Everybody’s got a list of 100 books you should read before you die. I’m here to cross some of those off your list. Here are 20 books NOT everyone should read before they die, and who in particular wouldn’t enjoy them.

(These are mostly classics and speculative fiction, because that’s what I like to read.)

1. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Do you want a step-by-step guide to skinning and dismembering a whale? No? Then this encyclopedia of whaling disguised as a novel is probably not for you.

Read more of why I hate don’t recommend this book here.

Who Shouldn’t Read It:
Animal rights activists
Hydrophobic people
People who do not want an encyclopedic knowledge of whaling

2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

The granddaddy of “big books,” War and Peace follows a broad cast of characters through the Napoleonic Wars and includes an enormous amount of historical information. It also includes several entertaining rants about how historians are dumb.

I’m glad I read this, but many, many sections drag. Unless you’re really into Russian history, or like me you want to read all of the “big books,” you can skip this.

Who Shouldn’t Read It:
Easily offended historians

3. The Dying Grass by William Vollmann

Let me preface this by saying I adore this book. It’s on my list of recommended reading and inspired a critical essay analyzing the novel’s unique structure.

But it’s HARD. You don’t have the slightest idea what’s going on for the first 100 pages. Even after that, the unusual writing style makes it tough to follow the action, and at 1200 pages there’s a lot to get through. If you’re an ambitious and experienced reader of long and complex books, check this out, but otherwise keep to safer ground.

Who Shouldn’t Read It:
Anyone who hasn’t read a 1000-page book before
Anyone who hasn’t read stream-of-consciousness before
Anyone who weighs less than the hardcover edition

4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

This book’s protagonist is a pedophile. That should be enough to tell you whether you’d appreciate it. It’s extremely well-written and thought-provoking, but the squick factor is strong.

Who Shouldn’t Read It:

5. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

While the overall theme that all people are equally savage is poignant, the way this novella conveys that is gruesome and unpleasant.

Also, the opaque writing style makes comprehension a chore. “It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.” Didn’t understand that? Don’t read this book.

Who Shouldn’t Read It:
Haters of horror movies
Fans of straightforward prose

6. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This novel focuses on the tension between old money (people whose families have been rich for generations) and new money (people who have recently come into wealth). While relevant in its day, this novel doesn’t age well.

My husband coined a term called “The Great Gatsby Effect,” in which something is considered important because everyone keeps saying it’s important. But when you try to delve into that importance, most people can’t offer specifics. For us, this book exemplifies that effect. It’s useful for students of literature or history, skippable for everyone else.

Who Shouldn’t Read It:
Poor people

7. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

Put down the pitchforks. I love The Lord of the Rings. I also acknowledge that its long-winded info dumps and fantasy setting won’t appeal to everyone.

Modern fantasy owes much to Tolkien’s work, but in many ways we’ve also moved past it. Exposition is now built into the plot rather than delivered in huge paragraphs. Lore and magic impact current events rather than serving as mere backdrops. Women have conversations with other women.

Fantasy fans will always look to this series as a cornerstone of the genre, but if the books don’t resonate with you, that’s okay, too.

Who Shouldn’t Read It:
Non-fantasy fans
Impatient people

8. Walden by Henry David Thoreau

A guy goes to live in the woods.

No, really. That’s it. The rest of this book is a collection of his thoughts on living in the woods. It includes shopping lists, lengthy descriptions of beans he planted, and rants about how he has life figured out at thirty years old.

This is another book that was groundbreaking in its time, but now we’re tripping over books and blogs about simple living (not to mention pretentious thirty-year-olds who think they have life all figured out). Read if you like really slow meditative philosophy, but make sure to sit in an uncomfortable chair so you don’t drift off.

Who Shouldn’t Read It:
Bored people
Sleepy people
People allergic to beans

9. The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

I read this at eight years old, and spent the next six months checking for aliens in every corner and having nightmares. It’s a great book, but avoid if you’re prone to nightmares (or are eight).

Who Shouldn’t Read It:
Me, at eight

10. Dracula by Bram Stoker

Vampires. That should be exciting, right? It’s not. The last three pages are dramatic, but otherwise you’re basically reading the main heroine’s personal blog.

Who Shouldn’t Read It:
Fans of modern vampire stories
Fans of horror

11. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

A teenager joins a gang and massacres Native Americans. Over and over. It’s absolutely horrifying. Yes, that’s the point, but if your stomach turns easily at violence, give this one a pass.

Who Shouldn’t Read It:
The unprepared

12. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

(or really anything by William Faulkner)

I love William Faulkner. But reading his books is a little like doing underwater somersaults. You get dizzy and water goes up your nose and you’re not completely sure where the surface is. The first quarter of this book is nearly unintelligible. If you don’t like sitting and puzzling out what every line means, feel free to skip this.

Who Shouldn’t Read It:
People in a hurry
Speed readers
People currently doing underwater somersaults

13. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Rich people and formerly rich people going to rich people parties … and that’s about it. Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth, our romantic leads, are insufferable. They spend the first half of the book being vicious to each other, then boom. Suddenly they’re in love.

No, that is not how healthy relationships start, Ms. Austen, and I suspect a number of young woman have been misled by society holding this up as a romantic classic. If your boyfriend calls you names and non-jokingly insults your intellect every time he sees you, dump that jerk.

Who Shouldn’t Read It:
Anyone who’s been in a healthy relationship
Anyone who’s been in an abusive relationship
Anyone who has interest in ever being in a healthy relationship

14. The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan

Thought the drawn-out descriptions in The Lord of the Rings were too short? Now you have The Wheel of Time, to provide thousands more pages without developing plot, characters, or theme.

This series is 14 books long, each book clocking in at 700-1000 pages. And at least half of those pages really don’t need to be there. Moments of awesome lie in that pile of pages, but unless you’re a really big fantasy fan, save your time and read something else.

Who Shouldn’t Read It:
Anyone bored by constant “men/women are SO hard to understand” chatter
Those who already have a reading backlog

15. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare by [Insert Deductive Reasoning Here]

Seriously, just read the good plays.

Love’s Labors Lost is nearly unintelligible for its period-specific in-jokes. Taming of the Shrew and Merchant of Venice don’t come off well in the modern day. King Henry IV Part 2 actually apologies at the end for how pointless the play was.

Shakespeare wrote some gold, but he also wrote some dross, and you can skip those plays without shame.

Who Shouldn’t Read It:
Anyone who is not a theatre scholar

16. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

This was a very unique book for its time. But if you’re not a fan of humor based mostly on randomness, you probably won’t find it that funny. Read a chapter or two before buying.

Who Shouldn’t Read It:
Serious people
People who didn’t like the first couple chapters
People who thought the first couple chapters were kind of funny but a little annoying. (You will find them very annoying by the end.)

17. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

Clever wordplay? Yes! Mildly amusing situational comedy? Check! Plot?

… plot?


Fun if you enjoy studying Middle English linguistics, skippable if not.

Who Shouldn’t Read It:
People who don’t like poetry
People who think Shakespeare is difficult (this is worse)
People who want stories to have some sense of purpose

18. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

There are some darn good passages in this book.

There are also multi-page lists of nothing but fish names.

I am completely serious.

If you’re too bored to get through this one, don’t worry. We’ll all understand.

Who Shouldn’t Read It:
Anti-fish activists
Anyone with a fear of drowning

19. The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Suicide is not the answer to your problems, but this book portrays it as some romantically tragic fate that’ll really stick it to society. This idealism of suicide is still a problem in literature today. No, thank you.

Who Shouldn’t Read It:
Anyone with depression (Seriously. It’s not good for us.)

20. A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin

Wildly popular as a book series and even more popular on TV, this series was apparently created with the goal of presenting a realistic version of a fantasy world, where all the problems of actual Medieval Europe are still problems when you have magic.

These problems include war, disease, famine, racism, sexism, more war, religious persecution, torture, public executions, more war, and lots and lots and lots of rape, all depicted in loving, graphic detail.

Yes, it’s groundbreaking in the fantasy genre. But if you don’t want to spend your time hanging out in this world, no one should blame you.

Who Shouldn’t Read It:
Squeamish people
People who would prefer not to have certain images indelibly imprinted in their minds


So there’s my list, though I’m sure there are more out there. What highly acclaimed works do you not recommend, and why?


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