Do you have huge gaps in your literary knowledge, but can’t quite put your finger on where? Are you reading the same types of books over and over again? Or are you so overwhelmed with recommendations you don’t know where to start? Here’s a 2017 reading challenge to help free you from your usual reading-list rut, with recommendations of some fantastic books from 30 niche categories—featuring everything from alcoholic narrators to awkward sex scenes.
1. A book with an evil character you’re definitely a little attracted to
Because there is something sexy about baddies. Prime examples of this include as Nicholas Urfe in The Magus by John Fowles, Marisa Coulter from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, or Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho.
2. A book with a pretty cover that has nothing to do with what’s inside
Because sometimes it’s good to judge a book by its cover. Virago Modern Classics recently reprinted a select few novels with gorgeous covers called the Designer Collection, featuring artists such as Orla Kiely, Cath Kidston, and Barbara Hulanicki (the founder of Biba). Special mention also goes to the Penguin Ink series.
3. A modern dystopia (that’s looking more realistic by the day)
Because it’s good to be prepared. To speculate about what could happen, try the ever-present A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, or recent discovery 2084 by Boualem Sansal, where totalitarian theocracy rules over the known world. Terrifyingly tangible.
4. A novel more than 600 pages long that you’ll devour, then regurgitate at every conversation
On that point, options are far from lacking, especially with older works, and your choices range from murderous classics such as Crime and Punishment and Bleak House to the groundbreaking oeuvres of George Eliot, James Joyce, and David Foster Wallace. Our top recommendation, however, is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a lyrical, groundbreaking masterpiece—certainly one of the best contenders for what we call the “Great American Novel.”
5. A book marketed as having “captured modern life”
Whether fast-paced or slowly existential, these books tend to be slightly depressing, and are marketed for the anxious audience. They include Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, and even Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Don’t get us wrong, though, these are all definitely worth a read.
6. A feminist novel
While there are quite a few feminist books, finding a feminist novel that is enjoyable both for the power of its points and the beauty of its prose can be a little trickier. Not that tricky, though: we recommend Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, or Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea.
7. A book by someone from The Bloomsbury Set
Although this group of British intellectuals denied there was any formal collective, this select crowd of artists, writers and philosophers shared their ideas, friendships and location (London’s Bloomsbury) during the first half of the 20th century. Authors included: E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Desmond MacCarthy, and Vanessa Bell.
8. A depressing book on the Russian Revolution
This year marks thw 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, so it’s the perfect opportunity to brush up on your melancholy Soviet history. Select a (most likely distressing) book from titles such as: Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-hand Time, A People’s Tragedy by Orlando Figes, and Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale.
9. A collection of poetry
We’re not saying you should rediscover Shakespeare or Percy Shelley (though by all means, you should if you want to), but why not plunge into the accessible beauty of W. H. Auden, or the quick-fire wit of Dorothy Parker? You could also select an anthology to discover a myriad of poets, or an anthology of old and new such as The Emergency Poet by Deborah Alma, arranged by spiritual ailment. It’s guaranteed pick-me-up for the soul… if that’s what you’re into.
10. A book that makes alcoholism read like normal behavior
Because if everyone else is doing it, that means it’s not a problem, right? Classics such as Martin Amis’ Money and London Fields, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night all feature their fair share of tippling. Our favorite (and yours too, we predict) is Amis senior‘s comic classic, Lucky Jim—if only because it features one of literature’s greatest hangover scenes. Oh yeah.
11. An autobiography
You’re faced with a choice, here: you could read magnificent autobiographies as works of art (we recommend Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory or Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast). Or you could read autobiographies as an insight into the lives of the successful, famous and powerful. How about world leaders such as Churchill, Obama or Mandela? Or women who made waves in the publishing world with their offerings, including Maya Angelou and Carrie Fisher? If music’s more your thing, you could choose to read up on aging musicians like Patti Smith and Bob Dylan. You might even learn the secret to how exactly they are still alive.
12. A book that will make you want to solve mysteries
If classic detective novels from Agatha Christie to Arthur Conan Doyle are too old fashioned for you, we recommend Umberto Eco’s masterpiece The Name of the Rose or Raymond Chandler’s legendary The Big Sleep.
13. A book that is more or less erotic
If you’re reading for pleasure anyway, why not up the ante? As with any other books, the most satisfying erotic novels are usually the best written ones, and classics such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Justine, and Anaïs Nin’s diary Henry and June. The more adventurous among you may want to sample Jilly Cooper’s body of work, though.
14. A book that isn’t made to be read in a linear fashion
Because who cares about page order or rules, anyway? Not these writers. You could go for classics like Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, but the one we really recommend is Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire—the story of a deranged murderer, written in the footnotes of a 999-line poem.
15. An angst-y coming-of-age story
If you’re still trying to work out who you are, where you’re going, or what you want from life, why not find out how some fictional young adults are coping? Try The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, A Portrait of The Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce, or I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.
16. A book with an awkward sex scene
You can find some inspiration if you research winners and nominees of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Each year since 1993, the prize honors an author who has produced an outstandingly bad sex scene in an otherwise well-respected novel. Might we suggest some previous winners: List of the Lost by Morrissey, Fear of Dying by Erica Jong, or Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks.
17. A book about immigration
Immigration might be topical right now, but it’s been written about, beautifully, for quite a while. Read all about it in Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.
18. A book set somewhere you want to visit this year
Which destination are you going to cross off your bucket list this year? Whether you want to learn about a certain culture in preparation for a trip, or find some inspiration for your next vacation, Culture Trip’s Social Media Director Ewa Zubek’s mammoth list of 114 Books From Around The World I Want To Read Before I Die is sure to help you out.
19. A short book so dense it’ll take you forever to get through
20. A book that elevates creepiness to high art
Who knew pedophilia could be so awfully poetic? Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov isn’t just one of the greatest predatory novels, it’s one of the greatest erotic novels of all time. Alternatively, you may want to go for the literal creepiness of Franz Kafka‘s Metamorphosis.
21. A work of nonfiction dead set on exploring the worst of humanity
Not for the faint-hearted. If would like to revel in the worst of mankind, check out Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt, Night by Elie Wiesel, The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, or Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking.
22. A book by a female writer who used a male pseudonym
From George Eliot to Robert Galbraith (better known as J.K. Rowling), here is a selection of female writers who used a man’s nom de plume for publishing their work, for one reason or another.
23. A book turned into a movie
24. A book that will get reactions if you read it in public
For titles that are both grabbing and intellectual, try Fart Proudly by Benjamin Franklin, The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer, or The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice by Christopher Hitchens. And the modern classic I Love Dick by Chris Kraus is sure to turn heads for all the right reasons.
25. A book that used to be banned
Did you know that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll was banned in China in 1931 for its portrayal of anthropomorphized animals acting on the same level of complexity as human beings? Some other titles considered literature non grata at some point in history include: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (banned in Ohio, Texas and Washington for referring to women as ‘whores’), William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (banned in Boston and Los Angeles on obscenity charges), as well as the more famous Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller (banned in Britain, Canada, and the US until the 1960s).
26. A book you loved as a child
Everybody loves nostalgia (…’member?) so find a copy of your favorite book you read as a child and enjoy. Roald Dahl, Jacqueline Wilson, and Enid Blyton wrote fantastic books for kids that will still resonate with you as an adult.
27. A book written when the author was incarcerated
De Profundis by Oscar Wilde, written during a jail term in 1897, was much more somber than his usual witty and flippant style. The title is Latin for “in the depths”, and the book was a letter to “Bosie” (Lord Alfred Douglas) whose relationship and extravagant lifestyle with Wilde was the reason the writer was incarcerated. Other suggestions of works written in prison include Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, Conversations with Myself by Nelson Mandela, and In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Abbott.
28. A thought-provoking novella
The novella is a perfect way to dip your toe into the vast pool of prize-winning authors without too much commitment; the very best of them can be as memorable—and deep—as the best novels. Might we suggest: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, or Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote.
29. A book that challenges religion
What with religion being the root cause of friction, how about questioning whether it should even be a thing? Try The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens or Why There Is No God by Armin Navabi.
30. A book originally written in a different language
Although we’ve already included a number of translated works in this list, you could always use another for good measure. If unsure what to read or interested in newer translations, check out our guide to 20 Translators Under 40.