The Best Books for Men


After surveying 25 avid readers, polling two book clubs and scouring literary publications, we’ve put together a list of the 15 best books for men to read. Our choice for the top non-fiction book is Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business,” a still-relevant culture critique from a past era. For fiction, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” is securely in top spot as a reader favorite, with Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” as a strong runner-up.

Our Top Choices

Timely Insight


Amusing Ourselves to Death

Neil Postman, 1985

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Best Adventure


The Lord of the Rings

J.R.R. Tolkien, 1954

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Best Fiction


East of Eden

John Steinbeck, 1952

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Best Dad Joke


The Princess Bride

William Goldman, 1973

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After surveying 25 avid readers, polling two book clubs and scouring literary publications, we’ve put together a list of the 15 best books for men to read. Our choice for the top non-fiction book is Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business,” a still-relevant culture critique from a past era. For fiction, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” is securely in top spot as a reader favorite, with Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” as a strong runner-up.

How we selected these books

Don’t think of this as a list of books that are only good for men — in most cases, the stories and information they contain will appeal to everyone. We’re assuming that you’re reading this list either because you’re a man who’s run out of ideas for what to read next, or you’re someone trying to encourage a man to read more by picking up a book for him. If you are looking for a gift, the best book light makes an excellent pairing.

We’ve had people making lists of books for almost as long as we’ve had books. The invention of the printing press means that nearly anyone can publish a book; that means there are dozens of books written by somebody, somewhere you’d love to read that you’ll never even know about. From lists of banned books to bibliographies of niche topics compiled by academics, book lists have always been a way for people interested in specific ideas to tell readers how to find (or avoid) relevant books.

As we put together this list, some of the readers we surveyed insisted that since male authors and readers have dominated the publishing sphere throughout history, the idea of a specific set of books for men is redundant and silly, if not offensive.

Nobody is saying that men and women can’t read the same books. But just as there are specific topics that interest women in general — or enough women to keep the publishing industry looking for new ways to tap into that market, anyhow — we’ve found that there are specific topics that most men are interested in. Remember too that a “best book” list pretty much has to be controversial — Michael Caines of the Times Literary Supplement calls book lists “one of the oldest and dodgiest forms of literary criticism.”

We surveyed 25 men who are avid readers, many of whom take part in regular book-club discussions. We also surveyed lists from magazines and websites that focus on stories for men. We studied the reader-generated lists on the Goodreads network, a website that helps people find and review books.

After surveying these other lists of books and looking for common threads, we identified a few themes or features of the books that the men in our survey thought were most important:

  • Insight: Learning what’s going on behind the scenes, how things work, and how to strategize. This kind of insight is important in biographies of powerful leaders, but dramatic depictions of relationships can also provide much-needed food for thought.
  • Adventure: Similar to the epic journeys of classic myth, but with more character development and gritty detail.
  • Coming of age: How to pass on or inherit a legacy (be it elevating or burdensome) is a weighty question for many modern men.
  • Survival: In both fiction and non-fiction titles, situations where the outcome is uncertain and the stakes are life-or-death.

Our list

After we compiled a list of over fifty candidate books to include, we narrowed that list to a group of thirty-six finalists. After that, our researcher used surveys to rank the fifteen best books for men.

1

Amusing Ourselves to Death - Neil Postman, 1985

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Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” by Neil Postman is a classic analysis of how communications media have changed the world. Written in 1985 when television was re-inventing politics and education, Postman’s writing is accessible and succinct. He covers just enough theory to foster understanding and his examples point toward a consistent premise.

If you’re trying to understand how smartphone addiction and meme wars are shaping the way we think and communicate, Postman’s case studies of televised educational shows and presidential debates can help you see the underlying risks and opportunities we face with all new technologies.Read more…

In our tumultuous political climate, dystopian-nightmare fiction like “1984” (not to mention “A Handmaid’s Tale”) often lands on the number-one spot of a list like this. But a few of our readers advocated fiercely for Postman’s analytical book because of how well it throws Orwell’s nightmare of total government control into contrast with Aldous Huxley’s “A Brave New World,” a more insidious and less obvious premise for a world gone wrong. As Postman writes: “Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.”


2

The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien, 1954

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While there are easier novels to read than “The Lord of the Rings,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece of world-building is still the gold standard for an adventure story on a grand scale. The first segment of the six-part narrative is a slow start, but if you can stick with Frodo all the way to Rivendell you’ll be handsomely rewarded with better pacing in the other sections.

Tolkien started out trying to invent a fictional set of mythical origins for the aspects of British life he loved most dearly, but along the way he invented a new genre of novels that combines high ideals, nuanced (male and female) heroes and just enough monster-killing to keep things fun.


3

East of Eden - John Steinbeck, 1952

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John Steinbeck’s books all deal with success, pride, hate and compassion in ways that make a man think deeply about his own circumstances, but “East of Eden” is just a bit more mythical in scope and in its subject matter.

Set in the Salinas valley of California as it is settled between 1862 and the first world war, this is a story that reimagines the Biblical story of Cain and Abel as a multi-generational cycle of hope, sadness, love and hate.


4

The Princess Bride - William Goldman, 1973

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The Princess Bride” is a sarcastic, self-deprecating “dad joke” like none other: William Goldman gives us a first-hand (and thoroughly fictional) account of his chance to edit a translated version of a (fictional) cherished historical manuscript. Among the great works of self-aware fiction (like Cervantes’s “Don Quixote” and Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy”) this is the best example with a good Hollywood adaptation. It’s not as profound as any of the other books on this list, but knowing the joke that inspired a popular movie is an initiation into the literary version of manly wisdom.

There’s a ripping good adventure story here, but if you just want more of the events of the movie, you might be annoyed by the meta-humor that interrupts the flow with semi-parody reflections on life as an author and father. But if you like that kind of thing, the maze of authorial interruptions gets better with every turn. The “first chapter” from a (fictional) sequel novel is included with new editions, and is an excellent example of an author trolling unsuspecting readers.


5

The Martian - Andy Weir, 2011

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Science fiction can mean a lot of different things, but “The Martian” fulfils one of the classic definitions: The protagonist relies on scientific knowledge to overcome his obstacle. This is also a survival story, featuring some of the most hostile conditions imaginable.

This is one of the highest-ranked books we found, and its popularity led to a pretty good movie adaptation. It’s not as much of a contender for “best book of all time,” but if you’re a man looking for a book to read over vacation.


6

War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy, 1869

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Tolstoy earned the reputation as one of the greatest writers of all time by weaving together the story of a nation, following five families through the conflict and social change that came out of the Napoleonic wars in early-19th-Century Russia. “War and Peace” is in turn a character study, a careful depiction and analysis of historical battles, a stirring call for social reforms and a heartfelt portrayal of love, betrayal and forgiveness. Needless to say, it’s a very long book.

Not every man wants to be a historian, but if you want to understand what people thought about soldiers and warfare before the advent of mechanized warfare, this book is a must-read. If you want to find out anything else about 19th-Century Eastern Europe, it’s probably in here too.


7

Frankenstein - Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1818

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Widely considered the original science fiction novel, “Frankenstein” is still one of the best. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley masterfully balances the human side of sci-fi: At the center of the plot are two men struggling with the implications of scientific power, fighting out a resolution to the horror and tragedy of unforeseen consequences.

Victor Frankenstein isn’t as sympathetic a character now as he was to readers in the height of the Romantic literary era, but “the Creature” is one of the original and best prototypes for the anti-heroic protagonist that’s now so prolific. Shelley’s book-within-a-book-within-a-letter structure matches up the characters and perspectives beautifully, so keep with it if you find the first sections slow.


8

The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini, 2003

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If you’re looking for a story that pulls at your heartstrings with a complex story of friendship and coming of age in brutal circumstances, Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” is an excellent choice.

Set in 1970s Afghanistan, some critics complain that this book manipulates emotions more than it challenges Western perspectives on the plight of people in the war-torn Middle-East, but there’s plenty of insight to chew on.


9

Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card, 1985

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Compared to classics like “Catcher in the Rye,” Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” gives us a more-serious and less-subversive take on the loss of childhood innocence and rebellion against authority. Despite filling this book with young children and setting it in a school, Card manages to escape the dreadful tropes you may associate with juvenile fiction. (Sorry, Harry Potter fans.)

This is also great sci-fi, and if you like the sound of “detailed descriptions of zero-gravity battle games,” definitely check it out. If you enjoy that side of “Ender’s Game,” don’t miss Card’s 1999 follow-up “Ender’s Shadow,” which re-tells the events from the perspective of another character.


10

Touching the Void - Joe Simpson, 1988

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There are many gripping accounts of survival we could have included on this list, but Joe Simpson’s account of a fateful climb with his friend in the Andes mountains adds more trauma and astonishing fortune than most.

Touching the Void” is a story about two men who nearly die in a storm, and revolves around the author’s friend making the fateful decision to cut a rope and let him fall down a crevasse in order to have any hope of his own survival. It would be hard to find a more intensive study of guilt and regret than this. There’s also plenty of technical discussion of the fateful climb, though it’s easy enough to get through even if you aren’t a mountaineer.


11

The Hero With a Thousand Faces - Joseph Campbell, 1949

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If you want some insight into the character psychology and literary tropes in the books you love, Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” offers insight without as much outright mysticism as the psychoanalytic theorists it draws from. If you’re a budding literature nerd who wants to dig deeper into modern myth-fiction like “Star Wars” or “Lord of the Rings,” then this book is required reading.


12

A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens, 1859

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If you don’t have time for Tolstoy, you should at least give a Dickens novel a chance. While “Bleak House” is the staff pick for Dickens’ best writing, “A Tale of Two Cities” speaks directly to the themes of purpose, honor, loyalty and destiny that define the best books for men.

Dickens sets his story of down-to-earth English heroes in the middle of the French Revolution, and it’s not a subtle or generous depiction of the people of France. But if you allow Dickens this conceit, the complex cast of characters and their struggle to find a way to set their world right make this one of the earliest and best historical fiction novels.


13

Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow, 2004

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Let’s get this out of the way: “Hamilton” is one of the hottest musicals ever to hit Broadway, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s eclectic and edgy style is not the same as what you’ll find in the Ron-Chernow-penned biography he was inspired by. But Chernow is a masterful biographer, and his account is one of the first to closely track Hamilton’s life all the way from his childhood as an orphan to his role as champion of the U.S. Constitution and early abolitionist.

Chernow’s other biographies of financial industry giants like Morgan, Warburg and Rockefeller are also excellent. But Alexander Hamilton’s humble beginnings are more relatable, and his role in the founding of the U.S. government makes him worthy of every bit of the attention he’s now getting.


14

Lord of the Flies - William Golding, 1954

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William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” asks us, in the most succinct way possible, “what happens if you take schoolboys away from the influence of adult supervision and civilization?” The answer, as you can probably predict, is bleak. It’s also a critical reflection on where masculinity can go wrong.

Many students around the world are required to read this book for high school assignments, but if you’re a man who hasn’t already been forced to explore the depths of the human condition this is well worth checking out. It’s less shocking than “A Clockwork Orange” — rape is implied rather than described — but “Lord of the Flies” also gives a less-detached insight into what lies beneath the veneer of human civility.


15

The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas, 1844

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No list of great books is complete without the quintessential revenge story, “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas. This is a sprawling adventure across post-Napoleonic France and Italy that includes satisfying heroes, villains and a large cast of supporting characters that’s surprisingly easy to keep track of. Edmond Dantes is a wronged man given the rare opportunity to re-define himself on his own terms, which makes this book a fascinating study of identity.

Dumas wrote many adventure stories that are fun to read, but the revenge plot gives this book a razor-sharp focus that will keep you invested all the way to the bitter end. It’s not a perfect book, but well worth reading even if you’ve seen one or more of the criminally brief film or television adaptations.


Daniel Jackson, Writer

Daniel is a Canadian farm boy who grew up to be a nerd with a literature degree and too many hobbies to count. He emigrated from Canada to California in 2013, and now writes for Your Best Digs full-time. Daniel remains unapologetic about Canadian spelling, serial commas, and the destruction of expensive travel mugs.

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