Everyone wants to feel intelligent. We watch Jeopardy!, test ourselves with New York Times crosswords, and check our RSS feeds each day for the news we need to know. Sometimes, we even start to feel pretty smart. But then it happens: Your friend references a book in classic “Amirite?” style, and you have no idea how to respond. Smiling and nodding is the obvious, safe choice, but that doesn’t prevent the paranoia. Your facade has cracked. In truth, it’s likely that no one noticed, and of the few who did, even fewer care that you aren’t familiar with the book. But you still feel the burn of not knowing what is, evidently, a prominent work of literature.
The truth is that even the nerdiest book nerds haven’t read everything in the literary canon. If you’re feeling particularly inferior to your bookish friends, though, reading the titles on this list will help. Although they are not, by any means, the most influential works in the canon — (and while I strongly encourage you to read Shakespeare, Milton, and Beowulf) — the 20 books included here are some of the most-talked-about today. Read them, and you probably won’t miss a bookish reference for a long, long time.
'Infinite Jest' by David Foster Wallace
So, this book is long. If you aren’t a big reader to begin with, starting with something lighter might help. Infinite Jest weighs in at nearly 1100 pages in hardcover. Author David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008, is a rock star darling, the Kurt Cobain of English Lit. And this tome is an ode to his genius. Make a point to read it; you won’t be disappointed.
'The Handmaid's Tale' by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood pushes the boundary between genre fiction and big-L Literature off the edge of a cliff, where it catches fire and crumbles to ash. When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, I was a pimply teenager obsessed with dystopian fiction. Reading it again in university, I realized I’d missed so much of Atwood’s skill in my focus on her novel’s science fiction aspects. This is one of the greatest works of feminist fiction ever written, so add it to your TBR today.
'A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius' by Dave Eggers
Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is like an after-school special come true. This memoir chronicles the author’s experiences after taking on the responsibility of raising his younger brother after his parents’ deaths. Readers join Eggers in grappling with the magnitude of responsibility thrust upon him, and all the anxieties that come with it.
'Americanah' by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Since its publication in 2013, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s award-winning novel, Americanah, has become one of the most talked-about books of the millennium. It’s been featured on choice pick lists from NPR, Goodreads, and The New York Times. If you want to know what the best contemporary fiction looks like, read this book.
'The Complete Novels of Jane Austen'
No matter what your opinion of her work is — (and I’m no huge fan myself) — Jane Austen’s novels are canon for a variety of reasons. For one, they provide a fantastic glimpse into women’s spaces, social mores, and language traditions in Regency England. They’re beautiful, introspective love stories — whether you agree with the “Everyone gets a husband!” trope or not. After you read The Complete Novels, you’ll be spotting their themes and plots everywhere in modern romance films and fiction.
'Moby-Dick' by Herman Melville
Another sizable tome, Moby-Dick is an epic. I’m resisting calling it “a whale of a tale,” because, c’mon, I’m not that corny. You might know the basic story elements — “Call me Ishmael,” the Pequod, Captain Ahab’s vendetta against a great white whale — but I still recommend reading the full novel, if only to grasp Melvelle’s romantic prose. Moby-Dick is constantly referenced; read it to make sure you’re in on the next whale joke.
'A Thousand Splendid Suns' by Khaled Hosseini
A Thousand Splendid Suns is the followup to Khaled Hosseini’s hit debut novel, The Kite Runner. Like Hosseini’s first book, A Thousand Splendid Suns takes place in Afghanistan and deals heavily with the impact of regime changes on the country’s people. Unlike its predecessor, the novel centers on the experiences of Afghan women, who must bond together in order to survive the harshness of poverty, domestic violence, and disenfranchisement.
'The Grapes of Wrath' by John Steinbeck
As controversial today as it was when it was first published, The Grapes of Wrath is an authentic look at life during the Dust Bowl. It’s a story of classism, police brutality, discrimination, and desperation, and protagonist Tom Joad is a folk hero. The Grapes of Wrath remains relevant nearly 80 years after John Steinbeck wrote it, and you’re sure to see parallels between its plot points and current events.
'One Hundred Years of Solitude' by Gabriel García Márquez
At its heart, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a cultural history of Colombia, as told through the experiences of seven generations of the Buendía family. Layered with rich symbolism, metaphor, and prose, Márquez’s novel is a heavy but enjoyable and romantic read.
'1984' by George Orwell
Speaking of haunting, allow me to present the book that can turn you into a fetal curl of paranoia. Of all the books on this list, 1984 is probably the easiest to read and the most widely referenced. Ever hear of Big Brother, the Thought Police, or Thoughtcrime? All from this novel. Read it, and just try to remain calm.
'Frankenstein' by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Book nerds will generally be quick to correct anyone who uses “Frankenstein” to refer to “Frankenstein’s monster.” Most people know the story of a scientist who sews together corpses and tries to play God, but only folks who read and remember the novel understand that it’s really all about the human condition. What constitutes life, death, right, and wrong? Who is worthy of love? Frankenstein gives readers a vehicle to explore these and more questions.
'Beloved' by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and its popularity hasn’t dropped off since its publication in 1987. This is the tragic story of a former slave haunted — quite literally — by the ghost of the young daughter she killed years before. Beloved is more than just a spirit, but you’ll have to read the book to find out exactly who — or what — she is.
'The Joy Luck Club' by Amy Tan
Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club attained both mainstream and literary success after its 1989 release. The novel follows a group of Chinese immigrants and their American-born children as they navigate interpersonal relationships and the conflict of assimilation and identity. Because of its widespread readership, you’ll hear it referred to a great deal, so it would be a good idea to pop this one into your TBR, ASAP.
'If on a Winter's Night a Traveler' by Italo Calvino
Allow me the hipsterism, but If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is just so meta. You’re reading about the experience of reading, and half the book is told in the second person. You (as the book’s protagonist) begin reading If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (the eponymous book-within-the-book) only to uncover a vast network of conspiracy and intrigue. If you find yourself asking “What’s going on here?” you aren’t alone. Almost 45 years after Italo Calvino’s book was published, it’s still pretty damn experimental. Even if you don’t totally get the novel, you’ll still have plenty to talk about with your friends, who probably don’t really get it, either.
'Slaughterhouse-Five' by Kurt Vonnegut
Another book that will make you wonder what’s really going on inside it is Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut’s semi-autobiographical story of a war veteran named Billy Pilgrim. Pilgrim, who narrates the novel, claims to have been abducted by aliens and given their ability to segue between moments on his timeline, even to experience them simultaneously. You, as the reader, have a choice: accept Pilgrim’s accounts as fact, or search for evidence of what’s really going on. I recommend the latter approach, but either way, Slaughterhouse-Five is one hell of a ride.
'White Teeth' by Zadie Smith
Like Americanah, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth tells the story of immigrant life in the United Kingdom. The novel deals with themes of assimilation and ethnic diversity, as individuals from Bangladesh and Jamaica, and their children, navigate an overwhelmingly white society. Lost religions, customs, and identities feature prominently, as does the discovery of new ones.
'A Tale of Two Cities' by Charles Dickens
I read this book last year with gritted teeth and plenty of lamentations about how much I despised it. Honestly, though, I’m really glad to have read it. Getting through Charles Dickens’ writing style can be a struggle if you don’t truly enjoy it, but the meat you want to get at here is the plot. A Tale of Two Cities is a gripping tale of political complications and revolution, and trust me, you won’t regret reading it.
'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald
In the last few years, The Great Gatsby — always a popular choice for high school English classes — has experienced a renaissance of its own. It was part of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read, and let’s not forget the 2013 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. If you’re sick of hearing about this book but have never read it, now’s the time. It’s a short and bittersweet read that captures upper-crust life in the Roaring Twenties. Everyone’s read it, so joining in on the fun is sure to give you something to talk about.
'The Complete Persepolis' by Marjane Satrapi
If there’s one graphic novel that everyone talks about, it’s this one. The Complete Persepolis combines Marjane Satrapi’s two-volume graphic novel memoir into a single book. It’s the story of the author’s childhood and adolescence during and after the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Persepolis exposes the day-to-day lives of Iranian citizens during the tumultuous period, and deals with Satrapi’s experiences as a refugee in France during her teen years. In the world of autobiographical graphic novels, this one is, in my opinion, the most fantastic.
'The Metamorphosis' by Franz Kafka
I’ve saved the weirdest for last here. If you read Franz Kafka’s short story in high school, you probably remember it as “that book where the guy turns into a bug.” But there’s a lot of meaty literary goodness to be enjoyed here. Reading The Metamorphosis today will give you a better grasp on that oft-bandied-about term “Kafkaesque.” If becoming more well-read is the goal here, then Kafka’s most famous tale will net you a good deal of conversation material in your next literary discussion.