Book Reviews & Culture

Book Recommendations

This book recommendation list is the work of a lifetime of reading and studying. While book recommendation is by its very nature a highly personal endeavor, in my analysis of the top book recommendation lists online, I find that similar books keep appearing again and again. There are books that are considered compelling, life-changing, and transformative based on the general consensus, and then there are books I’ve read that never appear on book recommendation lists, but I think they are worth mentioning here.

I have lived a life immersed in books. For a time I worked as a book reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly, and before that, I spent years thinking and writing about books while working as an English and SAT tutor, and even before that while earning my M.F.A. in creative writing at Columbia University. Books offered solace when I was alone, they helped me make better choices, helped me be braver, wiser, and more adventurous.

These are the books I’ve read over the years that have helped me shape my moral compass and thinking. They have helped me become braver by exposing me to stories of women and men who have been brave. They have helped me feel less alone by offering me solace and companionship. They have helped me sharpen my thinking about major issues facing the environment and the world by revealing the world to me in its beautiful and brilliant complexity. I’ve divided my book recommendations into several categories. Happy reading and exploring! By buying the books by clicking the links you can support local bookstores and also my work as an independent book reviewer.

Over 100 Books to Read Before Your Die:

30 Essential Books to Read Before You Die

Blackbird. Watercolor on watercolor paper. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Blackbird. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

There are some books that are essential reading for living. These are the classics and the foundation. From Dante Alighieri’s rigorous assessment of the ways in which love and desire can lead us astray in The Divine Comedy to Hamlet’s meditation on the nature of indecision and about how we are all ultimately strangers to ourselves, these are books that reveal something intrinsic about human life, love, the soul, living, and dying.

  1. The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Dante Alighieri
  2. The Divine Comedy: Purgatorio, Dante Alighieri
  3. The Divine Comedy: Paradiso, Dante Alighieri
  4. Hamlet, William Shakespeare
  5. Middlemarch, George Eliot
  6. The Death of Ivan Illich, Leo Tolstoy
  7. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
  8. 100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  9. Beloved, Toni Morrison
  10. Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
  11. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
  12. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
  13. The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
  14. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
  15. Dubliners, James Joyce
  16. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
  17. Moby Dick, Herman Melville
  18. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austin
  19. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
  20. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
  21. The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald
  22. Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace
  23. Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed
  24. The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  25. Narrow Road to the Interior, Basho
  26. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L’Engle
  27. The Pillow Book, Sei Shonagon
  28. The Giver, Lois Lowry
  29. The Lady with the Little Dog, Anton Chekhov
  30. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Books that Helped Me Get a High SAT English Score, Without a Tutor

Bird in Flight. Watercolor on watercolor paper. Janice Greenwood.
Bird in Flight. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

There are plenty of books out there that will teach you study skills, and organizational skills; books that will teach you how to focus, how to get into the best schools, but the books that made me a better student were the books that inspired me. If you want to be a better student, read books about things that fascinate you. Follow your curiosity. Don’t rely on this list alone.

We best learn how to study by watching a mind active with itself. A mind active with itself is a mind present to possibility at every moment. The reality is that study is a never-ending process. We are always studying, even when we are living life. These are some books that helped me become a better student, both inside and outside the classroom.

In high school, my parents didn’t have the money to pay for expensive tutors to help me get a good SAT score. I still got a very good SAT English score without a tutor. I did this by reading many books, and by challenging myself to read more difficult books. Moreover, I didn’t just sit down and read these books, but rather, I read actively. That is, I looked up the definitions of words I didn’t know and took notes about the way the books made me think and feel. I kept a reading journal.

Whether you want to improve your vocabulary to get a higher SAT score without sitting around all day learning vocabulary lists, or if you’re in AP English and want to read challenging books that will help you sharpen your analytic skills, these are a few books that helped me immensely when I was in high school. And even if you’re not in high school, but just want to improve your vocabulary and reading ability, these are challenging books that offer a great place to begin this journey.

The trick with these books is not to read them fast, but to read them slowly. Read them once; then re-read. As you read, keep a vocabulary journal and write down the definition of any new word you encounter that you do not know. If you encounter the same word again and still don’t know it, write it down again. If the author makes a literary allusion (that is, a reference to something you have never seen or heard before) Google it and learn about it.

If you’re reading these books to improve your SAT score, remember that a strong and varied vocabulary coupled with strong reading and analytical skills is the key to getting a higher SAT English score. This means that as you read, you should also be trying to analyze the text. Berkeley provides an excellent and detailed list of AP Literature Terms you’ll need to know. As you read these books, can you identify the literary devices in the text? Set yourself the challenge of finding at least one literary term per page. If you can do this, you’ll be on your way to getting a higher SAT score and AP English score, without a tutor.

  1. Mary Shelley’s, Frankenstein
  2. Jane Austen, Emma
  3. Beloved, Toni Morrison
  4. Hamlet, William Shakespeare
  5. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
  6. The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
  7. Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl
  8. Romeo & Juliet, William Shakespeare
  9. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
  10. Paradise Lost, John Milton
  11. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
  12. The Odyssey, Homer
  13. Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy
  14. Mansfield Park, Jane Austen
  15. The Metamorphosis, Ovid
  16. Confessions, St. Augustine
  17. David Foster Wallace, This is Water
  18. A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
  19. To Build a Fire and Other Stories, Jack London
  20. The Awakening, Kate Chopin

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Books to Help You Become a Better Writer

Purple Bird. Watercolor on watercolor paper. Janice Greenwood.
Purple Bird. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

There are many books out there that promise to help you write better. The best way to improve your writing is to read more books you love. Read deeply, widely, and rigorously. Write daily and often. But, if you want some guidance along the way, here are a few books that helped me think about my own writing differently. I’ve included some books that also explore the creative process and the life of an artist, because if you plan to be a professional writer, understanding how creativity works, and being able to embrace failure is also important. As a professional writer and poet, these are a few guidebooks that offer beautiful maps into the creative process:

  1. Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
  2. On Writing, Stephen King
  3. The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr
  4. Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed Conversations with Paul Cronin
  5. Ernest Hemingway, A Movable Feast
  6. The Crack Up, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  7. Changing my Mind, Zadie Smith
  8. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, For Dummies

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Poetry Book Recommendations

Skull. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Skull. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

All of us write poetry from time to time, but only some of us actually try to become poets. If the latter ambition is for you, the best way to be a better poet is to start with Chaucer, work your way through Shakespeare, slog through John Milton, and make your way to the contemporaries. If you don’t want to be a poet, but want to be well-read in poetry, this list is for you. I offer classic poems and some modern and contemporary writers I love. Again, as with every list, there will be gaps.

  1. The Complete Works of the Pearl Poet
  2. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
  3. Troilus and Criseyde, Geoffrey Chaucer
  4. Paradise Lost, John Milton
  5. The Odyssey, Homer
  6. The Metamorphosis, Ovid
  7. The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Dante Alighieri
  8. The Divine Comedy: Purgatorio, Dante Alighieri
  9. The Divine Comedy: Paradiso, Dante Alighieri
  10. The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne
  11. Rimbaud Complete, Arthur Rimbaud
  12. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake
  13. Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats
  14. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
  15. The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats
  16. Opened Ground, Seamus Heaney
  17. Donald Justice, Collected Poems
  18. Philip Larkin Collected Poems
  19. The Poetry of Pablo Neruda
  20. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes
  21. Eliot: Poems (T.S. Eliot)
  22. Cold Mountain Poems by Han Shan Translated by Gary Snyder
  23. The Dream of a Common Language, Adrienne Rich
  24. The Spring of My Life, Kobayashi Issa
  25. Narrow Road to the Interior, Basho
  26. Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems
  27. Dime Store Alchemy, Charles Simic
  28. The Complete Poems, Elizabeth Bishop
  29. Poems, Maya Angelou
  30. Allen Ginsberg, Collected Poems
  31. Lorca Collected Poems
  32. Rita Dove Collected Poems
  33. Wallace Stevens: Selected Poems
  34. The Complete Poems of Cavafy
  35. Frank O’Hara: Selected Poems
  36. Walt Whitman, Poetry and Prose
  37. The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry: Contemporary Poetry

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A Feminist Reading List

Reclining Nude. Watercolor on mixed media paper. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Reclining Nude. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “feminism” as “advocacy of equality of the sexes and the establishment of the political, social, and economic rights of the female sex.” The OED notes that feminism really took off during the French and American revolutions, when thought leaders were re-thinking various institutions; redefining the idea of the nation itself and revitalizing antiquated religious structures. Feminism focused on creating equality for women regarding the right to property, the right to vote, and a more egalitarian view of marriage. The first wave of feminism focused on granting women the right to vote, economic freedom from the marital bond, and equal rights to property. The second wave of feminism focused on social structures, like pay disparities and bias against women in cultural portrayals, in the workplace, and in various areas of social, cultural, and economic thought. The third wave of feminism focuses on the unique challenges that women of color face and brings diverse voices into the feminist fold.

Feminism is so much more than all of this. It really is a way of looking at the world. Here are some books that helped me better understand my own feminism and also helped me grow as a feminist, but if you know nothing about feminism at all and want to learn more about the subject, these books and writers also offer an excellent way in.

  1. A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
  2. Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit
  3. The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
  4. My Life on the Road, Gloria Steinem
  5. The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon
  6. The Awakening, Kate Chopin
  7. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle
  8. Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz
  9. Wild, Cheryl Strayed
  10. Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays, Joan Didion
  11. Dream of a Common Language, Adrienne Rich
  12. Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay

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Books to Read After a Breakup

Tree. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.
Tree. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

Nothing can be as world-shaking and identity-altering as your first real breakup. For me, my first breakup also happened to be my divorce, so I was dealing with not only the untangling of two lives that had become intertwined financially, socially, and spiritually, but also dealing with all the consequences that come when you get divorced young. I was just 30 years old. Your first big breakup is a unique opportunity to take stock of your life. What aspects of yourself did you sacrifice for your partner? What aspects of your life do you want to focus upon and grow? Growth can be painful, and breakups are indeed painful, but books can help us on the journey. Here are some books I read after my divorce and first big breakup that helped me get through it all.

  1. Wild, Cheryl Strayed
  2. Eat, Pray, Love. Elizabeth Gilbert
  3. Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed
  4. The Art of Asking, Amanda Palmer
  5. When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron
  6. The Places that Scare You, Pema Chodron
  7. The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin
  8. My Life on the Road, Gloria Steinem
  9. Designing Your Life, Bill Burnett & Dave Evans
  10. The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
  11. The Wisdom of Insecurity, Alan Watts
  12. You are a Badass, Jen Sincero
  13. De Profundis, Oscar Wilde
  14. Lit, Mary Karr
  15. Without, Donald Hall
  16. The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls

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Books to Make You Laugh

Octopus. Watercolor on mixed media paper. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Octopus. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

Sometimes we just need a good laugh. Of course, everyone’s sense of humor is different, and mine tends to veer toward the irreverent and the dark. That said, here are the authors and books that always make me squirt coffee out through my nose.

  1. Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris
  2. When You Are Engulfed in Flames, David Sedaris
  3. Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny Lawson
  4. Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, Amy Schumer
  5. Bossypants, Tina Fey
  6. The Fran Liebowitz Reader
  7. Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace
  8. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace
  9. The Possessed, Elif Batuman
  10. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Lawrence Sterne

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Best Adventure Books

Landscape. Watercolor on watercolor paper. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Landscape. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

I’ve lived out of my car, lived out of a tent, climbed mountains, surfed waves, and have gotten lost in the woods more times than I can count. That said, I still love a good adventure book. Here are some books that have inspired me to venture further, take more risks, and be braver.

  1. Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer
  2. Into thin Air, Jon Krakauer
  3. Barbarian Days, A Surfing Life, William Finnegan
  4. I Promise to be Good, the Letters of Arthur Rimbaud
  5. The Wave, Susan Casey
  6. Werner Herzog–A Guide for the Perplexed, Conversations with Paul Cronin
  7. Voices in the Ocean, Susan Casey
  8. Wild, Cheryl Strayed
  9. Vertigo, W.G. Sebald
  10. The Lost Art of Finding Our Way, John Edward Huth
  11. Hawaiki Rising, Sam Low
  12. Alone on the Wall, Alex Honnold
  13. Longitude, Dava Sobel
  14. Walden, Henry David Thoreau
  15. The Road, Cormack McCarthy
  16. A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit
  17. My Life on the Road, Gloria Steinem
  18. Touching the Void, Joe Simpson

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Best Science Books

Ear. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.
Ear. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

If you love discovering how the world works as much as I do, but you want to do it in a literary way, and don’t necessarily want to slog through a Physics 101 textbook, these are some well-written science books that are not only metaphorically beautiful, but world-expanding lessons on the physical and biological world. These books are foundational, not only for science, but also helped shaped the metaphors and language of the arts, the literary world, and culture as we know it. From Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem in mathematics, these books are beautifully readable, even for a poetry major like me.

  1. QED, Richard P. Feynman
  2. Relativity, Albert Einstein
  3. The Accidental Universe, Alan Lightman
  4. Black Holes and Baby Universes, Stephen Hawking
  5. Six Easy Pieces, Richard P. Feynman
  6. Awakenings, Oliver Sacks
  7. Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas R. Hofstadter
  8. Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, David Foster Wallace
  9. The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.
  10. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande
  11. On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin
  12. The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee
  13. Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
  14. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks

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Books Almost as Good as Therapy

Yorick. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.
Yorick. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

I’ve seen several therapists over the course of my life, and some therapists have been incredibly helpful. If you’re struggling with depression, anxiety, or with life challenges, a good therapist can offer personalized guidance and support that can’t be found in a book. Mental illness, bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety runs in my family and I’ve needed help coping with my own illnesses from time to time. I’ve found reading the right books coupled with therapy to be incredibly helpful. There’s nothing as beneficial as having someone to talk to for an hour or two a week, and then having a few good books to carry with you in the meantime. I’ve struggled with depression, anxiety, difficult relationships, and challenging family dynamics. These are the books that have helped me re-imagine and re-think my own trauma, my own self-limiting thought patterns, and unconscious beliefs. They have helped me grow immensely.

  1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Dummies. Forgive the title; the exercises in this book transformed my life. Seriously.
  2. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. If you’re dealing with trauma, childhood trauma, or want to learn more about how childhood upbringing impacts the way you cope with life now, this is an excellent book.
  3. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed. Sometimes you just need to hear good advice from a compassionate voice. Cheryl Strayed is that voice. I’ve cried myself to sleep over this book and found strength to go on when I didn’t know how I’d keep going thanks to Strayed’s calm and kind voice.
  4. When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi. Struggling with mortality, or a loved one’s mortality? This one is an excellent journey that takes you on one man’s search for meaning in the face of death.
  5. The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion. This is essential reading if you’re coping with grief.
  6. Braving the Wilderness, Brene Brown.
  7. Rising Strong, Brene Brown.
  8. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo. Because sometimes the thing you need to do to fix your mind is to fix your space.
  9. You are a Badass, Jen Sincero. I choose this book because even if it isn’t the very best written book on this list, it happened to be the book I was reading when I dislocated my elbow. (No I didn’t dislocate my elbow while actually reading the book; I dislocated my elbow while rock climbing, but that is neither here nor there.) The only thing I remember after the ER doctors gave me the morphine is a conversation I had with the paramedic about this book. I remember saying, “The advice is sound; I just wish the writing were better.” This is a compilation of all the self-help ideas out there. Some are a little out there, but there’s some really useful stuff here. I still stand behind my morphine-haze assessment.
  10. The Verbally Abusive Relationship, Patricia Evans.
  11. Mindsight, Daniel J. Siegel, M.D.
  12. Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel. A book that might save your relationship; at the very least, here’s one to read when going through couple’s therapy.

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Best Meditation Books

Sleeping Buddha. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.
Sleeping Buddha. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

My meditation journey has taken me from meditation groups in the Bowery to temples in the Pacific. All along the way, books have guided me and helped me grow my meditation practice. Here are some books I’ve found helpful to become more mindful:

  1. In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon
  2. The Wisdom of No Escape, Pema Chodron
  3. Unsubscribe, Josh Korda
  4. A Year to Live, Stephen Levine
  5. The Art of Stillness, Pico Iyer
  6. The Wisdom of Insecurity, Alan W. Watts
  7. The Places that Scare You, Pema Chodron
  8. Peace is Every Breath, Thich Nhat Hanh
  9. When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron
  10. The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, His Holiness the Dalai Lama
  11. Siddhartha, Herman Hesse

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Books to Help You Live Your Best Life

Birch. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.
Birch. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

Charting a course through life can be challenging. There’s no instruction manual for living, but these books have offered me some insight. For example, making decisions is tough, especially when both choices seem equally compelling. These books have helped me think about decision-making, and some have even helped me make better decisions. In other cases, these books have helped me gain the perspective I’ve needed to help me make different life choices:

  1. Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles
  2. A Year to Live, Stephen Levine
  3. Unsubscribe, Josh Korda
  4. Designing Your Life, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans
  5. The Wisdom of No Escape, Pema Chodron
  6. Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel
  7. Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed
  8. When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi
  9. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Dummies
  10. The Lost Art of Finding Our Way, John Edward Huth
  11. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo
  12. In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon
  13. Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman

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While the course of each life is distinct, many lives follow similar arcs. We start our lives as students, as members of a family. We form friendships that shape who we will become and challenge us. Our first real relationships and heartbreaks teach us lessons about love and ourselves. We are part of social groups, and are excluded from social groups, and these inclusions and exclusions shape us. We search for our place in the world. We seek adventure or security or home. We are sometimes sad, sometimes happy, sometimes looking to escape, and sometimes in need of a good laugh. Through all these seasons of life, a book, like a sturdy craft, can carry us across the waters of the unknown, can raise a mirror to our own faces, and serve as an altar whereby we can search for our deepest desires, face our darkest fears, and strive to be our best selves.

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University. She founded Sphinx Moth Press to provide more opportunities for low-income writers to have their work read and reviewed. When you buy an independently reviewed book through my Bookshop links above, you not only support local bookstores, but also this blog, a labor of love.