This list is by no means exhaustive. Many wonderful books were left off, including Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winners. Consider this guide to be a jumping-off point. Read some of these books and see where your interest leads you from there. If you’re looking to diversify your to-be-read list, check out some of the most acclaimed books of the past 20 years.
Modern American Classics
The Road by Cormac McCarthy: A story about a father and son traversing a post-apocalyptic world. 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead: Based on a real Florida school, this book follows two Black boys sent to a reform school where teenagers are subject to horrific abuse. 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: An alternate history where the Underground Railroad is real, and enslaved people escape from the South through a network of underground trains. 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides: Both a generational family saga and a coming-of-age story about an intersex person. 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth: Alternate history in which FDR loses the 1940 election to Charles Lindbergh. It follows the lives of a Jewish-American family in an increasingly antisemitic United States.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: A saga about a Black family in Mississippi. 2017 National Book Award winner.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemison: A story about a woman who battles violence and destruction in a dystopian future society, attempting to survive and put her family back together. 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novel
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: Four friends leave their small college for life in New York City, trying to make their own way and deal with the unspeakable traumas of their pasts.
The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz: The story of Oscar de Leon, a Dominican boy growing up in New Jersey, who must deal with repercussions of a generational family curse. 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Olive Kittridge by Elizabeth Stout: Stories of a woman learning about her true self in a small town on the coast of Maine. 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: A collection of interrelated stories that feature characters connected to a record executive. 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson: A novel chronicling the life of an orphan in North Korea who struggles to survive the authoritarian regime. 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: A blind girl and German boy cross paths in occupied France during World War II. 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty: A satirical novel in which the narrator attempts to save his hometown from obscurity by attempting to reinstate slavery and segregate local schools, challenging the legal case all the way to the Supreme Court. 2016 Man Booker Prize winner.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff: A literary novel about the secrets between a young married couple.
The Corrections by Jonathon Franzen: A family story centered around an elderly couple and their three adult children, focusing on their lives past and present. 2001 National Book Award Winner
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch: A science fiction novel about a man who is seemingly abducted into an alternate universe. He tries to get back to his old life, not knowing which of his realities actually exists.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson: A literary novel chronicling the memories of an elderly minister. The narrator hopes to record stories of his relationships with his father and grandfather to share with his son. 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: A young girl growing up in Nazi Germany steals books to prevent the government from destroying them.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel: This story follows a boy who is stranded in the Pacific Ocean on a raft with a Bengal tiger. 2002 Man Booker Prize winner.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini: The story of a young boy growing up in Kabul, Afghanistan, and his relationships with his father and best friend amidst the political turmoil of his country.
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: An alternate history of a parallel universe that runs in time with the year 1984. It follows a woman who notices strange things happening around her and attempts to find out what’s real.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche: A coming-of-age love story about two young Nigerians. One attends college in the U.S., learning first-hand about being Black in America.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: A generational saga that begins in Ghana with two sisters who go on to live very different lives: one marries a British aristocrat, while the other becomes enslaved by the same man.
Normal People by Sally Rooney: A novel set in Ireland during the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis. Two friends fall in and out of each other’s lives during high school and college.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith: Two World War II veterans become friends in 1970s London. A Bangladeshi man and an Englishman form an unlikely bond in a story examining Britain’s history of colonization.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: A woman born in 1910 is born and dies again and again, with a chance to change her circumstances and live a different life each time.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon: A 15-year-old boy with autism finds the dead body of a neighbor’s dog, and after being accused of killing it, decides to investigate the death himself.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne: The story of an Irish man adopted by an odd couple, who spends his life trying to find his true self.
As Seen On Screen
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: Considered one of the greatest psychological thrillers of all time, this novel follows the disappearance of Amy Dunne and the fallout for her husband, Nick.
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown: Robert Langdon becomes embroiled in an international mystery that begins with a murder at the Louvre. Langdon soon delves into some long-held secrets of the Catholic Church.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larson: A washed-up reporter is hired to solve a cold-case murder and enlists the help of an elusive investigator.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celest Ng: Quiet life in Shaker Heights, Ohio, is disrupted for the straight-laced Elena Richardson and her family when Mia Warren, a free-spirited photographer, moves to town with her teenage daughter.
Atonement by Ian McEwan: A young couple is torn apart by a lie told by Cecilia Tallis’s younger sister, amid the backdrop of World War II.
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin: A young Irish woman immigrates to America in the 1950s and meets her first true love. But her life in Ireland calls her back when tragedy hits her family.
Moneyball by Michael Lewis: This is the true story of how the Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane used statistical analysis to create a winning baseball team. His approach transformed the way professional baseball is played today.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: This is the only young adult novel on the list, but don’t underestimate this powerful story. Starr Carter witnesses her friend shot to death by a police officer. His death becomes national news, sparking protests and forcing Starr to decide whether she wants to stand up and take the spotlight as the only witness to her friend’s murder.
Nonfiction and Memoirs
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward: A memoir about five years of loss when Jesmyn Ward lost five men in her life. An examination of the effects of poverty and racism in America.
Educated by Tara Westover: Tara Westover recounts her horrific childhood growing up in rural Idaho with conservative, Morman, survivalist parents who rejected modern medicine and formal education. Westover somehow manages to attend college and eventually makes her way to the University of Cambridge.
Becoming by Michelle Obama: Obama’s memoir tells the story of her childhood, her courtship with Barack, and their lives together before he became President Obama. She is incredibly candid, making this an incredible read.
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson: Harvard-graduate Stevenson moves to Alabama in the 1980s to serve as council for those wrongly accused and facing the death penalty. This book chronicles how he began the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that works to free the wrongfully convicted.
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson: This narrative nonfiction book tells the story of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and an elusive serial killer terrorizing the city.
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson: This book attempts to summarize modern scientific thinking about the way the world works, from the creation of the universe to the relationships between all living things.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: Coates writes a letter to his teenage son expressing his experiences and emotions about being Black in America.
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander: Published ten years ago, this book is still considered critical reading about American mass incarceration and the criminalization of Black men. It was rereleased in 2020 with a new introduction by the author.
She Said by Jodi Kantor and Meghan Tuohy: This book serves as an account of two New York Times reporters’ investigation into sexual assault accusations against Harvey Weinstein, and Christine Blasey-Ford’s allegation against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Their reporting was instrumental in adding to the narrative of the #MeToo movement.
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson: This sweeping nonfiction book chronicles the movement of three Black Americans from the South to cities in the North, all during the Great Migration.
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell: Gladwell explains how ideas and trends grow until they reach a “tipping point,” and then spread widely across society.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells were used by scientists and lead to medical breakthroughs. But the book considers the ethics of this research, as Lacks never consented to the use of her cells and died before the research was conducted.