There’s some entries into the literary canon that are simply unavoidable. We’re talking about the kind of books you have to read at some point before you meet your (assuredly untimely) demise. We’re not trying to be dire, though; rather, we’re trying to hammer home the colossal importance of experiencing these literary classics (and some soon-to-be classics…don’t worry, they aren’t all stuffy old books nobody bothers to read any more, we’ve tried our best to mix it up) for yourself, rather than simply hearing about them from others who have conquered them. All of this is why we here at Goliath have assembled a list of 10 novels to read before you die, and if that’s not enough to get you started then we aren’t quite sure what is.
10. On the Road (Jack Kerouac)
The definitive road trip novel and the book that sold a generation, On the Road is the first published novel by author Jack Kerouac. Published in 1957, the novel details the experiences and ideologies of the Beat Generation, the counterculture revolutionaries who spent their time purposefully navigating the margins of society so as to better understand its intricacies and inconsistencies. On the Road uses many of Kerouac’s real life experiences (the novel functions as a roman a clef in many ways) to tell the story of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, two young men who want nothing more than to chase girls, drive cars and discover the true meaning of America. A stellar read about what it means to be young and idealistic, the novel has occasionally been critiqued for its portrayal of both race and gender; however, like all texts from a past time, it’s best read with a critical eye and an understanding of the culture of the time.
9. The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
One of the definitive pieces of Russian literature (you were either getting this or War & Peace, so you’re welcome for saving you some pages), Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov has been repeatedly cited as a truly can’t-miss literary experience. Published in 1880 and chronicling the philosophical and spiritual angst and conversations of three brothers (Dmitri, Ivan and Alexei) in Staraya, Russia. Hailed as one of the most impressive literary achievements of all time, The Brothers Karamazov was Dostoyevsky’s final novel, and was published just four short months before his death. While the novel precedes many important literary movements such as modernism and postmodernism, it was well ahead of its time and often utilizes literary techniques and stylistic devices local to these much later schools of thought. Progressive, challenging and poignant, The Brothers Karamazov is undoubtedly a novel that must be read in a lifetime.
8. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
But who’s to say this list has to be all doom and gloom, right? Not all literary classics take place in dire Russian wastelands. Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a much beloved novel that must be in the conversation as the funniest of all time. Originally a radio comedy series that was eventually published as a novel in 1979, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy makes excellent use of satire, wit and absurdity to hilarious effect, with the first book in the series (and the best one, as the sequels begin to dilute in quality after the first and second) following the ragtag group of heroes on a quest to discover the true meaning of life, the universe and everything (spoiler alert, the answer is unsatisfying). While the 2003 film adaptation did a somewhat acceptable job, trust us when we say it’s worth it to go ahead and read this literary classic for yourself.
7. The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas)
One of the truly iconic texts in the history of Western literature, Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo has everything a reader could want from a story with such a vast legend attached; it has adventure, romance, betrayal, revenge, innocent victims and justly punished evildoers, the list goes on. Chronicling the wrongful imprisonment of Edmund Dantes and his eventual escape and crusade for justice, The Count of Monte Cristo is a weighty tome that most every reader should conquer at some point in their lifetimes. It’s a fixture of Western culture, a familiar story that has been codified innumerable times throughout our history, and yet so few have actually tackled the novel itself. At one time considered the most popular novel in Europe, The Count of Monte Cristo is still extremely popular among readers willing to commit to finishing the admittedly large text; we’re hoping some of our readers will be more than up to the challenge after seeing it at #7 on this list.
6. Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)
In sharp contrast to The Count of Monte Cristo, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a short novel (perhaps even a novella, to those who truly care about such distinctions) that can be read in a matter of hours. The story of an English steamboat crew as they travel deep into the heart of Africa via the Congo river, Heart of Darkness exists as a scathing critique of colonial England that also serves as a riveting adventure tale. The novel that introduced the world to the now infamous villain Kurtz, an ivory trader obsessed with the darkness of Africa, Heart of Darkness provided the basis for Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic film Apocalypse Now, which reframes the story as a Vietnam war epic. Undoubtedly one of the greatest novels in the English canon (and a refreshingly short read), Hearts of Darkness is can’t-miss literature for those looking for something with heavy subtext and lots of symbolism.
5. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
It’s alarming to read Brave New World in the 21st century and see just how adept author Aldous Huxley was at predicting the future. With so much fuss made about George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, we’re a little shocked more people don’t speak of the social satire of Brave New World as incredibly accurate; simply read the text now and be shocked by how apropos most of it plays. Published in 1932 but taking place in 2540, Brave New World uses a plot featuring a utopian globe and the few who dare to live outside its rules to comment on social classes, entertainment, reproductive rights and a litany of other poignant social topics. One of the fundamental texts in the development of the science fiction genre, and a scary reminder of the ways in which fiction can see into the future, Brave New World is a requisite read for most anyone ready to call themselves a human being.
4. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)
Forget Pride and Prejudice; Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is the novel you want to read if you’re looking for a classic Victorian text that contributes heavily in the areas of social critique and feminism. Following its titular character through her youth and her maturation as a woman, Jane Eyre is considered a masterpiece due to its stylistic inclinations (it predates many famous modernist authors like Joyce, and in many ways influenced their writing) and its literary significance, not to mention the fact that both Charlotte and her sister Emily Bronte (of Wuthering Heights fame) were at the forefront of the authoress movement during their specific epoch. Remarkably ahead of its time, Jane Eyre contains innumerable progressive social ideas and helped contribute to cultural change during its time period (and it continues to inspire readers everywhere, to this very day).
3. Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace)
There’s not a lot to be said about Infinite Jest that hasn’t been said already. There’s a good chance you know someone with an unread copy on their bookshelf (luckily, ours is well-read and extremely well-loved), and if you get a chance you should undoubtedly borrow it and make it your life’s work to finish it. It’s not nearly as difficult as you might think, but it’s also not half as easy as you’ll want it to be, but it’ll be worth it when you come out the other end a changed individual. Inherently funny and heartwrenchingly sad, absurd and intelligent, astoundingly human and overwhelmingly accurate in its portrayal of contemporary culture, Infinite Jest is a text that defies definition and instead must simply be experienced. We’re not saying it’ll be easy, but we are promising that you’ll be very, very glad you’ve read it once you have. The author, David Foster Wallace, has often had his literary style described as “the voice inside your head.” It’s eerily true.
2. Hamlet (William Shakespeare)
Technically this isn’t a novel, but we’re willing to cheat a little bit to accommodate old Bill Shakespeare, who just so happens to be the literary epicenter of the Western world. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the legendary tragedy that’s been adapted, repeated, stolen, plagiarized and disseminated in many forms, should undoubtedly be read by anyone who is capable of speaking and reading the King’s English. While some may not have the taste for iambic pentameter, it’s important to read and attempt to understand these masterpieces as they really do offer a functional base from which one can read what came after. Looking beyond its titanic literary influence, Hamlet is also a damn fine read, an engaging tragedy with fleshed out characters and a gleefully mad protagonist whose musings and schemes set the stage for many a bloody engagement.
1. The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
There are many novels which could’ve easily taken this spot (or any spot on this list, for that matter); it’s difficult to cherry pick the greatest literature has to offer and leave out the innumerable masterpieces that have and continue to define the ever expanding canon of literary contributions. With that said, if there’s one novel everyone should read before they die, it’s The Great Gatsby. A tragic tale of loss set against the extravagance of The Roaring Twenties in America, The Great Gatsby is a master class in prose that reads as delicate, engrossing, passionate and distant all at once. The quintessential American novel, The Great Gatsby is undoubtedly F. Scott Fitzgerald’s finest work and, like a fine wine, it only gets better with age. Hell, this is a novel everyone should read more than once in their lifetime.