose of their very identities.
Coates takes a pessimistic view to society’s ability to defeat the spectre of white supremacy. In this, he stands opposed to optimists like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and leaders of Black Christianity. It’s a hard read, but an engrossing and ultimately revealing one. One of the best books to read to understand the state of black-white race relations in the US.
2. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks By Rebecca Skloot (2010)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
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A key tool of human biological science is “immortal cell lines.” Cells can achieve stable states where they will not age and die, but instead live forever. The oldest and most commonly studied human immortal cell line is called HeLa. It is named after the woman it was harvested from—Henrietta Lacks, African American mother of five. HeLa was derived from cells of the cervical cancer that ultimately killed Henrietta at the age of 31.
Henrietta might be said to have achieved fame beyond her death, with her cells immortal and studied by scientists to this day. But Henrietta Lacks the mother died young. Skloot weaves medical writing with deconstructions of race, class, and ethical questions raised by Henrietta’s remarkable story.
3. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (2003)
The Kite Runner
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Few books have the engrossing, harrowing power of The Kite Runner, a coming-of-age story born from the mountains of Afghanistan. The story follows a well-to-do Pashtun boy named Amir, who befriends Hassan, a member of the less-esteemed Hazara ethnicity. They spend joyous days in pre-war Kabul fighting kites … until the friendship comes to a tragic halt at the hands of an unbelievably cruel bully.
The remainder of the book follows Amir’s life as a refugee from the Russian occupation. He flees with his father to America and becomes a successful novelist. But his past haunts him, and eventually draws him back into the orbit left empty by his childhood friend Hassan, and the bully who destroyed him and continues to destroy lives as a Taliban leader. Amir’s father put it best—”When you kill a man, you steal a life.”
4. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1996)
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Very few novels change everything. Infinite Jest hit the literary world like a cannon shell, making an instant celebrity of David Foster Wallace, on a level usually reserved for rock stars.
It’s amazing that anyone reads the book, but it’s one of the best books to read. It’s intimidating at over 1,000 pages in length. The experimental novel sprawls over an encyclopedic knowledge of multiple genres, weaving narratives in a nonlinear fashion and daring the reader to break the forward momentum by digressing to over 300 pages of endnotes, some of which themselves contain footnotes.
But the book is funny, sad, and dazzling as it digs into such issues as addiction, family ties, and poignant meditations on death and suicide (Wallace himiself later committed suicide)—all set in a near-future world where corporations bid on the right to name whole years, and people get hooked on a movie that is so good they lose the will to live.
5. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (1988)
A Brief History of Time
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You don’t have to go to every town council meeting, but it’s nice to keep an eye on the goings-on of your community. After all, you live there. Similarly, you don’t have to be an astrophysicist, but wouldn’t it be nice to know a little about the history and fundamental structure of the universe? After all, you live there, too.
A Brief History of Time is Stephen Hawking’s attempt to demonstrate the wonders of the universe in layman-friendly terms. It’s not “astrophysics for dummies,” but it’s not so scientifically abstruse that the average person of reasonable intelligence can’t follow him.
In refreshingly unscientific language, he explains mind-blowing concepts like the Big Bang, the edge of the universe, and event horizons of black holes. He does get a little technical in explaining time’s arrow, unification, and the uncertainty principle … but hey, where’s the fun in easy? If you want to marvel at the awesome scales of the universe, this is one of the best books to read before you die.
6. Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)
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- New York Times Bestseller Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe’s new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died namelessly and whose tombstone is engra
Nobel Prize-winning American author Toni Morrison penned her masterpiece in the form of Beloved, one of the best fiction books to read that conjures up the unquiet spirits of America’s original sin of slavery. It’s a story set in the uneasy decades after the Civil War, when slavery was still a living memory blazing in the minds of millions of freed blacks.
Freed slave Sethe lives in Cincinnati with her daughter, Denver, in 1873. But her house is haunted by an unquiet spirit—that of the daughter Sethe killed to protect her from recapture during their flight from slavery.
The spirit takes the form of poltergeist phenomena … and then living flesh in the form of a mysterious woman named Beloved, who wreaks havoc amid Sethe’s circle of friends and acquaintances. Beloved the book is a pointed reminder to take stock of the ghosts that still haunt us, from both the deep and the recent past.
7. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)
The Handmaid's Tale
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Atwood’s dystopian vision of theocracy ascendent in America has lost none of its potent punch. It continues to be one of the best books to read to scare you into standing up for your rights now, while you still have them.
Bible-thumping politicians who seemed determined to enact Leviticus into law gave rise to Atwood’s vision of a world where human fertility has become scarce.
A hard-line, Old Testament-based regime called Gilead has violently overthrown the US. They use twisted Biblical interpretations to not only enact barbaric judicial punishments to keep the populace in line; but also to jerry-rig a formalized system of rape, which keeps the rare fertile “handmaids” and their babies under the thumb of the ruling class.
Into this terrifying landscape emerges Offred, the handmaid “possession” of Commander Fred Weatherford, who reminisces about her life before Gilead, her lost husband, her daughter kidnapped by the Gilead regime. As Fred demands more and more forbidden time with his handmaid, she begins to contemplate drastic action to change her circumstances.
8. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (1980)
A Confederacy of Dunces
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After Toole’s life ended in failure and suicide, his distraught mother determined to win publication for a massive manuscript she had rescued from his room. Eleven years after her son’s death, she berated a major publisher into reading it. Trapped into agreeing to start it, he began reading A Confederacy of Dunces in hopes that it would be so bad that he could quickly pass on it. Initially he was disappointed that it was better than expected and he felt compelled to keep reading. Disappointment faded into disbelief at the classic that had landed in his lap, one of the best books to read of the late 20th century.
Dunces went on to win Toole a Pulitzer Prize. It sits firmly ensconced in the classic literature of the American south as it follows its boorish, corpulent, overly-articulate, and deeply unlikeable protagonist, Ignatius J. Riley, as he either loafs at his mother’s house or careens around New Orleans, halfheartedly searching for employment and botching it when he finds it. It’s an American answer to the picaresque novel, a classic genre that follows roguish but charming lowlifes through madcap adventures.
9. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
Slaughterhouse-Five: A Novel (Modern Library 100 Best Novels)
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Few anti-war novels have the stature and staying power of Vonnegut’s classic. In characteristic form, he lays out this moral positioning in the most madcap way possible—with zany sci-fi tropes and a non-linear narrative that keeps readers guessing who to trust.
The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, claims to have been kidnapped by aliens and become unmoored in time. We experience several key experiences he faced as a soldier in WWII, including surviving the firebombing of Dresden where he was sequestered with other prisoners of war in the partially-underground “Slaughterhouse Five.”
10. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
The Bell Jar (Modern Classics)
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Published shortly before her suicide, The Bell Jar is Plath’s only novel and a harrowing portrait of a descent into mental illness that, contemporaries concur, resembled her own. She wrote a happier ending for her protagonist than Plath herself got—which is telling in and of itself.
It starts promisingly enough: Esther Greenwald is earning a sought-after internship at a fashion magazine. But Esther can’t enjoy herself as paranoia and anxiety set in. Initially amusing, The Bell Jar becomes simultaneously deeply disturbing and staggeringly poignant as Esther slips further and further into debilitating mental illness.
The titular image describes Esther’s feeling of what depression is like—being trapped under an upturned bell jar, able to see those around her but all alone. Anyone who has struggled with mental illness can deeply relate to this book. Those who have not, will come away with far greater patience and compassion for those who do.
11. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956)
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- Vintage Books
James Baldwin shocked the world by following up his seminal work of African American literature Go Tell It On The Mountain with a story where most of the key characters were not just white, but also gay or bisexual.
Giovanni’s Room tells the engrossing, heartfelt story of a man who embarks on an affair with a man when his girlfriend reacts ambiguously to his marriage proposal. The man is Giovanni, the Italian bartender at a Parisian gay bar.
The novel jumps back and forth in time, giving us glimpses of the narrator David’s heartbreak as well as Giovanni’s grim fate. David flashes back to his earliest homosexual experiences, reflecting the kind of alienation and “otherness” that echoes Baldwin’s take on racism.
Giovanni’s Room was an early reckoning on tolerance of homosexuality, far from widespread in the societies that Baldwin called home.
12. 1984 by George Orwell (1949)
1984 (Signet Classics)
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1984 has come and gone, but the world Orwell builds in his dystopian classic never feels farther away than around the corner. Tropes from the novel that seem eerily prescient include interloping surveillance screens in every home; a perpetual state of war against an amorphous, shifting enemy; and “newspeak,” a system of language retcon where words mean the opposite of what they seem, all in service of the totalitarian state. One of the best fiction books to read in troubling times.
Into this breech steps Winston, a discontent employee of the Ministry of Truth, employed in the falsifying of history to conform to state orthodoxy. He wants to rebel, but doesn’t quite know how. Separatist cells and their leader Emmanuel Goldstein are more myth than functioning reality.
Winston meets and falls in love with Julia, a fellow malcontent who may be his key to joining the rebellion … but Winston’s ordeal will cost him more than he ever imagined, including his very identity and sense of self. After all, Big Brother is Watching You.
13. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl (1946)
Man's Search for Meaning
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Frankl’s thesis is that people can find great meaning even in great suffering. You might be tempted to say “That’s easy for you to say, writer-man, but you haven’t suffered like I have!” Except he has suffered like you have, and a billion times worse. Frankl is a survivor of the death camps at Auschwitz.
Part Two of Man’s Search for Meaning explicates “logotherapy,” the psychologist author’s answer to a person’s lack of meaning in life. But Part One eats Part Two for lunch with a jaw-dropping first-person account of life inside Auschwitz, an intimate look at humans losing hope, turning on each other, enduring beatings, starvation, and other agonies in the shadow of the crematorium that belches out the ashes of their cremated loved ones.
In the midst of it all, with people keeling over dead at every step, Frankl notices something remarkable—even naked, beaten, and imprisoned in isolation. He can choose the context in which he sets his suffering. That context can give his suffering meaning, and make his life worthwhile even in the absence of hope. It’s more perspective than many people can handle … but one of the best books to read in times of suffering.
14. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)
Brave New World
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- Brave New World
Whereas Orwell wrote a naked nightmare in 1984, his older contemporary Huxley wrote a nightmare hidden in a dream that resonates to this day. In an age of CRISPR, VR video games, casual sex, and recreational drug use, Huxley’s dystopia sometimes seems more relevant than Orwell’s, and is one of the best books to read to understand the dark side of our simple pleasures.
That world is divided into genetically-engineered castes, placated by the drug soma into a compliant stupor. The wealthy upper genetic caste sometimes takes vacations to the few undeveloped lands where naturally-born descendants of Native Americans, known as “savages,” have refused to join the castes and live a remote, tribal life.
A “savage” named John decides to brave the World State, where he is treated like a celebrity-level curiosity. In the ensuing culture clash, John shows himself to be more “civilized” (by our standards) than the people who call him savage … with ultimate, tragic consequences.
15. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)
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|Is Adult Product|
|Number Of Pages||284|
Moby-Dick is a punishment for teenagers and a reward for adults. Stop assigning Moby-Dick in high school. Stop it. Now. I know it’s your favorite book, but if you want it to be any of your students’ favorite book, and not a white whale that they are intent on stabbing with a harpoon, let them get to it when they are ready … like, when they’re 40. That’s when the massive whale of a novel becomes anyone’s favorite book.
One thing nobody tells you—it’s funny. The malcontent narrator, whom we are instructed to call Ishmael, drops about ten LOL’s on page one as he describes the antisocial tendencies that drive him to a life at sea. Along the way, we learn more than we ever wanted to learn about the pay-scale for contract sailors and the whaling business of the 19th-century Atlantic.
Eventually, we transition away from hilarious Ishmael to Captain Ahab, a character for the ages whose monomaniacal pursuit of the white whale that wounded him is rich with metaphor, subtext, and some of the most glorious prose in the English language.