From comics and short stories to novels and history texts, below is a list of 100 pieces of literature (in no particular order) that I believe are worthwhile to check out. Naturally, when doing something like this there will be a ton of wonderful works that won’t be included even though they deserve to be. This isn’t so much a “Best 100 Books” or “100 Books You Should Read Before You Die” list as it is an attempt to chronicle varied pieces of literature that all have a valuable voice worth listening to. Hopefully, you find something here you love. Enjoy!
1) A Canticle for Leibowitz
Walter M. Miller’s 1959 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz be might the weirdest post-apocalyptic book you’ll ever read. Set in the desert of the southwestern United States after a nuclear war, it spans thousands of years as both civilization and the monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz attempt to rebuild. Equal parts surreal comedy (at one point the order has an internal argument based on legitimizing and making canon a discovered pre-apocalypse grocery list that may or may not have been written by Saint Leibowitz), horror, and philosophical text, A Canticle is a wonderfully unique examination of the cyclical nature of history and humanity’s inability to progress past its own self-destructive tendencies.
2) An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
Pull back the curtains on any horror story and you’ll probably find some piece of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Written in 1890 by Ambrose Bierce, it’s a short story that plays with what are now common horror and suspense tropes. It’s a masterful display of subtle story telling and simple, identifiable fear, and is undoubtedly a vital part of the evolution of 20th and 21st century American literature. Still, the best thing to come out of it might be this Kurt Vonnegut quote: “I consider anybody a twerp who hasn't read the greatest American short story, which is An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce.”
3) Some Ether
Nick Flynn’s poetry collection Some Ether is brutal, jaggedly vulnerable, and practically leaks trauma. There’s so much force and depth to find in Flynn’s pain, yet at the same time there’s a subtle, precise, and heartbreaking spirit of understanding throughout that prevents the pieces from being completely overwhelmed by anguish. Below is a poem from the collection titled “Bag Of Mice,” which is based on his mother’s suicide:
”I dreamt your suicide note
was scrawled in pencil on a brown paperbag,
& in the bag were six baby mice. The bag
opened into darkness,
from the top down. The mice,
huddled at the bottom, scurried the bag
across a shorn field. I stood over it
& as the burning reached each carbon letter
of what you'd written
your voice released into the night
like a song, & the mice
Winner of the Nobel prize in literature and the Pulitzer prize for fiction (and a litany of other awards), Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved is without a doubt one of the most ferocious and sharp examinations of American slavery that exists. The story focuses on a mother and her young daughter who have escaped from bondage but live in a house that’s haunted by a revenant from their past. Morrison masterfully examines motherhood, trauma, family, and other delicate topics through the brutal lens of slavery.
5) Black Hole
Set in the 1970’s, Black Hole is about a group of teenagers in a suburban town who are all becoming infected by an unknown disease that is transmitted through sex. The disease causes the inflicted to grow random physical mutations, and as a result they are ostracized and humiliated. Charles Burns’ graphic novel is a simple yet unique take on the coming of age trope that captures the primal anxiety of being a teenager abruptly confronted by sexuality, adulthood, and identity.
6) A Visit From the Goon Squad
The core of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Good Squad can be summed up by a single quote from the novel: "Time's a goon, right?" A book that deftly carries stories of memory and relationships, it guides you through the lives of characters who slowly lose their innocence, vitality, and purpose. A Visit from the Goon Squad is also a joy to read, and the narrative is fresh and sharp.
7) As I Lay Dying
The quintessential American Southern Gothic story, Faulkner’s fifth novel is a unique dark comedy that blends family, the loss of innocence, and the absurd. As I Lay Dying uses stream of consciousness, first person narration, and distinct writing styles for each of the characters to create a work that’s intimate and deep. A constant on any “Best 100 Novels” or “Best American Novels” style lists, As I Lay Dying is Faulkner’s masterpiece (which is saying a lot).
8) The Underwater Welder
The Underwater Welder is a wonderful story on so many levels. It follows the character of Jack Joseph, who, like his father, is an underwater welder that uses his job as an excuse to spend time away from his pregnant wife and the fear of fatherhood. Jeff Lemire’s graphic novel is a heart-wrenching tale of father and son buoyed by a magnificent use of the medium. It ingeniously manipulates artistic techniques and panel design to shape the tone, an example being the portrayal of land and home as sharp and confined, whereas the ocean is open and dreamlike. Ultimately, these two worlds collide as Jack is forced to reconcile his father’s disappearance and his own childhood with the approaching birth of his son.
Michael Herr has many accolades in his career, some of which include co-writing the script for Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) and narrating part of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). However, Dispatches is by far his most important work. A collection of stories that detail his time as a correspondent for Esquire during the Vietnam War, Dispatches is a distinctive combination of fiction and non-fiction. By occasionally attributing real dialogue to fictional characters and settings, Herr is able to deliver a remarkable account of the lives of American soldiers in Vietnam. Hellish, funny, immersive, and poetic, Dispatches is must-read novel (which it more or less is).
10) Honor Girl
Honor Girl is a memoir about Maggie Thrash’s first crush and coming out as lesbian during summer camp, and while it’s a great take on the coming-of-age genre in and of itself, what makes it stand out is just how gentle and caring it is. Thrash manages to tenderly distill the pure joy of being a teenager while simultaneously capturing the intimidating confusion of self-discovery. Honor Girl portrays the characters and setting with such affection and reverence that it’s nearly impossible to not fall in love with the story.
It would be a sin to not mention Craig Thompson’s Blankets in the same breath as Honor Girl. Whereas Honor Girl is about Thrash’s first lesbian relationship at a summer camp, Thompson’s memoir focused on his first relationship growing up in an Evangelical Christian community. Again, what makes Blankets so wonderful is how remarkably caring, gentle, and heartfelt it is. The way Thompson regards his youth is bursting with love and affection for people and places, and Blankets pours that sentiment into the reader like a waterfall. Blankets is an absolute must-read.
12) Blood Meridian
Cormac McCarthy is one of if not the best living author, but you probably already knew that. His undisputed masterpiece, Blood Meridian is an exceptionally unique novel that follows a character named “the kid” who falls in with a band of Native American scalp hunters along the Texas-Mexico border. Blood Meridian has no real protagonist (or at the very least there’s no internal dialogue for the protagonist), and the antagonist, while incredibly potent, has the truth depth of his vileness buried in the subtleties and themes of the story. These warped character roles are some of the many tools used to drive home concepts of manifest destiny, the corruption of the American dream, and the abstract yet complete death of people and places. Blood Meridian is so incredible because it’s so many things - it lives in a space of multiple genres while incorporating and manipulating a universally resonant scope. Truthfully, it has a case for being the best novel of the 20th century.
13) Delights & Shadows
Every collection by Ted Kooser is amazing, but Delights & Shadows is probably the best example of his work. The United States Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006, Kooser is a remarkable writer because he is able to distill so much grace from everyday life. Often described as conversational and approachable, Kooser’s poetry is magnificent because it gently teaches us how to see the ordinary as beautiful. Check out the poem below, titled “Pegboard,” where he artfully pulls cosmic awe from such a commonplace item.
”It has been carefully painted
with the outlines of tools
to show us which belongs where,
auger and drawknife,
claw hammer and crosscut saw,
like the outlines of hands on the walls
of ancient caves in France,
painted with soot mixed with spit
ten thousand years ago
in the faltering firelight of time,
hands borrowed to work on the world
and never returned.”
14) The Martian Chronicles
There are probably better Bradbury novels than The Martian Chronicles - Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes to name a few. Still, The Martian Chronicles is worth reading because it’s Bradbury at his most sprawling and poignant. Each story lives in its own distinct space at the intersection of humanity and the alien unknown, but what truly makes the The Martian Chronicles powerful is the forlorn way in which change abandons and disparages the past. This quote from the novel sums it up perfectly: “All the things which had uses. All the mountains which had names. We'll give them new names, but the old names are there, somewhere in time..."
15) First They Killed My Father
First They Killed My Father is Loung Ung’s memoir about growing up under the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian genocide. One of the most powerful depictions of the ground-level of genocide, it’s a remarkably emotional story about survival, sacrifice, and family. When it comes to events as horrific as genocide, it can be hard to work past the statistics and incomprehensible cruelty of the perpetrators. First They Killed My Father asks us to remember, both the victims and survivors.
Dan Simmons’ Hyperion is most often described as a sci-fi Canterbury Tales. Truth be told, that’s underselling it. The novel is about a group of travelers making a pilgrimage to the Time Tombs on planet Hyperion, wherein each pilgrim will make a request to a creature called the Shrike. However, legend has it that the Shrike only accepts one of the pilgrim’s requests and kills the rest of the group afterwards. The novel is broken up into each traveler’s story in which they reveal why they’re on such a desperate journey. When it comes to world building, character development, and originality, it’s hard to top what Simmons has accomplished with his debut novel. An incredibly stylistic novel that’s packed with literary references, Hyperion is one hell of a page-turner.
17) The Great War for Civilisation
A British journalist and war correspondent in the Middle East for nearly 45 years, Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation paints a haunting picture of the Middle East and western intervention starting from WWI. The book doesn’t pull any punches, and is a paragon of engaging and informative journalistic writing. It is important to note there are a handful of incorrect details in the text, mostly dates and historical facts, but they don’t detract from what is necessary reading for all western audiences.
18) Saga (Series)
Read Saga. Read Saga. Please read Saga. Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ on-going series is probably the best thing to happen to graphic novels since Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (appearing later in this list), and is unrivaled when it comes to character development, plot pacing, and emotional maturity. It’s funny, dark, heartbreaking, uplifting, beautiful, grotesque, and razor sharp. It’s just so good. The art and coloring are also gorgeous and imaginative, and in combination with the writing make Saga the pinnacle of the graphic novel medium. Seriously, just check out this awards list.
19) The Devil in the White City
Erik Larson’s Non-fiction novel is one of the best displays of how effective and engaging the genre can be. Based on real characters and events, Larson tells a magnificent true story set in 1893 that shifts back and forth between Daniel H. Burnham, the architect behind the Chicago World’s Fair, and Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, a serial killer who used his elaborate and convoluted mansion to murder his victims. The Devil in the White City plays with the comparison between the two men’s fanatical goal of building something they consider to be perfect to great effect, and the deeper in the novel pulls, the more amazed you’ll be that it isn’t fiction.
20) House of Leaves
To break the fourth wall a bit, the image to the left isn’t House of Leaves’ cover, but it’s the best way to show why it’s such a unique and fun book. Mark Z. Danielewski’s debut novel is one of those books where the less you know going in, the better. House of Leaves constantly challenges the reader with its different narrators and page layouts, and is equal parts horror story, love story, and allegory for depression, anxiety, and obsession. You’ve probably never read a novel like it before, and there’s something hypnotic about how House of Leaves keeps you glued to the pages while you spin them around to keep track of what in the world is going on.
21) Battle Cry of Freedom
Even if you aren’t particularly interested in the American Civil War era, Battle Cry of Freedom is still worth your time simply because it’s the pinnacle of historical non-fiction. James McPherson’s 1988 text is remarkably sharp despite its age, and is probably the best single volume history book of all time. It’s unbiased, fair, scathing when necessary, incredibly well researched, and despite its sprawling and complex subject matter, a very easy read. For anyone interested in American history it’s an absolute must-read, and even if you aren’t chances are it’ll change your mind.
22) Flowers for Algernon
The first story from author Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon is probably the most heartbreaking piece of fiction on this list. Originally written as a short story and adapted into a novel, the book focuses on the lives of a special needs man named Charlie Gordon and a mouse named Algernon, both of whom undergo surgery to have their intelligences heightened. It’s a beautiful and touching examination on what it means to be happy, as well as the locus between emotion and intellect The final scene will, without a doubt, rip your heart out and stomp all over it. It needs to be noted that Flowers for Algernon lost the 1967 Hugo Award for Best Novel to Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which is probably one of the most egregious moments in the history of American literature.