Krik? Krak!, Edwidge Danticat
You know what makes you more interesting? Reading books by people from places you may not be familiar with. This list will feature a lot of such books, but let’s start with this one, the first collection by brilliant, Hatian-American, Genius grant-winning Edwidge Danticat. These nine stories feature beauty and cruelty, poverty and love, as Danticat’s women try, suffer, cook, and investigate both their close and their faraway heritages, all in truly gorgeous prose. In Haiti, if someone wants to tell a story, they’ll ask, “Krik?” and any nearby person who wants to hear a story will respond with, “Krak!” In this case, such a response is highly recommended.
Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov
Not only for Nabokov lovers, I swear (but really, really good for Nabokov lovers). In this memoir, the Russian giant investigates the way memory works, how we experience it, and in turn, how we experience and talk about life, time, hell, and the nature of existence. Plus, I’m a firm believer in the idea that just reading enough of this man’s sentences, no matter what topic they cover, is likely to make you more interesting.
White Is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi
By now, everyone you know has probably read Boy, Snow, Bird and maybe even Mr. Fox, so while those will certainly up anyone’s interesting-ness, why not go to the next level and check out Oyeyemi’s bizarre, fable-ish, macabre novel about what happens when insatiable hunger consumes you in turn.
The Iliad, Homer
A strong grasp on the classics makes everyone a little more interesting — and an epic Greek poem from the eighth century BC is about as classic as it gets. Plus, there’s never been a better war story. Don’t settle for that cheap modern stuff, go straight for the Homer.
Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
Having an opinion on this famously difficult, famously ambitious, famously divisive 1975 sci-fi novel (which William Gibson once called “a riddle that was never meant to be solved”) automatically makes you more interesting.
Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine
Rankine’s searing treatise on the state of racial tensions in American culture is the (book-length) poem that it seems all the interesting people are reading right now — or at least, the poem that all the interesting people have just read, and are now thrusting into the hands of their friends.
The Basic Works of Aristotle, Aristotle
But of course — an extended encounter with one of history’s most influential and brilliant writers, ethicists, and philosophers is bound to make anyone at least a little more interesting. This volume is a one-stop shop for all of Aristotle’s most important treatises.
A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
Sure, it’s pop science. But it’s great at parties.
Museum of the Weird, Amelia Gray
I swear, this book will make you weirder. Or, at least, it will make you develop a new appreciation for surrealist literature and that bag of frozen tilapia behind the ice cubes. And yes, before you ask, weirder is almost always more interesting. Just ask John Waters.
Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay
This is another one of those books-of-the-moment, books that everyone needs to have an opinion on — but whether you read it now or ten years from now, engaging with Gay’s ideas on feminism and American culture (and of course, it follows, engaging with your own) is likely to make you more interesting in a myriad of ways.
King Lear, William Shakespeare
All Shakespeare makes you more interesting, really. But you’re just not quite a whole person until you’ve read Lear.
Bluets, Maggie Nelson
Nelson’s beautiful and brilliant meditation on the color blue (to start with) will not only have you noticing colors more intently than usual, but it might just inspire you to spend some more time focusing on one small thing that you inexplicably love. Whatever comes out of that is bound to be fascinating — even if it’s a little strange.
Bad Behavior, Mary Gaitskill
This brutal, scalpel-sharp collection of short stories will open you up, expose you. If that doesn’t make you more interesting in and of itself, you’ll also learn about the gritty worlds of things like prostitution and S&M and parenthood — and the real people moving around inside of them.
Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
You’ll learn something about the Iranian Revolution and something about what it’s like to be a rebellious teenager, wherever you are. It’s also likely to inspire you to be a little fiercer, which can’t help but be compelling to those around you.
A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking
Learn about the universe — both literally (black holes, the big bang) and metaphysically (how does time work? how will the universe end?) from one of the greatest minds in history, and you might just improve your own a little bit.
The Gilda Stories, Jewelle Gomez
OK: this is a feminist lesbian vampire novel, a coming-of-age story starring an undead escaped slave that spans some 200 years as the title character works her way from Louisiana in 1850 to New Hampshire in 2020. It’s bound to teach anybody something new.
The Metamorphoses, Ovid
Change is all.
The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka, Franz Kafka
If absolutely nothing else, you’ll stop misusing the term “Kafkaesque.”
The American Way of Death Revisited, Jessica Mitford
A hilarious book about America’s funeral industry — a thing we’re all going to have to face at one point or another, so we might as well know something about it. Plus, everyone wants to talk to the guy who knows the ins and outs of embalming.
Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich
Erdrich’s captivating first novel follows the interwoven lives of two Chippewa families living on a reservation in North Dakota. An incredible book about Native American culture, family ties, and the way one action can ripple out far into the darkness.
The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald
One way to become more interesting? Take a long, long walk (er, metaphorically, I guess) with one of the most interesting men in recent history, and let him tell you some of his stories.
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Yiyun Li
Li’s award-winning debut collection takes place mostly in rural China, a place many English speakers will only encounter through fiction, but traffics in the same fraughtness and disappointment and suffering and triumph familiar to any human life. A brilliant collection that might make you a little more brilliant too.
Not for any religious reason, but merely because so many stories from Western culture find their origins here. You’ll be drawing connections where you never saw them before, and diving below the contemporary surface of things.
Cruddy, Lynda Barry
Or really anything by Barry, who is so wacky and smart and interesting herself that it kind of can’t help but rub off on you a little bit.
Mating, Norman Rush
The number of words that you’ll have to look up alone will make you a more interesting person.
The Master Letters, Lucie Brock-Broido
Brock-Broido’s poems can be impenetrable, can be overwhelming, can be bewildering. But if you let a whole book’s worth of her lush, sharp-leaved language rush over you, I have the feeling that you’re going to be more fun to talk to afterwards.
Wittgenstein’s Mistress, David Markson
A brilliant novel presented as a series of missives from the last woman on Earth, sitting alone at her typewriter, half-remembering the details of the culture (philosophy, art, literature) now ground to a halt around her. Even if you half-remember this book, you’ll always have something to say to the person next to you. Assuming there’s always going to be someone next to you to say things to, that is.
The Known World, Edward P. Jones
In this highly acclaimed novel, Jones explores a corner of history not much talked about, at least in contemporary classrooms: the lives of black slave owners in the years leading up to the Civil War. Smart and complex and definitely worth a read.
Fun Home, Alison Bechdel
Everyone should know who Alison Bechdel is, even if it’s only via the Bechdel Test. But the recent MacArthur winner’s first graphic memoir is probably equally culturally important.
The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor, Flannery O’Connor
You can’t come out of O’Connor’s world without being a little bit more twisted, a little bit more skeptical, a little bit better read than you were when you went in. All things that, at least in my estimation, make you a hell of a lot more interesting.
The Salt Roads, Nalo Hopkinson
Nalo Hopkinson is one of those authors who bind people together — when you find someone else who likes her, you’ll never let go. This novel is a fiery genre-bender that follows the lives of three women taken up by Ezili, the Afro-Caribbean goddess of love (in all its forms, mind you) — historical, magical, and spiritual all at once.
Silence Once Begun, Jesse Ball
This novel asks you to consider silence, an activity you do not emerge from without becoming at least a little bit more interesting.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie
Not only one of the best, funniest, and smartest books about the Native American experience in America, but also one of the best, funniest, and smartest books. Alexie’s interwoven shorts will improve you in almost every way.
Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, Legs McNeil
No one has ever gotten bored sitting around drinking whiskey and talking about punk.
Remainder, Tom McCarthy
The protagonist of this novel is a wildly interesting (read: possibly insane) person himself, but it’s not that that’ll make you more interesting — it’s the cerebral, existential, borderline surreal novel he inhabits, a book that’ll have you looking closely at every crack forever.
Kindred, Octavia Butler
I’ve sung her praises many times before in this space, so suffice it to say: all the best people are reading Octavia Butler. And they’ll all find you much more interesting if you do the same.
Girl in a Band, Kim Gordon
Everybody loves Kim Gordon. So it’s pretty much my bet that everybody will be hanging on the words of anyone who’s read her forthcoming memoir (which is reportedly phenomenal). [Ed. note: It’s even better than you’re probably expecting.]
Train Dreams, Denis Johnson
This jewel of a novella proves that a book can be anything, as long as it sings. This one sings and soars and sears: half American Western, half fabulist masterpiece in miniature.
Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag
Any interesting intellectual worth her salt has at least a little Sontag under her belt. This is where to start.
Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, Donald Antrim
Antrim’s surrealist novel is a masterpiece, slim as it is, and so weird and wild, dark and buoyant and beautiful, that it’ll transform anyone’s mind into something a little stranger, sounder, better.
The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
Who doesn’t love the guy who can dissect this hilarious Soviet political allegory while making puns about enormous cats?
Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion
All you need to know about America, counterculture, and Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s. Not to mention (in that second section) pretty much all you need to know about being a human in that world, in our current one, or in any other.
A gimme, perhaps, but knowing the exact right word for every occasion? Now that, friends, is pretty interesting.
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
I don’t know about you, but whenever I see anyone reading this book, I’m faced with a near-irrepressible urge to talk to them. Like time and experience themselves, this book will change you, whether you resolve to let it or not.
A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn
It helps to know what you’re working with.
Ooga-Booga, Frederick Seidel
Boisterous, thick with reference and assonance, often rude, often funny, sometimes downright frightening, Seidel’s poems are like no one else’s. They might disgust you or thrill you, but in any case they’re likely to make you just a little bit more fun to talk to.
Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson
This book will tell you everything you need to know about love, but were afraid to ask (or didn’t know the question).
White Girls, Hilton Als
An essential book for contemporary living, Als’ collection of essays uses art, literature, and music to delve deeper into who we really are — as individuals, like his eponymous white girls (everyone from Flannery O’Connor to Malcolm X), as grouped by our race, class, sex, gender, and as a whole.
Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit
Solnit’s slim essay collection is filled with whip-smart, ever-important discussions of power, feminism, and how to live in the world. If you’re a woman, or a man who wants to talk to women, you should read this book. If you’re one of the few people on the planet not yet familiar with “mansplaining,” you really need to read this book.
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Lydia Davis
Lydia Davis is a wonder, and as far as I’m concerned, the more time you spend parsing her, the more interesting you become.