Help pack a million meals for struggling seniors on Sept. 11. Volunteer today

21 Great Novels It's Worth Finding Time to Read

21 Must-Read Novels

I began to list a dozen novels that everyone should read before age 50, but quickly realized that if all you want is a dozen, you should ask an economist, not a novelist.
Still, stories are what help us best understand why we are how we are. So after consulting people I admire and my own mental file, I included only novels that I believe you really ought to read. Here are the novels picked, starting with the 21st place selection …

21. 'Charlotte’s Web' by E.B. White

Those who think of this small book about a gallant spider’s fight to save the life of a runt pig as a children’s story are letting children have all the fun.


20. 'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Often described as the chronicle of the Jazz Age, this is really a story about the haves and how they think of the have-nots because they are helpless to think of them any other way. You might call it a 1920s tale of the 1 percent.


19. 'Crossing to Safety' by Wallace Stegner

The story of two couples growing “up” together is as true a story about loyalty and its limits as any I’ve ever read.

Random House

18. 'The Killer Angels' by Michael Shaara

Another Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the Civil War? Yes! This is the story of the longest days of our nation’s life, three hot sunsets in Gettysburg, and why even the beautiful and brave can be wrong, and the glum, stubborn and foolish as right as dawn.

Ballantine Books

17. 'Red Dragon' by Thomas Harris

Having read this book before the amazing characterization of Hannibal Lecter by Anthony Hopkins, I was the only person on earth who thought that this predecessor to The Silence of the Lambs was even more gruesome and terrifying.

Dell Publishing

16. 'Anna Karenina' by Leo Tolstoy

My mother said that this novel of pre-revolution Russia and the foolish and beautiful Anna was a story that “took all the fun out of adultery.” So true.

Penguin Classics

15. 'The Haunting of Hill House' by Shirley Jackson

Often cited as sporting the best first paragraph in all prose, this story is still as paralyzingly scary as it was the day it was written.

Penguin Group

14. 'Different Seasons' by Stephen King

Speaking of great short-story stylists, this is my living favorite. While I don’t run to buy every new Stephen King novel, I would fight anyone who thinks that Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and The Body don’t compare favorably to just about anything.

Penguin Group

13. 'in our time' by Ernest Hemingway

The lowercase name is the correct, if affected, author’s choice of title for the first big published book of Ernest Hemingway’s heartbreaking stories. When you read this, you see just why his style was so imitated, and why it never could be copied. Ever.


12. 'The Magus' by John Fowles

Even people who have read and loved The French Lieutenant’s Woman may not know about this crazy part-romance, part-horror, part-Gothic book, in which no one and nothing is what it seems.


11. 'Gone With the Wind' by Margaret Mitchell

It’s the story of one woman’s doomed love and one civilization’s doomed quest, and it’s just a helluva story, period.


10. 'Jane Eyre' by Charlotte Brontë

Nathaniel Hawthorne hated the Misses Brontë because they could do what he could not — write books that sing with authenticity and genuine suspense. They still do so nearly 200 years later.

Penguin Group

9. 'The Alchemist' by Paulo Coelho

Sixty-five million readers worldwide adore the story of the Andalusian shepherd boy, Santiago, who goes searching for a treasure. I’m not going to disagree with them.


8. 'The Restaurant at the End of the Universe' by Douglas Adams

This wonderful sequel to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy asks a poignant question: Facing the end of life as we know it, is it too much to ask to find a good cup of tea and some biscuits?

Harmony Books

7. 'Rebecca' by Daphne du Maurier

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” You will love this story of psychological obsession and immortality by one of the most underrated writers of the 20th century.

William Morrow Paperbacks

6. 'Lonesome Dove' by Larry McMurty

Two strangely literate Texas rangers who decide to become cattle ranchers out-Sundance Butch and the Kid in the book that made me decide to write a novel.

Simon & Schuster

5. 'The Maltese Falcon' by Dashiell Hammett

This supposed debut of the hard-boiled detective novel makes the list because of the way Hammett colored his characters with dialogue. “I distrust a closemouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking’s something you can’t do judiciously unless you keep in practice.” The guy could write.

Simon & Schuster

4. 'Andersonville' by MacKinlay Kantor

If you haven’t read this novel of the Confederate prison camp in Georgia and the prisoners who fought to survive there, I envy you. You have a treat in store for yourself.


3. 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn' by Betty Smith

Lest you think that all my top faves are coming-of-age novels set among children challenged by painful realities — like Francie Nolan in this novel of immigrant poverty in prewar New York — oh well. Deal with it.

Harper Perennial Modern Classics

2. 'True Grit' by Charles Portis

I was once listing my favorite novels with the then-book editor for Newsweek, and I mentioned the then-obscure-except-for-the-John-Wayne-movie story of Mattie Ross and her quest for justice with the rascally sheriff Rooster Cogburn. The editor said, “Well, we’re talking favorites. Now, you’re talking genius.”

Overlook TP

1. 'To Kill a Mockingbird' by Harper Lee

Did you go to high school? If so, you’ve been programmed to believe that this is a good book. The thing is, it is a good book, about justice and deeply held beliefs, right and wrong, and the agony of growing up.

Grand Central Publishing

  • Pinterest
  • Google+
Back to Article

Topic Alerts

You can get weekly email alerts on the topics below. Just click “Follow.”

Manage Alerts


Please wait...

progress bar, please wait

Tell Us WhatYou Think

Please leave your comment below.

AARP Bookstore

Discounts & Benefits

From companies that meet the high standards of service and quality set by AARP.

Live Nation

Members save 25% or more when buying tickets in groups of four from Ticketmaster.

Cirque Du Soleil

Members save 15-30% on tickets to live Cirque du Soleil shows.

Member Benefit AARP Regal 2

Members pay $8 for Regal ePremiere tickets purchased online. Conditions apply.

Member Benefits

Join or renew today! Members receive exclusive member benefits & affect social change.