It’s hard for us to believe that it’s been 17 years since we first toasted the new millennium. In January 2001, a gallon of gas cost $1.46. Facebook was three years from launching. 9/11 hadn’t happened. Huge political and cultural shifts were only months away… and some of the best books we’ve ever read were waiting in the wings. This year, for our fifth annual 25 Books to Read Before You Die list, we’ve selected novels, poetry, short stories, and nonfiction that speak to central concerns of 21st-century life: among them, race, heredity, identity, war, and the vanishing wild. From double agents to Hurricane Katrina to intergalactic travel, these 25 vastly different books create a stunning portrait of the dislocation, perseverance, and hope at the heart of life in 21st-century America.
Siri Hustvedt spans two worlds in her writing, with her gorgeous, lyrical, often dreamlike fiction, and her nonfiction writing on science, art, and culture. The Blazing World is a novel, but an unusual one — a tour de force about a larger-than-life female artist ("Harry") whose three great works used "masks" — male artists who claimed the works as their own. Through journal excerpts, interviews, and critical essays from the art world, and remembrances from Harry's children, friends, and lovers, it warmly and thoroughly depicts an intelligent, fierce life well lived, and tackles feminism, creativity, and definitions of identity. It is Hustvedt's most masterful and timely work yet.
— Jill O.
An emotionally atmospheric achievement, I felt as though the author was holding my hand through the entire book, leading me like a child to an unknown destination. And once it was over, I was amazed to find that the overall message of the book is about love. Not morality, nor doom, nor any other lesson most books leave you with once they’ve pulled you into the fray. Not only do all (ALL) of the characters come across as totally believable, but even more so, there is a hopefulness which, despite how fragile and volatile the situations are, threads its way seamlessly through to the very end.
— Aubrey W.
A Russian nesting doll of a novel, each of the six interlocking stories in Cloud Atlas contains oblique references to the ones that directly precede and follow it. Add to that a unique chronological structure that moves forward and then backward in time and Mitchell’s virtuosic handling of an array of narrative styles — including historical fiction, thriller, comedy, and sci-fi — and you have a novel that not only reads brilliantly, but is complex, wild, and wondrous. I’ve read and loved most of Mitchell’s work, but Cloud Atlas is one of those magical books that shimmers in your mind long after reading it; so few books come close to the excitement, mystery, and challenge it offers.
— Rhianna W.
Confronting patriarchy, homophobia, misogyny, the mental health stigma, and Obama's politics of race, Smith turns an incisive eye to issues that are often overlooked within his own community — calling out movements that seek solidarity while excluding the most defenseless and vulnerable. There's an enviable fervor and zeal to Smith's writing, yet, at times, he seems to vacillate between recognizing the power of his own critical thinking and doubting in his ability to excel in conveying it (which combine to great effect in revealing a very human duality). Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching is unabashed and unequivocal, and Mychal Denzel Smith's a keen observer of both himself and the world around him.
— Jeremy G.
Jamison is a remarkable essayist, keen-eyed, observant, and astute. The opening piece centers on her stint as a medical actor and expands into a thoughtful rumination on what exactly empathy is. From prison, to the world’s toughest marathon, heartbreak, and James Agee, these essays are filled with a liveliness and intellectual vigor that make for a mesmerizing read.
— Mary Jo S.
The Lost City of Z is the perfect book to read when you're antsy for some armchair adventuring. This clever tale is both the story of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who traveled to the Amazon in 1925 and never returned, and Grann, as he retraces Fawcett's steps in an attempt to learn what happened to him. But it's so much more than that — it's also about the Western tradition of exploration and exploitation, the punishing Amazonian environment, the lure of the unknown... and did I mention the punishing environment? Because, really, the most important lesson I learned from this book is that pretty much every living thing in the Amazon is constantly trying to kill you. This book is a fast, lighthearted read, rollicking fun and educational in equal measure. It's like living out an Indiana Jones fantasy, only you get to experience it from the safety of your home. Because, did I mention the punishing environment...?
— Leah C.
Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric is a momentous achievement in modern poetry, but also in American culture. To create this portrait of racism and microaggressions in 21st-century life, Rankine employs a prism of subjects, lenses, and perspectives in gorgeous language and innovative poetic style (the book includes visual imagery, prose pieces, and quotes from the media). Citizen is necessary, absorbing, and startling, and it is one of the most important books of poetry in the last decade.
— Jill O.
In The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit weaves seemingly disparate topics, from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to the birdman cult on Easter Island, with elements of her own life: her mother's advancing Alzheimer's, the collapse of a long-term relationship, a brush with cancer. The result is a book that is as fluid and boundless as a dream, and just as revealing. Solnit is a master at drawing connections in surprising ways, and in The Faraway Nearby, she marries the personal with the universal to create a fascinating read.
— Renee P.
If I could be Book Czar, I would make this moving memoir required reading for the entire nation. Stevenson recounts his early career as a young attorney working on multiple death row cases, first for the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee and later as founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. From a purely narrative point of view, Just Mercy is impossible to put down. In alternating chapters, Stevenson weaves multiple stories with one extended and tragic one — that of Walter McMillian, an African American man wrongly accused and convicted of killing a white woman, despite clear and compelling evidence to the contrary. The effect is shattering. This is one of the most heartbreaking and inspiring books I have ever read, and an excellent introduction to the problems of racial inequity in our criminal justice system.
— Lori M.
A Pulitzer-nominated author revered among literary circles, Joy Williams is nonetheless often overlooked by readers. Her third story collection, Honored Guest, is a magnificent showcase of her trenchant wit and staggering imagination, tempered by her minimalist sensibility. While the stories pivot around heavy topics — particularly coming to terms with a real or metaphorical death — they're wildly entertaining and unpredictable. The characters are often unruly and erratic and seem to have retreated into their own worlds, just barely connecting with others yet painfully aware of their estrangement. You'll find yourself astonished, disarmed, and, at times, baffled by these tales, but every story resonates, begging to be reread.
— Renee P.
Ben loves Hank, Ben loves Ruth, Hank loves Ruth. But I Loved You More is far more than a multifaceted love triangle. It’s an engaging, often darkly funny, always heartbreaking exploration of the nature of human emotion, told in Tom Spanbauer’s brilliantly particular voice. No one is better than Spanbauer at exposing the hidden pain inside us. In I Loved You More, he reaches even deeper, probing the terror of death, love, AIDS, cancer, propinquity, and the complex business of being a man in the world..
— Gigi L.
From the 16 epigraphs that open Rodrigo Fresán’s astonishingly ambitious novel through its 550 pages of how-the-hell-could-a-mere-mortal-possibly-compose-something-this-magnificent, The Invented Part spans the scope of our hypertechnical age, sending up and taking down so much of our contemporary world. Fresán masterfully weaves so many pop culture threads (most notably F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pink Floyd, and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) into his metafictional foray that it quite nearly exposes the thin line between reality and fiction to be an engulfing chasm. With its acerbic humor, acrimonious critique, vivacious storytelling, and ridiculously imaginative plot, The Invented Part is a roaring good time.
— Jeremy G.
Far From the Tree is the kind of book that fundamentally alters the way you see the world and your place within it. Each chapter centers on a different horizontal identity, such as dwarfism, autism, and deafness. Solomon interviewed hundreds of people, assembling a staggering amount of information and narrative, but it is his ability to synthesize and summarize that elevates Far From the Tree into something extraordinary.
— Mary Jo S.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell’s mentorship turned rivalry over the use of magic lies at the center of this unparalleled tale, in which the foibles of humans, our relationship to the fantastic, and the lengths and limits of faith and science are told in measured wit. This book is so deserving of the many awards it has received and of its devoted and diverse fan base, for inside Clarke’s intricately constructed world of magical realism is a treasured nucleus crafted of caution, passion, intellect, and madness; Susanna Clarke has written one of the great fantasy literature crossover works of our time.
— Lucinda G.
George Saunders definitely couldn't let his first novel be ordinary, not run-of-the-mill, not average. In fact, Lincoln in the Bardo is one of the most unusual novels I've ever read: the format, the plot, and the characters are all completely unique. Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, mourns the death of his son Willie, and sneaks away in the night to spend a few more solitary minutes with his boy. In the cemetery, Willie is caught in the "Bardo" — the space between transitions — waiting for whatever comes next. Tapping the myriad other cemetery dwellers as a sort of Greek Chorus, Saunders holds forth on life, death, and everything in between. His quiet take on parental mourning is heartbreaking, and Lincoln's grief is gorgeously depicted. Throughout the novel are excerpts from original source materials — some real, some fiction — the identification of which is part of the fun of this wholly original story.
— Dianah H.
This book just gets creepier and more prescient by the year. Alternating between a recognizable world of biological manipulation and moral equivalency and a postindustrial landscape, Oryx and Crake is a riveting love triangle and a visionary retelling of the fall of man. This is Atwood at her absolute best: sardonic, scientifically fluent, and terrifyingly feasible. I’ve read it five times, never been bored, and always been astounded by how close it hits to home and how voraciously I tear through it.
— Rhianna W.
This incredible memoir is a masterful example of what the graphic novel format can accomplish. The emotive art and engaging storytelling work hand-in-hand to immerse the reader in Congressman John Lewis’s early life and activism, and the frame narrative of President Obama’s 2009 inauguration pulls the struggles, efforts, and hopes of the civil rights movement into the modern day. March is an essential reminder that this history is far from ancient, and as Lewis himself said, “The responsibility is ours alone to build a better society and a more peaceful world.”
— Madeline S.
Before writing this book, Bill Bryson was definitely not a science buff. His interest was quashed by the dry textbooks of his youth. Thankfully, as an adult, his famous curiosity took over and he realized that science need not be boring or abstruse. A Short History of Nearly Everything, an insanely ambitious science book written for the layperson by a layperson, is the outcome of this realization, and it's immensely informative and as lively and engaging as Bryson's best travel tales. The book traces the miracle of life as we know it, weaving in everything from chemistry to astronomy to paleontology, and relying on experts for guidance. So much more than a summation of Bryson’s research, A Short History tells a story, and it's as epic and profound as they come. If you've ever wished you could recapture your childhood wonder with the natural and physical world, this book is the ideal starting point.
— Renee P.
While the Vietnamese “sympathizer” of the story is a communist agent, he is also a man who truly sympathizes, and therefore, a man deeply torn. This makes for a powerful, many-layered work, biting in its criticism of America's involvement in Vietnam without being didactic. It’s also a book that crosses genres and tones: a literary spy story, both suspenseful and intellectual, yet in one memorable sequence, a hilarious satirical set piece. Not an easy book to describe or categorize, but a profound knockout to read. The ending stunned me in a way few books do.
— Lori M.
Jesmyn Ward could probably write the marketing copy for Windex and it would read as a lyrical, historically rich paean to the dignity of window cleanser in the face of persistently aggressive grime. Her talent is that vast, her writing that empathetic and attuned to its subjects, its roots equally in the present day and the tropes of Greek mythology. Salvage the Bones takes place in the savage days before and after Hurricane Katrina, and tells the story of Esch, a pregnant teen, and her brothers. If Salvage simply related the terror and aftermath of Katrina, it would be enough; if the novel dove into the intelligence and hopelessness of an impoverished, spurned girl, it would be enough. But it does both, with Ward’s keen eye for the realities of life and history in the Deep South and her limitless capacity to elevate the ordinary into poetry.
— Rhianna W.
Chris Hedges is one of our most incisive, trenchant thinkers and writers. In his now-classic first book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, the former war correspondent (and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist) offers an unflinching portrait of armed conflict’s seductive — and ultimately destructive — allure to soldier and society alike. Blending history, reportage, philosophy, personal accounts, and literary allusions, Hedges makes a compelling case for the narcotic-like rush (and subsequent addiction) war offers nations and their citizenries. War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning convincingly debunks the many myths that enable and celebrate war, painting a sobering picture of its pernicious and pervasive consequences.
— Jeremy G.
In this masterpiece (and its equally excellent sequel, Bring Up the Bodies), Hilary Mantel accomplishes the unthinkable: she breathes new life into the story of Henry VIII. I understand your skepticism — I didn't think it was possible either! — but somehow, magically, she has done just that. Everything about Wolf Hall is meticulous, from the research to the language to the characterization, and while this level of detail can often feel forced or overly structured, to me the writing felt natural and even a bit wild in its audacity and confidence. This isn't a casual reading experience — the book is long and you feel compelled to take it seriously, drawing it out in order to pay attention to and savor every word — but you will come away from it moved and profoundly changed.
— Leah C.
Michael Pollan’s earnest examination of modern eating habits made waves upon its release in 2006 and is largely responsible for pushing the local food movement into the mainstream. The Omnivore’s Dilemma uses the seemingly straightforward question of “What should we have for dinner?” as an impetus to explore how ridiculously complex our food system has become. What Pollan reveals through his adventures, as he explores three food chains from start to finish, is eye-opening. Pollan is a skilled writer, and he pulls you in with his candid storytelling and dedication to the challenge he set for himself in the book. It’s not an overstatement to say that The Omnivore’s Dilemma will change the way you view food; it may also change the way you eat.
— Renee P.
Leave it to Michael Chabon to take the Jews directly from WWII and plunk them into what could best be described as Yiddish noir — set in Alaska. In this wacky tale, Jews were temporarily relocated to Sitka, Alaska, where they created a new world for themselves following the 1948 collapse of Israel. Now, 60 years later, their enclave is about to revert to Alaskan control. Into this setup, which is equal parts absurd and poignant, Chabon introduces a broken-down cop, a murder mystery, a chess playing junkie, and a criminal gang of Hasidim. All combined, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is fiercely imaginative, roaringly entertaining, and surprisingly profound.
— Gigi L.
Richard Powers is a national treasure. All of his books are astounding; he writes, in dazzling, poetic language, about subjects ranging from virtual reality to classical music, corporate capitalism to the genetic code. His novels explore sweeping, global concerns, but their essential questions often come down to what it means to be human, to live in concert with each other in our larger world. The Echo Maker has a fascinating setup (a man wakes up after a mysterious accident with Capgras syndrome, which makes him believe his loved ones have been replaced by actors) which delivers completely, weaving an engrossing, enlightening, and tender mystery out of strands of ecology, neurology, and the very nature of identity. If you haven't yet read this extraordinary author, The Echo Maker is the ideal place to begin.
— Jill O.