Earlier this month Amazon released a list of 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime. It joins Esquire’s 80 Books Every Man Should Read, The Telegraph’s 100 Novels Everyone Should Read, Huffington Post’s more manageable 30 Books You Should Read Before You’re 30, and The Guardian’s ambitious and inflexible 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read.
These lists serve a purpose if you’re Jay Gatsby furnishing a library or if you’ve, say, just arrived from Mars and have no knowledge of Earth books. What they miss is that one of the greatest rewards of a reading life is discovery. In my 10 years working at bookstores, no one ever came in and asked me what they should read before their death — they would ask me what my favorite book was, or if there were any great new books no one was talking about, or they would just want me to leave them alone so they could explore on their own.
I discovered one of my favorite books because the author called our store and charmed the living daylights out of me. I found another in a box of old books that my Russian literature professor left outside his office to give away. So while I do think that you should read the canon if it interests you, I think it’s more important that you read the books that find their own way into your hands.
With that in mind, here is my list of books you should read (if you want to):
You should read the book that you hear two booksellers arguing about at the registers while you’re browsing in a bookstore.
You should read the book that you see someone on the train reading and trying to hide that they’re laughing.
You should read the book that you see someone on the train reading and trying to hide that they’re crying.
You should read the book that you find left behind in the airplane seat pocket, on a park bench, on the bus, at a restaurant, or in a hotel room.
You should read the book that you see someone reading for hours in a coffee shop — there when you got there and still there when you left — that made you envious because you were working instead of absorbed in a book.
You should read the book you find in your grandparents’ house that’s inscribed “To Ray, all my love, Christmas 1949.”
You should read the book that you didn’t read when it was assigned in your high school English class. You’d probably like it better now anyway.
You should read the book whose author happened to mention on Charlie Rose that their favorite band is your favorite band.
You should read the book that your favorite band references in their lyrics.
You should read the book that your history professor mentions and then says, “which, by the way, is a great book,” offhandedly.
You should read the book that you loved in high school. Read it again.
You should read the book that you find on the library’s free cart whose cover makes you laugh.
You should read the book whose main character has your first name.
You should read the book whose author gets into funny Twitter exchanges with Colson Whitehead.
You should read the book about your hometown’s history that was published by someone who grew up there.
You should read the book your parents give you for your high school graduation.
You should read the book you’ve started a few times and keep meaning to finish once and for all.
You should read books with characters you don’t like.
You should read books about countries you’re about to visit.
You should read books about historical events you don’t know anything about.
You should read books about things you already know a little about.
You should read books you can’t stop hearing about and books you’ve never heard of.
You should read books mentioned in other books.
You should read prize-winners, bestsellers, beach reads, book club picks, and classics, when you want to.
You should just keep reading.
Image via Abee5/Flickr