Books I Couldn’t Put Down | A List by @SusanCain


Oh, to be so engrossed in a book that you’d rather read it than do anything else.

I find this state is not so easy to come by, even for an avid reader like me. So here are some of my favorites in the page-turner category. I’d appreciate if you’d share yours, too!

(UPDATED: January 24, 2013 - Two book recommendations added.)

O80vav6b original Books I Couldnt Put Down | A List by @SusanCainPREP - by Curtis Sittenfeld (novel)

This is an acutely observed look at life inside a New England boarding school, as told from an outsider student from Indiana. I picked up this book the minute I heard about it, because I related to the story line. Like the PREP protagonist, I am not from a preppy background. But I went to Princeton back in the 1980s, when it seemed that all the students were from elite private schools and possessed of a breathtaking savoir faire. I thought my mother had taught me decent table manners, but my classmates had an elegant way of holding their utensils that would forever elude me. They also pursued mysterious passions, like trying out for “crew,” a sport I had never heard of before. I thought they were competing to make extra money washing dishes at the dining hall, and was puzzled by why they needed the cash.

If you’ve ever felt like an outsider in a culture that initially seemed more dazzling than the one you came from (and even if you haven’t!), this book will keep you up at night.


THE SONG OF ACHILLES - by Madeline Miller (novel)

Recently the Wall Street Journal asked me to name my favorite books of 2012, and this novel was at the top of my list. Here’s what I wrote in the WSJ:

“This debut novel, set during the Trojan War, is part page-turner and part history lesson, but most of all it’s an urgent philosophical inquiry into the nature of courage. Ms. Miller asks whether heroes need be superhuman, like Achilles, or whether they can be ordinary, like Achilles’ close friend Patroclus—and all of us who read this beautifully written book.”

Read the rest: Twelve Months of Reading - 50 WSJ Friends Reveal Their Favorite Books of 2012


HAPPENS EVERY DAY - by Isabel Gillies (memoir)

Isabel Gillies is the best of company, and here she tells the most compelling of stories. One day her husband is hanging photographs in the guest bathroom, tenderly documenting the cocoon of their family life. A month later he’s left Gillies and their two young sons for an alluring literature professor. It’s a compelling tale – how could such a thing happen? How will Isabel handle the shock and devastation? What were the fault lines in their marriage? But what really illuminates this book is Gillies’ presence: warm, goofy, and intelligent. Her follow-up book, A YEAR AND SIX SECONDS, which describes her return to single life, is a less compelling story — but I loved it anyway just for the pleasure of her company.


 Books I Couldnt Put Down | A List by @SusanCainINTO THIN AIR - by Jon Krakauer (memoir)

The story of a mountain-climbing disaster on Mount Everest, in which eight climbers were killed during a storm. Krakauer is a first-class writer, and even if you know nothing of mountain climbing, and care even less, you’ll be riveted.

I read this at a transitional period of life, a time when I wasn’t happy with my choices in both love and work, and strangely even though this is a tale of disaster, it had me wanting to fly off to Nepal with crampons strapped to the soles of my feet. I never did take up trekking or climbing, but the very idea that I could showed that life held many paths besides the one I was on.


FLOW - by Mihaly Csizshentmihalyi (psychology classic)

OK, this is not a classic page-turner. But you’ll burn through it anyway for its power to illuminate the kind of life you should be living. Mihaly C. argues that one of the highest states of being is the state of flow – when you’re totally engaged in an activity, riding the narrow channel between boredom and anxiety.

I talk about this book a lot, and try to live by it even more.


Screen Shot 2013 01 21 at 4.19.33 PM Books I Couldnt Put Down | A List by @SusanCainSAILING AROUND THE ROOM - by Billy Collins (or really any of Billy Collins’ poetry collections.)

Collins, who was once the U.S. poet laureate, says he’s an extrovert, but if his poems are any indication, he’s a homebody like me. He writes about exciting things like looking up words in the encyclopedia, and walking to town for a gallon of milk. But he’s charming and insightful, and I love his work so much that when I went into labor with our first child, my husband ran back to our apartment to bring one of Collins’ books to the maternity ward. He thought I should have it while we were waiting for the baby to come. (One of the highlights of participating in TED last year was getting to meet Collins, who also gave a talk, and telling him this story. He said it was a first.)

The Lanyard is one of my favorite Collins poems  – it will speak to you if you’ve ever been a mother – or a son or daughter. Here’s an excerpt:

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

Click here to read the rest.


13785 Books I Couldnt Put Down | A List by @SusanCainTHE ORGANIZATION MAN, by William Whyte, and ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM IN AMERICAN LIFE, by Richard Hofstadter (cultural critiques)

If you have ever felt weird or out-of-step because you like to sit around and think, I can’t recommend these books enough. I read them while researching QUIET. I was trying to trace the history of what I call “The Extrovert Ideal” – the Western bias for people who are bold, alpha, and assertive – and found and devoured these books. (You’ll find them referenced in Chapter 1 of QUIET). They were both written in the middle of the 20th century, a time when Americans were trying to break the shackles of their conformist, Happy Days culture.

So what do these books have to do with our life today? Everything. You’ll see that things haven’t changed as much as we think. This passage from THE ORGANIZATION MAN, critiquing the glorification of groupwork in companies, could have been written today (in fact, I wish I had written it):

‘The most misguided attempt at false collectivization is the current attempt to see the group as a cretive vehicle. Can it be? People very rarely think in groups; they talk together, they exchange information, they adjudicate, they make comprosmises. But they do not think; they do not create.”

richard hofstadter anti intellectualism in american life 1962 734950 Books I Couldnt Put Down | A List by @SusanCain

And then there’s this, from ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM:

“It is a part of the intellectual’s tragedy that the things he most values about himself and his work are quite unlike those society values in him…in the United States the play of the mind is perhaps the only form of play that is not looked upon with the most tender indulgence.”

So there you have it. A list of books that influenced my life. And there are many more! So consider this post…

To be continued…

Oh, and please don’t leave this page until you’ve recommended your own favorite books in the comments below.

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  1. Delphine on 23.01.2013 at 14:00 (Reply)

    Yes! Please post more. I’ve been hoping for a post like this. I have a hard time finding books I like but judging from the writing in Quiet, I really trust your opinion. Thanks!

    1. Susan Cain on 24.01.2013 at 11:35 (Reply)

      Thanks, Delphine! I’m going to try to make this a regular feature.

  2. Jackie on 23.01.2013 at 14:26 (Reply)

    Flow is one of my favorites, too! I actually think I may have achieved flow while reading Flow (and didn’t realize it until after I finished the first few chapters). It’s really changed the way I approach my life and the activities in which I choose to engage.

    You’ve piqued my interest in Happens Every Day — I’ll have to check that one out.

  3. Neil Dennis on 23.01.2013 at 17:16 (Reply)

    I recently read a newish biography of John Kennedy Toole called “Butterfly in the Typewriter” (by Cory MacLauchlin) in one single Sunday, astonishing myself somewhat.

  4. Rich Day on 23.01.2013 at 17:25 (Reply)

    For years I struggled to find books among the stacks of books in book stores, that I would really like. Now after reading your book, and your having recommended Priscilla Gilman’s book, “The Unromantic Child”, I find my problem is when will I have time to read all of this quality stuff. I prefer this second problem. This past year, I read your book, and Gilman’s and they would both go on the list of favorites, along with “Far From the Tree”, I and Thou (Martin Buber), Till We have Faces (CS Lewis)…I like Ray Bradbury’s prose (Farenheit 451 is great), All things by Dickens… and I just started reading Tagore who is fabulous!

  5. Andreea Balaban on 23.01.2013 at 18:05 (Reply)

    I soooo want to read Flow…:)

  6. Dan S on 23.01.2013 at 18:29 (Reply)

    “Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything” - Phillip Ball

    A nuanced account of the scientific revolution that captures the scientific mind and context unlike any other book. Tired of the history of who was “right” based on what we know today and how little that tells us about the past, how we got here or anything else? This is the book for you.

  7. Ann Ballard Bryan on 23.01.2013 at 19:21 (Reply)

    Unbroken by Laura Hillanbrand and Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

    1. Mark on 24.01.2013 at 11:12 (Reply)

      Unbroken is a great read — what a story!

  8. Jim Trice on 23.01.2013 at 19:28 (Reply)

    Wow…just bought Anti-intellectualism in USA look forward to reading it. But I just finished “Sully” Sullenberger autobiography titled, Highest Duty, and it is a great story of true living American hero…especially if you fly alot. Very uplifting.

  9. Nina on 23.01.2013 at 20:16 (Reply)

    Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - a little strange, but absolutely beautiful.

  10. Melanie on 23.01.2013 at 20:38 (Reply)

    I’ve been meaning to read Flow for a while. I will check these out, thank you!

  11. Ray DoRayMeFa on 23.01.2013 at 20:43 (Reply)

    Thanks for your ideas, Susan & others!

    I’ve always been drawn to stories of individuals caught up in history-tiny individuals in the sweep of world events, unblinkingly realistic but also romantic.
    ►”Doctor Zhivago” (1950s) is one of the few books I’ve read more than once or twice. Love it, despite (or because of) its heavy-Russian-novel-ishness.
    ►”The English Patient” (1990s) is prose but feels like poetry. It haunted me like no other work. (One of my ~five favorite movies also.)

    In the non-fiction area, I can say without empty flattery that one book crystallized why I should believe in myself, and if written sooner would have made me make some major decisions differently than I did (plus, it got me reading seriously again after university trained me to avoid reading :-)

    Thank you, Boris, Michael & Susan.

  12. Eric Schantz on 23.01.2013 at 23:04 (Reply)

    My list of books I couldn’t put down include: Anything by James Hollis (a Jungian analyst,) but especially “Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life” and “What Matters Most;” Christopher Lane, “Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness;’ the late great Janet Geringer Woititz’s magnum opus, “The Complete ACOA Sourcebook;” and the late great Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind.”

    1. Jim Trice on 24.01.2013 at 12:35 (Reply)

      I agree, The Closing of the American Mind was an amazing condemnation of American education…and this was written years ago. Very enlightening.

  13. Jeni on 24.01.2013 at 01:26 (Reply)

    Hi Susan, I see that you enjoy armchair adventuring as much as I do. My favorite book from my early teen years was what I remember as, “The Amazing Adventures of Sir Ernest Shackleton”. Since then I have read many a, “man vs. nature resulting in said man/woman overcoming some incredible obstacle books that highlight the challenges of being human in difficult situations. To that end, I enjoyed Jon Krakauer’s other book, “Into the Wild” and recently at Yosemite National Park for a wedding, I devoured ” The Last Season” about the disappearance of a much loved park ranger there. Another good read along those lines is “The Golden Spruce” about logging in the Pacific NW and the unwitting desecration of a sacred native icon by a logger angry at the logging industry taking down all the trees. Besides the theme of nature threading through these, it’s the curious human response to larger ideas of the times and the cultures that create these crazy juxtapositions that make them fascinating character studies. THanks for your book that has revolutionized my sense of who I am, coming out of the closet now as a proud introvert! Enjoy.

  14. Nina Johansen on 24.01.2013 at 05:55 (Reply)

    I have just finished your book, thank you, I love the fact it challenges ideas that society thinks are set. Other books in this vein that I also really enjoyed are Margaret Wertheim’s ‘Pythagoras’ trousers - God, physics and the gender wars’ and ‘Mauve’ by Simon Garfield. Both are excellent books that show that the world hasn’t always been as it is now!

  15. David Bley on 24.01.2013 at 09:23 (Reply)

    Reading is very high on my list of things that I would rather be doing so my list might not be that selective. I did read “Flow” and was happy that it described a state of mind that I sporadically entered. Another book along similar lines was
    “Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less” which explains how the brain shifts its more complicated processing to the subconcious.

  16. Kathy on 24.01.2013 at 09:56 (Reply)

    One of the best books I have ever read is called “Columbine” by Dave Cullen. As we watch events like this continue to unfold in this nation, it is heart wrenching and eye opening to read such a detailed account of that day and the time leading up to the tragedy. A well-researched and thorough piece of non-fiction that reads like a fiction tale.

  17. Mark on 24.01.2013 at 11:11 (Reply)

    35 years ago, I got hooked on the Lord of the Rings trilogy — to this day I read it every few years.

    From a non-fiction side, Isaacson’s bio on Steve Jobs, Howard Schultz’s “Pour Your Heart Into It” and “Onward” and any one of the “lovemarks” books are great!

    Thanks for the post, Susan!

  18. Susan Cain on 24.01.2013 at 11:38 (Reply)

    Thank you all so much for these recommendations! Now I share Rich Day’s sentiment, that I am faced with the problem of finding time to read them all. But this is, as my mother would say, a “satin problem”!

    Also glad to see that so many of you are interested in Flow. It really is one those books that changes your view forever of how to spend your time, raise your children, manage employees, etc. etc. etc.

    OK, more recommendations coming soon from me!

  19. Lorie on 24.01.2013 at 19:49 (Reply)

    My all-time favorite is Discover your strengths by Marcus Buckingham of the Gallup Organization. It really resonated to me on a level I have instinctively known in my soul for a while. In gist, the books addresses the myth that leaders are not only from the so called alpha, aggressive, social, firm ( you get the picture ), sector of the work population. The author lays out the fundamental truth about each individuals capacity to be great leaders, managers, etc. There is a strength finder test that come with the book.

    He also indicated the major flaw with the american corporate culture about trying to transform everybody into multitaskers, thus spending so much resources in “mitigating - or curing” what the corporations perceive as defects among their employees. Marcus believes that this is a major error as this only takes away from excelling and improving on our own strengths when the focus is directed at correcting weaknesses. Our weaknesses never makes us excellent, our strengths does.

    As an introvert, Marcus’ ideas resonates and validates me powerfully. For for as long as I can remember and experienced so far, “introverts” have always been subjected to such “corrective measures” by our society like we have a disease or weakness or something and that it needs correcting.

    We only find balance not by trying to balance with the rest of the world, by balancing within, and constantly trying to be something we’re not accomplishes just the opposite.

  20. Allison on 25.01.2013 at 02:27 (Reply)

    The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings-Tolkien created a huge, detailed civilization! Plus Jane Austen novels, especially Pride and Prejudice.

  21. Marge on 25.01.2013 at 11:36 (Reply)

    The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer
    Devotion by Dani Shapiro

  22. Laura on 25.01.2013 at 11:56 (Reply)

    Our local authors group is running two series on their website, where they’ve solicited book recommendations from well known authors (BOOKSTRUCK) and from indie book retailers (HAND SOLD). The recommendations are passionate and well written-very worth reading! (Although now my “To Read” list is groaning….)

  23. Pat L on 25.01.2013 at 12:55 (Reply)

    My recent couldnt-put-down reads:
    God’s Mind in That Music: Theological Explorations through the Music of John Coltrane, by Jamie Howison. It’s a deep dive, but beautifully done.
    My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok. What a beautiful and tragic world that I fell madly in love with.
    World War Z by Max Brooks. Don’t think of it as a zombie novel; think of it as a sharp geopolitical thriller about how various countries respond to a plague. (which happens to be of zombies ;-) )

  24. Melissa Miller on 25.01.2013 at 15:46 (Reply)

    Great list! just downloaded Happens Every Day.
    Toward a Psychology of Being by Abraham Maslow was an eye-opening game changer for me.

  25. Terry Beaman on 26.01.2013 at 09:19 (Reply)

    Life of Pi, is soulful and funny. I couldn’t put it down!

  26. Wendy on 26.01.2013 at 09:37 (Reply)

    All the Living by C.E. Morgan. About a young woman raised in the mission schools up in Appalachia who moves in to help her boyfriend with his family’s tobacco farm after his parents are unexpectedly killed in a car accident. Beautifully written, introspective, understated.

  27. Rhesa on 27.01.2013 at 14:14 (Reply)

    Also recently read, and loved, The Song of Achilles - so beautiful
    Others on my list:
    East of Eden - definitely one of my all-time favorites
    Under the Banner of Heaven - also by Krakauer
    Destiny of the Republic - Millard
    Currently reading Prague Winter, Madeleine Albright, which I am loving and having a hard time putting down

  28. Sylvia on 27.01.2013 at 14:22 (Reply)

    On Beauty by Zadie Smith.

  29. Ana on 27.01.2013 at 14:34 (Reply)

    The Ringing Cedars series by Vladmir Megre about the amazing life of Anastasia who lives in the Siberian wilderness.

  30. Allen Belz on 27.01.2013 at 14:48 (Reply)

    Has it always been somewhat difficult to get into that can’t-put-it-down stage, or is this a comparatively new development? I ask because I’ve spent many happy hours with many great books but for the past, say ten years or so I’ve not only been finding it harder to drop into that immersion state, but the amount of time I devote to books has dropped considerably, even though I’ve taken great care to keep my life at the level of complexity that feels manageable, so that I’ll have well-enough time for things like that. It’s almost become a cliche, but a pretty true one - where is the time going?

  31. Laura on 27.01.2013 at 16:52 (Reply)

    Just finished last night an “unputdownable,” so had to share it here.

    OLD FILTH by Jane Gardam. (In 2006, the New York Times review of the book called Sir Edward Feathers (aka Old Filth) one of the most memorable characters in modern literature.)

    It’s like a deeper, more literary take on Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which I also loved—but not as much as this. A main theme is how little we know others or suspect what’s going on in their inner lives, especially the old fossil sitting over there. Jane Gardam employs a fragmented but compelling style of storytelling as the book ranges back and forth over the full life of its repressed but fascinating title character, revealing a little bit more with each pass via sometimes humorous, more often touching, twists. British humor, romance, war, the law, travel, secrets, life, death—beautifully done in this novel.

    The best thing was finding out the author has written a follow-up novel, from the wife’s POV—another enigmatic character I can’t wait to learn more about.

  32. Dennis Fortier on 28.01.2013 at 17:44 (Reply)

    “Time of life” and “frame of mind” probably conspire to create different “page-turners” for each of us. Not sure I can explain why, but I recall putting my entire life on hold about 20 years ago while reading “Roots” by Alex Haley. Powerful story, important history lesson, poignantly told…

  33. Maxine on 29.01.2013 at 22:28 (Reply)

    “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest J. Gaines is one of my top ten books.

  34. John Bennett on 29.01.2013 at 22:37 (Reply)

    Absolutely any book by Jack Higgins for fiction, “Group Genius” by Keith Sawyer for non-fiction.

  35. John Corcoran on 30.01.2013 at 01:52 (Reply)

    Of course, Dan Pink’s Drive was also one that is hard to put down, and he did a great job of bringing the concepts from Flow to life. Also lately I’ve been reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and it’s a great read.

  36. Naum on 30.01.2013 at 10:28 (Reply)

    What I can’t put down? Various sorts of book lists… ;)

    This going to inspire a post of my own, though ATM in a rush to dash off…

    …but off the top of my head, in no meaningful order:

    1. Anything by Haruki Murakami — funny how this list is not completely congruent with “best” or “influential” books, but for some reason, I can’t put down one of his novels while reading…

    2. *Flow* by the man with way too many consonants in his name… …and my thoughts nearly mirror yours on this

    3. *Brain Rules* by John Medina — fascinating

    4. *Rethinking Christianity* by Keith Ward — not sure if it because I heard these as a series of lectures first…

    5. *The Great Turning* by David Korten — a “big picture” book on civilization/culture dilemma of me oriented v. other oriented, Empire v. Earth Community…

    6. *The Naked Now* by Richard Rohr — Franciscan priest weaves Christian mysticism

    7. *Theology of Hope* / *The Crucified God* by Jurgen Moltmann — mind blowing theology, about ~50% over my head but bits I can grok shake me to the core

    8. *Cloud Atlas* by David Mitchell - epic novel turned into dud of a movie (though I thought it was enjoyable excellence…)

    9. *Infamous Scribblers* — a look at journalism during America revolutionary era that I found captivating and reread every year or so…

    10. *The Powers that Be* by Walter Wink — “theology for the new millenium”, a look at spiritual realm and contrast between historical dominant views…

  37. Debbie on 30.01.2013 at 20:33 (Reply)

    I loved “Prep” and “Into Thin Air”..they’re both thoughtful and good to read more than once.

  38. Ama on 30.01.2013 at 21:47 (Reply)

    Finished recently and still thinking about it, The Far Pavilions by MM Kaye. Written in the 70s but how true to our time and troubles today.

  39. Chris Dikes on 31.01.2013 at 13:00 (Reply)

    I’ve re-read the 4 memoirs of Frederick Buecher more times than I can count. “Now & Then,” “The Sacred Journey,” “Telling Secrets,” and “The Eyes of The Heart.”

    This past year, I enjoyed The Longest Way Home (travels all alone- an introvert can identify) and Brain on Fire.

    Am also rediscovering the genius of Murakami.

  40. Eric Burleson on 01.02.2013 at 06:02 (Reply)

    Mrs. Cain,

    I first want to tell you how deeply fulfilling I found your book. I listened to it over the course of about a week, and have shared it with as many people as I can convince to listen to me speak about it. First, I found the book incredibly liberating. I belong to an organization in the US Army well known for it’s Alpha Male mentality and the idealization of the extrovert. After sharing this book with a few members of my leadership, they found that many of the qualities possessed by introverts were even more important to the success of our collective mission.
    Second, the book inspired in me a career change, and led me to an interest in neurobiology and psychology. I do not have any medical or biology background, but I find the subject matter endlessly fascinating. I’m hoping to continue my interest while in graduate school and use what I’ve learned to create something quite valuable and empowering for others. This, to me, has been a lot of the value of your book. You have helped me to identify traits I possess as an introvert and helped me to refocus my efforts according to my own talents and values, and less to those that any particular community believes I should possess.
    Finally, I wish to recommend a few books of my own:

    The Brain that Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge, MD.
    Incognito: the Secret Lives of the Brain, by David Eagleman
    Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell
    Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson
    Einstein, by Walter Isaacson

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