1. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
This heartbreaking memoir, written by Jean-Dominique Bauby, follows the life of a narcissistic editor turned ward of the hospital after a sudden stroke leaves him paralyzed and unable to communicate. It’ll make you realize how important the people in your life are, and how precious every moment really is. Did I mention you might weep through the whole thing?
2. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Need a little more impetus in your life?
Read this philosophical novel, and Robert Pirsig will help you realize how important it is to actually care about what you’re doing. In other words, if you’re fixing a motorcycle, then really fix it. Don’t listen to music, or do something else simultaneously. Do what you need to do, and take pride in it.
3. Cat’s Cradle
Of all the Vonnegut you could possibly read, this is the one that will raise the most questions — in a great way. Jonah, our narrator, wants to write a book about the inventor of the atomic bomb, Dr. Frank Hoenikker.
This book will make you question whether or not there should be a limit to the pursuit of knowledge. And it’ll get you to think about the power of weapons, and how even the most competent people can make mistakes with them. Plus, with all of that science comes the exploration of religion, or the futility of it, really.
4. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
This book is special because it gives voice to a type of person that often isn’t written about in fiction. That narrator is a 15-year-old boy named Christopher John Francis Boone, and he’s a brilliant mathematician who also happens to suffer from a behavioral disorder. (Some say Asperger’s, others suggest autism, but author Mark Haddon is adamant that it’s not about any one specific disorder.) Either way, this will help you think about prejudices and preconceived notions.
5. One Hundred Years of Solitude
Because it’s so wonderful to get sucked into the world of Macondo, it’s easy to forget that One Hundred Years of Solitude isn’t just a masterpiece of magical realism. It’s an allegory for colonialism, the human condition, and the political strife in Latin America.
6. Invisible Monsters
Full disclosure: This book is disturbing. Like, a model gets shot in the face with a rifle and goes on a journey to find out who did it kinda disturbing. That being said, the writing and structure, much like the story, proves that nothing is ever as it seems. And ultimately, this is a lesson and exploration of what it is to really love someone.
7. White Oleander
Life will make or break you, and when Astrid’s mother is sent to prison for murdering a former lover, Astrid is put into foster care in Los Angeles. That’s enough to break anyone, but what we see is that she manages to survive, and relies on her inner strength to do that. (Inspirational much?!)
8. In Cold Blood
This nonfiction novel revolves around the murder of the Clutter family in 1959, and why the murderers, Perry and Dick, committed their crimes. Author Truman Capote leads us in without judgment, and in doing so lets us come up with our own conclusions about the penal system, justice, and the nature of violent crimes.
10. Play It As It Lays
Play It As It Lays is a story about Maria Wyeth, a Hollywood actress who has lost control of her life and identity. It’s a tragic read that will force you into deep self-reflection, as it exposes the fact that we live in a culture where nothing is quite good enough.
11. Ada, or Ardor
Don’t get me wrong, I love Lolita — it’s an absolutely perfect novel. But Ada, or Ardor is so much more complex. Amidst the romance plot of Van Veen and his cousin Ada is a larger theme on the nature of time — and how it can change everything and nothing.
13. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Junior grew up on a Spokane Indian Reservation, but he’s also a budding cartoonist who dreams of getting off the rez. This book is funny, smart, and heartbreaking, but because of all that, it will make you question the idea of destiny.
Granted, this is Stephen King, so it’s going to be a scary read. That being said, this story about a group of children being terrorized by some anonymous entity goes beyond surface-level horror. It opens up a dialogue about childhood trauma and the power of memory, as well as the unspoken ugliness that hides in small-town values.
16. Under the Banner of Heaven
The amazing part of Krakauer’s nonfiction novel is that while it’s incredibly comprehensive — encompassing the early foundation of the Mormon church to the present-day scandals — it’s also a complete page-turner. This book will make you question your own faith as it examines the faith of a relatively new religion.
17. Me Talk Pretty One Day
David Sedaris is hilarious, period. But in Me Talk Pretty One Day he manages to weave all of his funny and true stories with the idea that humans have a problem with communication. His strange experiences with people will make you question how you communicate on a daily basis. (And he manages to pull it off with the reader barely noticing. How’s that for improved communication skills?!)
18. World War Z
Yes, believe it or not, a book about zombies can change your life. That’s because it’s not just about eating brains, it looks at cultural divides, politics, war, and conflicts that seem petty once the fate of the world is at stake. It’s an eye-opener that just happens to also be filled with awesome zombies.
19. The Giver
This book takes us into Jonas’ world, where there is no pain and everything is controlled. Until he turns 12, which is when he learns that there is pain, and fear, and passion, and emotions that he’s never experienced before.
Ultimately, this book has the gift of reminding you that life is pain, but that is what makes life so wonderful. We make choices that may be the wrong ones, but they give our life purpose.
21. A Brief History of Time
Being that this is a book by Stephen Hawking, it isn’t the easiest in the world to read. That being said, it’s incredibly smart, and if you can manage to get past the first few chapters, you’ll start to see that the big message here is all about time, and that it has a clear direction. If anything, reading this book will make you feel a little closer to understanding the universe (i.e., it’ll make you smarter!).
22. Sophie’s World
“Who are you?” and “Where does the world come from?” are the two questions that 14-year-old Sophie Amundsen is faced with. So begins this outline of Western philosophy set in a fictional story. It’s an incredibly accessible path to thinking about philosophy, and it sheds light on the importance of certain discoveries and advances in our society.
24. Life of Pi
Much as the book cover suggests, there’s a tiger, and this is the story of a young boy from India who’s stranded at sea in a lifeboat with said tiger. Yikes. Some people might mistakenly think that this is about religion, but what it’s really about is just that you should believe in something — whether that be God, the world, goodness, or yourself. The end message is that life is filled with possibilities, if you let it be.
25. Invisible Man
The great thing about this book is that it seems like it’s about one unnamed protagonist dealing with race issues. But underneath all that, it’s about humankind, and how we’re all stumbling along, trying to find ourselves. This book will teach you that actions really do speak louder than words. And what’s true for you isn’t true for anyone else.
26. Joy of Cooking
Coming from someone whose finest moments happen in front of a microwave, I can say that this book is a lot different than most cookbooks. The tone is conversational, and it’s filled with recipes, tutorials, and short pieces that actually convince you to try out some new things. Everyone should read this, because it will actually make cooking fun!
28. The Train
This novella is brief, but t manages to encompass the terror and horror of the Nazis invading a bucolic suburb in France. Our unlikely hero is Marcel Ferón, who has an affair after the invasion leaves him separated from his pregnant wife. It explores the idea of living in the moment and will make you question whether or not disassociating from your responsibilities is ever OK.
31. Prodigal Summer
In this book, we meet three different characters whose stories eventually intertwine. It all takes place in southern Appalachia and deals with their relationships toward the balance of nature around them. It will make you question your own relationship with evolution, and put into perspective what a small part of that we really are. The novel also explores the ideas of life and death, love, and the importance of the community around you.
32. Never Let Me Go
There’s nothing easy about reading Never Let Me Go, because it has an honesty that will make you question so many things. Like the social alienation of specific groups of people, and the painful fact that love can be lost or missed, all because of timing. It’s beautiful, haunting, and complex. Did I also mention it’s science fiction? Yeah, go read this.