This story was first published on The Reading Room.
Spring is a time for starting that project you’ve always wanted to do. What better reason to finally put up that shelf and start your book collection?
Those who have been out of the book-buying game for a while (or have never bought a physical book since high school) may be thinking that the bookstore is so extensive you don’t know where to start. Fear not, reader. We’ve come up with 15 categories that will help you find your way in the world of endless books, as well as some personal recommendations to christen your bookshelf with renewed style.
Your Favorite Classic Book
Let’s get the clearest starting point out there now. Any book that’s important enough to have had other books written about it being so important is a must-have. What’s more, there are so many sub-genres to choose from: the Great American Novel, cultural epics, naturalist adventures, and so many others. Choose wisely, but they’re all wise choices so choose away!
Recommendation: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Your Token Shakespeare
Favorite works of William Shakespeare are like astrological signs: everyone’s got one. Don’t feel bad if you only know his most acclaimed plays, they’re popular for a reason! A go-to Bard could be one of his quirky comedies, his beautiful volume of poetry, or the drama that contains one of those spellbinding quotes (we won’t mind if you don’t recite it exactly right).
Recommendation: Twelfth Night
We all know one and we all need one. That conspicuously placed book on your shelf that, whether you read it or not, signifies to others that you’re ‘with it.’ It’s deep. It’s often long. It may be trying a little hard, but that’s all okay. The challenge of the book (and all the accolades listed on the back flap) will encourage you to figure out if the hubbub is deserved.
Recommended: A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
Your New Classic Book
We can argue over modern canon until the cows come home, which only makes picking the right one more difficult for a new book-collector. There’s a new frontier with books: writers are determined to push you to your limits, challenging you to follow them through time-jumps, unreliable narrators, and fragmented paragraphs. These books don’t happen to you—you deeply experience them.
Recommended: A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
Your Biography Book
The days of the dry biography are behind us. We’ve got people like Doris Kearns Goodwin on the case, one of many writers capable of unfolding real-life events as if they were happenign in a thrilling adventure novel. Dive deep into your favorite iconic figure, find out the truth behind some overtold stories, or maybe re-learn some of the stuff you missed in history class. You’ll be your friend’s go-to expert on trivia night.
Recommended: Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Your Poetry Book
If you’re one of the many who think poetry is just the modern art of the literary world, you may have trouble allowing yourself to enjoy a whole chapbook. Our best advice: lean into it. Embrace the flowery word choice, admire the economy of language, and wonder why the sentences are broken up the way they are. If it’s worth analyzing, it’s worth over-analyzing.
Recommended: The Year of Yellow Butterflies, by Joanna Fuhrman
Your Play That You Read as if It Was a Book
Book purists will surely ask, “does this count?”—and our answer is yes, it sure does. Reading plays, more so than seeing them, gives you complete control of the world: the setting unfolds before you, the costumes are pulled from your imagination, and the characters are played by anyone you choose. Take a seat in your favorite director’s chair (the couch) and set your own scene.
Recommended: Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf?, by Edward Albee
Your International Author Book
Why limit yourself to just American or English authors? You owe it to yourself to have a favorite, semi-current non-English author. Just like any author stateside, a good international writer explores a way of life, time period, or part of the world that is left undiscussed, and does so with nuance and perspective.
Recommended: My Name is Red, by Orhan Pamuk
Your “Learning is Fun” Book
Economics. Medicine. Physics. Everybody needs a good, thought-provoking book to be their touchstone on a foreign subject. Before you dive head first into peer-reviewed journals, there are some high-minded books that educate you with their vibrant, bouncing-off-the-walls creativity. Goofy drawings, mind-blowing fun facts, and, most importantly, real-world connections to the subjects they’re exploring.
Recommended: What If?, By Randall Munroe
Your Book You Read in High School (or Tried to, at Least)
It’s a relic from freshman English class, which at the time felt like a rapid-fire of books and plays that were so dry they make you want to throw your hands up in defeat. Now that you’re older, a little wiser, and more open-minded, we suggest getting to know that old novel friend and seeing if its wisdom feels more relevant today. Trust us, there’s always that one that’s worth revisiting.
Recommended: Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse
Your Science Book
You’ve eased into it with your “learning is fun” book, now here’s the strong stuff. Scholars-turned-authors donate their lives to answering the “why?” questions of the world and uncovering what’s real about life for the rest of us. You can make reference to it at fancy dinner parties to make yourself seem sophisticated (which you are).
Recommended: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks
Your “Guilty-Pleasure” Book
There’s no book-shaming allowed here. If you like a book, be proud. There are just some books that are there to feed your need for spectacle. Explosions! Intrigue! An endless adventure of good versus evil! It’s like reading a roller coaster, so why wouldn’t you want to own it?
Recommended: Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon
Your Book You Read Before the Movie
You did what so many others promised they would but didn’t, and for that—bragging rights are in order. Maybe you were just one step ahead of Hollywood. Maybe you wanted to compare the two and quickly read through it in the car ride on the way to the theater. Either way, this book on your shelf is a badge of honor no movie or book purist can take away from you. We don’t even mind if it has the movie poster for the cover.
Recommended: The Zookeeper's Wife, by Diane Ackerman
Your Graphic Novel
The most important rule of book collecting is: don’t limit yourself. Even if you’re “not into comic books,” there are so many talented artists that are able to tell unique, emotional stories with their words alone. Think of the detailed, dynamic depictions of the characters and settings as a little bonus, not a crutch, and as a testament to the talents of writers who can do both.
Recommended: Black Hole, by Charles Burns
Your All-Time Favorite Book
It’s your call on this one, and let’s be honest: you’ve already purchased this book multiple times in your life. It may have its flaws, but it’s your favorite regardless. You’re drawn to it because it resonates and feels representative of who you are as a person and how you see the world. It may also just be a thoroughly enjoyable read. You need not justify it: this is your one, true book love.
Recommended: Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach
What are your choices for each? Is there another category you’d recommend to your friend? Let us know in the comments!