Top 100 Books You Should Read Before You Die
100. The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe – A drama about greed, social class, racism and politics in New York City during the 1980s. The storyline surprisingly presents the foundations that ultimately led to America’s economic collapse during the following twenty years.
99. The Call of the Wild by Jack London – Published in 1903, this is London’s most popular work because of its dark undertones and descriptive scenes of an untamed Yukon frontier. The plot centers on a previously domesticated sled dog that transforms into a pack-dominating feral beast who exhibits the primordial killer instincts that reside in all living beings.
98. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – Considered by many critics to be the original non-fiction novel, this 1966 book details the brutal 1959 murders a farmer, wife and two children in rural Kansas. Capote deftly takes the reader into the minds of the two parolees who committed the crimes and describes the effects of their actions on the local community.
97. Ironweed by William Kennedy – Winner of the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, this is the third book in Kennedy’s highly-acclaimed Albany Cycle. This character-rich story centers on an alcoholic vagrant who returns to Albany during the Great Depression after accidentally killing his son.
96. Watership Down by Richard Adams – A classic fantasy novel about a small group of English rabbits who possess their own culture, language, proverbs and mythology. Although this book was initially rejected by numerous publishers, it has never been out of print since 1972.
95. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking – This landmark science masterpiece is surprisingly readable given its exotic realms that range from the big bang theory to what happens when the universe ends. As should happen with all great science essays, the reader is forever altered after reading about how creation works and what the concept of time really means.
94. The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington – Winner of the 1919 Pulitzer Prize, this novel traces the declining fortunes of a quirky family during a period of rapid socioeconomic change in Midwest America. An engrossing story that transports the reader into a way of life that has long since disappeared.
93. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo – This sweeping 1892 French novel contains both factual and historic events while following the lives of several characters over a seventeen-year period in the early nineteenth century. The main focus is on the struggles of ex-convict Jean Valjean and his path to rebuilding his reputation in a time of both excessive wealth and crushing poverty.
92. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – This Spanish novel was translated into English in 1988 and quickly received critical praise for its engrossing exploration of a love-sickness so deep that it could be considered an illness. Garcia Marquez does a masterful job of forcing the reader to question much of his characterizations by introducing unexpected elements that continually turn the plot inside out.
91. The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Casteneda – First published as a work of anthropology, this mind-altering journey documents Casteneda’s apprenticeship with the Yaqui Indian Sorcerer Don Juan. It is almost impossible to not feel totally transformed about the true meanings of reality after reading this sometimes shocking story.
90. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Taylor – This is Taylor’s ninth novel and winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. The story focuses of the Tull family of Baltimore and is told from the perspectives of a mother and her children, allowing the reader to witness the same event several times from differing viewpoints.
89. Pilgrim At Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard – This is a personal narrative of the author’s one-year exploration of her neighborhood in Tinker Creek, Virginia. An exhilarating meditation on nature and seasons told from a deeply self-revealing perspective.
88. Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow – An epic work of historical fiction set primarily in New York City during the early 1900s. The story blends the lives of three fictional families with actual historic figures in a framework that richly reveals the events and settings of a transforming period in American history.
87. Sophie’s Choice by William Styron – An immediate bestseller that won the 1980 National Book Award. Styron masterfully crafts a story about a young American Southerner, a struggling writer, the Jewish Nathan Landau and his lover Sophie who survived a Nazi concentration camp.
86. A Room With a View by E. M. Forster – First published in 1908, this is the story of a young woman dealing with the repressed culture of Edwardian England. Set in both Italy and England, Forster explores the themes of repressed sexuality, religious constraints and bigotry as experienced in the lives of two young lovers.
85. Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell – This 1932 novel is set in rural Georgia during the worst years of the Great Depression. The plot revolves around a poor, white sharecropping family as they struggle with farming cotton while dealing with poverty and the ignorance of a conflicted father.
84. A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan – Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction is 1989, this is Sheehan’s account of military adviser John Paul Van and his experiences in Vietnam during the early 1960s. This book captures the passions and follies that ultimately resulted in making the Vietnam War one of America’s darkest periods in time.
83. A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul – Nobel laureate Naipaul delivers a fluid tale set in an unnamed African country after independence. The narrator, Salim, is an Indian Muslim shopkeeper who observes the rapid changes occurring in his country with an outsider perspective.
82. The Five People You Meet In Heaven by Mitch Albom – A simple, yet eloquent novel that recounts the life and death of an old maintenance man who meets five people in heaven who have deeply affected his life. Albom offers here a new, refreshing perspective of the afterlife.
81. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – Written during a time when Dickens was desperate for money, this novella met with instant success and critical acclaim. It is hard to not be filled with the Christmas spirit after being immersed in this Victorian era story.
80. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig – This is a book that often makes the reader struggle to comprehend the metaphysical concepts presented, but it is well worth the effort. The story describes a seventeen-day motorcycle journey interspersed with wide-ranging philosophical discussions that makes one wonder about what really defines a conscious reality.
79. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson – Although this is a non-fiction, historical account of events surrounding the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, it reads like a well-crafted detective novel. The plot intertwines both the monumental efforts required for building the fair and the tracking of a serial killer. A truly captivating read.
78. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway – This semi-autobiographical novel revolves around events during the First World War. Although much of the plot is bleak, Hemingway was immediately elevated to the top ranks of modern American writers after its 1929 release.
77. Dracula by Bram Stoker – It is amazing that this 1897 novel has proven to be the fore-bearer of the current worldwide vampire craze in books and movies. More than just a tale about Count Dracula, this work touches on broad cultural themes that range from the role of women in Victorian culture to colonialism.
76. Inferno by Dante – The first part of Dante’s epic poem, the Divine Comedy, that describes a journey through a medieval representation of Hell. A thought provoking read through a Hell that is depicted as nine circles of suffering on earth.
75. Aspects of the Novel by E. M. Forster – For any avid reader, this compilation of lectures delivered by Forster in 1927 fully explains the aspects of the English language novel. Especially interesting is how he examines the novel in relationship to time.
74. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh – Published in 1945, this novel revolves around the aristocratic Marchmain family of England with themes heavily centered in Roman Catholicism. Waugh was ultimately disappointed in this work, but it has consistently withstood the test of time and critics.
73. Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein – Although this is a collection of children’s poems with simple illustrations, even adults can enjoy its fanciful tales of innocent wonder about the world.
72. Moby Dick by Herman Melville – An epic tale of a battle between man and a white sperm whale that is still considered to be a true treasure of world literature. Melville’s themes about good versus evil and the outcomes of obsessive revenge ring true even when compared to many modern day events.
71. The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow – Bellow’s picaresque style awakens the senses in this story about a young man growing up during the Great Depression. A good read about the steps of maturity with surprisingly comic undertones.
70. The City In History by Lewis Mumford – American historian Mumford offers a fluid account on how cities came to be and where they are heading within the context of his ideal of an “organic city”.
69. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis – This 1920 satirical novel centers on a free-spirited young woman in a small Minnesota town. It’s best known for its portrayals of small town petty gossip and backstabbing.
68. The Book of Lists by David Wallenchinsky – A unique collection of unusual facts and esoteric topics ranging from famous people who died during sexual intercourse to the worst places to hitchhike.
67. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess – This 1962 novella is more than a bit strange in both language and surreal scenes, but that is the whole point. Burgess masterfully turns reality inside out.
66. Treasure Island by Robert Lewis Stevenson – Another children’s book that can be thoroughly enjoyed by adults. A coming-of-age story filled with action and adventure.
65. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie – This novel has come to be considered a prime example of magical realism. A very historical account of India’s transition from colonial rule to independence.
64. The Art of Memory by Frances A. Yates – A landmark study on how people retained vast amounts of knowledge before the emergence of the printed page. Filled with fascinating insights that relate the art of memory to the history of culture.
63. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – A 1903 novella that explores the dark side of Belgian colonization in Africa. Best known for its wild settings and Conrad’s portrayal of human cruelty.
62. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas – Covering the period of 1815-1838, this story traces the life of a man wrongly imprisoned who eventually escapes, acquires great wealth and then seeks revenge against the men who falsely accused him. The historical setting is a prime element of the overall storyline.
61. Jefferson and His Times by Dumas Malone – A Pulitzer Prize winning work on the life and times of Thomas Jefferson. This biography is widely considered to be the authoritative study on Jefferson and his impact on America.
60. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger – Attesting to its literary importance, this 1951 novel still sells approximately 250,000 copies per year and has realized more than 65 million copies sold worldwide. Unquestionably the definitive story of modern teenage angst and rebellion.
59. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton – Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for its delicate explorations into the assumptions and morals of New York society during the 1870s. Rich in diverse characters and the portrayal of life among the upper-class during the Gilded Age.
58. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett – In this 1930 novel Hammett defined the hard-boiled detective genre. A classic example of character and plot development where not a single inner thought of a character is ever revealed.
57. Out Of Africa by Isak Dinesen – First published in 1937, this memoir recounts the life of Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke who wrote under the Dinesen pen name. An immersion into seventeen years on her African coffee plantation during a time of British colonization.
56. Animal Farm by George Orwell – This is a novella with a very large message. Although it was first published in 1945, Orwell’s allegorical tale about a group of pigs that take control of a farm and attempt to shape a new society still creates haunting comparisons to present day political struggles throughout the world.
55. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens – It’s hard to pass up reading a book that has sold over 200 million copies since its 1859 release. A gripping tale that is set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution defined by the often brutal historical events that caused the pheasant’s revolt against the aristocracy.
54. Darkness Visible by William Styron – American writer Styron was best known for his novels, but deepened his readership with this memoir about his struggles with depression. A very personal, painful journey into a deteriorating mental state.
53. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – Loosely based on the author’s childhood experiences, this 1868 novel tells the story of four sisters growing up in Massachusetts. Simply a pure reading delight.
52. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – The futurist themes in this novel are still relevant today even though the book was published in 1932. Huxley sought to deliver a frightening vision of the future and did so with stunning clarity.
51. Lord of the Flies by William Golding – This story about a group of British boys who attempt to govern themselves on a deserted island is absolutely chilling. Its controversial themes earned it a position on the American Library Association’s list of the most frequently challenged books during 1990-1999.
50. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X with Alex Haley – Written as a spiritual conversation narrative, this 1965 publication takes the reader into the mind and soul of a committed human rights activist who helped change America’s racial history.
49. The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence – After its release in 1915, this story that follows three generations of a family living in Nottinghamshire was banned in Britain for 11 years due to the sexual themes. Although the book is tame by modern standards, Lawrence masterfully shapes human sexuality into a spiritual force of life.
48. A Prayer for Owen Meaney by John Irving – Set in a small New England town during the 1950s and 1960s, this is the story of a remarkable boy who truly believes himself to be one of God’s instruments. Irving relates an extraordinary journey that awakens the soul.
47. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka – This 1915 novella is consistently cited as one of the seminal works of short fiction. Kafka deftly takes the reader inside the mind and life of a traveling salesman who awakens one day to find that he has been transformed into a horrible creature.
46. Autobiography of Mark Twain by Mark Twain – Released in 2010, this three volume set presents rambling writings that Twain instructed were not to be published until one hundred years after his death. A very unconventional autobiography offering a look into the life and thoughts of a writer who left an indelible mark on American literature.
45. The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer – This was Mailer’s first published novel that has been in consistent demand since its 1948 release. A well-crafted story blending military action with deft character development.
44. Deliverance by James Dickey – After reading this novel, many people will probably never want to go canoeing in the Georgia wilderness. A disturbing look into brutality, survival and the psychological aftermaths of lives that have been traumatically altered forever.
43. The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy – There are few living writers today who can match the mastery of the English language and prose that Conroy presents in this 1986 novel revolving around the traumatic events of a South Carolina family. There are numerous passages in this book that people will want to reread just to experience the sheer joy of words well-written.
42. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie – With this 1934 novel Christie shaped the future of the murder mystery genre. It is praised not only for its story development, but also for being one of the best railway stories ever written.
41. But Is It True? By Aaron Wildavsky – Although it was first published in 1995, this guide to environmental health and safety issues is more relevant today than ever. Wildavsky does a splendid job of taking a fair and factual look at some very complex issues.
40. Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin – This semi-autobiographical 1953 novel explores the role of the Christian church in the lives of African-Americans. An informative read that subtly explores the effects of racism.
39. Mythology by Edith Hamilton – The writer was passionate about ancient mythology and it shows in this impressive work. A thorough yet very readable journey into Greek, Roman and Norse myths.
38. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden – Written in first person, this is a novel that tells the story of a Japanese geisha around the time of World War II. An enjoyable journey through Japanese culture and richly-detailed settings.
37. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller – A truly landmark novel in that it led to obscenity trials testing laws about pornography after its American release in 1961. Combining autobiographical facts with fiction, this story centers on Miller’s life as a struggling writer.
36. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner – A wide-ranging novel that is narrated by 15 different characters through 59 chapters. Faulkner’s technique has consistently ranked this work among the best writings of the 20th century.
35. Storming Heaven by Jay Stephens – A mind-altering account of American social history from the Forties through the Sixties. Whatever you think you know about this culturally transforming time period is probably wrong until you read this book.
34. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – For any avid reader, this 1953 novel about a future America where reading is outlawed and books are burned will send chills through the spine. Bradbury’s predictions that future information would be distributed through factoids devoid of context has proven to be strangely real in this age of the Internet.
33. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – Widely considered to be the prime example of realist fiction. This sweeping story of Czarist Russia is nothing less than breathtaking.
32. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll – This 1865 novel is still considered to be the prime example of the nonsense and fantasy genres. A fun read that continues to be loved by all generations.
31. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain – Of all the contenders for the title of The Great American Novel, none has a better claim than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Intended at first as a simple story of a boy’s adventures in the Mississippi Valley-a sequel to Tom Sawyer-the book grew and matured under Twain’s hand into a work of immeasurable richness and complexity.
30. Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald – This novel was the last completed work by Fitzgerald and considered by many to be his bleakest. A moving story about a young psychoanalyst and his wife that was written during a time when Fitzgerald’s own wife was undergoing treatment for schizophrenia.
29. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain – Widely considered to be the best work by this very prolific author. Huck’s adventures through a Southern antebellum countryside bring to life a society that Twain mocks for both its entrenched attitudes and overt racism.
28. The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois – A groundbreaking collection of essays on being black during the early 1900s in America. These writings provide an interesting perspective on how far America has progressed with racism and how much is still left to be done.
27. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – Winner of the Pulitzer Prize after its release in 1960, this novel about life and racism in a Southern town was an instant hit. The protagonist of the story, Atticus Finch, has become one of the best known characters in modern literature.
26. Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell – What more is there to say about a novel that is so deeply entrenched in the American lexicon. It is worth the read if for no other reason than to experience a Southern culture that disappeared after the Civil War.
25. Native Son by Richard Wright – This story about an African-American living in Chicago during the 1930s challenges every perception about poverty, racism and societal conditions. A very thought-provoking read.
24. The Declaration of Independence by Carl L. Becker – This is a book that every American should read. A very informative study on what the Declaration really is, how it arose and how it has been viewed by succeeding generations.
23. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – A novel that is an adaptation of a BBC radio show of the same name. This comedy science fiction story takes the reader on a ride that is both fun and surreal.
22. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. – Recognized as Vonnegut’s most influential work, this satirical novel is structured around his experiences during World War II. The major themes about fate and free will are masterfully woven into a story that leaves the protagonist “unstuck in time”.
21. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison – Winner of the 1953 National Book Award, this was the only novel published by Ellison during his lifetime. The story addresses many of the social issues facing African-Americans in the early twentieth century.
20. America’s Great Depression by Murray N. Rothbard – A landmark study on the causes and effects of America’s deepest economic downturn. This is worth reading to understand how world economies may now be repeating the same monetary mistakes.
19. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf – Woolf was lifted to the top of modernist novelists with this 1927 novel. Although the prose can be hard to follow, the story is masterfully crafted in a method where the plot is secondary to the philosophical introspection of the main characters.
18. On the Road by Jack Kerouac – A largely autobiographical novel that has been consistently hailed as the seminal writing of the “beat” generation. A free-wheeling road trip across 1950s America.
17. Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose – American historian Ambrose presents the epic journey of Lewis and Clark across the uncharted western frontier with the ease of a great novelist. Filled with fascinating historical facts ranging from the beginning of the journey to the ultimately sad demise of these two courageous men.
16. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien – Originally published as a children’s book in 1937, this fantastical tale has come to be embraced by people of all ages. A story containing all of the aspects of a great action adventure.
15. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller – A 1961 satirical novel that is frequently recognized as one of the greatest literary works of modern time. The time line of the plot is extremely unique in that events occur out of order and are described from different points of view.
14. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry – The reader of this 1947 novel is taken on a mescal-fueled journey set in a small Mexican town. A book that has been primarily praised for its pressure filled passages that follows the main character’s descent into a purgatory of his own making.
13. The Varieties of Religious Experiences by William James – This collection of thoughts on psychology and religious philosophy has consistently been in print for over a century. An immersion into the differences between symbolism and reality.
12. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser – Dreiser based this novel on a true 1906 crime in Upstate New York. A chilling story a boy raised by very religious parents who descends into the dark underbelly of American life.
11. Rabbit, Run by John Updike – The praise for this novel is based on Updike’s stylistic use of the present tense. It presents a very likeable 26-year-old character who struggles with the constraints of modern life.
10. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson – Name any branch of science and Bryson brilliantly explains it in plain terms in this dazzling work. The subject matter focuses on not only what we know about the universe, but also how we know it.
9. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck – Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. It is hard not to be moved by this story of a poor family forced to move from their Oklahoma land during the Great Depression.
8. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov – A creepy, yet sophisticated story of the main character’s sexual obsession with a 12-year-old girl. Highly noted for both Nabokov’s stylistic prose and his delicate handling of a controversial subject matter.
7. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevski – Although this story was written in the late 1800s, it still defines the ongoing question concerning whether a crime is permissible when committed in pursuit of a higher social purpose. This novel brings to the surface many philosophical dilemmas.
6. The Trial by Franz Kafka – Known for his unique writing style where one sentence can span an entire page, Kafka has proven to be a literary giant against whom other writers are often compared. This story about a man who is arrested and prosecuted by a remote, inaccessible authority is considered by many to be the prime example of Kafka’s genius.
5. The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand – A landmark collection of essays where Rand turns the concept of selfishness into a virtue. Highly controversial, but a work that lays the foundation for redefining a rational code of human ethics.
4. Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington – This 1901 autobiography provides thought changing insights into what it was like to be a man raised as a child slave who later strives to make a mark on American history. A true lesson about black history after the Civil War.
3. Ulysses by James Joyce – A heavy read that people seem to either love or hate due to Joyce’s experimental prose. Yet this novel is consistently in the top ranks of “must reads” because of the masterful way Joyce crafts a 650 story where all of the events take place within a single day.
2. 1984 by George Orwell – A 1949 novel that is sure to receive greater attention in our present age of terrorism. Orwell’s themes about a society defined by perpetual wars, heavy government surveillance, thought control and an oppressive dictatorship have proven to become a harsh reality in many countries throughout the world since 9/11.
1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – Widely regarded to be the prime example of the Great American Novel. Fitzgerald’s soaring tale about American society during the spring to autumn of 1922 exemplifies the meaning of storytelling at its best.