While Nick Offerman’s Emersonian manual Paddle Your Own Canoe might appear to be the one-stop instructional screed for aspiring rugged individualists, there are plenty of other books out there that offer insight into how (and, more importantly, how not) to be a man.
From surviving on Antarctic ice floes without GPS or even radio, fighting fascist aggressors in a proxy war, to eschewing normal relationships for a string of prostitutes, to learning the real history of ESPN, to being literally the last man on Earth, these books provide a wide range of valuable life lessons and sometimes profound insights into the conflicted nature of man.
For your edification, 25 books every man should read:
Back in the days before the United States was in a perpetual state of war, guys used to go looking for trouble wherever they could find it. (Hemingway himself was an ambulance driver in WWI.)
Hemingway’s protagonist, Robert Jordan, takes to the hills of Spain in the 1930s and joins a group of ragtag rebels fighting against the fascist forces of General Franco in a proxy war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. He’s tasked with blowing up a bridge and halting the fascist advance. Jordan, it turns out, is one heroic son of a bitch.
My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgard (2009-11)
The 46-year-old Norwegian writer is basically known for one thing: his six-volume literary memoir that shares its name with Hitler’s infamous book. But where the erstwhile Nazi dictator’s screed was hate-filled and incomprehensible, Knausgard’s books are a poignant, intimate portrait of a recognizable man struggling with the mundanity of everyday life.
I feel like I’m not really selling this, but trust me, it’s great—a modern Proustian reflection perfect for men of a certain age. To date, only two of the books have been translated into English, but the rest are coming soon.
Rogue Male, by Geoffrey Household (1939)
Penned on the eve of war in Europe, Household’s novel has an unnamed protagonist—a British sportsman with a penchant for danger—who goes on a hunt for the world’s most dangerous game. Which, in this case, is not a Bengal tiger or man himself, but an unnamed European dictator. (Guess who.)
Household’s hero must use all of his hunter’s cunning and British reserve to survive and bag his prize, especially once his cover is blown and the secret police come knocking.
Paying for It, by Chester Brown (2011)
Brown is one of the more singular graphic novelists out there. His illustrated “biography” of French-Canadian statesman-messiah Louis Riel is a classic. Paying for It is a more autobiographical affair, detailing the author’s conscious decision to forgo traditional dating mores for a steady stream of prostitutes.
It’s not nearly as sordid as it sounds; more just one man’s attempt to navigate the treacherous waters of love and relationships in an unconventional way.
More: The Best Fantasy Books
The Sportswriter, by Richard Ford (1986)
The book that put Ford on the map is the story of Ralph Bascombe, a once-aspiring-novelist-turned-sportswriter in his late thirties who is forced to deal with the untimely death of his son.
Bascombe seeks refuge from the sorrows and complications of life in the simplicity and purity of sports, something those of us who can remember specific calls in a meaningless NFC East game twenty years ago but not our anniversary can sympathize with.
The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett (1934)
Hammett’s last novel is also his most famous, the story of a semi-retired private investigator named Nick Charles, his young and fetching wife Nora, their dog Asta, and the many liters of booze they consume throughout each and every day.
The Charleses are perhaps the highest functioning alcoholics in all of fiction. Charles can be eight martinis down before noon and still solve a murder by happy hour.
Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy (1985)
Most Westerns follow a pretty traditional formula. A man rides into town. Local toughs seek to challenge the said hero. Some kind of showdown or Mexican standoff ensues. A man rides off into the sunset.
Blood Meridian is something different. McCarthy, the grizzled writer responsible for the likes of No Country for Old Men and The Road, tells the story of “the kid,” a teenaged drifter who falls in with a bad crowd of professional scalpers (and not the mostly harmless kind who sell tickets at significant markups).
McCarthy’s Kurtz-like character Judge Holden is one of the most terrifying creations you’ll ever read about and may, in fact, help you see your slavedriver of a boss in a better light by comparison.
Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana Jr. (1840)
We tend to bitch and moan when our flights get delayed a few hours, turning to social media to share our intense hardships with the world. The real-life story of 19-year-old Richard Henry Dana can help put that in perspective. This young man decided to leave aristocratic Boston life and joins up with a ship to see the world.
Over the course of two years, Dana and his adopted crew sail around Cape Horn and on to California. Dana’s book occasionally reads like Sinclair’s The Jungle but for sailors and paints an incredible portrait of pre-Civil War life out west. If only Instagram had been invented…
Endurance, by Alfred Lansing (1959)
In 1915, Ernest Shackleton led an expedition to Antarctica. The team’s ship, the Endurance, was soon captured in ice and crushed like a tin can. With no radios, no GPS, and meager rations, Shackleton somehow keeps everyone together and gets them out of there with only a few frostbitten appendages to show for casualties.
It’s an incredible tale of leadership and penguin-eating that stands as a strong argument for never giving up even in the face of the bleakest and hopeless of situations.
Those Guys Have All the Fun, by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales (2011)
Back when ESPN started in the late 1970s, it was nothing more than an idea no one thought would work and a couple of office buildings in the cultural wasteland of Bristol, Connecticut. Within ten years, it was well on its way toward becoming the 24-hour sports news force it is today. This oral history takes it all the way back to Bill Rasmussen and his son, Scott, and an idea they had while stuck in traffic one day.
It goes through the early Berman-Ley years, to the contentious and brilliant era of Olbermann, legendary parties in Bristol, all the way to the current Disney era.
The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway (1926)
That Hemingway, at the age of 26, so perfectly captured life in pre-WWII Paris and Spain, with all the decadence and dissipation, would be galling if the book weren’t so damn good. Jake Barnes is a cultivated man in the prime of his life who suffered a grievous injury to his manly parts during the first World War.
As such, he will never be able to woo the intoxicating Lady Brett Ashley, who cares about that kind of thing. All of Hemingway’s timeless themes—drinking, bullfighting, drinking—are right here.
Boxing: A Cultural History, by Kasia Boddy (2008)
The oldest sport in human history is most likely the venerable footrace. Still, a close second would probably be dudes punching each other in the face.
Bodie’s hefty tome explores the history and cultural resonance of the sweet science, charting its origins many thousands of years before the birth of Christ through the punishing reign of a young and angry man from Brooklyn named “Iron” Mike Tyson.
The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen (1978)
Justly praised as one of the best travelogues ever written, The Snow Leopard chronicles the experiences of Matthiessen—a National Book Award winner and noted naturalist—during his two-month Himalayan odyssey alongside George Schaller.
Coming on the heels of the death of his wife, much of the book is concerned with personal reflections and Buddhist musings. Poetic and visceral, Matthiessen’s search for the elusive creature from which his book takes its name, and his own peace of mind makes for an engrossing exercise in existential awareness.
Butcher’s Crossing, by John Williams (1963)
John Williams is the greatest writer you’ve probably never heard of. The man wrote four slim works of fiction, and each could rightly be called a masterpiece, and Butcher’s Crossing may be the greatest of these. In the years following the Civil War, young Will Andrews decides to emulate the likes of Emerson and Muir, dropping out of Harvard and heading out to Kansas.
Here he falls in with a frontier huckster who tells him of a near-mythological herd of buffalo in a hidden Colorado valley. Shockingly enough, they find the valley and the lost tribe of buffs, but that’s when shit starts to get real. Things get all Treasure of the Sierra Madre as they’re snowed in and forced to survive the elements.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain (1889)
Who among us doesn’t dream of taking our modern knowledge with us into the past where we can exploit it for gain and glory? Twain’s hero Hank Morgan does just that when he’s sent back to Arthurian times.
Morgan is himself a caricature of the New England self-reliant man, and Morgan is able to dazzle his Dark Ages hosts with his intimate understanding of explosives and engineering, and astronomy.
If most of us today were put in Morgan’s position, we, unfortunately, wouldn’t be much help without the aid of our iPhones.
Y: The Last Man, by Brian K. Vaughn (2002-2008)
When one day he wakes up to find that he’s the last living male on Earth—human or otherwise—Joe everyman Yorick Brown undertakes to survive in a world populated entirely by females.
It’s every bit as difficult as you might think. In a less skilled writer’s hands, it could’ve been a gimmicky, boilerplate post-apocalyptic snooze fest, but Vaughn writes Yorick in a touchingly identifiable way.
Y: The Last Man gives new meaning to the idea of a man getting in touch with his feminine side.
The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (1885)
The great Mark Twain actually helped Grant write his war recollections while the latter was on his deathbed, which in itself is a great story.
But it’s Grant—who was seen at times during the Civil War as an incompetent and a drunk, and whose presidency is considered one of the worst in American history—whose star really shines through in this martial memoir.
Grant wisely decided to focus his attention on his experiences during the war between the states and leaves out much of what came before or after. His direct, unembellished style fits the industrial horror of the conflict, and Twain rightly compared it to Caesar’s Commentaries.
Rabbit, Run, by John Updike (1960)
Commitment? Marriage? Kids? The suburbs? Fear of these things among men is a tale as old as time, but it was perhaps never better expressed than in John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom books.
Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a former high-school basketball star, is at 26, married with a kid and another on the way. Before long, he feels the middle-class walls closing in on him and runs off without a word.
Much of his self-imposed exile is spent in the arms of a prostitute, as Angstrom chases an elusive dream of freedom.
The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas (1844)
Revenge is a dish best served awesome. Loosely based on the trials and tribulations of Dumas’ father (whose incredible life can be read about in Tom Reiss’s book The Black Count), The Count of Monte Cristo follows naïve sailor Edmond Dantes, who is betrayed by a friend and thrown in the dreaded Château d’If for six years.
Dantes meets an interesting old man while in the clink, and this fellow tells him about a vast treasure. The old man doesn’t make it, but Dantes does. He finds the treasure and uses the limitless resources it provides to make his enemies pay dearly.
Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, by Wallace Stegner (1954)
Stegner, known primarily as a novelist and one of the founders of the modern MFA program, was also a fair hand at historical nonfiction.
In Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, he tells the story of John Wesley Powell, a one-armed geologist, and adventurer who was the first person to chart the Grand Canyon in what came to be known as the Powell Geographic Expedition.
Stegner, whose identity was always tied up with the West and conservation in general, tells Powell’s story with skill and insight.
The Lost City of Z, by David Grann (2009)
They just don’t make swashbuckling adventurers like they used to. Grann, a writer for the New Yorker, finds himself drawn in by the story of Percy Fawcett, a famous British explorer. He, in 1925, disappeared without a trace while looking for an ancient “lost” city in the Amazon.
Fawcett, who became obsessed with the legends, was perhaps doomed from the start. Grann, for his part, becomes almost equally fixated on Percy’s quest, and it’s easy to see how stories that have come down from ancient times can drive men past the point of reason.
Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates (1961)
Leonardo DeCaprio played Yates’s protagonist Frank Wheeler in the film version of the novel.
That feels right because Wheeler sure is a Grade-A douche. Rather than run away from his middle-class life, as Rabbit does, Wheeler keeps himself going through delusions of grandeur. He believes that he is truly a great man who is temporarily stuck among the rabble.
Wheeler, as you might have guessed, is all blustery nonsense. When the opportunity arises to flee to Europe and be artists or whatever, Wheeler instead sleeps with a woman from the office and salivates over a promotion. A cautionary tale, if ever there was one.
Wind, Sand, and Stars, by Antoine de St. Exupery (1939)
The well-known author of The Little Prince also wrote one of the more moving meditations you’ll ever read on flying, freedom, friendship, and survival. St. Exupery, a French aristocrat, pilot, and national hero, was lost while flying over the Mediterranean in 1944.
Still, it’s probably safe to say he died doing what he loved. An account in Wind, Sand, and Stars describe him and his copilot going down near in the desert near Benghazi in 1935.
They survived only by the barest chance, but our dauntless hero was back up in the air in no time.
The Dog of the South, by Charles Portis (1979)
Charles Portis is probably best known as the author of the western True Grit. Still, the truth is that it’s probably the book least representative of such a remarkable humorist.
Ray Midge’s wife ran off with her ex-husband and added insult to injury when she took Ray’s car and his credit cards with her. Midge isn’t going to take this insult lying down, though, and takes off on a hilarious and depressing journey of redemption and maybe revenge through the American southwest.
Carver is today widely considered one of them, if not the greatest short-story writer in American history. It was not always so. Carver struggled mightily with alcoholism and painful rejection early on, and a lot of this comes through in his writing.
Carver’s stories—“They’re Not Your Husband,” “Neighbors,” “Night School,” for instance—serve as perfect examples of ways not to be.
If you’re looking for more insights into what it means to be a man, these books should provide some valuable lessons. Whether your interests are in surviving on ice floes or fighting fascist aggressors, we hope our list of 25 Books Every Man Should Read will help guide you towards the right one for you!
Last update on 2021-03-13 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API