15 Types of Books to Jump-Start Your Collection

    Recommendations for a well-rounded bookshelf.

    If you're anything like us, you ooh-and-ahh over photos of personal libraries—those cozy (often wood-paneled) rooms decked out in floor-to-ceiling shelves. But when it comes down to it, building your own library can be a little daunting: How do you know what books to include? 

    Since bookstore offerings are often extensive—and, quite frankly, overwhelming—we've created 15 categories every reader ought to include in their collection (plus suggestions to go with them). Browse our list below, and then start creating your own well-rounded bookshelf.


    The Classic

    Buy This Side of Paradise at Amazon

    This Side of Paradise

    By F. Scott Fitzgerald

    Let’s start with the most obvious first step: The classics are classics for a reason—they're worth exploring, discussing, and owning. What’s more, they belong to a variety of sub-genres, from the "the Great American Novel" to mysteries to cultural epics, so there's an endless selection of choices. Pick whichever ones speak to you, as you really can't go wrong.

    This Side of Paradise

    By F. Scott Fitzgerald

    The Token Shakespeare

    Buy Twelfth Night at Amazon

    Twelfth Night

    By William Shakespeare

    Favorite works of William Shakespeare are like astrological signs—everyone’s got one. If you don't, we recommend one of his quirky comedies, or a drama that contains one of his most famous monologues (we won’t mind if you recite it incorrectly). Chances are, the other books in your library are by writers who have taken cues from the Bard.

    Twelfth Night

    By William Shakespeare

    The Award Winner

    Buy A Confederacy of Dunces at Amazon

    A Confederacy of Dunces

    By John Kennedy Toole

    We all know one, and everyone collection needs one (make that several). The award-winner is the conspicuously placed book that, whether you read it or not, tells others that you’re "with it." It’s deep; it's often long. Occasionally, it's hard to read. But the book's challenges (and all the accolades listed on the back flap) will encourage you to figure out if the hubbub is deserved.

    A Confederacy of Dunces

    By John Kennedy Toole

    The Recent Classic

    Buy Lincoln in the Bardo at Amazon

    Lincoln in the Bardo

    By George Saunders

    We can argue over the modern canon until the cows come home, which only makes picking the essentials rather difficult. The writers of the new literary frontier push the boundaries of storytelling by experimenting with structure and style—creating a book that isn't just read, it's felt.

    Lincoln in the Bardo

    By George Saunders

    The Memoir/Biography

    Buy West with the Night at Amazon

    West with the Night

    By Beryl Markham

    Nonfiction isn't always dry! In fact, West with the Night is just as compelling as it was in the 1940s (the book itself also has its own fascinating history—one that involves good ol' Ernest Hemingway). With memoirs and biographies, you can learn more about your favorite iconic figure, uncover the truth behind popular stories, or revisit the stuff you missed in history class. You’ll be your friend’s go-to teammate on trivia night.

    West with the Night

    By Beryl Markham

    The Poetry Collection

    Buy The Complete Poems at Amazon

    The Complete Poems

    By Anne Sexton

    If you’re one of the many who think poetry is the modern art of literature (that is to say, extremely puzzling), you may be a little put off by the genre. Our best advice: just lean into it. Embrace the strange word choice, admire the economy of language, and wonder why the sentences are broken up the way they are. If it’s worth analyzing, it’s worth enjoying.

    The Complete Poems

    By Anne Sexton

    The Play

    Buy Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Amazon

    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

    By Edward Albee

    Book purists will surely ask, “Do plays count?” and our answer is yes, they sure do. Reading plays offers an entirely different experience from seeing them: The setting, costumes, and characters are all controlled by your imagination—no one else's vision contradicts yours. So take a seat in your favorite director’s chair (aka, the couch), and set your own scene.

    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

    By Edward Albee

    The Book by an International Author

    Buy The Double at Amazon

    The Double

    By José Saramago

    Why limit yourself to just English-speaking authors? You owe it to yourself to read international writers who explore a way of life, time period, or location that differs from yours. After all, part of reading is getting to have new experiences (or, at least, live vicariously through other's experiences) and gain new perspectives.

    The Double

    By José Saramago

    The "Learning is Fun" Book

    Buy The Canon at Amazon

    The Canon

    By Natalie Angier

    Economics. Medicine. Physics. Everybody needs a touchstone on an interesting subject. Before you dive into peer-reviewed journals, turn to high-minded books that educate readers with vibrant, off-the-walls creativity. Choose one with goofy drawings or mind-blowing fun facts—anything that gets you excited to learn something new.

    The Canon

    By Natalie Angier

    The High School Read

    Buy Heart of Darkness at Amazon

    Heart of Darkness

    By Joseph Conrad

    It’s a relic from freshman English class—you may have read it; you may have relied on Spark Notes. But now that you're older, wiser, and more open-minded, we suggest getting reacquainted with one of the required reads from your yesteryears. There's always a high school book that deserves a revisit, and there's always a valuable new takeaway.

    Heart of Darkness

    By Joseph Conrad

    The Science Book

    Buy The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat at Amazon

    The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

    By Oliver Sacks

    You’ve got your “learning is fun” book, so let's take things one step further. Field experts-turned-authors dedicate their lives to answering the “why?” questions of the world. This book by neurologist Oliver Sacks covers a variety of his (bizarre) case studies, and it's one of the many "science" reads that you can name drop at fancy dinner parties.

    The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

    By Oliver Sacks

    The "Guilty Pleasure"

    Buy Outlander at Amazon

    Outlander

    By Diana Gabaldon

    Okay, let's get one thing clear: There’s no book-shaming allowed here. By "guilty pleasure," we're simply referring to a read that feeds your need for spectacle. We're talking time travel! Intrigue! Romance! A battle between good and evil! Books like Outlander are reading roller coasters, so why wouldn’t you want to own them?

    Outlander

    By Diana Gabaldon

    The Book You Read Before the Movie

    Buy Bel Canto at Amazon

    Bel Canto

    By Ann Patchett

    It's always good to be a few steps ahead, especially when it comes to book-to-screen adaptations. Pick up a novel that's getting the Hollywood treatment in the near (or distant) future. Once it premieres, you'll not only have read a fantastic story—you'll have some literary street cred too.

    Bel Canto

    By Ann Patchett

    The Graphic Novel

    Buy Blanckets at Amazon

    Blanckets

    By Craig Thompson

    The most important rule of book collecting is: Don’t limit yourself. Even if you’re “not into comic books or graphic novels,” there are so many talented artists who can tell stories as masterfully as traditional authors. Think of their illustrated depictions of characters and settings as a little bonus—not a crutch—that creates a richer reading experience.

    Blanckets

    By Craig Thompson

    The All-Time Favorite

    Buy Housekeeping at Amazon

    Housekeeping

    By Marilynne Robinson

    It’s your call on this one, and let’s be honest: You’ve probably purchased this book multiple times in your life. You’re drawn to it, flaws and all, because it resonates and feels representative of your identity and worldview. It may also just be a thoroughly enjoyable read. You need not justify it—this is your one true book love, so of course it belongs on your shelf.

    Housekeeping

    By Marilynne Robinson

    This story was first published on The Reading Room. 

    Featured photo: Radu Marcusu/Unsplash 

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