The essential books every man should read before he dies

We live in a world of constant recommendations – so, as a result, we've slimmed down your 'must reads' into a much more manageable edit

Nowadays, it seems as though we’re being constantly pummelled with new lists of books that we just have to read, TV shows we need to watch, films we must see, and galleries, exhibitions and plays that our lives wouldn’t be complete without. You start to wonder how one human with a job, a social life, an exercise regime and some Duolingo to crack on with could possibly ingest all this content.

But, 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 slimming down your ‘must reads’ into a small curation of books every man 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 some tears, and you might even learn a little something, too…

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Which other book would we have opened with? Unhinged parties; decadence and indulgence of the most glamorous art-deco sort; mint juleps, roaring-hot cars and elegant tailoring doing the rounds – it’s a staple of literature, with Jay Gatsby still maintaining his status as one of the most lionised fictional men about town.

On The Road by Jack Kerouac

Here, we join Kerouac and his friends (represented through fictional characters, with Kerouac taking the role of narrator) as they journey across the US, a trip 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 the world following a dark, biting winter.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Following the course of the Nigerian Civil War, this tour de force has a specific focus on three characters – Ugwu, who works as a houseboy for prominent professor, Odenigbo; Olanna, the academic’s girlfriend; and Richard, a timid English writer – as all of them are thrown into the chaos and turbulence that surrounds them and have their ideals and allegiances firmly tested.

Atonement by Ian McEwan

If pushed to pick just one of McEwan’s 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 estate, in 1935, a setting that leads to a 13-year-old girl telling a monstrous lie that reverberates to – and destroys the lives of – those around her.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Though du Maurier's books tend to throw up an eerie feel, Rebecca is her most famous, with its pages centred on the struggles of its unnamed heroine as she returns with new husband, Maxim de Winter, to his mansion in the wilds of Cornwall. Not all is in the honeymoon phase, however, as she does her best to escape the perpetual reminders of de Winter's deceased first wife, Rebecca.

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

The lead of Japanese Breakfast birthed the beginnings of this book in a New Yorker essay in which she wrote about finding peace and solace in H Mart – the Korean supermarket chain – following the death of her mother. The fully fleshed book is an accomplished read, stretching across the topics of memory, food, family pain and the crisis of identity that can come with having a mixed background.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

It’s off to 1870s New York City – specifically an upper-class, high-society New York City, a little Gatsby, actually, just a few decades earlier. Newland Archer is a youthful lawyer, soon to announce his engagement to the beautiful May Welland – but, when the glamorous Countess Olenska fades into the scene, Archer finds himself caught between what he thinks is right and what he truly wants.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

A book that jumpstarted a national conversation, it’s threaded with the notion of how one can recognise, acknowledge and counter racism, and should really be required educational reading. The pages are heavy with background information on the constructs of racism in the UK, details that, in an ideal situation, will encourage the reader to question their own prejudice and, therefore, have open, frank discussions about the issue.

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 fashion and grooming. 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 straitlaced, dutiful counterparts. Join Ripley on his pursuit of the hedonistic good life at any possible cause.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Based in the deep American south, The Color Purple follows central character Celie, a young Black girl who has a difficult start in life, to say the least, as she grows up in a segregated society and is surrounded by poverty. But, when famous singer Shug Avery enters her life, Celie’s existence starts to change in myriad significant ways.

Delight by JB Priestley

Priestley is best known for his theatrical credits (An Inspector Calls, among them), but this collection of short essays – some less than a page long – is stunning. Dedicated to the small things in life that created joy for Priestley, it covers the beauty of Sunday papers, smoking in a hot bath and waking up to the smell of coffee and bacon.

Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig

This might be one of the most important books you will ever read. It’s a memoir by the astronomically prolific and enduringly popular author Matt Haig, and centres 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. But, he did – "I wrote this book because the oldest clichés remain the truest. Time heals. The bottom of the valley never provides the clearest view. The tunnel does have light at the end of it, even if we haven't been able to see it… Words, just sometimes, really can set you free," so says Haig.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

This could bring back the sense of lockdown-induced claustrophobia, since the central character, Count Alexander Rostov, is placed under house arrest at Hotel Metropol, in Moscow, in 1922. If you’re thinking that being stuck in a luxury bolthole wouldn’t be too bad, we’ll hasten to add that Rostov was only permitted to stay in an attic room, as opposed to his usual easy-feeling suite, while a moving, poignant, moral lesson about appreciating the small details in life unfurls around him.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

If you’re a newcomer to Ishiguro’s lyrical prose and poignant storytelling, you couldn’t start with a better book than this. It begins at Hailsham, a boarding school that seems to be idyllic in almost all ways, especially in its emphasis on art and literature, but which has an undercurrent of darkness, and, when the three central characters eventually leave as young adults, their worldviews are prised vastly open.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

We were never going to leave the doyenne of crime out of this list, especially since recent years have seen Agatha Christie hits doing the rounds on the big and small screen. Murder On The Orient Express was a big win; Death On The Nile came out 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, you should probably kick-off with her most famous creation.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The feel of Atwood’s most revered work has an eerily prescient relevance to the times in which we live. It’s not an easy read, depicting the horrifying authoritarian rule and levels of female oppression that so often appear in dystopian fiction – but, it is a must, especially if we are to hold a mirror up to our own standards.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain

The wild-west machinations of the professional kitchen. An almost pornographic description of an oyster. Firearms being assembled in a restaurant bathroom. Forever the greatest thing to hit paper.

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