What Are the Best Books for Converting Non-Readers?

Dear Literary Lady,
What go-to books do you use to convince someone who hated reading in school that reading is fun?
—E.J., Flagstaff, AZ

Dear E.J.,

There’s no greater joy than giving an avowed nonreader a book they enjoy immensely, then saying, “See, I TOLD YOU SO.”

But mere enjoyment of one novel isn’t always enough to convince nonreaders that reading is the greatest pastime ever, especially if they have traumatic memories of high school English class. When they compare the one novel you gave them to all the books assigned to them throughout their formal schooling, they’ll assume that an enjoyable book is just an anomaly.

To truly convert a nonreader into a lover of literature, you’ll need a few great novels that steer clear of anything taught in school. That’s not to say that the books taught in school aren’t great novels—they often are—but you don’t want to give your friend anything that reminds them of being forced to read aloud in their tenth-grade literature class.

I’ve met many nonreaders in my life who have understandably unfavorable impressions of books from their school days. These are the books I’ve used to convince them that reading for fun is nothing like reading for class:

Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem
It’s about an orphan with Tourette’s syndrome who’s taken under the wing of a small-time mobster. It’s funny, it’s fast-paced, and it’s a twist on the classic detective novel—a trifecta for people who never want to read plodding prose or boring dialogue ever again.

City of Thieves, by David Benioff
During the Nazi seige of Leningrad, two prisoners are given one chance to save their own lives and are sent out of prison on an impossible mission: they must secure a dozen eggs for a powerful official’s daughter’s wedding cake. For people who disliked historical fiction in high school, Benioff’s book is a fresh, funny take on friendship and survival in a war-torn world.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers
It’s relatable, it’s hilarious, and it’ll give any reader the feels. A college student loses both his parents to cancer and must become the caretaker of his eight-year-old brother. Nonreaders will appreciate that it’s clever and not emotionally heavy-handed, and that Eggers sounds as if he could be your best friend.

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien
This book is my answer to any nonreader who says, Fiction doesn’t do it for me because it isn’t real or Can’t I just watch the movie? Tim O’Brien’s novel proves that, 1. Fiction can be closer to the truth, and 2. Books are capable of things movies can never accomplish.

When it comes to recommending books to nonreaders, my rule of thumb is this: Stick to shorter novels that move at a rapid pace and tell a story that’s relatable, impactful, and entertaining. Give your friend enough of these, and you’ll win them over soon enough!

Love and paperbacks,
The Literary Lady

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