The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
This is Hemingway’s last and arguably most famous novel. After 84 days of failing to catch a fish, a fisherman vows to sail farther out into the gulfstream to reel in a big one. He soon has a large fish on the end of his line but what it takes to catch it reveals a lot about who he is and what he’s willing to do as a man. This book is filled with symbolism, but as the author himself noted, at its heart it’s a book about a man, the sea, a boat and a fish:
“No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in. ... I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.” --- Hemingway in 1954
There’s a reason this book is taught in almost every literature class in high school or college: Hemingway’s work is as powerful and precise as a thwack from the tail of a shark. This book is about the incessant drive of responsibility (sometimes misguided) that a man feels to be a man. A quick read, The Old Man and the Sea will stay with you long after you set it down.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
On any list of books men should read, there has to be a spot for something written by Hunter S. Thompson. Why? Because Thompson had the guts to do what every man wishes he can do at some point in his life: thrust himself into the middle of his world as the main protagonist on which everything else hinges. Thompson isn’t always pretty, in fact he’s frequently reckless and occasionally loose with the truth. But no other author just “goes for it” like Thompson did. Where else can you read about two men on an LSD trip who destroy cars and hallucinate anthropomorphic animals roaming in the desert of Nevada?
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
Why would a man give everything away and just walk into the rugged wilderness to face the harsh reality of nature? This is a book about Christopher McCandless, a young man who did that in 1992 and ended up dead, alone in the Alaska wilderness. Into the Wild is a haunting and detailed examination of this story from author Jon Krakauer, who pieces together the life of a young man who was hardly known by this world. Why is it a great read? Because every man feels at some point like he’s hardly known or hardly belongs in this world, and though we don’t (and shouldn’t) take the drastic steps that McCandless did, we examine our place in this world in some way nevertheless .
The World According to Garp by John Irving
This award-winning novel is the story of T.S. Garp, a successful author who can’t escape the shadow of his more-famous and disapproving feminist activist/novelist mother and struggles to navigate marriage, friendship, his career, and fatherhood. You won’t be bored with this read – there are laughs and surprises and thoughtful moments throughout. Irving is famous for making all sorts of dramatic, tragic, and silly things happen to his characters and yet in this book you still find yourself laughing a lot. Wonderfully written, this may be the only book written in the last 35 years that will still be a classic a century or two from now.
Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in The West by Cormac McCarthy
Most of McCarthy’s novels plunge us into the world of the “old west”, and this one is no exception, taking place on the Texas/Mexico border in the 1850s. The star of the novel is 14-year old Kid, who gets himself embroiled in a skirmish between American Indians, Mexican bandits, and American cowboys. Just as in “No Country For Old Men,” this story has shocking violence but it also shapes a gripping story that will keep you flipping the pages.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
Even if you’ve seen the movie starring Jack Nicholson, you’ll be transfixed by the novel that culminates in a shocking climax. Randle Patrick McMurphy is the flesh-and-blood personification of the counter-culture 1960s: rebellious, defiant, self-indulgent, and borderline criminal. When he finds himself in a mental hospital due to a petty criminal transgression, he clashes with authority, namely in the person of Nurse Ratched, a dictatorial bureaucrat who revels in wielding her power.
Everybody’s All-American by Frank Deford
America’s greatest sportswriter has several excellent collections of stories to choose from, but this is his finest work of fiction. “Everybody’s All-American” is about a hot shot quarterback who achieves success in high school, college, and professional football. But when his playing career ends he has to face the reality that the cheering has stopped. It’s a book about the way we struggle to accept change and our own mortality.
Collected Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever
Quite possibly America’s greatest short story author, Cheever was called “the Chekhov of the suburbs” because his stories almost always take place in quiet, suburban locations, usually in New England. That’s nice to know, but more importantly, his fiction is worthwhile because of the complex themes he deals with: family conflict; good and evil; and the dual nature of mankind. If there’s only one collection of short stories you can read, this is it.
A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor
Another of the great American storytellers, O’Connor is fun to read because she stuffs her stories with monstrous and troubled characters. A native of the south, O’Connor often sets her stories in that locale.
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
This novel grinds through the story, barely leaving you room to take a breath. It’s pulp-fiction with plenty of blood and fighting, and a famous dramatic twist.
In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
Sorry Herman Melville, but your whale book has been eclipsed by Philbrick’s book about the true story that inspired Moby Dick. This true big tail tale (sorry) will amaze you and inspire you. Who knew human beings could survive such harsh conditions? Read it before the upcoming movie by Ron Howard.
The Shining by Stephen King
A man takes his family to an isolated hotel for a caretaking job in the depths of winter. Slowly he loses control of his family and his mind, with terrifying and downright creepy results. If you thought the movie was scary, read the novel, it’s even better.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
If you’re between 16 and 21, this is required reading. Even after all these years (it debuted in 1951), “The Catcher in the Rye” stands up as the teenage boy “Coming of age” novel. The protagonist is Holden Caulfield, a rebellious youthful malcontent who helped spawn the “Beat Generation” that influenced music, movies, literature, and pop culture in the years leading up to the turbulent 1960s. It’s an American classic as gripping as the mysterious life of the author.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Twin has many novels worthy of this list, but this is his masterpiece. Some consider “Finn” to be the best American novel ever written. You can take this story two ways (at least): as a frolicking adventure, the original “on the road” story; or as an allegory (which it most certainly is) for the important issues that faced the country in the 19th century and still do today.
A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
Ever wonder why every history text book you’ve ever read is filled with stories about Kings and Queens, Generals and President, and giants of industry? That’s because history text books are written from the perspective of the elite. Who is there to tell the story of the Average Joe? Howard Zinn, that’s who. In this book, Zinn presents American history through the eyes of the common working class men and women who did most of the work building this nation. The publication of this book changed the way people tell history for the better. Read it, you may learn something.
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard
Did you know that Theodore Roosevelt was a great explorer? That he went to South America shortly after losing a bid for a third term as president to help quell his disappointment, hoping to find a new source for the Atlantic Ocean? Did you know that he nearly died on the banks of a river in the jungle? This true story is amazing, you will want to read it all in one sitting.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
It’s World War II and the U.S. 256th Air Squadron is flying missions over Italy, missions that become increasingly more dangerous as their superior officers send them deeper and deeper into enemy territory. The odd collection of men who make up the flight crews adds to the drama of the dangerous situation they all live in. There’s tragedy and horror, but there’s also absurdity, as in the military rule that states that anyone who would want to fly combat missions must be crazy and should apply for a discharge. However, if they apply for a discharge that indicates that they cannot be crazy and thus cannot be discharged from combat duty. Heller is one of the cadre of former WWII soldiers who returned to write a novel about their experiences, and this is one of the best. Rent the movie that came out in 1970 and watch it after reading the book. Both are worth your time.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
This is the first of six books in a series that has been popular worldwide since its inception as a radio show in the late 1970s. It’s the story of Arthur Dent, a bumbling Englishman, Ford Prefect, an alien, and Trillian, a brilliant female physicist, all of whom travel to the planet Magrathea to basically seek the “meaning of life.” Along the way they encounter bizarre humanoids, aliens, and other creatures and narrowly escape destruction countless times as they eventually learn the purpose of planet Earth. Often you’ll laugh out loud.
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
This is the story of three siblings who want to eliminate their father. Each brother has a unique perspective and personality, and it’s likely you’ll identify with one of them.
How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
15 million copies of this original “self-help” book have been sold to date. Carnegie was a blogger 70 years before blogs existed --- his book reads like a series of lists and DIY articles, but best of all they’re invaluable. For example, in “Six Ways to Make People Like You” he writes “remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” If you’re a boss, a student, a salesman, a business owner, a husband, or a son, or if you want to improve your relationship with anyone, read this book.
Essential Manners for Men by Peter Post
From the back cover: “In Essential Manners for Men, etiquette expert Peter Post tackles the issues of real concern for today's man, enabling him to make the right decisions about what to do and say in every situation that counts, whether in daily life, social life, or on the job.”
Every man needs that.
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
You probably know the basic story here and it’s been copied many times since. When it came out in 1719, “Crusoe” was thought to be an actual account from a real man who was stranded in the Pacific, because it was written like a diary. That was a new story device and in many ways Defoe’s novel was the first modern realistic fiction. It’s a great adventure story that introduces many polt points and devices that we take for granted now.
By the way, the actual title was “The Life and Strange Surprizing (sic) Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pyrates.”
So, that’s a mouthful.
Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific by Paul Theroux
The most talented of the modern travel writers (and he also gained acclaim for his novel “the Mosquito Coast”), Theroux has produced many books on his travels to just about every corner of the world, but this is his best. In it he recounts his journey as he paddles his way through the remote islands of the south Pacific, encountering wild fauna, exotic animals, and strange islanders (including on at least one occasion being nearly killed). This book will make you want to be as courageous as the author and we can guarantee you’ll want to visit the Pacific islands after reading it.
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
Another true adventure story, and maybe the most fantastic of all. In 1914, Shackleton launched an expedition to map and explore Antarctica and the South Pole. Along the way his ship, Endurance, was trapped in ice and eventually crushed. Shackleton and his crew camped on the ice flows and survived on what provisions they could secure from the ship. Eventually Shackleton sailed a lifeboat 720 miles across treacherous, freezing, ice-filled waters to reach land. The tale of their quest to surivive is quite amazing.
Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand
One of the best sports books ever written is about one of the biggest underdogs ever. Seabiscuit was a scrawny, undersized horse who looked like he should have been pulling a cart. Instead he became the most successful racehorse of the 1930s, lifting the spirits of a nation suffering through the Great Depression.