40 novels I aim to read by the time I’m 40

by Stephen Tall on September 12, 2016

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In six months’ time I turn 40. This isn’t a total shock – the previous 39 birthdays have prepared me pretty well for the eventuality – but it is an unignorable milestone.

I don’t have a “before I’m 40” bucket-list. Just as well: a small child, full-time job and newly-renovated house needing decorating (in order of importance) don’t allow for the “must do’s” that online lists prescribe: visit Australia, start a business, play an instrument, go to Glastonbury, write a book, etc.

But I like reading and I want to make the time to do more of it. After my dad died in April, I found I couldn’t engage with novels. I still read plenty – newspapers, magazines, stuff for work – but somehow wrapping my head around new characters and situations was beyond me. I went four months without finishing a book, though I unsuccessfully started a couple. That’s not normal for me. It was only when I went on holiday in August that I felt ready to pick up the habit again.

And now I want to spend the next six months starting to make up for that lost time, plus my more general lacunae. That’s the reason for the list, below: the 40 novels I want to read by the time I’m 40. Chances are I won’t manage that feat – it’s almost two a week, after all – but “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp”. By the time I’m 41 anyway.

The list is drawn from a few sources:

An online trawl of “books you should have read” – I’m acutely aware I have big gaps in my reading, as brilliantly represented in Tom Gauld’s cartoon, My Library:


But I didn’t want a list chock-full of drearily worthy literary classics that would make me feel miserable and guilty as I approached my 40th. So sorry, but JRR Tolkein, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Thomas Hardy (to name but three) haven’t made the cut. There’s a few, but not many, canonical works.

Booker Prize winners – I briefly thought about trying to read every winner (I’ve read most of the past 15 years’) then I looked at the full list and realised there were some I just couldn’t face (Ben Okri, James Kelman, Richard Flanagan), no matter how brilliant they are. So there’s a smattering, including short-listees, but not to excess.

Best Books of the Decade So Far, according to The Oyster Review – another list I’d thought of consuming before realising I’d run out of steam and, anyway, life’s too short and six months is waaaay too short.

My bookshelves / Kindle – I buy loads of books and read cover-to-cover probably about one-fifth, dip into two-thirds, and ultimately end up ignoring whatever weird fraction that leaves me with. But there are also some, including a handful of my favourite authors (Kazuo Ishiguro, Jonathan Franzen, Sarah Waters), which I’ve set aside because I want to savour them. And approaching your 40th seems like a good time to raid that bank.

What this list isn’t, by the way, is a “40 novels you must read before you turn 40”. By definition, books I’ve already read are not included here.

This list is, rather, an entirely subjective collection of books that I aim to make the time to read before my mid-life crisis strikes and I end up obsessed by young cars and fast women. And, inevitably, there will also be other books I come across in the next six months which end up elbowing some of these aside.


1. Amis, Martin – London Fields

2. Atkinson, Kate – Behind The Scenes At The Museum

3. Bradbury, Malcolm – The History Man

4. Carter, Angela – Nights at the Circus

5. Cercas, Javier – Outlaws

6. Coetzee, J. M. – Disgrace

7. Cole, Teju – Open City

8. Desai, Kiran – The Inheritance of Loss

9. Dunmore, Helen – The Siege

10. Faulks, Sebastian – Birdsong

11. Fitzgerald, F. Scott – The Great Gatsby

12. Fitzgerald, Penelope – Offshore

13. Franzen, Jonathan – Freedom

14. Heller, Joseph – Catch-22

15. Hemingway Ernest – For Whom The Bell Tolls

16. Ishiguro, Kazuo – The Buried Giant

17. James, Marlon – A Brief History of Seven Killings

18. Kafka, Franz – The Trial

19. Keneally, Thomas – Schindler’s Ark

20. Lee, Harper – To Kill a Mockingbird

21. Lively, Penelope – Moon Tiger

22. Marukami, Haruki – Norwegian Wood

23. McEwan, Ian – Nutshell

24. Munro, Alice – Too Much Happiness

25. Murdoch, Iris – The Sacred and Profane Love Machine

26. Obreht, Téa – The Tiger’s Wife

27. Orwell, George – Homage to Catalonia

28. Robinson, Marilynne – Housekeeping

29. Rushdie, Salman – Midnight’s Children

30. Saah Behr, Conseulo – Three Daughters

31. Smith, Ali – How to Be Both

32. Smith, Zadie – NW

33. Tyler, Anne – The Accidental Tourist

34. Vasquez, Juan Gabriel – The Sound of Things Falling

35. Vonnegut, Kurt – Slaughterhouse-Five

36. Waters, Sarah – The Little Stranger

37. Wharton, Edith – The Age of Innocence

38. Winterson, Jeanette – Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

39. Woolf, Virginia – To the Lighthouse

40. Yanagihara, Hanya – A Little Life

And then there were the ones that got away… Even though I thought I’d been pretty ruthless when short-listing it turned out I’d been long-listing. So here’s the 19 that, ultimately, got pruned. Although if any of the above fail the “50-page test” (unless you’re enjoying a book by then, what’s the bloody point?) they may get re-instated.

1. Atwood, Margaret – The Blind Assassin

2. Austen, Jane – Persuasion

3. Carey, Peter – Oscar and Lucinda

4. Crace, Jim – Quarantine

5. Cruz Smith, Martin – Gorky Park

6. Eliot, TS – Prufrock and Other Observations

7. Ferris, Joshua – To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

8. Fey, Tina – Bossypants

9. Gardam, Jane – The Queen of the Tambourine

10. Greer, Germaine – The Female Eunuch

11. Kundera, Milan – The Unbearable Lightness of Being

12. Lessing, Doris – The Golden Notebook

13. Morrison, Toni – Song Of Solomon

14. Murray, Paul – Skippy Dies

15. Powell, Anthony – A Dance to the Music of Time

16. Steinbeck, John – The Grapes of Wrath

17. Tóibin, Colm – Brooklyn

18. Trollope, Anthony – Phineas Finn

19. Wilde, Oscar – The Picture Of Dorian Grey

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