100 Books to Read before You Die

Here at the Literary Workshop blog, I write many woodworking posts without mentioning literature. This time I want to write about literature without mentioning woodworking.

These are 100 (+1) books that you and I should read before we die, because they just might change the way we live or think. Or maybe because they already have without our knowing it. They were compiled with the generous (and occasionally contentious) help of many of my friends and colleagues. I don’t intend to slight any book by leaving it off the list. This is merely a place to start for people who want to continue educating themselves.

I envisioned our readership as mostly college-educated Americans, with perhaps a few self-educated readers, and readers from other Anglophone regions. I had some guidelines for selection: [a] it must be a whole book, not a selection or excerpt (I made an exception for Aquinas); [b] it must be available in English; [c] it must be very important, ground-breaking, or influential in the shaping of culture(s), though it need not be widely-known. A series may count as a single book. I omit juvenile literature (with the exception of the Narnia chronicles), and I prefer old books to new books.

  1. The Bible (King James Version recommended)
  2. Gilgamesh, Anonymous
  3. Analects, by Confucius
  4. The Iliad, by Homer
  5. The Odyssey, by Homer
  6. The History of the Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides
  7. Aesop’s Fables
  8. Oedipus, Antigone, and Oedipus at Colonus, by Sophocles
  9. The Orestia, by Aeschylus
  10. The Republic, by Plato
  11. The Nicomachean Ethics, by Aristotle
  12. Histories of Herodotus
  13. Hortensius, by Cicero
  14. The Aeneid, by Virgil
  15. The Metamorphoses, by Ovid
  16. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
  17. The Confessions of St. Augustine
  18. The Consolation of Philosophy, by Boethius
  19. On Loving God, by Bernard of Clairvaux
  20. The Mind’s Road to God, by Bonaventure
  21. Didascalicon, by Hugh of St. Victor
  22. The Summa Theologica (selections are okay), by Aquinas
  23. Beowulf, Anonymous
  24. The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
  25. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by the Pearl Poet
  26. The Cloud of Unknowing, Anonymous
  27. The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri
  28. The Fairie Queen, by Edmund Spencer
  29. The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli
  30. Utopia, by Thomas More
  31. Four Great Tragedies (Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet, & Lear), by Shakespeare
  32. Henriad Tetrology (Richard II, 1-2 Henry IV, & Henry V), by Shakespeare
  33. Four Great Comedies (Merchant of Venice, Much Ado about Nothing, Twelfth Night, & The Tempest), by Shakespeare
  34. Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin
  35. The Temple, by George Herbert
  36. Paradise Lost, by John Milton
  37. Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan
  38. Tartuffe, by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Moliere
  39. Groundwork of a Metaphysic of Morals, by Immanuel Kant
  40. Pensees, by Blaise Pascal
  41. Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift
  42. Essay on Man, by Alexander Pope
  43. Candide, by Voltaire
  44. Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe
  45. The Federalist Papers, by various authors
  46. The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution
  47. The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith
  48. Lyrical Ballads (2nd ed.), by Wordsworth and Coleridge
  49. Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft
  50. A Practical View of Christianity, by William Wilberforce
  51. Faust, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  52. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
  53. Grimm’s Fairy Tales
  54. Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville
  55. The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  56. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
  57. Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman
  58. Walden, by Henry David Thoreau
  59. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
  60. Middlemarch, by George Eliot
  61. Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope
  62. Narrative of the Life of Fred D., an American Slave, by Frederick Douglass
  63. In Memoriam, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
  64. The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin
  65. Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, by Edgar Allan Poe
  66. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens
  67. Unspoken Sermons, by George MacDonald
  68. The Idea of a University, by John Henry Newman
  69. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fydor Dostoyevsky
  70. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
  71. Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert
  72. Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo
  73. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy
  74. The Complete Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  75. Genealogy of Morals, by Friedrich Nietzsche
  76. The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engles
  77. The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov
  78. Rerum Novarum, by Pope Leo XIII
  79. Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
  80. Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce
  81. Howards End, by E.M. Forster
  82. Civilization and Its Discontents, by Sigmund Freud
  83. Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton
  84. Fear and Trembling, by Soren Kierkegaard
  85. Four Quartets, by T. S. Eliot
  86. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
  87. The Plague, by Albert Camus
  88. Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett
  89. Deus Caritas Est, by Pope John Paul II
  90. The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien
  91. Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller
  92. The Cost of Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  93. The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis
  94. One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  95. 1984, by George Orwell
  96. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
  97. The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner
  98. Silence, by Endo Shusaku
  99. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
  100. Complete Short Stories, by Flannery O’Connor
  101. The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Waterson

How many have you read so far?  Which ones would you like to read next?

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39 Responses to 100 Books to Read before You Die

  1. Charles Kelly says:

    Steinbeck, Hemingway, Roth, Updike, Capote, Maclain, Mailer, Carver. You included Beckett and left out Toni Morrison?

  2. Should we be reading between the lines with regards to #101?

  3. Ralph J Boumenot says:

    I’ve read 20 of the books on your list, with 3 others I started and didn’t finish. What about adding Catcher in the Rye? It’s the one book I have read more then once. Also I agree with the first post and the authors listed. We can get into a real contest on how to add/subtract to your list.
    ralph

  4. Steve S. says:

    Yes, Charles, I (we–I had a lot of help from other English professors, grad students, and friends compiling the list) left all those authors off. I’m not going to try to explain why any one book was excluded. I left off a few personal favorites, too.

    Ideally, a list like this should run 1000 titles, not 100, but that would be overwhelming, both to write and to read. As I said in the introduction, it’s not a comprehensive list, but a place to start. Plus, I was trying to emphasize older books. I find that many such lists overemphasize contemporary books at the expense of old books.

    My big regret with this list is that I don’t include as much old, non-Western literature as I would have liked. What about Egyptian, Persian, or Indian literature, for example? I don’t yet have the expertise to make confident recommendations, but I’m working on it.

  5. Ed Clarke says:

    I fear that this comment will destroy the productivity of a lot of people. If you have a Kindle or other eReader look at:

    http://delphiclassics.com/

    I’m working on Dickens now. Three bucks for everything he ever wrote and much of what people of the time wrote about him. I’m presently reading his notes about his travel to the United States shortly before the American Civil War. His description of crossing the North Atlantic on a steam ship in the winter is hilarious.

    In the past you could bring along a book or two to read in your spare time. With these eReaders you bring along whole libraries in your pocket. The King James Bible is downloadable for free from that site. Aristophanes, Sappho, Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus and Catullus each for less than a dollar. Virgil and Homer for less than three…

  6. Dan Roman says:

    Hi, nice list but to continue the debate, here are a few points. You have listed the “The Cloud of the Unknowing” (surely, St. Augustine would be enough to cover that aspect of Christianity) but no mention of the Koran, which had a major influence on world history from its inception to modern times. Also, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness had greater impact on post-War European thought than either Camus’ The Plague or The Stranger, which would have been a better choice. And although Marx is a good start to understand modern anti-Capitalist movements, Lenin had tremendous influence particularly for so-called second- and third-world communist leaders.

    Take it easy,
    Dan

    • Steve S. says:

      Ah yes, the Koran was an oversight on my part. It should have been included. I’m not sure what you mean by “that aspect of Christianity”–mysticism, perhaps? But since Augustine and “Cloud” are separated by nearly 1000 years, I felt I could include both works. Again, the list is a place to start, and not meant to be all-inclusive.

      Sartre nearly made the list, but in the end I opted for The Plague simply because it’s a good novel, in addition to being provocative philosophically. Your suggestion of Lenin rather than Marx is really intriguing, though. If I were writing the list over again, Lenin would almost certainly bump Marx off the list.

      The great thing about conversations like these is that we can continue to add books to the list without breaking the 100 mark. Thanks for your suggestions!

  7. megan says:

    Tonight I shall endure nightmares of my MA and PhD qualifying exams (though the absence of any lit crit from your list will make said dreams slightly less frightening).

    I would, however, argue for lumping 33 and 31 in with 32, to make room for: 31. Doctor Faustus, Tamburlaine 1 & 2 and The Jew of Malta, by Christopher Marlowe and 33. The Alchemist, Volpone, Bartholomew Fair and Epicoene, by Ben Jonson.

    And I wish I could find room for my favorite early modern play of all, The Knight of the Burning Pestle (Beaumont), but I can’t justify it in a canon of but 100.

    • Geez, I don’t even remember hearing about the Beaumont play. So much for my graduate degree in British literature. Now you have me curious…

      • Megan says:

        Don’t feel bad — no one has (and depending on when you did your degree, it may have at the time been attributed to Tourner). But do read it — it is, in my opinion, the first “post-modern” play…which may explain why, in 1608, it was a failure!

  8. kasim says:

    I came across this site whilst Googling books to read before I die and have to ask why Harry Potter isn’t on here. I mean, you have Chronicles of Narnia, why not Harry Potter? It baffles me.

    • It’s hard to say why I left off any one book. I really enjoyed the HP series, though I think there are better works of fantasy out there, George MacDonald for one, which I would have liked to have included as well. As I said in the introduction, I’ve tried to eliminate juvenile literature from the list–not because it isn’t “literature,” but because I’m trying to steer adventurous readers in new directions.

      When making up this list, I had to try to balance familiar works with unfamiliar ones. Too many familiar works, and the list becomes unchallenging. Too many unfamiliar ones, and the list becomes discouraging. I want the list to look both challenging and achievable.

  9. Jay says:

    Maxims by La Rochefoucauld

  10. Pingback: Things in Print Thursday :: a play-by-play of someone else’s list of 100 books to read before you die « partlydrawn

  11. silvi says:

    I’m sure there are better things to read than The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. To my opinion, the list should have included more russian books, “Eugene Onegin” for example. I also think that Yasunari Kawabata (“The house of the sleeping beauties”) is a must.

    • There certainly are better things to read than those legal documents, if by “better” we mean something more artistic, emotionally moving, or philosophical. But I’m always surprised (and not a little worried) at the number of Americans who are politically active but have not actually read those documents in their entirety.

      Thanks for suggesting more authors. Pushkin is not as widely read in this country as he should be, but perhaps that has something to do with the difficulty of translating poetry? Do you have any favorite translators and/or editions?

      • Wendell Stewart says:

        As with any list it depends on who made it and what their education and or background is. You have left off several of the most important books in history as they affected history, Animal Farm, killed communism in the US at a time when it was the fastest growing party, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Lincoln attributed this as a main cause of the US Civil War, Mein Kampf, an explanation into the insanity of WWII, The Book of Mormon, the most important book in the history of man, Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus, and 36 volumes of Historians History of the World. The most controversial Book in history is the Book of Mormon, either it is true or it is not. If not, then now worries mate, but if true, whoa you better read it. The test is very simple, ask God.

      • As it happens, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was on one draft of the list, but it got bumped in favor of Fredrick Douglas, whose work has both historical and literary merit. We were especially looking for books that manage to transcend their historical moment. As to the Book of Mormon, well, the same might be said of any book that presumes a claim to expressing ultimate truth, from the Upanishads to the latest Chick Tract. Such claims, legitimate or not, weren’t enough to land the book on the list.

  12. Russell says:

    I will print and keep this list. I must add,to not have included Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand, is to miss perhaps the one book all Americans should, no, must read.
    With Thanks
    Russell

  13. Robin says:

    You’ve got some typos, but the most noticable one for me was #73, should be Tess of the D’URbervilles.

  14. Brian says:

    I think that the fact that you put such a wide range of books and documents in this list shows that you were very through in your research. Thanks for the list and I will try to read them all… I only have about 20 out of the 100…

  15. Gina says:

    On the Road-Jack Kerouac (the original scroll haha)

    • Gina says:

      Also Winnie-the-Pooh by Milne. It is a “familiar” title that not many people have actually read and is a piece of Western literature that contains the elements of Taoism (Hoff).

  16. Max says:

    To Kill a Mockingbird?

    • I love the book, but it’s already very widely read, and the purpose of the list is help avid readers find good books (and especially old books) that they might not have heard of yet.

  17. Sarah says:

    Perhaps it is widely known, but I believe “The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince)” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is exceptional. For everyone, really.

    • Oh, I DO agree! It will be on our next list, while will be a list of children’s books, though I maintain that The Little Prince is really a fairy tale for grown-ups disguised as a children’s book.

  18. Beth says:

    Any time a list is compiled, immediately come in the comments about what’s on, what should be on, what shouldn’t be on. Thanks for the food for thought. I’m doing OK but not great, have read 67 of the 100. Some 25 years ago in college, but have read ‘em. Will get going on the others.

  19. cammiefox says:

    Gone With The Wind needs to be on here!

  20. Modern literature I would add:
    Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land, written by David K. Shipler and published by Times Books in 1986, won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.
    The Bhagavad Gita – I have the translation by Franklin Edgerton 1944.
    The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin by Alexander Puskin – I have an English translation that I picked up in Russia translated by Progress Publishers in Moscow.
    Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver – better known as Gulliver’s Travels
    Two years before the mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr. mid 1800s.

  21. Shy says:

    Any list, no matter the size, is not complete without Mere Christianity by CS Lewis.

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  23. sula1968 says:

    I think Tess next, read about 12 can’t remember if I’ve read some of them or not

  24. Matt Smith says:

    I’m always looking for a list of good books and it was refreshing to see a list of classics that wasn’t dimminished by some of the popular inferiors that have been produced of late and labeled ‘classics’ by a culture that is largely ignorant of good literature (myself included). I’ll keep a copy of the list for future reference. To have included the Constitution was bold but then not so much if you’re sincere about (c) of your criteria for book selection, as it has affected cultures world-wide rivaled perhaps only by the Bible. Thanks for putting together the list.

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