The best books to read at every age, from 1 to 100
Books are a portal to our personal histories. Pick up a worn copy of a childhood favorite and you might be transported to the warmth of a parent’s arms or a beanbag chair in a first-grade classroom or a library in your hometown. Avid readers could build autobiographies around their favorite books and come to the realization that what they have read is almost as meaningful as when they read it. A high schooler poring over “To Kill a Mockingbird” for a summer reading assignment encounters a different book than someone who reads it decades later, closer in age and outlook to Atticus than Scout.
In light of that reality, we took a stab at picking the best book for every age. There’s no definitive way to do this, of course. What moves one reader may not resonate with another, regardless of their birth year. So think of this list as a starting point, plus an invitation to look back at your own literary chronology: What spoke to you during a certain time in your life — and why? Feel free to submit your nominations here.
Here are our picks for worthwhile books to read during each year of life, from 1 to 100, along with some of the age-appropriate wisdom they impart.
—Stephanie Merry, Book World editor
“The Very Hungry Caterpillar”
Welcome to the world! It’s a good time to start learning numbers, days of the week and the helpful fact that too much food will give you a tummy ache.
“Llama Llama Red Pajama”
Your parents might not come the moment you call them, but they will come. And now is as good a time as any to start learning patience.
“Where the Wild Things Are”
You will act like a monster sometimes, but you can always go home again.
“Charlie Parker Played Be Bop”
It’s never too early to start appreciating a good improv riff.
“The Giving Tree”
Books can make you cry; trees deserve to be loved; and selfish little boys, if enabled, will grow into selfish old men.
“Ramona the Pest”
It’s not your fault. Older siblings are the worst.
“The Complete Calvin and Hobbes”
Friendship can be so magically transformative that it might turn a stuffed tiger into a partner in crime.
“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”
Enjoy your first brush with binge reading on an adventure you’ll never forget.
“Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing”
Hang in there. Younger siblings are the worst.
Underneath whatever embarrassing, ostentatious orthodontia you’re forced to trot out, you’re still you.
Not all childhoods are idyllic and not all parents are good, but if you look, you’ll find people to help you reach your potential.
“Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry”
The terrible legacy of racism touches everyone and benefits no one.
“I Am Malala”
There’s power in peaceful protest. Danger, too.
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”
Everyone feels like an outcast sometimes. You just need to find your island of misfit toys to call home.
“The Hate U Give”
Being true to yourself may cost you friends. It’s worth it.
Nobody understands you and your terribly unfair life. Reader, you are not alone.
“Once Upon a River”
Feeling lost? Time spent in nature may guide you back to yourself.
“A Gate at the Stairs”
There are many important lessons to learn in college, not all of them from books.
“The Handmaid’s Tale”
Behold the scary possibilities of our dystopian future, inspired by our dystopian present.
“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”
Hilariously tortured, exuberant nerds are great company.
“The Sun Also Rises”
You’re old enough to drink and carouse with your friends. Isn’t it pretty to think so?
“Democracy in America”
To truly understand the country we live in, sometimes you have to see it through the eyes of a 19th-century Frenchman.
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X”
There’s power in confrontational protest. Danger, too.
Marvel at the profundity of its objectivist themes — then, in a few years, marvel at your naivete.
“I Capture the Castle”
Keep a journal and don’t forget the most personal details. It’ll make for an entertaining, maybe even enlightening, read one day.
Our grandest ambitions may spur us toward far-flung places — and heartbreaking disasters — but ultimately there’s no place like home.
“The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”
It’s time to decide whether you’re a self-help book person. Because a better you is just a page-turn away.
To truly understand oppression — including a host of destructive -isms — try walking in the shoes of this pioneer of intersectionality.
“In Defense of Food”
So much of what you need to know about consumption can be summed up in Pollan’s simple directive: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
“The Joy of Sex”
Live a little.
“Mastering the Art of French Cooking”
Now that you’re proficient in spaghetti with meat sauce, it’s time to up your game. Beef bourguignon, anyone?
“The Grapes of Wrath”
This high school English-class staple is even more devastating when read from the perspective of a parent — or anyone old enough to be one.
“Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story”
Society may try to force you into a mold. You don’t have to comply.
The legacy of slavery still haunts this nation.
“How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk”
Tips for communicating with children also come in handy when dealing with adults who act like them.
“Life Among the Savages”
For parents, best-laid plans are an exercise in futility.
“The Joy Luck Club”
Your mother has stories to tell and insights to share, though you might not be ready to hear them until you’re grown up.
There is a lost and sad, yet somehow hopeful, dude lurking inside every man.
“What Alice Forgot”
Is this where you really want to be in life? Because it’s not too late to do things differently.
“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”
Life is fleeting and unpredictable. Accomplish your goals while you still can, obstacles be damned.
You may feel like fleeing sometimes, but remember: Selfishness is not a victimless crime.
“The Woman Upstairs”
When everyone expects you to act like a cheerful and invisible old maid, get angry.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God”
You have your finger on the trigger of your own destiny.
The images of love we start with never leave us.
“Where’d You Go, Bernadette”
When it comes to midlife crises, go big or go home.
“Salvage the Bones”
Sometimes the only thing you can do is cling to those you love and wait out the storm.
As if you need a reminder, you’re not 25 anymore. Treat your body accordingly.
You’re juggling a lot. You’ve earned a good laugh from a celebrity who doesn’t pretend to be picture-perfect.
Living a life of quiet desperation, you’re ready to hear Thoreau’s inspiring advice.
“Fifty Shades of Grey”
Spice things up — or at least enjoy a good laugh.
“Who Do You Think You Are?”
It’s the small moments that define us.
“Men Without Women”
Life is a riddle with no right answer; attempting to figure out the solution is its own reward.
“A Man Called Ove”
It gets harder to make new friends as you age, but do it anyway. They might save your life.
“The Denial of Death”
What would you do — and who would you be — if you weren’t afraid of dying?
A person can be cruel and difficult but also loving and worthy of compassion.
“When Things Fall Apart”
Every challenge is an opportunity for transformative wisdom.
“Remains of the Day”
If you’ve been living according to someone else’s rules, you can stop now.
“The Plague of Doves”
Think about what’s come before you because “history works itself out in the living.”
Don’t blame your age if you’re feeling creaky. It could just be the way you’re using (or not using) your body.
“The Five Years Before You Retire”
Not to stress you out, but time is ticking. Do you have a good plan?
“Fear of Dying”
There are many ways to age. Gracefully doesn’t have to be one of them.
“Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand”
Love knows no bounds, especially when books bring people together.
“Our Souls at Night”
Curing loneliness can be as simple as asking for company.
“Old in Art School”
It’s not too late to try a new career, but brace yourself for the ageist naysayers.
“65 Things to Do When You Retire”
If you need ideas, Jimmy Carter, Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem have suggestions.
The “Outlander” series
You don’t need time travel to keep the romantic sparks flying as you age — just imagination.
You finally have time to read the first modern novel.
“The Year of Magical Thinking”
Grief can make you feel like you’re losing your mind. That’s normal.
“I Remember Nothing”
“Every time one of my friends says to me, ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ I would like to smack her.”
“Master Class: Living Longer, Stronger, and Happier”
Among the secrets to a fulfilling life: Never stop learning.
You are forever linked to the time and place of your birth. What you do with that connection is up to you.
“Love in the Time of Cholera”
In the words of the Supremes: “You can’t hurry love. You just have to wait.” Sometimes decades.
“The Years of Lyndon Johnson”
At 83, Caro is still working on this extraordinary series. You have time to catch up.
“Paris in the Present Tense”
“Music is the only thing powerful enough to push aside the curtain of time,” so fill your life with song.
“The History of Love”
Time cannot forever thwart the persistence of real affection.
“Women Rowing North”
With the right mind-set — and a willingness to say no — this could be the time of your life.
You’re ready to start thinking about what your life means and the legacy you’ll leave behind.
Within this gentle tale lies a good lesson to share with grandchildren and to remind yourself: Change is the only constant.
“The Coming of Age”
You don’t have to act your age.
“Coming Into Eighty: Poems”
Your ship may be battered, but what a voyage “Of learning what to be / And how to become it.”
At 81, the poet took stock of her life with a collection spanning five decades that asks, “What it is you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”
“The Summer of a Dormouse”
When your body stops doing what you want it to, laughter is a great coping mechanism.
All the thrillers and mysteries
If you haven’t yet acquainted yourself with Easy Rawlins, Mrs. Pollifax, Maisie Dobbs, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and Commissario Guido Brunetti, invite them over. They’re great company.
“The Last Unknowns”
With time and wisdom to spare, there may be no better moment to ponder life’s big mysteries.
Our oldest friendships can still fascinate us.
It’s never too late to make peace with your personal history.
Count your blessings for unconditional love, and express your appreciation to the people who bestow it.
“Nearing Ninety: And Other Comedies of Late Life”
Take it from someone who finds humor even in the tribulations of advancing age: “What’s there to complain about? Not much.”
“A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing 90”
“Why should the nonagenarian hold anything back?” That, you’ll be happy to hear, is a rhetorical question.
“Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God”
You may have to journey into the past to make sense of your present.
“Selected Poems: 1988-2013”
Enlightenment and beauty abound, even in the seemingly mundane moments of everyday life.
“Nothing to be Frightened Of”
Don’t avoid the big questions of life and death and faith: Tackle them straight on with help from some of the greatest thinkers.
You’ve witnessed nearly a century. Now behold the history of mankind.
“This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism”
There are a lot of myths about aging. Don’t buy into any of them.
The Neapolitan novels
A true friendship can survive the ravages of time.
“Somewhere Towards the End”
There’s no value in regret.
“My Own Two Feet”
Every choice you’ve made has led you here, where you belong.
“Life Is So Good”
Dawson learned to read at 98, then wrote a book. So what are you going to do today?
Just because you’re old doesn’t mean you’ve lost the beat.
“Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author”
Life is a wonderful adventure. Books make it even better.
About the story
Ron Charles, Nora Krug, Geoff Edgers, Monica Hesse, Carlos Lozada and Manuel Roig-Franzia contributed to this story. Photos by Marvin Joseph. Design by Elizabeth Hart. Production assistance from Victoria Fogg. Thank you to the Mount Pleasant Library and models: June Kilgore (1), Viviana Thompson (3), Adrian Alvarez (8), Charlie Ourlian (13), Alicia June (14), Galen June (14), Aidan Byrne (18), Eric Do (23), Nat Baldino (26), Josh Yazman (27), Ashley Rephlo (32), Bilal Qureshi (36), Jeremy Rephlo (42), Annie Linehan Czerwinski (45), Randy McCracken (55), Alan Schmidt (57), Milton Kendall (61), Franchella Kendall (65), Wendy Harper (66), Seyed Hosseini (72), Diana Kuhl (78), Dominie Nash (79), Susan Shreve (80), BJ Adams (88) and Julia Cancio (96).