50 Books Every Man Should Read
My late grandfather was once told, aboard a Merchant Navy ship in WWII, that if a man had read Paradise Lost, he could call himself educated. He duly read Paradise Lost, and that was him pretty much done with books.
At MR PORTER, we are a little more ambitious. With the help of four experts from the publishing industry, we have drawn up a list of 50 classics that give pleasure and wisdom, and which every educated chap should have read.
Our thanks therefore to Virago founder Ms Carmen Callil, the veteran publisher Mr Christopher MacLehose of the MacLehose Press, the agent Mr Peter Straus, who heads the agency Rogers, Coleridge & White, and an actual Mr Porter, Mr Max Porter, publisher at Granta and author of the prize-winning Grief Is The Thing With Feathers.
How many have you read? And, yes, Paradise Lost is in there.
01. Great Expectations
by Mr Charles Dickens
There’s so much Mr Charles Dickens to choose from, but here’s one that’s a manageable length and tells a humdinger of a story. Shudder at the sinister Magwitch, tremble at the sepulchral Miss Havisham, blub at the fate of good Joe Gargery.
02. Crime And Punishment
by Mr Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Not always your man for laughs, Mr Fyodor Dostoevsky, but Crime And Punishment is a towering Russian classic, both thrilling and profound. It will put you off killing grannies for good.
03. The Magic Mountain
by Mr Thomas Mann
The summit of The Magic Mountain dwarfs anything else in modern German literature. The whole history of pre-WWI Europe mixes in the clear air of a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. The one good thing to come out of Davos.
04. Robinson Crusoe
by Mr Daniel Defoe
The story of a hardworking Protestant on a desert island. All English novelists (and cartoonists) owe Mr Daniel Defoe a debt of gratitude.
05. Cotters’ England
by Ms Christina Stead
Long before An American Werewolf In London, here was an Aussie writer in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. The antipodean Ms Christina Stead spent time in Geordieland in 1949, and this novel of post-war working-class life is the result.
06. A Fine Balance
by Mr Rohinton Mistry
A vast tapestry of life in India between 1947 and The Emergency three decades later. It follows the lives of several protagonists from the so-called untouchables to children of privilege.
07. The Periodic Table
by Mr Primo Levi
Mr Primo Levi, an Italian industrial chemist, spent 11 months in Auschwitz. This collection of linked short stories associates events in his own life with 21 of the chemical elements. Alchemical genius.
08. Jane Eyre
Ms Charlotte Brontë
Ms Charlotte Brontë was both a great storyteller and an acute anatomist of the human heart. Damaged, secretive, tragic Mr Rochester is a romantic icon for the ages.
09. Sense And Sensibility
by Mr Thomas Pynchon
A dizzying classic of paranoia about American soldiers stationed in Europe during WWII. V-2 rockets, crazy conspiracies and the best banana-related meal in fiction.
11. Le Grand Meaulnes
by Mr Alain-Fournier
Mr Alain-Fournier’s only novel is a magical and tragic fable of youth, lost and rediscovered love, and the passing of time. It helped inspire The Great Gatsby.
12. To Kill A Mockingbird
13. The Odyssey
The tale of Odysseus’ schlep home from the Trojan wars is one of the wellsprings of Western literature, from Ulysses to (possibly) Planes, Trains And Automobiles. Inexhaustible.
by Mr Art Spiegelman
For those who think comics are just for kids, here’s a rebuke. Mr Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel describes with great subtlety and poignancy his family’s experience in the Holocaust, with Nazis as cats and Jews as mice.
16. Red Cavalry
by Mr Isaac Babel
Mr Isaac Babel’s stories of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1920 are classics of war writing.
17. Moby Dick
Mr Herman Melville
The story of Captain Ahab’s mad pursuit of the white whale contains multitudes. Adventure story here, religious allegory there, Wikipedia-style discussion of scrimshaw in another place.
18. Things Fall Apart
19. Anna Karenina
by Count Leo Tolstoy
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” said Count Leo Tolstoy. Every well-read family has a copy of Anna Karenina, we might add.
20. The Yellow Wallpaper
by Ms Charlotte Perkins Gilman
A brief, harrowing account of one woman’s descent into psychosis as she’s confined to a badly decorated room.
21. Frankenstein: Or, The New Prometheus
by Ms Mary Shelley
Forget campy Mr Boris Karloff and his bolted neck; the original is exciting, poignant, complex and philosophical.
22. Don Quixote
by Mr Miguel de Cervantes
Rumbustiously comic, poignant, big-hearted, metafictional, heroic and anti-heroic all at the same time. It showed the novel a world of new possibilities.
23. The Leopard
by Mr Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Sicilian noblemen during the Risorgimento. Fun fact: Italy doesn’t have any leopards, but The Serval Cat wouldn’t have had the same ring.
24. Madame Bovary
by Mr Gustave Flaubert
Mr Gustave Flaubert took moral complexity and psychological realism to new heights in this story of a bourgeois adulteress and her tragic – and grisly – end.
by Ms George Eliot
Maybe the best, and certainly the most grown-up, novel in English. The life of a whole town, the moral life of a whole species. Unforgettable stuff.
26. The Posthumous Memoirs Of Brás Cubas
by Mr Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
You don’t often read a book dedicated to a worm. Speaking from beyond the grave, Brás Cubas looks back on his life and finds it rather so-so.
27. The Portrait Of A Lady
by Mr Henry James
Before Mr Henry James’s sentences got too long, he produced this masterly and engrossing story of innocence and cynicism, romance and disappointment.
by Mr James Joyce
Modernist masterpiece. Read it once to get through it, twice to enjoy it, three times to appreciate it.
29. The Great Gatsby
by Mr F Scott Fitzgerald
A small miracle of literary construction: wistful, romantic, symbolic, fabular. There’s not a word out of place.
30. Nineteen Eighty-Four
31. The Master And Margarita
by Mr Mikhail Bulgakov
What if the devil turned up in Stalin’s atheist Soviet Union with a cat in tow? Stir in Pontius Pilate and a Soviet writers’ union and you end up with something quite extraordinary.
32. Paradise Lost
by Mr John Milton
The great English epic. Mr John Milton’s poetic music has never been rivalled. Paradise Lost also tells an amazing story, full of psychological subtlety and with marvellous set pieces. It really is an education.
33. If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller
by Mr Italo Calvino
The bizarre, hilarious, mind-mangling story of a book within a book within a book. Wonderfully funny, extremely clever and unlike anything else.
by Mr Kurt Vonnegut
Mr Kurt Vonnegut knows all about the firebombing of Dresden, because he was there. This novel, which adds in crazy aliens and good jokes, treats great suffering with deep wisdom and deceptive lightness.
35. The Secret Agent
36. The Cairo Trilogy
by Mr Naguib Mahfouz
A roomy, humane family saga about three generations in Cairo living through the turbulence of the first half of the 20th century. Hugely absorbing.
37. The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy
by Mr Laurence Sterne
Everything “metafictional” writers have ever done, Mr Laurence Sterne did first. Funny, eccentric, clever and will change the way you think about noses.
38. The Code Of The Woosters
39. The Hearing Trumpet
by Ms Leonora Carrington
A uniquely odd and witchy story, whose protagonist is a deaf and toothless old lady exiled to an old folks’ home in the opening pages. A surrealist romp.
40. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland
by Mr Lewis Carroll
Weird potions, white rabbits, Cheshire cats and hookah-smoking caterpillars. Plus, lots of good jokes about maths. Curiouser and curiouser.
41. Wide Sargasso Sea
by Ms Jean Rhys
Spare a thought for Mr Rochester’s first wife, stuck up there in the attic being mad in Jane Eyre (above, 08). Ms Jean Rhys did and made a plot device, magnificently, into a breathing person.
42. Brave New World
43. White Noise
by Mr Don DeLillo
Mr Don DeLillo has seldom been as profound, and never as funny, as in this novel about a professor of Hitler studies, his eccentric family, an Airborne Toxic Event and the fear of death.
44. The Rings Of Saturn
by Mr WG Sebald
Mr WG Sebald’s masterpiece turns a stroll through Suffolk into a tour of the 20th century. The book that launched a thousand psychogeographers.
45. One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich
by Mr Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Think life in a gulag wasn’t as bad as all that? Think again. Mr Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s slim, grim book told the world how it really was.
Mr José Saramago
This brilliant book helped the Portuguese writer win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Everyone’s gone blind. What to do? Like Day Of The Triffids without the plants.
47. The Czar’s Madman
by Mr Jaan Kross
Estonia’s break-out literary classic is a historical novel about a nobleman who marries a peasant girl and then speaks his mind to the Czar. Is he, as everyone thinks, off his rocker?
48. W, Or The Memory Of Childhood
Mr Georges Perec
Mr Georges Perec once wrote a novel entirely without using the letter E. Here, he focuses on the fictional island of W. A book that threads memoir and fiction and blurs the lines between them.
49. The Private Memoirs And Confessions Of A Justified Sinner
50. A Piece Of My Heart
by Mr Richard Ford
This is a great early novel by an already great writer. It paved the way for his Frank Bascombe trilogy and established Mr Richard Ford as a modern American great.