A book everyone should read?
July 20, 2006 9:48 PM   Subscribe

Please tell me a book you think everyone should read and why.

Fiction or nonfiction, doesn't matter. I'm not so interested in hearing about your favorite book or your desert island book, but a book you think everyone would benefit from reading.
posted by pasici to Society & Culture (132 answers total) 533 users marked this as a favorite
The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. It is a brief, easy to understand book on "living in the moment". It changed my life.
posted by karmaville at 9:55 PM on July 20, 2006 [9 favorites]

"Fool On The Hill" by Matt Ruff: it has a sense of whimsy (and dark stuff, too) that is likely to spark a person's imagination for many years

"The Fountainhead" by Ayn Rand: it demonstrates the importance of integrity and philosophy in life
posted by davidmsc at 9:58 PM on July 20, 2006 [4 favorites]

A Farewell to the Working Class - Andre Gorz
- Approaches issues of labour and distribution in the post-industrial world. Not because I consider the man's arguments perfect, but because it questions some of the industrial-era precepts which are taken by far too many as iron-clad laws.
posted by pompomtom at 10:03 PM on July 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand. A very accessible look at architecture and how we change it and it changes us over time. It will change the way you think about and experience the built environment around you. I'm serious. Yes, that Stewart Brand
posted by Rock Steady at 10:04 PM on July 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

Lion and Blue by Robert Vavra, to know what love is.
posted by wubbie at 10:06 PM on July 20, 2006

The History of the World. How we got where we are now - essential reading. I read a penguin one a few years ago, it was pretty good, if I recall correctly.
posted by MetaMonkey at 10:13 PM on July 20, 2006

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.
posted by bshort at 10:15 PM on July 20, 2006

I have the first four of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in a single chunky book, does that count?

I could reread the damn thing 'til my eyes bleed.
posted by Serial Killer Slumber Party at 10:17 PM on July 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'll second Guns, Germs, and Steel.
posted by freakystyley at 10:25 PM on July 20, 2006

Vehicles, by Valentino Braitenberg. It's a series of thought experiments where he applies emotional/psychological language to a series of hypothetical machines. This seems like a stretch at first, with the simple machines, but as they get more complicated, it gets shockingly plausible. Pretty mind-blowing; completely destroys the illusion that there's anything mysterious about how low-level brain processes can give rise to human behavior.
posted by equalpants at 10:28 PM on July 20, 2006 [8 favorites]

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Besides psychological insights, the narrative of this psychotherapy pioneer and holocaust survivor is at once heart-rending and uplifting.

The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. Fuses philosophy with sociology and cultural studies in an eye-poppingly brilliant way.

Where I'm Calling From by Raymond Carver. Honed gems of short stories about the human condition.
posted by jeffmshaw at 10:29 PM on July 20, 2006

QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter by Richard Feynman, for a gentle math-free introduction to the theory that appears to most accurately describe what really happens when charged particles interact.
posted by nicwolff at 10:37 PM on July 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

Illusions by Richard Bach. Buy it in hardcover; pilot shops (oddly) tend to have it in stock.

Also the 3 or 4 books on relationships by Merle Shain, now out of print but available on eBay/Half: Some Men Are More Perfect Than Others, Hearts We Broke Long Ago and a couple others whose titles elude me for the moment.
posted by baylink at 10:37 PM on July 20, 2006 [2 favorites]

"The Art of War" is good, even today.

The Tao Te Ching is also good, even if you're not looking for a new religion.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 10:41 PM on July 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

Maldoror, by Lautreamont. Because no other book covers important matters like what happens when God's hair is left behind in a brothel; the origin of meteorites made of lice; interesting things you can do with a girl, a dog, and a pocketknife; archangels that disguise themselves as lamps or crabs; people rolled up & pushed along like balls of dung; and fascinating ornithological facts. If that is not enough, it could well be the funniest book ever written, as well.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:54 PM on July 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

I find that the most interesting people I've met have read Catch-22 at some point.
posted by gerg at 10:54 PM on July 20, 2006 [4 favorites]

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham.
Because everyone should read the greatest novel ever written.

posted by Gerard Sorme at 10:55 PM on July 20, 2006 [6 favorites]

A Lover's Discourse, by Roland Barthes. Also to know what love is, but probably in a very different way, I suspect.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:58 PM on July 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins.

The theory of evolution is incredibly beautiful in its ability to give a simple explanation for the complexity of the biological world, yet few people understand it well. In his books, Dawkins shows how evolution can produce altruism, and various other complex organs and behaviors, but most of all, he explains its basic principles and shows why evolution is the only possible explanation - even in theory - for complex living organisms.
posted by martinrebas at 11:00 PM on July 20, 2006 [3 favorites]

Walden, by Thoreau is essential reading for folks who live in a consumerist society--i.e. every American.
posted by scalespace at 11:07 PM on July 20, 2006

Tuesdays with Morrie

great inspiration to enjoy every moment of life.
posted by lain at 11:22 PM on July 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

His Dark Materials - Phillip Pullman. Three books aimed at young adults but offering a very confronting perspective on religion. Plus its a cracking story.
posted by bystander at 11:23 PM on July 20, 2006 [5 favorites]

Slaughterhouse-5 by Kurt Vonnegut. A book so good that I have an open offer to my friends that I will personally buy them a copy if they agree to read it.

Also Ishmael by Daniel Quinn - another book that will fire the neurons of anyone who reads it.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 11:26 PM on July 20, 2006 [5 favorites]

Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman

A most beautiful meditation on the way the world would be if time were just a little different.
posted by jweed at 11:27 PM on July 20, 2006 [4 favorites]

Good Stuff
posted by jne1813 at 11:43 PM on July 20, 2006 [4 favorites]

The Once and Future King, by T. H. White. At turns funny, uplifting, and heartbreaking.

The March of Folly, by Barbara Tuchman. How stupid decisions have changed history for better or for worse. Particularly insightful given the surfeit of stupid decisions made by our politicians lately.

The Demon-Haunted World, by Carl Sagan. A great antidote to the flood of bullshit that surrounds us.

I second the opinions on A Short History of Nearly Everything; Guns Germs and Steel; and How Buildings Learn.
posted by micketymoc at 11:51 PM on July 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

How Children Fail by John Holt. What schooling does to learning; still perfectly relevant.

A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander. A slog in places, and Alexander's a bit of a nutter -- but still. He describes, in concrete terms, how life on earth should be, could be, and sometimes has been. The problem is: You're stuck with the way it is now.
posted by argybarg at 11:56 PM on July 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'll second both "The Art of War" and "Hitchhiker's," the latter particularly for teen readers who don't reject sci-fi out of hand.

Also, for geopolitics without academia (there are both benefits and drawbacks to this), check out the most recent edition of "The World's Most Dangerous Places" by Robert Young Pelton.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 12:04 AM on July 21, 2006

The Stranger by Albert Camus. It is, for me, a How To Survive as a Member of A Larger Society Handbook.
posted by bunglin jones at 12:21 AM on July 21, 2006

The Great Gatsby because... I can't even describe the feeling I had upon reading Fitzgerald for the first time. I like Tender is the Night better, but Gatsby is... Gatsby.
posted by occhiblu at 12:24 AM on July 21, 2006 [2 favorites]

Also seconding the tao te ching (link is to a translation I like). Not really one to read all in one go, I prefer dipping in randomly from time to time. Chock full of ancient goodness.
posted by MetaMonkey at 12:27 AM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]


Because it has been my experience as to how the world works most of the time.
posted by rfbjames at 12:40 AM on July 21, 2006

The Bible. Can't believe I just suggested it, given that I am a staunch athiest. But yes, I think there's a story for just about everyone in that book. Even if it's technically a compendium of 66 books.
posted by randomstriker at 12:45 AM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli - because, while not particularly insightful (and a bit repetitive), it codifies the precepts which are the basis of all forms of interpersonal interaction even to this day.

The Bible (specifically, the New Testament) - on preview, for the same reasons as randomstriker.

Catch-22 can be summed up as 'a couple of episodes of M*A*S*H, dragged out over 520 pages' (even if it does predate M*A*S*H, and do it better), and Ayn Rand's writings are the wet dreams of capitalist fetishists - "The Fountainhead" may indeed demonstrate 'the importance of integrity and philosophy in life', but is unashamed simplistic fanfic when it comes to the question of 'why is this way better?'.
posted by Pinback at 1:04 AM on July 21, 2006

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, to hopefully begin a dialogue on race and class matters, and how much (or how little) has changed since the book was written in 1960.
posted by Dreama at 1:23 AM on July 21, 2006

I have a real fascination with the intersection between literature and entertainment. Unfortunately I have stupidly high standards, and there aren't too many books that IMO that have equal value for both education and pleasure.

A few exceptions:
For Whom the Bell Tolls (Hemingway)
The Actual (Saul Bellow), actually any Saul Bellow
The Histories (Herodotus)
Phaedrus / Phaedo (Plato)
posted by bifter at 2:29 AM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Life A Users Manual by Georges Perec. Not only a marvellous narrative, but a jigsaw puzzle, a travelogue and a oulipian masterpiece all wrapped up in one.
posted by ninthart at 2:31 AM on July 21, 2006 [5 favorites]

"Brave New World" by George Orwell.
It's terribly prescient, and is a book I think of often in my day to day experiences.

"The Prize-winner of Defiance Ohio" - can't remember the author's name.
This is an incredible true story of the author's mother's struggle to feed and care for her family by entering numerous brand name contests through the fifties and sixties. Inspiring, and heartwarming story illustrating strength and determination despite overwhelming setbacks.
posted by Radio7 at 2:35 AM on July 21, 2006

I've got nothing to pass muster here, minus Animal Farm perhaps by Orwell and Foundation by Asimov.

I just wanted to thank you for an absolutely awesome thread.
posted by disillusioned at 3:25 AM on July 21, 2006

Up From Slavery - Booker T. Washington

Not only an inspiring story of a man who lived the American Dream... not only the autobiography of one of the few Champions of Civilization, this book is also a fascinating historical account racial integration.

This book will change your ideas about race and personal integrity.
posted by ewkpates at 3:26 AM on July 21, 2006

"The Art of Looking Sideways" by Alan Fletcher because everybody who uses a bathroom could brighten up their lives by placing it there. It is a book of wonders.
posted by rongorongo at 3:55 AM on July 21, 2006 [2 favorites]

Any kid of mine will read a buttload of H. L. Mencken before they start high school.
posted by dong_resin at 3:59 AM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'll vote for "The Prophet" by Kahlil Gibran. It's short, it's poetic, it's heartfelt and gets to the center of the good that surrounds us.
posted by willmize at 4:06 AM on July 21, 2006

Valley of the Shadow: After the Turmoil, My Heart Cries No More by Erich Anton Helfert

It's about the ethnic cleansing of Germans from Sudetenland (now the Czech Republic) at the end of the second world war (it also happened in Poland as well).
This one of least known and least publicised facts about the second world war - that millions of ethnic Germans were forced to leave their home when the war ended and around two million died from exhaustion, starvation, attacks by mobs or the military.

This book will make you realise that behind every historical event there is always another aspect that we may not even be aware of, so we shouldn't make black and white judgements.
posted by ingridm at 4:09 AM on July 21, 2006

Radio7: ‘Brave New World’ was by Aldous Huxley, not Orwell.

Personally, I don’t think there are any books that everyone should read, or that everyone would benefit by reading, or having read to them—seeing as how not everyone is literate. Most readers have a few books that they feel have made them a wiser, or a happier, or a more perceptive or a better person in some way; but it is a mistake (I think) to believe ones own insights are applicable to everybody else. For instance, the books that changed my life include Gravity’s Rainbow, Hofstadter’s Metamagical Themas, the Codex Seraphinianus, and an anthology of Contemporary Finnish Poetry: but would the same combination work in quite the same way for anyone else, let alone everyone? I doubt it…
posted by misteraitch at 4:19 AM on July 21, 2006 [2 favorites]

Another vote for "Catch 22". It captures the essence of the twentieth century: ideology, war and the folly of bureaucracy.

"The Power Broker" by Robert Caro will teach you about power. "The Years of Lyndon Johnson" by the same author will do the same if you have a bit more time (like a year or two).
posted by NekulturnY at 4:38 AM on July 21, 2006

Hold On to Your Kids. (The book really is better than the cover and soundbites may suggest)
posted by davar at 5:18 AM on July 21, 2006 [3 favorites]

Seconded: For Whom the Bell Tolls (Hemingway)
100 Years of Solitude (Marquez)
Blindness (Saramago)
Anything by Vonnegut
Brave New World (Huxley)
Fahrenheit 451 (Bradley)
The Handmaid's Tale (Atwood)
Ender's Game (Card)
Lamb (Moore)
The Tin Drum (Grass)
Manufacturing Consent (Chomsky)
The Adventures of Augie March (Bellow)
Catcher in The Rye (Salinger)
posted by purephase at 5:24 AM on July 21, 2006 [3 favorites]

Reasons? They're great.
posted by purephase at 5:25 AM on July 21, 2006

Everyone? Impossible.
The Tao is Silent - Raymond Smullyan. He explains, very logically, (his view of) the illogical Tao.
The Jungle - Upton Sinclair. Like "To Kill a Mockingbird," it paints a picture of social (and in the case corporate) injustice that persists and perpetuates.
posted by plinth at 5:26 AM on July 21, 2006 [3 favorites]

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula
The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald (kicks Gatsby's ass by a mile)
I, Claudius by Robert Graves
Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
posted by gsh at 5:30 AM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Security Analysis by Benjamin Graham
posted by JohnnyGunn at 5:45 AM on July 21, 2006

Don Quixote.

Every other novel is crap.
posted by bradth27 at 5:49 AM on July 21, 2006 [3 favorites]

Great thread! I'm looking forward to going through it more thoroughly and culling suggestions.

Conversational Style - Deborah Tannen. Convinced me that simple, blameless conversational style differences underlie so much of our painful interpersonal (and even international) discord and disconnection. If everyone read this, we'd all get along much better.

Your Money or Your Life - Joe Dominquez and Vicki Robin.
Questions assumptions about spending most of one's life working to earn money. If everyone read this, more people would find ways to work less and live more simply.

(I also agree with the suggestions for Vehicles and The Blind Watchmaker.)
posted by daisyace at 5:54 AM on July 21, 2006 [4 favorites]

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

You can skip the sonnets but read all the plays at least once -- it doesn't take anywhere near as long as you think and is much faster and more interesting than plowing thru the Bible, for example.

However, after that you should read the Bible.
posted by unSane at 5:55 AM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

oh, and +1 for How Buildings Learn, a brilliant book which deeply influenced the way we designed the house we are building.
posted by unSane at 5:55 AM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

The Complete Works of Shakespeare. I have to qualify this by saying that you won't enjoy him if you don't understanding him. At it takes work -- at first -- to understand him. Though the work will pay off a thousand times over.

For the first few plays you read, you'll have to look up many words (which will easy if you have a good edition, because the definitions are on the same page as the text). After a while, you'll hardly have to do this. You'll learn Shakespeare's language. (Seeing the plays helps, and many of them are available on video, but you shouldn't skip reading them. Seeing them allows you to skip over difficult details and just get the gist.)

The ONLY thing that is hard about Shakespeare is the vocabulary. If you don't understand him, it's ONLY because you don't understand some of the Elizabethan words or phrases. And once you look them up, you DO understand them. Once you do, Shakespeare is easy. He wrote to be understood by "the common man."

If a teacher convinced you that Shakespeare was hard, it's because he insisted that you view the plays through some sort of rarified, academic lens -- in which you probably mined the play for themes, social/political messages, and historical details. If that's your bent, fine. But the plays are extremely rich if you "just" enjoy them the simple plot/character level.

Why Shakespeare? Because his plays contain EVERYTHING. They contain the sum total of human experience. This sounds like hyperbole, but everyone who has gotten into Shakespeare discovers it to be true. Shakespeare knew your mom, your dad, your friends, family and you. He delves deeply inside his characters and -- way before Freud -- explores their psyches.

He also explored every avenue of literary style. There's a eerie feeling you get, reading Shakespeare, that literary innovation is impossible, because Shakespeare discovered all the tricks and used them: breaking the forth wall, straight-forward narrative, surrealism, post-modern trickery, Brechtian alienation... They are all in Shakespeare.
posted by grumblebee at 5:57 AM on July 21, 2006 [20 favorites]

Yes, Walden.
posted by LarryC at 6:00 AM on July 21, 2006

Grumblebee is right to a point, but if you have a half-decent vocabulary it's possible to speed-read Shakespeare and get a great deal of the sense without stopping to look up every 'fardel' and 'petard'.

One of the reasons Shakespeare is so important beyond the literary merits is that it's a treasure trove of Classical mythology, western history, and Biblical references. By reading Shakespeare you massively expand your exposure to far more than Shakespeare.
posted by unSane at 6:01 AM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

I personally find Shakespeare much harder to understand on stage than on the page.
posted by unSane at 6:02 AM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Nice to know there's another Shakespeare lover here, unSane, but I disagree about the Sonnets -- though I definitely wouldn't START with them. They are harder to understand than the plays, because they're not as obviously tied to plot.

For those who want to read Shakespeare but don't have time to read ALL his plays, I recommend "Midsummer Night's Dream", "Henry IV, Part I," "Hamlet". "Macbeth" and "King Lear" -- in that order. Many people agree that "Lear" is the best play every written (maybe the best piece of literature every written), but -- if you're new to Shakespeare -- work up to it. It would be a pity for you to encounter it first, while you were still struggling with the language.
posted by grumblebee at 6:02 AM on July 21, 2006 [9 favorites]

Candide - Voltaire

It truly is the best of all possible books.
posted by MrMustard at 6:04 AM on July 21, 2006 [2 favorites]

Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. I've read it three times and it still bends my mind each time.
posted by Johnny Assay at 6:08 AM on July 21, 2006 [4 favorites]

Some other suggestions, before I shut up: so many Americans don't know -- or don't care -- that we have a literary tradition i this country. And it's a GREAT one, with its own distinctive voice. Try...

"Moby Dick" by Herman Melville
"The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne
"House of Mirth" by Edith Wharton
"Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain
"The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald
"The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck
The Grapes of Wrath
"Our Town" by Thornton Wilder
"Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger
posted by grumblebee at 6:10 AM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu - thought by many to be the world's oldest existing novel (and one of the first novels ever written). Written by a woman during traditional Japan's Heian period of high culture in the 11th century. Stunning poetry and tons of drama. Read the unabridged version if you have the patience of a saint.
posted by Ekim Neems at 6:23 AM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Anybody that slogs through any crap by Ayn Rand should read Nathaniel Branden's Judgement Day: My Years with Ayn Rand ISBN 0-395-46107-3, to discover what a duplicitous, nasty, and debauched old harridan that hag really was. Or, better yet, skip all that low brow Objectivist claptrap altogether.

Use the time thus saved to read, carefully, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

Tackle, as life permits:
How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler
A Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant.
The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris.
All of William Shakespeare's works (several times).
Faust by Goethe
The New Lifetime Reading Plan: The Classical Guide to World Literature, Revised and Expanded by Fadiman and Major
posted by paulsc at 6:30 AM on July 21, 2006 [7 favorites]

Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters is excellent. I think it's his best story. I wrote about why I liked it at my website.
posted by chunking express at 6:32 AM on July 21, 2006

The Bible, King James version. No book will explain the last two thousand years of humanity better than this one. Simply reading it will alter many of your opinions about Christianity and about the world around us, regardless of your theology. I recommend the Oxford World Classics edition with Apocrypha - great margins for jotting notes, rather inexpensive, and includes the Apocrypha, which gives insight into early Christianity.
posted by krark at 6:32 AM on July 21, 2006

I've recommended this here before, but I can't resist an invitation to get people to read this book.

The Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad
by Minister Faust

This is perfect for anyone who enjoys sci-fi and fantasy, but anyone who enjoys good fiction should check it out.

This book was given to me by a friend with a "You have to read this". He was never more right. Seriously, check it out.
posted by utsutsu at 6:39 AM on July 21, 2006 [2 favorites]

Western Lit seems to be well-covered, so... Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
posted by misozaki at 6:49 AM on July 21, 2006

Lies My Teacher Told Me should be read by everyone who reads this board, and every high school student before they take American history.
posted by achmorrison at 6:54 AM on July 21, 2006 [2 favorites]

I’ve been rolling my eyes at a lot of these suggestions. Books that are supposed to be great, so people have convinced themselves they are. Especially 20th century novels. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great 20th century novels. But for every artfully told story that got famous as a great book, there are two or three pieces of obnoxious propaganda, thinly cast in clever metaphor and witty turn of phrase. Brilliantly written, and soulless.

As for a recommendation of a book everyone should read, I’d love to recommend to everyone Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon. It's a wonderful example of brilliant storytelling that has surprising and engaging depth, especially for a late 20th century popular novel. If I had to recommend a piece of fiction that everyone should read, it’d be that. Especially if everyone was wanting to be a writer. Great place to start learning how to write story.

But, it’s got to be something everyone should read instead, so I’m going to recommend Matthew. It’s got the Sermon on the Mount, so everybody can get the meat of what that Jesus guy everybody keeps talking about was trying to say. Hard words in there; I wish more of his followers would pay attention to them. And it’s got some of the most retold, reimagined, and referenced stories on all of literature in the Christmas story, the passion, and the parables. And all in as close to original form as possible. good stuff if you can handle ancient literature.

As for Shakespeare, start with Romeo and Juliet. Pretty much everyone’s got a good idea of what the story is about, so you get to tap into that prior knowledge. Plus, it’s one play that’s relatively easy to understand what’s going on without seeing it staged.
posted by The Mauve Frog at 6:55 AM on July 21, 2006

-1 Ayn Rand. Claptrap indeed.
posted by unSane at 6:58 AM on July 21, 2006

Catch-22 is sheer genius. It portrays the inescapable absurdity and irrationality of life, and different ways human beings can respond to that. Hilariously, and movingly.

pinback is dead wrong about it, but dead right about Ayn Rand. It is no surprise to anyone who's read her truly rock-headed, self-regarding bullshit that she's only rated in the USA.

Also, "Why I Am Not a Christian", by Bertrand Russell. It's a thin, easily-digestible tome rather than one of his more intimidating philosophical works but it does dismantle most of the more popular reasons for succumbing to the idiocy of religion (in general, not just Christianity) and as such provides an excellent starting point for the intellectual detoxification of anyone who has had the profound misfortune of falling prey to religious notions.
posted by Decani at 7:07 AM on July 21, 2006

2nding Godel Escher Bach.

The Power Broker

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information
posted by dmd at 7:10 AM on July 21, 2006

I third Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Also, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
posted by markcholden at 7:44 AM on July 21, 2006

I have to chip in with Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War which is a fantastic read. Skip the Hellenica which was written by Xenophon and carries on the History without pause from Thucydides.
posted by jadepearl at 7:49 AM on July 21, 2006

I firmly believe that 90% of the every person's problems could be avoided if everyone would just read (and learn from) Aesop's fables. As much as I love Shakespeare and appreciate the Bible — if there were only one book I could insist that my child read, it would have to be a collection of Aesop's fables.

(I like this version, but there are lots.)
posted by cribcage at 7:53 AM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Thanks, jeffmshaw, for mentioning Raymond Carver's short stories. I'd recommend in particular "Cathedral," "A Small, Good Thing," and "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." Wonderful insights into human behavior, in some cases simply within a drunken conversation. They show us what we're capable of.
posted by booth at 8:06 AM on July 21, 2006

This is an awesome thread and I'm really intrigued by most of these suggestions. I only have a few to add of my own as mostly I am in complete agreement with previous comments:

Shakespeare- I get teary-eyed describing to my mother (English is her second language so she finds Shakespeare unrewarding) how rich and complex and beautiful Shakespeare is to me. It's one of the few things that not only is as good as it's held to be, but far better.

-Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow- I'm not sure what to make of this book, still, having reread it many times from when I was twelve, but each time I pick it up I realize what an exhilarating writer Bellow is.

The Bhagavad-Gita: I haven't read any other classic Hindu texts (except for various creation myths etc) so I'm sure my understanding of the Gita is woefully incomplete. But, even as a complete beginner to Eastern thinking, just picking up and reading this was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life.

Other works of philosophy (Platonic dialogues, Aristotle): These are the majority of what I study in school and although I knew it was something I wanted to do, I had no idea how meaningful it would become to me. I think that I must have thought before I started studying them that we didn't really need them, because didn't we have more of the answers now (ie in terms of scientific progress, etc)? Being proved wrong has never been so interesting.
posted by Oobidaius at 8:37 AM on July 21, 2006 [2 favorites]

"The Good Earth" by Pearl Buck
"Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov

These beautifully written novels (the latter is practically musical) are entirely different, yet comparably profound explorations of human desire, motivation, and angst.
posted by found missing at 8:44 AM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

For the independent-minded...

Island by Aldous Huxley
Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein
Parliament of Whores by P.J. O'Rourke
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:46 AM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

One of my government teachers gave a summer reading assignment of Conscience of a Conservative by Goldwater and Conscience of a Liberal by Wellstone. I thought they were both worthwhile reading, despite previous political druthers.
posted by freddymungo at 8:59 AM on July 21, 2006 [2 favorites]

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" by William Blake
"The Life of Pi" by Yann Martel
"The Green Mile" by Stephen King
"Crime and Punishment" by Dostoevsky
"Tess of the d'Urbervilles" by Thomas Hardy
"Diary of a Young Girl" by Anne Frank
"The Rape of Nanking" by Iris Chang

Why these books? All of them opened my eyes up to the larger world out there.
posted by cass at 9:11 AM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt. It's a classic.
posted by gd779 at 9:31 AM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Terrific suggestions above, however, as misteraitch suggests, this is a difficult question to answer. All readers have their personal favorites, but relatively few books (let alone authors) deserve to be universally prescribed. Shakespeare deserves it.

I'll give it a shot, though. I never read a Western before Lonesome Dove, and it turned out to be one of my favorite books. Epic, intelligent, and ultimately heartbreaking. Almost every single page was entertaining, and I honestly think that anyone who likes fiction at all would enjoy it immensely.

My absolute favorite, though, is Little, Big. It's a long, beautifully written, modern fable. If that sounds like your kind of thing, then it may end up being your favorite too.
posted by steadystate at 10:03 AM on July 21, 2006 [3 favorites]

I would suggest The Millionaire Next Door. Its not a literary great. But it captures fundamental personal financial practices in one short summary.
posted by greedo at 10:12 AM on July 21, 2006

posted by einarorn at 10:32 AM on July 21, 2006

Why Literature Is Bad for You. It's audacious, it's thought-provoking, and ultimately it's wrongheaded, but I found it a fairly rewarding mental exercise to identify and take apart what I didn't like about it. Unfortunately, it's also out of print.

On the negative side, anyone who tells you that you have to read The Alchemist is not your friend.
posted by kittyprecious at 10:56 AM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman - Richard Feynman

Autobiography-style series of hilarious and amusing (and informative) yarns from Noble-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman. I like to think it as the book equivalent of the movie - "Forrest Gump" in the sense Feynman was a quirky character and you get a feeling that he could accomplish anything he set his eyes on. He did learn to pick locks afterall and broke the lock of...well..I don't want to spoil the fun for you. When I first read it, I re-read it three or four times within a month..and every once in a while I just pick it up and read any random chapter from it.(I need to ask my friend who borrowed it to return it to me) Don't get fooled by the physicist angle. This book is as commonman-ish as it gets.
posted by forwebsites at 10:57 AM on July 21, 2006 [4 favorites]

Also, as per World Book Day poll conducted by the Museum, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), in which librarians around the country were asked the question, "Which book should every adult read before they die?"

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Bible
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by JRR Tolkien
1984 by George Orwell
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
All Quite on the Western Front by E M Remarque
His Dark Materials Trilogy by Phillip Pullman
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
Tess of the D'urbevilles by Thomas Hardy
Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
The Prophet by Khalil Gibran
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Middlemarch by George Eliot
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzenhitsyn

posted by forwebsites at 11:06 AM on July 21, 2006 [7 favorites]

The little prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery

Because it's simple and accessible. And most of all because, despite it's simplicity, it makes you think.

" Grown-ups like numbers. When you tell them about a new friend, they never ask questions about what really matters. They never ask: "What does his voice sound like?" "What games does he like best?" "Does he collect butterflies?". They ask: "How old is he?" "How many brothers does he have?" "How much does he weigh?" "How much money does his father make?" Only then do they think they know him. "
posted by kechi at 11:07 AM on July 21, 2006 [9 favorites]

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

Because most of us are invisible. And if we are not, we should try to understand the invisible ones.
posted by phluke at 11:16 AM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

A second suggestion for Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (really, anything by Calvino is amazing)
Cigarettes by Harry Mathews
The Last Days by Raymond Queneau
posted by hopeless romantique at 11:23 AM on July 21, 2006 [3 favorites]

I agree with a lot of these and disagree vehemently with others.

Also having the right age for a book is essential for maximum impact.

For your consideration:
'The ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold' by Evelyn Waugh. Entertaining, well written.

À Rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans. Strange to think how old it is.

I enjoyed myself when reading Mémoirse d'Hadrien by Yourcenar. But I'm not sure wether it's bisexuals-are-superior programma would have bored me if french was my native tongue.

Somehow I liked Under the Volcanoe by Malcolm Lowry tremendously. I'm not sure why.

À la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust in the category of obsessive scrutinizing of sensations. Definitely an age related book.

I read I Havsbandet by Strindberg in dutch. Good when you're an adolescent.
posted by jouke at 11:29 AM on July 21, 2006 [2 favorites]

A vote for The Blind Watchmaker for non-fiction, because it will help you understand how it is we came to be here more persuasively than any religious text could hope to.

Pretty much anything by Kurt Vonnegut will make you both hate and love the human race in approximately equal measures at the exact same time. Slaughterhouse 5 is the obvious one to begin with here.
posted by chorltonmeateater at 11:34 AM on July 21, 2006

I liked the spatial imagination of Little Nemo in Slumberland when I was a kid. Not sure wether it's as impressive when you're accustomed to 3d computer games.
posted by jouke at 11:36 AM on July 21, 2006

Can't believe no-one's mentioned Austen, particularly Pride & Prejudice. Sure these days she's been overused as fodder for pretty movies, but if you actually read the books you discover not just drawing room romance, but a pitch perfect voice, a cruel eye for detail (Mansfield Park just about scorched my eyebrows off) and an almost unfailing sense of pace. The model of what good novel should be.
Seconds on Calvino, Vonnegut, Jared Diamond, and Dostoevsky.
Unless you're fifteen years old, unattractive, and looking to sneer at lots of people, you can safely skip Ayn Rand.
posted by Sara Anne at 11:45 AM on July 21, 2006 [3 favorites]

Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues by Paul Farmer. If you care at all about the inequity of health care, this book will make you mad as hell. This book is solely responsible for the career path I chose.
posted by makonan at 11:48 AM on July 21, 2006

Beauty: The Invisible Embrace by John O'Donogue. A lyrical introduction to our world of beauty and wonder. A refreshing antidote to the disease of cynicism infecting "modern" society.
posted by vega5960 at 11:55 AM on July 21, 2006

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick. It's profound, and moving, and deeply spiritual, but I cannot quite figure out what it means or why it means so much to me.
posted by headlessagnew at 11:55 AM on July 21, 2006

The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels

Mein Kampf by A. Hitler

Any collection of Poems by Matsuo Basho

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

The Art of War by Sun Tzu

and Everybody Poops by Taro Gomi translated by Amanda Mayer Stinchecum
posted by Megafly at 12:14 PM on July 21, 2006

Ok, one dutch novel: The Darkroom of Damocles by W.F. Hermans.

When you're young tales by Poe are wonderful. Old skool harmless horror.
posted by jouke at 12:20 PM on July 21, 2006

I've never seen so many delightful, artfully-constructed sentences as in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. You can tell Chabon loves to play with language - and the story itself is captivating as well; the book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001.
posted by irregardless at 12:26 PM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell
posted by jasondigitized at 12:27 PM on July 21, 2006

I'll second How to Read a Book, which paulsc recommended about two feet up the thread.

I wish I'd discovered that book much, much earlier.
posted by futility closet at 12:27 PM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

jouke: If you're calling the author of 'A la recherche du temps perdu' a looney, I shall have to ask you to step outside!

posted by ZenMasterThis at 12:52 PM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Ok let's go.

I'll belt you with the '54 Pleiade India paper edition: high-density paper, supple calf leather that makes a nice slapping noise.
posted by jouke at 1:19 PM on July 21, 2006

Great thread! If I had known this would come up on AskMeFi, I wouldn't have made that ill-advised FPP on the blue. Read The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm.
posted by MarkO at 4:31 PM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita. Or for somewhat similar, simpler non-fiction, Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem.
posted by dilettante at 4:56 PM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I try to reread it once a year to be better at whatever I'm doing. And to stop getting stuck.
posted by yerfatma at 4:58 PM on July 21, 2006 [3 favorites]

It's not high art or life changing, but one of my absolute favorite books that few people have read is The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. It's fantasy with a historical feel, romantic elements, humor, action, adventure. Kay is a wonderful fantasy author that not nearly enough people have read.
posted by booksherpa at 5:40 PM on July 21, 2006

Since this thread seems to have changed into more of a desert island book list, I'll throw in a few of those for good measure (anything previously listed by others is repeated for emphasis):

Henry Miller: The Books in My Life (which, in itself, is a good springboard for further reading)
Antonio Lobo Antunes: anything, but especially An Explanation of the Birds
Georges Perec: anything, but especially Life a User's Manual
Knut Hamsun: anything, but especially Mysteries & Hunger
Harry Matthews: anything, but especially Tlooth & The Conversions
Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master & Margarita
Vladimir Nabokov: anything, but especially Pale Fire
Raymond Queneau: anything, but especially Witch Grass, The Sunday of Life & Zazie in the Metro
Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano
Joris-Karl Huysmans: A Rebours ("Against the Grain")
Alain-Fournier: Le Grand Meaulnes
Henry David Thoreau: Walden
Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities & If on a Winter's Night a Traveller
Mario Vargas Llosa: anything at all
Samuel Beckett: everything
Dostoevski & Shakespeare, generally, I guess, but that would be assumed, as would be other obvious super-classics like Cervantes, Dante, etc.

I'm sure there's something brilliant that I've missed in there, but not a bad starting list, anyway.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:52 PM on July 21, 2006 [4 favorites]

First off, Shakespeare. If I had to pick a single play as most essential, I would say Hamlet, but also have a look at Much Ado About Nothing, to see the other side of the Bard's writings.

Also, if you end up having any sort of fondness for Hamlet, then you absolutely have to read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In fact, I would recommend you read Hamlet just so you can ready RaGAD.

Vonnegut, Vonnegut, Vonnegut. Also, pick up some Heinlein, and have a go at Asimov's Foundation books. That's the height of sci-fi, right there.

However, I am disappointed that I haven't seen anyone suggest Sartre. His No Exit is a must, and many of his other writings, in particular his essays, are well worth checking out.

And I second (or fifteenth, whatever) Catch-22. Its dipiction of the absurdism of war is at first funny, then heartbreaking.

Also, my best friend will punch me in the ovaries if I don't suggest One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It's an engaging and disturbing read, and well worth it.

[This is a wonderful thread.]
posted by internet!Hannah at 9:20 PM on July 21, 2006

I'm sorry ubu. I'd never heard of Harry Matthews so I'll look into that.
But I'm disappointed that you seem to turn this into a "what's the canon in world literature" thread. You can't be serious that you really really really liked anything by Nabokov f.i. His novels of the Russian years....
Cervantes is in the category of books you can find in second hand bookshops in 1930´s editions and almost all of these editions have never been read for almost a century. They´ve just been standing on peoples bookshelves inducing guilt.
Dante was amazing for his time, but the fact that Pope Pius IV is placed by Dante with his feet in tepid water in the 2 ring of purgatory because of the sloth that he showed in the way that he opposed the Medicis in 1325 is nowadays just very uninteresting. Just go watch the film Se7en instead or something.

Ok, I´ll add a book that I enjoyed immensely and that´s not highbrow. Cryptonomicon by Stephenson. A genuine boys´ book for grown up geeks. Nazi gold, submarines, finnish women, cryptologists, daring adventures. What´s not to like.

And a non fiction book. Thoughts without a thinker by Mark Epstein. It didn´t change my life because it´s very abstract but I found the analysis of buddhist practice in terms of psychoanalysis intellectually fascinating.
posted by jouke at 10:34 PM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

I recommend Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. An Amzon review: "As an office worker I often find myself escaping to books of adventure and travel. Amongst such books the works of Antoine de Saint-Exupery are amongst the finest. Saint-Exupery was a pilot in the fledgling airline industry in the 1920's and 1930's flying mail routes in exotic locales such as Spain, France's African Colonies and South America and then an officer in the French and Free French Air Force during World War Two. But equally importantly Saint-Exupery was an amazing storyteller and philosopher who between tales of plane crashes and amazing escapes reflects on questions such as why do men put their life at risk, when can we say that we truly experience what it means to be alive and what is mans relationship with technology and progress."
posted by thisisdrew at 8:33 AM on July 22, 2006

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. Just read it. You'll be glad that you did. Then go read the sequal (The Gift of Asher Lev).

Web Page on Chaim Potok
posted by bim at 10:15 AM on July 22, 2006

As far as Chaim Potok goes, you should also consider The Chosen and The Promise. It wouldn't say that they're books everyone should read, but they are well worth cracking open.
posted by internet!Hannah at 1:01 PM on July 22, 2006

jouke, sorry, but what's the point of the "world literature" snark? Were we supposed to stick to the canon of banal anglo-american writing? Fair enough point on the early Nabokovs, though. Cervantes inducing guilt? That would be like all the people who buy Proust or Ulysses & never make it past page three. It's a reflection on the readers, not on the literature.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:55 PM on July 22, 2006

I think it should be required of all Americans to read The Great Gatsby once a year.
posted by frecklefaerie at 1:40 PM on July 23, 2006

a book you think everyone should read and why.

The biggest, fattest, widest-ranging anthology of poetry available, whichever that might be. In the US, maybe the Norton Anthology of Poetry would do. I would like everyone to read every work in it at least three times each, and to commit at least a dozen to memory.

Far too many people read for improvement. If they read nonfiction to learn something, to solve problems, well, fine, but they also read fiction with the same utilitarian goals. Like so many socrealists, they expect all fiction to educate and inspire good citizens to do good works.

People should read for the pleasure of reading, for the same reason they listen to music, for the same reason they dance. And there is no greater pure reading pleasure than reading poetry. The post above suggesting that people read Shakespeare but skip the sonnets is insane. Read Shakespeare, but read him for the poetry, for the pleasure of the language, for the emotions he conjures up in you as you read, and not for any damned lesson you might learn.
posted by pracowity at 2:52 PM on July 23, 2006 [2 favorites]

Reading any good works, fiction or not, sonnets notwithstanding, without passively or actively taking advantage of their ability to teach you subtle or profound lessons, in addition to their ability to give you great pleasure in the reading, is as silly as the idea of eating good meals without digesting.
posted by found missing at 11:19 AM on July 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Somerset Maugham's Short Stories and his Razor's Edge. Anecdotes about life in the Far East, Europe and as a British Intelligence officer.

The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. Beautiful, sensual, evocative, intelligent writing. An expatriate living in Alexandria, Egypt before and during World War II.

CS Lewis' Trilogy - Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength.

The Joy of Cooking. Not only practical recipes, amazing info about food.

Robert Sheckley's Omnibus. Science fiction short stories with wonderful psychological twists.

Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism byChogyam Trungpa. Life changing for me.

History of Indian Philosophy by Surendranath Dasgupta. Scholarly, but likably well written and very insightful, makes sense of the impossibly difficult.

George Orwell's Collected Essays. Insightful, nicely written and savvy about important issues with political awareness.

Thomas Pynchon's almost impenetrable but still fascinating Gravity's Rainbow. A fanatic delight in funny, absurd, interesting, complex connections.

The poetry of May Swenson.

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Embracing life.
posted by nickyskye at 12:47 PM on July 24, 2006 [2 favorites]

Bit late to the party, but had to note a couple that changed my life. Amazingly, nobody's mentioned Jack Kerouac -- how times change. The Dharma Bums (at least, the first half) and On the Road, of course.

And agreement with davidmsc about Ayn Rand -- ignore the politics and reputation, read her big books for their stories. Also agree with The Mauve Frog about the book of Matthew.

posted by Rash at 1:29 PM on July 24, 2006

Another late-comer to this great thread, I'll second "Leaves of Grass."

For ripping good yarns that'll keep you up all night, Ross Thomas is a fave. "Briarpatch" is the one I most regularly give to friends.

For reading aloud, you just can't beat Theodore Geisel, with "The Sleep Book" being the one my kids and I can read and listen to anytime.
posted by Bitstop at 2:54 PM on July 24, 2006

-Godel, Escher, Bach
-Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass
-Six Degrees (this is awesome, read it!)

(These are all math-related...they were just the first three that came to mind!)
posted by easternblot at 9:34 PM on July 24, 2006

Robert Anton Wilsons promethus rising gave me a new way to see the world that never went away.
the lucifer principle by Howard Bloom blew me away as well
and the sirens of titan by Vonnegut shouldn't be missed, but is the most
often overlooked of his books
posted by donabean at 9:00 AM on July 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

mr. anjamu and I both agreed upon 1984.

I would contend that there is some important reading to be had in both the Old and New Testaments (Genesis, Exodus, and the Gospels, in particular).

I saw a mention of Vargas Llosa upthread, and I want to second it and recommend, in particular, "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter," which makes a case for Vargas Llosa as one of the greatest storytellers of his time.
posted by anjamu at 12:34 AM on July 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

Ishmael and its sequel, The Story of B, both by Daniel Quinn. The only books I have yet to read that actually change the way you look at everything from that point on.
posted by nbSean at 8:59 PM on August 8, 2006

Loving The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff
posted by MarkO at 3:23 PM on September 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

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