I can’t say that I curate my personal library with as close an eye as I ought to. If it’s got a gorgeous cover, I must have it. If it’s by a Nigerian author, send me ten copies. For this reason, my bookshelf (and now book cart) are overflowing. (On second thought, that doesn’t sound like such a bad situation.) Recently, my sister and brother-in-law moved into their forever home where they have a wall of bookshelves to fill (literally, my dream). I didn’t get questions about décor or furniture but simply, What are the books we must have in our home library? Now, I would argue that this is the worst kind of question to ask someone who practices little discernment when it comes to adding books to her collection. But I quickly took on the task—and the result is below: award-winning fiction, must-read biographies, and authors well on their way to literary-icon status. Pulling from outside of the foundations of many, many personal libraries—classics and modern classics, Fitzgerald, Joyce, and Hemingway, and the greats like Chinua Achebe, James Baldwin, and Maya Angelou—these books are from some of the most powerful (new and established) voices of the last 50 years.
You’re probably thinking it’s a no-brainer to include a book about libraries in your personal library. But Susan Orlean’s entire work sets the standard for the kind of journalistic writing that should be present on your shelves.
Nigerian lit has a special place on my bookshelf (it makes up literally almost all of it). For me, it all started with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s universally adored novel AMERICANAH. Whenever I stumble upon a great piece of literature, I’m always forcing into the hands of my family members who might be able to relate to the protagonist’s unique struggles. Ifemelu’s culture shock and identity crisis upon coming to America from Nigeria are things my family knows firsthand. And this is just one novel from the tidal wave of Nigerian lit I would recommend; THE FISHERMEN by Chigozie Obioma, A PARTICULAR KIND OF BLACK MAN by Tope Folarin, and MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER by Oyinkan Braithwaite all deserve a spot in your library.
This powerful story of race and gender is centered on Ifemelu, a brilliant and self-assured young woman who departs military-ruled Nigeria for an American university where, for the first time, she is forced to grapple with her identity as a black woman. Ifemelu faces difficult choices and challenges, suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships, and eventually achieves success as the writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. Fearless and gripping, Americanah is a richly told story set in today’s globalized world.
I love coming-of-age stories about friendship, regret, and redemption like Khaled Hosseini’s KITE RUNNER and Alexander Chee’s EDINBURGH. Whether your current situation calls for reflection, perspective, or a good cry, these novels are the perfect go-tos. In EDINBURGH, Fee, a Korean American boy, has just been named a section leader in his local boys’ choir. But when Fee learns of abuse at the hands of the director, his silence results in the abuse of his best friend. Years after his friend has committed suicide, Fee meets a young boy who is the spitting image of his friend and he must confront his shameful past.
Stephen King has many iconic stories in his (pretty intimidating) body of work. But from his story collection DIFFERENT SEASONS, two iconic films were born: Stand By Me (based on the novella “The Body”) and The Shawshank Redemption (based on the novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”). I seem to be one of the few in my family who can stomach a scary read and so Stephen King’s not-so-scary collection is perfect for all readers.
“You’ll find the themes of hope and innocence weaved throughout the four novellas that comprise Stephen King’s DIFFERENT SEASONS, warped and broken as they may seem. The ways in which they’re tested, sustained, mangled, or transformed are often uncomfortable but always captivating.”
One of the bestselling books…ever, former FLOTUS Michelle Obama’s autobiography, has made it into the hands of millions of readers and sits on the shelves of millions of personal libraries. A story as unique as it is universal, BECOMING is Obama’s life story from childhood to postpresidential life. This book is also a great way to mark the major historical events of the last 50 years, since Mrs. Obama has lived through a lot of it—much of which informed her growth and values as a leader.
My sister and brother-in-law are foodies and I’m almost certain they already have a copy of Samin Nosrat’s mouthwatering book SALT FAT ACID HEAT. Perfect for novice chefs and experienced chefs, Nosrat starts with the basics, four simple elements: salt, fat, acid, and heat. Complete with illustrations and recipes, this book deserves a spot right next to your copy of THE JOY OF COOKING.
With so many saying that life imitates art , it’s always important to have sobering and cautionary reads on your shelf. (1984 by George Orwell is another must!) The basis of the hard-hitting Hulu series, THE HANDMAID’S TALE tells of a dystopian future where America, embroiled in a second civil war, is under totalitarian rule and must abide by strict social rules—and where the few fertile women are enslaved. While you're at it, add Margaret Atwood's newest novel, THE TESTAMENTS, to your shelf. You're going to want to dive into this HANDMAID'S TALE sequel right away.
This horrifying vision of our society radically overturned by a theocratic revolution has become one of the most powerful and widely read novels of our time. It has endured not only as a literary landmark but also as a scathing satire and dire warning of a possible future that is still chillingly relevant.
Get inside the mind behind iconic works like BELOVED and THE BLUEST EYE. Toni Morrison’s final published work before her passing is a collection of essays, speeches, and meditations on culture and various social issues. Along with every Morrison book written, THE SOURCE OF SELF-REGARD is imperative to keep in one’s own library as it is likely a book you’ll return to time and again for encouragement and perspective.
While THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD might be his most groundbreaking, Colson Whitehead’s entire body of fiction needs a special place in your library. His novels employs magical realism, science fiction, and Afrofuturism to reframe conversations about race and identity. But if you want to book shop “responsibly” and introduce his novels in your library one at a time, start with his Pulitzer-winning novel about a young slave Cora who escapes on board a real-life Underground Railroad.
How lucky are we that iconic literary works are translated for our enjoyment? See Haruki Murakami’s novel 1Q84 for instance, a take on George Orwell’s dystopia in 1984 but set in an alternate world in Tokyo.
In this reader’s humble opinion, short stories are a necessary part of everyone’s literary diet—whether you’re reading a collection in one fell swoop or a story in between books (the latter is my preference). The stories in FRIDAY BLACK illuminate what it’s like to be young and Black in America with a fresh perspective and voice. Think the day-in-a-life vibe of Atlanta meets the extremism of Black Mirror. Adjei-Brenyah’s stories tackle pressing issues like racism and unrest, prejudice in the justice system, and the terrors of
The work of a biographer of Walter Isaacson’s caliber is necessary for any home library worth its salt. As an art lover, my brother-in-law would adore this comprehensive biography on one of the most gifted artists in history. If you plan on owning all of Isaacson’s large books about larger-than-life figures and run out of space on your shelves, LEONARDO DA VINCI makes a great coffee table book.
Let’s be honest, we will never get over this award-winning novel. A surefire way to build your library with indisputably amazing fiction is to look for that Pulitzer Prize seal emblazoned on its cover. Anthony Doerr’s novel set in WWII-era France won the award in 2015 and hasn’t lost steam in accolades. Soon to be a Netflix series, this work of historical fiction is best r-read every few years.
Already beloved by millions of readers, this novel follows a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as they both try to survive the devastation of World War II. The breakout hit of 2014, this beautiful novel was a finalist for the National Book Award and it just won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. If you haven't read it yet, this one should be at the top of your spring reading list.