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20 Classic Books Everyone Should Read (or Re-Read) in 2020

There’s no doubt about it 2020, winner of the worst year in our collective lifetime goes to 2020 (and we thought it was bad when Game of Thrones ended … how naive we were). If the first six months and change of this decade have taught us anything, it is that we as people are able to grow, develop, and persevere through even the worst circumstances. One place we can learn, then, is from people who have also gone through some shit. Sure, not the same shit, but there are throughlines in life that connect us all, and it is through those that we can see connection and learn.

The Manual challenges you to read (or re-read) these essential books every man should know to navigate life. And don’t skip the poetry because you think it’s “soft.” That inclination suggests you need it more than ever. Get cozy and crack open one of these 20 must-reads for men. When you’re done, check out the best classic movies.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

I think there’s a bit of teenager Ponyboy Curtis in all of us. The boy grapples with the unfairness of tragedy and the rights and wrongs of a society he feels excluded from in this two-week glimpse into his life as a greaser. Running away with his best friend after a dangerous fight with a rival preppy gang, the Socs, Ponyboy is faced with even more heartache, while all along his hope is for peace. One of the best books we’ve ever (ever) read.

In a quote: “Stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold.”

The Metamorphoses by Ovid

The Metamorphoses by Ovid

Don’t set out to read this classic narrative poem in one fell swoop. Instead, keep this chronicle on the bedside table and open it here and there. Packed with the stories of 250 Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman myths, Ovid writes the lyrical tales of Apollo and Daphne, Mercury, Jove, Narcissus, Medusa, and more. What you’ll find is that each legend is deeply human. Subjects of circumstance, cruelty, luck, and love, driven to change into gods or monsters the way any of us would. Their stories are relatable, which is downright crazy and a little cool. It’s also good to know the backstory of these characters that are constantly reused and re-created in modern movies and books.

In a quote: “What we have been, or now are, we shall not be tomorrow”

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Looking for more like this? We’ve also made a list of the best poetry books.

There, There by Tommy Orange

There, There by Tommy Orange

“There, There” is a book that plays by its own rules. It knocks you on the ass in a way we all need to be knocked on the ass and is simply gut-wrenching. In it, Tommy Orange shifts stories and perspectives, telling 12 narratives of life as an “urban Indian.” The momentum makes it read like a thriller and once the stories converge you find yourself blown away by violence and heartache. It’s a deep (deep) dive into the stereotypes that bind Native Americans. Expect to be educated and moved in a way that leaves you swaying.

In a quote: “This was what it sounded like to make it through these hundreds of American years, to sing through them. This was the sound of pain forgetting itself in song.”

Looking for more like this? We’ve curated a list of the best short stories for a quick read.

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Dominican-American author Junot Díaz sealed our devotion as life-long readers after the 2007 release of this hilarious, brilliantly written piece of fiction. Oscar de León is a pudgy Dominican boy growing up in New Jersey and trying to balance his love of fantasy novels with falling in love and a curse that plagues his family. Rife with footnotes, science-fiction and fantasy references, comic book analogies, Spanish dialects, horror, and humor, the book shines a light on masculinity, oppression, and the importance of storytelling.

In a quote: “But if these years have taught me anything it is this: you can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in.”

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

We’ll bet you first glimpsed the vibrant red cover of Catcher in the Rye some time in high school, but don’t let your memory fool you into thinking it’s a kids book — it’s quite possibly the best coming-of-age tale in all of literature. Salinger writes of the young and relatable protagonist Holden Caulfield and his first-person commentary on the world as he struggles between embracing adulthood and hiding in his childhood memories.

In a quote: “Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.”

“Yes, sir. I know it is. I know it.”

Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game, all right — I’ll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot-shots, then what’s a game about it? Nothing. No game.

Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson

'Hell's Angels' by Hunter S. Thompson

Mescalin-lovin’ journalist and absolute literary legend Hunter S. Thompson documents from the sidecar of the baddest motorcycle club in America. An insanely up-close look at the men and women who bear the titular leather is what you’ll find in Hell’s Angels. This is a truly fun and engaging read that exemplifies what has been coined “Gonzo Journalism,” a style to describe Thompson’s wild, rolling diction. The book began as a series of magazine assignments but developed into a novel-length ride through hell and back. Totally raw and unabashed. Read. It. Now.

In a quote: “The Edge … There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.”

The Martian by Andy Weir

Ever feel out of place? Far from home? Like life is handing you one shit storm after another? Time to read The Martian by Andy Weir. Hilarious, nerdy, and thrilling, the big message of the book is how selfless people can be in serving and supporting one other. Reading the disastrous trials of American astronaut Mark Watney as he attempts to survive alone on Mars (for years!) will make you think twice about letting a traffic jam sully your attitude. A fun read but also one that leaves you wanting to be better and kinder, and to brush up on your chemistry.

In a quote: “My asshole is doing as much to keep me alive as my brain.”

Looking for more like this? We’ve put together a list of the best sci-fi books to read right now.

The Stranger by Albert Camus

An ordinary man finds himself on trial after committing a murder in one of the greatest novellas of the 20th century. A dissection of morality and the philosophy of the absurd, The Stranger is particularly relevant today as we face a world of heightened sensitivity and, perhaps, a society that makes no sense to us.

In a quote: “As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself — so like a brother, really — I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.”

Looking for more like this? We’ve curated a list of the best true crime books to obsess over.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

A story spanning 30-plus years and three generations, Toni Morrison’s brilliant rumination on cultural identity follows the life of Macon “Milkman” Dead, a young man alienated from himself and estranged from his roots. The journey that follows awakens Macon to the power of reconnecting with his past to gain personal power. The sing-song nature of Morrison’s writing makes the entire book roar.

In a quote: “You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”

The Beach by Alex Garland

Let’s be honest, classic books can take a ton of time to read because the language is dated and the story isn’t plot-driven. I’m sneaking in this kinda-sorta classic novel by Alex Garland because it’s one of the best books of the early 2000s that will resurrect your passion for reading — and that’s the goal. A young guy sets out to backpack Thailand and finds an idyllic isolated beach of fellow world travelers. Like all paradises, the perfection is short lived and death, murder, and sickness follow. Garland was directly influenced by Lord of the Flies and Heart of Darkness, so if you like this semi-classic read, head to those two books next.

In a quote: “If I’d learned one thing from traveling, it was that the way to get things done was to go ahead and do them. Don’t talk about going to Borneo. Book a ticket, get a visa, pack a bag, and it just happens.”

Looking for more like this? We’ve put together a list of the best adventure books.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I know, this book is on every must-read list and it seems so … overdone. But The Great Gatsby is damn good writing about damn important lessons that still ring true in the new ‘roaring 20s.’ Like how appearance can be deceptive, and how money can’t buy real happiness, and how to throw a damn great party. The quick story: It’s a book about an eccentric rich guy as told by his neighbor, and includes some of the greatest quotes in literature. Need to woo someone? Make a speech? Read this book with a highlighter.

In a quote: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Need something less daunting that a novel? Try letters. Dig into “Letters to a Young Poet”— a collection of 10 prophetic letters penned by the profound and gifted German-language poet, Rainer Marie Rilke. These letters were reprinted after a student sent Rilke a selection of poems to be reviewed. The response was a series of insightful, true, creative, and wise revelations by the brilliant poet on solitude, nature, sadness, and love.

In a quote: “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart … live in the question.”

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

A band of British boys is shipwrecked on an island and try to maintain order and normalcy the way governments do. As you might guess, it all goes terribly, terribly wrong. Lord of the Flies, the first novel from Golding, is a perfect glimpse at the nature of savage inclination. It’s a short read but it’s a damn good one.

In a quote: “Maybe there is a beast … maybe it’s only us.”

True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart by Thich Nhat Hanh

True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart by Thich Nhat Hanh

Don’t read Nicholas Sparks to learn about love. Instead, take your notes from Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist Zen master who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King Jr. In his small and short book, True Love, Hanh outlines simple yet profound principles on love, kindness, joy, compassion, and freedom. His approach is clear and unadorned, which is a breath of air for a book about the big L word. Offering unassuming techniques from the Buddhist tradition, this book is a fast, easy read that will change you forever.

In a quote: “… be there is the first step, and recognizing the presence of the other is the second step.”

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Sci-fi meets anti-war fiction meets psychological and sociological ruminations combust across the page in Vonnegut’s classic. Billy Pilgrim travels back and forth through time after being kidnapped by aliens. Past clashes into present and rips back to past in a disorderly timeline that stitches together Pilgrim’s life, including his time as a WWII POW. There’s more, of course, but we don’t want to ruin anything.

In a quote: “So it goes.”

Looking for more like this? We’ve put together a list of the best war novels to read.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

In our world of self-lacing Nikes, drones, and data phishing, it’s wise to take a step back from technology and open a paper-based book, by yourself, to get perspective on the state of information and tech we so mindlessly accept. You may be more cautious with your time and browsing after reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and that is a good thing. Largely set in a futuristic World State of genetically modified citizens and an intelligence-based social hierarchy, the book anticipates huge scientific developments in reproductive technology, sleep-learning, psychological manipulation, and classical conditioning that are combined to make a utopian society. This “perfect” world is challenged by an outsider. Grab the audiobook narrated by Michael York and explore the dynamics of technology, power, identity, isolation, and true freedom.

In a quote: “I want to know what passion is. I want to feel something strongly.”

A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis

Legendary British writer and theologian C.S. Lewis ruminates on loss in the short and deeply honest book, A Grief Observed. You probably recognize his name from The Chronicles of Narnia series, but we much prefer this book, especially for any man who has loved, lost, and wants to make sense of life on the other side of grief. Lewis wrote this book following the death of his wife and originally used a fake name before finally stamping his own on the cover. Yes, much of the thoughts involve emotional feeling, but Lewis is equally as interested in the process of the brain and thoughts amid loss, with almost scientific dissection. This is a suggested read for any human being on the planet, especially those in mourning.

In a quote: “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.”

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

This story takes you from Afghanistan in the final days of the monarchy to the present, charting the friendship between two boys growing up in Kabul. Raised in the same household and sharing the same wet nurse, Amir and Hassan grow up in different worlds: Amir is the son of a prominent and wealthy man while Hassan, the son of Amir’s father’s servant, is a Hazara, a shunned ethnic minority. Their intertwined lives and fates reflect the eventual tragedy of the world around them. Read this because male friendships are important and it brings a whole new meaning to “dem boys.” You can also opt for the amazing audiobook version narrated by Khaled Hosseini himself.

In a quote: “There is a way to be good again …”

My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard

'My Struggle' by Karl Ove Knausgaard

One reviewer put it like this: “Reading My Struggle is like opening someone else’s diary and finding your own secrets.” Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard has created a sensation with his My Struggle series that is six books and 3,600 pages long. The books have been translated into 22 languages and yet remain somewhat of an underground secret here in the U.S. Written as autobiographical fiction, there are no chapters or breaks within the novels to signal a place to stop and take a breath. For that purpose, you never want to put it down. Each book details a specific time in Knausgaard’s life, from marriage to boyhood to college, etc., and while these memories are highly specific, the honesty, fear, hubris, and sheer relatability is mind-blowing. (We’re on book four right now and don’t plan on stopping.) Take a deeper look at yourself and find acceptance even in your worst moments.

In a quote: “For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops.”

Bonus:

Your Car’s Manual

Peter Muller/Getty Images

Yep, that dusty book in your glove compartment. Come on, bring it out and get to know your car better. So, it’s not exactly “literature” but it’ll teach you something that will come in handy. We promise that.

In a quote: “Brakes … clutch … cooling.”

Article originally published January 9, 2018. Updated in 2019 to include an updated list for the year. Keep reading!

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