Maybe you grew up with a love of reading, or maybe the thought of picking up a book today sends you running for the hills. Regardless, you’ve likely been forced to read a few classics at some point in your academic career.
Some stories have survived the test of time, becoming a part of the classic cannon of literature. Others are newer, and have given life to a new generation of readers.
Whether your library is filled with Pulitzer Prize winners or vampire romances, these are the top 35 books you should read before you die. As Jorge Borges famously said, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Children learn of racial inequality and justice in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama.
This Pulitzer Prize winner is a staple in high school English classes everywhere. If, for some reason, you didn’t read this story when you were 15, stop everything you’re doing and read it right now. Lee’s novel is filled with an abundance of truths from the perspective of a curious little girl named Scout, and you will not be disappointed.
2. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
A post-apocalyptic tale of a father and son searching for signs of hope along a seemingly endless road.
This dark story by the author of No Country for Old Men will wreck your soul in the best way possible. The fragmented dystopian storytelling creates a jumble of imagery and symbols that will force you question the way you see the world.
3. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Set in the roaring 20s, Nick Carraway is fascinated with the mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby.
Once again, this is a classroom staple. The recent film starring Leonardo DiCaprio certainly does this tale justice, but you should still take the time to read this page in its entirety. Fitzgerald captures the essence of the 20s and the American Dream in this classic work.
4. Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
A WWII veteran struggles with the concept of faith.
Flannery O’Connor is the quintessential southern writer with an uncanny ability to extrapolate the grotesque nature of humanity. Her characters will likely infuriate you to no end, and the author wouldn’t want it any other way. O’Connor, a notoriously religious writer, demonstrates the different emotions faith evokes in mankind.
An Old English epic poem about a hero who saves his people.
Don’t let the Old English scare you away. Beowulf is considered to be one of the oldest works of Old English, thus it is worth your time. The story is pretty straightforward and easy enough to follow…a hero fights a bad guy (or giant) and saves the day. Not to mention, Angelina Jolie is in the movie adaptation, so there’s that.
6. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin
Elizabeth Bennett struggles with marriage, upbringing, and manners in this regency classic.
This novel is too often labeled as chick-lit when really it’s everyone-lit. Austin’s writing is witty and clever, and you’ll fall in love with the characters. All of Austin’s works are great, but this one in particular has captured the heart of readers everywhere.
7. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Set against the American Civil War and Reconstruction Era, well-to-do Scarlett O’Hara fights her way from new found poverty.
The four hour movie adaptation of this novel can be intimidating, but this book serves as a testament to southern view of the Civil War. Scarlett is a complicated heroine, and this is a complicated story of the effects of war.
8. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
While hiding from the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, Anne Frank hides in an attic with her family for two years.
Warning: this is a major tearjerker. Even the coldest of readers will shed a tear (or several) at the ending. This firsthand account of WWII from the perspective of a young Jewish girl shows the optimism of youth in the face of hardship.
9. The Odyssey by Homer
An epic tale of Odysseus, a Greek hero, who encounters cyclops, sirens, and more.
The Odyssey is considered by scholars to be the second oldest work in the western tradition (The Iliad being the oldest). That fact alone warrants its place on this list.
10. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
A coming age adventure story about the young Huck Finn traveling with a runaway slave.
Mark Twain masterfully captures the dialog and nature of the south in this pre-Civil war tale. Follow Huck Finn as he encounters all walks of life in this adventurous quest for freedom.
11. Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
The main character is caught up in the drug filled world of 1980s NYC.
This novel is written entirely in second person, essentially forcing you to become the narrator. Dark humor meets small truths against the backdrop of the 80s cocaine scene in this postmodern classic.
12. Ulysses by James Joyce
Follow Leopold Bloom throughout his ordinary day in Dublin.
Considered to be one of the greatest works of modern literature, this 265,000 word epic is a revolutionary testament to the novel as we know it. Note that this book is not for the faint of heart. There are entire encyclopedias dedicated to interpreting this stream of consciousness writing style. However, there is a great sense of accomplishment awarded to the brave few who manage to finish this complicated telling.
13. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
A young boy attends a magical school for wizards where he learns of his role in the battle between good and evil.
Harry Potter is a sensation which launched a passion for reading in a new generation of readers. Rowling’s book series has become a successful franchise, complete with 8 films and a theme park adaptation. Young or old, you will find truth and comfort in this magical tale.
14. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Four children discover a wardrobe which leads to a magical world.
This story revives childhood curiosity and wonder. All of the Narnia books are worth a read, but this one in particular reveals the balance between good and evil through the lens of childhood.
15. 1984 by George Orwell
Big Brother watches over all in this dystopian view of 1984.
Orwell wrote this story as a warning against corruption of government and censorship. Published in 1949, Orwell imagined 1984 as looking similar to his world of constant surveillance and brainwashing. How similar is our society today to the world he imagined?
16. The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wild
A young man questions the meaning of art and eventually his own sanity in this philosophical tale.
This novel was received critically when first published. Some went as far as to censor it, else it corrupt the masses with its messages. Oscar Wild fought back against criticism, prefacing his work with a comment about art for art’s sake alone. This story will leave you questioning the nature of art and the role pleasure plays in our lives.
17. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Young Liesel, a self described book thief, struggles to come to terms with the reality of WWII.
You will cry. A lot. But the tears are worth it for this beautiful story. Written in the perspective of death, this tale is hauntingly tragic. It’s one that will stay with you long after the final line.
18. The Giver by Lois Lowry
In a dystopian world, a boy is chosen to become the next Giver.
Utopia reveals itself to be dystopia in this classic work. Jonas is selected to become the next Receiver of Memory for his society, and readers are forced to question their own reality as Jonas experiences it himself.
19. Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Young Daniel’s life changes forever when his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.
This work, originally written in Spanish, has become an international bestseller. Though it is translated from its original language, it retains its beautiful imagery and descriptions. This heartwarming tale exemplifies the power of books to change the world.
20. Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
A vampire struggles with his true nature as he searches for a meaning to his existence.
Anne Rice is a master of horror and mystery. You’ll be drawn into her paranormal world with her compelling characters and masterful writing style. It’s also worth noting that the movie adaptation features an impressive cast and is a well-done rendition of this complex vampire story.
21. A Farewell to Arms by Earnest Hemingway
A lieutenant in WWI faces tribulations with romance, displaced soldiers, and the horrors of war.
Hemingway is thought of as one of the greatest modernist writers for a reason. This tale is brutally honest, painting an accurate picture of World War I through blunt language and straightforward atrocities.
22. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
A young woman becomes a governess for the French ward of the unfriendly Mr. Rochester.
This Victorian tale shows the difficulties of a budding romance which must overcome difficult obstacles. Jane Eyre is a charming narrator, and her modest nature quickly propells the plot forward.
23. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
An African-American girl battles hardship in a segregated south.
Another prize winner, this novel demonstrates race issues in the south through the eyes of a young woman. Heartbreaking and real, this story is a must-read.
24. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol
A young girl falls through a rabbit hole into a peculiar world.
Carrol’s work revives the magic of childhood through its outlandish plot and memorable characters. Rediscover childhood curiosity in this famous story.
25. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Follow Bilbo Baggins, an unlikely hero, on his quest for treasure and adventure.
This is another series which launched a new generation of readers. With the recent films, The Hobbit has regained in popularity. Tolkien is a master creator of fantasy worlds. You’ll be left lamenting that such a world does not exist beyond the pages of a novel.
26. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
A dystopian novel about a world where books are outlawed and burned.
Dystopian stories, though they usually represent a distant future, always seem to resonate greatly in the present. The title of Bradbury’s work refers to the temperature at which paper burns. Through compelling storytelling, this story encourages readers to question the nature of society and censorship.
27. Beloved by Toni Morrison
After the Civil War, a runaway slave is forced to kill her own children in order to protect them from being captured back into slavery.
This book is hauntingly written, and will remain with you long after the last chapter. Morrison captures the emotions of a young mother faced with the ultimate sacrifice for the love of her children. Purposefully off putting, Morrison challenges readers with her unique perspective.
28. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
A St. Petersburg aristocrat’s life story set against feudal Russian society.
Tolstoy’s classic brings a tragic heroine to life through a compelling narrative of her life, love, and affair. Tolstoy wrestles with family, politics, and society in what has been called the greatest novel ever written.
29. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
Teenage Holden struggles with adolescence, angst, and the transition to adulthood.
This story, though originally intended for adults, has become a symbol for teenage rebellion. Readers young and old can resonate with Holden and his inability to feel like he belongs. This work perfectly captures the challenges one faces when transitioning to adulthood.
30. Matilda by Roald Dahl
A young girl with a passion for reading discovers she has an unusual power.
Matilda is a testament to people everywhere who don’t always feel like they belong. The narrator finds comfort in the pages of books, something every book lover understands. This lighthearted story will bring a smile to your face and joy to your soul.
31. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Lenina Crowne and Bernard Marx live in a dystopian world of strict social structure and rapidly advancing technology.
Based loosely on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, this work demonstrates a rigid society with strict social castes. In Huxley’s world, excess consumerism is the norm while individualism is met with shame. This work evokes powerful questions of materialism and passivity in our own society.
32. Dracula by Bram Stoker
In this classic horror story, a vampire attempts to find new blood and spread the undead curse.
Written as a series of diary entries and letters, this novel offers readers the thrill and mystery of the classic horror story. Dracula left an undeniable impression on the horror and vampire genre, and its impact can still be seen in fiction today.
33. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Hazel, a teenage girl struggling with cancer, falls for a boy in her cancer support group.
The Fault in Our Stars is a young adult novel which will resonate will all age groups. Green’s writing style is witty and enlightening. You’ll be laughing (and probably crying) your way through the pages. Green’s story illustrates the realities of illness and the beauty of young love.
34. A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
Several powerful houses battle for control in this world of fantasy.
This is the work which launched the massively popular HBO series by the same name. The books, written in varying point of view, depict a compelling world of fantasy and war. This battle of houses will keep you on the edge of your seat as you wait (impatiently) for the release of the next book in the incomplete series.
35. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
A satirical tale about World War I told by an unreliable narrator and a man who believes himself to be capable of time-travel.
Vonnegut’s story is a unique take on WWI. His unusual characters and use of flashback will keep you enthralled (and more than a little uncertain) until the very end. This smartly written story offers comic relief in a time of chaos and horror.