The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Yes, there is a film with Leonardo DiCaprio, but that doesn’t get you off the hook from reading this perceptive, pitch-perfect novel. Set in the jazzy Roaring Twenties, Fitzgerald’s tale of obsession, ambition, love, money, and a world that would vanish with the Depression was to be his Big Hit—and he was surprised and disappointed when it sold poorly. When Fitzgerald died in 1940, he was an all but forgotten writer. Soon after, there was a revival of his work, and he is now viewed as one of the great American novelists. Today, 500,000 copies of Gatsby are sold each year. You’ll never guess what The Great Gatsby was originally supposed to be called.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Lee’s famous novel, published in 1960, has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide. For all that it exposes the racial injustice of a particular time and place, it is timeless and universal, which makes it a good book to read. As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rick Bragg wrote in Reader’s Digest, “Many people see To Kill a Mockingbird as a civil rights novel, but it transcends that issue. It is a novel about right and wrong, about kindness and meanness.”
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Kerouac’s agent spent more than four years trying to find a publisher for this turbo-charged, road-trip novel about the postwar beat generation. Finally published in 1957, On the Road—written in a style at once breathless and disjointed—spoke to the deep restlessness of young people chafing at mainstream Cold War culture.
Tell Me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen
You might not have heard of Olsen, but her 1961 story collection Tell Me A Riddle was one of the first to intimately chronicle the lives of working-class women. One entry is plainly titled “I Stand Here Ironing,” and chronicles a mother’s regrets with wisdom, bravery, and not an ounce of self-pity. Olsen opened a window onto a world not often seen before in American literature and influenced a generation of women writers, including Margaret Atwood, Sandra Cisneros, and Alice Walker.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
You might’ve been assigned the tale of Pip the ambitious orphan in school. But we promise Great Expectations is a good book to read as an adult, because the humor that sailed over your head as a kid will be evident now—and besides, you won’t need to write a paper about it. Dickens, in his time, was as famous as a rock star (or, a Kardashian) because his novels were written as page-turners, with whip-smart observations about ambition and human nature.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Marie Remarque
Remarque’s searing war-is-hell novel gave millions of readers their first view of the suffering of ordinary German soldiers and civilians during WWI. All Quiet on the Western Front serves as a reminder of the real people on the other side of any battle.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
We know, it’s long and the Russian names are complicated, but seriously it’s a good book to read: if you can follow thousands of pages of Game of Thrones and the rest of the Ice and Fire series (which we love, by the way) then you can handle the challenge of one of the greatest novels of all time. War and Peace is set in the years before, during, and after Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Tolstoy brilliantly chronicles the world of a crumbling aristocracy—on the battlefield, in society, and at home. His research was meticulous, his characters (the soldiers, lovers, seekers) unforgettable. Most recently, War and Peace was adapted as a Tony-winning Broadway musical starring Josh Groban.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
McCullers was just 23 years old when her novel about a deaf-mute and the travails of the people he encounters was published. She wasn’t the first to write about people at the margins of society, but in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, she did so indelibly. Quotable quote: “And how can the dead be truly dead when they still live in the souls of those who are left behind?”
Native Son by Richard Wright
Published in 1940 (as was The Heart is a Lonely Hunter), Wright’s graphic, violent protest novel was an eye-opener about racial tensions and poverty in America. For hundreds of thousands of readers, the story was a conversation starter: Wright’s protagonist Bigger Thomas commits an accidental murder, and spirals downward into more violence and despair. Some schools have tried to ban Native Son, but the novel endures.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Pulitzer Prize-winning author McCarthy is one of our greatest living prose stylists. His post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, in which a father and young son struggle to survive, is made all the more profound by its brevity. It’s a good book to read that’s both quick and stays with you. Intrepid readers undaunted by a more ornate, challenging, Faulknerian style should also read McCarthy’s masterpiece Blood Meridian.