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21 Great Novels It's Worth Finding Time to Read

'To Kill a Mockingbird' and 'True Grit' top the list

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Go ahead. Take the time to enjoy a good book. — Erin Patrice O'Brien/Getty Images

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.

Discuss: Which books would you put on a must-read list?

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. For a bucket list, it’s still pretty shallow. When it comes to books, a complete must-read list would be the depth of the Mariana Trench. In any case, here goes:

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.

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."

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.

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.

5. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

This supposed debut of the hard-boiled detective novel makes the list because of the line that the statue was “the stuff dreams are made of.” The guy could write.

6. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurty

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

7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

“Last night, I dreamed 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.

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?

9. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

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

10. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

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

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.

Next page: Pulitzer Prize-winning novels, short stories and horror books you'll love. »

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