50 Amazing and Essential Novels to Enrich Your Library

Post written by Leo Babauta.

I recently ran into a couple of reading lists (I’ll share them at the end) and realized that I LOVE reading book recommendations. I can’t get enough of them.

So I decided to compile my own (somewhat eclectic) list of novels I think are amazing and essential to every library. I hope you enjoy it.

I should make some notes before diving in. First, this isn’t a comprehensive list of classics. It’s not a comprehensive list of anything. It’s one man’s reading list — a writer, a book lover, a lover and a dad, but one man nonetheless. There are a lot of great books left off the list.

Another note: there are actually many more books listed here than 50 — a number of those listed are actually series of books, in a couple cases series that include 20 or more books. I also recommend must-read books by an author if I really love them, so the total will be well over 100.

There are classics here, but there are cheap thrillers and popular fiction and even a few “kids” books. All I know is that I loved these books — no, I still love them — and I hope you will too.

If you could fill your library with only 50 books, you could do much worse than choose these 50. So what is this list? A list of some great reads.

Not in any order but just in the order they came to me:

  1. King Lear, by Shakespeare. This list of novels starts with a couple of non-novels, so you might say it’s cheating. But it’s Shakespeare! And I’m not going to do a list of amazing plays, so I’m including Shakespeare here. King Lear is my favorite — it was so ahead of its time that it’s amazing.
  2. Hamlet, by Shakespeare. If Lear is my favorite, Hamlet just barely lost that title. Some of Shakespeare’s most amazing writing is in this play. I also like Othello and Macbeth, among others.
  3. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Just an absolutely poetic writer. There’s a lot of power and beauty in this short book.
  4. Tender Is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gatsby is better known, but Tender is written so beautifully that you have to read it if you haven’t. It’s poetry in prose.
  5. A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, by James Joyce. A great introduction to this unmatched of modern writers, Portrait is notable for the development of its language as the narrator’s skill with language improves.
  6. Ulysses, by James Joyce. An absolute masterpiece. Joyce puts the entire scale of human drama and English literature within the span of 24 hours, plotted within one square mile, told through the lives of ordinary people. Also see Joyce’s outstanding book of short stories, Dubliners.
  7. Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut. I just can’t get enough of Vonnegut, and I was devastated that he died last year. Until then, he held the title of my absolute favorite living writer. And Cat’s Cradle is my favorite of all his books. I think Vonnegut is in my granfalloon.
  8. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. Anything by Vonnegut is excellent reading, but this is one of his best, and is considered a classic. A more humorous and raging commentary against war has rarely been written. Also see Bluebeard, Slapstick, Welcome to the Monkey House, Breakfast of Champions, among others, if you like the two listed here.
  9. Neuromancer, by William Gibson. Perhaps my favorite sci-fi writer of all time, Gibson is gritty, dreamy, and ultra-cool all at the same time. Neuromancer was his first, and is the start of the Span trilogy. Oh, btw, Gibson, if you happen by the remotest chance to read this blog, drop me a line! I’m a ridiculously huge fan.
  10. All Tomorrow’s Parties, by William Gibson. This tale of the near future features a Zen-like assassin, among other cool characters, who is one of my favorites in Gibson lore. ATP is the third in the Bridge trilogy.
  11. Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson. With this book, Gibson starts a new series, set in the present day. In fact, it’s so much like his futuristic sci-fi that it’s eerie. Gibson has a unique way of looking at our world. I named my youngest daughter (Noelle Cayce, now 2 years old) after the main character of this book, Cayce Pollard, who is in turn a tribute to Edgar Cayce.
  12. Slow Man, by J.M. Coetzee. One of the greatest living writers of the English language, you could pick up any of his titles (Disgrace would be my other recommendation) and get an excellent book. Slow Man plays with the boundaries of fiction.
  13. The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler. The best of the detective novelists, Chandler took the genre to new heights that generations of writers have tried to reach. He’s the best, and his writing is just as relevant today as it was when it was written.
  14. Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem. If you like Chandler and similar tough detective novels, you’ll love Lethem’s brilliant take on the genre. An excellent story featuring a protagonist with Tourette Syndrome, a killer giant and a Zen crime syndicate.
  15. Gun, with Occasional Music, by Jonathan Lethem. Another excellent detective novel, this one combines the genre with sci-fi. Features talking kangaroos working for the mob and other cool stuff.
  16. Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s hard to describe Ishiguro’s writing, except that he really plays with whether the narrator of a story is objective or not. He plays with traditional plot devices and uses the reader’s curiosity of the unfolding story drive the book forward. Never Let Me Go might technically be sci-fi, as it seems to be set in the future, but really there’s not much sci-fi about it.
  17. When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Ostensibly a detective novel, it leaves you wondering about a lot of things, including what others really think of the narrator.
  18. Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami. This guy is such an imaginative writer. Very different from most of the fiction you’ll read, anything can happen in a Murakami book.
  19. Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett. One of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, a must-read if you haven’t yet. Hostages and hostage takers trapped by seige, and some surprising things unfold.
  20. Run, by Ann Patchett. I just love her writing. This is a moving story full of magic. Also see Patchett’s excellent The Magician’s Assistant
  21. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, by Douglas Adams. The best comedy books ever, you’ll laugh out loud at every book. Adams is simply brilliant.
  22. The Discworld Series, by Terry Pratchett. Starts with The Color of Magic, but there are well over 20 in the series now. You can just jump in and read any of them, and they’re all pretty much incredible. Second-funniest writer, after Adams.
  23. The Stand, by Stephen King. Anything by Stephen King will be a good read, but The Stand is my favorite and if you’re going to just read one book by him, read this one. A master storyteller.
  24. Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling. A classic series, from book one. Sure, it’s supposedly a kid’s series, but so is LOTR (next entry, below) and host of other wonderful works. Harry Potter made reading come alive for my children, and I actually cried numerous times while reading these books with them.
  25. The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings series, by J.R.R. Tolkein. Absolute classics. The Hobbit by itself is a great little book, but the LOTR series adds epic drama to the world of the Hobbits.
  26. High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby. Made into an excellent movie by John Cusack (who I also love), High Fidelity is as much about music as it is about relationships. Just a cool book.
  27. About a Boy, by Nick Hornby. Better than the movie, which was pretty decent. The main characters — a do-nothing rich shallow bachelor and a son of a depressed and suicidal mom — are transformed by each other. Also see Hornby’s excellent How to Be Good.
  28. Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen. I didn’t think I’d like this book, as it’s a historical book about circuses. But it’s a compelling story, and the well-researched facts really bring the story and characters alive.
  29. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera. A classic, and a great read. Set in Czechoslovakia in the late 60s, it explores the insignificance of our actions and existence, in beautiful language.
  30. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. One of the greatest novels of all time, Anna is a tragic heroine brought down by her desire to live and be loved, while Levin is a wonderful character looking for a satisfactory answer to the only important question to Tolstoy: that of death. Incredibly interwoven stories presided over by a roving omniscient narrator.
  31. Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoyevsky. These two classics are fascinating for their explorations of the human psyche under extreme conditions. An existentialist before his time, Dostoyevsky is a powerful writer.
  32. The Broker, by John Grisham. I simply devour Grisham stories. He’s such a good storyteller that you can’t put down his books. I’ve read and enjoyed all of his books but the Broker is one of my favorites. Also see The Runaway Jury and The Testament.
  33. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. A classic from when I was an adolescent, Catcher withstands multiple readings over the years. The main character is just someone you root for, who you want to be friends with. Also see Salinger’s Franny and Zooey.
  34. Aztec, by Gary Jennings. Amazing historical fiction, so detailed and thoroughly researched and fascinating. You won’t believe this book, or any of its sequels. Also see his wonderful story of Marco Polo — so rich in detail: Journeyer
  35. Creation, by Gore Vidal. Another master of historical fiction, Vidal follows a fictional Persion diplomat who meets major philosophers of the time, from Socrates to Zoroaster and Buddha and Lao Tsu and Confucius. Also see Lincoln, another example of Vidal’s best historical fiction, and the best insight into Lincoln you’ll ever find.
  36. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Another one I enjoyed as an adolescent, it’s a gripping story set in a small southern town with memorable characters. You’ve probably read it already — but it’s worth another visit.
  37. Shibumi, by Trevanian. Not exactly a classic, but a hidden treasure of the spy genre. Compelling story with a main character you’ll wish you could be, especially if you’re a guy.
  38. Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris. Absolutely hilarious and brilliant social commentary in the guise of a memoir. OK, this isn’t exactly a novel, but the stories are so exaggerated as to be almost fictional, so I included it. Also read his others, including Naked and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.
  39. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. A monumental classic by a master, explores the plight of the poor who are exploited by modern corporations in an epic tale of struggling sharecroppers.
  40. Deep Blue Good-by, by John D. MacDonald. The first of the incredible Travis McGee series, I actually highly recommend all of them. McGee is a hard-nosed “salvage expert” — actually a private eye who lives on a boat (called The Busted Flush) and is one of the most memorable detective characters since Sherlock Holmes.
  41. Watership Down, by Richard Adams. Yet another book I read repeatedly as a teen-ager. I don’t know why I love this story about rabbits so much, but you just find yourself moved by the characters and rooted in the story (so to speak) as they struggle to overcome tyranny.
  42. Lolita, by Vladamir Nobokov. This controversial book will test your moral boundaries, and at the same time push the boundaries of the language. Unmatchable in many ways.
  43. Sometimes a Great Notion, by Ken Kesey. He’s better known for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but for some reason I loved this book more, and I think it’s the better book. It’s a masterpiece, really, with intricately interwoven narratives (which can be a bit confusing) telling the story of a hard-nosed logging family in Oregon. A must read.
  44. Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. A charming story of an Indian boy lost in the middle of the ocean with a tiger. A great read.
  45. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon. A touching story about a 15-year-old autistic boy who is very intelligent, who uses his dedicated detective skills to solve more mysteries than he set out to solve.
  46. The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen. At first, I didn’t like this book much, as the author seems to dislike and make fun of the main characters. But the deeper you go into the novel, the more you begin to understand and sympathize with the characters. And beyond an intricately woven tale, it’s also an interesting critique of modern consumerism society.
  47. The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. A beautiful love story, told with a unique twist of time travel.
  48. Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier. I couldn’t put this book down. The movie disappointed, but you’ll fall in love with these characters.
  49. Noble House, by James Clavell. Incredibly intriguing historical fiction, in this case set in Hong Kong. Extremely compelling stories. Clavell has a whole series of can’t-put-down books set in Asia, including Tai-Pan and Shogun, among others
  50. Don Quixote, by Cervantes. Another of the greatest novels of all time, the tales of Quixote and the amazing Sancho Panza will delight you with their humor and wit. Much of Western literature is indebted to this book, and Cervantes is the only writer who comes close to standing with Shakespeare.

Some other lists of books I’ve enjoyed recently: