Beware of the biases of this list, which we fully assume, and which you should understand well:
1. This list is ethnocentric. It is a bias. Simply put, if you were born in Japan, Cuba, India, or Nigeria, you would not find the same list. We would suggest other books, and you would prefer to read other books. The list we are presenting to you is Western-oriented. This does not mean that it is impervious to foreign literature: on the contrary, the foreign works included in this list are among the most brilliant. We can only recommend that you read them in the original language whenever possible, even if you need a dictionary on the side. We also hope that these doors to foreign literature will stimulate your curiosity, and encourage you to read more books of foreign origin, from the most famous to the most unknown.
2. This list does not contain all the books you would like to see. That is, we could not include every book, and so many wonderful books were left off. This selectivity is quite cruel, but it is necessary; the highlighting would lose all meaning. When someone is looking for recommendations on the most important books, it is of no use to present them with 10,000 different names: many excellent books have been discarded, and only the excellent ones among the excellent ones are retained. It’s your job to mention them in the comments below, and above all to accompany the titles with a description and advice that will make the readers want to read them.
3. This list is arbitrary. It is not a scientific or mathematical ranking, nor a selection of the quality of the style or the content. The criteria of our classification are totally arbitrary. We simply wanted to compile the most famous, the most resounding, and the most brilliant works that have come down to us until today. It is therefore a popular list: the darkest and most intelligent thesis of the most brilliant mathematician in history can therefore be eclipsed by the most harmless fairy tale, simply because of its popularity.
Principle of this list of must-read books
We have finally selected for you only those books that you will want to read. These books are accessible to everyone, and even when they seem a little less easy to approach, we give you some advice on a case by case basis to keep reading a pleasure. They are all books of great literary quality, and you can feed on them. That is, all of these books will benefit both your writing style and your thinking. All of these books will feed your mind and develop your general knowledge in an incredible way.
These are all books that are absolutely worth reading. This is a list of all the must-read books in your life.
How did we rank this list of must-read books? We started out by interest. For example: Understanding Society or The Inner Discovery of the Human Being, The Self, or Tales, Mythologies and Founding Stories. However, it appeared to us that our list would lose interest. The risk would have been that the readers, as when going to the library, would only go to the section they are used to, the one of their studies, of their job, the one they are used to. We want to present you with the most important works, the works that you absolutely must have read, works that you will like. But to do this, you have to get out of your comfort zone. If you are here, looking at this list of the most important books to read, it is already that you have a certain curiosity, you want to see which books you do not know yet. You will be fascinated by each of these books, we promise you that. Why haven’t you read them yet? Simply because our hand usually slips to the books we are used to, the ones we have heard about, the ones we like the cover of, the ones we already know a little about! Yes, yes, you read that right: those whose story we already know a little bit. Because when you look at the cover, you quickly get an idea of what you will find. And this is not a bad thing, it is even a rather nice reflex of the human being, who does not really like the unknown, and who likes to foresee.
It is the same process when you listen to music. If you are used to listening to very popular songs, you will find it harder to click on the jazz or hard rock playlist. Similarly, if you’ve listened to metal all your life, you’ll have a hard time clicking on the sailor songs or pop-dance playlist.
That’s why in a few words we tell you for each title why you should read this book. What is the interest of the book, what you will like in this book. Because yes, you will like this book! The only question is: what will you like about it? So in the end, we decided to go in chronological order.
Tips for approaching this list of must-read books
1. Start with the ones you like! We just insisted on the importance of getting out of your comfort zone, and of letting yourself be carried towards books that are foreign to you or even worry you, because you have this preconceived notion that it won’t be what you like. And we’re going to contradict ourselves a little bit: discard those books that don’t spontaneously make you want to read, and start with the books you like, that make you want to read them immediately!
In fact, don’t get too excited: this is a trick on our part. It is simply to establish the bond of trust between you and us. By reading these few books that appeal to you immediately, we hope that you will have confidence in the other books on this list that have more legitimacy. In short, that you will think, “I loved this book, and it was on the list! If I liked it so much, it’s because this other book, which doesn’t seem to make me want to read it, must still have some qualities and interest. It’s probably that in the end I’ll like it as well.”
2. Read quickly. This is very, very, very important. If you want to gain motivation every day and greatly expand your general knowledge, then read-fast. → 7 tips for reading much faster
3. Set a goal for yourself. It’s not a competition, and reading books is still a pleasure. It’s never a contest, never an exercise. It’s always an activity that should make you feel as fulfilled and happy as possible. Well, believe it or not, you will be very happy to approach this list as a game, with friends or just with yourself. Giving yourself a goal, a deadline, will multiply your motivation by 100, and you will read many, many more books than you ever imagined if you do this simple thing! See the SMART Method. You must specify each time: the title of the book, the number of days to read it. For example, if you want a short term game, it could be the following: in 1 month, you will read 3 books. So you have 10 days per book. Write down on a sheet of paper or on a memo on your computer the names of your 3 books and the exact dates that correspond. You will see, with this goal in mind, not only will you increase your reading pleasure tenfold, but you will also be very proud of yourself and delighted to see at the end of the month that you can check off 3 boxes of the most important books in history.
Once again, we encourage you to comment with your recommendations, i.e., books you feel should have been published in this list. We will expand this list of must-reads as needed based on your suggestions.
- Homer – The Odyssey – 8th century B.C.: with the Iliad, it is the founding poem of European civilization. This is where it all begins. The Odyssey describes the return of the well-known Greek hero Odysseus. The advantage is that the Odyssey can be read very quickly, because the text is 1. short: 23 Songs, each one quite short; 2. easy: it is above all a story, a narrative intended to interest people, to take them with pleasure into the world of mythology. This ease is all the more enjoyable since it was, by contrast, extremely difficult to write since for each line Homer had to write according to very precise rules and constraints (in literary gibberish, we call that dactylic hexameters). Admit that it is still a pleasure to read in only 1 second a line on which Homer must have spent a quarter of an hour (and that more than 12.000 times).
- Homer – The Iliad – between -850 and -750 B.C.: you like wars where there is action, love, and heroes ? Well the Iliad, – in addition to being a treasure for historians -, is all that, crowned by an even more exceptional war: a war of the Gods! In particular 3 of the most powerful Gods oppose each other: Athena, Poseidon, and Apollo, with the Trojan War as the stage and an ultra-famous hero as well: Achilles. I might as well tell you that there are fights, exploits, strategy, and that, like the Odyssey, it is very easy to read: if you overlook the rather old-fashioned wording of the sentences (of course, these are old Greeks), which at the same time makes the whole story charming, the story is resolved in 24 “Songs”, all of which are brief. It is also what is called an epic: a tale of historical/mythical exploits (because yes, we are not even sure that the Trojan war really happened), so you will be quickly carried away in the story.
- Aesop – The Fables – between 620 and 564 B.C.: you always thought that Jean de La Fontaine was THE best for fables? Far be it from us to diminish the merits of this author, whose poetry we have all learned at one time or another. But if you want to discover THE true founder of fables, here he is: Aesop! For example, The Raven and the Fox, or The Hare and the Tortoise, it’s him! In fact, Jean de La Fontaine stole almost everything from him. Yes, it is a whole myth that collapses and all your confidence that collapses. Well, you are not at the end of your surprises, because Aesop himself did not write each of these fables. It is simply because at the time it felt good to group all these fables around one author, that Aesop became the founding father of fables.
- Ovid – The Metamorphoses – circa 1 A.D.: if the character seems a bit austere to you, then this image will surely change when you know that Ovid was first and foremost known for his erotic texts and saucy poems. But what has allowed Ovid to make his mark in history is rather this kind of huge assembly of Greek and Roman mythologies. The funny thing is that all these mythical tales sometimes don’t really relate to each other, and Ovid has to find tricks to link them together every time. The always impressive thing is to know that the fashion of these times is to write everything in dactylic hexameter, a very complicated term to mean that EVERY sentence, every line of text, is measured, and had to fall exactly right to make the right count.
- multiple – The Thousand and One Nights: in Arabic literature, fables are not well regarded: it’s for the people, not to be studied.
- Multiple authors – The Torah or Pentateuch – 7th to 5th centuries B.C.: This is a major one, as the Pentateuch, also called the Torah by the Jews, has influenced the history of humanity. Although the writing of these sacred texts is often attributed to Moses, it is more likely that several people contributed to them. As its name suggests, “Penta”, there are 5 books. If each of the books has its interest, we advise you to read in full the Genesis, which tells the origins of the world (nothing else!) and the Exodus which tells the exit from Egypt. These episodes are of course extremely well known. No matter how much you read them, you will come out dazzled by the power that these texts have had on the whole course of humanity, and still today.
- Confucius – The Confucian Talks or Analects – 479 B.C. to 221 A.D.: No one is unaware of the name Confucius. According to Simon Leys in 1987, “no writing has exerted a more lasting influence on a larger part of humanity. Indeed, in terms of influence, Confucius in the East is often compared to Plato or Jesus in the West. Confucianism was compulsory in China, and even today the Confucian way of thinking permeates Asian societies, especially in China, Japan and Korea. Needless to say, the reported words can be a bit unsettling. It is written “If two people walk together with me, there is at least one who can serve as my master”. This is the idea that you should keep in mind when you read these talks.
- Plato – The Apology of Socrates – 399 BC: Imagine someone whose teacher is Socrates, and whose student is Aristotle. You must be dealing with someone exceptional, right? Let me introduce you to Plato! The Apology of Socrates is the occasion for Plato to report his version of the facts of Socrates’ trial, which remains one of the most extraordinary deaths in history. If you were put in front of the following dilemma: “Do you regret what you said and save your life? Or do you confirm what you said and you are sentenced to death?”, what would you answer? We let you guess how Socrates defends himself… We have selected here the Apology of Socrates, but Plato’s work is immense. They are almost always speeches that feature his master Socrates. From a formal point of view, it’s quite funny and rather unique. Do you know many books of philosophy that are just dialogues? So it’s also quite nice to read, and you can imagine yourself and your friends chatting around a table, by the fire, just like the characters whose words you will read. Finally, we touch here not only an unimaginable historical treasure, but also the birth of Western philosophy. All thoughts, all authors, all philosophers in the West have at one time or another looked at Plato. All of them have read Plato at one time or another. And in fact, until the Middle Ages the texts were studied by ALL, and we hope that you will join this community very soon, if you have not already done so.
- Aristotle – The Nicomachean Ethics – 4th century B.C.: with a lot of bias, that is to say in a not at all impartial way, we would say that Aristotle is just like Plato : the birth of philosophy… but much better ! Aristotle is relevant in all words (well, a little less so when he says that the slave has no will, and the woman has a sub-order one) and in all fields: physics, metaphysics, politics, ethics, language, poetry and… biology. Yes, because Aristotle had a passion: to observe animals, and he devoted huge works to them. We also owe Aristotle the Lyceum, which is all the more reason to love him, isn’t it? From this considerable body of work, we have selected the Nicomachean Ethics. We could describe this book as his treatise on happiness, which for Aristotle was the end of life. To reach this happiness, he speaks among other things about politics, virtue, justice… So many themes on which Aristotle is still an authority nowadays. When Aristotle wrote “There is no genius without a grain of madness” in Poetics, did he know that he was talking about himself?
- Multiple authors – The Gospels – 1st century A.D.: Also a sacred text, the Gospels are the heart of the Bible. There is no need to recall the extraordinary influence that the Gospels still exert today. Christianity is nowadays the largest religion in the world, with no less than 2 billion members. The influence on arts and culture is exceptional, dare we say, the most important in history. Some masterpieces are still admired by all: from the Sistine Chapel to the Paris Cathedral, including the Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe and Turkey. So you’ve understood: you should definitely take a look at these writings! It is always difficult to establish statistics, but the Bible is undoubtedly the book of all records in almost all rankings: the most read book, the most widespread, the most influential, etc. The Gospels are a very small part of the Bible, and there are 4 of them. You can be satisfied with reading only one of them, because they all necessarily tell the same story: the life of Jesus. If you hesitate, we recommend the gospel of Saint Luke, which has the advantage of also telling the birth. Be careful also with the translation you choose, since it is in these variations of translation that the differences between the religions are found.
- Multiple authors – The Qur’an – 7th century AD: the last of the sacred texts we present to you in this list. Islam, which has more than one and a half billion members, is centered around the Quran. For Muslims, the Quran is the written record of what God revealed to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel. The Qur’an is also generally considered to be the greatest masterpiece of literature written in Arabic languages. The interpretations of the Quran are so decisive even today that you cannot miss them. In addition, the Quran is not very long and therefore can be read quite quickly. It should be noted that the Qur’an is totally in line with the Torah and the Bible, and for example Moses and Jesus are mentioned even more often than Mohammed himself.
- Chrétien de Troyes – Yvain ou le Chevalier au lion – circa 1176 AD: who has never heard of the knights of the Round Table? Thanks to Yvain ou le Chevalier au lion, you will find the Celtic tradition, Brittany, the Arthurian legend. It is also one of the best examples of Roman courtois, a popular genre of the Middle Ages, an idea shared by its author according to Jean-Pierre Foucher. It is written in octosyllabic verse, so it is also quite a work. But let’s be honest, for us 21st century French speakers, the French of that time is about as understandable as the Chinese of today. We’re exaggerating, it’s still possible, but if you have access to modernized versions, it will be a relief.
- Dante Alighieri – Divina Commedia – 1320: the pinnacle of medieval Christian vision. This work is so extraordinary that it earned its author entry into the French dictionary thanks to the adjective: dantesque. “In reference to the description of hell in the Divine Comedy. Grandiose and terrifying”, is the definition given by the dictionary of the French Academy. The Comedy, from its original name, has been studied many times, so rich and full is the work. Here is what Balzac said, whose “Comédie humaine” is a direct reference to the “Divine Comedy”: “the marvelous framework of ideas on which the greatest Italian poet has built his poem, the only one that moderns can oppose to that of Homer”.
- Nicolas Machiavelli – The Prince – 1532: here is another work that earned its author entry into the dictionary : Machiavellian. The French Academy gives the following definition: “Who resorts to cunning, to dissimulation, and does not embarrass himself with scruples to reach his ends”, specifying: pejorative term. The reputation is not flattering, it must be said that Machiavelli leaves aside morality, to focus on a single objective: to maintain the power of the Prince, that is to say the head of state – today it would be the President. His work is still rich in lessons, both for the rulers and for the ruled. As Rousseau explains, “by pretending to give lessons to Kings, he gave great lessons to the people”. If you want to see real politics, pure and cruel for some, realistic for others, then go ahead. Plus the book reads very well and quickly! Just, if you are not passionate about history, you have the right to skip the numerous historical examples that Machiavelli, as a great scholar, does not hesitate to detail.
- Rabelais – Gargantua – 1534: “There is nothing like a fluffy chick as a torchbearer, as long as you hold its head between your legs. And believe me on my honor. Because you feel in the hole of the ass a mirific voluptuousness” That gives you an idea of the poetry of Rabelais! a raw language, of the humor, of the acerbic criticism, of the progressism… Doesn’t that give you envy?
- Michel de Montaigne – The Essays – 1580: Without a doubt one of the most brilliant minds, Montaigne is the author who will have most dissected his own self. he wrote: “I am myself the material of my book”. But make no mistake: this work of a lifetime (Montaigne worked on it until his death and he wrote in it the famous formula “That to philosophize is to learn to die”) is a treasure for your own life. Isn’t it an incredible opportunity to think that you hold in your hands all the thoughts, all the wisdom of an exceptionally intelligent man condensed in just three books? Yes, there are three volumes, which may seem like a lot to some, but you should know that they are all organized in small independent chapters, and you can have fun picking up here and there in the themes that interest you the most. Again, the modernized French text will be easier to read than the original text.
- William Shakespeare – Hamlet – 1603: To be or not to be. These 6 words will have already been enough for many of you to tackle this immense work of literature. For the others, we can specify that Shakespeare wrote this work at the age of 21 only (!), reworking it until he was 36 years old, this new version comprising almost twice as many pages. Shakespeare also defended his work on stage, as he himself played the role of the father’s spectre. If you have never read or seen a work by Shakespeare, now is the time!
- Cervantes – Don Quixote – 1605: through humor and parody, Don Quixote is a critique of Spanish society. If for some this work is simply very funny, there are others who are very, very serious about the work, like the famous philosopher Michel Foucault who sees in this work – be careful, it’s heavy, better hang on – : 1. “The cruel reason of identities and differences (which plays) in the infinity of signs and similarities” 2. “the language (which) breaks its old relationship with things” and 3. “the resemblance (which) enters there in an age which is for her that of the unreason and the imagination. In short, if not, you can read it normally and with pleasure, it is much easier to read than the idea that Michel Foucault gives.
- Pierre Corneille – Le Cid – 1637: as a good tragedy, Corneille respects the 3 rules: unity of action (while slipping in a subplot), unity of time (even if Corneille found it inconvenient) and unity of place (except that Corneille deviates from it since he uses 3 different places) As you can see, it’s not perfect in terms of the codes that Aristotle had theorized for tragedy. But for the rest, everything is perfect: the story is thrilling, the tension is palpable, and any other adjective in palp-. The Cid is not only a tragedy, it is a tragi-comedy. It also contains two of the most famous quotes of the theater: “O rage! O despair! O enemy old age! Have I lived so long only for this infamy?”, and again the gradation: “Go, run, fly, and avenge us”.
- René Descartes – Discourse on Method – 1637: René Descartes is in a way the greatest paranoid you have ever read. He is the one who says to himself: what if since I was born everyone has lied to me? What if all the teachers I’ve had have told me nonsense? What if everything that’s happening is a huge plot against me, fomented by the most diabolical mind in the world? The Discourse of the Method is a brilliant answer, written in an exemplary style of clarity and simplicity. Here, there is no question of long, obscure and confused logorrhea. On the contrary, the language is clear, precise, and powerful. Everyone can find his way and put himself in the place of René Descartes. It is also here that the most famous formula of French philosophy is found: “Cogito ergo sum”.
- Thomas Hobbes – The Leviathan – 1651: So let’s say it right away, as much as we praise the simplicity and the brevity of some of the works on this list, here it is a monument, a huge pavais. The first two parts are the most interesting and will be enough for you: “On Man” and “On the State”. Do not hesitate to skip the chapters that do not interest you. In these two parts, Hobbes explains why men live in society, why there is a state, and what a state is. His thesis is extraordinarily striking, if we summarize it quickly: in the state of nature, all men are left to their own impulses and it is chaos. To get out of this “war of all against all”, all men meet and decide to channel all their violence, by making a pact. This social pact, by which everyone promises peace, is what founds the State.
- Molière – Dom Juan ou Le Festin de pierre – 1665: a festival of humor and depth, this play is mainly carried by the impertinent lines of Dom Juan, a great lover of women. If Molière takes a lot of liberties with the form, Dom Juan takes even more liberties with the content of the speech. While he was probably destined to be a hateful character, Dom Juan actually becomes endearing, especially when read from our century, where atheism is much more common. Again, if you like impertinence and contradictory thinking, this book is for you.
- Blaise Pascal – Les Pensées – 1669: each thought is a treat for the mind, and can be meditated for hours. You will find here a posthumous summary of Pascal’s thoughts, otherwise known for having created the calculator (at 19 years old!), and participated in the foundation of probabilities. For Pascal is at the same time a great philosopher, a great scientist (mathematician and physicist), and a great religious man. In particular, he experienced a mystical moment, of which we still have traces since he wrote it down, and turned to the doctrine of Jansenism (Christianity reformed by Jansen). You will have a real pleasure to pick up every evening in the Pensées! A selection: “Cleopatra’s nose, if it had been shorter, would have changed the whole face of the earth.””The heart has its reasons that reason does not know” “The self is hateful.” (He hated Montaigne in this) “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”
- Molière – Le Malade imaginaire – 1673: you will burst out laughing. If you don’t laugh when you discover this play, it’s because you didn’t set the tone when you read it or that you watched it with the wrong actors. This play was perhaps the occasion of one of the most ironic deaths in history: indeed, Molière’s pain was not at all imaginary when he fainted on stage while playing the role of Argan, dying soon after.
- Spinoza – Ethics – 1677: with geometric precision (yes, yes, we insist, Spinoza proceeds mathematically), Spinoza demonstrates God, nature, and feelings. That’s all. But he has a rather special vision of God. God is perfect, and therefore he encompasses everything, you as well as me and everything else in the world. Everything is done by necessity. Spinoza is a brilliant author who thought against his time. You will have a particular pleasure to read the scolies, where Spinoza makes his comments and settles his accounts in passing.
→ LIST 2 – The most important books to read before you die 2/5
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