Avid readers devour books of all sorts. But there are some hallmarks of classic and contempory published works that are a must for readers of every appetite level. These books may not be your favorite genre, but consider reading each of them as a means to stay fully versed on popular culture and literary history, to have fodder for cocktail parties, and to be the intellectually-literate, well-rounded booklover that you are. In keeping with our ABC-centric celebration for National Literacy Month, here are 26 books every adult should read, from A to Z.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — this first publication features twelve stories of the crime-solving duo Holmes and Watson. It features the work of illustrator Sydney Paget, establishing the characteristic appearance of the two detectives.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) by Truman Capote — a charmingly naughty novella that captures a slice of New York City and American history during World War II. Adapted to a 1960s-era film starring Audrey Hepburn as the character Holly Golightly, a dreamer in pursuit of some ideal of happiness.
The Cider House Rules (1985) by John Irving — a politically-charged novel about abortion, addiction, racism and rejection. Adapted for Academy Award-winning film in 1999. First edition (U.K.) cover art shown above was designed by Honi Werner.
Doctor Zhivago (1957) by Boris Pasternak — an epic love story between Lara and Yuri during the Russian Revolution. Originally published in Russian, only after being smuggled into Milan. Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 for this novel. Later adapted for film (1965) by David Lean.
Everything is Illuminated (2002) by Jonathan Safran Foer — a striking novel about a young Jewish author who visit the Ukraine to research his family history up until the Holocaust. This novel, inspired by the author’s own life, negoitates the struggle between past and present, secrets and knowledge.
The Fellowship of the Ring (1954) by J.R.R. Tolkien — the first of three volumes of The Lord of Rings, this story is an epic adventure with an old-fashioned battle against good and evil. Tolkien’s academic background in Celtic, Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythology richly influenced the realms of “Middle Earth,” brought to life in the film adaption by director Peter Jackson (2001).
Gone with the Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell — romanticized Civil War historical saga set in Georgia. Mitchell received the Pulitzer Price for Fiction for this novel in 1937, which was named in 2012 by the Library of Congress as one of 88 “Books That Shaped America.” Now a story beloved by generations thanks in part to the 1939 movie.
Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955) by Crockett Johnson — a delightful children’s book tells the self-empowering story of a curious toddler who discovers the ability to create his own world simply by drawing it. It’s popularity has led to a complete Harold series and inspired many adaptations.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970) by Maya Angelou — the first of five volumes in African-American writer and poet, Maya Angelou’s autobiography, which has received both high-praise and criticism. Filled with lyrical prose, it’s unlike the typical genre of autobiography.
Joy of Cooking (1936) by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker — one of the most-published cookbooks in the United States with more than 18 million copies sold. A well-worn copy of this book from Julia Child’s library is on display at the National Museum of American History.
Kim (1901) by Rudyard Kipling — lesser-known than The Jungle Book, this novel by Kipling is rated number 78 on the Modern Library’s list of 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. It’s a tale of childhood adventure that takes place in the vivid backdrop of India.
The Little Prince (1943) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry — a charming fable that tells the story of adult’s encounter with his inner child. Saint-Exupéry painted all the simple, watercolor illustrations in this book, which is the most-read and most-translated book in the French language.
Mrs. Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf — a novel about the life of a high-society, socialite in London which takes place over the course of a single day in June. It’s a prime example of stream of consciousness storytelling, and also a variety of narration styles including soliloquy.
Northanger Abbey (1818) by Jane Austen — this novel was the first she completed in 1799, though it remained unpublished until December of 1817. Many of Austen’s works are often required reading titles in school, but this title often goes unnoticed. Its lighthearted parody is worth a read.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) by Ken Kesey — a novel about a psychiatric hospital that critiques human behavior and society’s balance between conformity and rebellion. Later adapted into a play (1963) and an Academy Awarding-winning film (1975) starring Jack Nicholson.
The Princess Bride (1973) by William Goldman — a romantic adventure about Buttercup and Westley the “farm boy.” This Renaissance-era fantasy is complete with pirates, fencing, fire swamps, a giant and ROUSes (Rodents of Unusual Size). Also made into a cult-classic film (1987) by director Rob Reiner.
The Quiet American (1955) by Graham Greene — an anti-war novel that draws on the author’s personal experience as a war correspondent in the 50s. It was condemned and criticized as being anti-American, but its notoriety resulted in two film adaptations (1958 and 2002).
The Raven (1845) and other poems by Edgar Allen Poe — a compilation of poems and short stories by the American author considered to be the inventor of the detective fiction genre. Recurring themes of death and mourning are found throughout his work, including The Raven, most famous for its quote “Nevermore.”
The Secret Garden (1911) by Frances Hodgson Burnett — hailed as a classic of children’s literature, this book was first published with both adults and young readers as the intended audience. Its copyright expired, placing the book’s treasured story in the public domain.
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000) by Malcolm Gladwell — a book that describes sociological changes, people and behaviors that create “epidemics” from ideas, products and messages. This is the first in a string of nonfiction, bestselling publications by Gladwell which will get you thinking.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe — the first American novel to sell more than a million copies. This anti-slavery novel has been credited for the development of American literature, formal protest to literature, and cultural sentiment leading up to the Civil War.
Vanity Fair (1847) by William Makepeace Thackeray — a satire of 19th century Britain society, this novel gets its title from the allegorical story in The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) by John Bunyan. Early editions of this novel featured illustrations by Thackeray.
The War of the Worlds (1898) by H.G. Wells — pioneering the science fiction genre, Wells’ first-person narrative in this novel was among the first to postulate about extraterrestrial invasion. Well-known for the infamous Orson Welles radio broadcast (1938) that caused panic in America.
Xenophanes (1899) and other poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson — leading the Transcendentalist movement, Emerson championed ideas of individualism and independence. Essayist, lecturer and poet, his writing remains a significant influence on American thought.
The Yearling (1938) by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings — This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was also a bestseller the year of its release. Rawlings shared literary editor Maxwell Perkins with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and other literary greats.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (1974) by Robert M. Pirsig — a philosophical exploration of metaphysics of quality. Originally rejected by 121 publishers, this bestselling work attempts to define that which he deems undefinable.
For more must-read books, check out 40 Classic Books You Should Have Read in School. And if you still want more titles to pile on your “bucket list” to read, stay tuned later this month as we celebrate Banned Books Awareness Week with a list of our favorite banned and controversial books. So much to read, so little time. Which book will you read first?
Meredith is Associate Creative Director at Half Price Books Corporate.
You can follow her on Twitter at @msquare21.