This is such an obvious list and leaves out so many possibly more deserving titles, but many readers, especially those just starting out, may find this simple list from (of all places) AARP to be a good start. In an older version of this website I had a section dedicated to Top 20 lists, both my own and also anyone who wanted to post their personal Top 20 list. In fact, I allowed two lists, one for books and the second for authors. Of course here anyone can post their Top 10 or 20 or 21 list just by commenting on this list from AARP.
1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Did you go to high school? If so, you’ve been programmed to believe that this is a good book. The thing is, it is a good book, about justice and deeply held beliefs, right and wrong, and the agony of growing up.
2. True Grit by Charles Portis
I was once listing my favorite novels with the then book-editor for Newsweek, and I mentioned the then-obscure-except-for-the-John-Wayne-movie story of Mattie Ross and her quest for justice with the rascally sheriff Rooster Cogburn. The editor said, “Well, we’re talking favorites. Now, you’re talking genius.”
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3. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Lest you think that all my top faves are coming-of-age novels set among children challenged by painful realities — like Francie Nolan in this novel of immigrant poverty in prewar New York — oh well. Deal with it.
4. Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor
If you haven’t read this novel of the Confederate prison camp in Georgia, and the prisoners who fought to survive there, I envy you. You have a treat in store for yourself.
5. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
This supposed debut of the hard-boiled detective novel makes the list because of the line that the statue was “the stuff dreams are made of.” The guy could write.
6. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurty
Two strangely literate Texas rangers who decide to become cattle ranchers, and out-Sundance Butch and the Kid, is the book that made me decide to write a novel.
7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
“Last night, I dreamed I went to Manderley again.” You will love this story of psychological obsession and immortality by one of the most underrated writers of the 20th century.
8. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams
This wonderful sequel to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy asks a poignant question. Facing the end of life as we know it, is it too much to ask to find a good cup of tea and some biscuits?
9. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Sixty-five million other readers worldwide adore the story of the Andalusian shepherd boy, Santiago, who goes searching for a treasure under the scornful aegis of a sorceress. I’m not going to disagree with them.
10. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Nathaniel Hawthorne hated the Misses Bronte, because they could do what he could not — write books that sing with authenticity and genuine suspense, and do so nearly 200 years later.
11. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
It’s the story of one woman’s doomed love and one civilization’s doomed quest, and it’s just a helluva story, period.
12. The Magus by John Fowles
Even people who have read and loved The French Lieutenant’s Woman may not know about this crazy part romance, part horror, part Gothic book, in which nothing and no one is what it seems.
13. in our time by Ernest Hemingway
The lower case name is the correct, if affected, author’s choice of title for the first big published book of Ernest Hemingway’s heartbreaking stories. When you read this, you see just why his style was so imitated, and why it never could be copied. Ever.
14. Different Seasons by Stephen King
Speaking of great short-story stylists, this is my living favorite. While I don’t run to buy every new Stephen King novel, I would fight anyone who thinks that “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” and “The Body” don’t compare favorably to just about anything.
15. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Often cited as sporting the best first paragraph in all prose, this story is still as paralyzingly scary as it was the day it was written.
16. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
My mother said that this novel of prewar Russia and the foolish and beautiful Anna was a story that “took all the fun out of adultery.” So true.
17. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
Having read this book before the amazing characterization of Hannibal Lecter by Anthony Hopkins, I was the only person on earth who thought that this prequel to The Silence of the Lambs was even more gruesome and terrifying.
18. The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
Another Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the Civil War? Yes! This is the story of the longest days of our nation’s lives, three hot sunsets in Gettysburg, and why even the beautiful and brave can be wrong, and the glum, stubborn and foolish as right as dawn.
19. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
The story of two couples growing “up” together is as true a story about loyalty and its limits as any I’ve ever read.
20. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Often described as the chronicle of the so-called Jazz Age, this is really a story about the haves and how they think of the have-nots, because they are helpless to think of them any other way. You might call it a 1920s tale of the 1 percent.
21. Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White
Those who think of this small book about a gallant spider’s fight to save the life of a runt pig as a children’s story are letting children have all the fun.