100 Must-Read Books: The Essential Man’s Library

by A Manly Guest Contributor on May 14, 2008 · 1,239 comments

in Books, Travel & Leisure

Written by: Jason Lankow, Ross Crooks, Joshua Ritchie, and Brett McKay


Photo by the nonist

There are the books you read, and then there are the books that change your life. We can all look back on the books that have shaped our perspective on politics, religion, money, and love. Some will even become a source of inspiration for the rest of your life. From a seemingly infinite list of books of anecdotal or literal merit, we have narrowed down the top 100 books that have shaped the lives of individual men while also helping define broader cultural ideas of what it means to be a man.

Whether it be a book on adventure, war, or manners, there is so much to learn about life’s great questions from these gems. Let us know in the comments which of these you loved, hated, and the books that meant a lot to you and should have made the list (you can even get really indignant about your favorite book). And without further ado, this is our list.

To see a list of just the titles and authors names for easy printing, click here.

Amazon Listmania: The Essential Man’s Library Part I

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Set on the East Coast in the roaring ’20s, this American novel is a classic. From it we learn that often the wanting of something is better than actually having it. It is relevant to every man’s life. Furthermore, one true friend is worth infinitely more than a multitude of acquaintances.

“He smiled understandingly-much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles… It faced–or seemed to face–the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.”

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

Considered by most to be the authoritative text on statesmanship and power (how to obtain it as well as an illustration of its trappings), although certainly a shrewd one.

“From this arises an argument: whether it is better to be loved than feared. I reply that one should like to be both one and the other; but since it is difficult to join them together, it is much safer to be feared than to be loved when one of the two must be lacking.”

Essentially, Machiavelli advocates letting your people have their property and women, but making sure that they know what you are capable of doing if they step out of line.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-five by Kurt Vonnegut

Through the beloved Billy Pilgrim, we see the central themes of Vonnegut’s humanism along with his satirical take on how disgusting it is when humans don’t use their (limited) free will to prevent simple atrocities. A great example of how we use humor to deal with hardship, and the conflict between the way heroism is conveyed through stories for actions in situations that perhaps could have been avoided altogether.

“So then I understood. It was war that made her so angry. She didn’t want her babies or anybody else’s babies killed in wars. And she thought wars were partly encouraged by books and movies.”

1984 by George Orwell

1984

If you are already worried about the information that your computer is collecting from you, re-read this one and you will feel much better! Or, perhaps, you will throw your computer in a river. This is the classic text for the will of the individual to maintain his privacy and free will, and how easy it is at the end of it all to just try to blend in and go with the flow to avoid making things even worse by speaking out.

“But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”

The Republic by Plato

Since every man can use a fair portion of philosophy in his literary diet, the origin of legitimate western thought might be a good place to start. Plato’s most well known work breaks down topics of which you should have a fundamental understanding such as government, justice, and political theory.

Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The final work of Dostoevsky (commonly accepted English spelling of the name) has a lot of meat to chew on…it strikes at the core of who we are and what drives us. Ultimately, for all of our strength and wisdom as individuals, we are often frustrated by our failures to do what we know we must do (or at least think we should do) and need the power of forgiveness in our lives. Many important thinkers consider this to be one of (if not the most) important masterpiece of literature, including Sigmund Freud and Franz Kafka (who did not think quite alike, to say the least).

“So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find some one to worship.”

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Holden Caufield, if nothing else, should serve as a point of reference for the angst and cynicism that you perhaps once had, or ideally never had. If you thought like him when you were 16 or 17 years old, you are forgiven. If you still identify with him, you need to find some more joy, somehow…fake it ’til you make it. Do something.

The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith

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The fundamental work on free market policies: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” Want an education in economics? This book is a great start.

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Set in the Spanish Civil War, this novel explores who man becomes when faced with the prospect of his own death. It is worthwhile for all of us to consider what we would give our lives for, as this defines what and who we truly love. This is one of the great examples of how war has shaped men, past and present, and has in part defined the image of a true hero who is courageous even when it has brutal consequences.

“You learned the dry-mouthed, fear-purged purging ecstasy of battle and you fought that summer and that fall for all the poor in the world against all tyranny, for all the things you believed in and for the new world you had been educated into.”

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Arguably the best work from the ever-quotable Wilde, this novel is a guide for how to live a life of pure decadence. It is packed with impeccable wit, clever one-liners, and an excessive amount of egotistical vanity. At the very least, this book will show you the glory and the pitfalls of being the best looking chap around.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

One of the most controversial books of its time, the Joads are “Okies” who head west to the fertile valleys of California during the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. Because of the social solutions that the book proposed, and its depiction of work camp conditions, some groups attacked the novel as communist propaganda. However, it was widely read as a result of the national attention, and is a classic example of a man doing what he had to do for his family and persevering through all plights and conditions.

“Fear the time when the strikes stop while the great owners live – for every little beaten strike is proof that the step is being taken…fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe.”

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

With a revolutionary and controversial view of the future, Huxley’s satiric take on the “utopia” of tomorrow has provoked reader’s thoughts for decades. Depictions of genetically enhanced embryos predisposed to a specific social class cast warning signs for technological interference with human life.

How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie

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This is not a Dr. Phil self-help book. Citing intimate examples from the likes of Rockefeller, Charles Schwab, and FDR, this comprehensive guide is all about how to get ahead in business, relationships, and life. Read one chapter a day for the rest of your life. It will make you a far better man than you would ever be without it.

Call of the Wild by Jack London

The tale of a domesticated dog forced to adapt to a life of work in Alaska during the Yukon gold rush. Most of us can recall rooting for Buck in the ferocious battle to be the leader of the pack. Make sure that you embrace the benefits of competition to push yourself to become better in your work, but do it without biting and/or killing co-workers.

“…men, groping in the Arctic darkness, had found a yellow metal…These men wanted dogs, and the dogs they wanted were heavy dogs, with strong muscles by which to toil, and furry coats to protect them from the frost.”

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt shows what made Theodore Roosevelt the great man he was. Reading this book will inspire you to get off the couch and start moving in your life. Harvard graduate, New York Assemblyman, rancher, historian, author of several books, New York City Police Commissioner, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, and commanding officer of the Rough Riders are all titles that TR had before he became president at 42.

Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss

Every boy can stand to learn a bit of old fashioned resourcefulness from their pops. Finding yourself on a deserted island is surely the way to learn these skills in a hurry. Tree forts, treasure hunting, and constant adventure mark the Swiss Family’s 10-year run. Lesson number one? Shipwrecks make for some good literature.

Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

An idealistic vision from the man who fueled the Beat Generation, a life on the road without concern for wealth or even stability, rather an enjoyment of surroundings, whatever they may be. This is a great book for reminding us to get away from technology, at least for a day, to appreciate nature and some of the more simple pleasures of life. Don’t feel inferior to the beatniks if you still like driving your car…don’t ever let hipsters give you guilt trips.

“I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all. The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream…”

The Iliad and Odyssey of Homer

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(2-for-1 special) Though the authorship is disputed, the place of these two epics in the man canon is not. Roughly based around the events of the Trojan War, these poems are likely a great collection of common Greek folklore surrounding the events in those days of fierce political turmoil. It is rumored that there were 10 epics in all, and 8 were lost over time. This may be a blessing in disguise, because, if they were around, you would never get to the rest of this list.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

The logic here is simple: any book which has the influence to have coined terminology commonly used in our society for decades on end should be perused based solely on principle. Nothing is worse than a man being caught using language of which he is unfamiliar with its proper meaning or origin. Also, it is a great book.

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

A bit of isolation never hurt any man. Thoreau spent two years, two months and two days writing this book in Walden, a cabin tucked deep in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts. This work of non-fiction describes the changing of the seasons over the course of a year and was intended to give the author an escape from society in order to achieve a more objective point of view. A real man would take this sabbatical himself, but the book should suffice for those of you who are employed.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

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Primal instincts. With only the most basic of needs to consider, human nature takes a different approach. A fictional study of the struggle for power and the unspeakable things that man (or child) will do when taken outside the order of civilization.

The Master and Margarita by by Mikhail Bulgakov

There is nothing more manly than a bout with the Devil. An entertaining commentary on the atheistic social bureaucracy in Moscow in the 1930s wherein Lucifer himself pays the town a visit to make light of their skepticism regarding the spiritual realm.

“As a result he decided to abandon the main thoroughfares and make his way through the side streets and back alleys where people were less nosy, and there was less chance that a barefoot man would be pestered about long johns that stubbornly refused to look like trousers.”

Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut

Written as the autobiography of Rabo Karabekian, of course with Vonnegut’s own war experiences drawn upon as inspiration to the aging artist who narrates his own story. It is a hilarious take on abstract art, and takes jabs at both the inflated self-importance of the artist and the people who simply refuse to look beneath the surface.

“My soul knows my meat is doing bad things, and is embarrassed. But my meat just keeps right on doing bad, dumb things.”

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Exploring the “virtue” of living for ourselves, this monster of a book (1,084 pages in my version) is certainly worth plowing through as it is simply a great story. The fundamental concept is that our world falls apart when individuals stop seeking their own satisfaction through personal achievement and feel a sense of entitlement to the accomplishments and work of others. This book challenges us on many levels…you may find it conflicting with your value of other people, her treatment of God, or any other beliefs you already hold. Yet, who can argue with, “The most depraved type of human being … (is) the man without a purpose.”

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Photo by Celeste

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

None of us want this to happen. Well, most of us don’t. Kafka employed terms from law and politics, and was always concerned about some vague, oppressive bureaucracy that sought his ruin, though seeming cool and detached. We can take something from the very approach of Kafka to his work and find a balance between reading too much meaning into an event and, on the contrary, caring too little and being completely disillusioned.

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{ 1216 comments… read them below or add one }

1201 Shmyt March 2, 2014 at 1:31 am

I find it would be prudent to make my recommendations before discussing the article’s:
I would say Joseph Conrad’s works are a must have (if they seem boring when you read the back cover just remember they inspired Apocalypse Now).
The Wizard’s First Rule (Terry Goodkind) is the epitome of a great story.
Forever Peace (the spiritual sequel by Joe Haldeman) is excellent and gives a very provoking discussion on war, peace, free will and what they cost.
Neuromancer by William Gibson is a rather small rather difficult to understand book that is an absolute must read.
A Song Of Ice And Fire (yeah…Game of Thrones, the hype is not for nothing, it is an amazing series of novels).
A good Russian author is Yevgeny Zamyatin, his novel We is the forerunner of dystopian literature and a great comment on society.
The full Lord of The Rings trilogy; the hobbit is a good start but it is only a small one; the full trilogy is a wonderful read for any age or degree of manliness.
Dune by Frank Herbert is THE science fiction book to read, if you read only one more fiction book choose dune for its amazing commentary on politics and religion framed with action, intrigue and philosophy (well not just one more, you will be compelled to read the sequels).
Along with the Illiad and Oddysea you should read one of the classic english epic tales: Beowulf
Grendel (John Gardener) it is beowulf from the perspective of the monster, masterfully written and serves as a complete how not to think or live your life guide with humor and philosophy abundant.
The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin; you need to know it, everyone does, it is the basis for so much scientific knowledge and research it would be foolish to leave it off of your reading list.
Mercy Among the Children David Adams Richards) this book will test you and might make you very angry or sad, a good read and some good philosophical points.

on Frankenstein: please stop giving everything the holywood green man with bolts in his neck portrayal; at its core Frankenstein is a novel at the very beginning of science fiction asking “what if?” then it shows you the answers; what if a man can be made by a man from men? what would that man be and what would that make me?
Atlas shrugged: I have read nearly every Ayn Rand novel i can find without troubling myself and i detest her work, it seems like a roadmap of a story where you follow along and go”yes yes i understand that” followed by “interesting point, elaborate?” then “hmmm i don’t know about this” “oh yes, that is logical, what?! how dare they!” “that doesn’t make much sense” “okay we are back on track” “wait, what? why did this just end with ‘therefore be a dick to anybody you want.’?” and to 1200 the answer is we fail to see her point because she does not make one that works; simply because stalinist russia was the opposite of what she advises does not make her ideal scenario any better than the USSR.
To kill a mockingbird: you hit the nail on the head with this one; too few people see the ‘n’ word in it too many times and drop it; it is a great work and an absolute must read on the need for good men to step up against all odds.
The Great Gatsby; must read, for anyone, male female, idiot or genius; it is the book that sums up the post war era and it is worth noting that the insights into the life of the rich is one meant to guide and warn, not to tempt.

I could go on much longer but i realise this comment will likely be deleted or lost to time so i’d rather not.

1202 Kyle March 2, 2014 at 4:35 pm

This article sure pushed some serious buttons with the lefties didn’t it? I agree with Marshall that the Ayn Rand haters missed the point of her philosophy and in my opinion those that think she’s a terrible writer are probably just terrible readers and not up to the challenge.

For the sake of adding something of value to the discussion though here are a few books I recommend at every opportunity:

Liberty Defined by Ron Paul
The Fairtax Book by Neil Boortz
The Real Lincoln by Thomas DiLorenzo

They’re all somewhat political in nature but great reads that have been very eye opening and influential in my life. I would also like to suggest much of the work by Milton Friedman and Noam Chomsky for those interested in developing thought patterns beyond the spoon-fed dribble of state-guided media that we have today.

1203 Bobby March 5, 2014 at 11:39 am

I’m suprised how lists like these always leave out A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burguess. Great book about maturity and becoming a man. Make sure you get the English/Unabridged version with 21 chapters (his american editor convinced him to cut out the 21st and most important chapter).

1204 C March 7, 2014 at 8:08 pm

Great list and I love that everyone shares their favorites…Here’s mine: Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry.

1205 Casper March 17, 2014 at 6:29 pm

It is a great list. If there is one book I could add it would be A Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

1206 Michael March 19, 2014 at 1:58 pm

Great post. Since this is for men, an must read is: Wild at Heart written by John Eldredge.

1207 Chris Meservey March 20, 2014 at 2:05 pm

Great list and I was suprised to realize I read a good number of these as a youth. I was happy to see one of my favorite books of all time on there – The Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. Such a good read. In the spirit of adding a reccomendation I recently read “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson. A first hand account of a middle aged mans attempt at walking the entire length of the appalachian trail. A great read.

1208 rumspringa March 21, 2014 at 1:44 am

…because it’s just silly to think that a man’s life could be changed by too many female authors! I’m a voracious reader–a college English teacher, even–and a woman who grew up as a reader with The Cider House Rules (John Irving seems like a pretty glaring omission if you’re going to go all butch, btw). Three female authors really makes for an incomplete list. And what in the world is with the TR obsession? Yeah, an interesting life (I bought my Frye boots in part because they’re what he had the rough riders wear.) but seriously, there are other presidents.

1209 Gil March 25, 2014 at 9:02 am

Johnny got his gun.

I too read Atlas Shrugged, and I was deeply moved and saw the world in a different way. But then I turned 15 and realized that I wasn’t the only person on earth.

1210 JLV March 26, 2014 at 9:06 pm

I am wondering why The Old Man and the Sea didn’t make this list.

1211 Juan March 27, 2014 at 1:49 am

I might have missed it, but what about Thucydides’ “The History of the Peloponnesian War?”

1212 Loukay March 31, 2014 at 3:11 pm

Young Men and Fire

1213 Evan S. March 31, 2014 at 10:32 pm

Well, at age 16 I’m glad to have at least read 14 of the books on the list, but I do need to buckle down and continue my literary education. I was glad to see The Art of War, and suggest adding Tao te Ching, The Old Man and the Sea, The Trial and Death of Socrates, The Poetic Edda and Gates of Fire to the list.

1214 Evan S. March 31, 2014 at 10:35 pm

Also forgot to mention Noam Chomsky…his work has influenced my political philosophy more than any other thinker.

1215 Derek C April 7, 2014 at 7:26 pm

Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are great books. I agree that her “philosophy” can be tough to swallow, but I also agree that most of our motives boil down to selfishness/self interest. If you are completely honest with yourself, you have to agree.

It is hard to add to this list, most of my favorite books are on here.
How about Beowulf. It is a great story, and one of the oldest examples of european folklore and story telling. A glimpse into pre-christian european history.

1216 Daniel April 8, 2014 at 7:06 pm

they should add Think and grow rich by Napolean Hill to this list

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