With this list, you’ll feel like you can dominate the Trivial Pursuit literature section.
For anyone who wants to attain the vaunted title of “being well-read,” it’s more about breadth than depth. (As for feeling well-read, read the postscript.)
To “feel” well-read in literature, it’s all about the categories, not the books themselves. Read a few books in a few different genres, time periods, points of views. I’ve thrown in a few controversial books, just so you know what all of the fuss is about.
Here’s how you can feel like a regular literati:
Western Classics (Ancient & Modern)
To give you a good foundation for the who’s who of Western literature.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens: the quintessential story of the French Revolution, love, and longing.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: the story that started the “hate at first sight turning into love” trope.
Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy: Very long. Very melodramatic. Very Russian. Very classic!
The stuff of our worst fears and nightmares.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell: the book that introduced “doublethink” into our lexicon.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: another classic dystopia. Gammas, Deltas, oh my!
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: a feminist spin on the genre.
Science Fiction & Fantasy
We can’t overlook the geeky cousin of the classics, can we?
The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien: this guy made the epic (also called high) fantasy genre. Be warned, it’s a bit of a dry read.
The Foundation series by Issac Asimov: some of the pioneering stories in science fiction, natch!
Neuromancer by William Gibson: here’s something a bit more modern. Plus, you just can’t beat “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” as a snappy first line.
Great American Novels
These zeitgeist works practically defined a time period of U.S. history.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: you can’t think of the Jazz Age without thinking of “old sport.”
Bonfire of Vanities by Tom Wolfe: the terrible movie nonwithstanding, this book captured the self-indulgence of the 80s NYC crowd.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck: I dare you to get into a conversation about the Great Depression without thinking of this book. I dare you.
Literary Heavy Hitters
Books that make people go “Whoa, dude!” when you say that you’ve read them.
Ulysses by James Joyce: stream-of-consciousness writing plus an unhealthy sexual obsession with an orphan with a limp equals literary greatness. True story.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace: fractals, man! Fractals!
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon: lots of stuff happens that a lot of people pretend to understand.
Those guilty indulgences that everyone has read (but won’t necessarily admit to it).
Warning: this is US-centric, feel free to indulge in your country’s guilty pleasures.
A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin: hey, there’s a popular HBO miniseries about it! 😉
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: better than Twilight.
Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James: be torn between hilarity and despair in this BDSM spin-off of a Twilight fan fiction. Who knows, maybe this’ll spice up the bedroom.
Immigrant Experience (US/UK)
Ah, the magical experience of being thrust into a new culture.
Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan: the book that inspired a movie and furor in the Asian American community about stereotypes and Tan’s possible self-loathing. (For a less controversial read, try Ha Jin’s Waiting — and yes, there’s a lot of longing and waiting there.)
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez: how four sisters start to forget their Spanish and their native homeland of the Dominican Republic.
Non-Western Classics (Ancient)
If Westerners get theirs, so should the rest of the world.
Ramayana (India): this is The Hindu epic. Full stop.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms (China): a bit of Chinese history, highly romanticized and dramatized.
Non-Western Classics (Modern)
The stuff that you should read to feel worldly and well-read. (More applicable if you’re from the US or Western Europe.)
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: this novel single-handedly legitimatized Latin American literature in modern times. Too bad you don’t know who he’s talking about half of the time.
To Live by Yu Hua: getting banned in China just adds to its street cred.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe: the sad tale of colonialism in Africa. Definitely merits a frowny-face.
Throw in a little giggle into your reading list.
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut: some say Slaughterhouse-Five is his best, I say this one.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: come and see what the catch-22 is. I promise you, it’s gorgeously ironic.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams: you kill two birds with two stones here: sci-fi and satire.
With this list, you’ll feel like you can dominate the Trivial Pursuit literature section! Life is good.
Since this question is more about sentiment than reality… I hate to break it to you, but if you’re truly a well-read person, you will never feel well-read. They’re always on the lookout for their next book — that category that they’re missing–to add to their impressive list. It’s a Sisyphean goal, really.
If you feel well-read, you’re probably not.