What books would you give a hypothetical godchild on the occasion of their 21st birthday? The books that might, all added up, act as a guide for life?

In London’s The Spectator, writer Simon Akam writes about godfathers, and ruminates on the works of literature he would give his godson.


He writes: “There is much to be said for godfathers. They offer the wisdom of maturity without the complications of direct filial ties. Likewise there is much to be said for 21st birthday celebrations, the last relic in our ossified, post-industrial society of the adulthood rituals of traditional peoples.

“The godfather’s 21st birthday present to his godson marks a notable point in the annals of gift giving … the ultimate godfather’s 21st birthday present should be books.”

The principle is that the books, taken together, should provide some guidance for a lifetime.

While Akam’s list is a very masculine one – he chose them for a young man – what books would you give a godchild that might shape their worldview, enlighten and educate them, or give them comfort in confusing world as they move into adulthood?

It might be hard to choose 21, so feel free to add just one, or two or three. (Actually, once you start thinking about it, it might be hard to stop at 21!)


Here’s a short list to get you started.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert.

1984, by George Orwell.

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy.

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.

The Long Road to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela.



Think about the books that guided your life, and add your suggestions in comments below…

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  • Reply March 30, 2013


    Lovely idea, I gave my godchild a card with my best wishes and reflections of his life and what he means to me and my fave photo of us when he was small. And cash!
    A book, now I would give him a guide to NYC where he desperately wants to go and Dr Seuss’ Oh the places you’ll go’

  • Reply March 30, 2013

    Jack Richards

    There are so many to choose from, but this would be a good start:

    Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
    The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
    My Brother Jack – George Johnson
    Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
    Nostromo – Joseph Conrad
    Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
    A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
    And Quiet flows the Don – Mikhail Sholokov
    Dr Zhivago – Boris Pasternak
    For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway
    Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony – Hal Porter
    All Quiet on the Western Front – E M Remarque
    The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

    That’s an even baker’s dozen to start with.

  • Reply March 30, 2013

    Wendy Harmer

    What a fabulous list, Jack. A few of them were on the curriculum when I was at school ( I remember disliking Watcher on the Cast Iron Balcony intensely – but probably worth a re-visit after your recommendation).
    I’d also mention Lord of The Flies and Animal Farm – which my son is reading at school.
    And In Cold Blood and To Kill a Mockingbird as two “must reads”.

    • Reply March 30, 2013

      Jack Richards

      Wendy, they are great reads as well. Who could ever forget Boo Radley ;or Jack Merridew who could sing “High C”; or Boxer going off to a well earned retirement in the knackery truck; or the Clutter Family?

      Catch-22 really changed my life. I’d had suspicions that there was something wrong with the world and the way things worked, then I read Catch-22 when I was about 18 and it all became clear. The whole world is quite mad and run by lunatics.

      Reading “All Quiet…” also explained much to me. My grand-father and grand-uncle – who were still alive when I first read it in about 1968 – had served 2 – 3 years on the Western Front with the AIF and neither had ever really recovered. Pa was given to a strange moodiness and introspection and was still in constant pain from a bullet wound he received in May 1918; while Uncle John never married and spent most of his life inside a bottle trying to drive away the screaming, fevered dreams he had every night. He had been with his cousin, Claude, at Passchendaele when both Claude’s legs were blown off by a German shell. That book put me right in the front-line and finally I understood.

      Another two I’d add would be Joyce Cary’s “Mr Johnson” and Turgenev’s “First Love”.

  • Reply March 30, 2013

    Sue Elliott

    Fountain Head – Ayn Rand
    Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand
    Volume of poetry – Robert Frost
    My Little Booky Wook – Russel Brand ( not sure of title, but either of his autobiographies.)
    The Canterbury Tales

  • Reply March 30, 2013

    Wendy Harmer

    Yes, Sue. I agree with you about My Booky Wook – it’s an extraordinary read.

  • Reply March 30, 2013


    I loved The Watcher on the Cast Iron Balcony. It was one of my HSC texts in 1978 but we were prevented from studying it in class because, apparently, “some people” had issues with it. The principal sent a note home to all the parents of HSC students asking them for their opinion. My mother looked at me and asked, “we’ll what do you think?”. I answered, “Mum, I read it in Form 3”. Nothing more was said.

    I finally got to the bottom of all the hoo haa 35 years later at a school reunion – I’d been stewing on it for that long. Turns out it was a very religious teacher who complained and turned it into a big issue. The really strange thing is, he was a geography teacher.

  • Reply March 30, 2013


    Great suggestions, some of which I’ll have to look up and read myself:
    I’d add:
    – Sebastian Faulks’s ‘Birdsong’. A recent read of mine and one of the most visceral novels I have ever, ever read.
    – Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
    – Lady Chatterley’s Lover – DH Lawrence

    Just reminding them to never forget the joy of reading would be my aim.

  • Reply March 30, 2013


    I love everyone’s suggestions, and I must look up some of them. Two of my favourites that haven’t been mentioned yet are Graham Greene’s “Monsignor Quixote” which flows effortlessly and is a real joy to read, and Patrick White’s “Voss” which a lot of people find very dense but if you get into it, it’s a powerful story of redemption set in the changing landscapes of Australia’s inland. It has unforgettable characters and themes that get into your DNA.

  • Reply March 30, 2013


    The World According To Garp – because I read it at age 19 and it affected me profoundly
    The Book Thief – because it is a beautifully written book that took me from laughing out loud to weeping within two pages
    To Kill a Mockingbird – just because!

  • Reply March 30, 2013


    I would agree with most of them and will also have to add to my own, “To Read” list. I would add “The Lord of the Rings” JRR Tolkien and “The Hobbit” to any of those lists and I was relieved, Hooli, to see you add “Pride and Prejudice”.
    Life shapers for me means I would also add:
    Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass – Lewis Carroll
    Little Women – Lousia May Alcott
    Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
    Winnie – the – Pooh – A.A. Milne
    Watership Down – Richard Adams
    The Pigman – Paul Zindel
    Mariana – Susannah Kearsley
    Down by the Dockside – Criena Rohan
    A bit of an eclectic mix there, but I’d be happy to give my god children anyone of these to read. Down by the Dockside was given to us as part of a history unit at uni and it has remained forever with me. I lost my copy over the years and am unsure whether it’s still in print……must google!

  • Reply March 30, 2013


    All of the books on the starter list, plus ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, as already mentioned. (I love teaching Orwell, although my students always complain that their friends are studying ‘The Hunger Games’! I (optimistically) believe they’ll think back thankfully when they’re older!) I’d also include some poetry … Shakespeare’s already on the list … ‘Australian Poetry Since 1788’ is a great anthology, and definitely Czesław Miłosz’s ‘A Book of Luminous Things’. Back to prose … I’d include some Tim Winton, ‘Dirt Music’ is my favourite; Proulx’s ‘The Shipping News’; Chatwins ‘The Songlines’; and some Hermann Hesse … and some picture books … any/all of Shaun Tan’s.

  • Reply March 30, 2013


    The god delusion
    The selfish gene
    A universe from nothing
    Just to present the alternative view because, you know, world views should be challenged and science and history can be fun reads.

  • Reply March 30, 2013


    Many of those mentioned already, and for what it’s worth here are a few that have stuck in my imagination for various reasons:
    Beloved – Toni Morrison
    Dr Wooreddy’s Ending of the World – Mudrooroo
    Seven Little Australians – Ethel Turner
    Harp in the South, A Poor Man’s Orange, etc. – Ruth Park
    The Children’s Book – AS Byatt

  • Reply March 30, 2013


    Ooh, I also loved His Dark Material Trilogy by Philip Pullman. Really raises some deep and profound issues AND its supposedly written for children.

  • Reply March 30, 2013


    Great suggestions so far. I’d add the works of A.B. Paterson to the list.

  • Reply March 30, 2013

    sue Bell

    Candide Voltair
    Brave New World
    The God delusion
    The Enlightenment
    Poor Man’s Oranges
    To Kill A Mocking Bird
    Inside The Whale and Other Essays George Orwell
    The Story of the Kelly Gang
    The Handmaiden’s Tale

  • Reply March 30, 2013


    My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin, frickin awesome
    To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
    We of the Never Never – Jeannie Gunn
    Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams – endless fun
    Any book or really anything ever penned by Margaret Atwood. Even her shopping list!

  • Reply March 30, 2013

    Janet G

    To allow you godchild to have a proper perspective in life:

    Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
    Restaurant and the End of the Universe
    So Long and Thanks for all the Fish

  • Reply March 30, 2013

    Sue Ellen

    Man’s Search for Meaning- Victor Frankel
    Prague Farewell-Heda Margolius Kovaly
    Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness-Alain De Botton
    My Stroke of Insight-Juill Bolte Taylor
    I Shall Not Hate-Izzeldin Abuelaish

  • Reply March 30, 2013


    I gave my lovely thoughtful nephew The Magus by John Fowles, The Age of Reason by JP Sartre and I’ve forgotten which Aldous Huxley, maybe Chrome Yellow. They all transported me in some way or other at a similar age.

  • Reply March 30, 2013


    Gatty’s Tale, by Arthur Crossley-Holland

    Aimed at a younger audience maybe, but that doesn’t stop it from digging into some big issues about women and religion and growing up, all wrapped up in a lovely tale.

    And a stack of books by Ursula Le Guin.

  • Reply March 30, 2013


    My Brother Jack – wonderful in every way that counts.

    David Malouf – anything but definitely Johnno. He paints with words. An author I hold in total respect.

    My Brilliant Career – vivid

    “All Quiet” definitely. Absolutely compelling.

    Joseph Conrad – Lord Jim – I was very young when I first read this and can remember how riveting it was. Have a yearning to read it again.

    Edith Wharton and Willa Catha as well as the novel Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. Because I’m a woman

    Kafka – they’re all brilliant

    Dalai Lama – a man of intelligence who can comfort your soul

    Jack Kerouac – On the Road – takes you with him

    Bleak House – Dickens

    One Hundred Years of Solitude – García Márquez

    Wuthering Heights – probably the most lyrical romance every written. You could read it a thousand times.

    Woolf – Mrs Dalloway – another book you could read a thousand times

    Wild Swans – Jung Chang – I really loved this book – not a literary work but fascinating. Cloudstreet was another novel that has stuck with me – the best of Tim Winton’s IMO

    Oscar Wilde – the plays – they make me laugh

    The Social Animal – Elliot Aronson

    The Handmaid’s Tale – Atwood – do read this

    Behind the Beautiful Forevers – Katherine Boo

    A House for Mr. Biswas – Naipaul

    The Tale of Genji- Murasaki Shikibu

    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

    There are so many – Brighton Rock, Of Mice and Men – all the classics can be read over and over.

    And as a child the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm as well as books like Little Women. They have nurtured my soul.

  • Reply March 30, 2013


    Oh thank goodness Rhoda, you mentioned 100 Years of Solitude. I was beginning to despair. I’d also include The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov and Watership Down by Richard Adams,

  • Reply March 31, 2013

    Sue Ellen

    The Social Animal…thanks for including that Rhoda, but isn’t the author David Brooks? I was going to include that too

  • Reply March 31, 2013

    Jan Dobson

    I prescribe to the ‘anything that encourages reading brigade’, but would suggest for poetry or plays (and Douglas Adams is brilliant, a must have) offer them in spoken word format. For me at least, it was the bridge that lead to really enjoying that framework

  • Reply March 31, 2013

    Maureen P.

    Anything by John Irving, anything by Geraldine Brooks, Mortality by Christopher Hitchens, The Swerve by Stephen Greenblat, Kevin Powers haunting comment on war, The Yellow Birds, the classics mentioned by many here, the beautiful novel by Pat Conroy, Prince of Tides as well as the book by Sarah Winman, When God was a Rabbit.

  • Reply March 31, 2013


    A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson. Beautifully engaging, and yet crammed with fascinating information.

    • Reply April 1, 2013

      Jack Richards

      Second that. All Bill Bryson’s books are great reads.

  • Reply March 31, 2013

    helen b

    Almost overwhelming. it seems so much has been covered already.
    Of course, the classics as most have covered this above.

    Poetry – the English romantics, Wordsworth, Shelley Byron Keats for starters,
    Eilzabeth Barrett Browning
    Charlotte Bronte ‘Jane Eyre’
    Virginia Woolf ‘To the Lighthouse’

    Walt Whitman, Robert Frost.
    Arthur Miller ‘The Crucible’
    Mark Twain
    T S Eliot
    Harriet Beecher Stowe ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’

    Thea Astley
    Eleanor Dark ‘A Timeless Land’,
    ‘For the term of his natural life’ – Marcus Clarke

    Australian poetry although mentioned above.
    Judith Wright is a special favourite of mine.

    And this list will just go on in my head. Thankyou Wendy for a delightful choice for the Easter weekend.

  • Reply March 31, 2013

    lab elf

    From more recent times, three of my favourites. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry – an extraordinary tale of survival against adversity, beautifully written mix of heartbreak and humour. Snow Falling on Cedars with its lessons about prejudice and atmospheric scenes. The Time Traveller’s Wife, a wonderfully original story about relationships and a real page-turner.

  • Reply March 31, 2013

    helen b

    How could I forget:
    Iris Murdoch
    William Faulkner

    Just goes on and on ♥

  • Reply March 31, 2013


    So many wonderful books that can open new portals of understanding, knowledge and connection. How about a Macquarie Dictionary? I love it when other people talk about a book they have loved~ but as soon as they start insisting I read it~ a perverse resistance rises in me. The Collected Works of Dorothy Parker for her wit.

  • Reply March 31, 2013

    sue Bell

    So many wonderful book, now even more to read, so many more I could have suggested. Have to agree with the Macquarie dictionary, Douglas Adams and Christopher Hitchens and look how many time To Kill A Mocking Bird is mentioned. Australians have always been great readers and these suggestions confirm it.

  • Reply March 31, 2013


    Wow, what a thought: “Books to shape a world view”? One way or another, every book I’ve read has shaped my own world view and still I’m surprised, moved, touched & inspired. Just recently I worked out the number of years I might have left and the average number of books I read in a year and was horrified to discover that maybe I’ve only got 200-300 left in me; no time to fritter away on anything that doesn’t count.

    For my Godson though:

    Illusions by Richard Bach

    Everything by Dickens

    Therese Raquin by Emile Zola

    Dracula by Bram Stoker


    Watership Down

    The Lord of the Rings

    everything Sherlock Holmes

    The Go Between

    Far From the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
    …as I came to the climax of this book, I wept on a train last year. I wish my Godson the same heart-rending experience.

  • Reply April 1, 2013

    Genevieve O'Reilly

    The Women’s Room Marilyn French
    The Tree of man Patrick White
    The Riders in the Chariot Patrick white
    My Brilliant Career Miles Franklin
    You can’t keep a Good Woman Down Alice Munro
    The Last Temptation of Christ Nikos Kazanzakas
    The Bible Various writers
    The Street Sweeper Eliot Perlman
    Surfacing Margaret Attwood
    My Place Slly Morgan

  • Reply April 1, 2013


    I often wonder in this age of Techno if books will make it into the future… (remember the scene in the “Time Machine” when they all crumbled). It could never be overstated or emphasised passionately enough how incredible reading a book can be. I’ve grown to believe that the books we read are the ones we are meant to read….all those comments on “it stayed with me forever”…. speak volumes.

  • Reply April 1, 2013


    To this wonderfully eclectic list I would add

    The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
    Borstal Boy (Brendan Behan)

  • Reply April 1, 2013


    I made a list of free e books for my granddaughter, so many of the above enduring books were included.
    Add The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney byHenry Handel Richardson
    War and PeaceLeo Tolsty

    Not free but great reads and with important messages.
    The Man Who Loved Children by Christian Stead.
    Past the Shallows by Pavel Parrot
    A Fortunate Life by A B Facey
    Every book written by Ian McEwan but start with Atonement.
    Jasper Jones by ?.I bought this book for all my teenage
    Grandchildren, boys and girls. They all loved it so much.
    Damned Whores and Gods Police by Ann Summers
    Theft, Illywacker, and The Tax Inspector by wonderfulPeter
    The Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
    The Yandilla Trilogy by Rodney Hall
    Ragtime by E L Doctorow
    High and Dry by Guy Pearse. The real story of multinational and their anti climate change practices and policies.
    Schindlers List by a Tom Keneally
    Weevils in the Flourby Wendy Lowenstein
    Every book by Irene Nemirovsky
    Every book listed moved me and left me with much food for thought.
    The confessions of a Bleeding Heart by Don Watson left me with further understanding of Government decision making.

    For just sheer enjoyment:
    Truth by Peter Temple
    Every book by Shane Maloney eg The Brush Off etc.
    God must stop!!!

  • Reply April 2, 2013

    PM Newton

    My Place – Sally Morgan
    The Secret River – Kate Grenville
    Beloved – Toni Morrison
    Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys

  • Reply April 2, 2013


    Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
    Agree with above – any Iris Murdock – The Sea The Sea.
    Rohinton Mistry – Family Matters, every bit as good as A Fine Balance.
    Recently read ‘The Burial’ by Courtney Collins & ‘Foal’s Bread’ by Gillian Mears, both Australian, both wonderful reads and very thought provoking.

  • Reply April 2, 2013

    judyth watson

    Great lists and thanks for reminders; not quite to this point but any suggestions for couple getting married -that isn’t a recipe book!

  • Reply April 2, 2013

    helen g

    Can we squeeze in Milan Kundera’s “Unbearable Lightness of Living”?
    I found it powerfully subversive when read young, and when re-read 30 years on .. a prophetic, comforting touch stone.

  • Reply April 2, 2013


    The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell-still relevant today

  • Reply April 2, 2013


    I’ve tried to read everyones comments… I’m not too sure if this one has been mentioned yet, but my all time favourite is A Fortunate Life, A B Facey

  • Reply April 2, 2013


    So many wonderful reads! I concur with Cstar, Dr Seuss’ ‘Oh the places you’ll go’ is a definite if you want to offer positive and uplifting lessons in life. I read part of this at my son’s engagement and have given this book to many, young and old. On a different note, Alan Moorehead’s ‘Darwin and the Beagle’ has stayed with me since early High school. What a wonderful, diverse world Moorhead wrote about!

  • Reply April 2, 2013

    Di Pearton

    Anything and everything by Kurt Vonnegut:

    ‘Many people need desperately to receive this message: “I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people don’t care about them. You are not alone.”

    Kurt Vonnegut in ”Timequake” (1997)

    So It goes.

    And ‘The Little Prince’ by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and ‘Of Human Bondage’ by Somerset Maugham.

  • Reply April 2, 2013


    The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
    Perfume – Patrick Suskind
    Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal – Jeanette Winterson’s autobiography
    The complete works of Shakespeare
    Pride & Prejudice – Austen
    Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
    American Gods – Neil Gaiman

  • Reply April 2, 2013


    The Psycopath Test by Jon Ronson. Helps when dealing with difficult people in life – and it’s funny.

  • Reply April 2, 2013


    The Edith Trilogy. Frank Moorhouse
    Five Bells. Gail Jones
    Anything by Alex Miller (e.g. Autumn Laing)

    All make me proud to read Australian literature

  • Reply April 2, 2013


    As a new Godmother, I’ve started with The Magic Pudding and Snugglepot and Cuddlepie for my godson.

    These are great ideas that I hope I will be able to build on as years go by.

    His mother is my son’s godmother and she’s also introducing him to Australian poetry as well as the books of Alison Lester.

    I’m sure between the two of us we’ll cover most of these books and by the time they’re 21, we’ll have a huge list for them.

  • Reply April 2, 2013


    Just skimmed along the bookshelves:
    Arundhati Roy – The God of Small Things
    The Grass is Singing – Doris Lessing
    Small Island – Andrea Levy
    On the Road – Jack Kerouac
    Dispatches – Michael Herr
    The Old Man and the Sea – Hemingway
    Mr Pip – Lloyd Jones
    and yes, To Kill a Mocking Bird and Beloved
    Collapse – Jared Diamond

  • Reply April 2, 2013


    Looking back, I wish someone had given me “Is He Mr Right” by Mira Kirshenbaum, but it wasn’t written back then. It works for any gender. Also in the “advice” category (of which there haven’t been many so far) is “How to Be a Man” by John Birmingham and Dirk Flinthart. This has useful information for women too. My son loved it and used it often.
    Genevieve mentioned The Women’s Room – that was a life changer for me!

  • Reply April 2, 2013


    Some modern Oz classics –
    Cloudstreet by Tim Winton
    The Orchard by Druisella Modjeska
    Merry-Go-Round in the Sea by Randolf Stow

  • Reply April 4, 2013


    ‘Testament of Youth’ by Vera Brittain is a classic well worth giving. One woman’s experience of the First World War and its effect on her generation. Hard not to emerge from the experience anything but a pacifist. Life changing!

  • Reply April 4, 2013


    Has anyone mentioned The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property by Lewis Hyde and An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin? Both extraordinary, and like nothing else I’d ever read or heard; mind-changing and life-altering, no less!

    Fiction I would put on the list would include: Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry and Faces in the Water, as well as her autobiography; Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes; William Faulkner’s The Wild Palms; Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places. There are many more, but a lot are covered above.

    • Reply April 4, 2013


      Oops! Change the word ‘fiction’ in that last paragraph to ‘other books’. Sorry!

  • Reply April 15, 2013


    So many books so little time!
    The Great Gatsby – Fitzgerald
    Because the 16 yr old me so wanted to be Jordan.
    The Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif – Mazari & Hillman
    We should never forgot that those ‘boat people’ are not made from boats but actually sons, daughters, brothers, sister, mothers, fathers who need and deserve asylum.
    If This is a Man – Levi
    To remind us of the importance of dignity and humanity
    The Secret History – Tartt
    When intelligence and morality collide which one wins?
    If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller – Calvino
    The ultimate post-modernist, second person narrative text.
    Seven Types of Ambiguity – Perlmann
    Melbourne and writing at their finest.

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