28 Books You Should Read If You Want To

February 18, 2014 | 46 3 min read


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

is a staff writer for The Millions. Janet is a freelance writer and semi-professional baker living in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in The Awl, The AV Club, the Chicago Reader, and Chicago Magazine. She is the co-host of YouTube's The Book Report and blogs about presidential biographies at At Times Dull. Follow her @sojanetpotter.


  1. Marcia Muller writes a series of mystery novels about a private investigator named Sharon McCone. They’re pretty good, too.

  2. “You should read books mentioned in other books.”

    I did that. I’ve started reading classic Russian literature after Hemingway recommended it in his books. Once I got there I never went back to Hemingway, and that I do not regret.

  3. Maybe it should be books to think about rather than books to read.

    Of course you can’t think much about a book if you haven’t read it.

    But I have read many books that I decided weren’t worth thinking about and therefore were not worth reading. The trouble is I didn’t know until after I had read them.

    Lord of the Rings was not worth reading. The Door into Summer by Robert Heinlein is worth thinking about.

  4. The only book i have come across where the main character shares my name is Rape, A love story by Joyce Carol Oates. It was actually quite a disconcerting experience,maybe not shared by people with common names who see their name in books all the time.

  5. Diving into a book from the library I came across the previous reader’s return ticket for several books. Feeling the karma I checked out two and that’s how I found Geek Love and The Dinner. Good reads I had not heard of before. You never know how inspiration hits

  6. Good list!!! And also the first list that doesn’t make you feel that if you haven’t read a certain book then you have not read anything. Of course to add to it the books you dhould read that you haven’t heard about before but two of your friends just keep arguing about it. :-D

  7. I do read ALL the time……when we go on a trip I buy paperbacks, I read them and then leave them wherever I am. Love them.

  8. Best List Ever. Thank you.

    (Discovered Scott Turow as I was sitting across from a woman on a train who was reading the last few pp. of Presumed Innocent faster and faster the closer we got to the terminal and then whispered, “Ooh . . . shit!!”)

  9. Definitely read the one where the main character has your own name, in fact I was named after Bronwyn in How Green Was My Valley

  10. Yes! Some of my favorite books are the ones I’ve stumbled upon. I love stopping into a small bookshop and asking for a recommendation. Also, when I go to someone’s house for the first time, I always check out their shelves.

  11. I found one of my favorite books because it had been reserved at the library for someone with the same name. I picked up the four books I reserved and when I got home, I saw this other book, “St. Dale” by Sharyn McCrumb. It had just come out and I’m sure the other “Gigs” was anxious to have it, but I read the jacket and thought, “Well, that sounds right up my alley!” I read it in two days and returned it to the library with a note to the other “Gigs” both apologizing for picking up her book and thanking her for her excellent taste.

  12. Yes, yes. It’s all about discovery. Not only the story within the pages but what might fall out. I wrote a column this week about such discoveries — and found new treasures. I told readers I have a 1936 edition of “The Complete Works of O. Henry” that I bought from a pile of books on a picnic table. I later found a four-leaf clover within the pages. After writing this column, I flipped through the thin, fragile pages again last night. I was surprised to discover a total of 28 clovers, pressed and saved. All had four leaves except a few with two. Amazing, yes?

  13. I once bought a leather-bound, gold-embossed Dickens from the late 1800s for $10, just for its look and feel. It was Dombey & Son, which I’d never heard of. A couple of years later, I thought it would be so cool to hold it in my hands and read it. Whoa! Amazing! Dickens! The happiest of accidents!

  14. Speaking of what books we do and do not hear about: thanks for posting VIDA’s new findings about “Dudesville” magazines that mostly hire male reviewers and mostly publish male books.

    Makes me mad.

  15. Just read ! When I was bored as a child, I would read the ingredients on the ketchup bottle! My mum used to tell me, “Don’t Read ! You’ll get Ideas!'” Just read ! :) It is a gift !

  16. Love this list.

    Would you mind if I turned your words into a poster to put up in my school library? This year’s Book Week Theme in Australia is “Connect to Reading” and (most of) your list would be perfect to support that theme in a school with girls from 3 to 17 years of age. What doesn’t suit the girls should speak volumes to the staff.

    Obviously, I’ll cite the source (currently trying to really reinforce the whole “plagarism is not okay” message with best practise examples) but I understand if your answer is no.

    Either way – fantastic list!

  17. Some of my favorite books that I suggest are ones that get discarded from the local library and get put in the book sale. Just because no one has borrowed them doesn’t mean they aren’t good books, or if they’re falling apart they’ve been read many times and show promise of being loved.

  18. I read Watership Downs because Stephen King mention it in The Stand. Still one of my favs!! (Both actually are).

  19. The Gutenberg project has just about everything turned into digital. Ot however one would phrase that process. I think that is where I got that Chretian deTroyes Arthurian thing.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.