20 Books You Really Should Have Read By Now
Seeing the movie doesn’t count! If you skimmed these in school, take a closer, grownup look with our books editor Dawn Raffel.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Yes, there is a film with Leonardo DiCaprio, but that doesn’t get you off the hook from reading this perceptive, pitch-perfect novel. Set in the jazzy Roaring Twenties, Fitzgerald’s tale of obsession, ambition, love, money, and a world that would vanish with the Depression was to be his Big Hit—and he was surprised and disappointed when it sold poorly. When Fitzgerald died in 1940, he was an all but forgotten writer. Soon after, there was a revival of his work, and he is now viewed as one of the great American novelists. Today, 500,000 copies of Gatsby are sold each year.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Lee’s famous novel, published in 1960, has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide. For all that it exposes the racial injustice of a particular time and place, it is timeless and universal, which makes it a good book to read. As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rick Bragg wrote in Reader’s Digest, “Many people see To Kill a Mockingbird as a civil rights novel, but it transcends that issue. It is a novel about right and wrong, about kindness and meanness.” Here are some more high school English books worth a re-read.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Kerouac’s agent spent more than four years trying to find a publisher for this turbo-charged, road-trip novel about the postwar beat generation. Finally published in 1957, On the Road—written in a style at once breathless and disjointed—spoke to the deep restlessness of young people chafing at mainstream Cold War culture. Also give these best autobiographies ever written a read.
Tell Me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen
You might not have heard of Olsen, but her 1961 story collection Tell Me a Riddle was one of the first to intimately chronicle the lives of working-class women. One entry is plainly titled “I Stand Here Ironing,” and chronicles a mother’s regrets with wisdom, bravery, and not an ounce of self-pity. Olsen opened a window onto a world not often seen before in American literature and influenced a generation of women writers, including Margaret Atwood, Sandra Cisneros, and Alice Walker. Here are some great books for mothers and daughters to read together.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
You might’ve been assigned the tale of Pip the ambitious orphan in school. But we promise Great Expectations is a good book to read as an adult, because the humor that sailed over your head as a kid will be evident now—and besides, you won’t need to write a paper about it. Dickens, in his time, was as famous as a rock star (or, a Kardashian) because his novels were written as page-turners, with whip-smart observations about ambition and human nature.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Marie Remarque
Remarque’s searing war-is-hell novel gave millions of readers their first view of the suffering of ordinary German soldiers and civilians during WW1. All Quiet on the Western Front serves as a reminder of the real people on the other side of any battle. Here are some more books to make you cry.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
We know, it’s long and the Russian names are complicated, but seriously it’s a good book to read: if you can follow thousands of pages of Game of Thrones and the rest of the Ice and Fire series (which we love, by the way) then you can handle the challenge of one of the greatest novels of all time. War and Peace is set in the years before, during, and after Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Tolstoy brilliantly chronicles the world of a crumbling aristocracy—on the battlefield, in society, and at home. His research was meticulous, his characters (the soldiers, lovers, seekers) unforgettable. Most recently, War and Peace was adapted as a Tony-winning Broadway musical starring Josh Groban.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
McCullers was just 23 years old when her novel about a deaf-mute and the travails of the people he encounters was published. She wasn’t the first to write about people at the margins of society, but in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, she did so indelibly. Quotable quote: “And how can the dead be truly dead when they still live in the souls of those who are left behind?” Here are our favorite lines from quotable books.
Native Son by Richard Wright
Published in 1940 (as was The Heart is a Lonely Hunter), Wright’s graphic, violent protest novel was an eye-opener about racial tensions and poverty in America. For hundreds of thousands of readers, the story was a conversation starter: Wright’s protagonist Bigger Thomas commits an accidental murder, and spirals downward into more violence and despair. Some schools have tried to ban Native Son, but the novel endures.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Pulitzer Prize-winning author McCarthy is one of our greatest living prose stylists. His post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, in which a father and young son struggle to survive, is made all the more profound by its brevity. It’s a good book to read that’s both quick and stays with you. Intrepid readers undaunted by a more ornate, challenging, Faulknerian style should also read McCarthy’s masterpiece Blood Meridian. On a book budget? Check out these great websites where you can read free books online.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Shelley was still a teenager when she created the iconic mad scientist and monster. Frankenstein never loses its grip on our imaginations, because the questions it raises about science, ambition, and our humanity remain as urgent as ever.
A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor
A deeply religious woman, O’Connor wrote about morally flawed characters with humor, compassion, and a razor-sharp mind. She was a master storyteller, as evidenced in her best known and most-loved collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Disaffected teenage narrator Holden Caulfield—thrown out of prep school, surrounded by “phonies”—has touched millions of readers. For decades, almost every good book to read about alienated adolescents was invariably compared to The Catcher in the Rye, but none has matched the original. Salinger had his finger on the pulse of a generation in a way that few writers can match, and he broke with tradition by writing in a colloquial voice, which had everyone wanting to talk like Holden. Have you read these books everyone lies about reading?
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
Yes, The Chronicles of Narnia are children’s books and no, they don’t age. These complex fantasy novels, which have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide (and clearly influenced, among others, J.K. Rowling), have been praised and criticized for their Christian themes, but there’s a lot more going on here than simple allegory. Read them again. Better yet, find a child to read them to. You’ll be amazed by the richness of storytelling. Here are some more of the best children’s books ever written.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
This much-more-grown-up sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is widely considered to be Mark Twain’s masterpiece. It’s part coming-of-age story, part cross-country adventure, part biting social satire. Twain makes brilliant use of irony as Huck, raised in the pre-Civil War south, gradually comes to understand the evils of slavery. Huck Finn has endured, despite its notoriety as one of the most banned books of all time. Here are some surprising titles you probably didn’t know were banned.
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
When a rich American businessman is killed on a train, it’s up to detective Hercule Poirot to figure out which of the passengers is responsible. Published in 1934, Murder on the Orient Express‘s conclusion still stuns readers. In 2017, this famous whodunit was made into a hit movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Penélope Cruz, Josh Gad, and Judi Dench.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Few authors have captured the essence of Depression-era America with more raw emotion than John Steinbeck. Of Mice and Men follows two farm hands looking for work: the protective and sharp-witted George and the disabled but big-hearted Lennie, who doesn’t know his own strength. The two men learn that even the simplest of American dreams are often out of reach before the tale comes to a heartbreaking end. Though short, this novel packs a serious emotional punch. Here are some more classics you can read in a day.
The Odyssey by Homer
OK, so this one’s technically an epic poem, not a book, but we think it still counts. As an epic poem, The Odyssey was recited, or sung, for years and years before it was written down. It tells the (fictional) story of Ancient Greek war hero Odysseus’s perilous 20-year journey home from the battlefield. He outsmarts a Cyclops, chats with dead people, and endures the repeated wrath of a seriously angry sea god before finally arriving home. The second-oldest known work of Western literature has stood the test of time. The Coen brothers reimagined The Odyssey in the American South in the comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou? starring a young George Clooney. Plus, some of the best scenes in the popular Greek myth-inspired kids’ series Percy Jackson and the Olympians were also inspired by Odysseus’s journey.
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
This fictional, but meticulously researched, thriller will make you wish you paid more attention in art class. A murder at the Louvre museum leads symbologist Robert Langdon on a high-stakes treasure hunt through Europe with the police on his tail. It’s got just the right mix of page-turning action and brainteasing historical information. This is one book that (Tom Hanks’s coolness notwithstanding) is way better than its movie adaptation. The Da Vinci Code‘s mind-bending “what if” questions will stay with you long after you put it down. Here are some more hit movies that were books first.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Generations of readers have fallen in love with Elizabeth Bennet. Pride and Prejudice‘s delightful heroine chooses to marry for love rather than money and isn’t afraid to put an arrogant suitor in his place. With the novel itself still a staple of many an English class, the story also lives on through its many—and very diverse—spinoffs. These include the true-to-the-novel 2005 film starring Keira Knightley, the rom-com Bridget Jones’s Diary, the fun web series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, and even the satirical paranormal adaptation Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Here are our other favorite female book characters of all time.
Disclosure: We may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.