The books to read at every age, from 1 to 100
Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 4, 2019
Books are a portal to our personal histories. Pick up a worn copy of a childhood favorite and you might be transported to the warmth of a parent’s arms or a beanbag chair in a first-grade classroom or a library in your hometown.
Avid readers could build autobiographies around their favorite books and come to the realization that what they have read is almost as meaningful as when they read it. A high schooler poring over “To Kill a Mockingbird” for a summer reading assignment encounters a different book than someone who reads it decades later, closer in age and outlook to Atticus than Scout.
In light of that reality, we took a stab at picking the best book for every age. There’s no definitive way to do this, of course. What moves one reader may not resonate with another, regardless of their birth year. So think of this list as a starting point, plus an invitation to look back at your own literary chronology: What spoke to you during a certain time in your life — and why?
Here are our picks for worthwhile books to read during each year of life, from 1 to 100, along with some of the age-appropriate wisdom they impart.
Stephanie Merry, Book World editor
Age 1 — “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” by Eric Carle. Welcome to the world! It’s a good time to start learning numbers, days of the week and the helpful fact that too much food will give you a tummy ache.
Age 2 — “Llama Llama Red Pajama,” by Anna Dewdney. Your parents might not come the moment you call them, but they will come. And now is as good a time as any to start learning patience.
Age 3 — “Where the Wild Things Are,” by Maurice Sendak. You will act like a monster sometimes, but you can always go home again.
Age 4 — “Charlie Parker Played Be Bop,” by Chris Raschka. It’s never too early to start appreciating a good improv riff.
Age 5 — “The Giving Tree,” by Shel Silverstein. Books can make you cry; trees deserve to be loved; and selfish little boys, if enabled, will grow into selfish old men.
Age 6 — “Ramona the Pest,” by Beverly Cleary, illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers. It’s not your fault. Older siblings are the worst.
Age 7 — “The Complete Calvin and Hobbes,” by Bill Watterson. Friendship can be so magically transformative that it might turn a stuffed tiger into a partner in crime.
Age 8 — “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” by J.K. Rowling. Enjoy your first brush with binge reading on an adventure you’ll never forget.
Age 9 — “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing,” by Judy Blume. Hang in there. Younger siblings are the worst.
Age 10 — “Smile,” by Raina Telgemeier. Underneath whatever embarrassing, ostentatious orthodontia you’re forced to trot out, you’re still you.
Age 11 — “Ghost,” by Jason Reynolds. Not all childhoods are idyllic and not all parents are good, but if you look, you’ll find people to help you reach your potential.
Age 12 — “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” by Mildred D. Taylor. The terrible legacy of racism touches everyone and benefits no one.
Age 13 — “I Am Malala,” by Malala Yousafzai. There’s power in peaceful protest. Danger, too.
Age 14 — “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” by Stephen Chbosky. Everyone feels like an outcast sometimes. You just need to find your island of misfit toys to call home.
Age 15 — “The Hate U Give,” by Angie Thomas. Being true to yourself may cost you friends. It’s worth it.
Age 16 — “Jane Eyre,” by Charlotte Brontë. Nobody understands you and your terribly unfair life. Reader, you are not alone.
Age 17 — “Once Upon a River,” by Bonnie Jo Campbell. Feeling lost? Time spent in nature may guide you back to yourself.
Age 18 — “A Gate at the Stairs,” by Lorrie Moore. There are many important lessons to learn in college, not all of them from books.
Age 19 — “The Handmaid’s Tale,” by Margaret Atwood. Behold the scary possibilities of our dystopian future, inspired by our dystopian present.
Age 20 — “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” by Junot Díaz. Hilariously tortured, exuberant nerds are great company.
Age 21 — “The Sun Also Rises,” by Ernest Hemingway. You’re old enough to drink and carouse with your friends. Isn’t it pretty to think so?
Age 22 — “Democracy in America,” by Alexis de Tocqueville. To truly understand the country we live in, sometimes you have to see it through the eyes of a 19th-century Frenchman.
Age 23 — “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” by Malcolm X and Alex Haley. There’s power in confrontational protest. Danger, too.
Age 24 — “Atlas Shrugged,” by Ayn Rand. Marvel at the profundity of its objectivist themes — then, in a few years, marvel at your naivete.
Age 25 — “I Capture the Castle,” by Dodie Smith. Keep a journal and don’t forget the most personal details. It’ll make for an entertaining, maybe even enlightening, read one day.
Age 26 — “Americanah,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Our grandest ambitions may spur us toward far-flung places — and heartbreaking disasters — but ultimately there’s no place like home.
Age 27 — “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” by Stephen R. Covey. It’s time to decide whether you’re a self-help book person. Because a better you is just a page-turn away.
Age 28 — “Sister Outsider,” by Audre Lorde. To truly understand oppression — including a host of destructive-isms — try walking in the shoes of this pioneer of intersectionality.
Age 29 — “In Defense of Food,” By Michael Pollan. So much of what you need to know about consumption can be summed up in Pollan’s simple directive: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
Age 30 — “The Joy of Sex,” by Alex Comfort. Live a little.
Age 31 — “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. Now that you’re proficient in spaghetti with meat sauce, it’s time to up your game. Beef bourguignon, anyone?
Age 32 — “The Grapes of Wrath,” by John Steinbeck. This high school English-class staple is even more devastating when read from the perspective of a parent — or anyone old enough to be one.
Age 33 — “Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story,” by Paul Monette. Society may try to force you into a mold. You don’t have to comply.
Age 34 — “Beloved,” by Toni Morrison. The legacy of slavery still haunts this nation.
Age 35 — “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk,” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Tips for communicating with children also come in handy when dealing with adults who act like them.
Age 36 — “Life Among the Savages,” by Shirley Jackson. For parents, best-laid plans are an exercise in futility.
Age 37 — “The Joy Luck Club,” by Amy Tan. Your mother has stories to tell and insights to share, though you might not be ready to hear them until you’re grown up.
Age 38 — “The Sportswriter,” by Richard Ford. There is a lost and sad, yet somehow hopeful, dude lurking inside every man.
Age 39 — “What Alice Forgot,” by Liane Moriarty. Is this where you really want to be in life? Because it’s not too late to do things differently.
Age 40 — “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” by Jean-Dominique Bauby. Life is fleeting and unpredictable. Accomplish your goals while you still can, obstacles be damned.
Age 41 — “Rabbit, Run,” by John Updike. You may feel like fleeing sometimes, but remember: Selfishness is not a victimless crime.
Age 42 — “The Woman Upstairs,” by Claire Messud. When everyone expects you to act like a cheerful and invisible old maid, get angry.
Age 43 — “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” by Zora Neale Hurston. You have your finger on the trigger of your own destiny.
Age 44 — “The Goldfinch,” By Donna Tartt. The images of love we start with never leave us.
Age 45 — “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” by Maria Semple. When it comes to midlife crises, go big or go home.
Age 46 — “Salvage the Bones,” by Jesmyn Ward. Sometimes the only thing you can do is cling to those you love and wait out the storm.
Age 47 — “Stretching,” by Bob Anderson. As if you need a reminder, you’re not 25 anymore. Treat your body accordingly.
Age 48 — “Bossypants,” by Tina Fey. You’re juggling a lot. You’ve earned a good laugh from a celebrity who doesn’t pretend to be picture-perfect.
Age 49 — “Walden,” by Henry David Thoreau. Living a life of quiet desperation, you’re ready to hear Thoreau’s inspiring advice.
Age 50 — “Fifty Shades of Grey,” by EL James. Spice things up — or at least enjoy a good laugh.
Age 51 — “Who Do You Think You Are?” by Alice Munro. It’s the small moments that define us.
Age 52 — “Men Without Women,” by Haruki Murakami. Life is a riddle with no right answer; attempting to figure out the solution is its own reward.
Age 53 — “A Man Called Ove,” by Fredrik Backman. It gets harder to make new friends as you age, but do it anyway. They might save your life.
Age 54 — “The Denial of Death,” by Ernest Becker. What would you do — and who would you be — if you weren’t afraid of dying?
Age 55 — “Olive Kitteridge,” by Elizabeth Strout. A person can be cruel and difficult but also loving and worthy of compassion.
Age 56 — “When Things Fall Apart,” by Pema Chödrön. Every challenge is an opportunity for transformative wisdom.
Age 57 — “Remains of the Day,” by Kazuo Ishiguro. If you’ve been living according to someone else’s rules, you can stop now.
Age 58 — “The Plague of Doves,” by Louise Erdrich. Think about what’s come before you because “history works itself out in the living.”
Age 59 — “Dynamic Aging,” by Katy Bowman. Don’t blame your age if you’re feeling creaky. It could just be the way you’re using (or not using) your body.
Age 60 — “The Five Years Before You Retire,” by Emily Guy Birken. Not to stress you out, but time is ticking. Do you have a good plan?
Age 61 — “Fear of Dying,” by Erica Jong. There are many ways to age. Gracefully doesn’t have to be one of them.
Age 62 — “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand,” by Helen Simonson. Love knows no bounds, especially when books bring people together.
Age 63 — “Our Souls at Night, “ by Kent Haruf. Curing loneliness can be as simple as asking for company.
Age 64 — “Old in Art School,” by Nell Painter. It’s not too late to try a new career, but brace yourself for the ageist naysayers.
Age 65 — “65 Things to Do When You Retire,” edited by Mark Evan Chimsky. If you need ideas, Jimmy Carter, Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem have suggestions.
Age 66 — The “Outlander” series, by Diana Gabaldon. You don’t need time travel to keep the romantic sparks flying as you age — just imagination.
Age 67 — “Don Quixote,” by Miguel de Cervantes. You finally have time to read the first modern novel.
Age 68 — “The Year of Magical Thinking,” by Joan Didion. Grief can make you feel like you’re losing your mind. That’s normal.
Age 69 — “I Remember Nothing,” by Nora Ephron. “Every time one of my friends says to me, ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ I would like to smack her.”
Age 70 — “Master Class: Living Longer, Stronger, and Happier,” by Peter Spiers. Among the secrets to a fulfilling life: Never stop learning.
Age 71 — “Midnight’s Children,” by Salman Rushdie. You are forever linked to the time and place of your birth. What you do with that connection is up to you.
Age 72 — “Love in the Time of Cholera,” by Gabriel García Márquez. In the words of the Supremes: “You can’t hurry love. You just have to wait.” Sometimes decades.
Age 73 — “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” four volumes, by Robert Caro. At 83, Caro is still working on this extraordinary series. You have time to catch up.
Age 74 – “Paris in the Present Tense,” by Mark Helprin. “Music is the only thing powerful enough to push aside the curtain of time,” so fill your life with song.
Age 75 — “The History of Love,” by Nicole Krauss. Time cannot forever thwart the persistence of real affection.
Age 76 — “Women Rowing North,” by Mary Pipher. With the right mind-set — and a willingness to say no — this could be the time of your life.
Age 77 — “Gilead,” by Marilynne Robinson. You’re ready to start thinking about what your life means and the legacy you’ll leave behind.
Age 78 — “Charlotte’s Web,” by E.B. White. Within this gentle tale lies a good lesson to share with grandchildren and to remind yourself: Change is the only constant.
Age 79 — “The Coming of Age,” by Simone de Beauvoir. You don’t have to act your age.
Age 80 — “Coming Into Eighty: Poems,” by May Sarton. Your ship may be battered, but what a voyage “Of learning what to be / And how to become it.”
Age 81 — “Devotions,” by Mary Oliver.At 81, the poet took stock of her life with a collection spanning five decades that asks, “What it is you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”
Age 82 — “The Summer of a Dormouse,” by John Mortimer. When your body stops doing what you want it to, laughter is a great coping mechanism.
Age 83 — All the thrillers and mysteries. If you haven’t yet acquainted yourself with Easy Rawlins, Mrs. Pollifax, Maisie Dobbs, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and Commissario Guido Brunetti, invite them over. They’re great company.
Age 84 — “The Last Unknowns: Deep, Elegant, Profound Unanswered Questions About the Universe, the Mind, the Future of Civilization, and the Meaning of Life,” edited by John Brockman. With time and wisdom to spare, there may be no better moment to ponder life’s big mysteries.
Age 85 — “Ravelstein,” by Saul Bellow. Our oldest friendships can still fascinate us.
Age 86 — “Old Filth,” By Jane Gardam. It’s never too late to make peace with your personal history.
Age 87 — “King Lear,” by William Shakespeare. Count your blessings for unconditional love, and express your appreciation to the people who bestow it.
Age 88 — “Nearing Ninety: And Other Comedies of Late Life,” by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Laura Gibson. Take it from someone who finds humor even in the tribulations of advancing age: “What’s there to complain about? Not much.”
Age 89 — “A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing 90,” by Donald Hall. “Why should the nonagenarian hold anything back?” That, you’ll be happy to hear, is a rhetorical question.
Age 90 — “Beach-combing for a Ship-wrecked God,” by Joe Coomer. You may have to journey into the past to make sense of your present.
Age 91 — “Selected Poems: 1988-2013,” by Seamus Heaney. Enlightenment and beauty abound, even in the seemingly mundane moments of everyday life.
Age 92 — “Nothing to be Frightened Of,” by Julian Barnes. Don’t avoid the big questions of life and death and faith: Tackle them straight on with help from some of the greatest thinkers.
Age 93 — “Sapiens,” by Yuval Harari. You’ve witnessed nearly a century. Now behold the history of mankind.
Age 94 — “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism,” by Ashton Applewhite. There are a lot of myths about aging. Don’t buy into any of them.
Age 95 — The Neapolitan novels, by Elena Ferrante. A true friendship can survive the ravages of time.
Age 96 — “Somewhere Towards the End,” by Diana Athill. There’s no value in regret.
Age 97 — “My Own Two Feet,” by Beverly Cleary. Every choice you’ve made has led you here, where you belong.
Age 98 — “Life Is So Good,” by George Dawson and Richard Glaubman. Dawson learned to read at 98, then wrote a book. So what are you going to do today?
Age 99 — “Little Boy,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Just because you’re old doesn’t mean you’ve lost the beat.
Age 100 — “Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author,” by Herman Wouk. Life is a wonderful adventure. Books make it even better.