Books like War and Peace, David Copperfield, and Ulysses are classics we think everyone should read—but when you take a look at our bookshelves, you might see an entirely different set of volumes. When the classics feel daunting, you can turn to this list, full of titles even self-described “non-readers” will love, ones we turn to when we want to do that most daring of activities: read for pleasure.
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Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer
Jon Krakauer’s newest book, Missoula, investigates sexual assaults on college campuses, but it’s his 1997 Mount Everest narrative Into Thin Air that climbed its way into readers’ hearts and bookshelves. Into Thin Air is often included in high school English curriculums, telling the story of how an ordinary man—Krakauer himself—decides to summit Everest and finds himself in the middle of a life-or-death storm several of his climbing companions don’t survive.
Why is Into Thin Air so popular? Perhaps because it pits will against nature, man against the mountain, and reveals how much of our fate is based on chance. Or it could be because a lot of us read it in high school, and found it much more compelling than Ethan Frome or The Scarlet Letter. Either way, look for the upcoming September film adaptation Everest, starring House of Cards’ Michael Kelly as Krakauer and Jake Gyllenhaal as expedition leader Scott Fischer. And look for new editions of Into Thin Air to start turning up on commutes and lunch breaks everywhere.
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Here’s another high school classic that tends to stay on our bookshelves long after graduation. Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird is a delicate and powerful look at how racism and sexism influence a small Southern town, and her unforgettable characters—Scout, Dill, Boo Radley, Tom Robinson, and of course Atticus Finch—make this book beloved by even the most “non” of non-readers.
It doesn’t hurt that the 1962 film version, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus, was pretty much perfect. In a world where we get updated versions of Little Women or Pride and Prejudice for every new generation, Hollywood has left To Kill a Mockingbird alone, knowing nothing can compete with what’s already been filmed. This July, Harper Lee’s previously unpublished companion novel, Go Set a Watchman, will be released, and we’ll finally get to learn more about Scout, Atticus, and life in Maycomb, Alabama. Reread her debut first.
Flowers in the Attic, by V.C. Andrews
If you’re of a certain age, V.C. Andrews’ 1979 Flowers in the Attic might have been passed to you under a desk in middle school, making its way from one backpack to another so it could be taken home and read in secret. Even the cover implied secrets: the flap with the rectangle cut out so you could pull it back and see the four Dollanganger siblings with their grandmother looming overhead.
Once you gorged yourself on the melodramatic prose, you could follow it up with the even more melodramatic 1987 movie, which seemed pre-designed to be screened during slumber parties. Of course, if you read or watched Flowers in the Attic in the ’80s or ’90s, you probably gathered your friends together to have a wine-and-cheese screening of the 2014 Lifetime movie remake, and tweet about how Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka is (impossibly!) old enough to play Cathy.
And maybe you’ve kept your copy of Flowers in the Attic with the vague idea that you might give it to your own daughter someday. But maybe it’s better if she gets it surreptitiously passed to her from a friend.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume
This one you will pass down to your daughters (and your sons). Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was published in 1970 and remains one of the most cherished YA books that conveniently doubles as a puberty guide for parents who want to outsource the conversation. Publishers were finally obliged to update the text to include newer models of sanitary napkins, but Margaret is still smartphone- and Internet-free, and still happily chants “We must! We must! We must increase our bust!” with the three other members of the Pre-teen Sensations.
The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green
Green’s novel hit the top of the New York Times‘ YA bestseller list upon publication, and only three years later has it finally fallen to #3. His story of young love, combined with an honest look at illness and how our culture treats cancer patients, ensured that Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters would get to share their forever within the numbered pages with all of us.
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This book is polarizing. It’s yet another classic you probably read in high school, long before you were old enough to understand what it feels like to have failed dreams. Because of that, some readers dismiss the book outrigh—then find that green light beaming at us from across the current, flickering in our minds and nudging us to read the book again as an adult. If once you do, you’ll find a very different novel, one you’ll empathize with far more than when you were sixteen.
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Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
It is a truth universally acknowledged that any woman who watches the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries starring Colin Firth (and his wet shirt) as Mr. Darcy will try to read Jane Austen’s 1813 novel at least once.
And most of us will love it: Austen is very clever, after all, and there are some funny jokes about sneezes. Then we’ll put it on our bookshelves and watch the BBC miniseries over again, letting it play in the background while we clean the apartment or fold the laundry. “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you,” we will say under our breath, along with Darcy.
The Hunger Games Series, by Suzanne Collins
How quickly did you make it through Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy? The fast pacing and high stakes make The Hunger Games the kind of book you forget you’re reading until you turn the last page and realize you’re at the end—and that Collins left you on a cliffhanger, so you’d better start the next one.
The Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling
It’s a bit of an exaggeration to say everyone has read J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, but not by much. Did you wait in line at a Barnes & Noble Midnight Magic Party to get your copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows the minute it released? Have you taken a quiz to determine whether the Sorting Hat would place you into Gryffindor or Ravenclaw? Do you have serious opinions about the epilogue?
We know you do. You don’t even have to tell us. We also know you are going to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them when it opens in 2016, reportedly starring Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander, just because you want one more peek into Potter’s magical kingdom. Harry Potter brought a lot of people into the world of reading, the same way Hagrid pulled Harry into a world of magic. And once you’re there, we think you should stay.