Here are fifty incredible literary works destined to become classics (in no particular order!). Many are Pulitzer Prize winners, but there are a few dark horses. If your favorite literary masterpiece has not been included, fret not, the comments section awaits! Tell us about any we’ve missed, any you disagree with, or any you think are spot on. And then add the ones you may not have gotten to yet to the top of your teetering To Be Read pile…
The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace
The last missive from one of our generation’s literary gods, The Pale King holds its ground among the author’s greatest works. Told from the perspective of an IRS agent, David Foster Wallace does the impossible: he shapes the seemingly drab work of accounting into something compelling, heartbreaking, and, of course, wonderfully comic.
The True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey
Peter Carey’s fictionalized account of a real man, Ned Kelly, paints the bank robber as a noble sort of scoundrel. Loved by the poor, but hated by the police, Ned Kelly, the Jesse James of Australia, writes to his daughter while hiding out from the law.
Blonde, by Joyce Carol Oates
From Norma Jeane Baker to Marilyn Bombshell Monroe, Joyce Carol Oates takes us from the icon’s girlhood to Hollywood stardom. Fictional, but achingly believable, Blonde gives us a new vision of the silver screen legend.
Chronic City, by Jonathan Lethem
Chronic City revolves around Chase Insteadman, a former child actor, and Perkus Tooth, a pop culture fanatic with a Marlon Brando obsession. The two unlikely friends bond through a series of stoned adventures, some of which land them among the uber rich of New York’s Upper East Side.
Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett
A story of captives and captors in South America, Ann Patchett’s novel is defined by its swoon-worthy prose. The novel’s setting is a birthday party for a wealthy businessman. Roxane Coss, a gifted opera singer, is the highlight of the evening. The party sours when a pack of terrorists turn the celebration into a war zone.
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
With just a pistol between them and the world’s (almost unspeakable) evils, father and son journey through a post-apocalyptic hellscape. McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel is relentless, horrific, and impossible to turn away from.
The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer
At a summer camp for the artistically gifted, six young people with “potential” forge lifelong friendships. After camp ends, each takes a different path. Some use their gifts to great success, their promised potential resulting in actual fame. The Interestings is about the joy, pain, comradery, and competition of creative friendships.
House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski
A novel with an impossible history, House of Leaves was once just a stack of papers passed between friends. Now, years after its publication, the book is a horror classic. At the center of Danielewski’s novel is the house on Ash Tree Lane, bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, and full of strange secrets.
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
King Henry VIII and the world are at odds. The King is determined to marry Anne Boleyn, much to the chagrin of the Catholic Church. With Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel reinvents some of Britain’s most famous figures of history: Thomas Cromwell, and Henry VIII. Wolf Hall was winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize.
The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oates
Across the city, girls from good families are disappearing. It’s the early 1900s and something is haunting Princeton, New Jersey. Joyce Carol Oates spins a marvelously gothic web with The Accursed, a novel populated by turn of the century greats like Grover Cleveland, Upton Sinclair, Woodrow Wilson, Jack London and Mark Twain.
Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout
Powerfully funny, Olive Kitteridge is a novel-in-stories centered around a retired school teacher. Olive Kitteridge is a woman of big emotions. She is kind, ruthless, empathetic, and cruel. She is a total original. Strout’s collection of 13 narratives tells an epic story of a small New England town and its people.
Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
A tiger, a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and a boy named Pi are the lone survivors of a shipwreck. In time, only the boy and the tiger remain. The two survive for months at sea before landing in Mexico. Pi is eager to tell his story, but will anyone believe him?
The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Namesake cemented Jhumpa Lahiri’s status as a literary great. Her novel centers around Gogol Ganguli, a child of immigrants who struggles with questions of identity. Throughout The Namesake, Gogol vacillates between trying to fit in, and embracing his position as an outsider.
The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides
Madeleine Hanna is an English major with a passion for Jane Austen and George Eliot, two literary masters of the marriage plot. But Madeleine’s life is unlike the novels she adores. As a young woman in the 1980s, love has little to do with the courtship rituals of the Victorian novel.
My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante
Elena and Lila are friends living in 1950s Italy. In their violent neighborhood, death is not a stranger. As the two friends grow and change, so does their environment. Elena reaches towards writing as an escape, while Lila’s ties to their neighborhood only become stronger. My Brilliant Friend is the first of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet.
Purity, by Jonathan Franzen
Purity, or Pip, is on the hunt. She has a murky past, a missing father, and a mother who refuses to answer questions. Her journey will take her to strange places—including a dubious internship in Bolivia—where she will meet unusual people. Among them is Andreas Wolf, a charismatic man with a dangerous history.
Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng
Lydia was supposed to do what her Chinese American father never could: fit in. A young girl with a promising future, Lydia was bound to succeed. But everything changes when her body is found at the bottom of a lake. Celeste Ng’s story is one of a small town shaken by the death of a young girl and a family with secrets. Everything I never Told You is an astonishing new author’s debut novel.
Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris
Joshua Ferris’ novel of corporate life is a familiar one. Told from the perspective of the collective—the first-person plural “We”—Then We Came to the End is filled with rumors, drama, competition, and workers gone rogue. Essentially, Ferris has created a realistic portrayal of the average, thoroughly dysfunctional, modern office.
Atonement, by Ian McEwan
When an intimate moment is misinterpreted by a young girl, the consequences are tragic. Ian McEwan’s novel of two lovers separated by an imagined crime, explores the redemptive nature of storytelling.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon
Michael Chabon’s novel of friendship and identity is a jubilant look at the Golden Age of comics. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, follows artist and magician Joe Kavalier and his comics-obsessed cousin, Sammy Clay, through New York during World War II.
1Q84, by Haruki Murakami
The world is not what it seems. Aomame tugs on the thread of reality, and finds it unravels. She should be in Tokyo in 1984, but instead she is in a disturbing and dreamlike parallel universe.
A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
A novel revered by music nerds, A Visit From the Goon Squad also happens to be a Pulitzer Prize winner. Egan’s work revolves around the lives of Bennie, a retired punk rocker, and Sasha, his pickpocket employee.
White Teeth, by Zadie Smith
For many, White Teeth was an introduction to literary wunderkind, Zadie Smith. The novel is a multicultural masterpiece that follows two London families, one willing to accept the status quo and another who will fight fate every step of the way.
Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill
In the aftermath of 9/11, an expat from London navigates a ruined New York. Alone in the city, he searches for connection in local cricket matches.
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Three children are raised in an English boarding school, hidden from the rest of the world. They are told that they are special, but the reasons behind their unusual status are unknown. As they grow older, their purpose becomes terrifyingly clear.
The Human Stain, by Philip Roth
A well-respected professor, Coleman Silk, is accused of racism. The truth is something very different. Silk has a secret burden he has carried with him all his life. The Human Stain won 2001’s PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson
Named after a fictional town in Iowa, Gilead concerns itself with the life of an aging pastor. John Ames is a man who, even in his old age, retains an immovable Christian faith. In his seventies, Ames has a son, and grieving his lack of time, writes a letter to his son that takes a diary-like form. Gilead is winner of 2004’s Pulitzer Prize.
Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
Jeffrey Eugenides epic novel centers around Calliope Stephanides. Calliope, later Cal, has been “born twice,” first as a girl, and later, as a boy. Middlesex revolves around Calliope’s transformation and the genetic secret kept by her Greek-American family. A Pulitzer Prize winner, Middlesex is a multigenerational tale of identity, family, reinvention, and humor.
Look at Me, by Jennifer Egan
An aging fashion model, Charlotte Swanson, gets in a horrific car accident. After a drastic surgery, she is unrecognizable. Charlotte “recovers” from her accident by throwing herself into drink and navigating her old New York haunts, newly anonymous. Charlotte’s story becomes entangled with that of another, younger Charlotte, who is involved with a dangerous stranger.
The Known World, by Edward P. Jones
Henry Townsend was once a slave, but at the beginning of Edward P. Jones’ novel, he is a dying slave owner. Henry has become a man who purchased his freedom only to enslave others. The Known World takes a searing look at the beginning of black “freedom” in America and its dangerous implications for both masters and slaves.
Invisible, by Paul Auster
Adam Walker, a Columbia University undergrad with a love for poetry, is changed by a chance meeting with Rudolf Born, an intense man eager to become his patron. Adam’s dealings with Born quickly become complicated. When Born’s brutal nature finally reveals itself, Adam’s life is forever altered.
The Sense of An Ending, by Julian Barnes
Tony Webster’s middle age is comfortable, if a bit lonely. In his sixties, retired, and divorced, it seems that the rest of his life will follow a predictable course. But when visitors from his past upend Tony’s simple existence, he is forced to contend with memory, time, and the friendships and loves of his youth.
NW, by Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith’s NW is the story of four Londoners who begin life in the same poor neighborhood. Each has grown up and reacted to their upbringing in a different way. Some find success, and others are left feeling perpetually displaced, unable to catch up with time. Zadie examines the joys and bitter disappointments of seeking a “traditional” path leading to marriage, children, and the inevitable attempts to escape from both.
The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton
Eleanor Catton’s novel takes place in 19th century New Zealand. Her cast of characters are drawn together by the country’s gold rush and a mysterious crime. Readers of The Luminaries will marvel as the novel’s mysteries slowly reveal themselves. Eleanor Catton’s novel is winner of the Man Booker Prize.
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
A book with serious heft, reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is a commitment. Thankfully, the nearly 800-page novel, delivers in a big way. It is the story of a young man, Theo Decker, who loses his mother in a tragic accident. As a result of his mother’s death, Theo ends up living a strange life on Manhattan’s upper east side. Through it all is his obsession with Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch, a painting that reminds Theo of his lost mother.
The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach
Chad Harbach’s novel follows Henry Skrimshander, an athlete whose destiny as a baseball great seems all but certain. But then, things go afoul. With one bad throw, Henry’s whole career hangs in the balance. The repercussions of the mistake are felt not only by Henry, but five others.
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood
Winner of the Man Booker Prize, The Blind Assassin is a story of two sisters who couldn’t be more different. Iris Chase is sensible while her younger sister, Laura, has a wild streak. At the novel’s opening, an aged Iris reflects on her life and the death of her sister. Within this story is another, a science fiction novel penned by Laura. Through both fiction and nonfiction, the story of the two sisters takes shape.
A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James
In 1976, there was an attempted assassination on Bob Marley. A Brief History of Seven Killings grows outward from this event, and covers the explosive history between Jamaica and the United States. Marlon James populates his novel with a diverse cast, which includes CIA agents, politicians, music journalists and drug dealers.
Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson
Denis Johnson’s novel will break your heart. Its brutal setting is 1960s Vietnam. At the center of the novel is the story of a young CIA agent named William Sands. Tree of Smoke also features a protagonist from one of the author’s earlier novels, Bill Houston of Angels. Johnson’s novel is winner of 2007’s National Book Award.
Imagine Me Gone, by Adam Haslett
Adam Haslett investigates the fraught terrain of mental illness over the course of two generations. Imagine Me Gone focuses on the terror caused by depression and anxiety to those afflicted and those who live with them. Despite its dark material, the novel is filled with warmth and humor.
The Sellout, by Paul Beatty
A poor town called Dickens is exiled from California. Taken off the map, Dickens ceases to exist. To fight against anonymity, an African American man does the unthinkable. He revives segregation and slavery, putting himself and his town on center stage, with a Supreme Court trial. Paul Beatty’s satirical novel is a hilarious and essential read.
Empire Falls, by Richard Russo
Richard Russo’s novel is a Pulitzer Prize winner. His book follows Miles Roby, a burger joint employee of two decades living in Empire Falls. The city is a dying town run by a wealthy, all-powerful family. Roby’s journey is a simple but compelling one.
American Woman, by Susan Choi
Susan Choi’s American Woman centers around an underground political community. She focuses on several young radicals living in hiding, a dark and paranoid existence. Choi’s novel is a claustrophobic character study of how we act under extreme pressure.
The Circle, by Dave Eggers
Mae Holland can’t believe she gets to work at the Circle, a nearly omnipotent internet company based in California. Mae starts at the bottom of the corporate ladder, but climbs quickly, becoming more and more entrenched in the company’s culture. The Circle is a spellbinding look at a particular moment in our tech history. Eggers sharply assesses the addictive nature of social media, the cost of total e-connectivity, and the benefits and terrifying consequences of modern surveillance.
Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson
Robert Granier, born at the end of the 19th century, witnesses the shaping of the American West. He is an orphan who gains a family, only to lose them in a fire. A quick and haunting read, Train Dreams is a novella of immense impact.
The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga
A biting satire narrated by Balman Halwai, an entrepreneur and self-styled “man of tomorrow,” The White Tiger is a vision of the modern Indian class system from the perspective of a man who starts at the bottom.
The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
A young slave named Cora plots her escape from a cotton plantation. Her life is brutal beyond imagining. There is word of secret tunnels, a true underground railroad, but the journey is dangerous. As she travels towards what seems like an impossible freedom, Cora never feels safe; her hunters are always close behind.
Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
An immensely difficult but rewarding read, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is comprised of six stories. The style of each varies so greatly that the reader wouldn’t be surprised to learn each story was written by a different author. Cloud Atlas stretches across hundreds of years, transporting the reader from 19th century ships to alien gods of the future.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz
All Oscar wants is to find love. But being overweight, nerdy, and cursed, his chances don’t look good. Oscar and his Dominican family have been subject to the fukú, a supernatural curse, for as long as anyone can remember. If Oscar is to succeed in love and life, he must battle the unbeatable.
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
Walter and Patty Berglund haven’t yet learned how to live. A suburban couple with two children, in building their lives together the Berglunds may have compromised too much. Franzen’s novel follows Patty and Walter through their college years and beyond, where the figure of Walter’s charismatic best friend, Richard, looms large. While both Patty and Walter yearn for a different life, neither are quite willing to let go of the other.
What books would you add to this list?