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 its “soft.” That inclination suggests you need it more than ever. Get cozy and crack open one of these 19 must-reads for men.
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.
Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac
Let the rhythmic cacophony of Kerouac rattle in your brain. Let go of reason and logic, because it doesn’t always help make sense of things. Reading Desolation Angels is like falling back into a crowd of hitchhiking winos who want to see and experience only the beauty and enlightenment in this world — that drive toward the heart and pulse and meaning of all this is contagious. Kerouac writes a largely autobiographical account (although coined as fiction) of a man who works at a desolate fire post in the mountains then hitchhikes his way through Oregon, California, and Mexico. If you’ve never read Kerouac, buckle up. There is no other writer who can reach into your veins and pump them with feeling without making grammatical sense on the page such as him. This is a staple for any man who needs to feel more, give more, and open his eyes to the world.
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 story-telling.
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. 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
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.
1984 by George Orwell
Perhaps the most essential to re-read today, 1984 sets stage in an oppressive futuristic society monitored by the ever-watching Big Brother. Protagonist Winston Smith goes to work every day at the Ministry of Truth, where he rewrites and distorts history. However, Smith decided to begin a diary — an action punishable by death. Amid modern-day data mining, the threat to Net Neutrality, and lunatic leaders, we cannot forget the toll of tyranny and totalitarianism.
The Stranger by Albert Camus
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Try this: Take the novel on a long, boring, or otherwise dreaded journey. Close the last page a changed man (it’s that phenomenal) with a new outlook on struggle and bonds. Set in Yukon, Canada, during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush, London writes of Buck, a dog that is abducted and forced into the chaos and brutality of frontier life. In a word: rugged. Secretly: a tear-jerker.
The Poetry of Pablo Neruda
If you need an “excuse” to read some of the best love poems ever written about oceans and women and the earth, say you’re brushing up on your dating one-liners. But the words by Chilean poet, diplomat, and politician Pablo Neruda are so much more than kindling. They are pure fire and combustion. This book will wake up your soul. It also mends broken hearts.
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.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Another assigned high school read you probably didn’t appreciate when you were sixteen, it’s time to revisit the ambling of George Milton and Lennie Small, migrant workers who search for jobs throughout California amid The Great Depression. And with all great novels, it’s been banned time and again for its mention of violence, swearing, racism, sexism, the works, but it’s an essential commentary on the nature of The American Dream, the dichotomy of strength and weakness, and the loneliness of isolation.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie
This book is an uncovered view of Native American life through the eyes of young men fighting to break the chain of alcoholism, poverty, and tragedy. The most bare and artful rendering of life on a reservation and the conflict of Native American identity, Alexie’s book of short stories is quilted with surrealism, dreams, poetry, diary entries, and prose. If you haven’t looked into this world, you ought to.
Your Car’s Manual
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!