Experts say that reading a little bit every day can help improve cognitive function. In addition to being enlightening, reading is a source of entertainment which is a different experience for every individual. Unsure what to read? Here are 10 of my favorite books to get you started!
10. The Madman’s Daughter Series (Fiction)
Even as a teenager, I didn’t particularly like reading young adult fiction, oftentimes because the stories never held any resonance with my interests. However, The Madman’s Daughter by Megan Shepherd (like a few others mentioned in this post) easily wound its way into my favorites list for a few reasons.
The first is that it is a re-imagining of haunting tales I loved all through my childhood, such as The Island of Dr. Moreau, (H. G. Wells), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson) and Frankenstein (Mary Shelley). However, I hesitate to call them re-tellings – because Shepherd brings something new and enticing to each volume of the trilogy which both echoes the literary past but also looks into the future.
The second reason is that our protagonist, Juliet, is a spirited yet conflicted girl who faces struggles with her identity and who she is in relation to her notorious family. I loved reading this because the protagonist was fantastical yet realistic, and while I doubt I will ever find myself stranded on an island running away from monsters, I already know the feeling of sorting out one’s identity in the midst of a world always trying to tell you who you are.
The third reason is that this is a heart-stopping love story, too – but let’s give it a closer look. Although the male leads (there is a love-triangle, but hey, Shepherd pulls it off) are important to the main story, they don’t overshadow Juliet’s plight. Unlike other young adult so-called romances, once the male lead enters the picture, he is not a bounce board for Juliet’s story, and we know as readers that it will continue with or without him. There is also a great amount of conflict between the protagonist and her male friends, which makes it obvious that she will not go along with whatever they say simply because they are potential love interests.
Furthermore, this series is definitely around the teen-girl age but it’s one I’ve read and re-read countless times even past the teen-girl stage. It’s fun, adventurous, and whimsical, but it also explores difficult themes about coming-of-age and discovering who you really are.
9. A Darker Shade of Magic (Fiction)
Although you should never judge a book by its cover, V. E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series has a disarming set – each cover is beautiful and, though abstract, enticing for even the pickiest reader (like myself). Without the cover, I don’t think I would have picked up the first book, which, I guess, shows my own faults as a reader. But I’m glad I did, because this is another series that I think will stay with me for a lifetime.
Another exception to my “no YA” rule, Shades of Magic is, in fact, young adult fiction, but there is something about it which appeals to older audiences as well. Perhaps it is the swash-buckling characters, the moody princes, or the devilish villains – or maybe it’s the fact that it’s written so incredibly well it’s difficult to believe. I fell in love with this series somewhere around page three of the first book, but let’s not stop there.
Although my sister and I argue whether or not the plot is substantial and meaningful (I guess it could be said that action is lacking in some manner) I think this is one of those character-driven books that I’ll read even if the plot is completely non-existent. That’s what gets this series into my #9 spot: you will not forget the characters. Each one is vibrant and multi-dimensional, which I appreciate as a reader and envy as a writer. Not only that, but they have backstories which are relevant to the plot and, instead of wanting to skip through them to get back to the action (guilty as charged) I can’t help but go back and read them several times.
In addition to this, one of the characters is a strong female lead – another lead which has sympathy and gentleness, but is also strong in the face of battle and has her own little quirks that set her apart from the rest of the characters. Although there is a love story here, it is compelling instead of impeding, and the friction it causes between the characters forces them into action, making it almost necessary. Our female lead is not a damsel in distress (except once, but it’s great, and you’ll have to read it to find out) in any way, and her bull-headedness is, perhaps, one of her most endearing qualities.
But no spoilers here. All I can say is that it focuses on magic and a totally enchanting world of multi-dimensions, ancient enemies, and beautiful locations I wish actually existed. Want to know more? Why not check the book out at your local library?
8. Dracula (Fiction)
A true classic in every regard, Dracula by Bram Stoker set the stage for years of vampire-lore to come. Yet what makes this book stand out, even so many decades after its initial publishing? And why is it one of the books I profess to love more than any other on my shelf?
Well, the first is that it is the original – everything else is the remix (just a joke here, there are plenty of awesome vampire stories after Dracula). But what I want to emphasize is this: almost everyone I’ve talked to about it doesn’t actually know the story of Dracula. They think they do, but they’ve never read the book. That’s frustrating. And it was this same frame of mind which prevented me from reading the book for many, many years. Why?
Because I thought it was boring.
I admit: I judged the book by other people’s opinions of it (including those who had never even read the darn thing). But then I thought to myself, “do I actually know anything about this?”
Nope. I didn’t. Not at all.
So I picked it up, and I began to read.
Unfortunately, I fell in love with a story I thought I knew but ended up being totally surprising. As it turns out, there are many many parts of the story no one ever talks about, or have been forgotten completely. We all know the names Van Helsing and Mina Murray, but who on earth is Quincey Morris? John Seward? Renfield?
Some of you may be smacking your foreheads right now. But I’ll be honest: I had no idea who these people were prior to reading the book, and I thought I knew all about the tired narrative surrounding the most famous vampire ever. So you can imagine my surprise when I read it and discovered that I loved them all.Ever since then, I can’t really watch anything about Dracula the vampire unless it has all of my lovely fictional friends (which means almost everything, because even if we include Jonathan Harker, John Seward and even Renfield, we almost always exclude Quincey Morris, which is a real shame).
But there’s more.
This book is an adventure, yes. It’s breathtaking and quite scary and unusual in every aspect. But even without the plot, it is another one of those books which I would read even if it was the most boring piece of fiction out there, because the characters are just that good. We have gentle Mina, brave even though Dracula has chosen her as his victim. We have Jonathan Harker, the confused but determined protagonist, who loves Mina so much that he would do anything for her. And then John Seward, who sticks around even after being rebuffed by his own love interest, just for the sake of defeating the vampire who is sucking the life out of his dear friend Mina. We have Van Helsing, the smart and curious doctor who seems to be the only one who knows anything about anything. And QUINCEY MORRIS who no one knows about but is the best character of them all (and, if I remember, a Texan, which makes him even more hilarious. Cowboys and vampires. Who knew?)
All these characters bond together to defeat a common enemy, and even though one of them dies (I cried, very much) they all come out victorious. Yay for the heroes.
But here’s another thing.
Unlike in modern vampire stories, Dracula isn’t romanticized. There is nothing glamorous about being a vampire. In fact, it is horrible. It is terrifying. As we see through the character Renfield, it is a fate worse than death. And these brave characters all risk that to save one woman: three of them, believe it or not, platonically. There is just something about this book which makes a person fall in love with old-school chivalry.
The best part? Mina isn’t weak and helpless. She’s sick. She’s dying. And after fighting on her own, her buddies team up to finish the war she’s fighting against Dracula. Talk about true friends.
Did you know about any of this? I feel so lied to. Still haven’t read it yet? Get reading! There’s no time to lose!
7. The Goldfinch (Fiction)
I’m going to be honest here: when I picked up The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, I hated it. In fact, I hated it through most of the book. I was bored. I was disgusted. For a lot of the time, I was seriously grossed out. The main character spends most of his time drunk, high, or in bad company – and though one of those things may make him a sympathetic character, throwing them all together created an unlikable protagonist who made me what to bang my head against a wall every time he opened his mouth. Not to mention that this book is riddled with calamity. Every step of the way is disaster and heartbreak and a bleak picture of America which not many people want to see. So how did this book make it into my list? What makes me want to read it again? Glad you asked.
The sheer size of the book makes it a daunting one to read, and I think this is the only reason I picked it up: just to have the pride of saying, yes, I read that. But it took a lot of patience (and, indeed, about seven months) for me to actually get through the thing.
I started with a physical copy. And then I moved to an audio book, because my library fines were piling up and I knew I wouldn’t finish the physical book in under three weeks. One of the things which kept me listening was the performance of the narrator – and if you don’t think that’s important, you’ve not listened to enough audio books. This guy was amazing. He really brought the protagonist to life. It was fantastic.
I still hated the plot of the story. Art theft, drugs, criminality, fraud, all that stuff isn’t something I’m interested in. But then, all of a sudden, I was at the end of the story – and little bitty tears began trickling out of my eyes at the closing lines. I realized, all of a sudden, that I felt an affectionate bond towards the protagonist, towards his plight, towards his feelings of abandonment and loss; and all I wanted was to reach into the book and give him a great big hug.
Then it hit me: why had I kept reading? Well, it wasn’t because of the plot. I still don’t like the plot very much. And it wasn’t because of the characters (although they grew on me). It was because of the themes of the book. It was because of how it made me feel.
Donna Tartt does something truly spectacular through this work that really can’t be described unless you read it (in which you will then be able to look at a fellow sympathizer and say, ‘that feeling, that feeling, right?’ and they will know exactly what you mean). My pathetic attempts to describe it are as follows: she forces you to open your eyes to the reality of the world, and then slips in little pieces of beauty, here and there, and makes you think, ‘oh, wait, I can see myself in this’. And while not all of us are art-enthusiasts (the central point of the book) we all can appreciate the over-arching idea that there are things in this world, beautiful things, which must be protected and fought for and respected, and they bring together all kinds of people from all walks of life, such as the painting The Goldfinch.
The ending paragraphs of the story discuss existentialism and the nature of finding-oneself which, though they took me by surprise, also fit perfectly within the themes of the book, and these sentiments made me all-out weep for myself, for the world, for art, and for the main character. Who are we? the main character wants to know. What does it mean to know who we are?
I can continue to gush over this book, but I really suggest you just check it out. And make sure to tell me what you think about it.
6. Furiously Happy (Nonfiction)
Jenny Lawson’s amusing yet realistic account of her struggles with mental disorders and physical illness are what makes this book truly unique. Her little anecdotes, and her hilarious way of telling them, are enchanting and because of this, I found this book nearly impossible to put down.
One of the things which I liked most about it was the way certain sections of the book switch from being laugh-out-loud funny to sobering. Lawson tells her story as though it is a comedy, but even still there is an undercurrent of seriousness there which I found comforting in my own battle with disorders and ailments. She writes about depression and self-harm in a way which acknowledges their realness but also points out the truth about human beings: in the middle of an episode, what else can we do? We may know that what we’re feeling is only a feeling, but it doesn’t mean that there’s anything we can do about it.
Also somewhere in the book she makes a call out to people who do suffer in similar ways and says that she wants us to know that we aren’t alone. She writes these stories to help us through our own. She encourages us through the dark days and celebrates with us in the good ones. I love this. I love it so much. As I’ve expressed earlier in this article, some things are difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t felt it. And to read a real-life story about someone who knows what I’m going through is the most refreshing thing ever.
However, this is also a book for people who don’t have these struggles. Another great point to mention is that it isn’t alienating. While I recommend it to anyone who has felt the strain of living with a disorder, it is also informative to friends, family members, and caretakers of people with disorders. It’s a glimpse into the mind of a very successful woman who is successful in spite of (and maybe because of) her struggles. For someone who is fortunate enough not to suffer in this way, this is one method of sympathizing with loved ones who do.
5. Quiet (Non-Fiction)
Susan Cain’s book Quiet is a book geared specifically towards introverts like myself who have believed for a good portion of their lives that the only way to be successful in the world is to be extroverted. Through psychology, science and statistics, she debunks this myth – and reveals some more amazing truths about the awesomeness of introverts, and how no matter your personality type, there is a really awesome role for your to play in the world.
I recommend this book to everyone. It is enlightening for frustrated introverts as well as for extroverts who had no idea introverts feel the way they do. I don’t have a lot to write about it, except that it’s amazing, comprehensive, and uplifting for anyone who reads it.
Want to know more? Go read the book. You got this.
4. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Fiction)
Ahhh! Back to the fiction! I never would have picked up this book if it hadn’t been for the librarian who thrust it into my hands one chilly November afternoon a few years ago. “Read this,” she said. “You’ll like it.”
Right. It looked completely boring.
From now on, I’m just going to assume that if it’s boring, I’ll love it, because that’s what usually happens. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shafer and Annie Barrows is not only wonderfully entertaining, it’s also a book whose story is told completely through letters, so it’s beautifully unique.
It is, I admit, a bit of a mouthful to pronounce (within my own circle, we just refer to it as “Guernsey”) but that is one of its endearing qualities. Set in post-World War II Europe, it tackles how a small island community managed to get through the struggles of the German Occupation by starting a Literary Society and re-discovering the wonders of books such as The Jungle Book (Rudyard Kipling) and, more importantly, books by the Bronte sisters. When a young writer makes contact with one of these members, she is swept away by their story as is set on uncovering it in a delightful fashion.
Harrowing yet beautiful, this book stole my heart. I made everyone I could read it. I nearly threw it at my mother. And when the librarian who gave it to me asked how I felt about it, the words of admiration didn’t stop.
In fact, this was the book which helped me meet one of my dear friends. Because I loved it so much, when I saw her reading it before class, my shy self was overcome by the joy that someone else was reading a book which had made my heart nearly explode. Thanks to this book, and a bit of fan-girling on my part, we are really good friends.
So do you want a unique, thrilling, beautiful story which may make you forget your worries for a few brief pages and may introduce you to a good friend you wouldn’t have otherwise had? No promises on the last one, but this book definitely embodies all the rest.
3. Great Expectations (Fiction)
Another tome like The Goldfinch, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens can feel a bit overrated, but it’s one of the books on my bookshelf which rarely stays there. Most of the time, it’s open somewhere, because I re-read it all the time.
This is one of the books I recommend reading before going into a new phase of your life. It outlines pitfalls of entering a new society, and how trying to change who you really are is a sure route to tragedy and frustration. And although it is not necessarily a happy book, it is definitely one which will get you thinking.
A lot of people who’ve read it have told me that they find it to be boring. Sorry about that. Maybe it is a little dense – but there are certain parts of it that really shine. For me, it’s the characters. My favorite character, Herbert Pocket, is a little dim but also very loyal as a friend; and though the protagonist doesn’t deserve it, he’s always there for him in remarkable ways. Good ol’ Herbert. I can’t really get enough of that guy.
But let me say a word about Pip, too. He’s thrown into a world which he doesn’t understand, and he feels as though even though he is a part of it, he’s not really a part of it.How many of us have not felt like that at some point? And better yet, only when he realizes who he really is does he also realize where he belongs, and it’s not where the reader is led to believe.
Despite the ending, which outraged the original readers so much that there ended up being two, I think this book is a masterpiece and is still relevant to society today.
2. Peter Pan (Fiction)
Peter Pan by James Barrie reserves its #2 spot on my list for a lot of reasons, some of which aren’t particularly valid. I have many copies of this book, from the Penguin Classics edition to a more modern, illustrated version, to a leather-bound version, and a few others with nothing special about them except the pages inside. This is one of those books I just can’t seem to not buy whenever I’m in a book store.
The actual, solid, valid reason why this is my #2 book is that it is a book I grew up with and which I return to when I’m feeling like I’ve lost a bit of myself in the big, bad world. Always a child at heart, this book helps to remind me what that means. I call it my “quiet time” book.
The movie interpretations can be a bit misleading about Peter Pan as character, and I want to set that straight a little. While I’m a big fan of the movies, the book portrays someone a little more mischievous and unsympathetic. Yet there is a quiet magic to the book which is, for me, soothing. Even though Peter seems to have no conscience (he is a child, and thinks everything is a game, therefore death is a game to him as well) there is still something about him which resonates with every other interpretation and adaptation I’ve ever seen on screen: that is the universal theme of the innocence of youth.
What Peter Pan teaches readers is to be fearless about their dreams, like a child. I’m sure all of us have our own Neverland we fly away to whenever we need to escape, whether in books or movies or anything else. Barrie shows us that when we need to regroup, this place is always there. Like our minds, it isn’t always lovely and safe and wonderful, and sometimes pirates come in to stir things up, but it doesn’t leave. I find that to be a fantastic sentiment.
As a dreamer, I need this reminder all the time. I need to know that just because other people don’t understand the extent of my fantasies, that doesn’t make them worthless or pointless. And it’s the reason this book is by #2 favorite book of all time.
1. The Count of Monte Cristo (Fiction)
I think I tell a lot of people that this is my all-time favorite book, and they don’t believe me, because really, who’s read that monstrous tome? And of those of you who’ve read it, who actually enjoyed it?
Well, I did.
In all honesty, I read The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas) on a bet with one of my high-school friends, who said that I couldn’t finish it within a week. So I downloaded audio book on my phone and listened to it every waking moment. I admit, the first time around, I was a little bored and a little skeptical. What’s so great about this book, anyways?
But near the end, I began to realize why this book has made it into a permanent list of classics which everyone should read at least once in the lifetime. I’m clocking this one in at four times so far, but that’s beside the point. Let me tell you why I find this one so compelling.
This is another one of those books I tell everyone I know to read before entering a new phase of their life. The first time I read it was my senior year of high school, and what perfect timing! All I knew about the book was that it weighed more than my head and that critics loved it, but when I actually started reading it, I realized that this is not only a bildungsroman, but one in which the protagonist decides who he is going to be, rather than simply becoming someone willy-nilly. It is a story about how a person can be tossed about by the winds of fate and still decide their trajectory.
This book hit home on a very deep level, because throughout many years of my life I’ve felt like the innocent victim of a cosmic joke – everything that could go wrong has gone wrong, just like it did for poor Edmund Dantes, the protagonist of The Count of Monte Cristo. Yet our hero (and he is a hero, I’m not afraid to say) faces each challenge with grace and self-control. After disappearing for several years, he re-emerges as the powerful Count of Monte Cristo (a title which doesn’t actually exist, but which Dantes creates for himself. What a powerful metaphor!) and begins his life as the person he always wanted to be, while enacting justice on the world around him.
Nothing screams “seize the day” quite like this book. Reading it just before entering college, I was able to realize that my own “Monte Cristo” was waiting out there. It would take a roiling sea and time in a metaphorical prison to get there (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, just read the book) but it’s there.
So that’s it!
I have a ton of other favorites, but that’s it for now. Thanks for reading!
What are some of your favorite books? What should I read next? I’d love to hear from you!