The 50 Books to Read Before You’re 50
A good book never goes out of style. Consider this mix of contemporary and classic titles a personal challenge of must-reads before you hit the half-century mark.
Author Louisa May Alcott originally wrote this classic as two separate volumes in quick succession between 1868 and 1869, but they were compiled into the single book we now know as Little Women in 1880. The March sisters, each in their own way, are forces to be reckoned with, and you’ll be hard-pressed to finish the tome with dry eyes. Here are some other strong female characters that would make Josephine March proud.
The Five People You Meet in Heaven
A book doesn’t typically open with the end of the main character’s life, but that’s exactly how author Mitch Albom sets the stage for The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Amusement park maintenance worker Eddie receives life-affirming understanding when he reaches the golden gates, encountering five pivotal people from his life with whom his connections were far stronger than he could have ever imagined. If you’ve ever looked at life’s twists and turns and thought, “Why?” The Five People You Meet in Heaven offers a sentimental reassurance.
The Handmaid’s Tale
Just because you can stream Hulu’s televised take on Margaret Atwood’s haunting novel doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dig into the pages of the book itself. The author manages to mingle satire and humor with an absolutely terrifying look at what could happen when women have lost the right to be in control of their own bodies. Originally published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale may hit very close to home in terms of the political stakes of our present world. There’s a reason Reader’s Digest counts it among the ten books written by female authors every woman should read in her lifetime.
You’ll Grow Out of It
When you need to commiserate, laugh, cry, and be reminded that, yes, this too shall pass, Jessi Klein’s collection of essays will embrace you just as a good friend would. A New York Times best seller, You’ll Grow Out of It covers all of the bases, from Klein’s childhood to her foray into motherhood. An often humorous take on what it means to be a woman in the 21st century, female readers will likely relate to the issues and anxieties, while maybe, just maybe, men will gain a deeper understanding of their world.
Think and Grow Rich
One might assume a self-help book published in 1937 would have no relevance in today’s world. One would be wrong. The philosophies explored by author Napolean Hill during the Great Depression still apply, teaching generations of folks how to succeed in many different occupations. Think and Grow Rich is more than a guide to wealth, it serves as encouragement that one can be almost anything they wish to become.
A Prayer for Owen Meany
Rich in themes of fate, spirituality, and social justice, John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany delivers a thought-provoking and often gut-wrenching look at two childhood best friends with vastly different views on life. Title character Owen Meany believes he is an “instrument of God,” with a specific life’s purpose and fate despite his small stature and high-pitched voice. His pal John Wheelwright, who narrates the story, isn’t so sure. You’ll likely look at life a little differently after becoming acquainted with these fictitious lives.
For anyone who has set aside their dreams out of fear they’ll never come to fruition, author Paulo Coelho wrote this for you. “In The Alchemist, I relate myself to the Englishman—someone who is trying to understand life through books,” said Coelho in an interview with the publisher on the novel’s 25th anniversary. “It’s quite interesting how many times we use books to understand life. I think that a book is a catalyst: it provokes a reaction. I am a compulsive reader. I read a lot, but from time to time, there are books that changed my life.” Find out why Reader’s Digest included The Alchemist on our list of the 30 most quotable books ever written.
To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee’s Pullitzer Prize-winning novel about a young family in the deep South whose patriarch crusades against social injustice and rampant prejudice has sold over 40 million copies across the globe. If that’s not reason enough to open To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time or revisit the classic, then we’re not sure what is. Here are some more high school English books worth a re-read.
The Poisonwood Bible: A Novel
When a book makes the reader question their previously held thoughts and beliefs, it’s a keeper. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible does just that. Following the story of an evangelical Baptist who takes his wife and daughters to Belgian Congo in the late 1950s, each twist and turn is just as gripping and suspenseful as the next.
This isn’t your ordinary spy novel, which makes it a must-read. Author Trevanian immerses the reader into the world of Nicholai Hel, described as “the world’s most wanted man.” There’s mystery, history, and culture with a philosophical touch not typical to fiction of this genre. Originally published in the 1970s, folks find themselves returning to Shibumi for re-reads again and again. Don’t miss these other top thrillers of all time.
The Goldfinch: A Novel
Come for Donna Tartt’s ever-so-elegant prose, stay for the angst, heartache, and dysfunctional characters. It’s not surprising this coming-of-age story won the author a Pulitzer Prize. In The Goldfinch, readers will meet Theo, a 13-year-old who loses his mother in a tragic accident and must navigate life never feeling quite whole.
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl
We’d be remiss not to include the historically significant real-life diary entries of Anne Frank, the young girl whose family hid in the secret annex of an office building in the Netherlands for two years while the Holocaust raged around them. The looming danger of being discovered coupled with Frank’s candid, adolescent voice make this a must-read at any age. These are ten of the best autobiographies you really should have read by now.
Gone with the Wind
A passionate tale of love and loss set against the backdrop of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Gone with the Wind earns every ounce of its “great American novel” status. Author Margaret Mitchell manages to make the reader as frustrated and angry with her main character Scarlett O’Hara as much as she makes them root for her in the end. Come for the romance, stay for the history lesson. It even made it on our “stuck on a desert island” book list—find out which other titles join it.
Lord of the Flies
If you didn’t pick up Lord of the Flies in high school, there’s no time like the present. An exploration of human nature and the lengths one will go to survive, William Golding’s iconic tale of school children stranded on an island after a plane crash continues to captivate generations. It’s one of the seven classic novels we’d love to see in 3-D.
A Man Called Ove: A Novel
You know that elderly neighbor who always appears to be in a bad mood? That’s Ove and this is his story. A heartfelt tale of human connection and friendships blooming in the unlikeliest of ways, A Man Called Ove will touch your soul. It made our list of ten books to read after binge-watching Friends along with some other “friendly” titles.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
Yes, this would be the same Wild upon which Reese Witherspoon’s critically-acclaimed movie was based. When author Cheryl Strayed felt like she had lost everything, she threw caution to the wind and did the unthinkable—traversed 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail with zero knowledge of wilderness skills. If you’re feeling lost, have felt lost, or have ever wanted to leave it all behind, this is a must-read. Check out these 14 quotes from books every woman should read once.
The Glass Castle: A Memoir
If you think your family is dysfunctional, you’ll fully appreciate this memoir from Jeanette Walls. The Glass Castle, another best-seller turned feature film, follows the unpredictability of the Walls family, whose nomadic life was led by their father, Rex, who could be as colorful as he could be destructive, and their mother, Rose Mary, whose was interested in the arts, not raising a brood. Your next familial gathering will likely feel like a walk in the park compared to the rocky road endured by this crew. Have you read any of these bestselling books of the decade?
Considered one of the greatest romance novels of all-time, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is more than a tome about passion. The author provides us with a strong female lead who perseveres despite significant odds. Here are more unforgettable, timeless novels according to our readers.
The Grapes of Wrath
Although this John Steinbeck novel (considered by many critics as his finest) focuses on a family’s plight during the Great Depression as they migrate from Oklahoma to California, it’s another example of a classic that resonates just as profoundly today. The great divide between those who don’t have enough and those who appear to have too much continues to affect our country in countless ways.
S.E. Hinton did an amazing job creating a cast of characters with which the reader immediately feels a strong emotional connection. Ponyboy, Darry, Sodapop, Two-Bit, and Johnny jump off the page in ways that make one want to protect them and share in their impenetrable loyalty. Even if you read The Outsiders in high school, revisit this coming-of-age tale for a dose of nostalgia.
After reading 1984, one might think that author George Orwell had psychic abilities. He took a deep dive into the idea of Big Brother in this tale where London is patrolled by the Thought Police (which feels oddly similar to how Facebook pops up ads for items we thought only existed in our minds). Read it and relate.
Pride and Prejudice
Oh, Mr. Darcy. Jane Austen delights the reader with the clever, romantic sparring between Elizabeth Bennett, one Mrs. Bennett’s five daughters she’s determined to marry off, and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. Pride and Prejudice is a love story for the ages whose characters will continue to live on in your heart and mind.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
Sometimes the only way to see someone else’s worldview is to step into their shoes. Sociologist and urban ethnographer Matthew Desmond does just that in Evicted, in which he follows eight families located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, each struggling to avoid homelessness. Their stories are gutting and eye-opening, but Desmond also offers solutions for this heart-breaking crisis that affects so many Americans.
If you consider economics a snore-inducing topic of conversation (and you wouldn’t be alone), you’re probably wondering why this particular title has made a list of books you should read before 50. Freakonomics puts a conversational spin on economics, exploring it through social issues (the authors investigated the underbelly of a drug-fueled gang, for instance). You won’t look at economics or economists the same way again.
Man’s Search For Meaning
It’s not easy to find meaning behind life’s suffering and heartaches, but psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl sets out to teach the reader the need to cope and push on, armed with a new sense of knowledge and experience. He discusses his theory of “logotherapy,” which explores the idea that our sole purpose on Earth isn’t to experience life’s highs, but learn what is most important to us.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Humanity is studied in this beautifully-written novel about the intersection of personal relationships, hopes, dreams, and contemptible choices. At times, you may want to shake the characters in the Unbearable Lightness of Being for their behavior, but stick with it and readers will be rewarded with a greater understanding of their actions and a resolution that’s surprising but satisfying.
How often are we treated with a story where faith and science-fiction intersect? In Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, a Jesuit priest sets out to make contact with alien life but the premise is so much more intricate than that. Grab the tissues, this novel is filled with overwhelming sadness, but its visionary prowess will keep you fascinated from beginning to end.
Brave New World
Genetically bred humans desensitized by drugs? When Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931 this was considered a dystopian novel. Today, it feels a whole lot like reality. A fascinating read from beginning to end, add this one to your library and prepare to be amazed by how life imitates art.
Cutting for Stone
If you’re the type of person who loves to feel completely immersed in a book, look no further than author Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone. The story involves twin brothers who are the product of a clandestine relationship between an Indian nun and a British surgeon. This poignant tale is as much a coming-of-age story as it is a medical drama. Prepare to be enthralled. Here are some other book club titles that will keep everyone talking.
Life of Pi
Between the beautiful imagery and the way Life of Pi approaches relationships, it’s easy to see how this book became an instant classic. The use of fantasy and metaphor as a coping mechanism to deal with difficult situations (and the line between what’s real and what isn’t) makes this book captivating.
Between the World and Me
Written as a letter to his then-15-year-old son, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me has been called required reading on the subject of race in America. It recounts his life story growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in Baltimore, finding his tribe at Howard University, his travels around the world, and more. The book will be eye-opening for some, while other readers will knowingly nod their heads as they turn the pages.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
What could be the perfect mid-life crisis book is so much more. A witty mix of drama and comedy, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? titular character wrestles with whom the starring characters in her life think she is, and who believes herself to be. With the help of her teenage daughter, dysfunctionality meets its match.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Well-drawn characters and impeccable story development make Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time a must-read. Told through the eyes of an autistic teen, the story will make you question your own interpretation of everyday occurrences. It’s a prime example of how we can learn so much from someone else’s view of the world through reading.
More than 50 years since Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was originally published, its statements about war, bureaucracy, and elites are just as profound. Clever with fantastic character development, this book has invaded pop culture in more ways than people (even those familiar with the story) often recognize.
As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner’s 1930 novel As I Lay Dying can take a bit of work to read through because the stories, while exquisitely written, can be a tad hard to follow, but the payoff is big. Dealing with death and family dynamics in some truly interesting ways, you’ll love the structure and the fascinating characters.
The Quiet American
An interesting look at both war and its costs—what it does to people and countries—The Quiet American was considered controversial when it was first published in 1956. You won’t find a lot of flash within its pages, but it provides a great deal of depth in this well-written and well-constructed tome.
Profiles in Courage
Future president John F. Kennedy penned this collection of profiles when he represented Massachusetts as a senator, choosing to focus on eight historical figures who faced enormous resistance. An inspiring book, Profiles in Courage sheds light on politicians who displayed a great deal of mental tenacity, standing their ground (whether one thinks they were in the right or wrong).
Unbelievably touching, Wonder may be categorized as a book for young readers, but it’s a story that can warm hearts of all ages. Following the journey of a 5th-grade boy born with facial differences who is just now starting mainstream public school, Auggie Pullman plows through each day with hope, determination, and kindness. What his differences teach both himself and the community around him make everyone a better person.
The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao
Yes, the vast amounts of footnotes can be annoying to read, but it’s worth it to power through to experience the coming-of-age tale of Oscar, a young Dominican American boy in New Jersey. Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, and, as an added bonus, you’ll pick up a lot of Spanish slang along the way.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
This isn’t the hipster version of Brooklyn, people. Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn sets itself up in the now trendy neighborhood of Williamsburg, but back then it was full of families like the Nolans just trying to get by. Dysfunctional family dynamics star in this coming of age novel that will leave you hungry for more at every turn of the page.
The Catcher in the Rye
As kids, we can’t wait to grow up. As adults, we just want to protect the innocence of our kids. The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield is as captivating a character there is in print, and whether you read this as a high school student or re-read it as an adult, his story will likely consume you just the same. Check out these quotes from young-adult books that adults would be wise to live by.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Pop culture relevance aside, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (the first book in J.K. Rowling’s beloved series) sets the stage for a remarkable story of a boy coming of age in a magical world. Readers new to the Potter world would put themselves at a disadvantage to skip ahead to later volumes, as Rowling creates her very own universe and language that builds book by book. Much more than a children’s series, many circumstances that arise throughout Harry Potter’s time at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry feel timely to our own modern-day happenings in the “muggle” world. Once you’re familiar with the series, file these Harry Potter-themed jokes for a rainy day.
The Hunger Games
Another pop culture phenomenon, The Hunger Games is a great example of a teen-centered book that is equally appealing to grown-ups. Suzanne Collins’ dystopian trilogy kicks off with the first novel in the series, which features our heroine Katniss competing in her very first Hunger Games, a televised event that quite literally has life or death consequences. Don’t miss the ten young adult novels grown-ups secretly love.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
The true story of Henrietta Lacks is almost too over-the-top to believe, but it happened and it’s outrageous. Unbeknownst to Lacks, she had cells taken from her in 1951 that were used in many different types of medical research, including vaccine studies. Her cells were bought and sold with abandon. As an impoverished tobacco farmer, Lacks is at the center of an ethical debacle of epic proportions.
Memoirs of a Geisha
Told from the point of view of fictional character Nitta Sayuri, author Arthur Golden wrote Memoirs of a Geisha with such authenticity and knowledge of Japanese culture that it’s almost hard to believe Sayuri isn’t a real, live person. Chronicling her life as geisha, this suspenseful tale interweaves moments of romance and history.
America: A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction
Oh, Jon Stewart, how we miss your political musings on The Daily Show. But we’ll forever have this book, America, which approaches politics with the same cutting sarcasm and wit that his television program was known for. And, hey, you might even find yourself a little wiser by the book’s end.
Kathryn Stockett’s New York Times best-seller brings three very different women together in the Deep South, each strong in her own way and each with a story to tell. Yes, The Help also made for a fantastic movie, but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t read Stockett’s colorful character descriptions and writing as the originated in print.
Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life
Author Neil Strauss dives deep into everything one might need in the face of doomsday. We’re not going to guarantee you can survive, say, the zombie apocalypse that The Walking Dead has convinced so many could be a thing, but you’ll certainly enjoy reading about one man’s quest to go off the grid and survive any situation that may arise.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
A meditation on life and wellness (both mental and physical), Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance asks the reader to look at their world a little differently, approaching situations from new perspectives. Follow a father and son as they set out on a motorcycle trip that challenges their beliefs and fears.
Digging to America
Two families form an unlikely friendship in Digging to America with they find themselves each waiting at an airport for the arrival of their adoptive daughters from Korea. It’s a beautiful look at how there is no right way to approach life, and we should appreciate and accept life’s complexities (both big and small) for the learning experiences they are. Read on for the 20 books you should have read by now, no matter what your age.