That Absolute Must-Read Book

My most popular, most viewed, and most commented post is Unwanted Reading Recommendations: Borrowing, Returning, and Remembering Books.  It is my complaint about people recommending books to me or giving me books to read that I’m not interested in or that I know I won’t like.  Since I started this blog, I tend to get more of these recommendations—from strangers!  I’ve learned to say “no” in a nice way.  It is usually something like: “That book sounds interesting, but it just isn’t my thing.  Sorry!”

But today, I want to encourage you to recommend books, to me and to everybody else who may see or comment on this post.  We are all readers, and I suspect that we all want to know about other good books.

My purpose in this is selfish: I want to know about those classics or page-turners that must not be missed but that I have somehow been unaware of.  I want to know the ONE book you think everybody should read and the reason why.  Please post it below.

And since we are giving recommendations, I will share with you the ONE book that I believe is a must-read.  It is the book I often toss out as a good recommendation when friends approach me and ask.  Sometimes they take me up on it and read it.  Other times, they don’t even try.  And still other times they do try and abandon it.  Perhaps it isn’t for everybody, but in my opinion it is an American masterpiece and should not be missed.  It is beautifully written, perfectly plotted, and often not a familiar title.  It also explores family, marriage, culture, youth, age, and that truly American theme of settling the west.

Angle of repose cover
It is Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose.

What ONE book do you think everybody should read and why?

102 thoughts on “That Absolute Must-Read Book

Add yours

  1. I think everyone should read The Great Gatsby. It’s probably one of the best books I’ve read. It’s elegantly written, has great imagery and metaphors. The book will transport you to the 1920s. Plus,it has memorable characters.

  2. “Angle of Repose” is the next book on my list to read. I am excited about it as you’ve recommended it to me before and I have had several other people recommend it to me. If you want something totally different I was thinking about a book I have read three times, something I don’t normally do. It is simply called “Tolstoy” by Henri Troyat. It is an exhausting biography, passionately written, with a smattering of critical reviews of his literature. I know you’ve not gotten through “War and Peace” and this may help inspire you. It is dense and long but a profound look at a beloved writer and his many complexities. I have donated a lot of books to the library when I finish reading them and this one has been removed from library boxes several times. It is not available in e-book and I just can’t part with it until it is.

  3. Hmm, that is a very difficult question to answer. Twenty people could read the same book, and come back with twenty completely different impressions. I don’t think there is one book that everyone should read. Whatever gets people reading is good by me!

      1. We also tend to have different responses to books that we reread. I know that has been true for me. “The Catcher in the Rye” comes in to mind in this regard.

  4. I rarely get people recommending books to me – my family wisely get me book vouchers and let me get on with it (when they’re not complaining “you have too many books! I refuse to let you have more!”).

    My book friends read my wishlist and get from that – there’s enough books on there for them that there’s a chance they have at least one they can pass on!

    Can I have two books rather than one? Two different books (one will be an acquired taste): The Panoptican by Jenni Fagan – 15yo glaswegian girl in care since birth and it’s not for the easily offended. Longburn by Jo Baker – historical fiction telling the story of Pride and Prejudice from the view of the servants.

    Reviews for both can be seen on my blog (

    1. Those both sound great. And your family is wise. I’ve begun getting people gift cards in lieu of gifts over the last few years. I think everybody is happier that way!

  5. I haven’t had enough coffee to recommend my “must read” book now, but I completely agree on your recommendation about Angle of Repose! It is a must read and an American classic. I experienced Wallace Stegner 20 years ago when I was in an especially painful period of loss in my life. This author allowed me a remarkable respite from the unbearable angst I was experiencing. I also highly recommend Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. It is a quiet yet poignant book about loyalty and life-long friendships.

  6. Boy howdy, nobody’s taking you up on your request! I’ll add ANGEL OF REPOSE to my short list. In the meantime, whenever I get the chance, I urge people to pick up ISAAC’S STORM. It’s Erik Larsen’s first book (he later wrote the good-but-too-long DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY) which tells in a novelistic way the harrowing tale of the Galveston Hurricane of 1908 and the National Weather Service man who arrogantly ignored all the signs of the storm’s impending fury. It’s a great read: quick, tight, moving, and memorable.

  7. Tough question, but I have a few (some of which you’ve already blogged about):
    1. Life of Pi by Yann Martel
    2. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
    3. The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips

      1. Good job .your recommendations taken in consideration . I don’t want to recommend books for you but I just want to say that I have read books and I disliked it. for that just remember what I said if someone recommend the same book for you.

        1-“Merchant of Venice” (boring)
        2-“Eat ,love and pray ” (boring)
        3-“life of pi” (not so bad)
        4-“Grand design” ( contain some of nonsense)

  8. Such a tough call! Though I suppose it’s different from choosing a favorite book (impossible). If we’re talking about novels, for me it would be Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies. But if we’re including plays, Hamlet, of course.

    I’ve had Angle of Repose on my shelf for three years (it’s in good company, don’t worry!) — I really should get it down. Thanks for the recommendation!

      1. I forgot to write why Fifth Business is a must-read! The characters and plot are top notch, but more than any book I’ve read, I think, it forces you to realize that nothing is what it seems — and that includes both people and everyday objects.

    1. Carolyn so pleased you recommended Robertson Davies, he is my all-time favourite writer! I would also recommend anything by Marge Piercy (awesome woman) and Brian Moore, an Irish Writer.

  9. Great question, Emily, and I’ll be really curious about people’s responses. I haven’t read Stegner yet, but will put this one on my to-read list! I did recently pick up Crossing to Safety at a library sale, after seeing it highly recommended in The End of Your Life Book Club and by a blogger friend of mine. I’m eager to get to that one soon.

    I’m always nervous to make must-read book recommendations (too much responsibility ;-)) but three that come to mind, that I have felt strongly about, include

    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot)
    Columbine (Dave Cullen)
    Tiny Beautiful Things (Cheryl Strayed)

    Interestingly, these are non-fiction though in general I read more fiction than non-fiction. I suppose these left a mark on me because they opened my eyes to issues I knew little about, and with very powerful writing. In Henrietta Lacks it was medical ethics and race/poverty and in Columbine it was adolescence, mental illness, and the way that law enforcement and journalists help or hurt victims. Tiny Beautiful Things I just loved because of Cheryl Strayed’s voice and her razor sharp insights into how we live and love.

  10. We have already had this conversation I think…Angle of Repose….Absolute favorite American Dream, American West, book evah!

    As an English teacher it is difficult to recommend books. I read the Western Canon as a part of my job. I don’t have a lot of time to read for my own pleasure. But in the last few years I have been lucky enough to discover “Down and Out in Paris and London” by George Orwell. I love this book. It is a great picture of life in Paris in the 20’s and life on the street in London. Surprising because I had never encountered it before teaching in Europe. Lovely read, kids always love it.

  11. The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen. …and it was really tough to narrow it down to just one, but this one is IT. 🙂

  12. I think there are certainly must-reads for each person at specific times in life, but there’s no must-read for everyone. For example, every teenager should read Romeo and Juliet – out loud. Every person entering politics should read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. If your passion is service work and social justice, you can’t improve on Dickens. If you work in health care, read Camus’ The Plague. Reading becomes a life-changing experience when a work meets you at the right point in your own path of growth and change. We interact from within our own contexts.

    1. I agree. Context is certainly a consideration. For example, I thought that a historical book I had read about a particular female religious leader was fabulous. A friend of mine read the same book and said it was dry and awful. I’m interested in academic, historical studies. She isn’t. She may never be, and I may never be interested in vampire romance novels…

  13. This is a tough question! I have seen Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety both recommended a zillion times, but for some reason have never gotten started on either. Based on your liking Angle of Repose, I would suggest to might want to read Bridge of Sighs, a sprawling family novel by Richard Russo. That was one I wanted everybody else to read after I finished it!

      1. I liked Bridge of Sighs (Richard Russo is my number one lit-fic crush), and Empire Falls won the Pulitzer, but for my money, he’s at his best in Nobody’s Fool and Straight Man. Funny and sad, and completely wonderful.

  14. I agree with Saul Bellow that “a book it is necessary to read” is ‘The Periodic Table’ by Primo Levi. For those who don’t know, Levi was an Italian Jew who is perhaps most famous for his memoir of the time he spent as a prisoner in Auschwitz (also a must-read). He wrote fiction too, and ‘The Periodic Table’ is a series of semi-autobiographical short stories – each named after one of the elements. It’s an absolutely fantastic book that is very well-regarded, but it tends not to make it to “best of” lists because it isn’t a novel. Personally, I prefer being able to savour the condensed perfection of short forms (and another great writer for this is Raymond Carver).

  15. This is a tough one. I’m sure most of my favourites you’ve already read or are well aware of, so I’m stretching a bit beyond that. If we are talking classics, a lot of the lesser-known Dickens are very good. If we are talking modern classics there are plenty of previous favourites that don’t get talked about much anymore – The Good Earth, Lucky Jim, I,Claudius (not to mention the excellent BBC TV version) and anything by PG Wodehouse is sunlit perfection. For contemporary literature I like Atwood and Murakami. For something trashy and easy to read, I like The Historian and Shantaram. I’m currently working my way through a long list of Indian literature, there is a lot of good stuff there – Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Rohinton Mistry, Anita and Kiran Desai and Jhumpa Lahiri.

    1. Your musings about all of these books and their possible categories brought a smile to my face. I completely agree with your characterization of Wodehouse’s work as “sunlit perfection.” So true. Lucky Jim is hilarious! But I have not read (or seen) I, Claudius. That sounds like a winner to me.

      1. Thanks! I thought of one more – the novellas of Nancy Mitford – a must-read for people who enjoy Downton Abbey. I can’t claim the ‘sunlit perfection’ as my own – I think Stephen Fry said that about Wodehouse.

  16. Forgive me if I’m replying twice; my comment didn’t appear and I wasn’t told it was awaiting moderation.

    Anyway, as I tried to say previously, I agree with Saul Bellow that “a book it is necessary to read” is ‘The Periodic Table’ by Primo Levi. For those who don’t know, Levi was an Italian Jew who is perhaps most famous for his memoir about the time he spent as a prisoner in Auschwitz (also a must-read). He wrote fiction too, and ‘The Periodic Table’ is a semi-autobiographical series of short stories, each with the title of an element. It’s an absolutely fantastic book, but it rarely makes it to “best of” lists because it isn’t a novel. I personally prefer to savour the condensed perfection of short forms (including poetry), and am currently revisiting Raymond Carver’s stories.

    1. I found both of your comments in my spam box! I’m glad I looked and saw it there. That book sounds amazing. I like loosely connected short stories too. I would really enjoy that. And yes, you can’t go wrong with Carver either!

  17. I have read “Crossing to Safety”, and really liked it, but haven’t looked into any other Stegner–so I’ll pick you up on your recommendation.
    I just finished “Wolf Hall”. It was incredible. Or were you looking for a Great American Novel type? I that case, how about “The Amazing Adventures of Kavelier and Clay”? Perhaps these aren’t classic enough. “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”: yep, that’s my final offer.

  18. Oh, my. I was just thinking the other day about how I don’t have a ‘favorite’ book – there are too many good reads out there that you simply cannot compare! A difficult challenge to recommend just one…
    I think I’ll go with ‘Possible Side Effects’ by Augusten Burroughs. Why? Because so often we choose books because they make us think, challenge our beliefs, inform us, enlighten us, or generally answer some greater question we might have. This book is full of short stories that will just make you laugh. Laughing is good. 🙂

  19. Great recommendations in the comments above, I would add “If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller” by Italo Calvino because when I read it for the first time I was blown away from the start. It’s famous opening sentence took me to a different view of the relationship between author, reader and made me question what a ‘book’ is. I had never read anything like it and still find it so clever, devilish, challenging and I wish I could read it in the original (ie rather then as translated).

  20. For me ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ by John Boyne is a must read. It’s a short book, so for me there is no excuse not to make it all the way through. If there’s anyone who isn’t familiar with the book (or film) it’s about a young boy whose Father runs a concentration camp. The sheer innoncence of this boy, whose understanding is limited to the point where he only knows that ‘the Fury is coming to dinner’ and that they are moving to ‘out-with’ (Auschwitz) is both harrowing, endearing and heartbreaking. It’s one of the few books which I’ve found has moved me to my very soul.

    1. I agree. This is a must-read. It is quite something to read about such terrible tragedy from an innocent child’s perspective. Thanks for reminding me of it.

  21. What a wonderful idea! I’m going to borrow it and ask the question to my blog readers as well. I’ll re-post yours so they can also read your readers’ recommendations. Already a nice list forming!
    My suggestion is The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I read it several years ago and it still haunts me. It’s indescribable really, not like anything else I’ve read.
    I’ll be back in a few days to see how this list has taken shape. Thanks!

    1. Haunting is good. Those are the books I usually remember and find myself still thinking about years later. Thanks for recommending this, and I hope this goes well on your blog. I’d love to see the results!

  22. 3 Recommendations, all very different
    1. The Power of One – Bryce Courtney
    2. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie – Ayana Mathis
    3. Me Before You – Jojo Moyes

  23. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. Read it more than ten times… story about secrets, ghosts, love… simply amazing and captivating.

      1. Oh, that makes me a bit of a freak 😀
        But I don’t mind.
        Also, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón- amazing novel.

        1. Nah! It makes you passionate. The Shadow of the Wind is on my list (and my bookshelf), but I may move it up since I’ve got a recommendation for it now. 🙂 thanks!

  24. I read Angle of Repose AFTER finishing writing my own book The House on Tenafly Road. If I’d have read it before starting I don’t know if I ever would have had the courage to write. I was in awe of Stegner’s writing from page one. I only allowed myself to read the book very slowly because I didn’t want it to end.

    1. I can understand that completely. He is nearly a “perfect” writer, and consequently intimidating to be sure. I think reading him helped me to come to terms with the fact that I will never write fiction well. 🙂

      1. At first I was a bit dejected–comparing his novel to mine, but then I realized that our interests were very similar–we liked relationships however dysfunctional and we liked people in general and so instead of seeing his writing as a threat I ended up embracing Wallace as a sort of grandfather of writing. I never thought I’d write fiction, but then these characters kept coming into my head and I thought, what the hell, let me give it a shot. The best decision I ever made! Love your blog,

  25. I’d recommend Good to Great. It may seem like a business or leadership book, but it’s so much more. I read it through the lens of my current job, my band, my blog, and found countless parallels. Highly recommend you read it while considering your role as a writer and blogger. Lots to talk about and I’d love to know what you think. I wrote a few of my early posts about it.

    1. Interesting. I don’t usually read “business or leadership” books, but I think you’ve represented it pretty well outside of that. I guess I should give it a try.

  26. The three books I’ve recommended the most often are probably A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver and Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. A Fine Balance affected me so deeply that I still think about it often, years later. I love Prodigal Summer because it shows how everyone and everything is connected in life, from the mathematics of predator-prey ratios to the simple act of getting to know your neighbor. It left me feeling happier than before I’d picked it up. Cloud Atlas amazed me with its genre-defying originality and inventive structure. Still haven’t seen the movie–I’m afraid to.

  27. There are some great recommendations here. What a good idea Emily. First, have to put in the pitch for David Mitchell. The Previous commenter mentioned Cloud Atlas. (The film score the movie is super fantastic) He’s one of my fav authors. But to say absolutely must read just one book, I will probably always say, 2666 by Robert Bolano. Its a handful–literally–but its a life book, you carry it around in your mind.

  28. I’m a little late to the game and you’ve already got many good recommendations, but for a fellow book lover and literature appreciator I would definitely recommend Le Pere Goriot by Balzac if you haven’t already read it. A true masterpiece. There are so many themes, but to boil it down it’s about ambition. This book is dazzling and the more you talk about it the more you realize its perfection.

    1. I haven’t read that one, and it sounds like something I would like. Thank you for the recommendation, and I will look for the theme of ambition as I read it.

  29. The one book I think everyone should read is: Madam Bovary, The Good Earth, Animal Farm, The Lord of the Flies, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Anna Karenina, The Shining, The Great Gatsby, In Cold Blood, Fahrenheit 451, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Blind Assassin, Slaughter-House Five, Fight Club, Feed, Ragtime, The Alienist, Gorky Park, Sophie’s Choice, Siddhartha, The Painted Bird, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Heart of Darkness, The Silence of the Lambs, Pillars of the Earth, The Collected Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor, Ironweed, Less Than Zero, Desert Solitaire, The Complete Poems of T. S. Eliot, The Grapes of Wrath, Hiroshima, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, Interview With The Vampire, Neuromancer, Cold Mountain, Bonfire of the Vanities, 100 Selected Poems by e e cummings, and pretty much anything by Patricia Cornwall. (SORRY! Couldn’t resist.)

    1. LOL! At first, when I started reading this, I thought, “Uh, this is more than one…” And then I realized what you were doing. Nice. Of course there is more than one!

  30. I love this post – as a literature obsessive I’m always recommending books to my friends. My father and I swap good reads – it’s a great way to discover stories you might otherwise have missed.

    I’m a fan of the English classics. My favourite novel is Tess of the D’urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. It’s beautifully written about a totally different universe in rural England in the late 19th century. The reason I love it is that it’s not all happily-ever-after – there is a grit and realism to the plot and characters that I feel is just like real life. Not everything goes to plan; people are complicated and flawed. Plus there is a lot of ambiguity where the reader must interpret things their own way, which I love!

    I’ll definitely give your recommendation a go, thanks!

    1. Thanks, Helga! I love your recommendation. It is one of my favorite books and you make some astute points about why it is such a good one. I’m planning a post on it soon!

  31. I loved noughts and crosses by Malorie Blackman! Although the sequels left something to be desired… And I’m also thinking of reading a clockwork orange, but having mixed reviews of various people. Have you read it? Is it worth a read?

  32. I recently read “The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore” by Benjamin Hale and would recommend it highly. It’s a rather extraordinary novel; big, bold and bravely written. It also has a subtle dark humour and is a must-read for anyone interested in language – as readers and writers certainly must be wouldn’t you say?

  33. I often recommend The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. The only way I know how to explain it is: “My life felt more complete for having read this.”

  34. As an AP English teacher I recommend books all the time. The one that has never failed to work for my students is The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy. He has touches of gorgeous writing, it has a compelling story and it is a great book to understand the male mind.

  35. I recently read “Angle of Repose” for a book club. One of the discussions we had was about the meaning of the title. I thought it meant that Susan and her family were piled up so precariously that they were just about to fall over the edge but somehow held on in an almost gravity-defying fashion to their lives. I’m curious what you might think of the title.

    Looking at my Goodreads list, the only book I could say is a ‘Must-Read’ is one I’ve touted for a long time: The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. Absolutely my favorite book. I just lent it to a friend who was going on vacation in Asia and I have anxiety hoping it comes home to me safely.

    1. I’ve never articulated my thoughts on the title. I guess I would relate it to their marriage and at what point does everything stop “rolling” or piling up, as you say. Maybe the answer is never, or maybe the answer is when her husband learns to forgive.

      1. I write about it a bit on my Good Books page:

        and I want to do a long-form post about the encyclopedic nove, which I consider a sub-genre unto itself, but essentially, it is THE novel of the nineties. I haven’t read anything more visceral and jaw-droppingly mind-altering than this book. Hilarious, stylistically fun, experimental, heart-breaking, compassionate.

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