42 Books to Read Before You Die - Shawna Seed

42 Books to Read Before You Die

Awhile back, The Independent published a list of 42 books to read before you die. I linked to it on my Facebook fan page and invited folks to offer their submissions.

First, of course, everyone had to scoff at The Independent’s offerings. Too much Tolkien! Why on earth would you choose Stephen King? Where are the Russians? Faulkner? Middlemarch? Oh, please, not Middlemarch! (OK, that was me. Read it in college and hated it.)

You get the idea.

The discussion inspired me to come up with my own, entirely idiosyncratic list of 42 books I think everyone should read. This is not arranged in order of preference – in fact, photo selection determined the order in many cases.


Here’s Part I, with Part II to come later.


  1. img_0521Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron. How indelible is this book? I have vivid memories of where I was when I read it: Sitting in my parents’ house as a high school student, devouring a copy from the Salina (Kansas) Public Library. The copy that’s on my shelves now is one I picked up from a used bookstore a few years ago.
  2. People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks. I love this book so much, I had a character reading it on a plane in my own novel Not in Time. I read it in one sitting, and when the sun went down and the room got dark, I was annoyed – annoyed! – that I had to put down the book to turn on a lamp.
  3. Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The year I discovered this book, I must have given it to five different people for Christmas – including my dad, who is not a likely candidate for magical realism. He read it anyway, because he’s a good sport. Shockingly, I seem not to have a copy anymore. If I lent mine to you, will you please give it back?
  4. img_0507My Antonia, by Willa Cather.  “The dust and the heat, the burning wind, reminded us of many things. We were talking about what it was like to spend one’s childhood in little towns like these, buried in wheat and corn, under stimulating extremes of climate: burning summers when the world lies green and billowy beneath a brilliant sky, when one is fairly stifled in vegetation, in the colour and smell of strong weeds and heavy harvests; blustery winters with little snow, when the whole country is stripped bare and grey as sheet iron. We agreed that no one who had not grown up in a little prairie town could know anything about it. It was a kind of freemasonry, we said.” I’m from Kansas – what can I say?
  5. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway. I first attempted Hemingway when I was 12, which was a little too soon. You probably need to know what the Spanish Civil War is to understand For Whom the Bell Tolls. The Sun Also Rises has the edge as my favorite, if only for Jake’s crushing line, “Yes, isn’t it pretty to think so?”
  6. An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser. I love Sister Carrie, too. I think Dreiser is underrated. Does anyone read him these days? Tragedy addresses issues of class in America in a way that still resonates. And the movie – Montgomery Clift! – is always worth a watch.
  7. The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton. Wharton is another of my favorite authors and another insightful observer of social class in American society. The Age of Innocence features one of the great understated acts of betrayal in literature ever. Poor Newland Archer.
  8. img_0508Possession, by A.S. Byatt A.S. Byatt’s tale of two scholars researching a pair of Victorian poets zips back and forth in time and features letters and poems in addition to regular narrative. Catnip for a reader who took a college class focused on Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, Shelley and Blake! Fun fact to know and tell: A.S. stands for Antonia Susan.
  9. The Color Purple, by Alice WalkerI found Celie’s story shattering when I first read this novel. To this day I do not understand the Disneyfied film version. Oh, Steven Spielberg. Whatever were you thinking?
  10. Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen. Which Jane Austen novel is her best work? I prefer S&S to Pride and Prejudice simply because I find Mrs. Bennet an unbearable flibbertigibbet. Of course, you could argue that’s a testament to Austen’s wit.
  11. The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I loved this book, a literary mystery about a book with a dash of magic and doomed romance all wrapped up in the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War. Some people think it’s too long. Maybe they should stick to magazines?
  12. img_0518Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett. This book has everything: A ripped-from-the-headlines plot, beautiful writing and tremendous insight into human nature. Maybe now that it will get that “Major Motion Picture” sticker on the cover, more people will read it. (Julianne Moore is cast as the opera singer. Perfect!)
  13. The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro. As a rule, I don’t love unreliable narrators. Stevens, the self-deluding British butler, is an exception to that rule.
  14. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper LeeIt’s a classic for a reason. I didn’t read Go Set a Watchman and never will. I’m not sure Harper Lee intended for us to.
  15. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. Why is this my preferred Steinbeck? Perhaps it resonates because my grandfather – who was orphaned during the Depression – told me a story once about riding the bus across the country hoping to find work picking apples in Washington State. He was 15 or so, traveling with an older brother. Shades of the Joad family’s journey from Oklahoma to California.
  16. The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson. Every list needs one spooky book, and this is my pick. (Stephen King is just a little too creepy for me.) Jackson manages to be terrifying without shocking violence. I read this as a kid, and it scared the bejesus out of me.
  17. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John le Carré. In addition to a spooky book, every list needs a spy novel, too, and no one does it better than le Carré. James Bond is what people imagine spies to be. I think George Smiley is what they really are.
  18. Coyote v. Acme, by Ian Frazier. And humor! We all need to laugh, and this volume of essays from Ian Frazier contains the most hilarious thing I’ve ever read, a lawsuit Wile E. Coyote files against Acme Products, makers of all those items he buys in his efforts to catch the Roadrunner.
  19. img_0511A Room with a View, by E.M Forster. I’m a Forster fan, as the photo makes clear – that’s a three-in-one volume of A Room with a View, Howards End and Maurice. I’m not an Anglophile, really. I do love a good deconstruction of class and manners, though.
  20. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera. Does this novel hold up now that what we used to call the Iron Curtain is gone? I hope so. I found it a fascinating exploration of the way humans will seek their own version of freedom in a brutal system.
  21. Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner. I love most anything by Stegner. A southern friend teased me once about my affection for spare Western writers. It’s true. I do like a big sky.








One thought on “42 Books to Read Before You Die

  1. Gary Jacobson

    Can’t argue with any of these. Jake’s crushing line might be the best last line of any American novel, though Huck Finn had a pretty good one, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.