Every day, it seems, we’re pummelled by a new list of books that we just have to read: together with TV shows we need to watch, films we must see and galleries, exhibitions and plays that our lives wouldn’t be complete without. And it can all get a bit overwhelming. You start to wonder how one human with a job, a social life, an exercise regime and a family could possibly ingest all this culture.
Well, gents: that’s why we’re here. We’ve felt the all-engulfing tendrils of cultural saturation first hand, and we know how simultaneously terrifying and exhausting it can be — so we’ve made things considerably easier, by whittling down your ‘must reads’ into a simple collection of 30 books every gentleman should read before he dies. Stick to this list, and you’ll get a well-rounded view of the human condition, together with several laughs and multiple tears (no one is exempt, gents); and you might even learn a little something, too.
1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
What else would we have opened our list with? Raucous, uninhibited parties; decadence and indulgence of the most glamorous varieties; mint juleps, classic cars and suavely elegant suits doing the rounds — it’s a gentlemanly work of literature in every possible sense, with Jay Gatbsy maintaining his status as one of the most famous literary gentlemen of all time.
2. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Continuing along much the same theme, this is a book bursting at the seams with riotous parties and gloriously pre-Covid levels of decadence — though it swaps out the mint juleps for opium dens, and boasts a little more Gothic horror than our American predecessor: rather than pining over a long-lost love, Gray does a deal with the devil in order to preserve his breathtaking youth and beauty. It’s creepy, it’s chilling: and it’s a rollicking ride from start to finish.
3. On The Road by Jack Kerouac
And so we continue along the vein of indulgence (Freedom Day seems to have well and truly made its way into our bookshelves…): this time, we join Kerouac and his friends (represented through fictional characters, with Kerouac taking the role of narrator) as they journey through the United States: a journey brimming with jazz, soaked in poetry and not unacquainted with drug use. The central characters are desperate to experience life, in all its forms: so it’s just the thing for anyone impatient to get back out into a post-Covid world.
4. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Be warned, gents: this one might bring back the sense of lockdown-induced claustrophobia — since central character Count Alexander Rostov is placed, indefinitely, under house arrest at Moscow’s Hotel Metropol in 1922. If you’re thinking that being stuck in a luxury hotel wouldn’t be too bad, we’ll hasten to add that Rostov was only permitted to stay in an attic room (though he does have full run of the hotel, so it’s not as if he’s had a positive lateral flow test). It’s moving, poignant and utterly unforgettable.
5. Atonement by Ian McEwan
There was no way we were leaving McEwan off this list; and if pushed to pick just one of his sublime works, it would be Atonement every time (though we’ve previously singled out On Chesil Beach, too). The book opens on a blisteringly hot day at a country manor in 1935; a day on which a 13 year old girl tells a lie that unravels the lives of the central characters forever.
6. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
If anyone knows how to create a chilling atmosphere that seems to exude from the pages, it’s du Maurier. While each of her books conjures up its own eerie setting, Rebecca is her most famous — and it’s time to give it a read, if you haven’t already. It hones in on the struggles of its unnamed heroine as she returns with new husband Maxim to his country estate, Manderley (in itself one of literature’s most famous characters), and does her best to escape the perpetual reminders of his deceased first wife, Rebecca.
7. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
It’s off to 1870s New York: and an upper-class, high society, ‘Golden Age’ New York, at that. Newland Archer is an eligible young gentleman, soon to announce his engagement to the beautiful young May Welland — but when the glamorous, sophisticated Countess Olenska is introduced to their social circle, Archer finds himself caught between what he thinks is right, and what he truly wants.
8. Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
This is a vital book about how to recognise and counter racism, and should really be required reading. In fact, if you haven’t heard of it, we don’t quite know where you’ve been all this time. It came about following a blog post of Eddo Lodge’s in 2014, which expressed her frustrations with the current state of racism discussions in Britain (chiefly the way in which those discussions were being led by those unaffected by the issues). The post went viral; the book was written; and now, it’s about time you read it if you haven’t already. (And if you’re on the lookout for more reading on anti-racism, we can point you in the right direction…)
9. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
We’ve already extolled the brilliance of this book in our homage to modern classics; but we feel it’s always worth emphasising just how excellent this book really is. It’s a seminal coming-of-age story, and it’s firmly cemented in a canon of enduring American classics. If you haven’t yet journeyed with teenager Holden Caulfield on his voyage of self-discovery: now’s the time.
10. Animal Farm by George Orwell
We’re guessing you studied this one at school, or have at least flicked through its pages if you’ve ever vaguely considered going into politics…but even if neither apply, any gentleman should make sure he’s well-versed in its contents. Talking farm animals doesn’t always correlate to great works of political satire: but in Orwell’s case, that’s exactly what this is. Follow the tribulations of a group of farm animals determined to overthrow their human owners and create a free, equal society; and look on as the plan doesn’t exactly go according to plan…
11. The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
This is another enduringly famous story in which the elegant, debonair style has not gone unnoticed by us; but this book offers more than aspirational style and grooming tips. Ripley is one of the most famous anti-heroes ever written; and we all know the antics of the anti-heroes are far more fun to read about than those of their straight-laced, dutiful counterparts. Join Ripley on his pursuit of the hedonistic good life: at any possible cause.
12. Howards End by E.M. Forster
All right; we get it. You hear ‘E.M. Forster’, and you set your alarm for the end of your snooze. But allow us to gently dispel the lingering associations of ‘boring’, ‘dull’ and ‘dense’ that accompany Forster’s legacy: the man was a phenomenal writer, and Howards End is one of his most brilliant novels (though the jury’s out on whether A Room With A View could trump it). It expertly dissects British class warfare; and follows the constantly clashing ideals of the Schlegel and Wilcox families. It’s a classic — and it deserves a place on any gentleman’s bookshelf.
13. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
It’s another book that should be required reading: not only for gentlemen, but for everyone. We imagine you’ve heard of it; but have you ever actually read it? If not, it’s time to change that, and pronto. It’s set in the deep American South and follows the central character, Celie: a young Black girl who has a difficult start in life, to say the least — growing up as she does in a segregated society, surrounded by poverty. But when famous singer Shug Avery enters her life, Celie’s life starts to change in ways she could never have envisaged.
14. One Day by David Nicholls
Ok, if you haven’t read it — you must have seen it, right? Anne Hathaway, Jim Sturgess? But we’re afraid simply seeing the film isn’t enough on this occasion, gents: this is a book that every gentleman should ensure he reads at least once in his lifetime (and, preferably, several more times after that). For one thing, it’s a masterpiece in how to structure a novel, for any budding authors: but more than that, it’s a masterclass in why we love who we love, with Nicholls’ trademark dry humour interwoven throughout.
15. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
We hear you: you’ve had enough solitude during lockdown to last you for several lifetimes. But bear with us on this one — because this book is pretty much as close to a masterpiece as it’s possible to get. It’s a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, for one thing, which we’d say is a good start. It spans seven generations of the Buendia family: and most particularly, the Columbian town of Macondo, which they built and which sees more than its fair share of man-made disasters: together with indescribable miracles. This book is a special one: trust us.
16. Delight by JB Priestley
Now this: this is a tonic for anyone who’s still feeling the fallout of the pandemic (so everyone, really). Priestley is most well known for his theatrical credits (The Inspector Calls, among others): but this collection of short essays — some just a paragraph long — is dedicated to everything in life that brought Priestley delight, from the Sunday papers, to smoking in a hot bath, to waking up to the smell of bacon: and many, many more.
17. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Science fiction dystopia certainly isn’t in the same category as many of the other books we’ve cited so far; but we’d never want to be predictable, and this truly is one of the most famous — and timeless — dystopian novels you could hope to have on your bookshelf. There are definite 1984 vibes: in this futuristic society, the World Controllers have created the ‘perfect state’, and only central character Bernard Marx seems to want to break free.
18. The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
If you did GCSE drama, you must have made a trip to London’s Fortune Theatre to see this world famous ghost story played out on stage; and you probably had nightmares for weeks (don’t worry, gents, we won’t tell anyone). It’s so famous, though, that everyone should give it a read at least once: and if you manage to read it on your own at night, you’re a stronger man than most.
19. Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig
This might be one of the most important books you ever read. That’s quite a statement, we know; but we’re prepared to back both ourselves and Haig on that one. It’s a memoir by the astronomically prolific and enduringly popular author, centering on the most difficult time in his life. When he was 24, he hit a point at which he wasn’t sure he could go on living. But he did, and he wrote a book about it: a book that has doubtless played a part in making the world an infinitely better place than it was before.
20. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve waxed lyrical about Ishiguro; and we’d go so far as to say it won’t be the last, either. And if you’re a newcomer to Ishiguro’s lyrical prose and poignant storytelling, you couldn’t start with a better book than this. It starts off at Hailsham: a boarding school that seems to be idyllic in almost every possible way, but that has an undercurrent of darkness. When the three central characters eventually leave as young adults, their lives remain inextricably intertwined — but it’s not an easy road, to say the least.
21. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
We were never going to leave the Queen of Crime out of things; especially since there seems to be a proliferation of Agatha Christie re-makes doing the rounds, on the big screen and small (mainly thanks to Kenneth Branagh). Murder On The Orient Express was a smash hit a few years ago; Death On The Nile is set for release in 2022; and it wasn’t so long ago that The ABC Murders was showing in all our homes. But if you’ve never read a Christie, we’ll forgive you for now: so long as you start with her most famous classic.
22. Any Human Heart by William Boyd
It’s compulsory reading for any man who professes to call himself a gentleman; as most of William Boyd’s books are, really. Told in diary form, across many decades spanning the twentieth century, the novel tells the story of the extraordinary — yet ordinary — Logan Mountstuart, delving into his time spent in Paris with Hemingway, his dealings with Ian Fleming and his terrifying (especially for anyone currently self-isolating) experience in the war. Most of all, it’s about being human: and you won’t be able to put it down.
23. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Speaking of Hemingway, you presumably don’t need any encouragement to delve into his work after we gave you ten reasons why you should do exactly that. But if you still need a little persuading, we’d wholeheartedly recommend starting with his most famous book of all time. It’s timeless, poignant and utterly, wholeheartedly unique — and (needless to say) it’s set by the sea, so it’s just the thing to read at any of these seaside hotels.
24. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
It’s dystopian; it’s terrifying; and it (regrettably) has an eerily prescient relevance to times in which we live. We know you’re a cultured, worldly-wise sort of chap, so we’re assuming you’ve heard of Gilead; but have you ever read the book from which this chilling future country originated? If you haven’t, it’s time to grab a bookmark and make a start. It’s not an easy read, depicting as it does the horrifying authoritarian rule that so often appears in dystopian fiction, together with horrifying levels of female oppression and brutality: but it is a must read.
25. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
It will have been recommended to you. It must have been recommended to you. We’ve had it flung at our heads more times than we could possibly count, with proponents steadfastly declaring it the best book they’ve ever — or, indeed, will ever — read: so we thought it was about time we passed the baton. Boyne presents the story of Ireland, spanning the 1940s all the way through to the present day, through the eyes of Cyril Avery: one of the most memorable and relatable characters you’ll ever come across in literature.
26. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice we extolled the brilliance of this novel when suggesting books to read in celebration of Pride; but we’re not done with the superlatives just yet, where this one’s concerned. We’ll give you fair warning: it’s long. Very, very long. But it’s also very, very good — which is a grievous understatement. You’ll be utterly glued to its pages, unable to stop reading even to say hello to your housemates or look out of the window; and while your eyes may be sore, you’ll find yourself recommending it to everyone you know left, right and centre.
27. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
We can hear your stomach sinking from here — but don’t worry. This is another book that has a distinctly unfair reputation preceding it; trust us when we say there is nothing dull about this one. It’s a classic that every gentleman should be able to quote at a moment’s notice; it puts friendship to the forefront, focusing on the close bond between George and his friend Lennie. It’s heartbreaking, moving and offers a voice to those who, too often, aren’t given a voice at all.
28. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
We’ve given you a tough time with some of these recommendations. There’s a lot of trauma, grief and violence in some of the above pages — and so we thought it was about time for some light relief. Happily, light relief can be found in spades in this utter delight of a book, depicting the paradisiacal, idyllic childhood of famous conservationist Gerald Durrell on the island of Corfu. He does due diligence to the local flora and fauna — but it’s the antics of his sprawling, unique, warm family that’ll be the reason you’re laughing out loud on your morning commute.
29. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
We’ve already mentioned that we can barely contain our excitement about Whitehead’s upcoming novel, Harlem Shuffle; but where this particular list is concerned, we’d like to direct attention back to his original masterpiece. The Underground Railroad is an astounding book, focused on the actual underground railroads (the boxcar system that transported fugitive slaves across America throughout the nineteenth century) and following the journey of Cora, and her terrifying, perilous escape for freedom. It’s an urgent, vital read: get on over to Waterstones and pick up your copy, gents.
30. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Last; but unequivocally, unquestionably not least. The very furthest thing from ‘least’ as it’s possible to get. This is one of the most powerful books you’ll ever read; and if you haven’t already benefited from its pages we’d suggest rectifying that situation as soon as you’re able. Set in Afghanistan and beginning in 1975, it tracks the story of Amir: we first meet him at age 12, when he’s desperate to win the local kite-flying tournament. But when an act of atrocity is perpetuated against his best friend, Hassan, both of their lives change forever; and Amir later learns he must seek redemption at any cost.