06th May 2021
Compiling this list felt almost like too much responsibility. After all, who am I to provide the definitive list of books to read before you’re 40? But fear not, I have a defence prepared.
I am an avid reader – on a bad week I’ll probably only read one book. I write and have written something that is arguably a book and I review books. So I’ve decreed it, I’m doing the damn list.
I did seek input lest it all get a bit too subjective on this list and perhaps this could serve as a bit of living document, if you, dear reader, would be inclined to add some additions in the comments!
Initially, I tried to limit the inclusions by utilising subheadings. I opted for Heavy Hitters, Thinkers and Bangers as my categories. Heavy Hitters being the big ‘uns, the Dickens, Dostoevskys and De Beauvoirs, the Thinkers being the ones that ain’t pretty necessarily, but leave you changed none the less. You wouldn’t, perhaps, want to sit next to Hanya Yanagihara and AM Holmes at a party but their work is vital and their talent staggering. The Bangers are what it says on the tin – books you’ll return to again and again. The Joy-givers, the comfort-reads and the day makers – basically anything by Marian Keyes, Donna Tartt and Evelyn Waugh.
And so here is an extensive (but by no means complete) list of books to spend reading in the next weeks, months and years – however long you have before hitting the big Four-Oh, by which time my follow up list 60 Books To Read Before Your 60 will hopefully be ready.
#1 The Secret History – Donna Tartt
Considered a modern classic, The Secret History was a smash hit debut for Donna Tartt (who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her subsequent work The Goldfinch). Set in an affluent liberal arts college, the story follows a tight-knit group of eccentric Classics students in the aftermath of a terrible deed. The story is a pure thriller but dressed up with rich detail and addictive characters to give it a literary edge.
# 2 Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides
Middlesex is the second novel by the American-Greek author. Any one of his books could be on this list frankly, the Marriage Plot is another brilliant one. Middlesex is a contemporary twist on a Greek tragedy, a sprawling coming of age story in which our protagonist, Cal reflects on his family and the events that lead to his discovery that he was born intersex.
#3 Beloved – Toni Morrison
Morrison’s spellbinding story of slavery and racism is both a thinker and a heavy hitter. Nobel prize-winner Morrison tells a horrific story that manages to be both lyrical and suspenseful.
#4 Possession – AS Byatt
Two academics researching obscure Victorian poets in 1980s England does not sound like an addictive literary thriller with shades of romcom but this Booker-winner is just that. Byatt skewers the idiosyncratic worlds of academia and her virtuoso talents are exercised to the fullest in a book that includes passages of poetry, literary criticism and biography.
#5 Harry Potter – JK Rowling
C’mon. Just read ’em. It’s pure fun escapism.
#6 Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jessaym Ward
The Guardian described Ward’s novel as charting the “slow apocalypse of Black America”. Ward takes the quintessential American road novel and transforms it into a nightmarish odyssey. We follow Jojo and his family as they make their way prison to meet his father upon his release.
#7 The People In The Trees – Hanya Yanagihara
Yanagihara received enormous critical acclaim with her 2015 book, A Little Life but this earlier novel is not to be missed. The People In the Trees is a sort of book within a book, much of the prose is presented as an autobiography written from prison by our protagonist Norton Perina, a disgraced scientist. The text is littered with occasionally revealing, oftentimes sycophantic footnotes by an editor of the work. The novel has elements of the fantastic but was inspired by true events.
#8 The End of Alice – AM Holmes
Disturbing, dark and it does leave you feeling more than a little dingy but it’s a thoroughly compelling exploration of two depraved and despicable people. A ban on the book in the UK was honoured by WH Smith.
#9 Watermelon – Marion Keyes
Pure craic. Definitely needed after The End Of Alice! Claire Walsh’s husband ditches her on the day her first baby is born and she returns to her adorably bonkers clan in Ireland to heal and figure out how to work a baby.
#10 White Teeth – Zadie Smith
Smith’s debut novel was an instant crowd-pleaser, a sweeping epic about modern Britain, it deals with three generations of three London families. It’s a melange of contemporary culture clashes bursting with heart and hilarious characters.
#11 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
Sebold’s assured debut follows the fracture of a family. From the aftermath of a shocking murder, to ultimate healing and closure. For such a dark subject there is unexpected light and redemption in these pages.
#12 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
If you’re gonna *do* a Dickens, it’s got to be this one. A one-line synopsis of this expansive and richly told saga is nigh on impossible. Suffice it to say, this enduring classic has all the juicy stuff we love to gorge on: crime, guilt and revenge.
#13 The House of the Spirits – Isabel Allende
Another sweeping saga, Allende’s House of the Spirits charts three generations of the Latin American Trueba family in a tale that weaves together love, fate, magic and unforgettable characters against the backdrop of huge political upheaval.
#14 In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
Before Serial and My Favourite Murder, there was In Cold Blood, the OG true crime obsession. Capote became obsessed with the murder of the Clutter family in 1959, what follows is an exhaustive retelling of the apparently motive-less crime, trial and the nature of violence in America.
#15 What I Loved – Siri Hustvedt
What I Loved begins as a meditation on friendship set in the delicious world of the affluent New York art scene in the 80s, gradually it morphs into something far more sinister. Hustvedt blurs the lines between fiction and reality when she draws on the very real crimes of NYC club kid Michael Alig who also happened to be the friend of Hustvedt’s stepson.
#16 The Signature Of All Things – Elizabeth Gilbert
Adventurous 19th century botanists are the protagonists of this brilliant novel about love, ambition and frustrated desires. Utterly spellbinding.
#17 The Year Of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion
Didion’s spare and eloquent unpicking of grief in the wake of the tragic loss of both her daughter and her husband is quite simply unmissable.
#18 Notes On A Scandal – Zoe Heller
Pure juice. Heller’s 2004 novel centres on a solitary ageing teacher, Barbara who forms an obsession with a new colleague, Sheba a free-spirited art teacher. Unfortunately Sheba gets a little too free-spirited and embarks on an affair with a male student provoking Barbara to write a hypnotic account of their friendship, defending her friend but in the process revealing far more than she intended.
#19 Life Of Pi – Yann Martel
Pi, a Tamil boy from Pondicherry, loses his family in a disaster at sea and survives 227 days stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger named, Richard Parker. Mesmerising and uplifting.
#20 The Blazing World – Siri Hustvedt
A raging scream of a book that exposes the hypocrisy and prejudices of the art world. A female artist conducts an experiment, concealing her female identity behind three male fronts. Beguiling characters and fine writing make this unmissable.
#21 American Wife – Curtis Sittenfeld
The ‘American wife’ in Sittenfeld’s third book is none other than the First Lady of the White House affording us delightful insights into the character of these often enigmatic and seemingly compliant women. Alice Blackwell struggles with complex questions; how can she both love and fundamentally disagree with her husband? How can she reconcile her private beliefs with those of her public persona? Juicy stuff especially with Melania and Hilary in the back of our minds.
#22 Crossing California – Adam Langer
A 1970s coming of age novel set in Chicago, endearing and eminently readable.
#23 Enduring Love – Ian McEwan
An unforgettable opening draws us into an unsettling story of love and obsession.
#24 Any Human Heart – William Boyd
The whole life novel is a genre that is eminently satisfying and Boyd does a particularly good line in these. Any Human Heart charts Logan Gonzago Mountstuart’s life spanning nearly the entirety of the 20th century. It’s engrossing, witty and inventive.
#25 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
We’ve all seen the TV show, don’t miss the book! Frightening and powerful and as relevant as ever.
#26 This Must Be The Place – Maggie O’Farrell
The premise of This Must Be The Place is frankly irresistible, it’s basically a behind-the-scenes of the life of an Angelina Jolie type superstar who goes into hiding in remote Donegal and falls in love with an equally troubled man. Moving and witty, O’Farrell captures an extraordinary marriage.
#27 The Glass Castle – Jeanette Walls
The Glass Castle tells the story of Wall’s difficult childhood as the child of erratic bohemian parents, committed to rejecting social convention. If you liked Educated, you’ll love this.
#28 Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie has become such a well-known proponent of contemporary feminism that you’d be forgiven for forgetting that amidst all her activism and advocacy she is also a damn fine novelist, Americanah follows Ifemelu as she leaves Nigeria for America, where despite her academic success and self-assurance, she is forced, for the first time, to grapple with what it means to be black.
#29 Tales Of The City – Armistead Maupin
The six installments of Maupin’s riotous Tales Of The City span the 1970s and 1980s of San Francisco and take in everything from the gay bathhouse scene, the rise of punk and the Jonestown cult.
#30 Her Fearful Symmetry – Audrey Niffenegger
Darker and spookier than her hit bestseller, The Time-Traveller’s Wife, Niffenegger’s follow-up is set in a crumbling house on the edge of a cemetery in sodden London. A bizarre and unsettling ghost story/love story mash up that’s unputdownable.
#31 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
A tale of nostalgia, faded glamour and unrequited love. Waugh’s classic made Jeremy Irons an unlikely sex symbol and solidified our obsession with the doomed Marchmain family.
#32 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gael Garcia Marquez
It’s that classic thing. Boy meets girl. Sh*t hits the fan. Boy waits 50 years for girl. Sumptuous detail, vivid scenes and surprising comedy make this a wonderful examination of love, obsession and human nature.
#33 The Woman Upstairs – Claire Messud
Nora Eldridge is self-contained and isolated primary school teacher who had abandoned all hope of realising her dreams of becoming an artist until an unlikely friendship develops with the famous artist mother of one of her students. A dark and intimate exploration of ambition and obsession.
#34 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
Set in the early 50s in India, A Suitable Boy charts three sprawling families as they navigate love and arranged marriages against the backdrop of a newly independent country.
#35 Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil – John Berendt
As much a portrait of the beguiling city of Savannah as a true crime story. The writing is sublime and the characters – from Southern Belles to Voodoo priestesses – are unforgettable.
#36 Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro
When a Booker-prize winner writes a sci-fi love story, you know it’s going to be special. Never Let Me Go is a gripping mystery with literary leanings.
#37 Carrie – Stephen King
If you only do one Stephen King book in your life, I’d opt for Carrie. It’s a chilling and surprisingly restrained novel that is genuinely far better the slightly hysterical film version.
#38 Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson
A poignant and powerful book with some painfully funny moments, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is the story of Winterson’s fairly bleak childhood coping with a religious zealot mother and her burgeoning sexuality which is decidedly at odds with her evangelical family’s beliefs.
#39 The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt
The third novel by Donna Tartt won the Pultizer prize. It’s a ambitious telling of the life of Theodore Decker who survives a terrorist attack in an art museum at the age of 13. As he staggers from the wreck he takes a small but valuable painting unwittingly setting in motion a chain of events that will eventually be his downfall.
#40 Everything I Never Told You – Celest Ng
An exquisitely written novel charting the disintegration of a Chinese-American family in 1970s Ohio in the aftermath of their daughter’s murder. It is a meditation on the American Dream, the struggle for acceptance and the titanium hold of grief. Outstanding.
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