30 Books You Should Read at Least Once in Your Lifetime
There’s nothing quite as satisfying as settling down with an exhilarating new read on a rare day off. But while we’re always on the hunt for brand new books to binge-read, there are certain literary staples that every bibliophile should read at least *once* in their lifetime — plus, it doesn’t hurt that you can sometimes score these classic novels on Amazon for a mere penny. So before you pick up the latest summer rom-com at the grocery store, here are 30 adult books you should consider adding to your reading list first.
1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee ($9): An instant bestseller and critical success, this is the thought-provoking tale of eight-year-old Scout Finch, her brother, Jem, and their father, Atticus. Combining both the innocence of a coming-of-age novel with serious social justice motifs (one of the main conflicts is regarding a black man accused of raping a white woman), this epic novel is a short read that you’ll definitely wish you picked up sooner.
2. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi ($25): As a trained neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was always interested in life’s big questions. But after going from doctor to patient in the blink of an eye with a terminal Stage IV lung cancer diagnosis, Kalanithi set upon a journey to write a life-affirming memoir about the end of life.
3. 1984 by George Orwell ($10): Big Brother is always watching — and, no, we’re not talking about the hit reality TV show. As Orwell’s now classic novel continues to be quoted in many social and political conversations today, it’s never been a better time to cross this dystopian novel off your to-read list.
4. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates ($25): When this book was released in mid-2015, it immediately became one of the most popular books of the year. Written as a letter to his adolescent son, Ta-Nehisi Coates details his place in the world through both reflections of his own upbringing and elaborate reimagined history. It’s powerful, timely, and definitely a must-read.
5. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley ($16): Written in the shadow of fascism during the 1930s, this dystopian world is one of the most famous in all of literature. In Huxley’s universe, humans are genetically bred and pumped with pharmaceuticals to null them enough to obey the authoritarian order. It’s thought-provoking and a *tad* scary, but it’s surely a great read to have under your literary belt.
6. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden ($35): Odds are you’ve seen the popular 2005 film adaptation, but we *highly* suggest reading the OG book version too. The story details the confessions of Nitta Sayuri, one of Japan’s most celebrated geisha — including the scandalous auctioning of her own virginity and her strict geisha teaching in the heart of Gion (AKA the geisha district of Kyoto).
7. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck ($18): Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epic novel chronicles the lives of the Joad family as they uproot their lives during the Great Depression for the promise land that is California. Facing every obstacle possible including incarceration, death, and starvation, the Joads push forward and join the social justice labor union fight despite the big risk it poses to their already crumbling family.
8. Moby Dick by Herman Melville ($3): Challenge yourself this summer with an epic 800+ page nautical classic that’s undeniably worth the time investment. Jump aboard the Pequod through the eyes of a mysterious narrator as monomaniacal Captain Ahab leads a rag-tag crew in a desperate search of the ghost-like white whale that took his leg.
9. Room by Emma Donoghue ($17): This chilling novel, told from the perspective of five-year-old Jack, is definitely one that *begs* to be binge-read. After being held captive and abused for years, a young woman and her son bravely try to escape through a creative (albeit extremely dangerous) scheme. Brie Larson won an Oscar for her portrayal of Ma in the film version.
10. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald ($16): Almost always cited as one of the best American novels ever written, Fitzgerald’s fabulous Jazz Age tale had to be included on our list. Full of lavish Long Island parties and OTT decadence, Jay Gatsby’s fascinating and extravagant life is always a great one to (re)discover.
11. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking ($18): If you’re looking for answers to some of the most pressing issues of our time, check out Stephen Hawking’s popular scientific exploration geared toward the general public. From questions about the beginning of the universe to discussions of other dimensions in space, challenge your brain and pick up a copy ASAP.
12. The Catcher and the Rye by J.D. Salinger ($9): Holden Caulfield is practically synonymous with teenage rebellion… so it’s really no surprise that this controversial novel is so popular with teens of all generations. Narrated by young Caulfield in the 1950s who has just been expelled from yet another school, this epic adventure is iconic in its own right.
13. All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews ($16): Written by Canadian author Miriam Toews and winner of numerous prestigious awards, this heart-wrenching story about two sisters is a must-read. World-renowned pianist Elfrieda lives a glamorous life, but she’s been desperately trying to kill herself for years — a devastating fact that has both distanced her and drawn her closer to her sister Yolandi. Told with the utmost compassion, wit, and literary prowess, this novel is heartbreaking and life-affirming at the same damn time.
14. Lord of the Flies by William Golding ($10): Odds are you probably had to read this well-loved classic in high school, but if you were one of the kids who didn’t, you should definitely consider reading it as an adult. The book unravels the story of a group of British boys who are stranded on an island and their attempt at self-government… which, if you couldn’t already predict, is disastrous.
15. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling ($11): The Harry Potter saga is iconic of a generation. Dive into the magical world by rereading the story of how a young orphan of a mere age of 11 learns he is a wizard and sets off on a magical adventure full of friendship, danger, and love. Fair warning: This is a gateway book that’ll probably lead to at *least* six more book splurges.
16. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen ($9): Ah, Mr. Darcy. If you haven’t already fallen for literature’s hottest fictional character, it’s time to change that. This infamous novel by Jane Austen, first published in 1813, tells the story of the five Bennet daughters and their search for happiness and marriage in the British Regency.
17. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut ($16): Kurt Vonnegut’s part semi-biographical, part war novel, and part sci-fi adventure is definitely one of his most famous works… and for good reason. Detailing the destructiveness of war and the question of free will, it’s one of those novels you’re going to have to read at least twice to even *partially* understand.
18. Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur ($15): This collection of poetry and prose about survival is a journey that every avid reader should experience in their lifetime. It’s a raw, beautiful personal exposé that’ll get you thinking about life through a different lens.
19. Go Ask Alice by Anonymous ($10): We’re not even a little bit surprised that this anonymously written teenage diary is often cited as one of the most popular young adult books ever written. Detailing a young girl’s harrowing spiral into a life of drugs and addiction, it’s a short read that packs a powerful punch… even as an adult.
20. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway ($26): This classic novel takes readers from the wild nightlife of 1920s Paris to the bullfighting rings of Spain with Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley as your larger-than-life guides. Featuring many of the iconic trials of the time, it’s a beautifully written story that’s not to be missed.
21. It by Stephen King ($20): Things aren’t quite as peaceful as they appear in the little town of Derry, Maine. Stephen King is notorious for bringing creepy characters to life on the page, but he outdoes even himself with the unthinkable creature lurking in the Derry sewers. Yeah, you’re going to want to read this one with the lights on.
22. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi ($16): Half-sisters Effia and Esi are born into different villages in 18th-century Ghana and lead very different lives — one is married to a wealthy Englishman and the other is imprisoned and sold into the booming slave trade. Following the lives of the family’s many generations in both Ghana and the US, it’s a historical and illuminating novel that you need to read in your lifetime.
23. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner ($6): While this story may be non-linear and difficult to understand, there’s a reason why William Faulker’s masterpiece is beloved my many. Looking inside the lives of the Compson family through four different voices (including severely mentally challenged Benjy), this a classic piece of literature that every bibliophile should keep in their back pocket.
24. I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai ($16): There’s no doubt in our minds that Malala Yousafzai is the voice of a generation. In her memoir, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize explains the harrowing event where she was shot in the head at point-blank range while riding the bus home from school in northern Pakistan. It’s one of those stories that will stay with you long after you finish it.
25. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer ($16): After his father died in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, nine-year-old Oskar Schell embarks on a secret mission to find the lock that matches a mysterious key that belonged to his dearly departed father.
26. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides ($18): Winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, this ground-breaking novel is definitely one you should put on your to-read list. It details the complicated coming-of-age story of Cal Stephanides (initially called “Callie”) who is an intersex man of Greek descent.
27. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt ($20): Theo Decker is a 13-year-old boy who narrowly survives the art museum terrorist bombing that kills his mother. Taken in by a wealthy family, he learns to adapt to his Park Avenue lifestyle while clinging to a small painting that he took from the art museum rubble… but little does he know, that one priceless painting will change the course of his life forever.
28. Walden by Henry David Thoreau ($9): If you’ve ever wanted to run away from society and set up shop in a secluded log cabin in the middle of the wilderness, this is the read for you. With the intention of immersing himself fully in Mother Nature, Henry David Thoreau moved into a cabin by Walden Pond in 1845 for just over two years. Here he recounts that time as an ode to simplicity and nature.
29. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou ($8): Maya Angelou is a powerhouse of literature, which is why her debut memoir is, not surprisingly, a beloved classic. Retelling her traumatic childhood through adult eyes, this touching memoir details Angelou’s journey to self-love in an effortless reflection of life’s highest highs and lowest lows.
30. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead ($27): Chronicling a young slave’s adventures as she fights for freedom, this epic tale boasts a ton of prestigious awards. Not only is it a harrowing in-depth look at a shameful common history, but it’s also a passionate tale about one young woman’s fierce determination to survive despite every obstacle.
Which book would you add to our list? Tweet us by mentioning @BritandCo.
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