50 Books to Read Before You Die

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

  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

    In this epic poem, the protagonist embarks on an extraordinary journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Paradise (Paradiso). Guided by the ancient Roman poet Virgil and his beloved Beatrice, he encounters various historical and mythological figures in each realm, witnessing the eternal consequences of earthly sins and virtues. The journey serves as an allegory for the soul's progression towards God, offering profound insights into the nature of good and evil, free will, and divine justice.

  • I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere by Anna Gavalda

    "I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere" is a collection of twelve heartrending short stories that explore the complexities of relationships and the human condition. The stories delve into various themes such as love, loss, and the struggle of coping with life's unpredictability. The characters are beautifully flawed, each grappling with their own insecurities and desires. The narrative is filled with poignant, sometimes humorous, observations about life, offering readers a glimpse into the intimate corners of human existence.

  • Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

    Set in Mexico on the Day of the Dead in 1938, the novel follows the last day in the life of Geoffrey Firmin, a British consul with a severe alcohol addiction. Through his interactions with his estranged wife and half-brother, the book explores themes of despair, betrayal, and the destructive power of addiction, against the backdrop of political and social unrest. The impending eruption of the nearby volcano serves as a metaphor for Firmin's deteriorating mental state and the looming world war.

  • White Noise by Don DeLillo

    The novel is a postmodern exploration of death and consumerism in the United States. It follows a year in the life of Jack Gladney, a professor who has made his name by pioneering the field of Hitler Studies at a small liberal arts college in Middle America. Jack and his fourth wife, Babette, are afraid of death and are obsessed with finding a cure for their fear. Their lives are disrupted by an airborne toxic event, which forces them to confront their mortality and the toxic effects of modern life.

  • Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

    "Wonder Boys" is a novel about Grady Tripp, a middle-aged, pot-smoking, thrice-divorced English professor struggling to finish a novel he's been writing for seven years. His life becomes more complicated when his wife leaves him, his lover reveals she's pregnant, and he gets involved in various misadventures with his troubled student. The story is a blend of humor and melancholy, exploring themes of creativity, academia, and personal failure.

  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

    Set in a psychiatric hospital in Oregon, the novel is narrated by a half-Native American patient known as Chief Bromden, who pretends to be deaf and mute. The story follows the arrival of a new patient, a boisterous, rebellious man who challenges the oppressive and dehumanizing system of the hospital, particularly the tyrannical Nurse Ratched. The book explores themes of individuality, rebellion, and the misuse of power, ultimately leading to a tragic conclusion.

  • 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.

  • The Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

    The novel is a satirical depiction of American society, with a particular focus on its materialism, business culture, and obsession with success. It tells the story of two men: Dwayne Hoover, a wealthy businessman who is gradually losing his sanity, and Kilgore Trout, a largely unsuccessful science fiction writer. Their lives intersect in a series of absurd, tragicomic events, leading to a climax that forces the reader to question the nature of free will and the meaning of life. The narrative is punctuated by the author's own illustrations and frequent digressions on a wide range of topics.

  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

    This classic novel follows the journey of a seaman who travels up the Congo River into the African interior to meet a mysterious ivory trader. Throughout his journey, he encounters the harsh realities of imperialism, the brutal treatment of native Africans, and the depths of human cruelty and madness. The protagonist's journey into the 'heart of darkness' serves as both a physical exploration of the African continent and a metaphorical exploration into the depths of human nature.

  • 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.

  • Earth Abides by George Rippey Stewart

    "Earth Abides" is a post-apocalyptic novel that follows the story of a geography student who returns from a solo trip in the mountains to find that most of humanity has been wiped out by a deadly plague. As one of the few survivors, he navigates through the deserted world, eventually forming a small community with other survivors. The novel explores themes of survival, the fragility of civilization, and the importance of community in the face of adversity.

  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    Set in the summer of 1922, the novel follows the life of a young and mysterious millionaire, his extravagant lifestyle in Long Island, and his obsessive love for a beautiful former debutante. As the story unfolds, the millionaire's dark secrets and the corrupt reality of the American dream during the Jazz Age are revealed. The narrative is a critique of the hedonistic excess and moral decay of the era, ultimately leading to tragic consequences.

  • Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell

    Set in a dystopian future, the novel presents a society under the total control of a totalitarian regime, led by the omnipresent Big Brother. The protagonist, a low-ranking member of 'the Party', begins to question the regime and falls in love with a woman, an act of rebellion in a world where independent thought, dissent, and love are prohibited. The novel explores themes of surveillance, censorship, and the manipulation of truth.

  • House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

    The novel is a complex and multi-layered narrative that revolves around a young man who comes across a manuscript written by a blind man about a documentary that doesn't appear to exist. The documentary is about a family who moves into a house that is larger on the inside than it is on the outside, with shifting walls and hallways that lead to impossible spaces. The novel is known for its experimental layout, with some pages containing only a few words and others filled with footnotes, different fonts, and sideways text, reflecting the disorienting and labyrinthine nature of the house itself.

  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

    This classic novel tells the story of a young scientist who creates a grotesque but sentient creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. The scientist, horrified by his creation, abandons it, leading the creature to seek revenge. The novel explores themes of ambition, responsibility, guilt, and the potential consequences of playing God.

  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

    The book is a satirical critique of military bureaucracy and the illogical nature of war, set during World War II. The story follows a U.S. Army Air Forces B-25 bombardier stationed in Italy, who is trying to maintain his sanity while fulfilling his service requirements so that he can go home. The novel explores the absurdity of war and military life through the experiences of the protagonist, who discovers that a bureaucratic rule, the "Catch-22", makes it impossible for him to escape his dangerous situation. The more he tries to avoid his military assignments, the deeper he gets sucked into the irrational world of military rule.

  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Hunter S. Thompson

    This book is a semi-autobiographical novel that chronicles the adventures of a journalist and his attorney as they embark on a drug-fueled trip to Las Vegas. The narrative is a wild and hallucinatory exploration of the American Dream, filled with biting social commentary and outrageous antics. The protagonist's quest for the American Dream quickly devolves into an exploration of the darker side of human nature, highlighting the excesses and depravities of 1960s American society.

  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding

    A group of British boys are stranded on an uninhabited island after their plane crashes during wartime. Initially, they attempt to establish order, creating rules and electing a leader. However, as time passes, their civility erodes, and they descend into savagery and chaos. The struggle for power intensifies, leading to violence and death. The novel explores themes of innocence, the inherent evil in mankind, and the thin veneer of civilization.

  • The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

    The novel follows the lives of two boys growing up in Brooklyn, New York in the 1970s. Despite their racial differences, one being white and the other black, they form a deep friendship bonded by their shared interest in comic books, music and a magical ring that grants them superpowers. As they grow older, their paths diverge due to their racial and societal differences, with one becoming a successful music journalist and the other succumbing to a life of crime. The book is a profound exploration of race, identity, friendship and the impact of gentrification.

  • Watchmen by Alan Moore

    Set in an alternate history where superheroes emerged in the 1940s and 1980s, the story follows a group of retired superheroes who are brought out of retirement after the murder of one of their own. As they investigate, they uncover a plot that could change the course of history and the balance of world power. The book explores complex themes such as the morality of power, the definition of heroism, and the value of human life.

  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

    This novel follows the life of a violent young man named Alex, who is part of a youth subculture in a dystopian future England. Alex and his gang engage in a nightmarish spree of rape, assault, and robbery, until he is arrested and subjected to a psychological experiment by the government to "cure" him of his violent tendencies. The novel explores themes of free will, morality, and the nature of evil, while using a unique slang language invented by the author.

  • The Stranger by Albert Camus

    The narrative follows a man who, after the death of his mother, falls into a routine of indifference and emotional detachment, leading him to commit an act of violence on a sun-drenched beach. His subsequent trial becomes less about the act itself and more about his inability to conform to societal norms and expectations, ultimately exploring themes of existentialism, absurdism, and the human condition.

  • The Notebook: The Proof ; The Third Lie : Three Novels by Agota Kristof

    "The Notebook: The Proof ; The Third Lie : Three Novels" is a trilogy of novels that follow the lives of twin brothers, living through the harsh realities of war, separation, and betrayal. The first novel, "The Notebook," tells the story of their survival as children in a rural town at the end of World War II. The second book, "The Proof," continues their story into adulthood, exploring the effects of their traumatic childhood. The final book, "The Third Lie," delves into the complexities of their relationship and the secrets they kept from one another. The trilogy is a poignant exploration of identity, love, and the enduring bond of brotherhood.

  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

    The novel tells the story of Humbert Humbert, a man with a disturbing obsession for young girls, or "nymphets" as he calls them. His obsession leads him to engage in a manipulative and destructive relationship with his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Lolita. The narrative is a controversial exploration of manipulation, obsession, and unreliable narration, as Humbert attempts to justify his actions and feelings throughout the story.

  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

    The book is a chilling tale that revolves around a group of four individuals who decide to stay in a notoriously haunted mansion to conduct a paranormal investigation. The main character, a shy, reclusive woman with a troubled past, becomes increasingly unstable as she experiences terrifying phenomena and becomes obsessed with the house. As the supernatural events escalate, the lines between reality and imagination blur, leading to a shocking and tragic conclusion.

  • Books of Blood by Clive Barker

    "Books of Blood" is a collection of horror stories that explore the depths of fear, the supernatural, and the macabre. Each tale is intricately woven and filled with terrifyingly vivid imagery, taking readers on a journey into the darkest corners of the human psyche. The stories range from the terrifying tale of a city consumed by an enormous, flesh-eating monster, to the chilling account of a man haunted by the spirits of the dead. Each story is unique, yet they all share a common thread of fear, horror, and the unknown.

  • I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

    The novel is a post-apocalyptic horror story that centers around a solitary man who may be the last human alive on earth after a pandemic has turned the rest of humanity into vampire-like creatures. He spends his days fortifying his home, hunting for food, and killing these creatures while they sleep. At night, he is tormented by their attempts to break into his home and kill him. His isolation drives him to the brink of insanity, and the novel explores themes of loneliness, survival, and the human capacity for hope in the face of utter despair.

  • The Intuitionist: A Novel by Colson Whitehead

    The novel is a blend of mystery and speculative fiction set in a parallel universe where elevator inspection is a high-stakes profession. The protagonist, the first black woman elevator inspector in a fictional city, is a member of the "Intuitionist" school of elevator inspection, which involves intuitive and psychic readings of elevators. When an elevator she inspects crashes, she is blamed for the incident and must delve into the political corruption and racial prejudice of her world to clear her name. Along the way, she discovers a mysterious notebook that may contain the secrets to perfecting elevators and changing her world forever.

  • Tales of H. P. Lovecraft by H. P. Lovecraft

    This book is a collection of stories by an iconic writer of horror and strange fiction. The tales are filled with bizarre creatures, ancient curses, and mind-bending concepts about the nature of reality. The stories are often set in isolated, decaying locations and explore themes of cosmic horror and the unknown. The author's unique writing style and vivid imagination have made him a significant figure in the genre of supernatural fiction.

  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

    This comedic science fiction novel follows the intergalactic adventures of an unwitting human, Arthur Dent, who is rescued just before Earth's destruction by his friend Ford Prefect, a researcher for a galactic travel guide. Together, they hitch a ride on a stolen spaceship, encountering a range of bizarre characters, including a depressed robot and a two-headed ex-president of the galaxy. Through a series of satirical and absurd escapades, the book explores themes of existentialism, bureaucracy, and the absurdity of life, all while poking fun at the science fiction genre and offering witty commentary on the human condition.

  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

    Set in a dystopian future, the novel explores a society where human beings are genetically bred and pharmaceutically conditioned to serve in a ruling order. The society is divided into five castes, each with its specific roles. The narrative follows a savage who rejects the norms of this new world order and struggles to navigate the clash between the values of his upbringing and the reality of this technologically advanced, emotionless society. His resistance prompts a deep examination of the nature of freedom, individuality, and happiness.

  • Flicker by Theodore Roszak

    The novel is a thriller that delves into the world of subliminal messaging in film. The protagonist, a film scholar, becomes obsessed with the work of a mysterious B-movie director whose films seem to induce strange psychological effects on viewers. As he delves deeper into the director's work, he uncovers a shadowy conspiracy that reaches into the heart of Hollywood and the Catholic Church, leading him to question the nature of reality itself.

  • What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

    This collection of short stories explores the complexities of love through various perspectives. The narratives delve into the lives of everyday people, showcasing their struggles, their desires, and their failures. Love is depicted in its many forms, from passionate and romantic to destructive and obsessive, providing a raw and honest depiction of human relationships. The stories highlight how love can both heal and hurt, uniting and dividing people in unexpected ways.

  • Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

    "Haunted" is a novel composed of 23 stories, all told by people who have answered an ad for a writer's retreat. The individuals are locked inside a theater for three months, with no connection to the outside world. As time goes on, they begin to starve, go mad, and resort to violence. Each character's story reveals their darkest secrets and fears, creating a chilling and disturbing narrative.

  • The Stories of Ray Bradbury by Ray Bradbury

    This collection of 100 short stories showcases the author's unique blend of science fiction, horror, and fantasy. The tales, which span six decades of the author's career, explore themes of technology, the supernatural, and the human condition. From stories of astronauts exploring alien planets, to tales of small-town America where the extraordinary lurks just beneath the surface, the collection highlights the author's imaginative storytelling and his ability to blend the everyday with the fantastical.

  • 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.

  • The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

    In this classic detective novel, a private investigator is hired by a wealthy family to resolve a blackmail issue involving the younger daughter. As he delves deeper into the case, he uncovers a web of deceit, murder, and organized crime. The detective's investigation is further complicated by his growing attraction to the older daughter, adding a layer of personal involvement to an already complex case. The novel is renowned for its gritty depiction of 1930s Los Angeles and its sharp, witty dialogue.

  • If on a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino

    The novel is a postmodernist narrative that follows the adventures of the reader, who is trying to read a book called "If on a Winter's Night a Traveller." However, the reader keeps encountering obstacles that prevent him from finishing the book, including printer's errors, censorship, and interruptions from other characters. The story is interspersed with the beginnings of ten different novels, each interrupted at a moment of suspense. The book is a meditation on reading, writing, and the nature of narrative itself.

  • The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall

    "The Electric Michelangelo" is a historical fiction novel that follows the life of Cy Parks, a man from Morecambe Bay, England who becomes an apprentice in his mother's seaside hotel for consumptives. He later becomes a tattoo artist, first in his hometown and then in the bustling Coney Island, New York. The book explores themes of love, loss, and the transformative power of art as Cy navigates through the complexities of human body and spirit in the 20th century.

  • The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe by Edgar Allan Poe

    This collection brings together all of the author's most famous works, including poems, short stories, and novellas. Known for his macabre and gothic storytelling, the author's works are filled with themes of death, love lost, and human frailty. Notable inclusions are the haunting poem "The Raven," the chilling stories "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Fall of the House of Usher," and his only complete novel, "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym."

  • Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

    Ghostwritten is a complex, interconnected narrative that spans the globe, featuring nine different characters in nine different locations, including a cult member in Okinawa, a jazz buff in Tokyo, a British investment banker in Hong Kong, an old woman running a tea shack in China, a transmigrating spirit in Mongolia, a ghostwriter in London, a physicist in Ireland, a late-night radio DJ in New York, and a noncorporeal entity in a global network. Each story is seemingly separate, but as the novel progresses, the connections between them become more apparent, creating a web of incidents and interactions that span space and time.

  • Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson

    The book is a collection of linked short stories narrated by a young, unnamed protagonist who struggles with drug addiction. The stories are set in various locations across the United States and are filled with surreal and sometimes violent experiences. Despite the bleak circumstances, the narrator seeks moments of beauty and grace, often finding them in unexpected places. The narrative is characterized by its disjointed chronology, hallucinatory descriptions, and dark humor.

  • The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

    "The Savage Detectives" is a novel that follows the lives of two Latin American poets, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, who are founders of a literary movement called "visceral realism." The book is divided into three parts and is narrated by multiple characters, providing different perspectives on the protagonists. The narrative spans over 20 years, following the poets' journey from Mexico City to Europe, Israel, and Africa, as they search for a mysterious poetess and navigate through the world of literature, sex, drugs, and the complexities of life.

  • Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick by Philip K. Dick

    This collection of short stories showcases the author's unique blend of science fiction and philosophy. Ranging from dystopian futures to alternate realities, the stories explore themes such as the nature of reality, human identity, and the impact of technology on society. The author's work is known for its complex narratives, thought-provoking themes, and vividly imagined worlds, all of which are on full display in this anthology.

  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

    This novel is a semi-autobiographical account of a young man's intellectual and artistic development in late 19th-century Ireland. The protagonist struggles with issues of identity, faith, and nationality, ultimately rejecting the traditional values of his Catholic upbringing to pursue his own path as an artist. The book is renowned for its innovative narrative style and its exploration of themes such as individuality, freedom, and the nature of art.

  • The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

    The book tells the story of a man who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect. His transformation causes him to lose his job and become ostracized from his family, who are horrified and repulsed by his new form. As he grapples with his new reality, he becomes increasingly isolated and starts to lose his sense of humanity. The book explores themes of alienation, guilt, and identity, and is a profound examination of the human condition.

  • Native Son by Richard Wright

    This novel tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a young African-American man living in Chicago's South Side during the 1930s. Bigger's life takes a tragic turn when he accidentally kills a young white woman. The incident leads to his arrest and trial, revealing the deep-seated racial prejudices and injustices prevalent in American society at the time. The narrative explores themes of poverty, systemic racism, fear, and the effects of oppression.

  • A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

    A Wild Sheep Chase follows the story of a recently divorced advertising executive in Tokyo who is given a mysterious assignment by a sinister, powerful man: to find a particular sheep with a star-shaped birthmark. This mission leads him to travel across the snowy landscapes of Northern Japan, crossing paths with peculiar characters, and exploring themes of loneliness, fate, and identity. The narrative is a blend of detective story, postmodern critique, and surreal journey, infused with the author's unique style of magical realism.

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

    This novel is a multi-generational saga that focuses on the Buendía family, who founded the fictional town of Macondo. It explores themes of love, loss, family, and the cyclical nature of history. The story is filled with magical realism, blending the supernatural with the ordinary, as it chronicles the family's experiences, including civil war, marriages, births, and deaths. The book is renowned for its narrative style and its exploration of solitude, fate, and the inevitability of repetition in history.

  • No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

    This novel is a gripping tale of a cat-and-mouse chase set in the harsh landscape of 1980 Texas. After stumbling upon a drug deal gone wrong and a suitcase full of money, a Vietnam War veteran finds himself pursued by a relentless hitman. As the veteran attempts to keep himself and his wife safe, a local sheriff struggles to keep up with the increasing violence and brutality of the modern world. The narrative explores themes of fate, conscience, and circumstance, painting a bleak and riveting picture of the human condition.

About this list

Complex, 50 Books

Complex Magazine's selection of 50 must-read books.

Added about 9 years ago.

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