- An easy way to become a well-rounded person is to read lots of books across subjects and genres.
- Some books may be out of your comfort zone, but you can learn a lot if you stretch yourself.
- Must-read books include “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “A Brief History of Time,” “Americanah,” and “How To Win Friends And Influence People.”
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Do you aspire to be one of those people who knows at least a little bit about everything? There’s an easy way to do it: Read everything.
You can stick to the mystery novels, anthologies, or biographies you’ve grown partial to. But if you really want to become a more well-rounded person, you’ll need to force yourself out of your comfort zone at the bookstore or library.
Here are 40 timeless books on all different topics – politics, science, history, culture, and more – to read in your lifetime that can help you become the well-rounded person you strive to be.
Jacquelyn Smith, Natalie Walters, and Catherine Rice contributed to a previous version of this article.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
First published in 1960 and winner of the 1961 Pulitzer Prize, “To Kill a Mockingbird” was an overnight success. In its first week, it sold 1.1 million copies, and in its lifetime it’s sold more than 40 million copies and has been translated into more than 40 languages.
In this American classic, lawyer Atticus Finch agrees to defend a black man who was accused of raping a white woman. The fictional story takes place in the town of Maycomb, Alabama, and is told through the perspective of Finch’s tomboy daughter, Scout.
This classic novel hits on a few important topics, such as parenting and racism in America.
“1984” by George Orwell
George Orwell wrote this anticommunist novel in 1948 to predict what 1984 would look like in London. His prediction? A totalitarian state where “Big Brother,” the government, was always watching you and telling you what to think and believe.
Some of his predictions came true, like cameras being everywhere and our bodies being scanned for weapons.
This book is a must-read because it’s a cautionary tale of what happens when the government is given too much control over the people and their lives.
“Walden” by Henry David Thoreau
In “Walden,” first published as “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” in 1854, transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau details his experiences of living in a cabin he built near Walden Pond, close to Concord, Massachusetts, for about two years.
By retreating into the woods, Thoreau tried to reach a state of complete self-sufficiency and simple living. His experiment was not only a commentary about civilisation and society, but also an experiment in enlightenment through personal introspection.
The classic remains a relevant read for anyone interested in discovery through minimalism.
“One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel GarciaMarquez
Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez’s landmark novel was published in 1967. Written in a magical realist style, it’s considered one of the greatest Spanish-language literary works.
“One Hundred Years of Solitude” follows the story of seven generations of the Buendía family in a fictional, utopic town in Colombia.
The work’s overarching theme is the ever-repeating nature of history and human nature; the characters are regularly visited and controlled by ghosts. It also focuses on the idea of predestined doom and misfortune.
“Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe
Author Chinua Achebe deftly portrays pre-colonial Nigeria in “Things Fall Apart.” His protagonist Okonkwo struggles with the legacy of his father as he works to achieve prosperity, and later deals with the loss of his fortune as British colonists enter his home country.
Barack Obama called it “a true classic of world literature” and “a masterpiece that has inspired generations of writers in Nigeria, across Africa, and around the world.”
“A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan
The 2011 work by American author Jennifer Egan follows 13 stories in different places and periods of time. But they all connect to Bennie Salazar, a record company executive, and his assistant, Sasha. Some critics have called it a short story collection because of its innovative story-telling structure.
Themes of self-destructive tendencies and the relentless force of time dominate “A Visit from the Goon Squad.”
“1Q84” by Haruki Murakami
Haruki Murakami’s 1300-page tome is a sweeping fantasy of 1984 in Tokyo, where two childhood lovers try to converge in a world that appears like their own, but has striking differences. “1Q84,” released in 2011, is just one of Murakami’s many popular fiction works.
As The New York Times wrote about the famed Japanese author in 2005, “While anyone can tell a story that resembles a dream, it’s the rare artist, like this one, who can make us feel that we are dreaming it ourselves.”
“The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien
“The Fellowship of the Ring” – the first book in J.R.R. Tolkien ‘s “Lord of the Rings” series – is another must-read.
This epic adventure novel takes place in Tolkien’s made-up world of Middle-earth and follows Frodo Baggins as he sets out to destroy the One Ring before the Dark Lord Sauron gets it and uses it for evil.
“Beloved” by Toni Morrison
Winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and the American Book Award, Toni Morrison is one of the most acclaimed American authors alive today. “Beloved” follows Sethe, a former slave who escaped to Ohio but remains haunted by her past.
“A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn
American historian and political scientist Howard Zinn wrote this book to present his theory that American history can be summed up as the oppression of the majority by the minority.
It was a runner-up for the National Book Award when it was released in 1980, and has since made appearances in various films and TV shows, such as “The Sopranos,” “The Simpsons,” and “Good Will Hunting.”
This book may open your mind to new interpretations of our past while also filling in the gaps in your knowledge of American history.
“Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank
This diary of a 13-year-old Jewish girl who went into hiding with her family during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in the 1940s is important for so many reasons, one being that her story humanizes World War II.
“Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
“A searing meditation on what it means to be black in America today,” Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” is crucial reading for anyone who wants to understand how racist beliefs have served as the foundation for America’s global dominance.
The highly-influential book, which published in 2015, is a well-woven narrative of personal stories, detailed reporting, and historical analysis.
“Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond
In “Guns, Germs and Steel,” Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond argues that a combination of geographic and environmental factors – rather than intellectual, moral, or genetic superiority of a race- shaped modern civilisation.
Diamond, a professor of geography and physiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, argues that societies in which people had access to resources were able to start in food production faster than other societies, allowing them to advance beyond the hunter-gatherer stage. Religion, weapons of war, and conquering other cultures soon followed.
“Game Change” by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin
If you’ve always wanted to be a fly on the wall during a US presidential campaign, you may want to consider reading this book.
Written by two political reporters about the 2008 elections, “Game Change” wasn’t released until 2010.
Clive Crook of The Financial Times called it “one of the best books on politics of any kind I’ve read.”
“Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Even if you don’t agree with all of Abraham Lincoln’s views, this book is worth reading.
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote it to trace Lincoln’s rise from a lawyer out on the prairie to beat two more experienced politicians and become one of the most well-known presidents in US history.
According to the book’s summary, it focuses on “Lincoln’s mastery of men and how it shaped the most significant presidency in the nation’s history.”
“A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking
Written by the famous theoretical physicist and cosmologist, this book was published in 1988.
In it, Hawking offers a clear explanation of the scientific theories of today – from time travel to general relativity to the creation of the universe.
“A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson
Bryson uses an upbeat and entertaining style of writing to take you from when there was nothing to where we are now.
Interestingly, the author isn’t a scientist. He just decided that he wanted to really understand science – so he did his research and wrote this book to help others like himself.
“The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
Strunk and White’s classic writing book, “The Elements of Style,” will help anyone transform their communication style.
You probably recognise this book from school, but if you didn’t pay attention to it back then, it’s worth your time now.
From commonly misspelled words to grammar and punctuation to philosophies on writing style, this book addresses most every question you’ve had about writing.
“Existentialism from Dostoevsky to to Sartre” edited by Walter Kaufmann
This primer on existentialism excerpts on the topic from renowned existentialist writers including Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Rilke, Kafka, and Sartre.
The next time you question the meaning of life, you’ll want to have this book on hand.
“Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl
Viktor Frankl spent 1942 to 1945 laboring in Nazi death camps, where his parents, brother, and wife perished.
Following that horrifying, harrowing experience, Frankl’s philosophical work questions how to find meaning in suffering. He concludes that we are driven not by pleasure, but by discovering that which is meaningful.
“A Little History of Philosophy” by Nigel Warburton
For those who neglected to take a philosophy course in college (or spent most of it sleeping), Warburton’s book provides a valuable refresher.
“A Little History of Philosophy” is a sweeping look at the philosophers whose studies and values shape modern thinking. After reading it, you can plunge further into the thinkers who fascinate you the most.
“Romeo & Juliet” by William Shakespeare
The masterfully written play by Shakespeare revolves around two young lovers whose families are in a violent and passionate feud. It is the ultimate story of forbidden love and is often referenced in popular culture.
“Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“Americanah” was one of Barack Obama’s summer reading picks, and PBS’s “The Great American Read” named it one of America’s best-loved novels. The book follows two Nigerian lovers as they depart for the West and eventually find their way home and to each other.
Adichie is also the author of “We Should All Be Feminists” which was sampled in Beyonce’s song “***Flawless.”
“Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson
This gripping biography is based on years of in-depth, personal interviews with Steve Jobs – and over a hundred family members, friends, and colleagues.
The book, written by Isaacson at the request of Jobs, explains why the Apple cofounder was so intimidating and alluring, and how he helped build Apple and Pixar into the enormous brands that they are today.
“Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution” by Steven Levy
If you want to understand how we went from using the post office and library to email and Wikipedia, read this book.
“You Are Not So Smart” by David McRaney
The title may sound harsh, but McRaney is making a point: Every “rational” decision you make in your life is based on an underlying bias.
This book shows how the tenets of psychology affect you every day, even though you don’t consciously realise it. And no matter what you do, you can’t resist.
“The Art of War” by Sun Tzu
“The Art of War” may come from the fifth century BC, but it remains relevant today.
The book was originally written by military strategist Sun Tzu to help explain how to win in warfare. But over the years, people have found that the tactics described in the book, such as “know yourself” and “know your enemy” can help people succeed in the day-to-day struggles of life.
The book contains 13 chapters – one for each aspect of war – and has been used by sports coaches, legal teams, and businesses for its valuable advice.
“Hyperbole and a Half” by Allie Brosh
Allie Brosh started out by posting illustrated, humorous stories about everyday events in her past and present life on a blog.
It became so popular that she wrote and illustrated this book, with 18 episodes on everything from depression to how she stole cake as a child.
Billionaire Bill Gates called it “funny and smart as hell,” and many people say that her depiction of depression is the most accurate one they have ever read.
“How to Win Friends & Influence People” by Dale Carnegie
There are a number of lessons you can learn from Carnegie’s classic, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” and they will help you in your personal and professional lives.
From it, you’ll learn how to make people like you, win people over to your side, and lead them.
“Good to Great” by Jim Collins
This classic business book uses research from 28 US companies over five years to explain why some make the leap from good to great, while others fail.
If you want to know what you can do to have the greatest impact on your company’s success, this is the book for you.
“The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy” by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko
“The Millionaire Next Door” is based on a 20-year study on how people worth $US1 million to $US10 million reached financial security – and how they maintain it.
The book focuses on seven common traits among these individuals, such as living below their means and having parents that didn’t help them out.
Getting an inside look on their views and beliefs, as well as their daily spending habits, may be able to help you get your finances on track.
“The Intelligent Investor” by Benjamin Graham
Billionaire investor Bill Ackman is one of many Wall Street power players who cite “The Intelligent Investor” as essential reading for investors at all level.
It was first published by Warren Buffett’s mentor, Graham, in 1949 as a thorough introduction to investing for amateurs.
His “value investing” philosophy teaches people to make wise decisions with their money that can give them substantial returns in the long run.
“Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child
Perhaps the most famous cookbook of all time, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” includes 524 recipes, along with instructions and techniques.
This 684-page classic, which was first published 45 years ago, is for both seasoned chefs and beginners.
“Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan
The food writer Michael Pollan has brought a revived awareness of the importance of eating healthy and implementing environmentally and morally sound agriculture and farming policies in the US.
In “Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals,” Pollan outlines the heritage and history of different cuisines, discusses the prevalence of corn in many processed foods, and in doing so stresses the importance of sustainable, locally sourced food.
If nothing else, this book will open your eyes to the reality of industrialized food production in the US and why awareness and knowledge of where food comes from is an important part of our interaction with it.
“Gender Trouble” by Judith Butler
“Gender Trouble” is among the top influential books in the field of gender studies, arguably one of the most popular, read both in colleges and universities as well as recreationally.
In”Gender Trouble,” Butler explains her theory on the performative nature of gender, her criticism of traditional French feminist theory, and how culture and society affect sex and sexuality.
Its interdisciplinary nature makes it essential reading for many areas of study, including media studies, gender studies, and women’s studies.
“A Village Life” by Louise Glück
“A Village Life” is Louise Glück’s eleventh collection of poems. In it, she describes a village of no specific place or time. Glück is known as a “lyrical and dramatic poet,” and her prose has been compared to that found in novels rather than poetry by other authors.
She touches on themes including mother-daughter relationships, gossip, the innocence of children, and adultery.
“Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” by Matthew Desmond
This book, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction for 2017, is a work of investigative journalism into the poorest neighbourhoods of Milwaukee, where Desmond tells the stories of eight families living on the edge.
Even though evictions used to be rare, they are becoming more frequent as the price of housing increases. Many renters are spending more than half of their income on housing – forcing them into squalid living conditions or neighbourhoods beset by crime or poor educational opportunities.
Jacquelyn Smith, Natalie Walters, and Catherine Rice contributed to a previous version of this article.
“Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” by Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain began his path to international fame after publishing an essay in a 1999 issue of The New Yorker about his life as a chef in New York City. The essay evolved into the critically acclaimed and bestselling book “Kitchen Confidential” the next year.
After his death in 2018, people around the world shared stories about how he influenced their love of food and travel.
“Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead” by Brené Brown
Brené Brown is a researcher and world-reknowned expert in emotions such as vulnerability, shame, and empathy. In “Daring Greatly,” she writes about how the courage to be vulnerable can be transformative.
“I define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure,” Brown writes. “With that definition in mind, let’s think about love. Waking up every day and loving someone who may or may not love us back, whose safety we can’t ensure, who may stay in our lives or may leave without a moment’s notice, who may be loyal to the day they die or betray us tomorrow – that’s vulnerability.”
“Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury
“Fahrenheit 451” is set in a dystopian future where literature (and all original thought) is on the brink of extinction. Guy Montag is a fireman whose job is to burn printed books – as well as the houses where they’re hidden.
But when his wife commits suicide and a young neighbour who introduced him to reading disappears, Guy begins hoarding books in his own home.
“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams
The pair escapes on an alien spaceship and the book follows their bizarre adventures around the universe along with quotes from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide” like: “A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.”
“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen
“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen boasts one of the most famous first lines in literature: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The beloved book is a classic tale of wit, romance, judgment, heartbreak, and eventually, love.
“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” by J.K. Rowling
If you haven’t read “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” or the following six books in the series, you should run to the bookstore immediately.
This beloved tale follows a young boy who finds out that he’s a wizard on his 11th birthday and is whisked off to a wizarding school called Hogwarts to begin his training.
These books were so universally loved and praised that they spawned a multibillion-dollar film franchise, a theme park in Orlando, Florida, and a spin-off series based on a Rowling book, “Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them,” which will be released later this year.
“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert M. Pirsig
This book, which makes philosophy relatable and easy to understand, follows a father and his young son as they take an adventure-filled motorcycle trip across northwestern America.
It’s filled with timeless advice on how to live a better and more fulfilling life.
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