woman-holding-book
Getty Images

29 Books That Will Enrich Your Inner Literati

Mar 24, 2015
Ideas

Answer by Cristina Hartmann on Quora.

Correction appended, March 31

For anyone who wants to attain the vaunted title of "being well-read," it's more about breadth than depth. (As for feeling well-read, read the postscript.)

To "feel" well-read in literature, it's all about the categories, not the books themselves. Read a few books in a few different genres, time periods, points of views. I've thrown in a few controversial books, just so you know what all of the fuss is about.

Sign up for THE BRIEF and more. View Sample

Here's how you can feel like a regular literati!:

Western Classics (Ancient & Modern): to give you a good foundation for the who's who of Western literature.

  • The Odyssey (Homer): epic of a dude who just can't get home without a little help from the gods. (Extra credit if you read the Iliad, too!)
  • A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens): the quintessential story of the French Revolution, love, and longing.
  • Pride & Prejudice (Jane Austen): the story that started the "hate at first sight turning into love" trope.
  • Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy): Very long. Very melodramatic. Very Russian. Very classic!

Dystopia: the stuff of our worst fears and nightmares.

  • Nineteen-Eighty-Four (George Orwell): the book that introduced "doublethink" into our lexicon.
  • Brave New World (Aldous Huxley): another classic dystopia. Gammas, Deltas, oh my!
  • The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood): a feminist spin on the genre.

Science Fiction & Fantasy: we can't overlook the geeky cousin of the classics, can we?

  • The Lord of the Rings series (J.R.R. Tolkien): this guy made the epic (also called high) fantasy genre. Be warned, it's a bit of a dry read.
  • The Foundation series (Issac Asimov): some of the pioneering stories in science fiction, natch!
  • Neuromancer (William Gibson): here's something a bit more modern. Plus, you just can't beat “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel" as a snappy first line.

Great American Novels: these zeitgeist works practically defined a time period of U.S. history.

  • The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald): you can't think of the Jazz Age without thinking of "old sport."
  • Bonfire of Vanities (Tom Wolfe): the terrible movie nonwithstanding, this book captured the self-indulgence of the 80s NYC crowd.
  • The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck): I dare you to get into a conversation about the Great Depression without thinking of this book. I dare you.

Literary Heavy Hitters: books that make people go "Whoa, dude!" when you say that you've read them.

  • Ulysses (James Joyce): stream-of-consciousness writing plus an unhealthy sexual obsession with an orphan with a limp equal literary greatness. True story.
  • Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace): fractals, man! Fractals!
  • Gravity's Rainbow (Thomas Pynchon): lots of stuff happens that a lot of people pretend to understand.

LIST: The 100 Best Young Adult Books of All Time

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Buy here) By Sherman Alexie. A coming-of-age novel (illustrated by Ellen Forney) illuminates family and heritage through young Arnold Spirit, torn between his life on a reservation and his largely white high school. The specifics are sharply drawn, but this novel, with its themes of self-discovery, speaks to young readers everywhere.Little, Brown
Best Children's Books: The Wind in the Willows
The Fault in Our StarsBy John Green. Hazel, a 16-year-old cancer patient whose prognosis is dim, has her life transformed when she falls in love with a young man she meets at a support group.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Buy here) By Sherman Alexie. A coming-of-age novel (illustrated by Ell
... VIEW MORE

Little, Brown
1 of 100

Popular Fiction: those guilty indulgences that everyone has read (but won't necessarily admit to it). Warning: this is U.S.-centric, feel free to indulge in your country's guilty pleasures.

  • A Song of Ice and Fire series (George R. R. Martin): hey, there's a popular HBO miniseries about it!
  • The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins): better than Twilight.
  • Fifty Shades of Grey (E.L. James): be torn between hilarity and despair in this BDSM spin-off of a Twilight fan fiction. Who knows, maybe this'll spice up the bedroom.

Immigrant Experience (U.S./U.K.): ah, the magical experience of being thrust into a new culture.

  • Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri): say hello to our recent Indian arrivals! (For our tea-drinking cousins across the pond, try Monica Ali'sBrick Lane.)
  • Joy Luck Club (Amy Tan): the book that inspired a movie and furor in the Asian American community about stereotypes and Tan's possible self-loathing. (For a less controversial read, try Ha Jin's Waiting--and yes, there's a lot of longing and waiting there.)
  • How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (Julia Alvarez): how four sisters start to forget their Spanish and their native homeland of the Dominican Republic.

Non-Western Classics (Ancient): if Westerners get theirs, so should the rest of the world.

  • Ramayana (India): this is THE Hindu epic. Full stop.
  • Romance of the Three Kingdoms (China): a bit of Chinese history, highly romanticized and dramatized. Kind of like "A World Turns."

Non-Western Classics (Modern): the stuff that you should read to feel worldly and well-read. (More applicable if you're from the U.S. or Western Europe.)

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez): this novel single-handedly legitimatized Latin American literature in modern times. Too bad you don't know who he's talking about half of the time.
  • To Live (Yu Hua): getting banned in China just adds to its street cred.
  • Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe): the sad tale of colonialism in Africa. Definitely merits a frowny-face.

Satire: throw in a little giggle into your reading list.

  • Cat's Cradle (Kurt Vonnegut): some say Slaughterhouse-Five is his best, I say this one. Also: Bokononism!
  • Catch-22 (Joseph Heller): come and see what the catch-22 is. I promise you, it's gorgeously ironic.
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams): you kill two birds with two stones here: sci-fi and satire. Whee!

This is where I reach the end of my endurance. I haven't even gotten into the non-fiction stuff, but alas ... I must eat.

With this list, you'll feel like you can dominate the Trivial Pursuit literature section! Life is good.

Postscript: since this question is more about sentiment than reality ... I hate to break it to you, but if you're truly a well-read person, you will never feel well-read. They're always on the lookout for their next book—that category that they're missing—to add to their impressive list. It's a Sisyphean goal, really.

If you feel well-read, you're probably not.

This question originally appeared on Quora: What books should one read to feel well-read?

More from Quora:

Read next: 15 Life-Changing Books You Can Read in a Day

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the title of the book Things Fall Apart.


Ideas
TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.
All products and services featured are based solely on editorial selection. TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.