From Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, to Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, there are scores of books that many consider non-optional reads. Readers might’ve tackled them through their high school and undergrad educations—and though they’re adored for a reason, for many, today’s required reading might be remembered as long slogs.
Polls have shown that we’re reading fewer books each year, and it’s easy to see why. Presently, we’re faced with more entertainment options than we know how to handle. Netflix battles gaming consoles and smartphone screens for our attention, and we get it: TV’s in a golden age. But with everything moving so fast, it’s easy to forget what kind of beautiful possibilities rest between two covers.
Here at Paste, we’ve assembled a list of 30 titles that rest outside of the standard list of classics. The list is not an absolute; as Stephen King put it, the hope is that you’ve read a more than 30 books before you hit the age 30. The unifying theme within these titles is that, at some point, they reignited our passion for reading and delighted us as fans of great fiction. Some titles are contemporary, while some fell short of massive acclaim during their time. The unifying factor here is that we loved them, and we think you might, too.
1 of 30
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Ever since my eyes lingered over the concluding sentence of Michael Chabon's magnum opus, I have owed The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay this fan letter. To simply recount Kavalier & Clay's narrative—a pair of cousins reunite in 1939 in New York City, combine their artistic gifts and ultimately usher in the Golden Age of Comics—misses the point. Plenty of authors can unspool a fascinating yarn. What sets this particular novel apart is the alchemical explosion triggered by the convergence of Chabon's 200-proof delight in the comic book medium with the writing craft and conscientious research he invests in every single one of his novels. What is the comic book formula if not an exaggerated Technicolor recasting of the American ideal? A world of perfect moral clarity where Good and Evil wear bold, legibly written name tags? A world in which sheer will and determination can propel a man to skyscraper-leaping heights? Our heroes, a pair of mere mortals, spackle over their crippling insecurities by writing and drawing men of steel. Chabon paints the superhuman fantasy with such gleeful strokes that you'll recoil when faced with the crushing reality that would-be Clark Kents like Josef Kavalier and Sam Clay—like you and me—have hearts of kryptonite. —Jason Killingsworth
2 of 30
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
You might recognize Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's name from Beyoncé's "Flawless" video, which sampled her TED talk "We Should All Be Feminists." For those who aren't familiar outside of the pop culture reference, Adichie is also a scholar and a novelist whose experiences as a Nigerian immigrant heavily influence her work. Americanah, Adichie's third novel, embodies her idea of rebuffing the "single story." It examines the difference between the African-American and the American-African, exploring the various ways black identities are shaped in the United States, Britain and Nigeria. Adichie based the character of Ifemelu heavily on her own life, keeping the work personal and authentic while still enjoying the transformative nature of fiction. Lauren Loudermilk
3 of 30
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
To those under 30, classic baseball novels might seem beholden to the bygone preoccupations of the last century, whether Bernard Malamud's The Natural (a Jewish writer of immigrant parentage staking his claim to the American mainstream), or W.P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe (a baseball nut trying to reconcile a divided, late-century America with the presumed unanimity of its pre-Watergate, baseball-loving past).
Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding wastes no time on nostalgia. The contemporary story of a talented and socially inept college shortstop (who mysteriously loses his fielding mojo and then his grip on life), his self-described "mulatto gay roommate" and their friends and lovers and teammates, The Art of Fielding offers no Field of Dreams-like miracles. Well, maybe one: A fearless first-time novelist writes a sprawling and commanding book, teeming with indelible characters, heartbreak, vivid training detail, a surprising and convincing gay subplot and baseball, baseball, baseball. Unlikely as it seems, The Art of Fielding is an incredible 21st-century novel about college, love and baseball that's (for now, at least) entirely of its time. For such a thing happen in this post-pastime age is enough to take the sting out of turning 30—or even a newly workaday 22, for that matter. Steve Nathans-Kelly
4 of 30
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
It's rare that "fan service" can be uttered in the same sentence as "Pulitzer Prize-quality literature," but Oscar Wao's heartbreaking tale brims with geekdom. It references everything from Akira to Zardoz, Land of the Lost to Lord of the Rings, all serviceable allusions to aid in the quantification of Wao's pathetic-yet-endearing, nerdy-yet-resolute existence. One of the many reasons Junot Diaz received the prestigious Pulitzer is because this novel checks off (almost scribbling into oblivion) all of the hyperbolic adjective boxes on book reviewers' lists: effervescent, suspenseful, irreverent, electrifying.
Of course, our chubby, eccentric protagonist is head-over-heels in love with a girl he'll probably never have, but he has other things to worry about: a century's old European curse known as "fukú" cast upon his native land of the Dominican Republic. Nevertheless, finding true love, or rather, reciprocated love, remains the ultimate goal for this geek culture savant as he grows up under the wayward wing of an older brother on the seedier side of New Jersey. There's a lot of Dominican history packed in with Oscar's story, along with the full heft of his family's journey through three generations, but Diaz's pacing, his verve, his narrative buoyancy keep the pages turning. If you're as big a geek as I am, then you'll be utterly charmed at every third page with how deep, how obscure, how cheesy Wao's references go. Jeff Milo
5 of 30
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
After I had run out of Haruki Murakami reads, I was in a desperate search to find a book that could transport me to another world. Thankfully, in came a copy of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. As surreal and magical as the title suggests, the book weaves together six seemingly separate stories, crafting a wondrous journey for the reader. Riddled with themes ranging from religion and philosophy to reincarnation, Cloud Atlas delivers a compelling, leading the reader into one perfect, dreamlike haze. —Brittany Joyce
6 of 30
The Collected Works by Amy Hempel
Is there a writer who packs a more efficient punch than Amy Hempel? For decades, she's built a legacy purely on the merit of her short stories, something that's unprecedented in an age that doesn't necessarily laud the art form. But those who have read The Collected Stories can confirm there's no need for Hempel to go beyond novella length. Though you'll rarely find a Hempel tale that leans on plot-points, the level of emotion she wrings from her pages is overwhelming, even in micro-doses. Take gorgeous tales like the oft-anthologized "The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried" or "The Harvest," which deconstructs not only a life-changing accident, but the way humans reflect details in the aftermath: "What happened to one of my legs required four hundred stitches, which, when I told it, became five hundred stitches, because nothing is ever quite as bad as it could be," Hempel writes. With prose like that, asking for a novel seems plain greedy. Tyler R. Kane
7 of 30
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
When it comes to exposing the vicious nature behind Midwestern manners, no writer does it better than Jonathan Franzen in The Corrections. The 2002 novel follows the Lambert family, specifically its matriarch, Edith, who looks to reunite her three estranged children for one final Christmas in the fictional suburb of St. Jude. Her children's obstacles excuses are plotted across the map: Gary's wife has no interest in the trip. Chip has a new job as the assistant to a Lithuanian crime boss. Denise's tumultuous work as a chef leaves her terrified to leave Philadelphia. Everyone's navigating a nose-diving economic landscape. But as their father's Parkinson's symptoms grow worse, it becomes clear that the Lamberts have to face many Midwesterners' greatest fear: confronting their problems head-on. For some readers, Franzen's most biting prose is in the all-too-relatable (and otherwise boring) minutiae of Midwest suburban living; for me, the drama was most heavy in Edith's annoyances, or Alfred's little ticks, reflecting the hushed suburban landscape I knew growing up. Each page is as smart as it is visceral, and certain readers will be equally compelled to binge read and clamp their hands over their eyes. Tyler R. Kane
8 of 30
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
From its description on paper, it might be hard to fathom why I have friends who don't read but will still devour Ender's Game every couple of years. The book is a military-based sci-fi tale that follows Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, a brilliant battle school recruit who's poised to save Earth from colonizing aliens dubbed "buggers." But—despite what you think of Card's current politics—Ender's Game succeeds in swaying readers toward empathy rather than cheering for the buggers' complete annihilation. Instead, through Ender's ever-growing knowledge, this novel might make the best modern case for empathy in a situation that seems as cut-and-dried as a planetary invasion—or, if we're taking even broader strokes, war. In the process, Card tells one hell of a sci-fi tale, to boot. Tyler R. Kane
9 of 30
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
You can only read so many World War II books at a time without falling into a pit of depression. But Jonathan Safran Foer's debut Everything is Illuminated tells a story of lives impacted by the Holocaust that balances terror and tragedy with humor and contemporary relevance. Foer's fictional protagonist, who happens to share his name, travels to the Ukraine in an attempt to find the woman who saved his grandmother from the Nazis. Of the book's many triumphs, possibly its greatest is that it keeps history alive by making it relevant to the generations who came after the War. Hilary Saunders
10 of 30
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Named the best book of 2015 by multiple media outlets and listed as a finalist for the National Book Award, Fates and Furies has garnered a substantial amount of praise in a few short months. But is it deserving of this attention—the hyperbole of affection showered on its pages?
Yes, it is.
Lauren Groff's novel places a marriage under the microscope for a span of 24 years, revealing that the secrets between a couple influence their relationship just as much as—if not more than— their shared experiences. Written in striking, gorgeous prose, Fates and Furies opens on 22-year-old Lotto and Mathilde enjoying their first afternoon as a married couple. What follows is a captivating story that jumps through time, offering Lotto's perspective for the first half of the novel and then Mathilde's. Inventive and devastating, Groff's narrative is, quite simply, one of the best books in recent memory. Frannie Jackson