5 Books You MUST Read Before You Die

All righty, folks. I’m turning 25 in a week. Yes, yes, somehow I managed to make it this long. I’ve promised myself not to sulk this year and moan and groan about how I haven’t met all the high expectations I’ve set for myself. Instead, I am choosing to enjoy every, single moment. I’m going to be grateful for all my blessings and pat myself on the back for all the progress I have made. After all, it’s a celebration ain’t it?

Because my birthday is coming up, I can think of no better present to give myself than a really great book. Not a good book, not an average book, but a great book. I’ve had to come to terms that there is no way I can read every book ever published but I do believe it is possible to read every GREAT book ever published. That’s why I am asking you to weigh in on the next GREAT book you think I should read.  The criterion is that the book has to be a fiction novel. Sorry, non-fiction, short stories and poetry do not qualify at this time. (If people are interested, I’ll certainly do a post where we address these types of books as well.)

Also, you are only allowed to recommend 5 books. Why only 5? Because I want you to really narrow it down to your absolute all-time favorites. I’m talking about if someone you knew only had ONE YEAR to live these would be THE 5 books you would tell them to read. So make your choices count, and state your case for each one.

Before I get your recommendations, here is my list of THE 5 BOOKS YOU MUST READ BEFORE YOU DIE (in no particular order):

1984 by George Orwell

Good books challenge you when you read them. Great books challenge you when you read them–and keep challenging you years after you’ve read them. Orwell’s classic remains, to this day, very controversial, which means that the novel is still doing something right. It’s been said that this novel is a cautionary tale against the pervasiveness of government in our lives. But as the story became fermented in my brain over the years, I realize the novel has a lot to say about the individual. It’s a cautionary tale less against government per se, and more about individuals allowing themselves to be easily manipulated and controlled by others. The novel is the author’s rallying cry for us to always keep our guard up and protect our individual freedoms.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

When Atticus Finch, the protagonist of the novel, loses the case defending a local African-American man accused of rape, somehow, he still manages to win. Out of this moment, the author illustrates one of the most important lessons I have ever learned about justice and morality.  The lesson?  Standing up for what is right and just always makes you a winner, even if you’ve lost your ability to secure that justice or right. Lee taught me that the best heroes in novels (and in life) don’t have to be superhuman and most certainly don’t have to win in the end. They just have to be courageous enough to keep fighting, even if they know they’re licked from the start.

Paradise Lost by John Milton

I guess I’m sort of cheating here, because this is not necessarily a novel, it’s a poem. But come on, you can hardly call this epic tale a book of poetry. I’ve avoided this book for a long time, before I finally read it post-college. I avoided it precisely because it was always presented as THE English text written by THE English author. You can’t get anymore “Dead Straight White Man” then John Milton. My post-colonial, third wave feminist, gender-neutral, non-heteronormative college mind was instantly averse to the text. But the truth is, this mega-poem is a tremendously beautiful, powerful, staggering work of art. When an author makes you start to identify with Satan, the greatest evil in all the universe, then you are dealing with one bad-ass, visionary author.

If you managed to skip this in your required reading for college, you have to read it before you die, if only for the cosmic battle sequence between Satan and God’s angels. Eat your heart out, ever-major-battle-sequence-in-every-movie-ever-made-put-together.

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

Ok, I cheated again. This is a play, not a novel. But how could I leave out what is, in my opinion, the best American play ever written? I say this not only because Hansberry manged to pull of a successful writing career during a racially insensitive time (she became the first African-American female playwright to win the Pulitzer Prize in pre-Civil Rights Era America) but she also managed to pull off one THE most challenging feats for any writer. She wrote a play that was at once very timely, very local, very specific, but at the same time was very timeless, very global, and very universal. That is a LOT to juggle for any writer.  Writers often hope that if they are specific, the universal nature of their story will just come through on its own. There are other writers who avoid colloquial language and current events all together, for fear that their work will become antiquated before the book even hits the shelves. It is a rare author that can be true to a specific point in time and space without losing touch with the common heart of humanity that passes through the generations. I think Hansberry’s simple story of an African-American family at the verge of losing every hope they ever had is often overlooked because it seems so limited in time and space. But I promise, this play reaches far deeper and wider then it will ever let on.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

It’s nice to know that there are writers as good as Hosseni living and breathing as we speak. It gives me hope that our generation won’t disappear without leaving some timeless works of art. Some leave this book and complain that the subject matter was far too depressing. When I hear that, I honestly have to ask myself: Really? What book did they read?

Is the book dark? Yes. Is it challenging to read at times because of the painful images and stories Hosseni attempts to depict? Yes. But, I hate to break it to you, this is the world we live in. You can be delusional and pretend this kind of stuff doesn’t happen, but then you would be–uh–delusional. Or you can face the absolute worst of humanity, look at that demon straight in the eye, and still smile in its presence. Yes, you will smile. Maybe even cry tears of joy. Heck, you might even be inspired. Hosseini reveals that even in the deepest of ruins, in the absolute worst of torture, blood, war, death, and destruction, there is still courage. There is still hope. There is still the future. There’s nothing gimmicky, or cheap, or cliché about Hosseni’s assertion that we still can move forward even after the worst of catastrophes. No, Hosseni’s message is very real and he proves his argument with every turn of the page.

Now it’s your turn. What are the 5 books you think everyone should read before they die? Then tell us why.

much love,


>>> Novel Update:  Finished Ch. 10. On Ch. 11.

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36 comments on “5 Books You MUST Read Before You Die

  1. Agatha82 says:

    My dear, enjoy 25, 26, 27 and all the other years coming. I am way past those numbers. I’m even past 35 and 40…but fortunately haven’t reached 50 which pretty much makes me want to scream in horror…but I digress 🙂

    Okay, I can’t recommend 5 books because I am not into really deep books (haven’t read any of the ones you mention…yes, I know…me bad) Also, I know you may not understand or relate to this, but I hate reading sad novels, I just don’t. Maybe it’s to do with my own life and how I see things.I like escaping reality. (I’m the same with films, cannot watch stuff that makes me cry)

    I like my fiction to be fun or scary and make me forget the real world out there so I could only recommended fun reads with vampires/spooky things in them 😉 BUT if I had to recommend one of those books, I would recommend IT by Stephen King, because whilst it is a horror novel, it captures childhood and growing up so well and there are moments in it that really touch you and King makes you care about all those kids, and the story being told.

    • Ollin says:

      Would you believe that I do understand and relate to you about not wanting to watch sad films? So I understand if people don’t pick up a thousand splendid suns for that reason. So I won’t press this point. But it is one of my all time faves.

      I have heard of IT a lot, mostly the movie, but I guess I’m going to have to check it out now. I used to read Stephen King a lot in high school. His books were always entertaining and thrilling, but never read one that was really deep.

      Thanks for your recommendation! 🙂

      • Agatha82 says:

        I meant to say: Congrats on finishing chapter 10 🙂

        From reading the discussions here, I am amused because someone has said that she cannot imagine someone not ever reading Harry Potter…GUILTY over here! I’ve nothing against JK Rowling, it’s just, well, that type of fantasy doesn’t really appeal but maybe, one day, I will at least pick up book one and give it a try…maybe 😉
        P.S Before your time…I was also the only one who did NOT own “Thriller” by Michael Jackson…guess I’m a rebel without a cause ha ha ha

  2. krisceratops says:

    For any fiction writer, I’ll recommend these modern classics (in no particular order):

    Generica by Will Ferguson, to prove that maybe we don’t actually want to write the perfect book, and that satire lives after Vonnegut.

    Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, a contemporary graphic novel that bends the definition of a novel in content, medium, and style.

    Youth in Revolt by C. D. Payne, to prove that side-splitting humour has a place in literature, and that characters and plot structure are age-old conventions ripe to be played with.

    Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, because it somehow follows every piece of advice given to writers that never seems to work for ourselves (with the exception of keeping things to a reasonable length), and actually manages to pull it off as a masterpiece of modern fiction.

    And finally, the Harry Potter series. Just think about it… could you actually imagine someone of this generation not reading these books? They changed everything.

    • Ollin says:

      I was going to put Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix but i think it’s one of those series like Shakespeare that we can all agree on need to be read. So I sort of take these books as a given–but thanks for pointing that out. It is important to acknowledge the great impact JK Rowling has had on literature. She is an inspiration to us all (especially us fantasy writers writing for young adults.)

      I’ve heard of Pillars of the Earth, and wasn’t Youth in Revolt a movie too? I’m guessing I should read the book first though, am I right?

      Thanks for recommending some modern classics, I’ll definitely will be adding this to my book list! 🙂

      • krisceratops says:

        Youth in Revolt was just made into a movie. Movie wasn’t bad, but the true genius lies in Payne’s writing. The entire series is written like the journal entries of a pubescent boy, and if ever there was a perfect example of “voice” as pertaining to fiction, this is it! Love this book.

  3. Well, I have to admit that I am not a massive fan of fiction. I really do find it hard to find works that truly move me although many are entertaining. It’s fun to be entertained but I am much more entertained when I am challenged… so, my list might just show my age, or suggest that I am even older than I am. 🙂
    First i’ll cheat by going with the first two on yours. I agree with everything that you said.
    The remaining 3 are.

    Les Miserables: Victor Hugo. (note* thanks for this post Ollin, I will be digging this one out of storage. Probably tonight…) The story of Jean Valjean, an ex convict struggling to do good in the world while unable to escape his past. It is both heart-wrenching and inspiring at the same time and full of fabulous life lessons that have as much relevance today as when the book was written in 1862.

    The Scarlet Letter: Nathaniel Hawthorne. The story of a strong single woman in Puritanical New England who is sentenced to a life wearing a Scarlet “A” for committing adultery, producing a child but refusing to name the father. I find this story a fascinating look at how our belief systems determine who we become and how they form a base for what happens in our lives.

    Exodus: Leon Uris. This is a fictional novel based on the true history of the creation of the State of Israel back in 1948. The story follows many characters and their families for two generations from Europe to Palestine and how and why, so much of the trouble in that part of the world began. I believe that this is a truly important work as I am convinced that we can only begin to solve problems when we understand their history.

    • Ollin says:

      I’ve been meaning to get around to Les Miserables. It’s one of those classics that looks so intimidating but you know is really good.

      Can you recommend a translation for me and other readers?

      Exodus, yes, I’ve been meaning to getting around to understanding that conflict in the middle east. Reading non-fiction about it would bore me to death, but maybe a fiction novel would be enlightening.

      Thanks for the recs!

  4. aloysa says:

    Well, I’ll recommend just one book. Everyone here has recommended a tons of great books. Here is my recommendation: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. It is controversial, sad and devastating. It was misunderstood, it was banned, it was challenged. It was called sick. It was called a pure genius. It is up to you what you get out of it. It is a great love story. Just keep an open mind. That’s all I have to say. 🙂

    • Ollin says:

      I haven’t read Lolita, but it certainly is always on people’s lists. The subject matter never quite interested me, but I’ll have to give it a second chance now that you mention that this is the only book you would recommend. Thanks!

  5. 83October says:

    I should do this too…it’s almost my birthday month. Then again my “to be read” pile is quite tall. Oh well, I have to say that those are interesting books. I’ve read only 2 of those on the list. I’m not a fan of recommending books, especially recommending books that fall under great. But I’ll recommend one book I read this year that just blew me away. It’s Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. I wrote about it here: http://83october.wordpress.com/2010/06/14/notes-on-books-reviews-on-recently-read-novels/. I suppose that link would explain why i think it can be called great.

  6. Brilliant list. To Kill a Mockingbird is definitely on my list, and 1984 just might make it as well. Hm…then Catcher in the Rye, Great Gatsby, and possibly For Whom the Bell Tolls. Man, I’ve got to think about this longer…

    Love this post!

  7. 25, huh? Getting any grey hair, yet? 😉

    I’m going to recommend Wuthering Heights by Emilty Bronte. Just because its the first book that comes to mind and because I love it.

  8. I am happy to say I’ve read three of the five 🙂 Well technically three and a half since high school required partials from Paradise Lost.

  9. […] I got some really great recommendations from you guys in my post 5 Books You MUST Read Before You Die I decided I’d make sequel.  This time, the books we will be talking about are going to be […]

  10. Liza Kane says:

    I’m a little late to the conversation (was on vaca last week…still catching up on real life!), but I felt I had to share my all-time loves…

    1. The Little Prince, by Antoine Ste-Exupery. This is my favorite book of all time. I can’t really describe why, but the sense of wonder, of seeing things outside of the “right way of seeing things”, etc, really resonates with me. I have read it during times of extreme cynicism, and have come back with a softened heart each time. Thankfully I haven’t had to read it in a while, but I know it’s there waiting for me if i need it. I read the book in the original French for French class, and so my favorite line is: “On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essential est invisible pour les yeux” …I don’t like how it translates in English, but my favorite translation is: “It is only with the heart that one sees rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” (Katerine Woods)

    2. Dune (from Dune through Children of Dune. I basically view those first three books as one volume, like Lord of the Rings), by Frank Herbert. I will just say that I am thoroughly intimidated by Herbert’s world/culture building. I also like that he touches on political issues without being preachy. This book to me was one of those that transcended its own genre to become “universal”.

    3. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand. I just want to say that listening to this story via audiobook cross-country was bizarre, because even though this book is over 50 years old, the events described freakishly echo current events. One of those books that really challenges your mindset.

    4. Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer. The events of 9/11 cling to me, even to this day. I’m not a crier, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I wept repeatedly while reading this book. Some malign it as being too trendy or cutesy in its portrayal (the book uses a lot of visual design), but I thought those images helped engage me as a reader.

    5. The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams. No explanation needed.

    There are of course plenty of other beautiful stories out there…these have just touched me at pivotal times of my life and so will always be with me.

    I loved Kite Runner, which eclipsed A Thousand Splendid Suns for me, but still a beautiful story!

    • Ollin says:

      Dune and Atlas Shrugged are books that keep showing up on lists, so I guess I’ll have to check them out soon. Number 4 I hear is being turned into a movie, I wonder what you think about its big screen potential. Oh, and I’d love to start a new Hosseini book. If you say Kite Runner is BETTER than Suns, that might very well be my first kindle book! 🙂 I love Hosseini!

  11. jessieshires says:

    I’m also a little late to this party, but here’s my two cents:

    I have to second The Little Prince. An amazing book. It resonated with me at age five; it still resonates now, almost thirty years later.

    My absolute favorite novel of all time is The Brothers K, by David James Duncan. A sprawling, intelligent, funny, complex coming-of-age story, it draws on everything from Russian Literature to baseball to tell its story. I’ve read it at least a dozen times, and it only gets better with each pass. Duncan is one of those writers who make me want to write.

    The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. This is an exquisite novel that explores the nature and limits of faith. I’ve given away almost as many copies of this book as I have of The Brothers K.

    One of my first forays into graphic novels was Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan series. Hilarious, twisted, shocking… and frighteningly plausible. I like its irreverent style, acerbic dialogue, and faith in journalism as a tool and a weapon. Made me realize that comics aren’t just for kids.

    And while we’re talking hilarious and irreverent, Good Omens is one you should make time for. What happens when the End Times are near, but the angels and demons among us have become so accustomed to the delights of earthly life that they don’t want it to end? It’s a biting, funny send-up of modern culture.

  12. Judson says:

    I just got around to reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” this past year. I’m trying to catch up on all the books I should have read back in high school and college. Thanks for the suggestions!

    — Judson

  13. Hmm. I also read 1984 and To Kill a Mockingbird. The latter was the first novel that I read in my life. Anyway, here is my list from the top of my head (in random order):

    1. Death at Intervals by Jose Saramago – it’s a novel that pushed me to finally learn the violin.
    2. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner – I had to read this twice to fully appreciate it.
    3. Lord of the Flies by William Golding – this should be a luxury item for any contestant of the reality TV show Survivor.
    4. The Road by Cormac McCarthy – I was always on the verge of crying every after 10 pages or so.
    5. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro – just because it’s the next one in my reading list. By the way, I am currently reading The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles.

    • Ollin says:

      Thanks for the recs Angus! You have some powerful works there, Faulkner and Golding. I would have to say I really respect The Road, but it doesn’t suit my personal taste, a little too dark for me. 🙂 Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  14. […] version of RENT, wouldn’t you?}. I thought that due to the HUGE popularity of my post: “5 Books You MUST Read Before You Die” it would be fun to do another post where we all recommend some of our favorite books to each […]

  15. […] I assume that they are a given, and also A Raisin in The Sun, which I mentioned in my post “The 5 Books You MUST Read Before You Die.”} […]

  16. Carol A. says:

    Hmm, first let me say…being in my 50’s there is no reason to ‘scream in horror’. I’m quite happy with my life, and with my kids grown and living their own lives, I can do things I want to do now. So, for whoever posted this statement, don’t put down what you haven’t yet experienced. It’s not so bad.

    Ok..my books…not in any particular order.

    The Grapes of Wrath–John Steinbeck–The movie with Henry Fonda was long and boring. The book is not so bad and a vivid portrayal of migrant worker’s lives. The thing that got me was how the characters kept on no matter how bad things were. I read this in high school and it’s stayed with me ever since. My late mother-in-law was a migrant worker in California when she was a child and lived near Salinas, where Steinbeck lived. My MIL was one of 22 children–all the better to make more money picking cotton and such. They made about 2 cents a bushel.

    Charlotte’s Web–Yes, a children’s story, but what a story! The sweetness of loyalty, compassion, and friendship, the bitterness and sadness of death and separation, and the hope of the future. A great one-day read. My grandma read this to me when I was very little. I bought it for myself a few years ago, and cried a bit after I read it, not only for the story but for the memories of my grandma. This story should not be missed.

    A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius–Dave Eggars–This book may be one that you may not keep with and read to the end, but MAN, Eggars deserved the nomination for the Pulizer, IMO. I was stunned by this book. The sadness was a bit overwhelming and some of the passages were funny, but I could relate to the struggle of a young person with overwhelming responsibilities. The way Eggars tried to both escape the pressures and try to get his youth back through sex, etc, was sad and frantic.

    The Poisonwood Bible–Barbara Kingsolver–The story of a fundamentalist preacher and his family in the Congo. As the preacher makes futile attempts to bring the ‘savages’ of the Congo to Jesus, his family is struggling to assimilate. The story is told through the eyes of the wife and four daughters, each one wrapped up in their own worlds. As the girls mature, they come to see the ‘savages’ as people not unlike themselves. When their father completely ostracizes himself from the people he tried to save for Jesus, his family leaves him in the jungle to die, while they travel to attempt to get back to the U.S.

    This was a difficult story for me to read. I had to put aside my feelings about evangelical religion and also
    allow myself to get into the story and feel what the characters were feeling. That’s what makes a great story–that you can feel what the characters are feeling and your emotions ebb and flow with the characters’ emotions. A great read, although it may take a couple of weeks to get through it. Kingsolver did a lot of research for this book and it’s a gem.

    Stones From the River–Ursula Hegi–Depicting the life of Trudi, a dwarf living in Germany, this story shows how she lived with a extremely dysfunctional family. Later in life, as a librarian, she helped some Jews to hide during Hitler’s reign in Nazi, Germany. This is a complex story to explain, all I can say is, read it. It’s one of the better books out there, and it was forgotten not long after Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club.

    • Ollin says:

      “Work of Staggering Genius” I have seen on a lot of favorite’s lists and recently the “Poisonwood Bible” has been getting my attention as well. Thanks to you I will be looking into them. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  17. […] also: “5 Books You MUST Read Before You Die,” “5 Books You Must Read Before You Die {Non-Fiction},” “5 Plays You MUST […]

  18. […] 5 Books You MUST Read Before You Die {You guys sure do love your books.} […]

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