There are just too many books in the world, and far, far too little time. Every reader knows this adage all too well. It’s the problem that tortures you when you’re 300 pages into the the latest Elena Ferrante novel and you catch sight of that unread copy of War and Peace on your bookshelf and your heart rate skyrockets as you realize you might never get to read all the books in the universe.
Well, it’s as Thoreau says, “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” Of course, then you could get into an endless debate with yourself over what exactly makes a book “the best.” You could ask five million people that question and get five million different answers. Or, you could just take advantage of this whole time thing, which helpfully sorts and filters and shows us which books remain relevant and remarkable generation after changing generation. These are the books that stand the test of time because they, eerily, prophetically, magically manage to speak to the fears and hopes and humanity of people decades or centuries or even millennia after they were first penned.
You can’t say a book like that isn’t worth reading.
1. The Odyssey by Homer
Date: c. 800 B.C.
It might not be the first book that every teenager is reaching for at the library, but it has somehow managed to capture the imaginations of the pubescent generation after generation for, hmm, 20 centuries or longer. It has everything anyone could ever want in a book — love, war, adventure, monsters, magic nymphs, epic grudges, and vindictive sea gods. No wonder it has lasted this long.
2. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
You can’t go wrong with star-crossed lovers, and Shakespeare might not have invented the concept but he sure did it best. Romeo and Juliet has settled so firmly into its own specially carved place in the history of world literature that it’s become the kind of story that everyone knows everything without ever having to read it. (But, you should definitely read it because it’s beautiful.
3. Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes
The book credited with inventing the novel, Don Quixote also invented one of the most ridiculous, delusional heroes in Don Quixote. And it’s this ridiculous hero and his punchy sidekick that influenced so many of our favorite books of chivalry and romance and adventure, such as The Three Musketeers. It’s the novel’s complexity of comedy and tragedy and the grand delusions of its title character who prefers the world of his own mind over reality that has made this book speak to generation after generation of writers and readers and, well, humans.
4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice took what Shakespeare started with Romeo and Juliet, swapped the tragedy for wit and humor, and gave the early 19th century a more stoic (still dashing) Romeo and a more fiery Juliet in her Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett. And everyone fell hard for this new delightful duo. Seriously, we just can’t stop making movie adaptations and even rewriting the story into new novels.
5. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Dickens practically created a viral meme with that epic opening line. And the rest of the book is full of as many truths as this single simple statement. It might be specifically about the French Revolution and the class struggles in France that led to it, but history has seen much of the same discontent and the consequences of it time and time again. Seriously, how many times can you think that were "the best of times" and "the worst of times?"
6. Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin
It’s lesser known in the western world, but Dream of the Red Chamber is a timeless classic in China. The story has been adored for the better part of two centuries, with people even reading and loving the book when it was banned in China in the '60s and '70s. Considering the Western world's love for tales of love triangles, arranged marriages, and challenging the status quo, it's surprising it hasn't caught on further on this side of the globe.
7. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Speaking of love triangles and arranged marriages... More than a novel about a love affair, Anna Karenina is a masterwork of how the personal life is never just personal. It perfectly captures how politics and society interfere and insinuate themselves in every family and every personal affair, and it’s no less true today than it was in 1877. Clearly, it’s a work that captures hearts and minds all over, considering yet another movie adaptation of it was made just a couple of years ago with Keira Knightley as the tragic heroine.
8. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
Children’s books come and go with each new generation, as kids become parents, aunts, and cool adult family friends themselves. There are, however, those few books that no child-turned-grown-up has managed to evict from the realm of warm fuzzies. There's just a magical something about this mischievous little Peter Rabbit that means the critter doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
9. The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois
The Souls of Black Folk has steadily held on throughout the decades as a crucially important book in black history. What really makes it a book that stands the test of time is that many of its themes and ideas — like the idea of “double consciousness,” which DuBois coined in this book— ring eerily true for much of the black experience today.
10. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
You might not have liked it when you were forced to read it in high school, but there’s a good reason English teachers keep forcing it upon their students. It’s themes of social mobility and Gatsby’s hope beyond all hope for that unattainable light across the water is pretty darn central to American culture. It was central in the '20s, when Fitzgerald wrote it, and it’s still excruciatingly relevant to being American today.
11. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
It’s almost hard to believe that The Hobbit kicked off the world of Middle Earth all the way back in 1937. The Lord of the Rings, published in 1954, is still such a relevant series today, adored by generations of nerd culture. But, Tolkien’s insanely detailed world of warring factions, magic, and adventure has been around for awhile, and it’s probably not going anywhere any time soon.
12. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
People still read One Hundred Years of Solitude like it’s the hottest new novel on the shelves. That’s because it’s freaking brilliant and astoundingly beautiful. Painting a magical narrative of Latin American history and culture over the course of a 100 years in the life of a single family, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a unique beast of literature, and in just 45 years it’s managed to carve a place for itself in the timeless literary canon.
13. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
It hasn’t been around long enough to say that it already has stood the test of time, but the Harry Potter series sold as many copies in its short tenure on Earth as books that have been around for centuries. There’s no doubt that as this generation of Harry Potter fans turn into parents they’ll be inflicting the same fanhood upon their lucky offspring. So, it’s fair to say that the boy who lived will be living on for quite a while longer.