21 of 30
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick is one of those rare authors who can change the way you view growing up, and The Man in the High Castle is one of those rare books that, while it may initially confuse the hell out of you, changes the way you read. Dick is a master when it comes to interweaving plot lines, bizarre sci-fi and distorted realities, and that's exactly what rests at the core of The Man in the High Castle. Originally published in 1962, it challenges readers to imagine an alternate ending to World War II. Talk about closing the history books. The Man in the High Castle isn't easy, but that's half of its impact. A novel should be able to take you somewhere for years to come, and this one certainly does so. Brittany Joyce
22 of 30
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Have you ever read a book you enjoyed so much you that you never wanted it to end? Middlesex is one of those narratives. We follow three generations of the Stephanides family: Greek-Americans who have emigrated from a village with a view of Mount Olympus to the concrete jungle of prohibition-era Detroit. Like some brilliant HBO episodic docudrama, we're toured with vivid narration through the booming factory days of the Motor City through the '40s and '50s, coalescing into dismay with large scale riots in 1967. With that at our periphery, we focus on the developmental timeline of one particular family member named Calliope. Most girls wouldn't identify with Calliope's adolescence. And as, decades later, the older "Cal" begins to narrate his upbringing as Calliope, we get a poignant glimpse into the experience of growing up intersex. But it is a much richer, multifaceted narrative than just the treats of historical fiction or the endearment to Calliope's emotional turmoil. Jeff Milo
23 of 30
The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey
Edward Abbey, one of the strongest literary voices of the American West, poured his sharp and defiant writing into numerous fiction and nonfiction books, including the iconic Desert Solitaire. But his masterpiece came in 1975 when Abbey set loose a misfit cast of environmentalist saboteurs–"Seldom Seen" Smith, Doc Sarvis, Bonnie Abbzug and the unforgettable George Hayduke–to do battle against bulldozers, polluters and, ultimately, the Glen Canyon Dam. In The Monkey Wrench Gang, Abbey combined his ardent defense of unspoiled wilderness with dazzling prose and a propulsive, thrilling plot. Anyone who loves a sunset or a scenic landscape can appreciate the lines Abbey drew in the sand, and the conflicts that persist between environmentalists and mining, development and Bundy-style ranching. Eric Swedlund
24 of 30
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
With only two books published relatively recently (and a related novella), it could be argued that the unfinished Kingkiller trilogy doesn't belong on this list. But only someone who hasn't read these books would make that argument, as no other fantasy novels so easily shrug off their genre tag with such gorgeous prose. Kvothe's tale is not an epic hero journey. Told as a regretful autobiography by a secluded innkeeper, it's a life lived large, filled with magic and adventure, sure, but also with love, music and the trials of a poor student just trying to survive until the next meal. There is no book I'm more excited to read (The Winds of Winter included) than the final entry of this series. And along with the strange and lyrical novella, The Slow Regard of Silent Things, there are no other books I would recommend more to someone wanting to dip their toe into fantasy waters. Josh Jackson
25 of 30
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Oryx and Crake is the only post-apocalyptic/dystopian book you'll ever need to read, possibly because its manifestation is so frighteningly believable. For those of us who are too perturbed by the dread-inducing alarms of Silent Spring or perhaps too exhausted by the Shakespearean monologues of Shelley's Frankenstein, we can instead turn to Margaret Atwood's exquisite prose for a more refreshing take on the ol' man-playing-god-and-ruining-everything-through-misapplications-of-science-and-augmented-by-apathetic-degradations-wrought-from-greed-fueled-corporations-deluded-into-thinking-they're-helping-mankind tale.
Atwood also imbues her characters with these compellingly fine shades of authenticity, whether they're noble, like our hero "Snowman" (otherwise known as Jimmy), tragic, like the beautiful Oryx, or volatile, like the ambitious Crake. When you hear things in the news these days about editing human genes inside embryos before their even born? Yeah, that's just the kind of gonzo just-because-we-can power that's indulged to near horror-show levels in this sublime (and, yes, sometimes terrifying) book. So read up now. If you get hooked, this is just book one of a trilogy.
26 of 30
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is often brushed off to the Young Adult crowd, but author Stephen Chbosky has created a lasting take on self-discovery with this 1999 novel. Chbosky writes from the first-person perspective of Charlie, a high school freshman, in the form of letters. Charlie, meanwhile, explores the most potent feelings that develop in the cesspool of high school, when adolescence morphs into adulthood. Even if the tried-and-true narrative structure or character attraction fades over time, The Perks of Being a Wallflower helps readers feel understood in trying times—and that itself is an important part of growing up. Hilary Saunders
27 of 30
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Readers see acclaimed novelists resolve their own father-child bonds in prose all the time, but the flip-side is rarely expressed as elegantly as Cormac McCarthy's virtuosic 2007 novel, The Road. For many, The Road is defined by its absences: McCarthy's main protagonist and his son are nameless travelers heading south across an ashen, cannibal-ridden United States. And while The Road might sound like some of television's current, zombie-centered programming, the novel doesn't concern itself with its apocalypse more than its immediate dangers: food shortages, shelter, owning a gun with two bullets. It doesn't hang too long on the duo's past, either. The Road's meat lies in its protagonist's fire, which is lovingly passed to his own son. McCarthy does some back-breaking work building up The Road's finale, but its tear-summoning final pages never feel cheap as a result. Tyler R. Kane
28 of 30
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
A stunning work of literary science fiction, Mary Doria Russell's debut novel is sure to haunt you for years to come. Following a group of scientists and explorers led by a Jesuit linguist, The Sparrow explores what would happen if humans discovered life on another planet. And not just life, but two races with a turbulent history. Russell, a paleoanthropologist, examines a wealth of topics (the pitfalls of foreign aid, challenged faith in God, slavery) without pushing her own agenda. The result is a gorgeous novel that is as deep as it is entertaining. Frannie Jackson
29 of 30
Sula by Toni Morrison
Years ago, when I named Sula as one of the most incredible books I'd ever laid hands on, my current lover asked, "That's that book about the importance of female friendship or whatever, right?" I should have known then that things would end badly for us. Of course, as Nel cries out one of the most beautiful lines at the end of the novel, "We was girls together!" it's clear that the story is about female friendship or whatever in the same way that Beloved is about moms and their daughters, or whatever, and Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway is about some lady and her party, or whatever, and Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! is about a war, or whatever. The truth is that Sula is one of those books literary and cultural theorists love because there are endless layers to pull back, countless characters to examine (Sula Peace, Ajax, Shadrack and the Deweys being a few favorites) and themes that take on nearly every aspect of an American society.
I can think of many breathtaking scenes throughout the text, but to this day I cannot hear or see the word "alabaster" without thinking of that unforgettable moment where the great Sula perfectly describes, with the kind of romance and violence only she could, her desire to peel back and chip away at the layers beneath her lover's skin. When an author has done such a thing, has rendered a word or a concept meaningless without her work, something great has been achieved, and must be witnessed over and over again. Shannon M. Houston
30 of 30
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Do you remember the first time you heard a Talking Heads song? Or watched a Quentin Tarantino film? Do you remember that time when you encountered a work of art that felt like it was not only breaking established rules, but was doing so with uncanny grace and flat-out badass charm?
In A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan punches the walls with her words, and you can see the dried blood where her knuckles hit. She breaks windows because its faster than just sliding them up, she throws you into and out of the characters'—and there are dozens—comfort zones, like you're actually wearing their leather jackets. These interlocked vignettes could have easily been individual books unto themselves. That Egan's able to balance each story's drive-by swiftness and particular emotional turmoil with such care and depth, all while herding a venue-full of compelling characters into interlocking storylines, is likely why she got the Pulitzer. Jeff Milo