Tsundoku is a beautiful Japanese word that means a pile of unread books waiting in a corner. If you’re like me, you have one of these well-intentioned piles (on a shelf or elsewhere), where the books sounded good when you bought it but fizzled out shortly thereafter.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Best Classics to Read Before You Die
- Best Novels to Read Before You Die
- Best Non-Fiction Books to Read Before You Die
- Other Books to Read Before You Die
None of the books below will end up in that pile. Many are well-loved by millions of people across the globe. Some are reprinted hundreds of thousands of times every year.
Check out the books you should read before you die that we’ve discovered for you. One is sure to make its way onto the list of greatest books you’ve ever read.
Best Classics to Read Before You Die
The selection of timeless literature listed below includes some of the most read and re-read literature anywhere. If you want to read a story that will stay with you throughout your life, pick one of these and enjoy.
1. Ulysses by James Joyce
Ulysses is a brilliantly reimagined version of The Odyssey and is chock full of so many cultural references that you may have trouble with the idioms and vignettes.
2. The Odyssey by Homer
Odysseus spends ten years trying to return to his faithful wife in Ithaca, and along the way meets every adventure (and setback) with strength and resourcefulness in The Odyssey.
3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Shelley’s Frankenstein expresses concepts of man and nature, science and humanity, and the responsibility we have over the things we create. All represented in this dark, gothic tale.
4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet’s love story in Pride and Prejudice is a given. They meet at a dance, he’s terribly rude, she falls for him—but society and propriety are cruel commentators on true love.
5. Watership Down by Richard Adams
Even though Adams denied any allegorical references, it’s hard not to interpret that the many instances where survival is the plight of nature are made harder by the existence of man in Watership Down.
6. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
If you are looking for an adventure story about religion, war, and finding freedom in young America, then travel down the Mississippi River with Huck and Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
7. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy uses nearly every literary device out there to envelop you into War and Peace. It follows four families living in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars in Russia.
8. Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
In Dr. Zhivago, you’ll find the lives of the four main characters (Yuri, Lara, Pasha, and Tonya) so sad and heartbreaking that you root for them even when they are being unkind or unfaithful.
9. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
The House of Mirth's Lily Bart is a heroine even if she makes uncalculated, life-altering mistakes. At least Lily is in control of her life all the way through—even if it exasperates her aunt and friends.
10. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
11. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s story of injustice and racism, has been lauded for generations. One character, Scout, has little for material possessions but great faith in people. Will she keep it as she grows up?
12. Call of the Wild by Jack London
In The Call of the Wild, Buck’s quick thinking and fast learning keep him alive in the Yukon. While life is sometimes cruel and sad, Buck must respond to fate when the wild calls.
13. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison’s debut novel, wherein Pecola Breedlove’s self-loathing and desire to be prettier is overwhelming and poignant.
14. My Antonia by Willa Cather
My Antonia is an immigrant story based in Nebraska during the early 1900s. Antonia is fierce, tireless, and strong in every other capacity.
15. Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory
In Le Morte D'Arthur, the interpretation of the Knights of the Roundtable is presented in myths, tales, and Christian inspiration.
Best Novels to Read Before You Die
The following selection of books run the gambit of literary style and resonance from sci-fi to philosophy and in-between.
Not only are the stories heartwarming and entertaining, but you’ll also discover that James Herriot’s wonderful writing in All Creatures Great and Small makes for a true page-turner.
17. Conjure Women by Afia Atakora
Afia Atakora’s debut novel Conjure Women follows the story of Miss May Belle, her daughter Rue, and the slave master’s daughter Varina, in pre- and post-Civil War America.
18. A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
A Sand County Almanac offers sound reasoning for respecting all of life—from the earth to the sky and everything therein.
19. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Eugenides has written a masterpiece in Middlesex. The story is woven around young Cal, his family history, and his grapples with his identity as intersex. You’ll be enthralled from start to finish.
20. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
World War II is the backdrop for this coming-of-age story of two young children, one in Germany and the other in France. In All the Light We Cannot See, both must discover a sense of self when the odds are against them.
21. Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor
Lake Wobegon Days is an exquisite and equally bitter portrait of small-town life that almost anyone can relate to in one way or another.
22. The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale
What is it like to be so amazing, smart, and so nearly human, but denied the privilege of human society because you’re a chimpanzee? Find out in The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore.
23. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
In Memoirs of a Geisha, the reader is introduced to Geisha culture. Chiyo’s entire impending career depends on one event—when her virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder.
24. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Chinua Achebe takes a probing look into the imperialism and depravity that seized Nigeria and Africa in Things Fall Apart, forever changing its cultural landscape.
25. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
The four elder women of The Joy Luck Club are strong matriarchs whose character and advice are often seen woefully past the mark—until their daughters realize they are just like them. It's one example of a wonderful book on aging.
The Mercies, set in Norway during the 1600s, a small village reels when 40 of their men die during the Vardø storm. Then come the strangers, bent on bringing justice and God.
27. Run Me to Earth by Paul Yoon
In the beautifully written novel Run Me to Earth, three orphans experience gut-wrenching sadness and death against the backdrop of 1960s Laos.
28. The Yellowbird Sings by Jennifer Rosner
The Yellowbird Sings offers the insurmountable fear of a mother hiding her daughter, and the choice she is ultimately forced to make during the Nazi occupation of Germany.
29. Dune by Frank Herbert
Dune is a cornerstone of science fiction and an essential read for anyone who wants to dive into the history of the genre. It’s inventive, wild, fantastical, and was later adapted to film by David Lynch.
30. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
Siddhartha could be read at multiple stages of your life. It will help you understand the chewy, meaty bits of life that ought to hold greater meaning—and release the rest.
Best Non-Fiction Books to Read Before You Die
Non-fiction books have an unspoken responsibility to inform, inspire, and make you laugh, cry, or angry. In the list below, you’ll find several to fit the bill.
31. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns details the migration of African Americans living in the South to the Northern and Western USA.
32. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Sapiens has its fans and foes. It’s a good read if you want to go all the way back in history.
33. My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir
My First Summer in the Sierra is an observation over a summer herding sheep which resulted in him becoming a prolific figure in environmentalism to this day.
34. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
Carson expressed valid environmental issues which resulted in the banning of DDT and inspired generations in Silent Spring.
35. Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl by Stacey O’Brien
From just four days old to nearly two decades, biologist Stacey O’Brien journals raising and caring for a precocious owl in this sweet story, Wesley the Owl.
36. Oogy: The Dog Only a Family Could Love by Larry Levin
Oogy was a battle-scarred bait dog who was left for dead until the police found him. Then the Levin family opened their home and hearts to this sweet little pup.
37. Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter by Ben Goldfarb
Ben Goldfarb exposes how the ecosystems and environments of beavers coexist. Check out Eager to learn more about this intricate society.
38. Jane Goodall by Dale Peterson
One of the most accomplished figures in modern wildlife studies, Jane Goodall, got her world-renown job in primatology after completing secretarial school because no one else was available.
39. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
David Sedaris will make you laugh from your gut with his autobiographical story-telling genius in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.
40. A History of the Middle East by Peter Mansfield, et al.
Rich and full history and context, A History of the Middle East will illuminate and expose one of the most volatile places on earth.
41. India: A History by John Keay
John Keay chronicles Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh and their 5,000 years of history and civilization in India: A History.
42. Loving Protection?: Australian Feminism and Aboriginal Rights 1919–1939 by Fiona Paisley
Loving Protection? follows the Anglo-Australian women who campaigned against the assimilation policies affecting aboriginal women and their children.
43. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Joan Didion offers us a very intimate portrait of grief when she loses her husband of 40 years while managing an almost fatal set of circumstances with her daughter in The Year of Magical Thinking.
44. The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir
The Second Sex is a must-read for any person interested in feminist history and philosophy.
45. Japonisme by Erin Niimi Longhurst
There is a fad circling the bookshelves: Self-help books are everywhere as we attempt to eliminate stress, stuff, and worry. Japonisme falls into this category, but it’s a bit unlike the others. The idea of Shinrinyoku may change your life.
Other Books to Read Before You Die
The books listed below are as diverse as possible. They range from art to physics, and from the human condition to the health and wellness of your dog.
46. Sister Wendy’s 1000 Masterpieces by Wendy Beckett
Wendy Beckett’s big coffee table art book Sister Wendy's 1000 Masterpieces offers well-educated, personal accounts of art from an unlikely source.
47. Oysterville: Roads to Grandpa's Village by Willard Espy
On the southwestern corner of Washington State, at the northern tip of the Long Beach Peninsula, is a small town rich with a settler’s history. Learn more about it in Oysterville.
48. The Outlaw Ocean by Ian Urbina
Urbina exposes the activities of criminals, thieves, vigilantes, and anyone out for gain on the open sea in The Outlaw Ocean.
49. Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700 by Alan Charles Kors, et al.
Widely-accepted mass harassment and murder were once electives of ecclesiastics and society as folklore was persecuted and replaced. Dive deeper into the history of "witch-beliefs" and how they were demonized in Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700.
50. Dog Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook by Debra M. Eldredge, et al.
Dog Owner's Home Veterinary Handbook will help you to communicate better with your dog’s veterinarian so that you can be a better pup parent.
51. Rimpa: Decorative Japanese Painting by Toshinobu Yasumura
Although the information provided is in Japanese, the reproductions of this Japanese art are exquisite. Feast your eyes on some beautiful art pieces in Rimpa.
52. Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figes
Within the expanse of 200 years (and ~700 pages), Figes charts the cultural history of the Russian people through art, music, dance, and literature in Natasha's Dance.
53. Salmon Without Rivers: A History of the Pacific Salmon Crisis by James A. Lichatowich
It took millions of years to carve out the PNW, but it’s only taken a blip on the radar to nearly decimate the iconic salmon. Find out about the plight of this beautiful fish in Salmon Without Rivers.
54. The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America by James Wilson
Through archaeology, ethnography, research, and oral history, James Wilson’s work The Earth Shall Weep chronicles the survival and struggle of Native Americans over 400 hundred years with 7–10 million deaths.
55. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann
Running water, giant cities larger than the ones in Europe, and societies far and wide existed in the Americas before the colonizers landed. If you're curious about what the Americas were like before Columbus landed, check out 1491.
56. Selected Writings of Andrés Bello by Andrés Bello
Venezuelan author, Andrés Bello, explores philosophy, law, government, and society in the fundamental Latin American text Selected Writings of Andrés Bello.
57. The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra
58. Earth’s Insights by J. Baird Callicott
In Earth's Insights, Callicott visits the northern and southern hemispheres, joining religion or spirituality with various kinds of environmental ethics against the backdrop of anthropogenic destruction.
59. Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken
The global human collective has resolved to protect and preserve the environment in an unshakingly effective movement. Learn more about it in Blessed Unrest.
60. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
Take Some Time to Read
Even when things are going well in life, it’s important to take some time for yourself and your imagination. Hopefully, one of the 60 books listed above has caught your eye and will resonate with you for a long time to come.