The Iliad and The Odyssey, Homer
Two of the oldest existing works of Western literature, these stories have in some way informed almost every quest and adventure tale written in the last thirteen centuries or so. Plus they’re frankly rollicking good tales. Especially if you read them in Greek.
The Secret History, Donna Tartt
Tartt’s obscenely beloved first novel — pagan rituals, elusive love affairs, youths murderous and studious in equal measure — should be read freshman year of college, during the winter. Trust us.
Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson
A ferocious collection of short stories told from the perspective of a strange young addict in a small Iowa town. It will knock you down, no matter how old you are.
The Complete Stories, Flannery O’Connor
The master of Southern gothic’s sharply spun tales whirr with comedy, grotesquerie, and insight.
Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare
We expect that by the time you’re 30 you’ll have read several Shakespeare plays — we recommend one per year at least, starting at age 12 — but this one is our favorite.
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
Think of him what you will, but everyone should read at least one Hemingway novel. In our experience, this one gets better the more you think about it, so we recommend reading it as early as possible.
The Road, Cormac McCarthy
The modern classic of post-apocalyptic novels, it’s also one of the best in a genre that’s only going to keep on exploding.
Maus, Art Spiegelman
A more perfect and affecting Holocaust book has never been written. And this one has pictures.
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
One of the best science fiction novels of all time, recommended even for staunch realists. Serious, complicated and impossible to put down. Plus, Card’s masterpiece trusts in the power of children, something we all need to be reminded of once in a while.
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Yes, even for guys.
Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
Eugenides’s family epic of love, belonging and otherness is a must read for anyone who has ever had a family or felt like an outcast. So that’s pretty much everyone, we’d wager.
Ghost World, Daniel Clowes
Clowes writes some of the most essentially realistic teenagers we’ve ever come across, which is important when you are (or have ever been) a realistic teenager yourself.
On the Road, Jack Kerouac
Kerouac’s famous scroll must be read when it’s still likely to inspire exploration. Plus, then you’ll have ample time to develop your scorn towards it.
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
A seminal work in both African American and women’s literature — not to mention a riveting, electrifying and deeply moving read.
Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut’s hilarious, satirical fourth novel that earned him a Master’s in anthropology from the University of Chicago.
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
One of the most beautifully written books in the English language, Nabokov will teach you a host of new words, not to mention new ways to think.
The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
The best large-scale fantasy epic out there, period. Required reading even for those who typically don’t go in for broadswords and beasts.
1984, George Orwell
After all, Big Brother is watching you.
The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
We vastly prefer Franny and Zooey, but we still think everyone should read Catcher as a teen. We know he’s obnoxious, but push on — you’ll miss a lot of cultural references if you don’t. And hey, you might be one of those people who’ll love Holden for life.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great American Novel is still beautiful, heartbreaking and incredibly relevant in the 21st century.
Beloved, Toni Morrison
Possibly the best book in the Western canon — horrifying, deeply strange, and epically wonderful.
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
Yes. Read it now. Once you read it, you’ll have to read it again at least twice, and you know it’s more than a thousand pages, so you’d better get started.
Lord of the Flies, William Golding
You need to know what your classmates are capable of when their childish veneer begins to wear.
Don Quixote, Miguel De Cervantes
One of the earliest canonical novels, it remains one of the greatest.
The Trial, Franz Kafka
Better to read a lot of Kafka before your life becomes too Kafkaesque. It’s always good to be prepared.
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
An artful and introspective study of time and family, this book is one of the pillars of modernism and a gorgeous read besides.
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
Bradbury’s classic dystopian future is one where books are not allowed. Not only will it captivate you, it will make you want to read everything in sight — while you can.
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
Called “the quintessential American picaresque of the 20th century,” Ellison’s bildungsroman spreads beyond race and class to a mediation on humanity itself.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Complex and satisfying, read this book to settle into Scout’s curious worldview and experience Atticus Finch, one of the greatest literary characters of all time.
Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
To infuse all of your future adventures with a little extra literary joy.