Skip to main content



Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread


As a child, the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright August Wilson recalled in a speech that he was the one in his family who wanted to read all the books in the house, who wore out his library card and kept books way past their due date. He dropped out of high school at age fifteen, but spent every school day at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh reading history and biography and poetry and anthropology. The library would eventually give him an honorary high school diploma, and the books he discovered there, he said, “opened a world that I entered and have never left,” and led to the transformative realization that “it was possible to be a writer.”

Dr. Oliver Sacks credited the local public library he knew as a child (in Willesden, London) as the place where he received his real education, just as Ray Bradbury described himself as “completely library educated.” In the case of two famous autodidacts, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the books they read growing up indelibly shaped their ideals and ambitions, and gave them the tools of language and argument that would help them shape the history of their nation.

The pleasure of reading, Virginia Woolf wrote, is “so great that one cannot doubt that without it the world would be a far different and a far inferior place from what it is. Reading has changed the world and continues to change it.” In fact, she argued, the reason “we have grown from apes to men, and left our caves and dropped our bows and arrows and sat round the fire and talked and given to the poor and helped the sick—the reason why we have made shelter and society out of the wastes of the desert and the tangle of the jungle is simply this—we have loved reading.”

In his 1996 book, A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel described a tenth-century Persian potentate who reportedly traveled with his 117,000-book collection loaded on the backs of “four hundred camels trained to walk in alphabetical order.” Manguel also wrote about the public readers hired by Cuban cigar factories in the late nineteenth century to read aloud to workers. And about the father of one of his boyhood teachers, a scholar who knew many of the classics by heart and who volunteered to serve as a library for his fellow inmates at the Nazi concentration camp Sachsenhausen. He was able to recite entire passages aloud—much like the book lovers in Fahrenheit 451, who keep knowledge alive through their memorization of books.

Why do we love books so much?

These magical brick-sized objects—made of paper, ink, glue, thread, cardboard, fabric, or leather—are actually tiny time machines that can transport us back to the past to learn the lessons of history, and forward to idealized or dystopian futures. Books can transport us to distant parts of the globe and even more distant planets and universes. They give us the stories of men and women we will never meet in person, illuminate the discoveries made by great minds, and allow us access to the wisdom of earlier generations. They can teach us about astronomy, physics, botany, and chemistry; explicate the dynamics of space flight and climate change; introduce us to beliefs, ideas, and literatures different from our own. And they can whisk us off to fictional realms like Oz and Middle-earth, Narnia and Wonderland, and the place where Max becomes king of the wild things.

When I was a child, books were both an escape and a sanctuary. I was an only child, accustomed to spending lots of time alone. I read in the cardboard refrigerator carton that my father had turned into a playhouse by cutting a door and windows in the sides. I read under the blankets at night with a flashlight. I read in the school library during recess in hopes of avoiding the playground bullies. I read in the backseat of the car, even though it made me carsick. And I read at the dining room table: because my mother thought books and food were incompatible, I would read whatever happened to be at hand—cereal boxes, appliance manuals, supermarket circulars, the ingredients of Sara Lee’s pecan coffee cake or an Entenmann’s crumb cake. I read the recipe for mock apple pie on the back of the Ritz crackers box so many times I could practically recite it. I was hungry for words.

The characters in some novels felt so real to me, when I was a child, that I worried they might leap out of the pages at night, if I left the cover of the book open. I imagined some of the scary characters from L. Frank Baum’s Oz books—the Winged Monkeys, say, or the evil Nome King, or Mombi the witch who possesses the dangerous Powder of Life—escaping from the books and using my bedroom as their portal into the real world, where they might wreak havoc and destruction.

Decades before binge-watching Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos, I binge-read Nancy Drew mysteries, Black Stallion novels, Landmark biographies, even whole sections of the World Book Encyclopedia (which is how my father fine-tuned his English, when he first moved to the United States from Japan).

In high school and college, I binge-read books about existentialism (The Stranger, No Exit, Notes from Underground, Irrational Man, Either/Or, The Birth of Tragedy), black history (The Autobiography of Malcolm X; The Fire Next Time; Manchild in the Promised Land; Black Like Me; Black Skin, White Masks); and science fiction and dystopian fiction (1984, Animal Farm, Dune, The Illustrated Man, and Fahrenheit 451, Childhood’s End, A Clockwork Orange, Cat’s Cradle). My reading was in no way systematic. At the time, I was not even aware of why I gravitated toward these books—though, in retrospect, as one of the few nonwhite kids at school, I must have been drawn to books about outsiders who were trying to figure out who they were and where they belonged. Even Dorothy in Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and Lucy in Narnia, I later realized, were strangers in strange lands, trying to learn how to navigate worlds where few of the usual rules applied.

In those pre-internet days, I don’t remember exactly how we heard about new books and authors or decided what to read next. As a child, I think I first heard of Hemingway, Robert Penn Warren, James Baldwin, and Philip Roth because there were articles by or about them (or maybe photos) in Life or Look magazine. I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring because my mother was reading it, and T. S. Eliot’s poetry because my favorite high school teacher, Mr. Adinolfi, had us memorize “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I was one of those readers who experienced many things first through books—and only later, in real life, not the other way around.

“You read something which you thought only happened to you,” James Baldwin once said, “and you discovered it happened 100 years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone. This is why art is important.”

The books I write about in these pages include some longtime favorites (A Wrinkle in Time, Moby-Dick, The Palm at the End of the Mind), some older books that illuminate our troubled politics today (The Paranoid Style in American Politics, The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Federalist Papers), some well-known works of fiction that have continued to exert a formative influence on successive generations of writers (Winesburg, Ohio; As I Lay Dying; The Odyssey), works of journalism and scholarship that address some of the most pressing issues of our day (The Forever War, The Sixth Extinction, Dawn of the New Everything), works that shine a light on hidden corners of our world or the human mind (Arctic Dreams, Lab Girl, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), and books that I’ve frequently given or recommended to friends.

Some of my favorite classics are here, but there are lots of lists out there of must-read classics, not to mention the class syllabi we remember from high school and college. And so, I’ve also tried to include a lot of recent books—novels, stories, and memoirs by contemporary writers, and nonfiction works about how technology and political and cultural upheavals are bringing tectonic changes to our world.

Like all lists and anthologies, the selections here are subjective and decidedly arbitrary. It was difficult to whittle my choices down to a hundred (which is why some entries actually contain more than one book), and I could easily have added another hundred books that are equally powerful, moving, or timely.

Over the years, I had the good fortune to have some inspiring teachers who enriched my understanding and appreciation of books. And some wonderful editors—like The New York Times’s former managing editor Arthur Gelb, a mentor to many of us and a journalist equally at home in the world of culture and the world of breaking news—who made it possible for me to make a living for many years by reading.

In these pages, I’m writing less as a critic than as an enthusiast. I’m not trying to explicate hidden meanings in these books or situate them in a literary continuum; I’m trying to encourage you to read or reread these books, because they deserve as wide an audience as possible. Because they are affecting or timely or beautifully written. Because they teach us something about the world or other people or our own emotional lives. Or simply because they remind us why we fell in love with reading in the first place.

Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread
by by Michiko Kakutani