A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading. —William Styron
Books open doors in our minds, allowing us to live an entire lifetime and travel the world without even leaving the comfort of our chairs. When we read a book, we step into someone else’s shoes, see the world through someone else’s eyes, and visit places we might never otherwise go, whether a tiny village in India or the green fields of Narnia. Books teach us about love, heartbreak, friendship, war, social injustice, and the resilience of the human spirit. Here are 25 books you should read at least once in your life.
1. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Told against the backdrop of the changing political landscape of Afghanistan from the 1970s to the period following 9/11, The Kite Runner is the story of the unlikely and complicated friendship between Amir, the son of a wealthy merchant, and Hassan, the son of his father’s servant until cultural and class differences and the turmoil of war tear them asunder. Hosseini brings his homeland to life for us in a way that post 9/11 media coverage never could, showing us a world of ordinary people who live, die, eat, pray, dream, and love. It’s a story about the long shadows that family secrets cast across decades, the enduring love of friendship, and the transformative power of forgiveness.
2. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
This Newbery award-winning novel tells the story of Annemarie Yohansen, a Danish girl growing up in World War II Copenhagen with her best friend, Ellen, who happens to be Jewish. When Annemarie learns about the horrors that the Nazis are inflicting on the Jewish people, she and her family stop at nothing to protect Ellen and her parents, as well as countless other Jews. Lowry’s novel is a powerful reminder that cultural and religious differences are no divide between true friends and that love shines all the brighter against the darkness of hatred.
3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The opening line of this classic novel, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” is one of the most recognizable first lines of fiction. Yet Jane Austen’s most famous work is more than a comedy of manners about the marriage market and the maneuvers of navigating polite society in 19th-century England. Pride and Prejudice remains one of the most enduring works of English Literature not because we find such rewarding pleasure in watching sparks fly between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy (though that’s certainly reason enough). Readers embrace the novel because Austen candidly captures the human character with all of its beauties and its imperfections. Pride and Prejudice is a novel about overcoming differences of cast and class, about learning to laugh at life even when it’s grossly unfair, and about recognizing that loving someone often means accepting them in spite of rather than because of who they are.
4. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Hinton penned this novel when she was only 16 because she was tired of reading fluffy romances. She wanted a story about the harsh realities of being a teenager in mid-20th century America, and since none existed, she wrote one herself. Told from the perspective of orphan Ponyboy Kurtis, this multiple award-winning young adult novel tells the story of a group of rough, teenage boys on the streets of an Oklahoma town, struggling to survive and stick together amidst violence, peer pressure, and broken homes. The novel reminds us that growing up is never easy and that pain, loss, friendship, and love are universal experiences that both create and dissolve socio-economic boundaries.
5. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
A richly written novel with a cast of memorable characters, Little Women invites us into the warm, comfortable home of a 19th-century American family. Everyone can find a character trait that resonates with them, whether Jo’s temper, Meg’s vanity, Amy’s mischievousness, or Beth’s shyness. The novel is a coming-of-age story that follows four sisters (the March girls) from girlhood to womanhood in Civil War America. Together they learn about the harsh realities of poverty, illness, and death, and how to dream, love, and laugh through it all. This is a heartwarming, timeless classic about the importance of family and the simple, home-spun comfort of never being alone.
6. A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood
While this is far from a light read, it’s one of the first novels I suggest whenever someone asks me for a book recommendation because it really packs a punch. Right to the solar plexus. The novel looks at a single day in the life of George Falconer, a middle-aged English professor grieving the loss of his partner, Jim. As George struggles against the grip of his depression and wonders what the point of life is any more, he gradually learns, through a dinner with his best friend and a heart-to-heart with a student, the gift of being alive with all its trials and its triumphs. Through the snapshot of a single day in a man’s life, Isherwood reminds us that every moment counts. His clear, direct prose will grab hold of you, snap your head around, and challenge you to stare your mortality in the face.
7. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
OK, let’s lighten things up a bit. Who doesn’t love a novel about talking animals? A Laura Ingalls Wilder Metal winner, E.B. White’s children’s classic about Wilber the pig and his host of barnyard friends from Charlotte the spider to Templeton the rat flings wide the door to imagination and makes us wonder what a world where animals could talk would be like. On a more serious note, it challenges us to ask ourselves how we’d treat animals if they could talk. If they could tell us their joys and their fears, would mankind treat them more humanely? White’s novel is a lesson for children and a reminder for adults of the beauty of nature, the cycle of life, and the importance of remembering that every creature has its place on this earth.
8. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
Set in late-20th Century Germany, this novel boldly confronts long-standing German national guilt over the Nazi war crimes of the Holocaust through the strange, intergenerational relationship between 15 year-old Michael Berg and 36 year-old Hannah Schmitt, an illiterate tram operator and former Auschwitz prison guard. As Michael teaches Hannah to read books, Hannah teaches Michael to read the human character, and he comes to learn about the nuances between good and evil and of living with the consequences of one’s choices. The Reader is a story about personal as well as national guilt, about the consequences of keeping secrets, and about the power of redemption.
9. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Bronte’s classic novel tells the tale of a young girl’s struggle to make something of herself in the world, from the tyranny she endures as a poor orphan under her Aunt’s roof and the deplorable conditions she lives in at Lowood school to the dark secrets she encounters in her role as Governess at Thornfield Hall, the home of the enigmatic and alluring Mr. Rochester. Strong-willed and resilient, Jane longs for the independence that Victorian England denied women, and her story stands as a timeless example of a woman’s determination to choose her own path in life in the face of hardship and ridicule.
10. The End of the Affair by Graham Green
This is another one of those books filled with nuggets of truth that you might cut your teeth on, but that we all need to learn to swallow. The End of the Affair tells the story of the brief but life-altering adulterous relationship between Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles. Set in part against the turmoil of World War II, the personal battles of love, hate, guilt, and the search for truth and redemption are all the more poignant. The story of Maurice and Sarah reminds us that the things we do for love can trigger an inexorable pull of fate that carries our lives on a passionate and sometimes perilous journey and that while love doesn’t always last forever, the lessons we learn from it do.
11. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
This one’s gotten a lot of attention with the recent announcement that Lee will be releasing a prequel this summer, so even if you’ve read it before, now might be a good time to revisit it. Told through the point of view of the 6 year-old Scout Finch, the story recounts a crisis that rocks her Alabama hometown when the African American Thom Robinson is accused of raping a young white woman. Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, is the lawyer appointed to represent Robinson. Alternately humorous and brutally honest, the novel looks critically at social issues of class, race, and sex politics and the sometimes ironic injustice of the American legal system.
12. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
OK, who am I kidding? Read all of them, but you have to begin at the beginning, right? The Wizarding world of Harry Potter has captivated children and adults alike. The story of the Boy Who Lived, a downtrodden, emotionally neglected orphan who discovers he’s a wizard, ticks all the big boxes on must-read lists. It deals with the enduring love of friendship, the pain of loss, the triumph of good over evil, and the reality that sometimes the fiercest battles we fight are within ourselves.