The Bible, various authors, ca. 1446 BC
Not only is it the cornerstone of Judaism and Christianity, but this perennial best-seller is still a prerequisite for understanding many of the world’s literary classics.
The Iliad/The Odyssey, Homer, 1194–1184 BC
The world’s first and still baddest sandals-and-swords epics (poems, in this case, not Kirk Douglas or Russell Crowe vehicles) lend comic book muscle to actual and mythical Greek history from the Trojan War and the tales of brave Ulysses' 10-year commute back home.
Hamlet, William Shakespeare, 1602 (estimated)
“To be, or not to be?” On this list, it’s a no-brainer. Arguably the most widely read and iconic piece of fiction ever. Shakespeare’s play mirrors the monarchal brutality of King Henry VIII — yet resonates with readers of all eras and cultures.
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Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, 1818
The mother of all monster stories gave birth to the moral dilemma of whether science and mad ambition should trample on God’s private property — as well as to a million sequels, movies and TV spinoffs.
The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas, 1844
Payback is a bitch. A wrongly imprisoned man returns from 12 years in the Bastille as a mysterious and wealthy gentleman to exact revenge on the not-so-noblemen who stole his life, family and dignity. Written 150 years before the Innocence Project made its debut.
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens, 1850
Possibly the first “creative memoir.” Dickens calls this novelization of his childhood his favorite novel, and he's been joined in that opinion by plenty of other literary giants including Kafka, Tolstoy and James — not to mention countless devoted fans.
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Moby Dick: Herman Melville, 1851
Whether or not you ever got past “Call me Ishmael,” the greatest fish story ever told is an important one to know. A maniacal Captain Ahab casts away his crew and humanity when he blindly fishes for revenge from the whale that took his leg in a good vs. evil parable of biblical proportions.
Les Misérables, Victor Hugo, 1862
Widely considered one of the greatest novels of the 19th century, this Dickensian novel with a French accent indicts the post-revolutionary Gaul-ing justice system through the struggles of a wrongly convicted, righteous man hounded by a twisted prison guard.
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy, 1869
The blueprint for epic storytelling, the count’s grandiose tale of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia straddles the line between brilliant historical fiction and gut-wrenching romance novel.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, 1884
A spectacular specimen of homespun storytelling that repudiates the dubious morality of the slave-era South through a simple white boy’s realization that a black man is not only human but decent and moral — and the best friend he ever had.
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Dracula, Bram Stoker, 1897
The original erotic vampire novel that gave life to generations of undead imitators in its current incarnation. This bloody tale, mired in the repressed sexual tension of the Victorian era, still has more bite than today’s tepid Twilight franchise.
The Jungle, Upton Sinclair, 1906
The catastrophic experiences of a devastated early-20th-century immigrant family provide a gripping argument for American Communism in this literary manifesto for economic and social change. The important book was a catalyst for massive sanitary reform in Chicago’s meatpacking industry.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925
Considered by many to be the great American novel. In this jazz-era classic, Jay Gatsby falls in love with rich girl Daisy Buchanan and devotes his entire life to becoming wealthy and throwing over-the-top parties to impress her. But ultimately, he's never good enough and dies alone.
As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner, 1930
Arguably his finest work, this story, told from multiple points of view, offers insight into the motivations of members of a poverty-stricken and dysfunctional Southern family traveling across Mississippi to bury their manipulative mother.
Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell, 1936
The epic telling of the devastating impact of the War Between the States on a scarred nation and the individuals whose lives, wealth and sensibility were shattered by it. The movie version is considered one of the greatest American films ever made.
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, 1939
A monumental indictment of Hoover-era America takes the reader deep into the Depression through the tragic life of a family of displaced Okies, the Joads, who seek the promise of the American dream but instead find bigotry and social inequity.
For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway, 1940
The master’s sparse story of a Yank fighting in the Spanish Civil War opened the eyes of Americans to the larger struggle between Fascists and Communists for the hearts and minds of the people in 1940s Europe.
Diary of Anne Frank, Anne Frank, 1942
A heart-wrenching first-person account of the horrors of Nazi-imposed anti-Semitism and genocide, written by one of the Holocaust’s most famous (14-year-old) victims. Frank’s book continues to be at least as impactful as any academic account.
The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand, 1943
The struggle between individuality and conformity as told through the eyes of a 1930s architect who chooses obscurity over compromise to defend a personal vision provides a microcosmic warning of the growing frenzied fascination with pre-war Nazism in Europe. Espousing a system she called “Objectivism,” Rand is an enduring source of inspiration for libertarians and conservatives.
Animal Farm, George Orwell, 1945
“All animals are equal … but some are more equal than others” is just one of the many timeless lines in this political allegory that’s required reading for most schoolkids. Revisiting it as an adult recasts all governments in a new light.
The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer, 1948
Call it Apocalypse Then. This graphic glimpse into the dark and often hopelessly pointless existence of World War II American GIs in the South Pacific eerily foreshadows the lunacy of war as brought to the screen in Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War magnum opus.
1984, George Orwell, 1949
The fear of government control over personal freedom is chillingly told in a near future where “Big Brother is watching” over citizens’ every move. This eternal theme resonates all the more strongly in our post–9/11 world.
The Natural, Bernard Malamud, 1952
The perfect American allegory of lost love and redemption. This book, turned into a movie starring Robert Redford, tells the story of one man’s derailed promise and how he rediscovers the purity of his ideals through the national pastime.
Night, Elie Wiesel, 1955
A brief (109 pages) but savage account of triumph over despair as experienced by the author as a teenager and his father in Nazi concentration camps. A raw, vivid and all-too real memoir of horror and honor.
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, 1955
The twisted romance between a self-loathing, middle-aged academic and a precocious child was originally banned in France then universally acclaimed across the world as a triumph of 20th-century literature.
Profiles in Courage, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 1955
Although its authorship is often disputed, this book is a symbol of the image and ideals of the wide-eyed optimism and promise of JFK’s Camelot-like America.
Dr. Zhivago, Boris Pasternak, 1957
A sweeping novel about generations of broken families, lost love and shattered idealism that exposed the Soviet Revolution as being based on nothing more than individualistic agendas and brutality.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, 1960
A not-so-innocent coming of age story set in the Deep South during the Civil Rights era provided a metaphor for the maturation of American race relations. It also told the real-life story of two children who grew up to be among the country’s greatest novelists: Harper Lee and Truman Capote.
Green Eggs and Ham, Dr. Seuss, 1960
We do so like Green Eggs and Ham! Thank you! Thank You! Sam-I-am. So how many other books that you read in kindergarten can you recite by heart? That’s what we thought.
Catch 22, Joseph Heller, 1961
This brilliant war satire, told by an omniscient narrator through the eyes of many characters, notably the protagonist, Capt. John Yossarian, defied conventions of time and narration and gave us the familiar expression that came from the twisted logic of war.
Tropic of Cancer: Henry Miller, 1961
This 1930s-era fictionalized autobiography of the man who put erotic writing on the literary map. The narrator is a Paris-based American writer who spends his time chasing good food, free drinks and loose women. Considered obscene when written, it’s now a cult classic.
The Making of the President, 1960, Theodore White, 1961
The blueprint for many books that followed, this masterpiece pulls back the curtain on the political process on the world’s grandest stage and brings readers deep into the hotly contested Kennedy campaign against Nixon.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey, 1962
The ultimate allegory for the struggle of individualism against absolute authority was written, appropriately, during the counterculture ’60s by one of the literary heroes of the day and translated well into film in the ’70s when Watergate revealed our government’s absolute abuse of its authority.
In Cold Blood, Truman Capote, 1966
A brutal true-life tale of mass murder not only lifted Capote’s career to new levels of respect, but birthed a new genre of ripped-from-the-headlines realism in American writing.
Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut, 1969
A masterpiece of disjointed, postmodern writing and wicked satire as only Vonnegut could do. Main character Billy Pilgrim time-jumps from a World War II German POW camp into the past and future and even into alien space crafts in this important literary commentary on free will and fate.
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, Hunter S. Thompson, 1973
The father of gonzo journalism gives a frenetic, sometimes psychotic, month-by-month account of being on the road of the presidential campaign that yielded the frenetic and sometimes psychotic Nixon presidency.
Burr, Gore Vidal, 1973
A Revoutionary era prime-time soap opera, this revisionist rendition of early American history brings our founding fathers to life and turns them on their heads. In Vidal’s imagination, Burr is an honorable gentleman, Washington an incompetent general and Jefferson a scheming hypocrite.
All the President’s Men, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, 1974
Dogged reporting by two previously obscure newspapermen toppled an out-of-control president and inspired an entire generation of ethically motivated investigative journalism and an era of post–Watergate Washington reform.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig, 1974
This novel that helped define modern literature operates on three simultaneous levels: an across-the-country journey on a motorcycle (in which bikes function like whales in Moby Dick), a tale of reconnecting with people from one’s past and with one’s self.
Ragtime, E.L Doctorow, 1975
The engaging lesson of the social and racial inequities of New York City at the turn of the 20th century moves from pedantry to entertainment through deft and humorous writing, including the use historical figures with flawed personalities from Harry Houdini to Henry Ford.
Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra, 1975
“Science does not need mysticism, and mysticism does not need science, but man needs both.” A riveting and revelatory treatise that was one of the first books to connect the wisdom of ancient Eastern spiritualism and quantum physics.
Roots, Alex Haley, 1976
This is the book that humanized African-American history through the personal story of one man’s quest to embrace his lost ancestors. It also inspired a whole generation of serialized storytelling in the TV miniseries.
Beloved, Toni Morrison, 1987
The horrors of slavery literally haunt a woman who escapes a plantation and — spoiler alert — is compelled to murder her oldest daughter rather than allow her to be returned in chains. The ensuing ghost story’s scariest bits focus on the tragic real-life conditions that would drive a mother to commit such a monstrous act.
The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie, 1988
The book that caused Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwah against its author is actually far from offensive and offers a magical parable that indicts racism in the United Kingdom through the experiences of its two Indian-born characters.
American Pastoral, Philip Roth, 1997
One of America’s most highly regarded authors takes a stark look at how easily the American Dream can jump the rails into nightmare when a high school superstar who marries the prom queen watches his world collapse when the horrors of the Vietnam War invade his family’s life.
The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen, 2001
A novelization of life at the turn of the century creates an interesting parallel of the unraveling of a seemingly model American family with the similar disintegration of the dot.com boom of the late ’90s. Franzen’s writing goes down deceptively easy, but his observations about contemporary life are as letter-perfect as Dickens’ were in his day.
John Adams, David McCullough, 2001
Not just a terrific read, this biography refocuses history to recognize the contributions of our oft-overlooked founding father and second president.
What Is the What, Dave Eggers, 2006
Am intensely seering, sobering yet inspiring story of one of the displaced “Lost Boys” of the Sudanese civil war as he escapes the genocide and walks, with thousands of others, hundreds of miles through war zones to resettlement camps in Ethiopia, and eventually a new life in the United States.
Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, 2007
The extraordinary autobiography of an apostate Muslim woman who escapes the shackles of the radical oppression of her youth in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya by fleeing to Netherlands. She goes on to become an outspoken political reformer against Islamist extremism.
Julia Child, My Life in France (First Dynasty), 2008
The autobiography of the mother of the modern food movement and patron saint of all celebrity chefs.
What books do you think belong on this list? Defend your answer.
Mike Hammer writes about relationships, entertainment and technology for magazines and websites including Men’s Journal, Maxim and Style + Tech for Men.