The 50 Books Everyone Needs to Read, 1963-2013

This is one of the 200 lists we use to generate our main The Greatest Books list.

  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

    The novel follows the story of a young woman who wins a guest editorship at a magazine in New York City and, after a series of personal and professional disappointments, suffers a mental breakdown and returns to her family, where she continues to struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts. The protagonist's experiences in psychiatric institutions and her attempts to reclaim her life are depicted with brutal honesty, making it a poignant exploration of mental illness and the societal pressures faced by women in the mid-20th century.

  • Herzog by Saul Bellow

    The novel centers around Moses Herzog, a middle-aged, intelligent yet distressed man who is going through a mid-life crisis. After his second marriage fails, he falls into a state of emotional turmoil and begins writing letters to friends, family, and even famous figures, expressing his philosophical thoughts and personal feelings. His journey of self-discovery and understanding forms the crux of the story. It's a profound exploration of a man's struggle with the complexities of life and his quest for meaning.

  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley

    This book is an autobiography narrating the life of a renowned African-American activist. It delves into his transformation from a young man involved in criminal activities to becoming one of the most influential voices in the fight against racial inequality in America. The book provides a deep insight into his philosophies, his time in prison, conversion to Islam, his role in the Nation of Islam, his pilgrimage to Mecca, and his eventual split from the Nation. It also addresses his assassination, making it a powerful account of resilience, redemption, and personal growth.

  • Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag

    This book is a collection of essays that challenge the traditional methods of interpretation and criticism of art and culture. The author argues that in our attempt to interpret and find deeper meaning, we often overlook the sensory experience of the work itself. The book encourages readers to experience art in its raw form, focusing on the form, color, and sounds, rather than trying to decipher a hidden meaning. It is a call for a new, more direct approach to consuming art and culture.

  • The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

    This novel is a complex narrative that weaves together three distinct yet intertwined stories. The first story is set in 1930s Moscow and follows the devil and his entourage as they wreak havoc on the city's literary elite. The second story is a historical narrative about Pontius Pilate and his role in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The third story is a love story between the titular Master, a writer who has been driven to madness by the criticism of his work, and his devoted lover, Margarita. The novel is a satirical critique of Soviet society, particularly the literary establishment, and its treatment of artists. It also explores themes of love, sacrifice, and the nature of good and evil.

  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

    This book is a collection of essays that capture the essence of the 1960s in California. It portrays a society in the midst of social and cultural upheaval, as traditional norms are challenged by the counterculture movement. The author explores various themes including morality, self-respect, and the nature of good and evil, while providing a vivid picture of the era through her insightful and incisive observations.

  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

    This memoir recounts the early years of an African-American girl's life, focusing on her experiences with racism and trauma in the South during the 1930s. Despite the hardships she faces, including sexual abuse, she learns to rise above her circumstances through strength of character and a love of literature. Her journey from victim to survivor and her transformation into a young woman who respects herself is a testament to the human capacity to overcome adversity.

  • Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

    The book is a coming-of-age story about a sixth-grade girl who is growing up without a religious affiliation, due to her parents' interfaith marriage. The protagonist is in search of a single religion while also confronting typical pre-teen issues such as buying her first bra, having her first period, coping with crushes and the changes that come with growing up. The book explores themes of friendship, religion, love, and self-identity.

  • The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor by Flannery O'Connor

    This comprehensive collection of short stories showcases the author's exploration of the human condition, particularly in the American South. The stories, known for their dark humor, religious themes, and grotesque characters, delve into the complexities of morality, ethics, and the struggle between good and evil. The author's unique blend of Southern Gothic style and religious allegory creates a vivid portrait of a society grappling with its own contradictions and shortcomings.

  • Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

    In this unique novel, a Venetian traveler describes 55 different cities to the Mongol emperor, each city more fantastical and surreal than the last. The cities are divided into categories such as "Cities and Memory," "Cities and Desire," "Cities and Signs," etc. As the traveler continues to describe these cities, it becomes clear that they are all actually the same city, Venice, seen from different perspectives and points in time. The novel explores themes of memory, perception, and the nature of human experience.

  • Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

    Set during the end of World War II, the novel follows Tyrone Slothrop, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, as he tries to uncover the truth behind a mysterious device, the "Schwarzgerät", that the Germans are using in their V-2 rockets. The narrative is complex and multi-layered, filled with a vast array of characters and subplots, all connected by various themes such as paranoia, technology, and the destructive nature of war. The book is known for its encyclopedic nature and its challenging, postmodernist style.

  • The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

    The novel is a profound exploration of two vastly different societies on twin planets, Urras and Anarres. The protagonist is a brilliant physicist from Anarres, a planet with an anarchist society, who travels to Urras, a planet with a capitalist and authoritarian regime. The book explores his struggle to reconcile his anarchist beliefs with the stark realities of a different socio-political system. It's a thought-provoking investigation of human nature, power structures, and the idea of utopia.

  • The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

    "The Great Railway Bazaar" is a travelogue in which the author embarks on a four-month journey by train from London through Europe, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and Siberia, and then back to Europe. The book is a vivid and insightful account of the people, cultures, landscapes, and experiences encountered during the journey, painting a unique picture of the world as seen from the perspective of a train window. The author's sharp observations and engaging storytelling make this journey as much an inner exploration as a geographical one.

  • Speedboat by Renata Adler

    This novel follows a young woman reporter in New York City during the 1970s, as she navigates her professional and personal life. The book is written in a non-linear style, consisting of a series of vignettes, observations, and reflections, rather than a traditional narrative. The protagonist's experiences and thoughts on subjects such as race, politics, and the media form the core of the book, providing a snapshot of the social and cultural landscape of the time.

  • The Shining by Stephen King

    A recovering alcoholic accepts a job as a winter caretaker at a remote Colorado hotel, hoping the isolation will help him reconnect with his wife and young son, and work on his writing. However, the hotel has a dark history and a powerful malevolent presence that influences him into violence, while his psychic son sees horrific forebodings from both past and future. As the winter weather leaves them snowbound, the father's sanity deteriorates, leading to a terrifying climax.

  • The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

    A successful and renowned London theatre director retires to a secluded house by the sea in an attempt to write his memoirs. His peaceful solitude is disrupted when he encounters his first love from decades ago and becomes obsessed with winning her back. As he spirals into self-delusion and madness, the narrative explores themes of love, obsession, and the subjective nature of reality.

  • The Bloody Chamber And Other Stories by Angela Carter

    "The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories" is a collection of short stories that reimagines and deconstructs traditional fairy tales. The narratives are filled with strong female characters, sexual exploration, and violent and gothic themes. Each story presents a unique spin on classic tales, such as Little Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, and Bluebeard, challenging the typical gender roles and expectations found in the original stories.

  • Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

    A young prodigy is enlisted into a military academy in space, where he is trained through complex war games to combat an impending alien invasion. Despite his initial struggles with isolation and manipulation by the academy's leaders, he rises through the ranks due to his strategic genius and leadership skills. The protagonist grapples with the moral implications of war and the cost of his own humanity, as he is groomed to be the Earth's ultimate weapon against the alien threat.

  • Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak

    In this whimsical children's book, a young girl named Ida must rescue her baby sister after she is stolen away by goblins. While their mother is away, the goblins sneak in and replace the baby with an ice replica. Ida, noticing the change, embarks on a magical journey to the world of "Outside Over There" to save her sibling. Throughout her adventure, she learns about bravery, responsibility, and the power of music.

  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker

    Set in the early 20th century, the novel is an epistolary tale of a young African-American woman named Celie, living in the South. She faces constant abuse and hardship, first from her father and then from her husband. The story unfolds through her letters written to God and her sister Nettie, revealing her emotional journey from oppression to self-discovery and independence, aided by her relationships with strong women around her. The narrative explores themes of racism, sexism, domestic violence, and the power of sisterhood and love.

  • Cathedral by Raymond Carver

    "Cathedral" is a collection of twelve short stories that explore the complexities of human relationships and the struggles of everyday life. The characters, often middle-class Americans, grapple with loss, isolation, and the inability to communicate effectively. The title story involves a man who gains insight into his own life when he helps a blind man envision a cathedral. Through these tales, the author highlights the profound moments in ordinary lives, showing the beauty and tragedy in the mundane.

  • Money by Martin Amis

    "Money" is a darkly humorous novel that follows the life of John Self, a hedonistic, self-destructive director of commercials, as he navigates the excesses and depravities of 1980s New York and London. His life is filled with overindulgence in food, alcohol, drugs, and women, leading to a downward spiral of self-destruction. The novel is a satire on the excesses of capitalism and the obsession with wealth and materialism, and it also explores themes of identity, self-loathing, and the destructive power of addiction.

  • The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

    Set in a dystopian future, this novel presents a society where women are stripped of their rights and are classified into various roles based on their fertility and societal status. The protagonist is a handmaid, a class of women used solely for their reproductive capabilities by the ruling class. The story is a chilling exploration of the extreme end of misogyny, where women are reduced to their biological functions, and a critique of religious fundamentalism.

  • Maus by Art Spiegelman

    This graphic novel tells the story of a Holocaust survivor, as narrated by his son. The unique use of animals to represent different nationalities and ethnic groups adds a distinctive layer to the narrative. The protagonist's father recounts his experiences as a Polish Jew during World War II, offering a poignant depiction of the horrors of the Holocaust. The narrative also explores the complex father-son relationship, revealing the impact of such traumatic historical events on subsequent generations.

  • Beloved by Toni Morrison

    This novel tells the story of a former African-American slave woman who, after escaping to Ohio, is haunted by the ghost of her deceased daughter. The protagonist is forced to confront her repressed memories and the horrific realities of her past, including the desperate act she committed to protect her children from a life of slavery. The narrative is a poignant exploration of the physical, emotional, and psychological scars inflicted by the institution of slavery, and the struggle for identity and self-acceptance in its aftermath.

  • Bad Behavior: Stories by Mary Gaitskill

    "Bad Behavior: Stories" is a collection of short stories that delve into the darker, often unexplored aspects of human relationships and behavior. The narrative navigates through the complex world of love, lust, power, and obsession, focusing on characters who are often marginalized or misunderstood. The stories provide a raw, unfiltered view of human nature, exploring themes of sexual deviance, emotional vulnerability, and societal norms.

  • Geek Love: A Novel by Katherine Dunn

    This novel follows the lives of the Binewski family, a group of circus performers who have been genetically modified by their parents to ensure their uniqueness and ability to draw in crowds. The story's narrator, Olympia, is a hunchback albino dwarf, and her siblings include Arturo, a boy with flippers for hands and feet, Iphy and Elly, Siamese twins, and Chick, who possesses telekinetic powers. The novel explores themes of love, family, and the concept of normality, all set against the backdrop of the family's traveling carnival.

  • The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

    The book is a collection of linked short stories about a platoon of American soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War. The story is semi-autobiographical, based on the author's experiences in the war. The narrative explores the physical and emotional burdens the soldiers carry during the war, as well as the lingering effects of war on veterans. It delves into themes of bravery, truth, and the fluidity of fact and fiction.

  • Possession by A. S. Byatt

    "Possession" is a novel that interweaves two storylines, one set in contemporary times and the other in the Victorian era. The contemporary plot follows two academics who uncover a secret love affair between two 19th-century poets, while the Victorian storyline presents the clandestine romance itself. As the modern scholars delve deeper into the past, they find themselves falling in love as well, mirroring the historical romance they are researching. The book explores themes of love, passion, and the power of the written word.

  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt

    A group of six classics students at a small, elite Vermont college, led by a charismatic professor, become entranced by the study of Greek culture and decide to recreate a Dionysian ritual, which ends in a tragic accident. The group, bound by their shared secret, begins to unravel as paranoia and guilt take hold. The novel explores themes of beauty and terror, the allure of the esoteric, and the destructive consequences of obsession.

  • The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx

    The novel follows the story of a depressed and overweight man who moves with his two daughters to his ancestral home in Newfoundland, Canada, after his unfaithful wife dies in a car accident. There, he begins to rebuild his life, working as a reporter for the local newspaper, The Shipping News, and learning about the harsh realities of the fishing industry. As he delves into his family's history, he begins to find a sense of belonging and a new love. The story explores themes of family, identity, and the power of place.

  • The Ice Storm: A Novel by Rick Moody

    Set in the 1970s, this novel explores the dysfunctional lives of two suburban Connecticut families during Thanksgiving weekend. The narrative delves into the emotional turmoil and existential dread experienced by the characters as they navigate through marital infidelity, teenage angst, and societal pressures. Their personal dramas culminate in a devastating ice storm, which serves as a metaphor for their frozen emotions and frigid relationships.

  • Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth

    "Sabbath's Theater" is a darkly humorous and sexually explicit novel about the life of a retired puppeteer, Mickey Sabbath. After the death of his long-time mistress, Sabbath embarks on a journey of self-exploration and reflection, contemplating his past relationships, his career, and his own mortality. The novel is a profound exploration of the human condition, the nature of desire, and the struggle to find meaning in a chaotic and often absurd world.

  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

    This novel is a complex, multi-layered narrative that explores themes of addiction, recovery, and the human condition in a near-future society. The story is set in a tennis academy and a halfway house for recovering addicts, and it intertwines the lives of its numerous characters, including a gifted but troubled teenage tennis prodigy, his filmmaker father, and a group of Quebecois separatists. The book is known for its length, intricate plot, and extensive use of footnotes.

  • Underworld by Don DeLillo

    "Underworld" is a sweeping narrative that spans from the 1950s to the end of the 20th century, exploring the interconnectedness of events and the impact of the Cold War on American society. The story revolves around a diverse group of characters, including a waste management executive, a graffiti artist, a nun, and a baseball collector, among others. These characters' lives intertwine in unexpected ways, illustrating the complex web of relationships and influences that shape our world. The novel is renowned for its vivid portrayal of historical events and its profound examination of themes such as memory, technology, and waste.

  • Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

    "Birds of America" is a collection of twelve short stories that delve into the complexities of human relationships and the struggles of everyday life. The stories feature a variety of characters, including a woman who is dealing with her husband's terminal illness, a couple who are struggling to conceive, and a woman who is trying to come to terms with her brother's suicide. The stories are filled with humor, wit, and poignant observations about life, love, and loss.

  • Disgrace by J M Coetzee

    "Disgrace" is a novel that explores the life of a middle-aged professor in South Africa who is dismissed from his position after having an affair with a student. After losing his job, he moves to the countryside to live with his daughter, where they experience a violent attack that significantly alters their lives. The story delves into themes of post-apartheid South Africa, racial tension, sexual exploitation, and the struggle for personal redemption.

  • Pastoralia by George Saunders

    "Pastoralia" is a collection of six short stories, each delving into the world of weird, dystopian future and highlighting the author's satirical and surreal take on modern life. The stories are set in bizarre environments and situations, such as a couple working as cavemen in a theme park, a male stripper trying to help his mentally ill sister, and a corporate drone receiving cryptic messages from his boss. The characters in these stories struggle with their personal problems while navigating through the absurdity of their surroundings, showcasing the author's unique blend of humor, empathy, and social commentary.

  • Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald

    The novel follows the story of Jacques Austerlitz, an architectural historian who was brought to England on a Kindertransport from Czechoslovakia during World War II. As an adult, Jacques embarks on a journey to uncover his past, including his original identity, his parent's fate, and his own lost history. The narrative is a haunting exploration of memory, identity, and the lasting impact of the Holocaust.

  • Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

    The book follows the life of Calliope Stephanides, a Greek-American hermaphrodite, who narrates her epic story starting from her grandparents' incestuous relationship in a small village in Asia Minor to her own self-discovery in 20th century America. The novel delves into themes of identity, gender, and the American dream, while also providing a detailed history of Detroit through the eyes of three generations of an immigrant family.

  • The Known World by Edward P. Jones

    "The Known World" is a historical novel set in antebellum Virginia, exploring the complex relationships between slaves, free blacks, and whites. The story revolves around a black man who becomes a slave owner, his wife, and their slaves. It provides a unique perspective on the moral complexities and personal consequences of slavery, while also examining the intricate social hierarchy of the time. The narrative is filled with richly drawn characters, each with their own stories and struggles, offering a vivid portrayal of a little-known aspect of American history.

  • The Epicure's Lament by Kate Christensen

    "The Epicure's Lament" is a darkly humorous story about a misanthropic, chain-smoking gourmand living in self-imposed exile in his ancestral home. Struggling with a terminal illness, the protagonist uses his time to write a cookbook that includes ruminations on life and love. However, his solitude is interrupted by the arrival of his brother and his family, forcing him to grapple with his past and his relationships.

  • Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

    "Magic for Beginners" is a collection of nine short stories that delve into the surreal and fantastical. The narratives are often set in strange, magical worlds, where the ordinary and mundane collide with the extraordinary and bizarre. The book explores themes of love, loss, and the blurred boundaries between reality and fantasy, often leaving the reader questioning their own perception of the world. The stories are wildly imaginative and often darkly humorous, offering a unique blend of magical realism and speculative fiction.

  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy

    In a post-apocalyptic world, a father and his young son journey through a desolate landscape, struggling to survive. They face numerous threats including starvation, extreme weather, and dangerous encounters with other survivors. The father, who is terminally ill, is driven by his love and concern for his son, and is determined to protect him at all costs. The story is a haunting exploration of the depths of human resilience, the power of love, and the instinct to survive against all odds.

  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

    This novel tells the story of Oscar de Leon, an overweight Dominican boy growing up in New Jersey who is obsessed with science fiction, fantasy novels, and falling in love, but is perpetually unlucky in his romantic endeavors. The narrative not only explores Oscar's life but also delves into the lives of his family members, each affected by the curse that has plagued their family for generations. The book is a blend of magical realism and historical fiction, providing a detailed account of the brutal Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic and its impact on the country's people and diaspora.

  • Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser

    "Dangerous Laughter" is a collection of thirteen short stories that delve into the surreal and fantastical. Each narrative explores unique themes such as a town that becomes obsessed with silent laughter, a man who constructs an enormous tower in his backyard, or a group of teenagers who play a dangerous game of fainting. The stories are filled with rich imagery and intricate details, creating a world that is both familiar and strange, blurring the line between reality and illusion.

  • Lit: A Memoir by Mary Karr

    "Lit: A Memoir" is a moving and often humorous account of the author's journey through alcoholism, a failed marriage, and a struggle with faith. The author details her descent into alcoholism, her tumultuous relationship with her husband, and her eventual recovery with the help of a spiritual awakening. Throughout the narrative, the author's love for her son and her desire to give him a better life serve as a powerful motivation for her to overcome her struggles and find redemption.

  • A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

    "A Visit from the Goon Squad" is an interconnected collection of stories about a group of characters whose lives intersect in the music industry. The narrative spans several decades, tracing the characters' journey from their youth to middle age. It explores themes of time, change, and the impact of technology on human relationships and the music industry. The novel is known for its experimental structure, including a chapter written as a PowerPoint presentation.

  • Pulphead: Essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan

    "Pulphead: Essays" is a collection of non-fiction essays that explore various aspects of American culture, history, and personal experiences. The author takes the reader on a journey through a wide range of topics, from popular music and television to historical events and personal anecdotes. The essays are marked by their humor, insight, and the author's unique perspective, offering a thought-provoking and often surprising look at the American experience.

  • Building Stories by Chris Ware

    "Building Stories" is a unique graphic novel that explores the lives of the residents of a three-story Chicago apartment building, including a lonely single woman, a couple embroiled in a failing marriage, and the building's elderly landlady. The narrative is presented in a box containing 14 different printed works including books, newspapers, and pamphlets, each offering a different perspective on the characters' lives, struggles, and dreams. The innovative format allows readers to choose their own path through the interwoven stories, resulting in a deeply immersive and interactive reading experience.

  • The Flamethrowers: A Novel by Rachel Kushner

    Set in the 1970s, the novel follows a young woman known only as Reno, who moves to New York with dreams of becoming an artist. She becomes involved with an older, established artist who is a member of the city's avant-garde scene. The story also delves into the world of Italian motorcycle racing and radical politics, exploring themes of art, feminism, love, and betrayal. The narrative shifts between Reno's experiences in New York and Italy, and the history of a radical movement in Italy.

About this list

Flavor Wire, 51 Books

The choices here are influenced by the following: the stipulation that any specific author should not be chosen for more than one year, a general focus on fiction over other genres, and the tastes/whims/glaring prejudices of Flavorwire’s literary editor.

Added over 9 years ago.

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