Making a list like this is impossible, of course. Although lots of people try. The books that need to be on your to-read list aren’t necessarily the ones that everyone says you should read. If you can’t make it through a chapter of Pride and Prejudice without rolling your eyes, it is hardly going to make your life better to finish it.
In reality, reading is a very personal experience. Something that moves me may absolutely bore you to death. While I do think everyone should have some exposure to the classics, trekking through some of those snoozers certainly isn’t the best way to encourage the literary appreciation. And you just aren’t going to die if you never read Shakespeare. You might even enjoy life more because you won’t know that 60% of all movies and books are just a newfangled telling of Shakespeare (or, in some cases, of whatever story he was doing a newfangled telling of). [That being said, I love Hamlet. You should read that one.]
So here is my annotated list of 20 Books to Read Before You Die.* These are the books that gave the the feels, taught me, made me think . . . etc. They are my go-to books when people ask me for recommendations.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
This is on my personal top five books list, so you know it has to be mentioned here. I pull The Bell Jar off the shelf at least one a year, whether I’m re-reading the entire thing or just hitting some favorite passages.
The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells (1898)
This book is full of sci-fi clichés . . . except then you realize that Wells invented the clichés. It is fascinating the see the beginning of so much of our pop culture in one work.
On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)
How can you not read a book that has become so divisive? If you actually sit down and read Darwin’s work, you will probably be surprised. It doesn’t say a lot of what you think it does and what it does say is inspired. I considered myself a better-educated person when I finished this. Even if you are just a Darwin-hater, at least read what you are hating on (and then read keep reading because you don’t know enough).
The Complete Works of Edgar Allen Poe
Okay, so maybe you don’t have to read the complete works. At least pick up something though! Poe’s work has inspired me since I was a child. I can’t imagine creating a list like this without including him. As you read, you will notice so many elements and plot devices that permeate modern books and movies. Poe is the master.
Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
I don’t think you need to read the entire series, but I do think everyone should give it a try. You at least need to see what the big deal is when something like this comes along and takes the world by storm. Especially since it has staying power and is more than just a fad. Maybe you will love it and read the whole thing. Maybe not.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (2003)
Mary Roach is one of those authors who make science and history accessible, so I knew she had to be on this list. I picked Stiff because I think the topic is important – how we treat our dead is a very important part of our culture. This books hits on medicine, forensics, ethics. . .a little bit of everything. If you like it, I suggest picking up Bonk next or maybe Gulp.
A Passage to India by E. M. Forster (1924)
I think this one would surprise you. The synopsis doesn’t scream “read me, you’ll love it!”, but Forster does not disappoint.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz, illustrated by Stephen Gammell (1981)
Not all of the must-read books have to make you think. Some can just be fun. This book and its sequel More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (there is a third one, but as an ’80s child it doesn’t land on my radar) defined scary for an entire generation. And it is as much about the original art as it is the stories. I still smile when I see this book sitting on my bookshelf or out in the wild.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2010)
This one is a little dense and probably not for everybody, but the story is absolutely fascinating. Skloot covers science, race, ethics, and politics here making what could be a very dry narrative engaging. Some of you might walk away on the side of science, others on the side of the individual, most of you will be left with the kind of puzzling questions that arise when you look back at our nation’s long struggle with class and race. You will walk away with something though, I guarantee that.
Speak Now: Marriage Equality on Trial by Kenji Yoshino (2015)
This one is a new one. I just read it this month (expect a review next week sometime) and it was amazing. It would do everyone some good to read about marriage equality as it is seen by the law and not by the television commercials.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929)
A classic that I think deserves the hype. It was publicly burned by the Nazis in the early 1930s. That alone should make you want to read it. General rule – if someone has gone to the trouble to stage a public bonfire of books, you should read those books. If the government is the one doing the burning. . . you should drop everything and read that book now.
Nineteen Eighty-Four (or 1984) by George Orwell (1949)
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1931)
I’m going to group these together as they both serve to fill the “dystopian future” spot on my list. Entertainment that makes you think. You might not read both, but I think you should at least read one. Brave New World is my favorite, but seems like 1984 has more mass appeal. I’ll admit it; I have a soft spot for these kinds of books. But, given the recent surge in zombie pop culture, you might too. Speaking of zombies. . .
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (2006)
Hands down the best zombie story out there. Forget that movie; it didn’t have anything to do with the book except for the name. And World War Z is really so much more than zombies – it is the story of how civilization would handle a mass epidemic like this. Instead of focusing on one group of people, the story is told as interviews taking place post-panic so you really do get a big picture kind of story. I have read this one multiple times and just typing this makes me want to pick it up again.
First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung (2000)
A good book to make you remember that “history” is happening all around you and that you don’t have to travel back hundreds of years to find the kind of atrocities we try to ignore. Okay, maybe that sentence is a little too poufy, but this book really touched me. I suggest you read it.
The American Revolution: A History by Gordon Wood (2002)
You’ll never convince me that you don’t need to learn about history. Especially since the world we live in loves to pull random examples support any point of view (and – really – you can find vignettes in history to support anything you want to say), you need to be able to put things into context. If I can stop you from posting once piece of nonsense of Facebook, I’ll consider this list a success. I picked this book to add to my list because it is 1) interesting, 2) concise, and 3) accessible. The viewpoints of our forefathers can’t be expressed in a quote on a picture of a Minion. History cannot be condensed into a slogan. It is complicated, gritty, inspiring, and discouraging. Go learn!
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
You absolutely 100% must read this book. No ifs, ands or buts. I don’t even need to justify this choice. If you haven’t read it, get thee to a
Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink (2013)
You need to make sure you are emotionally stable before you sit down to read Five Days at Memorial. This story is a painful one, but an important one. I didn’t want to believe the facts I was reading. This is a story that must be told.
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954)
Another book crucial to modern pop culture. Forget Dracula – this is the cream of the vampire crop in my opinion. And again, forget the movie. Hollywood just can’t handle the end of this book. Okay, so I have several fun books on here about supernatural creatures (I Am Legend hits up both vampire and zombie), but you have to understand that those books are really about people. About society. They can teach us so much and be damn good while doing it.
Maus by Art Spiegelman (serialized 1980-1991)
I kind of feel like Maus is a little bit overdone. It made a big splash as a graphic novel about the Holocaust and people tend to recommend it now without having read it or really paid attention to it. I bet most of them don’t really remember the details of the story. It really is a good book though. I especially suggest this for high school or early college students who haven’t found a way to appreciate history or have difficulty tackling their dry textbooks. Maus makes this list because the way it inspires people to learn is more important than the words (and drawings!) on the page.
See anything you think doesn’t belong here? What would be on your list?
*Yeah, I intended to make this a list of 25 but got lazy.