Do you find yourself saying “I would love to know more about [insert interesting subject here]?” All the time?
Well, here is your chance. These 25 modern classics make for great reading and self-education—whether you’re a die-hard sci-fi fan or a history nerd. Spend some time tackling these essential reads, and soon you’ll be your best, most well-read self.
West with the Night
If you’re looking for adventure, this memoir by the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean has it in spades. Beryl Markham had an unconventional childhood growing up in early 20th-century Kenya. Her life there allowed her to embrace her adventurous spirit, train racehorses, and pilot aspirations—a lifestyle that would have been difficult had she and her father remained in England. National Geographic ranked West with the Night #8 in their 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time list, and Hemingway called it “a bloody wonderful book.”
The Forever War
This classic science fiction novel about a never-ending intergalactic war has been widely accepted as the author’s response to the Vietnam War. Haldeman himself fought in Vietnam, where he was wounded and received a Purple Heart. His experiences in the war influenced a large part of his fiction, and in The Forever War, he captures the alienation that soldiers feel returning from combat to daily life. This timeless book transcends the genre; as William Gibson wrote, “To say that The Forever War is the best science fiction war novel ever written is to damn it with faint praise … as fine and woundingly genuine a war story as any I’ve read.”
Related: Legendary Author Joe Haldeman Shares the Story Behind The Forever War, from The Portalist
Revolution from Within
Women across many generations credit this book with changing their outlook and helping them to accept themselves. Gloria Steinem makes clear that internal change and external political change are powerfully linked—and neither is possible without the other. Part personal stories and part eye-opening guide, Revolution will rock your world view.
The Prince of Tides
This classic Southern novel by the late, great Pat Conroy is perfect for anyone who loves an epic family drama with a large side-serving of romance. Tom Wingo and his sister, Savannah, have tried their best to move on from their abusive upbringing and make the best of their lives. But it takes a trip to New York—and the help of a therapist—to make Tom realize the key to defeating his demons is to confront them head-on.
The Fall of Japan
For those who have always wanted to learn more about the Pacific arena of WWII, this essential history is told from both Japanese and American perspectives. In this gripping account of the final weeks of the war in midsummer 1945, Japanese generals were still holding on to a hope that the Axis powers would prevail. From the bombing of Pearl Harbor to America’s agonizing decision to drop the atom bombs, The Fall of Japan is a fascinating but harrowing read.
Life at the Dakota
Though most know Manhattan’s Dakota building as the tragic backdrop of John Lennon's murder, it has seen a lot more in the years since its 1884 construction. In this fascinating account by Stephen Birmingham, life inside the Dakota—with its motley crew of eccentric and famous characters—reflects the ever-changing cultural landscape of New York City itself.
The Color Purple
Alice Walker’s groundbreaking, Pulitzer Prize–winning novel follows the lives of a group of African-American women in rural Georgia. Its unflinching look at the violence, sexism, and racism made The Color Purple one of the most censored and challenged books by the American Library Association for nearly a decade. But Walker’s novel is clearly a work of genius that marries history and storytelling into an anthem for social change.
All Creatures Great and Small
Most will remember the delightful British television series of the same name—why not read the book that started it all? Just out of veterinary school, the young James Herriot takes up a post in rural Yorkshire, quickly realizing that real life out in the field (or, in this case, on the farm) poses greater challenges than those he faced in the classroom. For readers interested in farm life, animal husbandry, botany, or the people who live off the land, this charming book is to be cherished for the ages.
North and South
In the first book of this enormously popular Civil War trilogy, John Jakes introduces readers to a country divided through the drama between two families: the rice-growing Mains of South Carolina and the iron-working Hazards of Pennsylvania. If historical fiction is your go-to genre, you can’t go wrong with Jakes’ epic trilogy—an intimate portrait of America from before the Civil War through the Reconstruction era.
Upstairs at the White House
From 1957 to 1969, J.B. West was the “chief usher” at the White House, responsible for all the daily events—including weddings, parties, and funerals. Together with the First Ladies, West supervised the White House staff and oversaw renovations and additions to the grounds through the terms of six presidents. One of those first ladies was Jackie Kennedy—and she called West “one of the most extraordinary men I have ever met.” Take a behind-the-scenes look at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue from the guy who kept it running smoothly.
Fear of Flying
Erica Jong’s feminist novel became a literary sensation when it was first published in 1973 (coincidentally the same year of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision), making waves with its upfront depiction of female sexuality, desire, and independence. It follows Isadora, the wife of a psychoanalyst, as she grapples with her desire for another man and searches for selfhood within her marriage. While many similar novels came later, none have become the worldwide, cultural phenomenon that was Fear of Flying.
The Last Jews in Berlin
This thrilling book details the little-known stories of a dozen Jewish men and women who spent the final months of World War II in hiding—many in plain sight of the Nazis. It's a moving and suspenseful account that will leave you in awe of their resourcefulness, bravery, and ability to survive when countless others did not.
Celebrated humorist Erma Bombeck is beloved for her ability to find the comedy in being a wife and mother. A regular contributor to publications such as Good Housekeeping, Reader’s Digest, and Redbook, Bombeck’s hilarious stories from the parenting front lines paved the way for some of the most popular parenting blogs today such as dooce and The Bloggess.
We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young
This powerful New York Times bestseller offers a devastating account of two of the earliest and most ruthless battles of the Vietnam War. Lt. General Moore and Joseph L. Galloway—the only journalist on the ground throughout the war—interviewed hundreds of soldiers from both sides to create a revealing look at humanity at its most heroic and most terrible. The basis for the movie starring Mel Gibson, We Were Soldiers Once…and Young is one of the definitive books on the Vietnam War, “written the way military history should be written” (H. Norman Schwarzkopf).
Related: 10 Unforgettable Vietnam War Books
All-female ensemble dramas are everywhere today, from the bestseller table at your local bookstore to your Netflix queue. This popular narrative would not be possible without Mary McCarthy’s The Group, which was one of the first novels to deal openly with female sexuality and contraception. A story about Vassar graduates as they navigate adulthood in New York City, it's as compelling today as it was in the 1960s, and even has admirers in Candace Bushnell, Hilary Mantel, and Gloria Steinem.
Crazy Horse and Custer
This dual biography of Crazy Horse, the leader of the Oglala Sioux, and cavalry general General Custer is a classic American history book. Award-winning and New York Times bestselling author Stephen Ambrose provides a thorough account of their lives before their showdown at the Battle of Little Bighorn, highlighting just how much these two enemies had in common.
Clifford Simak’s science fiction classic tells of another intergalactic conflict—this time between humans and aliens. When our hero, Enoch Wallace, travels through space to communicate with aliens, the U.S. government becomes suspicious when he returns to Earth and stops aging for 100 years. What the American government knows, or claims not to know, reflects a sign of the times—Way Station was written during the Cold War, and echoes the paranoia and anxiety that crippled both America and Russia for nearly 50 years.
The Good Earth
American writer Pearl S. Buck drew on her experiences growing up in Zienjiang, China, as the daughter of missionaries. Her 1931 novel, The Good Earth, was a sensation—not only did it remain a bestseller for two years and win a Pulitzer Prize, it has even been credited with inspiring the U.S.-China alliance during WWII. The novel—which tells the story of a Chinese farmers in the 1920s—was adapted into a successful film in 1937. Buck became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and dedicated her life to writing about the rights of women and minority groups, becoming a proponent for mixed-race adoption.
Bill Gates called John Brooks’ Business Adventures “the best business book I’ve ever read”—and if it’s good enough for Bill Gates, then it’s worth reading! Published in 1969, these “12 classic tales from the world of Wall Street” investigate major corporations like Xerox and General Electric to discover what—and who—make them so successful. Brooks’ accessible and witty writing style makes the book a fascinating read, whether you’re familiar with the great Stock Market crash of 1962 or just eager to improve your business prowess.
The Valhalla Exchange
Blend your love of WWII history and spy novels with Jack Higgins’ The Valhalla Exchange. In this gripping espionage thriller, a journalist tracks down Hitler’s secretary, Martin Bormann, who escaped Berlin with five POWs shortly before the the city's liberation. If the journalist can find Bormann, he can discover the fate of those five POWs, too—but what he discovers will shake him to his core, even three decades later.
Related: 10 Must-Read Jack Higgins Thrillers, from Murder & Mayhem
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
Since its publication in 1970, Dee Brown’s devastating Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee has become a staple of American history. For any reader who is looking to confront the demons of our nation’s past, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is an unflinching and elegiac chronicle of the Native people, told through their own stories.
Parable of the Sower
This groundbreaking and eerily prescient dystopian novel offers a terrifying vision of our potential future—but also one of hope. Set in an alternate Los Angeles, Lauren Olamina is a young woman with hyper-empathy, a condition that makes her extremely sensitive to the pain of others. She and her family survive within the walls of the city’s remaining safe neighborhood until tragedy forces Lauren into a world on the brink of chaos.
The first in a trilogy, this unforgettable historical novel about the late 18-century settlers of the Louisiana wilderness offers a captivating read that’s rich in history and romance. Set against the backdrop of historic events, such as the Louisiana Purchase, this bestselling chronicle of the Larne family’s saga of poverty and wealth, betrayal and forgiveness, is perfect for fans of Margaret Mitchell.
The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries
One of the Golden Age “Queens of Crime,” Dorothy L. Sayers is best known for her acclaimed mystery series featuring British aristocrat and sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. A World War I veteran who collects rare books, samples fine wines, and solves crimes, Wimsey is the quintessential English gentleman detective. This volume of the first three books in Sayers’ beloved and elegant series is a perfect introduction for new readers.
The Ice Storm
The basis for the award-winning film starring Sigourney Weaver and Tobey Maguire, The Ice Storm is the bestselling novel that launched Rick Moody’s career. Set in the affluent town of New Canaan, Connecticut, it centers on a family’s unraveling over the course of one night during the winter of 1973. With gorgeous prose, Moody creates a bleak yet compassionate portrayal of the 1970s suburban wasteland—from latchkey kids to key parties—as a literal and symbolic storm tears through.
Featured Image: "The Color Purple" (1985), via Warner Bros.