In life, there are things you could do, things you should do, and things you must do. These same categories apply to your choice of what book you should read next. You could read any number of books, for reasons ranging from guilty pleasure to the fact that your book club meets in two days. You should probably read any number of classic novels that will expand your literary palate or teach you a thing or two. And then there are the books you must read, best books of all time we daresay, no matter who you are. There are a lot of reasons books becomes “must reads,” and it’s not necessarily just their literary quality. This list of 25 books to read have much to offer anyone who picks them up.
1. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Harper Lee’s classic is one those rare perfect novels, which by itself makes it a should read. It’s further elevated by the evergreen nature of its central conflicts and plot; nearly six decades after publication, the story of a small southern town’s struggle with racism and injustice remains disturbingly current. It’s also become a must read because it’s widely the quintessential 20th-century American novel.
2. The Great Gatsby, by F Scott Fitzgerald. There’s a reason why The Great Gatsby is commonly dubbed one of the greatest novels ever written. Fitzgerald’s depiction of extravagance and greed challenges the idea of the American Dream, exposes the insincerity of the wealthy, and illustrates how social class played a major role in your “success” in the 1920’s. With numerous symbols and hidden meanings throughout the book, it’s worth reading a second time (or third, or fourth).
3. Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
One of the first African novels to be widely studied and read in the English-speaking world, Achebe’s book remains a must-read for the uniqueness of its literary vision and characters. Focused on a fictional village in Nigeria, the book’s epic scope traces how life changes from pre-colonial times to post-colonial modernity (for the time; the novel was published in 1958).
4. Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville
Perhaps the most notorious “eat your vegetables” novel of all time, Moby-Dick looms on many people’s literary bucket lists like a shadow—too long, too flowery, and much too concerned with 19th century whaling tactics. But it must read for the simple reason that understanding much of the literature that followed novel requires it, so profound was its influence. The fact that it’s also a really great story once you get past all the sailing jargon also helps.
5. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
Brutal, harsh, yet somehow raggedly beautiful, Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a must read because its subject matter, focused on the grim lives of African-American women in 1930s rural Georgia, shouldn’t be turned away from. Exploring the long ragged scars of racism, slavery, and class inequality, it’s one of those novels people are always trying to get banned—and you know what? Any novel certain people don’t want you to read is a novel you must read.
6. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
Few novels in any language capture the pure insanity of living within a massive bureaucracy quite as well as this one. Kafka captured much of the nightmarish dream logic of such institutions (and life itself), but Heller’s brilliance is how he uses a slippery sense of time and a numbing repetition of the absurd to really make you understand how little you understand about your own existence.
7. Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand
Sometimes you must read books in order to use the good ideas within to guide you in life. Sometimes you must read books to be able to identify bad ideas and avoid them. Atlas Shrugged somehow demands to be read for both reasons, depending on the reader, which makes it that much more essential. It’s a glorious mess of a philosophy encapsulated in a glorious mess of a sci-fi novel.
8. 1984, by George Orwell. Orwell’s imagination of what a future society might look like at its worst has some shocking similarities to modern times. In this dystopian tale, mindless obedience rules, and as the main character finds himself straying, the regime crushes in. Although written in 1949, Orwell makes indirect references to “fake news,” “facetime,” “social media,” and more. Big Brother is watching!
9. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
If you’re going to read a fantasy, read the ur-fantasy, the godfather of the entire genre in its modern incarnation. If you love fantasy but haven’t read LOTR, you might be missing out—everything you love about the genre has its roots here (even if only to reject everything Tolkien laid down), and few fantasy epics have as deep a backstory.
10. Hamlet, by William Shakespeare
It’s easy to bounce off of Shakespeare; his plays are set in an unrecognizable world, written in an unrecognizable version of English, and forced upon us in school. And yet, you must read Hamlet. Not only is it the Bard’s best play, it also contains some of his most famous passages and has influenced a wide swatch of literature.
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11. The Murder of Roger Akroyd, by Agatha Christie
Christie invented a whole mess of what we think of as modern thriller tropes, and you can draw a direct line between Ackroyd and books like Gone Girl and The Woman in the Window. The term “unreliable narrator” might as well have a small portrait of Roger Ackroyd next to it in the dictionary, and the only way you’ll ever appreciate the term is to read this book. Probably twice.
12. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. This is one of those novels that you can read multiple times throughout your life and always find some new way to relate to it. Written in 1951, the honesty, rebellion, and anger of Holden Caulfield was shocking to some but described the social changes happening during this era. J.D. Salinger brilliantly loops you into Holden’s story of corruption, the pains of growing up, and loss of innocence.
13. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
Ellison combines a fluid, compelling writing style with a robust exploration of life as a black man in mid-century America. The unnamed narrator tells his story from his youth in a small Southern town, where he wins a scholarship to college that he can secure only after taking part in a brutal fight for the amusement of rich white sponsors, to his engagement with rising black nationalism and his realization that his color renders him, for all practical purposes, invisible to society at large.
This book is on our list of Black Voices & Antiracism Books. It won a National Book Award and was named one of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century by Time magazine and The Modern Library.
14. Watchmen, by Alan Moore
Watchmen a graphic novel that demonstrates the true potential of the format. If you comic books are just for kids, this is the book that will change your mind. Even better, if you have a vast collection of comics and graphic novels, it can be appreciated as a story that simultaneously celebrates and deconstructs superhero tropes.
15. Lord of the Flies, by William Golding. What happens when a group of boys who are stranded on a deserted island have to learn how to survive? With politics, clashing personalities, and strong survival instincts comes a story of morality and immorality.
16. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. Surely you know the story of Frankenstein by now, or at least the concept. Whether you’ve never read the book or it’s been too long to remember the details, this classic horror story is one to add to your to-be-read list.
17. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. This hilarious sci-fi is the perfect novel for some light reading, despite its lengthy size. Featuring a sarcastic man from Earth, a depressed robot, and some wacky interstellar travelers who hitchhike through space, this slightly absurd comedy is one that will have you asking, “what is the answer to the universe?”
Already read it? Start the 2nd book in the series, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.
18. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. The non-linear narrative isn’t the only thing that makes this book compelling. What seems like a tragic love story goes much deeper into jealousy, revenge, and supernatural events. Wuthering Heights, originally published in 1847, is considered a literary masterpiece and remains a bestseller today.
19. The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner
Faulkner made the bold decision to make the first section of this novel one of the most difficult pieces of writing you will ever encounter—it’s told from the point of view of a mentally-challenged man. The rest of the book’s sprawling story of the downfall of a Southern family isn’t so easy, either, but it’s also brilliantly lyrical, and infused with a sadness as powerful today as when it was first published.
20. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
You have to read at least one epic Russian novel in your life; it’s in the bibliophile bylaws. And if you’re going to read one epic Russian novel, make it The Brothers Karamazov,. Dostoevsky’s ability to make you feel like you know these 19th century folks intimately is a testament to his uncanny knowledge of human psychology. The story somehow examines economics, family ties, spirituality and atheism, and a dozen other major themes without once feeling like it’s doing any heavy lifting at all.
21. Slaughterhouse 5, by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s strange to call a critically acclaimed science fiction, anti-war novel quirky, but Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is definitely quirky. Published in 1969, the story follows the life and experiences of an American Veteran, Billy Pilgrim, his life as a prisoner of war in Dresden during WWII and his life postwar as a successful optometrist. With non-linear order, time travel, and an unreliable narrator, Vonnegut tells his readers important messages on the brutality of war, illusion of free will, and existentialism in a disorganized, yet straightforward way.
22. Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin
The list of mainstream fiction that deals with homosexuality in a sincere and powerful way remains woefully short, but at the top of it is this remarkable novel by Baldwin, one of the most complex examinations of a gay character (now more accurately considered a bisexual character) of its era. The story of an American’s affair with a Parisian man who is eventually executed for murder is a fantastic story and a crucial example of representation.
23. The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
Whatever your age, social status, ethnicity, or political thought, you must read this searingly honest and passionate debut novel. It’s quickly a must-read, coming as close as anything to truly capturing the current state of the country. It tells the story of a young girl pulled into activism and the Black Lives Matter movement after witnessing a police shooting of an unarmed friend. It’s incredible success is a testament to its currency; if you want to know what’s going on outside of cable news and narrow-beam blogs, you must read this book.
24. All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque Closing in on a century after its publication, this story of German soldiers fighting in World War I remains one of the best examinations of the effects that modern warfare has on the human psyche. Despairing and bleak, it’s a must-read primarily for the power of its story, but also, increasingly, for offering a glimpse of a time and place that risks becoming lost to the sands of time.
25. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice is one of the most popular novels in English literature to illustrate social issues. Featuring a strong female character, Lizzy’s intelligence, charm, and resilience shows off a feminist perspective and social class deconstruction that was rare in the 19th century. If that isn’t enough to want to read this popular classic, how about an enchanting romance story and comedy, too?