- We asked Big Think's readers and staff for their recommendations on books everyone should read.
- A collection of fiction and nonfiction works from around the world spanning millennia, these books will expand your horizons.
- Many of these books are long out of copyright, and can be read for free.
This article was originally published in December 2020. It was updated in October 2022.
Do you ever want to read more but find yourself unsure of what to read? Lots of people have the same problem. To help, we’re adding to the collection of “books everyone should read” lists. For this one, we reviewed hundreds of suggestions on what book everybody should read from a post on our Facebook page and combined them with some of our staff’s picks.
They span more than 2,000 years of literature, include fiction and non-fiction works, and will make you think, laugh, and cry. So without further ado, here are 13 books you should read when you get the chance.
If you prefer digital books but yet own an e-reader, we’ve included links to purchase one (at two price points) at the bottom of this list.
“Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one…cities will never have rest from their evils”
One of the most famous books of all time, Plato’s “Republic” depicts Socrates debating the nature of justice. To do so, he appeals to the metaphysical theory of the forms, a vision of a Utopian city designed to exhibit perfect justice, the allegory of the cave, the Ring of Gyges, and the metaphor of the Ship of State.
To say that it has influenced and excited thinkers since it was written (around 375 BC) would be an understatement. The British philosopher Julian Baggini argued that while in this book Plato, “was wrong on almost every point, the questions it raises and the methods it uses are essential to the western tradition of philosophy. Without it we might not have philosophy as we know it.”
Plato failed to take out a copyright on his book [it being written over 2,000 years ago likely played a role in this error] and several translations aren’t copyrighted either. You can buy a copy at the link above, but it can also be read for free on Project Gutenberg.
A Fine Balance
“But rest assured: This tragedy is not a fiction. All is True.”
Set in an unnamed Indian city during The Emergency, the story follows four people from very different walks of life as the country endures the struggle and changes of independence, a shifting economic picture, and social difficulties. Diving into one of the most controversial parts of India’s modern history is no easy feat, but this book does it in a way that manages to keep the focus on the human side of the era.
Praised as one of the 10 greatest Asian novels by The Telegraph, the book won many awards upon release. The Wall Street Journal considered the book “A rich and varied spectacle, full of wisdom and laughter and the touches of the unexpectedly familiar through which literature illuminates life.”
Tao Te Ching
“The Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao; The name that can be defined is not the unchanging name.”
Taoism’s foundational text, and a philosophical work that influenced most Chinese philosophy that came after it. The book attempts to explain The Way (Tao) and the virtues which can express it. Nature and actions in accordance with it are praised. The unity or oneness that underlies the universe is also highlighted.
The oldest known copies of the text date back to 300 BCE. Despite ups and downs in Taoism’s fortunes, the rise and fall of other philosophies, and occasional persecution, this book and its wisdom have endured all the while. Hundreds of Millions of people still adhere to some form of Taoism, and this book is the key to understanding their worldview.
Many thinkers have commented on the brilliance of the book. Chinese philosopher and writer Lin Yutang went so far as to say, “If there is one book in the whole of Oriental literature which one should read above all the others, it is, in my opinion, Laotse’s Book of Tao.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
“Oh dear, you seem to have fallen down a thirty-foot well, are you alright?”
While the various editions of the book differ, the basic plot remains the same. Arthur Dent, recently forced off Earth due to it being blown up so a freeway could be built, goes on hilarious adventures around the galaxy with President Zaphod Beeblebrox, joyfully existential writer Ix, and Marvin the Paranoid Android—yes, Radiohead got it from here.
Also, the answer is 42, but we don’t know the question.
Deemed a “whimsical odyssey” by Publishers Weekly and “inspired lunacy” by the Washington Post, the book series has legions of dedicated fans and several well-known adaptations.
The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” — Mark 12:31
As the holy text of Christianity and a collection of books with many focuses, there can be little wonder why the Bible is a frequently read, studied, criticized, and praised book. Featuring heroes like Sampson, teachers like Jesus, and epic tales like the Exodus, the Bible is a book with a large footprint on history and one to be counted among the great works of literature.
Even if you aren’t a Christian, the Bible is worth a read. LearnReligions.com points out:
“If you’re an avid reader, this is one bestseller you shouldn’t miss. The Bible is an epic story of love, life, death, war, family, and more. It has its ups and downs, and it’s pretty riveting. If you’re not a reader, this may be the one book worth saying you read. If you’re going to read anything, you can say you read the biggest bestseller of all time.”
Plus, you know, understanding the belief system of the world’s largest religion might come in handy sometime.
While some versions have copyrights, others don’t, and most of them can be read online for free. Project Gutenberg has the very popular King James Edition here.
The Brothers Karamazov
“A man who lies to himself, and believes his own lies, becomes unable to recognize truth, either in himself or in anyone else, and he ends up losing respect for himself and for others.”
A behemoth of a book centering around a murder, “The Brothers Karamazov” is part mystery, part love story, part court case, and part theological drama all wrapped up in a philosophical novel that has attracted the attention of the world’s greatest minds since it came out.
It was declared “the most magnificent novel ever written” by Sigmund Freud. William Faulkner and Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed to have read it regularly. Both Franz Kafka and Martin Heidegger felt the book directly influenced their work. Anything a group like that can all agree on is likely worth reading.
A Brief History of Time
“The whole history of science has been the gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired.”
For the person who wants to know how the universe and our understanding of it came to exist but also wants a side of extremely dry British wit, this is the book for you. Featuring only a single equation, E=MC2, Hawking’s book explores the history of astronomy, ideas of space and time, black holes, the universe, quantum mechanics, the theory of everything, and frontiers in science without jargon or the assumption that the reader has a degree in the hard sciences.
Widely praised on release, the book became a best seller and went through several editions, including “A Briefer History of Time” and an illustrated version.
“It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU the caption beneath it ran.”
The magnum opus of George Orwell, this novel considers a then-future England under the boot of a totalitarian state known as Oceania. The plot follows mid-level bureaucrat Winston Smith as he tries to navigate the surveillance state in which he lives, works, loves, and secretly dreams of rebellion. All the while, Big Brother is watching.
As one of the most influential novels of the 20th century, it should come as no surprise that the review from Victor Pritchett read: “I do not think I have ever read a novel more frightening and depressing; and yet, such are the originality, the suspense, the speed of writing and withering indignation that it is impossible to put the book down.”
Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
“What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.”
The story of a road trip from Minnesota to California features discussions of life, philosophy, hang-ups, and the effect of altitude on how well a motorbike runs. The problems of living life from a Romantic point of view against a Classical stance are a crucial part of the novel, and the attempt to find a middle ground lasts long after the road trip ends. All the while, ghosts from the past stalk the characters and ask questions that even they weren’t prepared to answer.
The original New York Times review called the book “intellectual entertainment of the highest order,” and it has become the best-selling philosophy book of all time.
Calvin and Hobbes
“I haven’t seen Calvin for about 15 minutes now. That probably means he’s getting in trouble.”
An anthology of comics by the great Bill Watterson depicting a young boy and his stuffed tiger, the series was the most popular comic strip in the United States for much of its run and continues to be loved by millions. While lacking an overarching plot, the series features several running gags and never loses its ability to touch on elements common to every childhood.
Praised as “vibrant, accessible, and beautiful” by Mental Floss and “one of the most beloved comic strips of all time” by the New York Post, this series is among the champions of comic strip fun.
“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly. No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried. Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked. “They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.” “And what difference does that make?”
Our first staff pick is the hilarious, zany, and shell-shocking story of bomber pilots in WWII just trying to stay alive while they navigate the bureaucracy of the U.S. Army Air Corps. It follows the misadventures of John Yossarian as he and his squad mates try to get out of having to complete their ever-increasing quota of missions. The book also considers (anachronistically placed) elements of American society that began to emerge in the ’50s and the absurdity of human existence.
The New York Herald Tribune called the book “A wild, moving, shocking, hilarious, raging, exhilarating, giant roller-coaster of a book.” Despite the non-linear plot, surreal occurrences, and dense language, Harper Lee said it was the only war novel she ever read that made any sense.
Widely considered a cult-classic, the book, fittingly, didn’t win any awards on release and has been deemed a significant work of the 20th century.
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
“It is important to understand that the system of advantage is perpetuated when we do not acknowledge its existence.”
Our second staff pick is from psychologist and Spelman College President Beverly Daniel Tatum. Written in 1996, the book returned to the New York Times’ best-seller list in June of 2020.
A bold consideration on how we discuss, or fail to discuss, race in America and its effects on our psychology, the book has sparked endless conversations and advanced debate since it first hit shelves. Featuring personal stories, empirical data, and her previous work in this field, the book makes a strong case for the need to engage with issues of racial identity in ways that many people currently do not.
Kirkus Reviews concluded that it is:
“A remarkably jargon-free book that is as rigorously analytical as it is refreshingly practical and drives its points home with a range of telling anecdotes. Tatum illuminates ‘why talking about racism is so hard” and what we can do to make it easier, leaving her readers more confident about facing the difficult terrain on the road to a genuinely color-blind society.”
“‘That is all. With the exercise of a little care, the nettle could be made useful; it is neglected and it becomes hurtful. It is exterminated. How many men resemble the nettle!’ He added, after a pause: ‘Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.'”
Our final staff pick is a masterpiece that tells the story of reformed criminal Jean Valjean, his adopted daughter Cosette, the people they met from all parts of French society, and the battle of the human spirit against the injustices of the world. Along the way, it takes the time to consider questions of life, death, God, evil, justice, convents, revolution, love, and French slang.
Described as “one of the half-dozen greatest novels of the world” by no less a writer than Upton Sinclair, and a frequently adapted favorite of audiences since its release, the book continues to speak to an essential part of our humanity in a way few others have.