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From Zero to Well-Read in 100 Books

Jeff O'Neal

CEO and co-founder

Jeff O'Neal is the executive editor of Book Riot and Panels. He also co-hosts The Book Riot Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @thejeffoneal.

Isn’t it strange that we have the term “well-read” but absolutely no one can come close to defining it? And isn’t also strange that other art forms don’t have equivalent terms for a vague sense of someone’s total experience of that form (well-seen for movies? well-heard for music? Absurd).

Thinking about this recently sucked me into a little thought-experiment: say someone had never read any literature and wanted to be well-read. What should they read? And how many books would it take them to get close?

This hypothetical forces any given answerer to do two things: provide their personal definition of well-read and then give a list of books that might satisfy that definition. The first hurdle to clear is cultural position: who is this person? As I can only provide a reasonable list of books from my own cultural position, I have to assume that this person is like me, at least in a very basic way: an alive American who can read English.

“Well-read” for this person then has a number of connotations: a familiarity with the monuments of Western literature, an at least passing interest in the high-points of world literature, a willingness to experience a breadth of genres, a special interest in the work of one’s immediate culture, a desire to share in the same reading experiences of many other readers, and an emphasis on the writing of the current day.

The following 100 books (of fiction, poetry, and drama) is an attempt to satisfy those competing requirements. After going through several iterations of the list, one thing surprised me: there are not as many “classic” books that I associate with the moniker well-read, and many more current books than I would have thought. Conversely, to be conversant in the literature of the day turned out to be quite a bit more important than I would have thought.

As for the number of 100: in addition to being a nice, round number, it is also a number that, at a one-book-every-two-week pace this hypothetical reader could accomplish in just about four years–the standard length of an undergraduate program.

So here’s the list, in alphabetical order:

  1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  2. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  • All Quiet on the Western Front by Eric Maria Remarque
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay  by Michael Chabon
  • American Pastoral by Philip Roth
  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  • Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  • Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Beowulf
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  • Call of the Wild  by Jack London
  • Candide by Voltaire
  • The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
  • Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  • The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson
  • The Complete Stories of Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor 
  • The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
  • Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
  • Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  • Dream of Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin
  • Dune by Frank Herbert
  • Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  • Faust by Goethe
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin
  • The Golden Bowl by Henry James
  • The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  • The Gospels
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • Harry Potter & The Sorceror’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday
  • Howl by Allen Ginsberg
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • if on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino
  • The Iliad by Homer
  • Inferno by Dante
  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
  • The Little Prince by Antoine  de Saint-Exepury
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  • Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  • Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
  • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  • Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
  • The Odyssey by Homer
  • Oedipus the King by Sophocles
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  • A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
  • The Pentateuch
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • Rabbit, Run by John Updike
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  • Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
  • The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  • The Stand by Stephen King
  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  • Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust
  • Their Eyes Were Watching by Zora Neale Hurston
  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
  • The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Ulysses by James Joyce
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  • Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
  • Watchmen by Alan Moore
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

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