40 Books Every Man Over 40 Should Have on His Bookshelf

No library is complete without these guy-friendly classics.

40 Books Every Man Over 40 Should Have on His Bookshelf

No library is complete without these guy-friendly classics.

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The problem with most of the “great books that every guy should read” lists is that they’re always so vague. What exactly qualifies a book as “great?” Well, sure, we can all agree on the classics, the books that everybody needs to read before they die. A little Faulkner and Twain, Tolstoy and Melville, a Homer epic poem or two, and you’re done. You know the drill.

But if you’re talking about a man north of 40, you’re talking about a man who has seen some stuff, learned about life, and knows that he needs to have more than just a copy of Moby-Dick on his shelves to show visitors he’s interesting.

Here are our suggestions for 40 books that every man over the age of 40 should make the time to read (or read again), and then place on his shelf for all the world to see. Trust us, you’ll be glad you did. And if you’re wondering how to get through this list before you reach your 50s, check out The Amazing Secrets of Speed Reading.

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1
The Fight, by Norman Mailer

$12; buy now at Powell’s

This 1975 eyewitness account by Norman Mailer of the so-called “Rumble in the Jungle,” in which heavyweight champion George Foreman defended his title from challenger Muhammad Ali, is packed with more drama than anything Hollywood has given us. Sports writing has never been so good. And if you’re in the market for a great guy read right now, check out this wonderfully heartfelt essay from David Halberstam, titled “How to Find Your True Purpose in Life.”

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2
Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk

$15; buy now at Target

Speaking of fights…. This novel by Chuck Palahniuk is a quick read, but it’ll have you seriously rethinking all the priorities in your life. Take a passage like this: “May I never be complete. May I never be content. May I never be perfect.” You don’t need to be in an underground fight club for that line to shake you to the core. And if you’re looking to boost your own fitness game, check out The Single Best Way to Stay Fit for Life. 

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3
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers

$8; buy now at The Strand

Dave Eggers’ brilliant and often hilarious memoir is about being young and hopeful, but it’s also about dealing with the awful losses that come with no warning, and learning to accept responsibility. Especially as you grow older, you realize that your parents are going to die someday, and it’s going to be awful. This book will help you through it, in ways that no “how to” guide to grieving and loss ever could. And for more on getting older, here are 40 Life-Changing Habits to Follow After 40. 

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4
God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215, by David Levering Lewis

$10; buy now at Powell’s

The title makes it sound like boring history, but this book is anything but. It’s a fascinating account of five centuries in which the Christian and Islamic worlds rose in tandem and were often at odds with each other. It’s essential reading for anybody who wants to understand the religious intolerance that still exist today. And for some quick historical facts, here are The 28 Most Enduring Myths in American History. 

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5
Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner

$12; buy now at Barnes & Noble

This novel, by Wallace Stegner, is perfect for anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship, or realized that the majority of their social time is spent with other couples. A great reminder that marriage is a marathon, not a sprint. For more thoughts on that, here are The 7 Ways to Make Your Marriage Last Forever.

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6
Watership Down, by Richard Adams

$11; buy now at Amazon

A kid’s book, sure. But re-read it as an adult and you’ll get shades you never realized were there. Is this a book about how all forms of governance are brutality and betrayal, and decency will not save you, and even if you are a decent person you might manage to survive but only at terrible cost? You tell us.

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7
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

$9; buy now at Target

The symbolism in The Great Gatsby can completely change depending on when you read it. During your 20s, it’s all about the symbolism and the disintegration of the American dream. But reread it at 40, you might connect with Gatsby’s longing on a far more personal level. Give this classic another read and see how it speaks to you today. And for more guy classics, here are the 37 Movies Every Man Over 40 Should Be Able to Quote.

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8
Band of Brothers, by Stephen Ambrose

$11; buy now at Amazon

You don’t need to have served in the military to feel moved by this tale of the men of Easy Company, a parachute infantry company during World War II. It’s got male bonding and guys jumping out of planes to kill Hitler. Do you honestly need more?

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9
Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

$13; buy now at Barnes & Noble

It’s the Mt. Everest of literary novels. You don’t finish it because it’s enjoyable, you do it because it’s a challenge. (1,079 pages!) And most of those are footnotes. Having this on your bookshelf is a way of saying, “I tried, and I’m going to keep trying, because eventually I’ll make it through this bad boy.”

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10
Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud, by Peter Watson

$15; buy now at Amazon

A fascinating look at how the human mind works, and how we managed to come up with everything from the written word to the wheel. And if you’re looking for a little mental pick-me-up, consider the 70 Genius Tricks to Get Instantly Happy. 

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11
Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

$9; buy now at Target

A truly remarkable science fiction novel that just barely feels like science fiction. In the year 2044, the world is in a bad place thanks to global warming and an energy crisis, so everybody gets distracted by a fictional, virtual world. Sound familiar? Read this before the Steven Spielberg film version comes out this year. And speaking of dystopian futures… Be sure to read The Single Best Way You Can Help Save the Planet. 

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12
The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White

$16; buy now at The Strand

We could go on and on about how this book is more important than ever, especially in an online world where grammar is a constant fatality, but then we remembered that one of the biggest lessons of Strunk and White is to omit needless words. So we’ll just say this: This book is good.

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13
Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, by Studs Terkel

$10; buy now at Powell’s

Studs Terkel, one of our country’s greatest historians, talked to 100 men and women about their jobs, and how those jobs made them feel. It’s not just fascinating to read about the lives of waitresses, gravediggers, accountants, and prostitutes. It’ll make you reflect on your own job and how it reflects your personal identity. And if you’re looking for a career boost yourself, here are the 6 Secret Weapons for Turning the Job You Have into the One You Want.

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14
Any Peanuts compendium, by Charles Schulz

From $10; buy now at Amazon

If you think Charlie Brown and his “friends” are just for kids, you’re fooling yourself. These tales of loneliness, failure, and relentless optimism (despite no evidence to support it) just ring truer with age. When Charlie insists that childhood must be the hard years, “then after you grow up, all your troubles are over,” you’ll laugh harder than you have since, well, you were a kid. And for more great culture coverage, here are 20 Crazy Facts That Will Blow Your Mind.

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15
The Call of the Wild, by Jack London

$5; buy now at Barnes & Noble

There are two times to read this timeless Jack London. When you’re a kid, and a book written from the point of view of a dog just seems amazingly awesome. And as a 40-year-old, when a book written from the point of view of a dog who endures unfathomable hardships and keeps persevering will be an unexpected source of inspiration.

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16
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson

$10; buy now at Target

Everybody loves this book when we’re young, because Hunter S. Thompson’s “nonfiction” tale of nonstop debauchery and drug abuse is just fun. But read it again at 40 and see if you don’t see something relevant and painfully true in there. “In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught,” he writes. “In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity.” We miss you, Hunter.

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17
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, by Kurt Vonnegut

$14; buy now at Barnes & Noble

It’s not the best Kurt Vonnegut novel, but as you grow older, and his “greater” works like Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions start to feel overfamiliar, this will be the one that sticks to your ribs. “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God [darn] it, you’ve got to be kind.” Amen, Kurt!

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18
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

$18; buy now at The Strand

All three books in this series by Douglas Adams are worth having and reading, but this one in particular should never leave your library. You realize what’s important in life. Like never leaving the house without a towel. Forgot about that rule? Might be time to give this book another read.

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19
Stoner, by John Williams

$9; buy now at Powell’s

It’s not what you think—sorry. This 1965 novel, which the New Yorker calls “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of,” is a life story of a poor Missouri farm boy who grows up to become a college professor with very complicated relationships with his wife, daughter, and his own life’s ambitions. It’s very much about the disappointments and accommodations we make with middle age-hood.

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20
A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn

$12; buy now at Amazon

This is the book recommended by Matt Damon’s character in the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting. “If you wanna read a real history book,” he told his therapist, “read Howard Zinn‘s A People’s History of the United States. That book’ll knock you on your [rear].” We couldn’t agree more. This is a book with all the violence and horror of America at its worst, the parts we (still) aren’t told in high school.

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21
A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway

$25; buy now at The Strand

Ernest Hemingway’s classic memoir of being young and broke in Paris during the 1920s. Why is it worth reading again in your 40s? Because it reminds us never to give up on idealism.

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22
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson

$7; buy now at Powell’s

Not a fan of love stories? This one may change your mind. Helen Simonson’s novel about a retired army Major dealing with his brother’s death and his unexpected friendship and eventual romance with a Pakistani shopkeeper is like nothing you’ve ever experienced. For those of us who need a little technological help to find that love, here are the best dating apps if you’re over 40.

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23
A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, by Bill Bryson

$8; buy now at Amazon

A true story by writer Bill Bryson about his attempts to walk the Appalachian Trail (in his 40s, no less) with an old friend. It’s not just about conquering nature, but the need (especially as we age) to feel alive and connected with the outside world.

 

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24
Joy of Cooking

$26; buy now at Barnes & Noble

No, we’re not kidding. The Joy of Cooking. There’s a reason it’s been around since 1931. It’s a staple that belongs in every guy’s kitchen.

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25
Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger

$8; buy now at The Strand

In this novel by William Kent Krueger, a middle-aged narrator reflects on his childhood in the fictional town of New Bremen, and the murders that rocked his small community. But this is no mere murder mystery. If you’ve ever struggled with faith, Ordinary Grace is teeming with insight on how rational intelligent people reconcile faith with reason.

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26
The Border Trilogy, by Cormac McCarthy

$29; buy now at Amazon

Forget True Grit, this trio of novels by Cormac McCarthy—which includes All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain—is the only epic tale of cowboys and the American frontier you need on your bookshelf. It’s a saga that’ll remind you to never take the easy path.

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27
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond

$10; buy now at Powell’s

Why have some societies continued to thrive while others have faded away? That’s the question of this compelling read, which is an essential guide to global history.

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28
The Aubrey & Maturin series, by Patrick O’Brian

From $10 (per title); buy now at Barnes & Noble

Set during the Napoleonic Wars, these books—with titles like Master and Commander, HMS Surprise, and Desolation Island—are a 20-novel-long meditation on the nature, practice, and pitfalls of friendship. The Atlantic recently argued that these books would be the fodder for the next Game of Thrones.

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29
Eldercare For Dummies

$20; buy now at Amazon

In general, we’re against any book that calls its reader a “dummy” before you even open the cover. But in this case, we can accept that we need help. It’s especially useful in your 40s, as your parents age and you realize it’ll soon be your responsibility to care for them.

 

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30
The Boys of Summer, by Roger Kahn

$7; buy now at Powell’s

If you’ve forgotten what it feels like to get choked up about baseball, you need to revisit this true account of the Brooklyn Dodgers during the 50s. It’s not just about the team, but a sportswriter who grew up near Ebbets Field, and experienced firsthand all the triumph and heartbreak of loving one of the greatest times in sports history.

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31
A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

$19; buy now at Barnes & Noble

A Russian aristocrat is stripped of his wealth and forced to live at a luxury hotel for thirty years, but this time as one of the waitstaff. An amazing story that feels at times like a perfect allegory for growing older.

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32
1984, by George Orwell

$10; buy now at Amazon

You read it in high school, but have you revisited it recently? You may find a few paragraphs in George Orwell‘s dystopian masterpiece that feel eerily familiar in today’s world.

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33
How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie

$15; buy now at Target

This 80-year-old bible of interpersonal relationships is more relevant today than ever. Filled with simple advice on how to gain social influence the right way, by talking to people rather than at them. Remember listening? Making other people feel valued and heard? Consider this your refresher course.

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34
The Rabbit series, by John Updike

From $12 (per title); buy now at Barnes & Noble

You probably read at least one of these four books in college—John Updike’s series includes Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, and Rabbit At Rest—but you can’t really understand this brilliant accounts of middle-aged manhood until you reach your 40s.

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35
Sid the Squid and the Search for the Perfect Job, by David G. Derrick, Jr.

$6; buy now at Powell’s

A kid’s book about a giant squid with ten arms? Why would an adult need that in their personal collection? Because sometimes you need to be reminded that life is about chasing your dreams, not just your responsibilities.

Good Omens

36
Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

$8; buy now at The Strand

If you find yourself getting freaked out by the morning news —Are we heading towards global annihilation yet? It sure feels like it—Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s comedic tale may be the best tonic. Sure, it’s about the world ending, but it finds the humor in our collective fears of mortality on a grand scale.

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37
The Unimportance of Being Oscar, by Oscar Levant

$18; buy now at Amazon

This 1968 memoir by writer/pianist/actor Oscar Levant has some of the best quips and comebacks you didn’t realize you needed, like this one attributed to Dorothy Parker, who responded to questions from an editor about why she hadn’t finished a manuscript with, “Too [expletive] busy and vice versa.” And for more great burns, here are the 30 Wittiest Put-downs Every Uttered.

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38
The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran

$6; buy now at Barnes & Noble

A collection of Lebanese fables may not sound John Grisham novel, but trust us, this classic by the late Kahlil Gibran is worth your time. Timeless advice on everything from marriage and friendship to freedom and self-knowledge.

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39
Gift From the Sea, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

$5; buy now at The Strand

How does a book from 1955 understand so much about our modern era, in which most of us are staring at our phones and slaves to our job? This nonfiction book by writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh, about her attempts to escape all the timesaving gadgets and overcommitments that take her away from what’s important, seems like it could’ve been written today. And if you’re feeling a slave to technology these days, check out the 11 Easy Ways to Conquer Your Smartphone Addiction.

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40
Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall

$21; buy now at Target

Who knew a 304-page nonfiction book about people running barefoot in Mexico (among other places) could be so emotionally affecting? This might be the book that makes you want to jump out of your chair and get your middle-aged body moving again. And if you’re also feeling ready to begin running, start slow and you’ll eventually be ready for the 4 essential steps for running a perfect race.

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