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April 23, 2013 2:08 PM   Subscribe

If I were to choose 10 fiction and 10 non-fiction books to read within the next year to make me a better, more well-rounded conversationalist (for argument's sake, let's say within a college-educated professional audience), what books would give me the most bang for my buck?

I haven't kept up on literature (at all) since high school, and after realizing recently that I haven't read any Hemingway (seriously, Hemingway!) I've resolved to fill the gaps in my literary repertoire. I'd like to catch up on a lot more than 10 of these eventually, but my goal is to fill the most glaring gaps first, so I don't feel stupid when admitting I haven't read a particularly influential work.

On the non-fiction side, I'm most interested in books that will help me have thought-provoking conversations with a wide range of people. I'm not really interested in books that explore a very specific phenomenon (Gladwell comes to mind) for this purpose. Something that covers a broad topic with an engaging style would be ideal. This question is awesome, but I wouldn't know where to begin and I'm not even certain that that degree of detail is necessary for cocktail party conversation purposes. I suspect biographies might be useful here, as well.

Thanks in advance for sharing your brains with me!
posted by dynamiiiite to Education (37 answers total) 161 users marked this as a favorite
Hamlet. Everybody quotes Hamlet. And for an intro to the cultural aspects of Shakespeare, I (a complete non-specialist) enjoyed this blog and this book.
posted by you're a kitty! at 2:12 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think some of the standard high school required readings are ones to tackle if your school did not require them. They seem to be referenced often in other books and movies.

The Great Gatsby
A Separate Peace
The Scarlett Letter
Jane Eyre
Pride and Prejudice
On the Road
Moby Dick
Romeo and Juliet
Taming of the Shrew
posted by maxg94 at 2:18 PM on April 23, 2013

Books everyone talks about but not everyone has really read:
Huckleberry Finn-

Books I think people must read
Humbolt's Gift

Nonfiction near to my heart
The Parade's Gone By
1491 and 1493
posted by Ideefixe at 2:19 PM on April 23, 2013 [6 favorites]

I would suggest starting with some classics that are also quick/satisfying reads, particularly:

Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Joyce, Dubliners (or Portrait of the Artist, possibly)
Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men
Beckett, Waiting for Godot (assuming plays are OK, too)
posted by scody at 2:20 PM on April 23, 2013

I don't think there's a discrete lists of books that will do what you're asking. If you want to be able to have engaging conversations, the first thing is to be an engaging conversationalist. This doesn't require you to be a polymath.

But to the topic at hand, I would pick up reading a general-interest review like The Economist, The New York Review of Books, or (my favorite) the London Review of Books. These publications stay on top of the books that provoke the chattering classes, and give you more bang for your intellectual buck (since you don't actually have to read the books in order to get a good idea of what they're about). I also follow Arts & Letters Daily for good long form journalism and reviews that might slip under my radar.

But if you really insist on reading old-fashioned books, I'd suggest looking at topics instead of specific authors. No one actually talks about Hemingway these days, unless it's within the context of prose in general or sexism in literature (I hate to be cynical, but it's true).

As far as I'm concerned, I am much more interested in talking to someone who has read a book I haven't read that presents an interesting idea or set of ideas for consumption. I really don't care for talking about books I've already read because it usually involves rehashing arguments I've already heard.

Hope this helps. Good luck!
posted by anewnadir at 2:22 PM on April 23, 2013 [12 favorites]

(that said, the syllabus for Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun's course at Columbia isn't a bad place to start).
posted by anewnadir at 2:24 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything is wonderful on the science front.

In the case of history, in my experience, reading a lot of stuff for trivia doesn't lead to particularly interesting conversations — I forget it all immediately. The fascinating discussions come out of people's weird interests and passions, and the points where those intersect. So if you follow your weird specific obsessions (everyone has them — mine are the London Blitz and 1930s British East Africa), you'll end up seeing how they tie into the wider world and the course of history. Which leads to all kinds of interesting conversations!
posted by you're a kitty! at 2:26 PM on April 23, 2013 [4 favorites]

If you read "Heart of Darkness", you might want to take a look at "King Leopold's Ghost", which points out that HoD was a pretty accurate look at the Congo at the time.

For non-fiction, if you want something new and shiny, Duhigg's "The Power of Habit" is an interesting read.
posted by rmd1023 at 2:27 PM on April 23, 2013

1491 is awesome. So is Moby Dick.

Okay, so what kind of thing do you usually care about? I've found that the things that make me a better conversationalist are not actually the Long Tail/Guns Germs And Steel books that "everyone" is reading; they are books that talk about my interests but at a new, more challenging level. I find that when I am excited about a new way of thinking, it improves my conversation in general - partly because it tends to have a LOT of application across subjects and partly because I want to talk about it in the many contexts I encounter.

You should be sure to read some books by women writers and writers, both men and women, of color! But that could be pretty various.

Oh, look, no, wait, you should TOTALLY read Audre Lorde's Zami: A New Spelling For My Name. It is a towering classic, it will blow you away, I promise, and it will get you reading a bunch of other stuff organically. Also, why not read Samuel Delany's memoir The Motion of Light In Water? It is incredibly thought-provoking about narrative, contains some truly excellent poems by Delany's then-wife Marilyn Hacker and it's just a fascinating portrait of Delany's early life as a person and a writer. I guarantee you that you will be smarter and more conversational if you read this book.

Bleak House is a wonderful, bizarre, eerie book, regardless of the white straight male ness of the author. Also a towering classic.

You should read Edward Said's Orientalism - not only does it give a lot of potted history and culture - educational in itself! - but it will show you the world in a new way. Come to that, why not read the first volume of Foucault's History of Sexuality, paying particular attention to the chapter on the Victorians and talking about sex?

And read Franco Moretti's The Way of The World - a book about novels and class and European history - you'll want to read a bunch of novels after you read it.

Also, you should read some of those Studs Terkel interview books - the one about the Great Depression in particular.

Paul Fussell's The Great War And Modern Memory will teach you a lot of poems and a lot of stuff about World War I.

And I recommend the graphic novels Fun Home and Are You My Mother by Alison Bechdel, also the graphic novel Epileptic, by David B. All are dense, rich, time-consuming, thought-provoking.

posted by Frowner at 2:32 PM on April 23, 2013 [26 favorites]

Newish non-fiction books I keep talking to strangers about:

Them: Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson covers his experiences with enough different current groups that you will ALWAYS have something to say about the Bohemian Grove, the modern day KKK or the Bilderberg Group.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain is great for understanding the biological differences between introverts and extroverts and how we're all somewhere on the continuum.

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Cline is all about the recent history of clothing sold in America.

These are all pretty niche but keep coming up because everyone wears clothes, likes stories about subcultures and/or considers themselves an introvert or an extrovert. I don't know if I can recommend canonical non-fiction works to make you more "well-rounded" but keeping up, even slightly, with new books certainly can!
posted by zem at 2:35 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

An Incomplete Education was designed precisely for this.
posted by seemoreglass at 2:57 PM on April 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Also seconding Jacques Barzun, especially his From Dawn to Decadence. Reading it for the second time now.
posted by seemoreglass at 3:03 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

For nonfiction and to broaden your mind in an engaging way, here are my suggestions:

How Proust Can Change Your Life, which will help you become a kinder and more interesting person.

Causing Death and Saving Lives, which provides an interesting framework to consider moral issues (which you will find useful at cocktail parties where you're trying to make conversation)

Mountains Beyond Mountains, the biography of Paul Farmer. I pretty much guarantee that once you read this book you will have a hard time not talking about it with everyone you meet. I gave a copy to a guy who sells his art on the street here and the next time I ran into him (like 2 years later) he told me he'd given it to his sister, who read it and gave it to their dad.

The Omnivore's Dilemma, which you may have heard of. It's incredibly engaging and also extremely informative about food and food production.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down This is a book I read over and over, and I love it every time. It's the story of a little Hmong girl with epilepsy who has emigrated with her family to the central valley in California and the way her illness is seen in her community vs the way her western doctors view it. This book actually was the genesis for a new program in that area (and elsewhere) in which the healers from the person's culture are brought in by western doctors to co-heal people with very different views of the body and healing. The title of the book is the direct translation of the Hmong words for "epilepsy."

I feel like I'm a better person for having digested these, and the fact that they are all so interesting and entertaining makes their edifying features just icing on the cake.
posted by janey47 at 3:16 PM on April 23, 2013 [8 favorites]

Nthing all things Jane Austen. Look at the people around you. I bet two of them enjoyed reading Pride & Prejudice and one has a stack of Regency romances somewhere.

For non-fiction, I say double down and read Michael Chwe's Jane Austen, Game Theorist or Richard Handler's Jane Austen and the Fiction of Culture (which might as well be Jane Austen, Ethnographer). I mean, for your purposes, you should guarantee you have something interesting to say about what you read.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 3:22 PM on April 23, 2013

What Frowner and anewnadir said. Really, just read enough to figure out what grabs you, and then read lots of that. This is really a learn-to-converse thing more than a learn-stuff-to-talk-about thing. I'd offer advice in that direction if I were a good conversationalist, but I'm not.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:46 PM on April 23, 2013

Frowner nailed it magnificently: Melville, Bechdel, Delany, Epileptic, etc. As a huge reader and someone who works with books and spends time chatting with people about them, this is a great selection and some of my clear favorites. But I guess it depends on your crowd. If the people you know are all reading/chatting about pop-science and pop-anthropology bestsellers, you may not get far with that selection. (But you should read them anyway, because they are fantastic!)
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 4:15 PM on April 23, 2013

I'd also add The New Jim Crow for non-fiction.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 4:21 PM on April 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

I highly recommend any of Mary Roach's (non-fiction) books, especially Stiff: The Curious Lives of Cadavers and Packing for Mars. Funny, fascinating and fact filled reads.
posted by bobdow at 4:36 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


- Anything by James Gleick, but especially Chaos and The Information, which present chaos theory and information theory, respectively, in digestible and informative prose. Gleick's books are ripe for conversation starters. E.g, did you know that west African tribes used redundant "bits" in messages communicated over drum patterns to ensure that the message didn't get corrupted?

- If you've never read him, Nietzsche is surprisingly entertaining and poignant. I recommend starting with Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals. A lot of philosophical writing is a big impenetrable mess that requires years of study to pick apart. Not so with Nietzsche. He typically writes in aphorisms that are basically the 19th-century intellectual equivalent of conversation starters. Maybe you can find a compendium with some nice introductions and supplementary articles.

- "Philosophical Investigations" by Wittgenstein. Again, I'd recommend trying to find some edition with some supplemental writing.

- "The Postmodern Condition" by Lyotard. Source of the term "postmodern" in most circles. Also explains the term "late capitalism" and gives a bit of a background on what modern philosophers outside the analytical school are working on. Also helps make postmodern literary theory make sense.


- The Brother's Karamazov by Dostoyevsky. The ultimate philosophical meganovel. Lots of ideas explored. Referenced and alluded to endlessly.

- House of Leaves. Okay, a lot of people hate this book, and I can understand why, but it will give you a good idea of what it means for something to be a "postmodern ______ novel". Features horror, parodies of academic writing, a healthy sampling of pomo writing techniques, plus a mathematical puzzle at the end!

- The City and the City by China Mieville. Probably his closest thing to a crossover/mainstream novel, but also provides a bit of a hook into the SF/fantasy world if you're interested in that.

- Madame Bovary. If only because it's the book where Flaubert invented free indirect discourse, which is how virtually all modern novels function.

Hmmm, this list is somewhat skewed toward my own purposes, but hopefully some of them seem interesting to you.
posted by deathpanels at 5:37 PM on April 23, 2013

Off the cuff, these books have greatly attributed to my impressive abilities as a conversationalist
Non fiction:
The greatest show on earth by richard dawkins
an eaters manifesto by micheal pollen
Salt by mark kurlansky
The world without us by allen weisman
sex drugs and coco puffs by chuck klosterman
Amusing ourselves to death by neil postman
Freedom manifesto by tom hodgkinson

One hundred years of solitude by gabriel garcia marquez
American gods by niel gaiman
habibi by Daniel craig
House of leaves by mark danielewsky
Tropic of cancer by henry miller
Naked lunch by william s. Burroughs
The bible
posted by sabatourist at 5:41 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Born to Run. Lots of people run, and lots of runners have read this engaging and a little bit controversial book about lots of things. it's well written and I almost always find someone who's read it, enjoyed it and wants to talk about it or running in general.

Guns Germs and Steel. Pop anthropology that theorizes why western culture has been ascendant. Again, it's been widely read, but even if you don't discuss the book itself, it touches on many things that are relevant to good conversation.

For fiction try Hilary Mantel. her last 2 books have won the Booker and deal with Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn, a story most folks are familiar with
posted by OHenryPacey at 5:44 PM on April 23, 2013

I'm going to jump into the line of people who say that for conversational purposes, the canonical classics aren't going to help you - what you want for nonfiction are thought-provoking books with arguable hooks and juicy anecdotes, and, for fiction, good genre-specific recommendations or the "hot" new books everyone will be talking about for the next couple of months.

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, by Michael Moss

I'm reading this now and I can already tell it'll carry me through cocktail parties for months. Jam-packed with stories about the sordid histories of familiar foods, from Lunchables to Oreos. After reading it, you can talk about: the obesity epidemic, the massive consequences of the government's subsidies of corn, beef, and dairy industries, a ton of food advertising tricks, food and flavor science, ins and outs of corporate responsibility & ethics, why we all eat so much cheese these days. Also along these lines, though older: Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

In-depth reporting about a family living in the slums of Mumbai. Won all the big prizes last year. You can talk about: globalization and its consequences, reasons for global poverty, how India is modernizing, and the ethics of the way white people tend to report on brown people. Also along these lines: Random Family by Adrian Nicole Smith, a similarly immersive book about a poor family living in the Bronx. You can talk about: the prison-industrial complex, the failures of the welfare system, the way that free will intersects with or is compromised by structural disadvantages.

People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry

The story of a British girl who was murdered in Japan. Talk about: different kinds of justice systems, different ways we perceive justice, Japan in general, the phenomenon of white girls working as "hostesses" and being paid to flirt in Japan, sexuality across cultures, media frenzies and the "Murdered White Woman" phenomenon. Relevant anytime anyone gets in trouble abroad.

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis

One of lots of possible books about the financial crisis, also packed with memorable anecdotes. To talk about: why the financial crisis happened, why no one is being punished for it, who should be punished for it, why we hate bankers, examples of lots of reasons we should hate bankers, why none of us will ever be able to retire.

The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science and Fear by Seth Mnookin

About the spurious autism/vaccine connection, always good for getting people yelling at each other at parties. More broadly relevant to any conversations about public health policy, parenting, hypochondria, and conspiracy theories.

Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by Mark Helperin

This book is a bit outdated now, but it was a huge conversational power source for years after I read it. Basically, it's worth reading at least one book about contemporary politics and what matters less than a super-sophisticated take are anecdotes and gossip. Apparently the same authors have a sequel, the un-creatively and somewhat stupidly titled "Game Change 2012"
coming out soon, you could try that or search out your own.

Columbine by Dave Cullen

This is a fascinating book that becomes newly relevant every time a young man goes on a murder spree, which is tragically too often. Apparently, its specific take on the Columbine shooting take is controversial (major figures have objected to the way they've been portrayed) but it's broadly fascinating on sociopathy, bullying, the school system, and young men in America. A related book that I want to read but haven't yet is Emily Bazelon's Sticks and Stones which is about high school bullying and I imagine has a very interesting take on the Phoebe Prince suicide.

Okay, fiction is harder, since a lot of it is about figuring out what books the people you're talking to may have read. Still, may I recommend this year's Tournament of Books over at The Morning News. That's basically just a lot of people talking about the year's hottest new fiction, so they might give you a few leads. A few highlights

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
All about North Korea, so an easy link to the news. Just won the Pulitzer.

Building Stories by Chris Ware
A graphic novel. People love talking about graphic novels. Are they books? Are they literature? How should we read them? (yes and yes and anyway we want, but they're still good convos).

A few brand-spanking-new books the literati will probably be talking about:

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
(not even out yet but almost guaranteed to be a big one)

Finally, as I run out of space and steam: they're not quite high culture, but people who like smart mystery and thrillers like to talk about them endlessly, so here are a few suggestions that have helped me forge connections with strangers -

The Last Policeman by Ben Winters
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Room by Emma Donoghue.
Broken Harbor by Tana French

posted by pretentious illiterate at 5:49 PM on April 23, 2013 [9 favorites]

I can't give you a good answer with non-fiction. I just don't read much of it. John McPhee is supposed to be really good. Names on the Land, which explains how places in the United States got their names, comes highly recommended to me.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is good, though saturated with Gibbon's prejudices: lots of antisemitism, lots of orientalism, lots of sexism, the works. Very much a part of the 18th century, so there's a lot of bad stuff to stomach (Really there's a lot of bad stuff to stomach in a lot of what follows, so caveat emptor, etc.).

Same with The French Revolution by Thomas Carlyle. This one is fun, though, for its incredibly bombastic style. It's the anti-Gibbon, never even pretending to impartiality.

Following from deathpanels's Nietzsche suggestion, give Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays and Thoreau's Walden a try. Nietzsche took a lot of influence from Emerson, as did Thoreau.

Speaking of Nietzsche, don't believe a word he says without thinking about it.

Borges's Selected Non-Fictions. Really wonderful stuff throughout. I don't think any piece in it exceeds ten pages.

As for fiction:

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov is excellent, and it'll lead you to a whole other galaxy of books on its own. I'm also partial to Nabokov's Lectures on Literature, but I was Nabbed a long time ago, so I often get carried away in my praise of it.

Shakespeare's plays are always a safe bet. Same with the Bible, the Koran, etc. I wouldn't go peppering my speech with Hamlet quotes, though.

More recently: Wittgenstein's Mistress, Infinite Jest, White Teeth, Open City.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 5:57 PM on April 23, 2013

Nearly anything by David McCullough, but The Path Between The Seas certainly. John Adams in a pinch.
Shelby Foote's The Civil War.Warning, it's a trilogy, but by God, it's a masterpiece.
The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes
The Ghost Map, by Stephen Johnston
Palm Sunday, by Kurt Vonnegut
Anything by James Bamford
The Tao Te-Ching, by Lao Tzu. Shop around for an older edition. The recent ones are bilge.
Rabbit, Run by John Updike
Laughter In The Dark, aka Camera Obscura, by Nabokov
Mysterious Island, by Jules Verne
Moby-Dick, by Melville (or Bartleby, A Scrivener, if you like novellas)
The Thurber Carnival, James Thurber
Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino
Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, Macbeth or Much Ado About Nothing.
The Hairy Ape, The Iceman Cometh or Long Day's Journey Into Night, by Eugene O'Neill
posted by nj_subgenius at 6:35 PM on April 23, 2013

I just finished Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow" and it's a fantastic gloss of biases and heuristics by the Nobel-winning professor who discovered a good deal of it. If you often chat with the sort of people who don't mind having their own irrationality pointed out to them, this book will give you lots of conversation. In fact, the organizing conceit is that of a few office workers gathered around the water cooler to armchair-quarterback other people's decisions.
posted by d. z. wang at 7:01 PM on April 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Francis Spufford's astonishing Red Plenty counts as a non-fictional history and a fictional fairy tale. And as a science fiction saga to rival Asimov's Foundation.
posted by Bwithh at 8:50 PM on April 23, 2013

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
All about North Korea, so an easy link to the news. Just won the Pulitzer.

Also, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, which did not win the Pulitzer.
posted by BibiRose at 10:24 PM on April 23, 2013

Read one book this year, and make that book War and Peace

That is all.
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 12:25 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Read Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood. It gives an unsettling glimpse into a possible future if we as a planet do not get our collective shit together. It's also just a really good story with excellent, well-drawn characters.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:30 AM on April 24, 2013

For the nonfiction, you should probably grab a Bill Bryson book; "A Short History of Almost Everything" was fun to read and fits your requirements well.
posted by talldean at 5:30 AM on April 24, 2013

Another vote for crawling down the rabbit hole of a self-directed passion. Personally, I'm more interested in a person who is excited to teach me his or her weird interest than another person who'll tell me a half-baked theory of evolutionary psych or something embarrassing about Sarah Palin. Pop science is fun, but it seems to be a way to fall into a passing, ill-researched fad.

"The Omnivore's Dilemma" is a book that works both ways for me. It ignited within me a passion for natural, local foods and planted the seeds (ughh pun) for me starting to garden. Local food is a big topic amongst urbanites, so you'll hold your own having read it.

My niche interest is Henry Ford and his early automobiles. Working at a museum and growing up in metro Detroit started me down that path, but "Fordlandia" is a good start for a layman. It's centered around a failed rubber plantation (trees don't take kindly to assembly line-esque production), but it's more about Henry's contradictory yearning for pastoral community and the destruction of such through the propagation of his Model T. Now I'm interested in the structure of cities & neighborhoods, and that's another pile of books I get to read, while having some historical perspective.

Read "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" if you want to know every god damn thing about the development, science, and politics of the a-bomb. Good stuff.

Fiction-wise, you may as well head to the library and read something you've heard is good or classic. I picked up "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison on a whim and it blew me away, which lead to my reading "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" which ties into my previously-stated interest in urban structure & gentrification.

Books are linked. Follow a passion and I think you'll be more satisfied.
posted by Turkey Glue at 8:06 AM on April 24, 2013

Response by poster: wow. I can't wait to get started on these. I appreciate both the recommendations and the redirection down the path of individual interest - I'm sure I'll get a lot out of both.
posted by dynamiiiite at 9:56 AM on April 24, 2013

For Non-Fiction, I think you'll like

Class by Paul Fussell. It's funny, real and feels very true. It explains a lot. I think once you read it, you'll have an appreciation of his writing and want to read more.

The Two-Income Trap-Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi. This is a very insightful book about why we feel that we're not doing as well as our parents. Also, Elizabeth Warren is now a US Senator from MA, and with luck, I think she'll be our next president, so it wouldn't hurt to have read her writing.

What Jane Austen Ate and What Charles Dickens Knew-Daniel Pool. Tells you what all that stuff you read about 19th century English novels really means. I could have dispatched half of my English Lit degree with just this book. Seriously.

I agree with Turkey Glue, books are interlinked. If you like one, it will inevitably lead you to more.

A trick. If you find a novel hard going, especially one from the 18th or 19th century, try to watch a Masterpiece Theatre/BBC production of it, THEN read the book. It helps A LOT!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:35 PM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

For stray non-fiction interests, general knowledge fill-ins, and, if you must, material to sound up to date with at brainiac cocktail parties, I recommend that you check out Oxford's Very Short Introductions. I've read 2 or 3 of them, and I thought they were excellent.
posted by thelonius at 2:19 PM on April 24, 2013

Somewhat related, a tumblr blog called #CultureCoach; focus is mostly on one reading (i.e. book), one listening (i.e. album), one viewing (i.e. film) piece of "culture" each week. One per week may be ambitious for you, but nothing stopping you from mining ideas from just the book selections each week.

For non-fiction, Gödel, Escher, Bach is pretty high up on the lists for a lot of technical types.
posted by jraenar at 3:25 PM on April 25, 2013

Dude, Balzac! He is the master of writing about people and relationships. His books are almost all character development — minimal plots, interesting, short and easy to read! My favorite so far: Father Goriot
posted by Tom-B at 11:43 AM on April 30, 2013

I think Hemingway is vastly overrated but you would do better with his short stories than his plodding novels, if you felt you had to deal with him. A few of my recommendations to fill glaring gaps would be (and I apologise for double-ups with other posters above):

-1984 by George Orwell
-Candide by Voltaire
-Them two books what Homer wrote (any editions)
-Montaigne's Essays
-A good collected selection of Samuel Johnson
-Probably some Mark Twain (his middle-period short stories)
-World War Z by Max Brooks (no, I'm not kidding, this is one of the best pieces of fiction in the past ten years)

You will probably have to choke down some Cormac McCarthy if you want to engage with modern literary dialogues. His least-obnoxious book is probably The Road. You will also at some stage likely have to read American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, but you would do better to skip that and read Glamorama instead. There are other zeitgeist-y types but really they're all quite awful.

That said, you would do well to check out A Reader's Manifesto by B.R. Myers. There is a book version, and an online essay version (at The Atlantic). He might save you a lot of wasted time.

Also one of each of the following (you pick, they are all the same):

Shakespeare (obviously)
Solzhenitsyn (I would go for Cancer Ward)

But, all said and done, what you need to do is find a book of essays that you enjoy (take, say, Nicholson Baker's Size of Thoughts or something by A.C. Grayling or David Foster Wallace as a starting point if you're stuck), plug it into Amazon, and check out the hundred recommendations that will pop up.

Don't listen to us, listen to yourself. Books always lead to other books.

(Remember to get an ebook reader of some description in order to save yourself a great deal of money in the short-to-long term. Check out Project Gutenberg. Everything you need is right there.)
posted by turgid dahlia 2 at 3:04 PM on April 30, 2013

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