What You Read When You Don’t Have To

Someone I know is leaving soon to take a job in a foreign country. He will be away for a long time, and wanted to stock up on books (ebooks, actually, on his Kindle) before leaving. I did a little reader’s advisory interview, and he said he had read and enjoyed fantasy and sci-fi in the past but wasn’t much of a reader otherwise and was looking to expand. Here’s what I recommended, with occasional genre/subject/additional works notes in parentheses (forgive me for not putting each title into italics):

Classic dystopia
1984, George Orwell
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
Anthem, Ayn Rand
The Giver, Lois Lowry (and sequels Gathering Blue and Messenger; YA)
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood

Classic fantasy/sci-fi
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
His Dark Materials (trilogy: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass), Philip Pullman (YA)
A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle (also: A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters; YA)
Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman (fantasy)

Contemporary Literary Fiction
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (comic books, history; Pulitzer Prize)
High Fidelity, Nick Hornby (music)
The Prince of Tides (and/or The Lords of Discipline), Pat Conroy (the South, violence, families)
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski (dogs)
The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver (missionary family in Africa)
The Brothers K, David James Duncan (brothers, baseball)
Faithful Place, Tana French (mystery/suspense)
This Is Where I Leave You, Jonathan Tropper (crazy families, funny)
A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini (Afghanistan)
Edited to add (4/13/12): Life of Pi, Yann Martel
Edited to add (4/13/12): The Septembers of Shiraz, Dalia Sofer (Iran)

Classic American Literature
East of Eden, John Steinbeck
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (though English was the author’s third language)
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway
Ordinary People, Judith Guest

The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson
The World Without Us, Alan Weisman
A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan

The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester
Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer (also Into the Wild and Into Thin Air)
Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand (also Seabiscuit)
In Cold Blood, Truman Capote (true crime)
How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill
The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell (Massachusetts Bay Colony)
In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson (American family in Germany, pre-WWII)

Popular Psychology
The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell
How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer

The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami
On Writing, Stephen King
Charles & Emma, Deborah Heiligman (YA)

Manhood for Amateurs, Michael Chabon
How To Be Alone, Jonathan Franzen
The Polysyllabic Spree, Nick Hornby (books/music)
-anything you can find by Ann Patchett, including The Getaway Car and This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

The title of this post borrows from an Oscar Wilde quote, “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” Feel free to add additional recommendations in the comments.

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