The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams, 1979
Brief—but uproariously funny—Douglas Adams' iconic sci-fi comedy has become a staple of genre fiction for good reason. No one knows how to wring humor out of a sentence quite like Adams: "The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't," for example, is one of his many turns of phrase that shines in its simultaneous simplicity and sharpness of image, a clockwork clause that is exceedingly efficient in its worldbuilding and storytelling. There are few things more difficult to do well than humor in fiction, but Adams is a master of his craft, and Hitchhiker's Guide is a delight to read.
Animorphs (#1-52, +Megamorphs #1-4, +Chronicles #1-4) - K.A. Applegate, 1996-2001
Animorphs has a special place in my heart. I read much of the series when I was a youngin' because it was chock-full of cool things like aliens and spaceships and time travel and teenagers turning into animals. Stuff kids like, right? But when I revisited the series out of curiosity during college, I discovered an overlooked masterpiece of children's literature: a profound meditation on the physical, emotional, and psychological toll of warfare, and an intensely challenging exploration and examination of power, nature, and disability that dares you to read against the text. I wrote my senior thesis on Animorphs; it deserves a comprehensive critical discourse as much as the other two great works of children's literature from the late 90s and early 2000s—Harry Potter and A Series of Unfortunate Events—and I am determined to do my part in bringing that discourse to life. Please read Animorphs.
Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret - Judy Blume, 1970
Judy Blume's classic may feel outdated, but it remains emotionally truthful to the experience of growing up and confronting the hypocrisy of religion and sexuality for the first time. If there was ever any doubt that Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret is an essential read, consider merely the frequency with which its title is spoofed in pop culture and the frequency with which ignorant folks still attempt to ban it for fear that it is corrupting their children. It's a brief but immensely important book.
Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury, 1950
The irony always seems to be lost on those who attempt to ban Fahrenheit 451, a book about a dystopian future in which firemen burn books because they are full of dangerous ideas that actually encourage people to learn and think for themselves. It's not a particularly subtle work—I'll give you that. But it is clearly a necessary one, given that it has horrifyingly become more and more relevant over the years. If there was ever any doubt as to the importance of art and literature to our collective humanity, Fahrenheit 451 provides firm and indisputable ground on which to stand and fight.
Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte, 1847
A landmark text in both feminist and Victorian literature, Jane Eyre slyly comments on class and gender and religion (amongst other themes) as its titular character transitions between various locations and relationships and begins to define herself along the way. It's a messy novel that sometimes struggles not to lose itself as it slips between different tones, styles, and genres, but it's a uniquely interesting piece of literature whose influence on fiction in the subsequent centuries can hardly be overstated.
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War - Max Brooks, 2006
World War Z may not be the definitive work of zombie fiction for the early 21st century (The Walking Dead has that status under lock and key), but it is certainly the definitive zombie novel. Structured in a series of interviews in which each character relates his or her experiences with the undead plague, Brooks wisely keeps his focus away from blood-and-guts (although there is plenty of both) and on people. This format allows him to move between various styles and genres, from action to horror to existentialist meditation, and the result is a tapestry of stories that feels authentic in its endeavor to understand how humans react to the threat of extinction on both a personal and collective level.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There - Lewis Carroll, 1865/1871
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are perhaps even more rewarding to read as an adult than as a child; Carroll's mastery of language may appear magical to young readers, but you realize when you get older that the precision of his craft is downright genius. I am always surprised by how much structural and syntactical joy there is to discover in these books. You might be under the impression that Carroll's classics for children have become so inextricable from pop culture that your mere knowledge of their existence is a sufficient substitute for actually reading them, but you'd be wrong. These are rich, delightful books, brimming with devious wordplay and unexpected twists and turns that are infinitely thrilling to unpack no matter how old you happen to be.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky, 1999
Rarely has a young adult book displayed such bare-boned honesty as The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the epistolary tale of a high schooler named Charlie who struggles to navigate the waters of love, abuse, trauma, anxiety, bigotry, and friendship. Chbosky does not condescend to his audience, but rather respects your intelligence and forces you to extrapolate many of the narrative's key events from Charlie's allusions. Shoutout to the 2012 film adaption of the novel, too, which was written and directed by Chbosky himself and actually survives the transition to the screen with its soul intact.
2001: A Space Odyssey - Arthur C. Clarke, 1968
What are the odds? 2001 is the product of a collaboration between Arthur C. Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick, who released his (probably more famous) film mere months before Clarke's novel hit shelves—and, astoundingly, they are both masterpieces in their own way. Where Kubrick awes and innovates in the language of cinema, Clarke demonstrates versatility in genre, scope, and style; the novel, already short, is broken down into four shorter segments which capture intellectual awakenings, philosophical dilemmas, heart-pounding thrills, and a sense of grandeur unmatched by Kubrick.
The Hunger Games (#1-3) - Suzanne Collins, 2008-2010
The Hunger Games trilogy was a pivotal moment for young adult literature; it didn't invent dystopias by any means, but it certainly popularized them. Collins is not particularly talented when it comes to constructing interesting sentences—her strengths as a writer shine through in her rich worldbuilding and use of structure. This latter quality is most evident in the final book of the trilogy, Mockingjay, in which Collins thematically turns the entire series on its head. The Hunger Games is wicked satire, cutting to the heart of first-world hypocrisy even as it dares us to revel in the condemned bloodshed.
A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens, 1843
Desperately written to "stave" (the five chapters of A Christmas Carol are called staves, so...it's funny?) off a personal financial crisis, Dickens just happened to create the most famous Christmas story ever conceived this side of the Three Wise Men. Structured in the vein of a moralistic fable, this mercifully brief novella chronicles Ebeneezer Scrooge's confrontations with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come; you know the rest. The clarity of Dickens' vision and the mythic simplicity of his tale make A Christmas Carol work, even if its message is overbearing in its sugary sweetness.
The Virgin Suicides - Jeffrey Eugenides, 1993
Haunting. Mournful. Otherworldly. These are just a few of the adjectives that come to mind when I think about The Virgin Suicides, a challenging novel about five sisters who commit suicide for unknown reasons in riot-ridden 70s Detroit. Investigating the deaths in their own informal way are a group of neighborhood boys, and this is where the book becomes truly interesting: Eugenides elects to use the first-person plural perspective to tell his story, a bold and unusual choice that compounds the lyricism and discomforting nature of the novel. There are no easy answers to be found here in The Virgin Suicides, no tidy conclusions, but it's an unforgettable meditation on death and learning to live.
As I Lay Dying - William Faulkner, 1930
There are perhaps a half dozen Faulkner novels that could (and should) be considered masterpieces, but As I Lay Dying is the one that makes me want to give up writing and cry into a pillow forever. It's an exercise in points-of-view that would put George R.R. Martin to shame, it contains one of the single most devastating lines in the history of English literature, and it is so rich with subtext and metaphor that you can read it over and over again and still uncover new meaning. Faulkner's chronicle of the Bundren family and their quest to bury their dead mother stands tall in the pantheon of 20th-century English literature—this is a true masterpiece in every sense of the word.
The Sound and the Fury - William Faulkner, 1929
"It is a tale / told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / signifying nothing." Perhaps the most Faulknerian of all Faulkner books, The Sound and the Fury (the title comes from Macbeth) utilizes unrelenting stream-of-consciousness to plunge you into the heads of the Compson family. It is for this narrative technique that this novel earns its way onto this list; rarely has the process of human thought been captured so vividly on the page, and Faulkner's mastery of his craft will inspire you to find your bearings even as you are swept off your feet time and time again. This is tough literature at its most rewarding.
The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925
The Great Gatsby isn't always the most subtle of books, I'll give you that (hey, did you know that the green light represents the American dream?). But the symbolism is so rich and so rewarding to explore, from the eyes of doctor T. J. Eckleburg to the suffocating heat on the day of the novel's climax to the Christian imagery of Gatsby carrying the mattress upon his back, refusing help along the way. And that's to say nothing of the moment in which the curtain is pulled back and the true vacuity and vapidity of the characters comes into focus, an underappreciated and genuinely subversive twist that never fails to shock me in its ability to crystallize the themes and tragedy of the book. It's popular and convenient to hate on The Great Gatsby, but this is a true masterpiece of American literature.
Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn, 2012
Possibly the defining literary phenomenon of the 2010s, Gone Girl expertly intertwines a compelling thriller with a cutting satire about marriage and gender roles in early 21st-century America. It's a particularly controversial novel on the feminist front; it is both honest and subversive in its portrayals of women behaving immorally, a quality which misogynists managed to distort into ammunition supporting their ignorant causes. That's precisely why Gone Girl is so important, though—it doesn't ladle out "strong female character" clichés, but rather challenges you to think critically about the roles which women play in society and why they play those roles. It's also a surprisingly deft page-turner.
George - Alex Gino, 2016
George isn't exactly a nuanced portrayal of gender dysphoria, but it's a simple and lovely introduction to the subject for young readers (considering its demographic, I'd say that nuance isn't particularly necessary). This is the tale of a fourth-grade girl who wants to play Charlotte in the school production of Charlotte's Web; she is turned down, however, because she has a male body. It's a sweet and ultimately heartwarming story that shrugs off the baggage of gender identity in favor of a single core conflict: how do you express who you are in a world where people expect you to be who you aren't?
The Fault in Our Stars - John Green, 2012
The Fault in Our Stars is here on this list more for its influence on pop culture than its actual merits as a novel; with the exception of The Hunger Games, I doubt any book was more critical to the development of young adult literature in the 2010s. John Green simultaneously attempts to create a clockwork hearttugging cancer story and a postmodern satire of cancer stories, and these two qualities undermine one another. This is what would have happened if Gillian Flynn had failed to execute Gone Girl successfully—a messy, contradictory, self-defeating work that tries to do everything and ends up doing nothing. But John Green still knows his way around a sentence, and The Fault in Our Stars was massively successful. It spawned countless imitators, and it earned its way onto this list.
Dune - Frank Herbert, 1965
Dune has accumulated an almost suffocating amount of hype in the years since its release, but it lives up to every inch of its legacy. Philosophical subtext (which, to be honest, is sometimes text) underscores what is, at heart, a thrilling action/adventure tale chock-full of duels and backstabbings and double-crosses, enhanced by Herbert's mastery of the third-person omniscient viewpoint and liberal use of dramatic irony. Fans of A Song of Ice and Fire will find much to love in Dune, as will anyone who loves literature for its ability to reawaken your sense of wonder. This is a masterpiece of science-fiction—heck, a masterpiece of literature—in every sense of the word. Read Dune.
This is Not My Hat - Jon Klassen, 2012
This is Not My Hat is a picture book, but I don't feel any hesitation in putting it on this list. It demands intellectual engagement from young readers, forcing them to extrapolate morals and meaning from implied chronology and visual space. Thematically, too, this is a challenging book for children; you won't find any trite messages about caring and friendship and individuality here, but rather a twisted tale that subverts the "I'm special" trope and portrays the world as an unfair and irrational place where actions have consequences. This is Not My Hat is the Song of Ice and Fire of picture books.
To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee, 1960
A staple of American literature and high school English classes across the country, To Kill a Mockingbird contrasts the fires of racial prejudice with the coolness of a court of law from the perspective of a young girl who is attempting to understand what it means to see the world through the eyes of another and why so many people can't. It's a compelling story that finds hope and humor in the midst of misery, and the book has become an enduring text thanks to the warm, feisty, genuine voice of its protagonist. To Kill a Mockingbird is just about as essential as a novel can possibly get.
The Chronicles of Narnia (#1-7) - C.S. Lewis, 1950-1956
C.S. Lewis is not concerned with hiding the Christian allegories that populate his iconic series of children's fantasy novels; even the most ignorant of readers will pick up on the relentless symbolism revolving around Jesus, Satan, sin, and redemption. But to discredit Lewis' work for this reason would be a mistake—Narnia is a thrilling, inventive series that carefully reframes age-old themes through a genre lens. The quality which I find most interesting is the treatment of time across the seven books: even when only a few years pass in our world, Narnian years speed by in the thousands. The heroes and villains in one novel often become the myths and legends of the next, and this consciousness of history's grinding gears contributes to a sense of humility as the characters learn how to become part of a story grander than their own. Narnia is an essential work of children's and fantasy literature.
Swimmy - Leo Lionni, 1963
An undercurrent (eh?) of race relations that young readers may not pick up on courses beneath the surface of this children's classic (note the publication date), but its themes of diversity and collaboration are universal and timeless. Swimmy is the sweet, simple story of a fish searching for a family in the aftermath of a traumatic event, and Lionni's elegant language and crisp illustrations bring it to life.
The Postmortal - Drew Magary, 2011
The Postmortal takes a hard, honest look at the ways in which humanity might react if a cure for aging—not death, aging—were to be discovered. Magary (in his debut novel!) brings bubbling to the surface all the horrifying things you never considered about eternal youth, and the result is a dark and despairing book that undermines our collective fantasies with a wicked sense of humor. "I'm always gonna get my period," a character suddenly moans, and you don't know whether to laugh or cry.
A Song of Ice and Fire (#1-5) - George R.R. Martin, 1996-???
There is no other author, no other artist, no one who knows how to put you into the head of a character like George R.R. Martin. The denizens of his dark fantasy epic are real people down to the bone, with needs and wants and beliefs and histories that motivate them across every single page. Their journeys take them through a bloody world inspired by the Wars of the Roses, and each agonizing step feels genuine thanks to Martin's crisp and evocative prose. There's this myth surrounding A Song of Ice and Fire which claims that any character can die at any time, and that Martin kills off all your favorites just for the hell of it (or to actively antagonize his readers), but nothing could be further from the truth. Martin is a master structuralist, and he uses elaborate red herrings and his massive cast of characters to subvert fantasy clichés and convince you that minor players are actually series protagonists. A Song of Ice and Fire overturns, reforges, and perfects genre literature.
Railsea - China Mieville, 2012
Smashing together Moby-Dick and The Odyssey in a world where ships are trains, the sea is a scrap-strewn desert landscape, and whales are enormous naked mole-rats that burrow through the dirt, it's difficult not to fall in love with Railsea's delightfully inventive setting. This is an adventure story of the highest order, and Miéville's deep love of language shows through at every turn (I won't spoil the metafictional qualities of the book here, but it's postmodernism unlike you've ever seen it before). Great literature? Maybe not. But it's Miéville at his most Miévillian(?) and a showcase for his talent.
Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell, 2004
A friend of a friend claimed that Cloud Atlas "ruined literature" for him, and I can understand why. Mitchell's book is unusually structured: it features five stories, each set in a different time period that ranges from the 1800s to a sci-fi future, which abruptly truncate halfway through; these are followed by a sixth story in its entirety, then the conclusions to the first five stories in reverse order. (The influence of Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveller... on Mitchell is hard to miss.) But the peculiar presentation of Cloud Atlas isn't its selling point so much as the dizzying display of stylistic talent that Mitchell unleashes—each story is written in such a vivid, distinct, and believable voice that I honestly have difficulty imagining how one author was able to switch between them so convincingly. Cloud Atlas proves beyond doubt that David Mitchell is one of the singular literary talents of the 21st century.
The Keys to the Kingdom (#1-7) - Garth Nix, 2003-2010
Garth Nix is the China Miéville of young adult literature, a ceaselessly inventive force who creates unforgettable worlds with wild abandon; even when his experiments don't pan out, it's difficult not to find yourself in awe of his ambition. The Keys to the Kingdom is one such case. The series does not entirely cohere, and it doesn't wholly succeed at what it is trying to do, but it is so steeped in mythology and classic literature and so bold in its confrontation with religion that it claws its way onto this list. The Keys to the Kingdom is unlike anything else I've ever read, and it's worth checking out.
Animal Farm - George Orwell, 1945
Orwell's timeless satire transforms the Russian Revolution of 1917 into a moral fable about farm animals who overthrow their owner and attempt to establish their own society under the rule of a pair of devious pigs named Snowball and Napoleon. The themes of Animal Farm remain perpetually relevant, however: it highlights the abuse of the middle and lower classes by the powerful elite, and the average citizen is as much to blame for their willful ignorance of the manipulation happening before their eyes.
Bridge to Terabithia - Katherine Paterson, 1977
Bridge to Terabithia is *sob* one of the best books about *sniffle* death in all of children's literature. As in real life, it arrives anticlimactically and irrationally and without warning, and it hurts like hell because these characters are so richly drawn and so compelling. Katherine Paterson: making kids miserable since 1977. (The film is also shockingly good; it was overlooked by audiences thanks to a horribly mismanaged marketing campaign that pitched a Narnia-esque fantasy adventure.) Gimme a tissue.
All Quiet on the Western Front - Erich Maria Remarque, 1929
A scathing indictment of war that feels like a progenitor of The Things They Carried, All Quiet on the Western Front is told from the perspective of a group of German boys who have been swept into the Great War without entirely understanding for what it is they are fighting. The focus here is not on ideologies in conflict, but rather the experiences of senseless suffering endured by the young men—children, for all intents and purposes—who are actually out in the line of fire. Pain and death without purpose lurk around every corner, and the result is a haunting, melancholy, unforgettable novel.
The Kingkiller Chronicle (#1-2) - Patrick Rothfuss, 2007-???
The Kingkiller Chronicle has been criticized for its viscous plotting—fair enough. Not much actually happens over the course of these behemoth books. But to dismiss them for that reason is to profoundly miss the point; reading Rothfuss is the literary equivalent of sinking into a warm bath, and absorbing his evocative and considerate prose is a unique pleasure that no other writer can satisfy. There is a narrative too, though, and it feels like nothing else in the world of epic fantasy. This is the story of a powerful, arrogant man named Kvothe, as told by himself years after the fact, and this atypical format allows Rothfuss to engage with narrative as an explicit theme. How do our lives become stories? Why do we lie about ourselves, why do we exaggerate, and why is our tale worth telling?
Harry Potter (#1-7) - J.K. Rowling, 1997-2007
It's tempting to fall into the "it's popular, so it can't be good" trap with Harry Potter, especially given that Rowling's writing is rarely more than adequate, but that would be a mistake. There's a reason that this is one of the greatest phenomenons in the history of literature: Rowling is a master worldbuilder, and her structural work is, quite simply, unrivaled. Each Harry Potter novel—and the series as a whole—is a mystery at its core, and they reveal themselves with a clockwork precision that feels entirely organic. A thousand disparate pieces all click into place, contributing to a grander whole that is more than the sum of its parts, and it is all supported by a credible fantasy world, compelling characters, and challenging thematic confrontations with war, evil, and death. You should read Harry Potter because it is a monumentally important series in the history of literature; more importantly, though, you should read Harry Potter because it is pure magic from beginning to end. It actually lives up to the hype.
Frankenstein - Mary Shelley, 1818
Frankenstein is obviously one of the most important novels ever written; I hardly need to explain how enormously influential it has been on pop culture. It explicitly builds upon themes from Paradise Lost, engaging questions that revolve around the relationship between God and man, creator and created, as well as societal outsiders and how we instinctively treat those who are different from ourselves. Structurally, Frankenstein is a bold and unusual work: not only is it built within an epistolary frame, but it contains stories within stories within stories that dilate and compound one another, Inception-like, clarifying certain messages and morals and distorting others. It's a great book and an essential one.
The Giving Tree - Shel Silverstein, 1964
Here it is: the definitive guide to abuse for children. Of course, what makes The Giving Tree so interesting is its tonal ambiguity and the different interpretations the arise as a result—there are some readers who will tell you that this is a book about selfless love (it's not), and the moral disparity is genuinely discomforting. The opacity of its message has made The Giving Tree an enduring text.
A Series of Unfortunate Events (#1-13) - Lemony Snicket, 1999-2006
Wordplay! Metafiction! Moral ambiguity! Postmodernism! Unreliable narrators! Unresolved plotlines! Breaking the fourth wall! A Series of Unfortunate Events employs virtually every literary tool in the book, and it does so inventively and effortlessly: there is perhaps no finer way to introduce young readers to the pleasures of language and fiction that is both structurally and thematically challenging than through Snicket's strange tale of three orphans who are relentlessly pursued by a maniacal villain who will do everything in his power to obtain the enormous fortune left to the children by their suspiciously-deceased parents. There's all of children's literature, and then there's A Series of Unfortunate Events—a wholly unique experience that creates a genre almost entirely unto itself.
Nothing - Janne Teller, 2011
A darkly twisted tale in which a group of schoolchildren encounter existentialism for the first time and confuse it with nihilism, Nothing is an elegant crash-course in philosophy for young readers (think Sophie's World, but with a bit more emphasis on fiction than nonfiction). When one of their classmates declares that nothing matters and proceeds to take up residence in a tree instead of going to school, the children are determined to prove him wrong by giving up the things that matter most to them and creating a "pile of meaning." Nothing is a cold, clever, and challenging work.
The Children of Húrin - J.R.R. Tolkien, 2007
Cobbled together by Tolkien's son, Christopher, from material in The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and other works, The Children of Húrin takes place thousands of years before the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and has almost nothing in common, tonally or stylistically, with its more famous counterparts. It's a dark, bloody, mythic tale that could sit comfortably alongside Shakespeare's most devastating tragedies or George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire; The Children of Húrin is actually my favorite Tolkien novel, and it has been disappointingly overlooking by readers.
The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien, 1937
The Hobbit's perpetual relevance comes from its all-ages appeal; although clearly written for children, it remains just as magical a read for adults. The hobbit Bilbo's quest to reclaim a mountain of lost treasure from the monstrous Smaug with his thirteen dwarven companions and the wizard Gandalf is an episodic, whimsical adventure which features what would eventually become virtually every fantasy cliché—omniscient narration, ethereal elves, giant spiders, a gargantuan fire-breathing dragon, and a colossal battle between armies. This is a timeless classic and an essential read by any criteria.
The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien, 1954-1955
If the most important fantasy novel ever written isn't The Hobbit, it is most certainly The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's brick-sized doorstopper, which is frequently divided into three volumes for the sake of marketing and convenience (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King), is a sweeping epic that chronicles the journeys of characters who are committed to standing up against overwhelming and incomprehensible evil. Heartwarming, heartbreaking, unapologetically sentimental, and featuring Tolkien's love of language and worldbuilding on every single page, The Lord of the Rings stands strong not only as one of the all-time great fantasy novels, but as one of the all-time great novels in the whole of literature. This is required reading no matter your demographic or genre tastes.
The Silmarillion - J.R.R. Tolkien, 1977
The “fantasy” label is the only thing that has prevented The Silmarillion from ascending to the canon of the college curriculum alongside its predecessor in mythic storytelling, Paradise Lost. Although unfinished at the time of his death in 1973, The Silmarillion is Tolkien’s greatest achievement as a craftsman of prose, as a creator of developed characters, and as an elucidator of thematic subtext that surpasses anything in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Here lie stories and characters which could fuel novels upon novels: Fëanor, Morgoth, Ungoliant, Fingolfin, Beren, Lúthien, Túrin, Glaurung, Tuor, Eärendil, Sauron…the list goes on and on, chock-full of unforgettable imagery. The Silmarillion is a gem, blazing bright in the crown of English literature.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain, 1884
Is there any book more purely American than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? There are certainly fierce competitors: The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, and practically everything written by Faulkner and Steinbeck. But Huckleberry takes the cake. With race relations forming the thematic crux of Twain's perennial classic, he branches out into an episodic commentary on virtually every aspect of American life—senseless violence, meaningless wealth, and the perpetual fantasy that you can be anyone you want to be as long as you try real hard. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a deceptively challenging work that has divided great literary minds for many years, and it shows no signs of stopping. If that doesn't signify an important book, then I couldn't tell you what does.
Candide - Voltaire, 1759
Candide is a wicked attack on Leibnizian optimism ("the best of all possible worlds") by way of hyperbolic suffering that may not actually be all that hyperbolic; the titular protagonist and his companions are literally and figuratively beaten into the dirt time and time again, to the point where it becomes so absurd that you cannot help but laugh, but Voltaire's satire is not particularly far removed from the real world. Cruelty and misery abound in our actual lives—and as much as we like to extol the virtues of blind optimism, there may be more practical responses. Candide is hilarious and cutting.
The Time Machine - H.G. Wells, 1895
The protagonist of Wells' science-fiction classic takes his titular time machine forward through the years, but he might as well be going back: he arrives in a primitive world occupied humanity's descendants, the meek Eloi and the bloodthirsty Morlocks. But even this socio-economic commentary on the cyclical nature of history falls away when the Time Traveller shoots into the far future and witnesses a dying world, crawling at first with crab-like creatures and then eventually...nothing. It's a sobering, mournful, existentialist journey; it will make you feel so small that it transcends nihilism and becomes beautiful by way of tranquility. The Time Machine is not only a pivotal book, but a great read.