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A Premature Attempt at the 21st Century Canon

A panel of critics tells us what belongs on a list of the 100 most important books of the 2000s … so far..

books of 21st century

Okay, assessing a century’s literary legacy after only 18 and a half years is kind of a bizarre thing to do.

Actually, constructing a canon of any kind is a little weird at the moment, when so much of how we measure cultural value is in flux. Born of the ancient battle over which stories belonged in the “canon” of the Bible, the modern literary canon took root in universities and became defined as the static product of consensus — a set of leather-bound volumes you could shoot into space to make a good first impression with the aliens. Its supposed permanence became the subject of more recent battles, back in the 20th century, between those who defended it as the foundation of Western civilization and those who attacked it as exclusive or even racist.

But what if you could start a canon from scratch? We thought it might be fun to speculate (very prematurely) on what a canon of the 21st century might look like right now. A couple of months ago, we reached out to dozens of critics and authors — well-established voices (Michiko Kakutani, Luc Sante), more radical thinkers (Eileen Myles), younger reviewers for outlets like n+1 , and some of our best-read contributors, too. We asked each of them to name several books that belong among the most important 100 works of fiction, memoir, poetry, and essays since 2000 and tallied the results. The purpose was not to build a fixed library but to take a blurry selfie of a cultural moment.

Any project like this is arbitrary, and ours is no exception. But the time frame is not quite as random as it may seem. The aughts and teens represent a fairly coherent cultural period, stretching from the eerie decadence of pre-9/11 America to the presidency of Donald Trump. This mini-era packed in the political, social, and cultural shifts of the average century, while following the arc of an epic narrative (perhaps a tragedy, though we pray for a happier sequel). Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections , one of our panel’s favorite books, came out ten days before the World Trade Center fell; subsequent novels reflected that cataclysm’s destabilizing effects, the waves of hope and despair that accompanied wars, economic collapse, permanent-seeming victories for the once excluded, and the vicious backlash under which we currently shudder. They also reflected the fragmentation of culture brought about by social media. The novels of the Trump era await their shot at the canon of the future; because of the time it takes to write a book, we haven’t really seen them yet.

You never know exactly what you’ll discover when sending out a survey like this, the results of which owe something to chance and a lot to personal predilections. But given the sheer volume of stuff published each year, it is remarkable that a survey like this would yield any kind of consensus—which this one did. Almost 40 books got more than one endorsement, and 13 had between three and seven apiece. We have separately listed the single-most popular book; the dozen “classics” with several votes; the “high canon” of 26 books with two votes each; and the rest of the still-excellent but somewhat more contingent canon-in-utero. (To better reflect that contingency, we’ve included a handful of critics’ “dissents,” arguing for alternate books by the canonized authors.)

Unlike the old canons, ours is roughly half-female, less diverse than it should be but generally preoccupied with difference, and so fully saturated with what we once called “genre fiction” that we hardly even think of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road , Colson Whitehead’s zombie comedy Zone One , Helen Oyeyemi’s subversive fairy tales, or even the Harry Potter novels as deserving any other designation than “literature.” And a whole lot of them are, predictably, about instability, the hallmark of the era after the “end of history” that we call now.

At least one distinctive new style has dominated over the past decade. Call it autofiction if you like, but it’s really a collapsing of categories. (Perhaps not coincidentally, such lumping is better suited to “People Who Liked” algorithms than brick-and-mortar shelving systems.) This new style encompasses Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels; Sheila Heti’s self-questing How Should a Person Be? ; Karl Ove Knausgaard’s just-completed 3,600-page experiment in radical mundanity; the essay-poems of Claudia Rankine on race and the collage­like reflections of Maggie Nelson on gender. It’s not really a genre at all. It’s a way of examining the self and letting the world in all at once. Whether it changes the world is, as always with books, not really the point. It helps us see more clearly.

Our dozen “classics” do represent some consensus; their genius seems settled-on. Among them are Kazuo Ishiguro’s scary portrait of replicant loneliness in Never Let Me Go ; Roberto Bolaño’s epic and powerfully confrontational 2666 ; Joan Didion’s stark self-dissection of grief in The Year of Magical Thinking . They aren’t too surprising, because they are (arguably as always, but still) great.

And then there’s The Last Samurai , Helen DeWitt’s debut: published at the start of the century, relegated to obscurity (and overshadowed by a bad and unrelated Tom Cruise movie of the same name), and now celebrated by more members of our panel than any other book. That’s still only seven out of 31, which gives you a sense of just how fragile this consensus is. Better not launch this canon into space just yet.

— Boris Kachka

The Best Book of the Century (for Now)

By Christian Lorentzen

books of 21st century

The Last Samurai , by Helen DeWitt (September 20, 2000)

Ask a set of writers and critics to select books for a new canon, and it shouldn’t come as a shock that the one most of them name is a novel about the nature of genius. It is also, more precisely, a novel about universal human potential.

Like many epics, Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai charts the education of its hero and proceeds by means of a quest narrative. A boy undertakes rigorous training and goes in search of his father. What makes it a story of our time is that the boy lives in an insufficiently heated London flat with a single mother. What makes it singular is that his training begins at age 4, when he starts to learn ancient Greek, before quickly moving on to Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Japanese, Finnish, etc. That’s not to mention his acquisition of mathematics, physics, art history, music, and an eccentric taste for tales of world exploration.

Is this boy, Ludo, a genius? Sibylla, his mother, is of two minds about it. She recognizes that she’s done something out of the ordinary by teaching the kid The Iliad so young, following the example of J.S. Mill, who did Greek at age 3. She knows he’s a “Boy Wonder” and she encourages him in every way to follow his omnivorous instincts. But she also believes that the problem with everybody else — literally everybody else — is that they haven’t been properly taught and have gone out of their way, most of the time, to avoid difficult things, like thinking. Otherwise we’d be living in a world of Ludos.

So a novel that appears on the surface to be elitist — concerned as it is with great works of art, scientific achievement, and excellence generally — is actually profoundly anti-elitist at its core. DeWitt’s novel is infused with the belief that any human mind is capable of feats we tend to associate with genius. But the novel’s characters, especially Sibylla, are aware that youthful talent can be thwarted at any turn. She knows it happened to her parents — a teenage-whiz father who was accepted to Harvard but made to go to seminary by his Christian father; and a musical prodigy mother who never went back to Juilliard for a second audition — and to herself. Whatever the world had in store for Sibylla changed forever the night Ludo was conceived.

  • SEE THE FULL ESSAY

The 12 New Classics

Per our panel.

books of 21st century

The Corrections , by Jonathan Franzen (September 1, 2001) | 6 votes Arriving in bookstores ten days before the September 11 attacks, The Corrections recounts the tragicomic breakdown of a 20th-century American dream of middle-ness: midwestern and middle-class. The Lamberts, with their mentally disintegrating patriarch, Christmas-obsessed mother, and grown siblings tackling depression, professional failure, adultery, and celebrity chefdom, may not seem as universal as they once did, but the sensation of certainties evaporating as we pitch headlong into this still-young century has only gotten stronger. —Laura Miller

DISSENT: Freedom (August 31, 2010) I prefer this in large measure because it focuses on a feature of human life that has gotten less fictional coverage than family and love: male friendship. Sure, it’s a love story between Patty and Walter and then between Patty and Richard, but it’s also a love story between Walter and Richard, two friends fiercely at odds and no less fiercely close. To say that the emotional high-note, and the real shocker, of this nearly 600-page novel is a gift that one man makes for his friend is to say that Franzen, who too many people say gets too much credit, doesn’t get enough for what he actually manages to do : reveal the tender, unexpected workings of human animals. —Wyatt Mason

books of 21st century

Never Let Me Go , by Kazuo Ishiguro (March 3, 2005)  | 6 votes You can think of this as Ishiguro’s The Road — his haunting masterpiece. The ratio of taut plot to ghastly subject matter is disturbingly effective. Kathy H.’s multidimensional but methodical storytelling of this adolescent Gothic horror show is indelible (and difficult to review without spoiling). The questions it raises are perfectly of-our-century. Never Let Me Go is a prime example of an author with impeccable taste in ideas and the control to execute them. Most authors are lucky if they have one of those things going for them. This novel is a rare symphony of both. —Sloane Crosley

books of 21st century

How Should a Person Be? , by Sheila Heti (September 25, 2010)   |  5 votes Heti doesn’t get enough credit from her advocates for being funny or from her critics for being serious. Slipping imperceptibly from ironic to earnest, challenging to chatty, her voice is sui generis and ideally suited to capturing the experience of making art — and decisions — in the modern world. The concerns of her breakout work of autofiction include sex, self-documentation, aesthetics, and friendship, as well as the titular question. The title is a perfect joke, a mission statement of deranged grandiosity, straight-faced and self-aware. Isn’t this what every book, ever, wants (in its own way) to ask? —Molly Fischer

books of 21st century

The Neapolitan Novels, by Elena Ferrante (2011-2015) | 5 votes Elena Ferrante’s Italy is where the personal is political, the male gaze is visceral, and the past clings to the present with potent force. Across four books and over the lifetimes of its two unforgettable main characters, the Neapolitan quartet explores female rage, agency, and friendship with a raw power. (All that over a decade when women have begun to express their anger and agency in new ways.) Lila and Elena grow up inured to the violence and corruption that defines their hometown of Naples in the 1950s, even as they yearn for something better: beauty amidst the ugliness, and intellectual fulfillment, which can be as heady as romantic love. Ferrante fever struck readers all over the world, captivated by Lila and Elena’s complicated relationship. —Maris Kreizman

books of 21st century

The Argonauts , by Maggie Nelson (May 5, 2015) |  5 votes Around the time it was published, Maggie Nelson read aloud the opening of this book — an extremely graphic and surprising sex scene, awkwardly lighting up that New York room and clanging a bell that people had just not heard before. Her 21st-century classic is structurally just that kind of awoke re-shuffling. It’s not that you don’t know about anal sex, childbirth, or even about a partner’s transition or a parent dying, but Nelson puts each next to the other in a manner that changes our perception of each and all. I’m always glad to have never had a baby, yet Maggie has writ birthing so deeply that I’m grateful to say I’ve missed nothing in this life, thanks to this uncanny saint of a book. —Eileen Myles

books of 21st century

2666 , by Roberto Bolaño (November 11, 2008) | 4 votes Bolaño’s final legacy to the world before his death in 2003 is a labyrinthine mystery taking in three continents and most of the 20th century. Its playful first part might make you think you are stepping into a steady old-fashioned cruise ship of a novel, à la Victor Hugo, but the tone shifts as abruptly as the locale. At its center is the book-length fourth part, a mercilessly clipped recital of some of the hundreds of femicides in Ciudad Juárez, which is both integral to the story and a direct confrontation with the reader. The book is a world: teeming, immeasurable, unplumbable, materially solid but finally enigmatic. —Luc Sante

DISSENT: The Savage Detectives (March 4, 2008) I have always preferred this precursor to 2666 , which is its closest (though much slimmer) competitor in scope. The polyphonic tour de force is peak Bolaño, the purest distillation of its author’s disparate obsessions: the collision of the Old World with the New, mezcal , road trips, Surrealism, sacrifice in lifelong pursuit of art (and the authoritarian urge seeded in creative failure), fraudulence, unrecognized genius, and the maddening and fleeting allure of youth. —Thomas Chatterton Williams

books of 21st century

The Sellout , by Paul Beatty (March 3, 2015) |  4 votes It takes a master of language, culture, and comic timing to create a satire that excoriates contemporary American life, with jokes coming at a furious pace, almost line by line. The novel takes on the idea of living in a “post-racial” society, which even during the Obama administration was ridiculous. The Sellout details the trials of a black man charged with reinstating slavery and segregation in his California hometown, in a voice that is unabashedly profane; so unflinchingly silly and smart that it’s impossible to look away. —Maris Kreizman

books of 21st century

The Outline Trilogy ( Outline , Transit , and Kudos ), by Rachel Cusk (2014–2018) |  4 votes In its basic contours, Cusk’s trilogy is a masterpiece of rigorous denial: The books, mostly plotless, follow a British writer named Faye about whom we learn little. Yet Faye is less a protagonist than a character-shaped black hole, pulling stories and confessions out of everyone she encounters as if by inexorable gravitational force. Their disclosures allow Cusk to examine the ways we try (and fail) to make meaning out of life. The result is fiction like ice water, cold and clear, a mirror of our time. —Molly Fischer

books of 21st century

Atonement , by Ian McEwan (September 2001) |  3 votes At once a war story, a love story, and a story about the destructive and redemptive powers of the imagination, Atonement pivots around a terrible lie told by a 13-year-old girl that will shatter her family. At the same time, the novel opens out into a deeply moving portrait of England careerning from the quiescent 1930s into the horrors of World War II. A bravura account of the 1940 Allied retreat from Dunkirk stands as one of the most indelible combat scenes in recent literature, slamming home the confusion, terror, and banality of war with visceral immediacy. It is only the most memorable sequence in a brilliantly orchestrated novel that injects many of the author’s favorite themes — the hazards of innocence, the sudden intrusion of bad luck into ordinary lives, the blurring of lines between art and life — with a new resonance and depth. —Michiko Kakutani

books of 21st century

The Year of Magical Thinking , by Joan Didion (September 1, 2005) |  3 votes This is often referred to as Didion’s “departure” — the underbelly everyone always longed to see after reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem and thinking: But surely she’d pick me. Surely we’d live happily ever after, observing the world with our cool eyes. In short: No, she wouldn’t. And The Year of Magical Thinking is actually not her “personal” anomaly. It’s the Didion that’s been there all along — funny, humane, trenchant — transformed by tragedy and grief. The 21st century is young, but this one will be on this list 50 years from now. There’s something so reassuring about a bar that can never be surpassed. —Sloane Crosley

books of 21st century

Leaving the Atocha Station , by Ben Lerner (August 23, 2011) |  3 votes When our alien overlords want to know what was new in the novel in the first quarter of the 21st century, give them Atocha Station . Some will contend that Lerner’s second novel, 10:04 , is a more mature work, but this one is leaner and shapelier, and more directly explores the disconnect between our hopes for art and our actual experience of it. The narrator, a self-loathing stoner American poet on a fellowship in Madrid, is a privileged jackass trying to appear deep. The trick, of course, is that he’s brilliant, and his anxious stream of thought is philosophically rich. What is the average person’s role in history? How can we live with our own fraudulence? Why should we make art, and what kind of art can we make now? To all these questions Atocha Station is an answer. —Christine Smallwood

DISSENT: 10:04 (September 2, 2014) 10:04 is the story of a poet and novelist (the author of a book very much like Leaving the Atocha Station ) as he contemplates in vitro uncoupled parenthood, radical politics, fleeting love, and a looming, potentially lethal arterial condition. Lerner moves from touristic escapism and the question of artistic fraudulence to the deeper burdens of settling, reproducing, and creating something great. On top of that he gives the much bemoaned Brooklyn novel a good name. —Christian Lorentzen

books of 21st century

The Flamethrowers , by Rachel Kushner (April 2, 2013) |  3 votes This fever-dream of the 1970s would make a spectacular movie — if anyone had the budget to make a picture that takes in speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats, vast street riots in Rome, escapes through the Alps, and intrigue in the international art world. Kushner sets her heroine, Reno, in the middle of all of it, usually astride her battered Moto Valera; passionate, vulnerable, relentlessly curious, and only a little bit compromised. The book is a feminist action-adventure, a love note to the last decade before neoliberalism choked the world, and a monument to sheer gumption. —Luc Sante

The High Canon

Books endorsed by two panelists.

books of 21st century

Erasure , by Percival Everett (August 1, 2001) The University of Southern California English professor has published some 30 volumes, mostly fiction, and Erasure is among his best. A comic romp through academic pieties and perversities, it centers on a literary hoax gone bad, in ways that predicted our current higher-educational climate. Everett is always, in a sense, writing about race, and always not. (He also writes about himself — and not — with a Hitchcock-like cameo in the form of a derelict-in-his-duty, wastrel of a literature professor by the name of Percival Everett.) —Tom Lutz

books of 21st century

Middlesex , by Jeffrey Eugenides (September 4, 2002) “Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome,” proclaims Cal/Calliope Stephanides, Middlesex ’s pseudo-hermaphroditic protagonist, recounting his family’s long hereditary slide towards her mixed-up gender identity. And then: “Sorry if I get a little Homeric at times. That’s genetic, too.” Eugenides packs so much richness into this Classical saga-cum-bildungsroman-cum–paean to the American Dream that Dickens would be proud. Starting with the burning of Smyrna and winding its way through Prohibition to the 1967 Detroit race riots, Middlesex does what any viable candidate for the Great American Novel should; it broadens the definition of “American.” —Hillary Kelly

books of 21st century

Platform , by Michel Houellebecq (September 5, 2002) Houellebecq’s second novel (after his incendiary debut, The Elementary Particles ) is full of loathsome, corrosive wit; it continues his savagely pessimistic project exploring the future of France (and, by extension, Europe and the West), caught between the distractions of late capitalism and the amorality of a post-1968 society. Houellebecq is abrasive, offensive, and in many ways obviously wrong, but his grim outlook on globalization and his anger at his parents’ generation make him one of the essential European novelists of the 21st century. —Jess Row

books of 21st century

Do Everything in the Dark , by Gary Indiana (June 1, 2003) A working title for this novel was “Psychotic Friends Network.” Composed in 74 short sections, it follows a group of loosely bound friends — artists, actors, writers, and careerless people who once had other plans — into the damaged state of middle age. Downtown Manhattan is their center of gravity, but these characters have been scattered, before waking up to find themselves so much human debris in the wake of personal failures, betrayals, and AIDS. A literary descendant of Renata Adler’s Speedboat and a forerunner of recent autofiction, Do Everything in the Dark concludes on the weekend before 9/11, and demonstrates that American wreckage wasn’t something invented on that sunny Tuesday morning. —Christian Lorentzen

books of 21st century

The Known World , by Edward P. Jones (August 14, 2003) This intimate portrait of the great national nightmare of slavery comes disguised in the britches and mourning dresses of an antebellum historical novel. It was widely praised upon publication for revealing an obscure chapter of American history — free people of color who owned slaves — but the history itself was largely invented. The Virginian county of Henry Townsend’s plantation, the reference citations, and many of the period details are made up. Having denied the consolations of historical distance, The Known World forces a reckoning with a moral horror that lives still. —Nathaniel Rich

books of 21st century

The Plot Against America , by Philip Roth (September 30, 2004) It can be easy to forget that The Plot Against America , which today reads as a parable for Trump’s America, was widely received as an allegory for W.’s — an interpretation that Roth encouraged by insisting the opposite. The novel begins in a buzz of fear and the pitch increases steadily, unbearably. But it’s Roth’s doomed hero, Walter Winchell, whose speeches have the uncanny urgency of prophecy: “How long will Americans remain asleep while their cherished Constitution is torn to shreds by the fascist fifth column of the Republican right marching under the sign of the cross and the flag?” —Nathaniel Rich

DISSENT: The Human Stain (April 2000) This was the first Roth title that came to mind, which surprised me because I wouldn’t list it if the parameters were widened from “21st century” to “ever.” But it’s really a marvel of racial politics and suspense. And who doesn’t love Nathan Zuckerman? Don’t answer that. —Sloane Crosley

books of 21st century

The Line of Beauty , by Alan Hollinghurst (October 1, 2004) Sometimes a book just feels monumental. The Line of Beauty follows a young gay man, Nick, who lives with the family of a Tory MP under Thatcher — who makes an unforgettable cameo appearance. This is the story of two initiations. It’s about a loss of innocence coinciding with social success, but also about a coming in of sorts: Nick’s entrance into London’s gay subculture. He is always seduced by beauty, but as AIDS looms — along with the threat of discovery by his conservative hosts — Nick can’t outrun the politics of his aesthetics or the contradictions in the social structures to which he clings. —Alice Bolin

books of 21st century

Veronica , by Mary Gaitskill (October 11, 2005) Like her first novel, Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991), Gaitskill’s second revolves around a friendship between two women. Alison Owen, a former model living with hepatitis C, reflects on her complex closeness with Veronica Ross, a woman we learn died alone with AIDS. How we care for people in pain is at the heart of this moving, unsentimental look at our fragility, written with remarkable metaphorical and lyrical power. In a book not about living through hardships but about living in their aftermath, Gaitskill’s Alison is indelible, as is her memory of her lost friend. —Wyatt Mason

books of 21st century

The Road , by Cormac McCarthy (September 26, 2006) Here is the author of Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men still trafficking in his primordial themes — good vs. evil — but locating it tenderly within the relationship between a father and son (as they journey through a post-Apocalyptic hellscape). The father knows he is dying and, in a world overrun by cannibalism and violence, he’s trying to teach his son how to tell the “good guys” from the bad. This is McCarthy at his most restrained, and consequently most resonant. There is no fiction subject more trendy (and more urgent) than the multifarious possible ends of the world; McCarthy led the way, and might be impossible to surpass. —Edward Hart

books of 21st century

Ooga-Booga , by Frederick Seidel (November 14, 2006) “The title is Kill Poetry , / And in the book poetry kills.” The poems in Frederick Seidel’s 12th collection, Ooga Booga , don’t kill but they come awfully close. Some poets are easy to love; Seidel is so good you revere him despite yourself. Born in 1936 and still living in New York, he’s the heir to a family coal fortune, a famously dapper dresser, and a writer of odes to Ducati motorcycles. He also captures the absurd melancholy of modern existence in dark, crystalline stanzas. “The poet the 20th century deserved” is how one critic put it, and it’s not clear if that’s a compliment or not, or if it matters. At 82, he’s the poet the 21st century deserves, too, and still desperately needs. —Adam Sternbergh

books of 21st century

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao , by Junot Díaz (September 6, 2007) Junot Díaz’s first novel not only affirmed the vitality and the talent displayed in his first book, Drown , in a resounding way, it expanded the idea of what is possible, and what American literature could be. It could be written for an audience in ascendancy, told in vernacular but expertly formed and composed. It could concern the intensely personal, but telescope out to the historic and the political. The astounding Oscar Wao did all of that, leaving us with a lasting understanding of the American experience as encompassing lives beyond our blinkered borders. —Oscar Villalon

books of 21st century

Wolf Hall , by Hilary Mantel (April 30, 2009) Any writer could have done the research that informs this remarkable historical novel. But only genius, gimlet-eyed, wicked Hilary Mantel could have created the animating intelligence at the heart of it: Thomas Cromwell, adviser to Henry VIII, antagonist to Thomas More, brilliant and ambitious, heartbroken and ruthless. “As some men have an eye for horseflesh or cattle to be fattened,” Mantel writes, “he has an eye for risk,” and as a novelist she shares this quality, taking unlikely narrative leaps that always pay off. No book this learned should be so wildly entertaining. —Dan Kois

books of 21st century

The Possessed , by Elif Batuman (February 16, 2010) The best essay collections are about the writer’s strange and hungry mind groping around the contours of the world, but this one is also a hilarious book on a famously grave subject: Russian literature. Batuman creates a memoir of her time in Stanford’s PhD program obliquely, writing about authors first and herself second. She mimics the forms of fiction — a Sherlock Holmes–style detective story in “The Murder of Leo Tolstoy,” an old-school travelogue of studying abroad in Uzbekistan — to better comment on them. The Possessed and Batuman’s novel, The Idiot , together form a body of work that queries the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction — and between books and their readers. —Alice Bolin

books of 21st century

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake , by Aimee Bender (June 1, 2010) All of Bender’s stories are written in a mode that is not quite fantasy, certainly not realist, and somewhat fairy-tale-ish (in other words a style that is all her own), offering beautiful, profound stories about, for instance, a six-inch-tall man who lives in a bird cage in his wife’s house; or, as in the title of another collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. It really doesn’t matter which of her books you pick up first; you’ll be immediately hooked and read them all. —Tom Lutz

books of 21st century

Mr. Fox , by Helen Oyeyemi (June 1, 2011) Not since Angela Carter has a writer subverted classic fairy-tale tropes the way Helen Oyeyemi does, to transformative effect. Mr. Fox is perhaps the first brilliant work of romantic metafiction, a novel that tells the story of a few characters over and over again in pitch-perfect iterations that reveal volumes about love and loneliness and violence. Undeniably clever — but not so clever as to obscure the sentiment embedded in Oyeyemi’s shrewd structure — Mr. Fox has the brains and the heart to win over both those who enjoy unraveling how fiction works and those who just seek pure enjoyment. —Maris Kreizman

books of 21st century

Lives Other Than My Own , by Emmanuel Carrère (September 13, 2011) The sui-generis French author of fiction, nonfiction, and works that bridge the two has published many excellent books, among them the true-crime account The Adversary (2000) and The Kingdom (2014). My favorite by a nose is Lives Other Than My Own , a book that defies tidy summary, but which, though preoccupied with the very saddest human experiences — the deaths of a young child and a sibling — is also believably a book about happiness, one which earns its happy ending. —Wyatt Mason

DISSENT: The Kingdom (August 29, 2014) I left the Catholic Church at 13 and have not spent much time thinking about religion since then. But this book kept me pinned to its pages until the end. It is personal and rigorous, skeptical and open, casual and profound, and its speculative portrait of Saint Luke is as compelling as any fictional life I’ve read lately. —Luc Sante

books of 21st century

Zone One , by Colson Whitehead (October 6, 2011) In a century marked by the erosion of the high-low divide that once separated “literature” from genre fiction, Zone One is the exemplary hybrid, the paragon of what each mode offers the other. Whitehead’s post-apocalyptic experiment — a zombie novel that’s also a 9/11 meditation that’s also a cultural satire — delivers both moving psychological realism and satisfying gore. (The moment when hero Mark Spitz discovers his undead mother feasting on his dad’s corpse will stay with me until the day a zombie chows down on mine.) Whitehead has written terrific novels that more directly address the horrors of American history, but never one that more accurately portrays the horrors of the American present. —Dan Kois

DISSENT: Sag Harbor (April 28, 2009) This thoroughly uneventful but linguistically dazzling autobiographical account of an upper-middle-class black holiday enclave accomplishes what very few books attempt: to remove the contemporary black experience from the realm of extremes. Unlike the more zeitgeisty Underground Railroad , this is neither a lament about subjugation nor a tale of individual escape. It neither denies the persistence of racism nor revels in the lingering wound. In this book as in real life, anti-blackness is but a single facet of the black experience. It is genuinely fresh. —Thomas Chatterton Williams

books of 21st century

Gone Girl , by Gillian Flynn (May 24, 2012) Six years, a film adaptation, and many, many imitators later, it can be difficult to recall why Flynn’s third thriller was such a genre game-changer. But I’ll never forget how loudly I gasped at the now-infamous mid-novel narrative twist, as audacious as Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (both of these play fair with the reader, by the way). Flynn’s writing, always Ginsu-sharp, leveled up here, especially on the stress of a marriage under strain in the wake of 2008’s economic collapse. We’re playing by Gone Girl rules now. —Sarah Weinman

books of 21st century

NW , by Zadie Smith (August 27, 2012) Zadie Smith is maybe the most important British novelist of the 21st century (yeah, I said it). She unpacks layered cultural identities in the tradition of Dickens, Eliot, and Austen. If Smith was in E.M. Forster mode in the wonderful On Beauty , she went full Virginia Woolf in NW , her fourth and maybe her best novel, undertaking a Mrs . Dalloway– esque journey through London. NW is not only about the intersecting lives of characters who grew up together in a Northwest London housing project, but also leveraging the complexity of the modernist project to ask difficult questions about race and social status. —Alice Bolin

books of 21st century

White Girls , by Hilton Als (January 1, 2013) En route to the airport, I ask one of my boyfriends to tell me, in his own words, why White Girls belongs here. As it happens, the boyfriend has, stored on his phone, favorite lines from the book. Here are some: “Other people are always our parents.” “I cannot bear to imagine unraveling my mother, her hair, her retribution.” “Nowadays, no one leaves the house without some kind of script.” “I’d like to fuck some truth into Suicide Bitch, if I could get it up.” “We hate white girls because we are white girls and that’s what white girls do.” —David Velasco

My Struggle: A Man in Love, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

My Struggle: A Man in Love , by Karl Ove Knausgaard (May 13, 2013) What was it about this thoroughly Gen-X Norwegian man that caused so many readers to plunge into his struggle — an epic stretching over nearly 4,000 pages — as if it were their own? Was it the agony of his relationship with his alcoholic father? Was it the tribulations of parenthood, so many hours at kiddie parties and not the writing desk? Or was it the passion that seized him when he first met his future second wife and cut up his face when she rejected him? With its digressions within digressions, A Man in Love — book two of My Struggle — is the most formally thrilling in the series. In its pathetic way, it’s also the funniest. —Christian Lorentzen

books of 21st century

The Goldfinch , by Donna Tartt (September 23, 2013) Tartt seems to have inhaled the complete works of Charles Dickens and magically exhaled them into a thoroughly original narrative that reinvents the old-fashioned social novel, while capturing our anxious post-9/11 age with uncommon fervor and precision. Like Great Expectations, it concerns the sentimental education of an orphan as well as a mysterious benefactor. The story takes young Theo from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a bomb kills his mother, to sojourns in Las Vegas and Amsterdam and dangerous encounters with drug dealers, mobsters, and other sinister types. In the hands of a lesser novelist, such developments might feel contrived, but Tartt writes with such authority and verve and understanding of character that her story becomes just as persuasive as it is suspenseful. —Michiko Kakutani

books of 21st century

Dept. of Speculation , by Jenny Offill (January 28, 2014) If the novel exists to help readers reconcile themselves to the disappointments of adulthood, Dept. of Speculation ranks up there with Balzac’s Lost Illusions . Its narrator is a type relatively new in literature — a female writer who is also a mother. (The book is written in fragments, reflecting the temporality of motherhood and depression, that are alternately wry, bereft, tender, furious, despairing, and joyful.) Before having a baby, she had dreamed of being an “art monster.” But this book is proof that great art does not require a spouse who licks your stamps. It requires only what Offill possesses in abundance, and what her narrator knows is the highest wisdom: “attention.” —Christine Smallwood

books of 21st century

All My Puny Sorrows , by Miriam Toews (April 11, 2014) There have been bigger, splashier novels featuring suicidal characters published in the 21st century, but none so resonant as Toews’s stunner — the story of two sisters, one of whom is kind of miserable while the other is accomplished, talented, and determined to kill herself. A profoundly tender love story about deep despair, Sorrows also brims with jokes that are real and plentiful and well-earned, as well as a keen sense of what joy looks like even in the darkest of times. —Maris Kreizman

books of 21st century

Citizen: An American Lyric , by Claudia Rankine (October 7, 2014) Rankine’s compilation of lyric poems, micro-essays, snatches of cultural commentary, and startlingly direct descriptions of her everyday experiences as a black woman became the essential literary complement to Black Lives Matter and probably the most important work of American poetry in the 21st century. Fiercely eccentric, refusing any easy resolutions, Citizen ’s success represents a redefinition of the conventions of American literature. —Jess Row

books of 21st century

consent not to be a single being , by Fred Moten (2017–2018) At a time when both theory and criticism are frequently and convincingly attacked as exhausted forms, Moten’s trilogy has reinvented both. Reading hip-hop and jazz musicians through and against philosophers and visual artists, he interrogates aesthetic, political, and social phenomena through analyses of blackness. He offers a profusion of arguments and deconstructions to create a coherence that nonetheless remains open to active reading and interpretation. In its mixture of theoretical complexity and disarming directness, Moten’s beautifully written trilogy offers the sheer pleasure of art. —Lidija Haas

The Rest of the (Premature, Debatable, Arbitrary, But Still Illuminating) Canon

books of 21st century

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay , by Michael Chabon (September 19, 2000) The star creation of the comic-book whiz kids Joe Kavalier and Sammy Klayman is the Escapist, a superhero cloaked in a midnight-blue costume emblazoned with a golden key. The Escapist lacks physical might, but like the novel, he possesses a shrewd intelligence, courage, and an insatiable appetite for adventure. As Clay puts it, the Escapist doesn’t just fight crime, “he frees the world of it. He frees people, see?” In this novel of Houdinis, femme fatales, and comic book villains (including Adolf Hitler) — a novel about the American genius for self-invention, in all its glorious and hideous manifestations — Michael Chabon proves that the strongest superpower of all is the ability to tell a great story. —Nathaniel Rich

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The Amber Spyglass , by Philip Pullman (October 10, 2000) The concluding volume of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy takes its teenaged heroes, Lyra and Will, across universes, up to heaven, and deep into the shadowlands of the dead. But intertwined with their epic tale is the quiet, odd story of physicist Mary Malone, one of the greatest of Pullman’s creations, who uses the rational tools of the scientist to untangle the trilogy’s cosmological mysteries. The Harry Potter series may have launched children’s books into the commercial stratosphere, but it was this book — a stew of Milton and Blake, rich with allusion, kind and fierce — that made clear the imaginative and literary heights to which books for young people could ascend. And the ending: Oh! The ending! My heart breaks again just thinking of it. —Dan Kois

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True History of the Kelly Gang , by Peter Carey (January 9, 2001) There isn’t a novelist alive shy of Toni Morrison who can forge sprung poetry from the speech of mere mortals quite like Carey. In True History of the Kelly Gang , which won him a second Booker Prize in 2001, he conjured the clang and twang of Australia’s infamous bushranger, Ned Kelly, telling his life story from beyond the grave to a daughter he left behind. Here’s all the adventure of robbing banks to give to the poor, but also the shame and rage of a convict long gone turned into eternal narrative. An ecstatic and furious book. —John Freeman

books of 21st century

The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos , by Anne Carson (February 6, 2001) Among the most immediate, most poignant, and funniest of Carson’s works, Beauty tells the story of a marriage to a vampiric, manipulative narcissist, and explores some of her favorite themes: frustration over what cannot be understood or communicated; power struggles enacted through language; erotic longing. The sharp, fragmentary collision of essay, poetry, fiction, and memoir is arguably becoming a dominant form in 21st-century literature so far, and Carson created a compelling template for it that won’t be easily surpassed. —Lidija Haas

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The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse , by Louise Erdrich (April 3, 2001) In our age of fake presidents and wished-for miracles, I’ve begun to long for a rediscovery of Erdrich’s novel. The book tells the tale of Father Damien, a woman who for 50 years disguises herself as a man so she can serve an Ojibwe congregation. Damien’s anguished, searching voice is the book’s oaken rudder, as she steers through currents of moral dilemma. Is a lie a sin if it preserves her work? Should she instigate against a false prophet, or dedicate herself to highlighting humans’ capacity for good? Perhaps the last question is eternal, but Erdrich makes it feel freshly so. —John Freeman

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Austerlitz , by W.G. Sebald (October 2, 2001) Austerlitz bears all of Sebald’s hallmarks: a saturnine narrator, a love of archives and depositories, and a series of chance encounters with someone who has a story to tell. That someone, Jacques Austerlitz, was brought to England aboard a kindertransport as an infant, and he is in the process of recovering the truth about his parents — he first learns that his mother, an opera singer, was killed at Theresienstadt. The sweep of European cultural history is laid out like an enormous map in order to precisely locate the circumstances of the crime. The sentences are long, the paragraphs cyclopean, the pacing leisurely, and yet it’s all hypnotically gripping. —Luc Sante

books of 21st century

Fingersmith , by Sarah Waters (February 4, 2002) You know a twist is coming. About ten million friends have hinted about the twist. “You haven’t read Fingersmith ?” they said. “Oh man, that twist.” But it doesn’t matter that you know the twist is coming because when it arrives in this page-turner about a shifty ladies’ maid and her neurotic, beautiful lady, you will still cackle with glee. I myself threw the book to the ground, shouting, “Holy shit!” You have never had a reading experience quite as propulsive and enjoyable as barreling through Sarah Waters’s sordid, sexy saga of swindlers and smut-peddlers screwing each other all across Victorian England. —Dan Kois

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The Time of Our Singing , by Richard Powers (October 3, 2002) Powers revisits the civil rights struggles of the last century from an unexpected angle, illuminating some of the deepest rifts and tensions in American life via an often exhilarating meditation on time and music. The novel follows a German Jewish physicist; his African-American wife, whose ambitions as a singer are thwarted early; and their children, two of whom become classical musicians. Few writers have captured the experience of listening to music the way Powers does, and his evocations of historical events have the same vividness. The book’s scope and grandeur make clear that the realist novel can still embody ideas as few other forms can. —Lidija Haas

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The Book of Salt , by Monique Truong (April 7, 2003) Based on a passing reference to a Vietnamese cook in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, Truong’s first novel reimagines the domestic life of Gertrude Stein and Toklas through the eyes of Binh, whose rich and caustic voice makes him one of the great fictional narrators of the last quarter-century. It’s a miraculous paradox — a novel that lovingly reproduces the atmosphere of European modernism in order to reveal its racist and imperialist underpinnings. —Jess Row

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Mortals , by Norman Rush (May 27, 2003) A novel of adultery and conspiracy, of Americans in Africa on the morning after the end of the Cold War, Mortals follows a CIA agent (and Milton scholar) in Botswana in 1992. Rush is the most politically committed and engaged of contemporary American novelists, and Mortals is the most sustained and well-informed fictional account of U.S. meddling in countries that rarely feature in our headlines. The human story of a faltering marriage merges with the geopolitical in the form of a boiling civil conflict. Rush is Joseph Conrad’s heir in the era of globalization. —Christian Lorentzen

books of 21st century

Home Land , by Sam Lipsyte (February 16, 2004) What would a Gen-X Notes from Underground look like? In Lipsyte’s version, it comes in the form of letters written to a high-school alumni newspaper, confessing to the nightmare of the American meritocracy: “I did not pan out.” Lipsyte’s Underground Man has a name and a nickname, both of which mark him as pathetic. Lewis “Teabag” Miner is the embodiment of the loser under late capitalism. Location: New Jersey, a place just across the river from the precincts of power, but in fact a wasteland of strip malls, fast food, dive bars, and work-from-home content-generation jobs. Teabag has graduated into a world of bullshit, and what he has to tell his high-school classmates is that they were living in a land of bullshit all along. —Christian Lorentzen

books of 21st century

Oblivion , by David Foster Wallace (June 8, 2004) Oblivion was the final book of fiction Wallace published before his life was cut short by suicide. Although a great writer of nonfiction, Wallace’s idea of fiction was of another order of magnitude. As Oblivion showcases, one of the things that made Wallace so necessary was his insistence on formal inventiveness: None of the eight stories in Oblivion resembles any other, each a kind of experiment that never has the whiff of the lab. Rather, these stories attempt to find new ways of getting at the deep, dark difficulty of being a modern human, a predicament so funny it could make you weep, as these stories themselves are likely to make you do: in rage, in sorrow, in gratitude. —Wyatt Mason

books of 21st century

Honored Guest , by Joy Williams (October 5, 2004) Joy Williams is one of the contemporary masters of the American short story, and her 2004 collection Honored Guest finds her at her most bizarre and profound. It is easy to be wrapped up in Williams’s sentences, in lines of dialogue like, “‘I’m Priscilla Dickman and I’m an ex-agoraphobic. Can I buy you a drink?’” But Honored Guest is much more than its delightful surface. These are stories of lonely characters on the rim of tragedy — a girl living with her terminally ill mother, a woman whose boyfriend is gravely injured in a hunting accident — probing the eternal with hilarious detachment and moving, sorrowful confusion. —Alice Bolin

books of 21st century

Suite Française , by Irène Némirovsky (October 31, 2004) Enough time has passed that the astounding story of this posthumous, unfinished novel — which Némirovsky wrote in secret in Nazi-occupied France and was discovered by her daughters six decades after she was killed at Auschwitz — can cede center stage to the book itself. And what a marvel Suite Française is, an incisive, heartbreaking portrait of a small French town under seige, and the people trying to survive, even to live, as Hitler’s horrors march closer and closer to their doors. Even incomplete, it’s a masterpiece of observation and character study, a standout of Holocaust literature. —Sarah Weinman

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The Sluts , by Dennis Cooper (January 13, 2005) Once upon a time, in the prelude to the plague years, gay male desire invented its most mesmeric and unbearable object: the twink. Blond, white, underweight, and user-friendly, he was a plastic icon of inverted, Aryan masculinity. As AIDS destroyed a population, as the internet quickened and anarchized our pornographies, the twink took off. Dennis Cooper hit this crepuscular intersection of web and death with effortless genius. A series of online rent-boy reviews describe the discovery, torture, and maybe murder of a barely-legal, no-limits hustler named Brad. Call it the twink cri de coeur — all surface, and so, perversely impenetrable. It is a dangerous fantasia, slipping so easily into the mouths and minds of homophobes. But go ahead, let them taste it. They want it as much as anyone. —David Velasco

books of 21st century

Voices From Chernobyl , by Svetlana Alexievich (June 28, 2005) The Belarusian Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize in 2015, ostensibly trades in oral history. Her books do not, however, bear much resemblance to the form as it is usually practiced. Here the accounts of witnesses and victims are orchestrated, arranged in counterpoint and as fugues and descants, with purposeful ellipses and repetitions, and edited to make every voice sound like a poet. Alexievich is clear about the extent to which she reshapes her material, and her books are only nominally about facts — they are concerned with impressions and feelings, and they remain in your ear long after you’ve turned the last page. —Luc Sante

books of 21st century

Magic for Beginners , by Kelly Link (July 1, 2005) Any collection of Kelly Link’s stories will do. They shimmer in the borderlands of myth, genre, and literature. A convenience store caters to the mild-mannered zombies who emerge from a nearby gorge and clumsily attempt to shop. A group of teenagers bond over an elusive TV series. A suburban family becomes slowly and methodically alienated from every possession they own. Link’s stories can make you shudder, then laugh, then feel like a god has just walked past your window. —Laura Miller

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The Afterlife , by Donald Antrim (May 30, 2006) A book of fierce love and heartbreaking shame, Antrim’s memoir of his mother, written in the wake of her death from lung cancer, was a radical departure from his wild comic novels of the 1990s. It was also an artistic breakthrough. Antrim’s mother was an alcoholic. Her marriage to his father, an English professor who left her for another woman and returned years later, was happy in neither of its incarnations. The emotions in this book are raw, the writing exquisite, and the family pain shattering. —Christian Lorentzen

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Winter’s Bone , by Daniel Woodrell (August 7, 2006) Can a film adaptation be too good? I worry that Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout performance in the 2010 film has overshadowed this outstanding novel, which features what one critic called “the character of a lifetime.” The story of 16-year-old Ree Dolly trying to save her Ozark family is at once intimate and mythic. Woodrell’s language has a spiky beauty, he also uses localisms carefully. His depictions of violence are first-rate, vivid, and essential to the story. Oh, and it’s a glancing look at the methamphetamine scourge, largely forgotten but far from gone as the country now focuses on opioids. —Laura Lippman

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Wizard of the Crow , by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (August 8, 2006) Thiong’o, often talked about as a Nobel Prize contender, was among the first celebrated post-independence African writers, along with Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. Imprisoned and then exiled from Kenya, he has been writing his memoirs and is now on his fourth volume. Wizard of the Crow , a fantastic (in all senses of the word) novel written in his native Kikuyu, is his masterpiece, published when he was 68. No novel has ever so profoundly mixed oral tradition, novelistic gamesmanship, serious political critique, literary meta-analysis, and every genre under the sun, from farce to tragedy. —Tom Lutz

books of 21st century

American Genius, A Comedy , by Lynne Tillman (September 25, 2006) A modernist adventure for a new century: You spend the novel roaming around inside the mind of a woman who has taken refuge in a Magic Mountain–style sanatorium-cum–artists’ colony. Her compulsive digressions and recurring preoccupations mostly take the place of a conventional plot, and Tillman’s beautifully constructed sentences create their own propulsion, able to take a reader in any direction at any moment. From the opening pages, a singular consciousness emerges, both porous and radically isolated, and by stripping out most other elements, the book confirms the ultimate primacy of literary voice, of which this is a rare triumph. —Lidija Haas

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Eat the Document , by Dana Spiotta (November 28, 2006) If Don DeLillo is a sage of 20th-century American politics and popular culture, Dana Spiotta is the author who has carried the torch into the 21st. Her prose is as catchy and melodic as the music she describes in so many of her novels with the insight of a rock critic, and her fiction often illuminates the way we distort our memories. Eat the Document is the story of a woman who goes underground in the 1970s after participating in violence with a radical group, and her son who uncovers her past in the 1990s, when the ideals of the leftist movement have been romanticized and perverted. —Maris Kreizman

books of 21st century

The Harry Potter novels, by J.K. Rowling (1997–2007) With her seven Harry Potter novels, J.K. Rowling has created a fictional world as fully imagined as Oz or Narnia or Middle Earth. Each volume grows progressively darker, and as more responsibilities are heaped on Harry’s shoulders, the Boy Who Lived becomes the leader of the Resistance. Grounding his story in the mundane Muggle world, with its ordinary frustrations and challenges, even as she conjures a wildly inventive magical realm, Rowling has crafted an epic that transcends its classical sources as effortlessly as it leapfrogs conventional genres. In doing so, she created a series of books that have captivated both children and adults — novels that hold a mirror to our own mortal world as it lurches into the uncertainties of the 21st century. —Michiko Kakutani

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Sleeping It Off in Rapid City , by August Kleinzahler (April 1, 2008) August Kleinzahler is such a good poet, such a master of English vernaculars and a variety of modernisms, with such a gift for observational detail, that I think he gets overlooked or underpraised, partly for his consistency. Sleeping It Off in Rapid City is one of the great collections of American poetry, from the opening title poem, which exudes the bleak vastness and kitsch of midwestern landscapes, to the various blues lyrics and seemingly offhand evocations of San Francisco weather, as classical as the Tang Dynasty greats they recall. —Nikil Saval

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The White Tiger , by Aravind Adiga (April 22, 2008) The White Tiger promised “you will know everything there is to know about how entrepreneurship is born, nurtured, and developed in this, the glorious 21st century of man,” launching a relentless attack on the myth of a “new” capitalism, and not just in India. Adiga’s comic monologue and many-voiced testament follows Balram Halwai, naïve servant and caged spirit, to the climactic “act of entrepreneurship”: braining his master with an empty bottle of Johnny Walker Black in Delhi, then stealing his bag of politicians’ bribes to conquer the tech world of Bangalore. Spiritually the equal of Wright’s Native Son and Balzac’s Père Goriot , this Booker Prize–winning debut was how a major writer announced himself — in fury. —Mark Greif

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The Lazarus Project , by Aleksandar Hemon (May 1, 2008) A fictional Bosnian writer (and Hemon doppelgänger of sorts) travels to Eastern Europe to retrace the footsteps of Lazarus Averbuch, a Jewish immigrant who survived a pogrom only to be gunned down in the home of Chicago’s police chief in 1908, while in alternating chapters Averbuch’s story unspools. Hemon transmogrifies the smallest details into strangely vivid prose: Gunsmoke moves slowly “like a school of fish” while a character hears “straw crepitating” in her pillow. Hemon’s verbal effects accumulate into a haunting portrait of immigrant life. Hemon is Nabokov’s heir, in a more perilous time for American newcomers. —Edward Hart

books of 21st century

Home , by Marilynne Robinson (September 2, 2008) Grace suffuses this novel, and not just its prose. Twenty-four years after her debut, the magnificent Housekeeping , Robinson returned to fiction with Gilead , winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. But its sequel, Home , is the more sublime realization of her vasts gifts, the masterpiece of what’s so far a trilogy (Robinson’s Lila appeared in 2014). A retelling of the prodigal-son parable set in 1950s Iowa, Home is also something rare in American literature these days: a meditation on Christian transfiguration. It derives its power from family pain and the radical nature of forgiveness. —Christian Lorentzen

DISSENT: Gilead (November 4, 2004) Marilynne Robinson’s writing through the lens of religious faith can make even the most unspiritual reader feel blessed. Yes, both Home and Gilead are set within the same time and place, but I’m loyal to the latter because it came out first — and the first discovery of grace is the most thrilling. —Maris Kreizman

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Fine Just the Way It Is , by Annie Proulx (September 9, 2008) The short story is often offered the kiddie table when seated beside the novel. Annie Proulx the novelist is and will remain one of America’s greatest, but here she elevates story to a category that tips over the word fiction . Proulx’s Wyoming is a brutal, raw life and landscape, characters battered and isolated; and she is so unafraid of the dark that these stories become like religious parables not just of a region or nation, but of existence. Add to that her pitch-black humor — she got the chuckles writing these gigantic stories. —Dagoberto Gilb

books of 21st century

Scenes From a Provincial Life: Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime , by J.M. Coetzee (1997–2009) In this autobiographical trilogy, Coetzee forged a clinical way of writing about the self and raised the meta stakes. Are these memoirs or novels? (The last one kills off the author, among other departures from the facts.) Boyhood presents a detached account of growing up an English-speaking Afrikaner in apartheid South Africa, a sickly boy with imaginings of greatness and a mounting sense of shame about his cruel society. Youth moves to London, where Coetzee worked as a programmer for IBM, and plumbs the anguish of the aspiring, exiled poet. The form is broken in Summertime , which combines diary fragments and a fictional biographer’s interviews of the dead writer’s acquaintances. The self-portrait that emerges from these (very funny) books is pitiless and unforgettable. —Christian Lorentzen

books of 21st century

Notes From No Man’s Land , by Eula Biss (February 3, 2009) Biss’s insanely good collection has been instrumental in fostering a new generation of essayists. She writes poignantly on racism, gentrification, home, and identity, probing the proximity of white and black in America. She also forges new styles for the personal essay, braiding literary quotations, academic research, ironic anecdotes, and scenes from her own life to construct arguments that are complex and profound. The medium is the message here: The title essay connects Laura Ingalls Wilder, a gentrifying Chicago neighborhood, and swimming in Lake Michigan to understand the American fixation on — and fear of — borders and frontiers. —Alice Bolin

books of 21st century

Spreadeagle , by Kevin Killian (March 1, 2010) Killian is a poet as well as perhaps the most experienced society novelist of the gay demimonde since John Rechy, but Spreadeagle is like Rechy meets Robert Walser. It’s both comically droll and ardently, deeply noir. The plot feels kind of British fin de siècle — a menage involving a confused young art student and an older couple, one an activist and the other a gay pulp-novelist, all of whom collide with a pair of pornographers and drug dealers, the entirety taking place under the shadow of AIDS. It’s a quintessentially California novel as well as simply an occasion for Killian’s flawless poet’s ear to roll out for us pages of the most memorably dank, swift, and knowing gay dialogue I’ve ever read. —Eileen Myles

books of 21st century

Super Sad True Love Story , by Gary Shteyngart (July 27, 2010) Gary Shteyngart’s best novel (so far) virtually invented its own literary category — near-dystopian satire — and it has indeed proved shockingly accurate. It’s set in a future New York where the dollar is pegged to the Chinese yuan, inequality has transformed Central Park into a protest camp, and phone apps display your potential date’s credit score. But the real key to the novel is the hopeless relationship between its protagonists, Lenny Abramov and Eunice Park, whose relatively small age gap — Lenny is in his late 30s, Eunice her mid-20s — measures the difference between the last generation to grow up before the internet and the first generation to grow up saturated in it. —Jess Row

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Seven Years , by Peter Stamm (March 22, 2011) Whatever it is that flattens so much American MFA fiction is blissfully missing from this Swiss novelist’s haunting European realism. Seven Years employs strong and supple sentences evocative of Camus to tell the all-too-recognizable story of a successful man, Alex, who ought to be happily married to his beautiful and accomplished wife, Sonia, but is silently exploding. Through Stamm’s deft strokes of observation and insight, the bizarre affair Alex pursues with a woman who physically repulses him somehow seems not only plausible but revelatory — shedding light on the extent to which we can never really figure out another person or even, maybe, ourselves. —Thomas Chatterton Williams

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The Sense of an Ending , by Julian Barnes (August 4, 2011) This is an elegant, deceptively simple little novel, a quietly devastating, deftly plotted moral mystery that hinges on the unreliable juncture of memory, time, and history, with aging and remorse thrown in. Its title invites dual interpretations — the feeling that something has ended, and making sense of an ending. The story centers on a retired divorcé for whom an unexpected bequest leads to a reassessment of his memories and a painful recognition of how much he’d gotten wrong. “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” —Heller McAlpin

books of 21st century

1Q84 , by Haruki Murakami (October 25, 2011) Murakami’s magnum opus (though probably not his very best novel — I would still vote for The Wind-up Bird Chronicle ) brings together a haunting love story with the sinister manipulations of a personality cult not unlike Aum Shinrikyo. Like many writers of his generation, Murakami is preoccupied with the aftereffects of the 1960s, and though on the surface 1Q84 appears concerned with the mundane lives of disappointed and awkward lovers, the novel represents something like a Grand Unified Theory of Japanese life over four decades. —Jess Row

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The Gentrification of the Mind , by Sarah Schulman (January 7, 2012) Sarah Schulman is a first-class thinker who upholds our duty to preserve the marginal, the complicated history. This memoir maps out how the razing, via AIDS, of queer, diverse communities in New York and San Francisco paved the way for “urban transformations” that in fact led to suburbanized experiences and cramped intellectual lives. She protests sophistry and demonstrates the saneness of radical notions. When she points out that “very few children actually grow up to make the world a better place,” you may feel not only doubtful about reproducing, but also sorry you yourself were born. It’s unforgettable — which is the point. —Sarah Nicole Prickett

books of 21st century

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , by Ben Fountain (May 1, 2012) No novel better captures the first decade of this century in a certain sector of America — pro-Bush, pro–Iraq War, pro–free-market capitalism, and steeped in evangelical Christianity and Fox News — than Fountain’s satire of heartland jingoism and the one-percenter cynicism that exploits it. It’s seen through the eyes of a young but increasingly disillusioned soldier being honored for heroism in a football stadium extravaganza. Both savagely funny and heartbreaking, Billy Lynn scrutinizes a facet of the American character that has since slid into an unsatirizable sump of excess, but like all great novelists, Fountain was able to locate the humanity in it all the same. —Laura Miller

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Capital , by John Lanchester (June 11, 2012) In a world where people write porny fan-fiction about the Property Brothers — no, seriously, they do — why aren’t there more great novels about real estate? Capital has a simple set-up, telling the interconnected stories of a single block in South London in 2008, where house prices are going up, up, up, and residents find themselves receiving mysterious postcards stating, “We Want What You Have.” Lanchester employs a bird’s-eye view that sweeps in for dazzling close-ups, then swoops out again, until you see not only the entirety of Pepys Road, but the city, the world — and the economy that’s crumbling under the weight of everyone’s aspirations. —Laura Lippman

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The MaddAddam Trilogy ( Oryx and Crake , The Year of the Flood , and MaddAddam ), by Margaret Atwood (2003-2013) “Speculations about what the world would be like after human control of it ended had been — long ago, briefly — a queasy form of popular entertainment.” Queasy, yes, but exhilarating too. The human beings and humanoids of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy lose control of the natural world, then of themselves, in a bloody wonderland of mutant raccoons, endangered-species luxury couture, and ethereal beings with genitalia that turns blue at times of sexual arousal. But Atwood herself never loses control. The trilogy is the rare work of literature in which dread and joy exist in equal — and extreme — measure. —Nathaniel Rich

DISSENT: The Blind Assassin (September 2, 2000) She may be the queen of dystopia, but I have always been drawn to Atwood’s more realistic storytelling. In this novel, we get a little of both. It’s the literary equivalent of a Russian nesting doll, with layers of detective noir, sci-fi, and romance opening up to reveal the tiniest doll and the ultimate mystery — one of the heart. —Maris Kreizman

books of 21st century

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena , by Anthony Marra (May 7, 2013) This extraordinary debut novel set in war-torn Chechnya is a feat of empathetic imagination. It makes a compelling case for what literature — and so-called cultural appropriation — can do to transcend our personal experience and reduce the blind spots in our lives. Tolstoyan in its ambition, breadth, and deep humanity, Marra’s portrait of a nation devastated by war — and of a terrified man who risks his life to save a young girl — is harrowing and heartrending, but also brightened by humor and transcendent hopefulness. Taking its title from a medical dictionary’s definition of life, the novel is a constellation of six interwoven points of view — all vital and phenomenally moving. —Heller McAlpin

books of 21st century

Taipei , by Tao Lin (June 4, 2013) Lin came to fame as a blogger and poet with a notoriously blank style. His was the language of the digital native, and when he started writing novels, his detractors saw his attempts to turn the vernacular of the internet into literature as a sort of fraud. With Taipei , his fifth work of fiction, his style evolved into something undeniably sophisticated and often beautiful; he translated the consciousness of a life lived largely online into a new way of describing the world IRL, as mediated by an almost relentless (and relentlessly quantified) intake of pills and powders. One of the book’s central repeated images is a crucial image for our times: the narrator lying on his back and dropping his phone on his own face. —Christian Lorentzen

books of 21st century

Men We Reaped , by Jesmyn Ward (September 17, 2013) Yes, I rate Jesmyn Ward’s 2013 memoir above her two novels, Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing , that won National Book Awards. It’s that good, that important. Well into its third century, the United States has yet to reckon with the death rate of young African-American men, an epidemic hiding in plain sight. Ward, who lost five family members and friends in a four-year span, harnesses her incandescent prose to make a deeply personal story universal. Part of the book’s genius is its nonlinear structure; her peripatetic journey amplifies the doggedness of grief and rage. —Laura Lippman

books of 21st century

Family Life , by Akhil Sharma (April 7, 2014) Shortly after the Mishra family emigrates from Delhi to Queens, their older son dives into a swimming pool and becomes brain dead. The narrator is a young child when the accident occurs, and must navigate the embarrassments of being a recent immigrant as well as the grief that deforms his family. Sharma possesses a rare understanding of psychology and an unsentimental, bleakly comic sensibility. (“You’re sad?” the father says. “I want to hang myself every day.”) Every detail has been burnished and floats precipitously over depths of feeling, while the plot zooms ahead. The point is not to wring meaning out of suffering — Sharma never does — but to bear witness to it. —Christine Smallwood

books of 21st century

How to Be Both , by Ali Smith (August 28, 2014) Scottish writer Ali Smith’s furious yet-to-be-completed seasonal quartet may turn out to be her crowning achievement, but its predecessor, How to Be Both , stands out for its ingeniousness and heart. There’s more than meets the eye in this structurally innovative, two-part novel that encompasses a mother-daughter relationship truncated by unexpected death, a gender-bending Renaissance artist, and a moving exploration of time, mortality, and the consolations of unconventional love, friendship, and art. Smith’s literary double-take models how to be both complex and inviting, linguistically playful and dead serious, mournful and joyous, brainy and tender. —Heller McAlpin

books of 21st century

A Brief History of Seven Killings , by Marlon James (October 2, 2014) A Brief History is a sweltering chorus of voices, all constellating around the Jamaican musician Bob Marley and an attempt to assassinate him in 1976. James is a brilliant ventriloquist, whether speaking through an angry young woman, a feckless gangster, or a jaded American spy. Like Père Goriot and Our Mutual Friend , this is one of the great city novels, even if not all of it is set in Kingston. It makes the city rise in the reader’s imagination like a leviathan conjured out of talent, desperation, desire, grief, and an unstoppable life force. —Laura Miller

books of 21st century

Preparation for the Next Life , by Atticus Lish (November 11, 2014) America’s brutal wars and the inhumanity of its immigration policies come together in this novel, but its real achievement is a transformative vision of New York City. Seen through the eyes of an immigrant from Western China and a traumatized American veteran, the city, especially Queens, comes to seem less the glistening metropolis of the Bloomberg imaginary than a brick-and-mortar wasteland constantly encroached by dust and weeds but possessed of its own strange beauty. It’s a beauty these two still perceive in the face of poverty, hunger, violence, and fear of incarceration because theirs is also a love story. And that may be the most radical thing about Lish’s magnificent novel. —Christian Lorentzen

books of 21st century

The Sympathizer , by Viet Thanh Nguyen (April 7, 2015) Viet Thanh Nguyen’s recent first novel comes after a career as a leading scholar of Vietnamese and Southeast Asian culture. It is part thriller, part the “Empire Writing Back,” part revenge tragedy, part screed against Apocalypse Now , and the best novel about the Vietnamese diaspora. The form — a series of confessions forced on the narrator by his shadowy prison warden — turns his stories from self-revelation to more complex utterances, adding a level of second-guessing for readers. An exquisite examination of the psyche under duress. —Tom Lutz

books of 21st century

The Light of the World , by Elizabeth Alexander (April 21, 2015) After her husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, dies unexpectedly just days after turning 50, poet and essayist Alexander writes, “Now, I know for sure the soul is an evanescent thing and the body is its temporary container, because I saw it. I saw the body with the soul in it, I saw the body with the soul leaving it, and I saw the body with the soul gone.” In this exquisite account of marriage and widowhood, written with the magical simplicity of a fairy tale, Alexander meditates on her husband’s life as a refugee, an immigrant, an artist, an African man, a father, a son, a husband. —Kate Tuttle

books of 21st century

The Broken Earth trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin (2015-2017) Jemisin, the first black writer to win sci-fi’s prestigious Hugo Award for best novel, made history again last month, becoming the first author ever to win the prize for each book in a trilogy. Her Broken Earth series, about a warring mother and daughter who each possess the power to incite, or quell, a world-destroying earthquake, is about institutional racism, climate change, and the terrible things the powerful will do to stay powerful. If that sounds a little too close to home, take heart: You’ve never been anywhere quite like the Stillness, a continent scattered with floating crystal obelisks and people who eat stone. Beautifully written, with epic magical battles and earthquakes, these books are literally groundbreaking. —Lila Shapiro

books of 21st century

What Belongs to You , by Garth Greenwell (January 19, 2016) One of the most exquisite prose performances of the past decade, Greenwell’s first novel partakes in autofiction and the novel of trauma, and his writing about sex eschews the transgressive in favor of an elegiac mode. An American teacher of high school English in Sofia, Bulgaria, narrates a passionate affair with a young man he met in a public toilet. A phone call informs him that, back in Kentucky, his estranged father is dying, prompting a dreamlike series of memories that return him to the awakening of his sexuality in the homophobic heartland. Greenwell is a poet, and his sinuous sentences seem to come from another time. Since it can’t be the past, it must be the future. —Christian Lorentzen

books of 21st century

Collected Essays & Memoirs (Library of America edition), by Albert Murray (October 18, 2016) Murray — renaissance man, blues philosopher, resolute non-victim — was almost criminally overlooked in the previous century. Perhaps this was because he was constitutionally incapable of suffering fools of any complexion and insisted on pointing out the most elemental truths: “The United States is in actuality not a nation of black people and white people. It is a nation of multicolored people,” Murray notes in his masterpiece, The Omni-Americans . We are in desperate need of such lucidity. If the arc of the intellectual universe also bends towards justice, then the Library of America’s canonization will resituate Murray alongside contemporaries James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. —Thomas Chatterton Williams

books of 21st century

The Needle’s Eye , by Fanny Howe (November 1, 2016) Fanny Howe is a poet, a novelist, a memoirist, and one of America’s deepest, most whimsical and emotionally grounded writers. Here she takes the energy of a song like Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy” (“There was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy …”) and guides us into a meditation on youth and its proclivity to wander and find itself. Moving on that tack, she animates the story of the Boston bombers, two Kyrgyz -Americans whose fraught road to self-knowledge took a turn that killed three people and seriously maimed more than a dozen. It’s a tiny masterpiece, this book, and a gloriously weird read. —Eileen Myles

books of 21st century

Ghachar Ghochar , by Vivek Shanbhag (February 7, 2017) Written with an economy of means — on just over 100 pages — that puts most nation-spanning epics to shame, Ghachar Ghochar conjures a South Indian family transformed by money in a narrative voice at once inimitable, funny, and filled with dread. The level of effortless glancing detail with which it draws minor characters — like a waiter in a Bangalore coffee house who acts as everyone’s therapist — is extraordinary. That it is one of the few novels translated (beautifully) from Kannada, a language spoken by millions and with its own literary tradition, to be published in the United States says a lot about our literary world’s myopia when it comes to the Indian novel. —Nikil Saval

books of 21st century

The Hate U Give , by Angie Thomas (February 28, 2017) No crossover novel has proven the vitality of YA fiction as an art form more than Angie Thomas’s debut about one teenage girl’s entry into the Black Lives Matter movement. Taking its name from a Tupac Shakur acronym about the ills of systemic racism, The Hate U Give , or, THUG , explores the consequences of police violence against young men of color with more nuance, charm, and levity than you might imagine possible . THUG doesn’t offer easy answers, nor does it portray any of its diverse cast in binary terms, and the fact that it’s been banned in areas of the U.S. just shows how much it has hit a nerve. —Maris Kreizman

books of 21st century

All Grown Up , by Jami Attenberg (March 7, 2017) One of the toughest bars to clear in fiction is the novel of connected stories, beautiful parts that add up to a gorgeous whole — and Jami Attenberg soared over it with her sixth book. The protagonist, Andrea, is a person who happens to be a woman who happens to be single who happens to live in Brooklyn. “Why is being single the only thing people think of when they think of me?” Andrea asks her therapist, who instructs her to list the other things she is. “In my head I think: I’m alone. I’m a drinker. I’m a former artist. I’m a shrieker in bed. I’m the captain of the sinking ship that is my flesh. To my therapist I say, ‘I’m a brunette.’” It’s the kind of novel I keep handy, like a pocket flask, taking little nips to get me through the day. —Laura Lippman

books of 21st century

The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir , by Thi Bui (March 7, 2017) “How much of ME is my own and how much is stamped into my blood and bone, predestined?” Posed at the end of Thi Bui’s graphic memoir, this is the persistent, yearning question underlying this quietly heartbreaking book. Thi Bui chronicles her family’s journey from Vietnam to America, as well as her own transformation from daughter to mother. Stunningly self-assured, this is epic, intimate history rendered in understated words and images. —Kate Tuttle

books of 21st century

Tell Me How it Ends , by Valeria Luiselli (March 13, 2017) This extraordinary little book is a powerful glimpse of how we extract stories in exchange for safety and belonging in America today. As a volunteer interpreter for migrant children fleeing poverty and violence, Luiselli describes 6- and 7-year-olds asked to perform and interpret their pain for an immigration system that sees a hard border—a border where, for most of Luiselli’s clients, the troubles have just begun. Cycling between her own life in the U.S. as a semi-documented American and mother, the lives of children she helps, and the questionnaire, Luiselli has woven an essential moral text for an age of migration. —John Freeman

books of 21st century

Priestdaddy , by Patricia Lockwood (May 2, 2017) This poet’s memoir is the story of Lockwood’s adult return home when her husband temporarily loses his sight and the couple can no longer pay the rent. They are hipsters exiled to the heartland. Lockwood’s father is a clergyman and a conservative, but the resemblance to his bohemian poet daughter is unmistakable. The family dog is named Whimsy. Priestdaddy is the funniest book yet written about millennial–boomer culture clash. It is also moving in its accounts of Lockwood’s loss of faith, her teenage suicide attempt, and the pain that came with giving up her first love — singing — and then rediscovering herself as a writer. —Christian Lorentzen

books of 21st century

Red Clocks , by Leni Zumas (January 16, 2018) This book follows a handful of female narrators in the Northwest in a future only slightly pushed from now (except for one, a polar explorer who is the biographical subject of one of the narrators) and, in prose that tingles with life and perversity and research and attitude and authenticity, brings them all to life. It’s political speculative fiction in an America where women have lost rights over their bodies and go to Canada to get abortions, crossing what’s come to be known as “the Pink Wall.” It’s brilliant stuff, and the woods surrounding the witchy herbalist character are both glittering and informed. To read this is to feel Leni Zumas knows everything. —Eileen Myles

books of 21st century

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden , by Denis Johnson (January 16, 2018) Once upon a time a hard-living man, Johnson didn’t survive to see the publication of his final collection of stories, but it’s the near equal and spiritual cousin of his immortal Jesus’ Son . These stories flash through unforgettable images (notably a woman leaning in to kiss an amputee veteran’s stump) of men and women wounded by their own wildness. The beauty in Johnson’s stories is the beauty of the broken wing. Elvis and 9/11, junk and jail, hangovers and halfway houses — Johnson was a searcher in a lowlife America that’s largely vanished from our literature. —Christian Lorentzen

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

Asymmetry , by Lisa Halliday (February 6, 2018) On one hand, it would be unfair to consider Asymmetry only through the lens of Philip Roth. Lisa Halliday’s debut novel is bracing and brilliant entirely on its own terms, engrossing as a coming-of-age story and astute in exploring the project of fiction. On the other hand, not to consider it also through the lens of Philip Roth — who was once involved with Halliday and maps readily onto the novel’s Ezra Blazer — is to ignore a clue to what makes Asymmetry so exhilarating. Halliday considers the 20th-century canon from an intimate vantage: She sees not some abstract patriarchy but the patriarchs themselves, with their bypass scars and their tired pick-up lines. She demonstrates that power is never as simple as the familiar binaries of “privilege” might lead you to believe, at least not when it comes to art. —Molly Fischer

Contributors

Alice Bolin , essayist Sloane Crosley , author, most recently of Look Alive Out There Molly Fischer , senior editor, the Cut John Freeman , author, editor of Freeman’s Dagoberto Gilb , author of several short-story collections Mark Greif , author, Against Everything Lidija Haas , New Books columnist, Harper’s Edward Hart , senior editor, New York Michiko Kakutani , former chief book critic, the New York Times Hillary Kelly , critic and essayist Dan Kois , editor of the Slate Book Review Maris Kreizman , book critic and essayist Laura Lippman , crime novelist Christian Lorentzen , book critic, New York Tom Lutz , editor-in-chief, Los Angeles Review of Books Wyatt Mason , contributing writer, The New York Times Magazine Heller McAlpin , book reviewer for the Washington Post , NPR, and others Laura Miller , books and culture columnist, Slate Eileen Myles , poet Sarah Nicole Prickett , critic for Artforum , Bookforum , et al. Nathaniel Rich , author, most recently, of King Zeno Jess Row , novelist and critic Luc Sante , critic and author of Low Life Nikil Saval , co-editor, n+1 Lila Shapiro , culture journalist Christine Smallwood , critic and writer Adam Sternbergh , contributing editor, New York Kate Tuttle , president, National Book Critics Circle David Velasco , editor-in-chief, Artforum Oscar Villalon , editor and critic Sarah Weinman , author, The Real Lolita Thomas Chatterton Williams , contributing writer, The New York Times Magazine

Every editorial product is independently selected. If you buy an item through our links, Vulture may earn an affiliate commission.

*A version of this article appears in the September 17, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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The 21 Best Novels of the 21st Century

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Blog – Posted on Friday, Jan 18

The 21 best novels of the 21st century.

The 21 Best Novels of the 21st Century

When you think of the best novels of the 21st century, what are the first titles that come to mind? Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close ? Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides? Perhaps The Corrections , or The Road , or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay ? Those are some great novels, but they also all fit into a mold — heavy dramas tackling themes of family, love, conflict, and hate, written by critically-lauded white male authors. In other words, the same as nearly every other contender for title of the Great American Novel .

Make no mistake, those are indeed some of the best novels of the 21st century. But there are many others out there that are being overlooked, either because they are deceptively straightforward or wildly experimental, too commercial, or not commercial enough.

Some of these titles you might never have heard of, while others have spawned billion-dollar franchises. But at their core, they are all the same: a collection of words on paper telling a story that became one of the 21 best novels of the 21st century.

If you're feeling overwhelmed by the number of great classics out there, you can also take our 30-second quiz below to narrow it down quickly and get a personalized book recommendation  😉

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1. 1Q84 by Haruki Marukami

As the first decade of the 21st century came to a close, the Japanese master of magical realism Haruki Marukami published 1Q84 — a novel that can only be defined as the Eastern version of 1984 , but on acid. Marukami’s novel starts in 1984, when a woman named Aomame assassinates a guest at a glamorous hotel. Soon after, however, she faces a reality check — quite literally, as she finds herself in an alternate, dystopian Tokyo she calls 1Q84. Hundreds of pages long and published in three separate volumes, this epic story defies categorization. But it fills one category perfectly: that of a Great Novel.

2. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño

This eerie, mystical depiction of violence and death in Juárez was published posthumously — its influential Chilean author Robert Bolaño died a year before it was released, and its plot is a clear meditation on mortality. 2666 follows five different threads, all of which seem initially disconnected except for their relation to hundreds of unsolved homicides that targeted impoverished women in Juárez. However, there turns out to be a lot more in common between a literary critic, a professor of philosophy, an American journalist, and a mysterious writer than meets the eye… and things take a turn for the cosmic. But once the dust settles, only one story remains: 2666 , a massive and tragic accomplishment, and easily one of the best novels of the 21st century.

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3. A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

These days, more people “watch Game of Thrones ” than “read A Song of Ice and Fire ,” the series of epic fantasy novels that the popular TV show was based on. But the books have garnered a ravenous fanbase themselves, ever since the first installment came out in the ‘90s. In a series with hundreds of characters scattered across an entire medieval world, it’s probably hard for those fans to agree on much, but most will tell you that of the five books published so far, A Storm of Swords is the best.

A spoiled prince and his estranged grandfather compete for the highest throne of the kingdom Westeros. Meanwhile, the lord of a powerful northern city declares independence and threatens to secede. And if that weren’t enough, a band of natives from outside the kingdom’s walls launches an attack on Westeros, with only the scarce Night Watch in place to protect it. Like the rest of the series, A Storm of Swords is told from multiple perspectives following every significant character’s individual plot lines. This novel just happens to cover the best ones.

4. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

What is it with these great novels telling loosely connected stories? This Pulitzer-Prize-winning work from Jennifer Egan could almost be considered a collection of short stories if the author herself didn’t insist it was a novel. But whether it’s a kleptomaniac confessing her vice to a therapist, a night of partying in NYC that ends in disaster, or an ill-fated gig for the punk band The Flaming Dildos, the 13 chapters of A Visit from the Goon Squad do eventually amalgamate into a single story: one of the connections made and lost in the world of rock and roll.

5. American Gods by Neil Gaiman

At last, a novel with a fairly straightforward plot! Indeed, the classic hero’s journey at the heart of Gaiman’s modern fantasy might actually be part of why the book is often overlooked when listing the best novels of the 21st century. Here’s how the journey unfolds: The protagonist, Shadow, is released from prison early to mourn the shocking death of his wife. With nothing left to lose, he falls in with Mr. Wednesday, a grifter and, it turns out, a god. If that sounds like pulpy paperback fiction, it’s because Gaiman takes as much influence from dime novels as he does from the classics, fusing the two into one truly great novel.

6. The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan

Amy Tan has received nearly equal amounts of acclaim and criticism since the publication of The Joy Luck Club in 1989, but whether you love or hate her work, there’s no denying she did what she does best in The Bonesetter’s Daughter .

Ruth is a successful ghostwriter and first-generation Chinese immigrant supporting her ailing mother Lu Ling, whose erratic behavior and belief in spirits has only increased with her dementia. Ruth eventually translates her mother’s autobiography, uncovering the secrets that haunted Lu Ling’s life, as well as her own.

7. White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

British-Nigerian author Helen Oyeyemi only started her publishing career in 2004, and she already has a handful of classic novels, stories, and plays under her belt. But none are quite so dazzling as White is for Witching .

A coming-of-age ghost story, this book follows Miri, a young woman with a rare eating disorder, as she moves to a freewheeling haunted house with her newly-widowed father. But when they hire a Yoruba housekeeper who practices juju in her spare time, the supernatural becomes a benevolent presence in the story, shining a spotlight on the real malicious forces in the world: racial violence, illness, displacement, and xenophobia.

8. The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

Junot Díaz may have taken a fall from grace this past year, but that only makes his uncomfortably personal examination of toxic masculinity in this novel that much more captivating. Oscar Wao is an overweight child whose greatest fear in life is that he’ll die a virgin. The lengths he goes to avoid that in his “brief, wondrous life” are alternatively shocking, nauseating, and gutting. But as he travels everywhere from New Jersey to the Dominican Republic in pursuit of a masculine ideal, Díaz leaves in his wake a rumination on oppression and sexual identity that may serve as something of a confession, too.

9. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

There are essentially two novels at play in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time : a classic, Sherlock-Holmes-inspired murder mystery for adults and a heartwarming coming-of-age story for children. Maybe that’s the reason it has found success with both demographics, and is known as one of the best books of all time . Or maybe it’s simply because of the singular narrative at the center.

Christopher Boone, a teenager on the spectrum, investigates the death of a dog impaled on a garden fork. While on the “case,” however, he unravels a different mystery: that of his own family and childhood. By treating Christopher’s autism as more than just another procedural plot device, Haddon wrote one of the century’s definitive novels on one of the century’s defining phenomena.

10. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

It’s hardly been a year since its 2017 publication, but Exit West is already one for the ages. A young couple emigrate from a mysterious, civil-war-torn country through a series of doors that teleport them all over the globe. Like Monsters Inc. meets Salt Houses , this magical realist mediation on love, home, displacement, and survival will undoubtedly go down as the quintessential novel on the refugee crisis, and one of the best novels of the 21st century to boot.

11. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

The series that spawned seven novels, ten films (and counting), four amusement parks, two Broadway plays, and one author richer than the Queen of England already had three excellent novels to its name by the turn of the century. So, it’s easy to forget that in 2000, Harry Potter was still just another great young adult trilogy. That all changed when Harry Potter’s name flew out of the Goblet of Fire, forcing him to compete in the magical interscholastic sporting event known as the Triwizard Tournament. If you’re the one person in the world who has yet to read it, we won’t spoil it for you… but, predictably, things get extracurricular.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was bigger than the previous three novels in almost every way — length, scope, and acclaim. The first movie adaptation dropped the next year, and then it was off to the races. But with the publication of Goblet of Fire , the franchise’s fantastical fate was already sealed.

12. The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Not every great YA novel of the 21st century hit it big like Harry Potter — though not for lack of trying. People have been attempting to adapt Rick Riordan’s mythology-meets-coming-of-age tale The Lightning Thief for years, be it to film or stage musical . Percy Jackson is your average, ADHD 12-year-old, sent to a different remand school each year by his mother where trouble nevertheless always finds him. Only lately, it has started to take a very different form: satyrs, magical swords, and Furies straight from the Underworld. Whisked off to a mysterious summer camp, Percy finds out that his absent father might actually be a Greek God… and he’s not the only one.

With a story like that, it’s no wonder Hollywood has tried again and again to make The Lightning Thief happen. But so far, it’s been to no avail — maybe because it simply works so well as a novel that no adaptation will ever quite measure up.

13. Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel by George Saunders

After decades of writing short stories, George Saunders finally released his debut novel in 2017… and it’s a doozy. Lincoln in the Bardo takes place over the course of one evening in the as Abraham Lincoln’s late son Willie passes into the afterlife and the president mourns the loss of a child. Saying much more would spoil this wildly inventive work of fiction, but the idea that the bardo (the Buddhist concept also known as “limbo”) contains ghosts of those “disfigured by desires they failed to act upon while alive” is especially poignant in the context of this novel that Saunders had conceived for twenty years before finally deciding to write it.

14. Looking for Alaska by John Green

There’s a reason this book regularly beats out Of Mice and Men , Fahrenheit 451 , and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on lists of books most commonly challenged or banned at schools. Ask many parents, and they’ll tell you why: this young adult novel simply isn’t for young adults. Miles Halter transfers to a boarding school in Alabama, quickly falling in with the troublemaking crowd (and falling in love with the lead troublemaker, Alaska). Skipping school, playing pranks, smoking cigarettes, suicide — name a taboo of adolescence, and it’s covered in Looking for Alaska . But that’s exactly what makes this coming-of-age novel so authentic. It is, quite simply, The Catcher in the Rye of the 21st century.

15. Mother’s Milk by Edward St. Aubyn

The fourth novel in the heart wrenching, almost-autobiographical series Patrick Melrose barely qualifies as a novel. Change a few names, pull apart a few composite characters, and you’d have a precise memoir of a final member from the old British elite generation. Edward St. Aubyn’s fictional avatar Patrick, the great-grandson of a baron, never had to worry financially in his youth — his struggles came instead at the hands of his atrociously abusive parents and the life of addiction and self-destruction that followed. But now, married and with two children, he returns to his childhood estate to care for his negligent mother as she squanders the rest of her fortune on an evangelical Ponzi scheme.

The details of St. Aubyn’s life depicted in Mother’s Milk aren’t as immensely disquieting as the earlier entries in the series, such as the horrific childhood abuse portrayed in Never Mind or the prolonged drug binge that comprises Bad News . But as a rumination on hereditary trauma and generational change, it stands alone.

16. Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood

Pigs with human brains. Men with glowing genitalia. A man named Snowman. In a dystopian future ravaged by rampant genetic engineering, he appears to be the last human alive, starving and alone but for a group of primitive humanoids. Set in both the past and future — before and after the collapse of a society run by monopolist corporations — there’s a lot about this novel that could categorize it as “science fiction.” Maybe that’s why it’s often overlooked when discussing 21st century classics. But the reason this novel stands apart from the dystopian fiction pack is the very same reason Margaret Atwood would push back against that label: like The Handmaid’s Tale , nothing is included in the novel that “we can’t yet do or begin to do.”

17. Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead became a household name in 2016 with his unfortunately timely novel The Underground Railroad , and made a huge impact with 2019's The Nickel Boys . But in 2009, he published Sag Harbor , which is his true claim to fame. Tackling the African-American experience through a far more subdued approach than his later books, this novel tells the story of Benji Cooper, a black teen in a primarily-white vacation neighborhood who reinvents himself to fit in — a pressure that readers of all races can no doubt relate to.

18. The Sellout by Paul Beatty

When it comes to unfortunately timely novels, this winner of the 2016 Man Booker Prize is the definite standout. This biting satire concerns an unnamed protagonist who attempts to reintroduce segregation to his suburban LA neighborhood so that he can employ a slave to man his weed/watermelon farm. Despite the excellent, exaggerated set-up and the dark humorous prose, it’s the serious, urgent topics underlining the narrative that earn this novel a place on this list.

19. Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman

This superhero satire by Austin Grossman goes unsung for a number of reasons — an oversaturated market, the shadow of his brother Lev (author of The Magicians , the popular trilogy and television show), and the simple question of, “Who wants to read a book about superheroes?” But anyone who overlooks Soon I Will Be Invincible is missing out on a quintessential piece of superhero media of the 21st century.

The novel follows two protagonists: Fatale, a cyborg recently recruited to an Avengers-style super team, and Dr. Impossible, a Lex-Luthorian super genius recently imprisoned but plotting the next in an extensive series of attempts at world domination. In under 300 pages, Grossman manages to embrace nearly every aspect, trope, and era of superhero history. But, simultaneously, he creates his own world of gossip, grudges, and grief, and it’s one just as engrossing as any golden age comic book out there.

20. Swamplandia!  by Karen Russell

After the death of their mother, the three Bigtree children embark on a quest to find her ghost, while their father struggles to keep the family business open. The wrinkle is that said family business is an alligator wrestling amusement park — the eponymous “Swamplandia!” This stylish, wildly original blend of magical realism, dark comedy, Southern Gothic, and family drama tackles far deeper themes than its silly premise would suggest. But it’s Karen Russell’s immersive prose that leaves the long-lasting impression that the world of Swamplandia! is not so different from our own.

21. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is quite simply one of the most important authors of the 21st century, and she has a handful of titles to her name that could make this list. But her debut novel stands apart as a mission statement of sorts. The story at its center is fairly simple: two friends, one from England and the other from Bangladesh, return from to London from war and spend time in a pub. A lot of time in a pub. But this simple set-up allows Smith to use her abundant talents to explore nearly everything under the sun, from post-traumatic depression to religious dogma to Britain’s relationship with its former colonies. If there’s one novel that comes the closest to encapsulating the Western world at the turn of the century, it’s White Teeth .

Feeling torn about which book to read next? Give these amazing book review sites a look and let fellow readers help you decide!

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books of 21st century

Our Top 20 Books from the 21st Century (So Far)

books of 21st century

As you’re probably already aware, here at Off the Shelf we’re a little obsessed with books. Now that we’re entering the 2020s, we thought it only fair to look back at all the amazing stories published in the past 20 years and honor the best of the best from the 21 st century (so far). We quickly discovered it’s nearly impossible to highlight just 20 books from the past 20 years, but we tried our best. Below you’ll find some award winners, some genre-game changers, some novels we never want to forget, and some that are just our favorites—but all in all, here’s our list of the best books we’ve read in the past 20 years (in no particular order):  

The White Tiger

This novel is a stunning, provocative debut about a darkly comic Bangalore driver navigating life through poverty and the corruption of modern India’s caste society. It is narrative genius with mischief and personality all its own—which is why it was an international publishing sensation that won the Booker Prize! And now, Adiga is coming out with another novel in 2020, so it’s only right that we recognize his talent and the book that knocked us off our feet.

books of 21st century

A stunning literary debut critics have likened to Richard Wright’s Native Son, The White Tiger follows a darkly comic Bangalore driver through the poverty and corruption of modern India’s caste society.

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All the Light We Cannot See

Anthony Doerr’s book won the Pulitzer Prize and was on the New York Times ’s bestseller list for more than two and a half years—and it was a finalist for the National Book Award. The reason? It’s an extremely powerful, stunning novel, set against the backdrop of World War II, about the ways in which people try to be good to each other against all odds.

books of 21st century

Already beloved by millions of readers, this novel follows a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as they both try to survive the devastation of World War II. The breakout hit of 2014, this beautiful novel was a finalist for the National Book Award and it just won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. If you haven't read it yet, this one should be at the top of your spring reading list.

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Sing, Unburied, Sing

If you’ve never read Jesmyn Ward, you are missing out. She has won the National Book Award twice—once for Salvage the Bones and once for this novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing , which is destined to become a classic. It’s a majestic, stirring story about a multigenerational family on a journey through rural Mississippi. Hope, struggle, and love all play a major part, and with Ward’s lyrical writing, the book captures your every sense.

books of 21st century

WINNER of the NATIONAL BOOK AWARD and A NEW YORK TIMES TOP 10 BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR

A finalist for the Kirkus Prize, Andrew Carnegie Medal, Aspen Words Literary Prize, and a New York Times bestseller, this majestic, stirring, and widely praised novel from two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, the story of a family on a journey through rural Mississippi, is a “tour de force” ( O, The Oprah Magazine ) and a timeless work of fiction that is destined to become a classic.

Jesmyn Ward’s historic second National Book Award–winner is “perfectly poised for the moment” ( The New York Times ), an intimate portrait of three generations of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. “Ward’s writing throbs with life, grief, and love… this book is the kind that makes you ache to return to it” ( Buzzfeed ).

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn’t lack in fathers to study, chief among them his Black grandfather, Pop. But there are other men who complicate his understanding: his absent White father, Michael, who is being released from prison; his absent White grandfather, Big Joseph, who won’t acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given, who died as a teenager.

His mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in his and his toddler sister’s lives. She is an imperfect mother in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is Black and her children’s father is White. She wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. Simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high, Leonie is embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another thirteen-year-old boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic and unforgettable family story and “an odyssey through rural Mississippi’s past and present” ( The Philadelphia Inquirer ).

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A Man Called Ove

We couldn’t get through a list on Off the Shelf without throwing some love to Fredrik Backman! We’ve written about him over and over, and it’s because we absolutely love him. He writes beautiful, heartfelt stories about community and the way people can touch each other’s lives, and this debut is no exception. Ove is a curmudgeon, but under his cranky exterior is a sadness—and when a young couple and their daughters move in next door, it leads to unexpected friendships and lives changed forever. This book introduced us to Fredrik Backman, and as such, we’ll never forget it.

books of 21st century

“If you like to laugh AND feel moved AND have your heart applaud wildly for fictional characters, you will certainly fall for the grumpy but lovable Ove (it’s pronounced “Oo-vuh,” if you were wondering).”

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The Other Boleyn Girl

This #1 New York Times bestseller is the rich, compelling historical drama full of love, sex, and ambition that became a film sensation and snowballed our fascination with the Tudor court into an entire fan culture. This novel brings to light a woman of extraordinary determination and desire who lived at the heart of the most exciting and glamorous court in Europe and survived a treacherous political landscape by following her heart—Mary Boleyn, who had to step aside for her best friend and rival to take over Henry VIII’s heart and throne. We’ll just say: Thanks, Philippa. Now we can’t get enough historical fiction!

books of 21st century

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The Glass Castle

This list comprises books we loved from the past 20 years, and for almost half that time, The Glass Castle has been on the New York Times ’s bestseller list. For years, this remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption has given readers a glimpse into a family both deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant. It’s heartbreaking, but also full of love and faith—and honesty—making it easily one of the top books published in the 21 st century.

books of 21st century

Read a review of THE GLASS CASTLE here .

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Milk and Honey

When Milk and Honey was published, it took the world by storm. Rupi Kaur’s short, honest, and relatable poems resonated with readers everywhere. Each poem deals with pain, survival, love, loss, and femininity—and they show that, even in the most bitter moments in life, there is sweetness everywhere, if you’re willing to look.

books of 21st century

Read the review of MILK AND HONEY.

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In a Dark, Dark Wood

Ruth Ware is the queen of twist endings and we love her for it. In this instant New York Times bestselling thriller, what should be a cozy and fun-filled weekend deep in the English countryside takes a sinister turn. She weaves a deeply obsessive and dark tale we could not put down—and because of it, we’ll pick up every book she writes from now on.

books of 21st century

During a weekend away with a friend in an eerie glass house, crime writer Leonora wakes up in a hospital bed injured wondering not “What happened?” but “What have I done?” This one is for fans of GONE GIRL and THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN.

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On Writing

If you visit us frequently, you’ll know our ed board loves Stephen King. And this year, 2020, this memoir/manual turns 20 years old. In honor of its anniversary, we’ll share a quick ode to it: brilliantly structured, friendly, and inspiring, On Writing will empower and entertain everyone who reads it—fans, writers, and anyone who loves a great story well told.

books of 21st century

Read the full review here.

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Life of Pi

The premise of this fantastical and philosophical novel is a young boy stranded on a boat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker for 227 days. It’s spiritual, it’s moving, and, ultimately, incredibly impactful. And it won the Booker Prize!

books of 21st century

A ship sinks and sixteen year old Pi finds himself in a lifeboat, his only companions a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and Richard Parker, a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Soon the tiger has dispatched all but Pi, whose fear, knowledge, and cunning allow him to coexist with Richard Parker for 227 days while lost at sea. A mesmerizing tale that keeps you guessing long after you turn the last page

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Fingersmith

We talk a lot about the extremely talented author Sarah Waters. Our own Sarah Jane has said , “Her novels are a skillful and engrossing combination of so many things I love: lush historical details with a seedy Dickensian underbelly. Complex, flawed but strong female characters. Unexpected plot twists. And though I’m not usually a reader of romance, the romantic pairings and journeys in her novels have so much emotional depth and passion and nuance, I can’t help but be swept up in them.” She has become one of our top authors, and her novel Fingersmith is a true treasure .

books of 21st century

Orphan Sue Trinder is raised amongst “fingersmiths”—transient petty thieves. When a fingersmith known as Gentleman asks Sue to help him con a wealthy woman out of her inheritance, she never expects to pity her helpless mark, let alone come to care for her. But no one and nothing is as it seems in this Dickensian novel of thrills and reversals.

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A Brief History of Seven Killings

Marlon James is a masterful storyteller, capable of weaving an intricate, striking, and atmospheric tale of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in the 1970s. This novel is a brilliant example of James’s ability to craft an entire world through the eyes of multiple characters—and that’s why it both won the Booker Prize and stole our hearts.

books of 21st century

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The Underground Railroad

Some books leave impressions on readers, and some books leave impressions on society as a whole. The Underground Railroad did both. It shook us to our core. Whitehead’s novel shows the brutal history of the US, following escaped slaves as they search for the Underground Railroad that will take them out of the South—and in this story, the railroad is an actual train and tracks. It’s harrowing, powerful, and moving, with lyrical writing that will forever be etched in our minds and hearts.

books of 21st century

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Just Kids

Patti Smith is an icon, and her memoir about her time living in New York with Robert Mapplethorpe as they both grow into themselves and rise to fame is remarkable. It focuses largely on their relationship, and acts as a sort of elegy to Mapplethorpe. It celebrates artistry, love, friendship, and the hustle of New York in the 60s and 70s. It’s beautiful and, frankly, iconic.

books of 21st century

Set against the color and creativity of downtown New York in the 1960s and 1970s, Smith’s story is made for the movies. Covering her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, the determination and resilience that led to her fame, and the tragedy and struggles that went along with it, her cinematic memoir is an enjoyable read and would make an equally enjoyable viewing experience. Happily, Showtime has it in development.

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My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend was a book we could not get enough of in the past few years. Elena Ferrante is a force, and this novel introduced us to her incredible gift: the ability to write flawed characters tangled in friendships and relationships that are both loving and resentful, and incredibly universal. She is coming out with a new novel shortly, and we wouldn’t have been so excited if we first hadn’t read and fallen in love with the first of her Neapolitan Novels.

books of 21st century

I’d like to host a dinner with an eye on close friendships. Friendships are fascinating because they are the one relationship in life that you aren’t required to be in because of birth or bound to by law. Those in attendance would ideally have a multiple-decade friendship like Elena and Lila of MY BRILLIANT FRIEND. And even though he’s not fictional, I’d love for my best friend to be sitting at the table, too.

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Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn took femme fatale to a whole new level, and turned everyone into suspense and crime fiction readers with this book. Flawed women, mysterious plots, and twist endings have existed forever—but not only has this novel become a staple of its genre, it created a phenomenon. It’s now the book we think of when we talk about domestic thrillers.

books of 21st century

Crazy like: A fox! Amy is a hottie!

Best crazy moment: The box cutter. ’Nuff said.

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Similar to Gone Girl , The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo became an international sensation. This pulse-pounding thriller follows a journalist and a troubled hacker as they try to discover what happened to a young woman who disappeared forty years earlier. It sparked us to pad our book stacks with even more Scandinavian thrillers.

books of 21st century

Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist, and tattooed punk prodigy Lisbeth Salander team up to investigate the 40 year disappearance of Harriet Vanger, a scion of one of Sweden's wealthiest families. Stieg Larsson's THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO combines murder mystery, family saga, love story, and financial intrigue into one satisfyingly complex and entertainingly atmospheric novel.

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

This captivating mystery quickly became a modern classic, and for good reason. The main character, 15-year-old Christopher Boone, doesn’t understand human emotions, doesn’t like to be touched, and relates well to animals. When he finds the neighbor’s dog dead under suspicious circumstances, Christopher tries to investigate what happened. It’s incredibly touching, funny, and heartfelt, and lasted with us years after we finished reading it. (It made one of our Books I’ll Never Forget lists!)

books of 21st century

Now adapted into a Tony Award-winning play, this captivating novel is told through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old autistic boy who relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. This powerful story of his quest to investigate the suspicious death of a neighborhood dog makes for a captivating read.

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Never Let Me Go

Kazuo Ishiguro has won the Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is an excellent writer, and in this dystopian science fiction book (shortlisted for the Booker), his writing mastery is on full display. We chose this over his other novels because it’s a heartbreaking but courageous mystery that knocks us down every time we read it. Through the eyes of Kathy—a young girl at an English boarding school that doesn’t allow for contact with the outside world—Ishiguro explores morality, humanity, and memory.

books of 21st century

Crazy like: You’d be too.

Best crazy moment: The whole damn book.

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This Tender Land

An instant New York Times bestseller, this magnificent novel follows four orphans on a life-changing odyssey during the Great Depression. They escape a horrific school, and over the course of a summer, they cross paths with many others: struggling farmers and traveling faith healers, displaced families, and lost souls of all kinds. It’s a big-hearted epic that shows how the magnificent American landscape connects us all, haunts our dreams, and makes us whole—and it is one we will be rereading for years to come.

books of 21st century

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By Molly Bagshaw | February 20, 2020

(This list was so hard to make, so here are all of the other titles we desperately wanted to include but couldn’t fit!) The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín, Himself by Jess Kidd, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell, Atonement by Ian McEwan, On Beauty by Zadie Smith, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Corrections by Johnathan Franzen, Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi, The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Editors at The Times Book Review choose the best fiction and nonfiction titles this year.

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How Beautiful We Were

By imbolo mbue.

books of 21st century

Following her 2016 debut, “ Behold the Dreamers ,” Mbue’s sweeping and quietly devastating second novel begins in 1980 in the fictional African village of Kosawa, where representatives from an American oil company have come to meet with the locals, whose children are dying because of the environmental havoc (fallow fields, poisoned water) wreaked by its drilling and pipelines. This decades-spanning fable of power and corruption turns out to be something much less clear-cut than the familiar David-and-Goliath tale of a sociopathic corporation and the lives it steamrolls. Through the eyes of Kosawa’s citizens young and old, Mbue constructs a nuanced exploration of self-interest, of what it means to want in the age of capitalism and colonialism — these machines of malicious, insatiable wanting.

Random House. $28. | Read our review | Read our profile of Mbue | Listen to Mbue on the podcast

By Katie Kitamura

In Kitamura’s fourth novel, an unnamed court translator in The Hague is tasked with intimately vanishing into the voices and stories of war criminals whom she alone can communicate with; falling meanwhile into a tumultuous entanglement with a man whose marriage may or may not be over for good. Kitamura’s sleek and spare prose elegantly breaks grammatical convention, mirroring the book’s concern with the bleeding lines between intimacies — especially between the sincere and the coercive. Like her previous novel, “A Separation,” “Intimacies” scrutinizes the knowability of those around us, not as an end in itself but as a lens on grand social issues from gentrification to colonialism to feminism. The path a life cuts through the world, this book seems to say, has its greatest significance in the effect it has on others.

Riverhead Books. $26. | Read our review | Read our profile of Kitamura

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois

By honorée fanonne jeffers.

“The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois,” the first novel by Jeffers, a celebrated poet, is many things at once: a moving coming-of-age saga, an examination of race and an excavation of American history. It cuts back and forth between the tale of Ailey Pearl Garfield, a Black girl growing up at the end of the 20th century, and the “songs” of her ancestors, Native Americans and enslaved African Americans who lived through the formation of the United States. As their stories converge, “Love Songs” creates an unforgettable portrait of Black life that reveals how the past still reverberates today.

Harper/HarperCollins. $28.99. | Read our review | Listen to Jeffers on the podcast

No One Is Talking About This

By patricia lockwood.

Lockwood first found acclaim as a poet on the internet, with gloriously inventive and ribald verse — sexts elevated to virtuosity. In “ Priestdaddy ,” her indelible 2017 memoir about growing up in rectories across the Midwest presided over by her gun-loving, guitar-playing father, a Catholic priest, she called tweeting “an art form, like sculpture, or honking the national anthem under your armpit.” Here, in her first novel, she distills the pleasures and deprivations of life split between online and flesh-and-blood interactions, transfiguring the dissonance into art. The result is a book that reads like a prose poem, at once sublime, profane, intimate, philosophical, hilarious and, eventually, deeply moving.

Riverhead Books. $25. | Read our review | Read our profile of Lockwood

When We Cease to Understand the World

By benjamín labatut. translated by adrian nathan west..

Labatut expertly stitches together the stories of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers to explore both the ecstasy and agony of scientific breakthroughs: their immense gains for society as well as their steep human costs. His journey to the outermost edges of knowledge — guided by the mathematician Alexander Grothendieck , the physicist Werner Heisenberg and the chemist Fritz Haber , among others — offers glimpses of a universe with limitless potential underlying the observable world, a “dark nucleus at the heart of things” that some of its witnesses decide is better left alone. This extraordinary hybrid of fiction and nonfiction also provokes the frisson of an extended true-or-false test: The further we read, the blurrier the line gets between fact and fabulism.

New York Review Books. Paper, $17.95. | Read our review

The Copenhagen Trilogy: Childhood; Youth; Dependency

By tove ditlevsen. translated by tiina nunnally and michael favala goldman..

Ditlevsen’s gorgeous memoirs, first published in Denmark in the 1960s and ’70s and collected here in a single volume, detail her hardscrabble upbringing, career path and merciless addictions: a powerful account of the struggle to reconcile art and life. She joined the working ranks at 14, became a renowned poet by her early 20s, and found herself, after two failed marriages, wedded to a psychopathic doctor and hopelessly dependent on opioids by her 30s. Yet for all the dramatic twists of her life, these books together project a stunning clarity, humor and candidness, casting light not just on the world’s harsh realities but on the inexplicable impulses of our secret selves.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $30. | Read our review

How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America

By clint smith.

For this timely and thought-provoking book, Smith, a poet and journalist, toured sites key to the history of slavery and its present-day legacy, including Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello; Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary; and a Confederate cemetery. Interspersing interviews with the tourists, guides, activists and local historians he meets along the way with close readings of scholarship and poignant personal reflection, Smith holds up a mirror to America’s fraught relationship with its past, capturing a potent mixture of good intentions, earnest corrective, willful ignorance and blatant distortion.

Little, Brown & Company. $29. | Read our review | Listen to Smith on the podcast

Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in an American City

By andrea elliott.

To expand on her acclaimed 2013 series for The Times about Dasani Coates, a homeless New York schoolgirl, and her family, Elliott spent years following her subjects in their daily lives, through shelters, schools, courtrooms and welfare offices. The book she has produced — intimately reported, elegantly written and suffused with the fierce love and savvy observations of Dasani and her mother — is a searing account of one family’s struggle with poverty, homelessness and addiction in a city and country that have failed to address these issues with efficacy or compassion.

Random House. $30. | Read our review | Listen to Elliott on the podcast

On Juneteenth

By annette gordon-reed.

This book weaves together history and memoir into a short volume that is insightful, touching and courageous. Exploring the racial and social complexities of Texas, her home state, Gordon-Reed asks readers to step back from the current heated debates and take a more nuanced look at history and the surprises it can offer. Such a perspective comes easy to her because she was a part of history — the first Black child to integrate her East Texas school. On several occasions, she found herself shunned by whites and Blacks alike, learning at an early age that breaking the color line can be threatening to both races.

Liveright Publishing. $15.95. | Read our review | Listen to Gordon-Reed on the podcast

Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath

By heather clark.

It’s daring to undertake a new biography of Plath, whose life, and death by suicide at 30 in 1963, have been thoroughly picked over by scholars. Yet this meticulously researched and, at more than 1,000 pages, unexpectedly riveting portrait is a monumental achievement. Determined to rescue the poet from posthumous caricature as a doomed madwoman and “reposition her as one of the most important American writers of the 20th century,” Clark, a professor of poetry in England, delivers a transporting account of a rare literary talent and the familial and intellectual milieu that both thwarted and encouraged her, enlivened throughout by quotations from Plath’s letters, diaries, poetry and prose.

Alfred A. Knopf. $40. | Read our review

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In her new memoir, “Splinters,” the essayist Leslie Jamison  recounts the birth of her child  and the end of her marriage.

The Oscar-nominated film “Poor Things” is based on a 1992 book by Alasdair Gray. Beloved by writers, it was never widely read  but is now ripe for reconsideration.

Even in countries where homophobia is pervasive and same-sex relationships are illegal, queer African writers are pushing boundaries , finding an audience and winning awards.

In Lucy Sante’s new memoir, “I Heard Her Call My Name,” the author reflects on her life and embarking on a gender transition  in her late 60s.

Do you want to be a better reader?   Here’s some helpful advice to show you how to get the most out of your literary endeavor .

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The 21st Century’s 12 greatest novels

21st Century's best novels

The 20 best books of the 21st century — according to Goodreads

Insider Picks writes about products and services to help you navigate when shopping online. Insider, Inc. receives a commission from our affiliate partners when you buy through our links, but our reporting and recommendations are always independent and objective.

  • Goodreads is essentially a catalog and social networking site for book worms, and their public lists — where all users can submit titles and vote on their ranking — are a treasure trove for finding great new reads.
  • Below are the top 20 books of the 21st century — according to Goodreads readers.

Insider Today

Every time I step foot inside a bookstore, I find myself turning to the internet from my phone to winnow down the sheer expanse of books.

And there's pretty much no better place for book recommendations than Goodreads, which is essentially a social network and catalog for bibliophiles. You can track and rate the books you've read, curate the books you want to read, and participate in discussions, trivia, creative writing exercises, and "Ask the Author" threads if you're looking for community. It's also a great place to find the books most worth reading.

Below, you'll find the community's top 20 books of the 21st century — starting with the final "Harry Potter" book.

The 20 best books of the 21st century — according to Goodreads :

Captions provided by Amazon and edited for length.

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" by J.K. Rowling

books of 21st century

Buy it here

As he climbs into the sidecar of Hagrid's motorbike and takes to the skies, leaving Privet Drive for the last time, Harry Potter knows that Lord Voldemort and the Death Eaters are not far behind. The protective charm that has kept Harry safe until now is broken, but he cannot keep hiding. The Dark Lord is breathing fear into everything Harry loves, and to stop him, Harry will have to find and destroy the remaining Horcruxes. The final battle must begin — Harry must stand and face his enemy.

“The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins

books of 21st century

In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. Long ago the districts waged war on the Capitol and were defeated. As part of the surrender terms, each district agreed to send one boy and one girl to appear in an annual televised event called, The Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the Games. The terrain, rules, and level of audience participation may change but one thing is constant: kill or be killed.

"The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini

books of 21st century

The unforgettable, heartbreaking story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father's servant caught in the tragic sweep of history, "The Kite Runner" transports readers to Afghanistan at a tense and crucial moment of change and destruction. A powerful story of friendship, it is also about the power of reading, the price of betrayal, and the possibility of redemption; and an exploration of the power of fathers over sons — their love, their sacrifices, their lies.

“The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

books of 21st century

It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can't resist: books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.

“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” by J.K. Rowling

books of 21st century

When Dumbledore arrives at Privet Drive one summer night to collect Harry Potter, his wand hand is blackened and shriveled, but he does not reveal why. Secrets and suspicion are spreading through the wizarding world, and Hogwarts itself is not safe. Harry is convinced that Malfoy bears the Dark Mark: there is a Death Eater amongst them. Harry will need powerful magic and true friends as he explores Voldemort's darkest secrets, and Dumbledore prepares him to face his destiny.

“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” by J.K. Rowling

books of 21st century

In his fifth year at Hogwart's, Harry faces challenges at every turn, from the dark threat of He Who Must Not Be Named and the unreliability of the government of the magical world to the rise of Ron Weasley as the keeper of the Gryffindor Quidditch Team. Along the way, he learns about the strength of his friends, the fierceness of his enemies, and the meaning of sacrifice.

“The Help” by Kathryn Stockett https://amzn.to/2Ms4lO7

books of 21st century

Aibileen is a black maid in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, who's always taken orders quietly, but lately, she's unable to hold her bitterness back. Her friend Minny has never held her tongue but now must somehow keep secrets about her employer that leave her speechless. White socialite Skeeter just graduated college. She's full of ambition, but without a husband, she's considered a failure.

Together, these seemingly different women join together to write a tell-all book about work as a black maid in the South, that could forever alter their destinies and the life of a small town.

“A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini

books of 21st century

Born a generation apart and with very different ideas about love and family, Mariam and Laila are two women brought jarringly together by war, by loss, and by fate. As they endure the ever-escalating dangers around them — in their home as well as in the streets of Kabul — they come to form a bond that makes them both sisters and mother-daughter to each other, and that will ultimately alter the course not just of their own lives but of the next generation. With heart-wrenching power and suspense, Hosseini shows how a woman's love for her family can move her to shocking and heroic acts of self-sacrifice, and that in the end, it is love, or even the memory of love, that is often the key to survival.

“Life of Pi” by Yann Martel

books of 21st century

The son of a zookeeper, Pi Patel has an encyclopedic knowledge of animal behavior and a fervent love of stories. When Pi is sixteen, his family emigrates from India to North America aboard a Japanese cargo ship, along with their zoo animals bound for new homes.

The ship sinks. Pi finds himself alone in a lifeboat, his only companions a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and Richard Parker, a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Soon the tiger has dispatched all but Pi, whose fear, knowledge, and cunning allow him to coexist with Richard Parker for 227 days while lost at sea. When they finally reach the coast of Mexico, Richard Parker flees to the jungle, never to be seen again. The Japanese authorities who interrogate Pi refuse to believe his story and press him to tell them "the truth." After hours of coercion, Pi tells a second story, a story much less fantastical, much more conventional — but is it more true?

“Catching Fire” by Suzanne Collins

books of 21st century

Against all odds, Katniss Everdeen has won the annual Hunger Games with fellow district tribute Peeta Mellark. But it was a victory won by defiance of the Capitol and their harsh rules. Katniss and Peeta should be happy. After all, they have just won for themselves and their families a life of safety and plenty. But there are rumors of rebellion among the subjects, and Katniss and Peeta, to their horror, are the faces of that rebellion. The Capitol is angry. The Capitol wants revenge.

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson

books of 21st century

Harriet Vanger, a scion of one of Sweden's wealthiest families, disappeared over 40 years ago. All these years later, her aged uncle continues to seek the truth. He hires Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist recently trapped by a libel conviction, to investigate. He is aided by the pierced and tattooed punk prodigy Lisbeth Salander. Together they tap into a vein of unfathomable iniquity and astonishing corruption.

“The Time Traveler's Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger

books of 21st century

A dazzling novel in the most untraditional fashion, this is the remarkable story of Henry DeTamble, a dashing, adventuresome librarian who travels involuntarily through time, and Clare Abshire, an artist whose life takes a natural sequential course. Henry and Clare's passionate love affair endures across a sea of time and captures the two lovers in an impossibly romantic trap, and it is Audrey Niffenegger's cinematic storytelling that makes the novel's unconventional chronology so vibrantly triumphant. 

“The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green

books of 21st century

Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel's story is about to be completely rewritten.

Insightful, bold, irreverent, and raw, The Fault in Our Stars is award-winning-author John Green's most ambitious and heartbreaking work yet, brilliantly exploring the funny, thrilling, and tragic business of being alive and in love.

“The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown

books of 21st century

While in Paris, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is awakened by a phone call in the dead of the night. The elderly curator of the Louvre has been murdered inside the museum, his body covered in baffling symbols. As Langdon and gifted French cryptologist Sophie Neveu sort through the bizarre riddles, they are stunned to discover a trail of clues hidden in the works of Leonardo da Vinci — clues visible for all to see and yet ingeniously disguised by the painter.

Even more startling, the late curator was involved in the Priory of Sion — a secret society whose members included Sir Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, and Da Vinci — and he guarded a breathtaking historical secret. Unless Langdon and Neveu can decipher the labyrinthine puzzle— while avoiding the faceless adversary who shadows their every move — the explosive, ancient truth will be lost forever.

“The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

books of 21st century

A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don't know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food — and each other.

“Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen

books of 21st century

Jacob Janowski's luck had run out ― orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It was the Great Depression and for Jacob the circus was both his salvation and a living hell. There he met Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star married to August, the charismatic but brutal animal trainer. And he met Rosie, an untrainable elephant who was the great hope for this third-rate traveling show. The bond that grew among this group of misfits was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon

books of 21st century

Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057. He relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. He cannot stand to be touched. And he detests the color yellow.

This improbable story of Christopher's quest to investigate the suspicious death of a neighborhood dog makes for one of the most captivating, unusual, and widely heralded novels in recent years.

“Mockingjay” by Suzanne Collins

books of 21st century

Katniss Everdeen, girl on fire, has survived. But her home has been destroyed. There are rebels. There are new leaders. A revolution is unfolding.

“Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides

books of 21st century

"I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of l974...My birth certificate lists my name as Calliope Helen Stephanides. My most recent driver's license...records my first name simply as Cal."

So begins the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City, and the race riots of l967, before they move out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan. To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret and the astonishing genetic history that turns Callie into Cal, one of the most audacious and wondrous narrators in contemporary fiction. Lyrical and thrilling, "Middlesex" is an exhilarating reinvention of the American epic.

“The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold

books of 21st century

"My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973."

So begins the story of Susie Salmon, who is adjusting to her new home in heaven, a place that is not at all what she expected, even as she is watching life on earth continue without her — her friends trading rumors about her disappearance, her killer trying to cover his tracks, her grief-stricken family unraveling. Out of unspeakable tragedy and loss, "The Lovely Bones" succeeds, miraculously, in building a tale filled with hope, humor, suspense, even joy.

Subscribe to our newsletter. You can purchase syndication rights to this story here. Disclosure: This post is brought to you by the Insider Reviews team. We highlight products and services you might find interesting. If you buy them, we get a small share of the revenue from the sale from our commerce partners. We frequently receive products free of charge from manufacturers to test. This does not drive our decision as to whether or not a product is featured or recommended. We operate independently from our advertising sales team. We welcome your feedback. Email us at [email protected] .

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The Best Books of the 21st Century

Many phenomenal books have been released in the past two decades.

best books of the 21st century feature

Though it may not seem like that long ago, the turn of the century is now more than two decades past. While the years have come and gone in the blink of an eye, it is worth looking back on all of the novels that have found their way onto our shelves and into our hearts.

From the monumental to the touching, there are scores of books worthy of praise. Recent works of literature have broken down barriers and built understanding. Through their stories, readers have been able to learn of other cultures, times, and places, and uncover just as much about their own values, ideas, and aspirations. 

Powerful and mesmerizing, there are far too many fulfilling and illuminating novels to fit on any neat list. However, below are 20 books that are among the best of the 21st century– and perhaps most exciting of all, the century is still just getting started. 

best books of the 21st century atonement

Atonement (2001)

By Ian McEwan

Artfully crafted, Ian McEwan’s Atonement centers upon a 13-year-old’s misjudgment. Believing she witnessed a crime, Briony Tallis begins a chain of reactions that span decades and great depths of sorrow and suffering. Set against the backdrop of World War II, McEwan tells a moving story of love, shame, and forgiveness.

best books of the 21st century atonement

White Teeth (2001)

By Zadie Smith

A book centered upon two friends, White Teeth shares a story of life and family amidst the globalized, chaotic, and entirely unpredictable world we live in. Both Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal begin living life with newfound energy, when they are thrust into marriage and fatherhood well into middle age. Archie marries a much younger Jamaican woman, Clara Bowden, and with the birth of his daughter, Irie, navigates raising a child far more aware and thoughtful than many adults. 

At the same time, Samad, with his wife who is now old enough for their arranged marriage, has twins who are marked by their differences far more than their similarities. Weaving together Britain’s colonial history with the next generation's future, Zadie Smith writes a lively, memorable, and entirely unique debut.   

Related: 27 Must-Read Books by Black Authors  

best books of the 21st century white teeth

The Corrections (2001)

By Jonathan Franzen

Now, finally, after 50 years as a dedicated mother and wife, Enid Lambert is hoping to enjoy herself. Planning to bring her family together for a Christmas celebration, Enid contends with the struggles of her family members—from her husband, who is feeling the effects of Parkinson's disease, to her children, who are unable to handle problems that range from clinical depression, to an ill-advised career switch, to the fallout of an affair. Funny and quick-witted, The Corrections probes into domestic and international challenges through a family caught up in an all too familiar life of mediocrity. 

best books of the 21st century the corrections

Fingersmith (2002)

By Sarah Waters

Growing up an orphan in the dingy slums of London's Victorian Era, Sue Trinder is given the unlikely opportunity to pay back her beloved adoptive family. To do so, she must help a charming and sophisticated thief con Maud Lilly, a naive old lady. But the unlikely relationship between Sue and Maud brings unexpected turns to a riveting exploration of feminism and sexuality, in a story The New York Times Book Review calls “Oliver Twist with a twist.”

best books of the 21st century fingersmith

Oryx and Crake (2003)

By Margaret Atwood

Dystopian and transportive, Margaret Atwood’s Orynx and Crake, part of her MaddAdams trilogy , tells of one man’s journey through an out of control world, that is the byproduct of genetic engineering and corporate interest. Reconciling the loss of his best friend Crake and his alluring love Onyx, Jimmy, or Snowman as he is now called, searches for meaning in a world in which he is the last human. As much a warning as a love story, Atwood’s dystopia is unsettlingly in its sheer believability. 

Related: The 15 Best Dystopian Books You Haven't Read Yet  

best books of the 21st century orynx and crake

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best books of the 21st century cloud atlas

Cloud Atlas (2004)

By David Mitchell

With an unmatched intricacy and scope, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas travels through the centuries and stories of disparate characters, living in equally desperate times and places. But despite the leaps in time and space, and the changes in feel and voice, each story connects in an artistic feat that dives into underlying questions surrounding identity and reality. 

From a 19th century voyage, to a 1970s investigation, to a dark post-apocalyptic future, Mitchell “creates a world and language at once foreign and strange, yet strikingly familiar and intimate“ ( Los Angeles Times).

best books of the 21st century cloud atlas

Gilead (2004)

By Marilynne Robinson

The Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead digs at the heart of America. When Reverend John Ames finally puts pen to paper to leave his young son with the story of his life, and that of his father and grandfather before him, he is full of lifetime's experience and wisdom. 

In Ames' searing and heart-wrenching story of three generations, Marilynne Robinson takes readers from the American Civil War, to the 1900s, in a novel that is "as big as a nation, as quiet as thought, and moving as prayer" ( Kirkus).

best books of the 21st century gilead

Never Let Me Go (2005)

By Kazuo Ishiguro

With a Nobel Prize in Literature, Kazuo Ishiguro is a force to be reckoned with. In his subtle and moving novel, Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro tells of a love triangle between a trio of schoolmates and ill-fated clones living a dystopian existence. Following their days in an elite, yet mysterious, English boarding school and their reunion almost a decade later, Never Let Me Go sheds light on innocence, loss, and humanity. 

Related: Author Kazuo Ishiguro Wins the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature  

best books of the 21st century never let me go

The Road (2006)

By Cormac McCarthy

In the desolation beyond the apocalypse, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road tells the powerful story of a father and son, each other's one remaining bright spot in a world otherwise dark, bleak, and overbearingly harsh in its ruin. Headed for the coast, the two do not know what waits for them at their destination or along the way. 

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel , depicting humankind in its aftermath, earned the distinction of one of the best books of the year from The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, People, Time, and The Washington Post– just to name a few.

best books of the 21st century the road

Half of a Yellow Sun (2006)

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Hailed as a gifted writer of everything from poems, to short stories, to novels, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie left a lasting mark with her second novel Half of a Yellow Sun . 

Recounting the Biafran War of the 1960s, Adichie’s story of hope and heartbreak unfolds across the lives of a touching set of intertwined characters that include an impassioned professor, his 13-year-old houseboy, the professor’s entranced mistress, her twin sister, and her sister’s reserved English suitor. Having gone on to write Americanah and We Should All Be Feminists , much of Adichie’s work has been lauded as exceptional.

best books of the 21st century half of a yellow sun

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007)

By J.K. Rowling

Culminating the Harry Potter series , Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows capped off an enchanting, alluring, and entirely transportive journey. J.K. Rowling's imaginative story of a young wizard, his school for sorcery, and ultimately, a fight between ever-more-nuanced forces of good and evil, gave life to a sensation entirely its own. Complete with a movie franchise and theme park, Harry Potter has become a near-universal culture touchstone.

Related: 14 Books Like Harry Potter for Adult Readers  

best books of the 21st century harry potter and the deathly hallows

The Line of Beauty (2008)

By Alan Hollinghurst

During the 1980s, against the backdrop of the years’ economic boom and sweeping AIDS epidemic, Alan Hollinghurst delivers a Man Booker Prize winning story, and with it, a glimpse into the decade. 

Nick Guest, a twenty year old graduate of Oxford, moves to the home of a conservative Member of Parliament in Britain. Amidst their lavish lifestyle, Nick not only becomes closely involved in the family’s affairs, but also in two markedly different loves, one a young Black clerk and the other a privileged Lebanese peer.

best books of the 21st century the line of beauty

Wolf Hall (2009)

By Hilary Mantel

In a reinvigorating story of Henry the VIII's court, Wolf Hall follows Thomas Cromwell and his cunning ascension to power. Wrought with endless ambition, volatile politics, and captivating excitement, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall brings the often far-off world of royal power to a thrilling immediacy, in the spellbinding pages of her elaborate masterpiece.

Wolf Hall

10 Must-Read Contemporary Fiction Novels

My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend

By Elena Ferrante

The first book of the Neapolitan Novels published in 2011, Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend begins the grand and touching story of two women's lifelong friendship. Ferrante crafts the intricate and yet enduring relationship between the outgoing and unabashed Lila, and the more reserved Elena, beginning with their first childhood meeting. 

Set in 1950s Italy, My Brilliant Friend and the series' subsequent novels, share the changing currents of Naples and beyond through the decades and the lives forever altered along the way.

Related: 10 Elena Ferrante Books: A Complete Guide  

best books of the 21st century gone girl

Gone Girl (2012)

By Gillian Flynn

With a staggering mid-novel switch-up, this murder mystery became something more. Riveting and shocking, Gone Girl is a compelling page-tuner that follows the disappearance of Amy Dunne and the subsequent suspicions that swirl around her husband Nick Dunne. 

With tumbling lies and carefully crafted deceits, Gone Girl twists and turns through a broken marriage, a post-recession town, and an unbelievably warped reality. Told through unreliable narrators, Gillian Flynn creates a “mercilessly entertaining” ( Vanity Fair ) and “wickedly absorbing” (O: The Oprah Magazine) standout .

Related: 10 Domestic Thrillers That Make You Read Between the Lies  

best books of the 21st century gone girl

The Round House (2012)

By Louise Erdrich

Winning the National Book Award, The Round House centers on a shocking and painful crime that shatters a young boy’s family. In the wake of the tragedy, and alongside his friends, Joe Coutts seeks justice in a moving mystery and coming of age story set in Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. 

Part of a loose trilogy, The Round House ties into Louise Erdrich's Pulitzer Prize finalist, The Plague of Doves , and her National Book Critics Circle Award winner, LaRose .

Related: 10 Must-Read Quotes And Books from Indigenous Authors

best books of the 21st century the round house

A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014)

By Marlon James

Awarded the Man Booker Prize, Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings begins with the assassination attempt on Bob Marley in Jamaica in 1976. With more than 75 vibrantly detailed characters, James tells an immersive and expansive story of the violence, rumors, instability, and intrigue. From Jamaica, to New York, and back to Jamaica again, James reveals a decades long story of evil, justice, and fate.

best books of the 21st century a brief history of seven killings

All the Light We Cannot See (2014)

By Anthony Doerr

Expansive, rich, and powerful, Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See tells the heartbreaking story of a blind French girl and a German boy, whose winding paths cross amidst the destruction of World War II. In vivid imagery and detail, Doerr softly tracks the lives of Marie-Laure, as she escapes Paris with her father and a precious museum artifact, and Werner Pfennig, as he is pulled into the German’s efforts to pinpoint the resistance as a result of his fascination with radios and their almost magical messages. 

Despite the cruelty of the time and heaviness of their lives, Doerr’s young protagonists offer an emotional look into a world of small victories.

best books of the 21st century all the light we cannot see

Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017)

By Jesmyn Ward

A two time National Book Award winner, Jesmyn Ward writes a story of fathers, sons, families, and memories in her New York Times bestseller . Centered on Jojo, a 13-year-old boy on the cusp of adulthood, Sing, Unburied, Sing follows him and his family members along their journey to pick up his father from prison. 

With a powerful set of characters, both present and absent in Jojo’s life, and a haunting story of another 13-year-old boy, from the same prison as his father, Ward writes a lyrical and mesmerizing “odyssey through rural Mississippi’s past and present” ( The Philadelphia Inquirer ). 

Related: 10 Unapologetic Books About Race in America

best books of the 21st century sing unburied sing

Where The Crawdads Sing (2018)

By Delia Owens

In Barkley Cove, the town is quick to point fingers at Kya Clark when the local golden-boy Chase Adams is killed. Viewing the outcast, or the “Marsh Girl” as she is called, akin to a piece of local folklore, they fail to understand Kya or her life. 

Growing up in poverty and neglect, coming of age and finding love– only to lose it, and persisting through the crush of abandonment, Kya becomes a woman of quiet strength and resourcefulness. Seen through her clear eyes, Where The Crawdads Sing offers a moving tale of love, perseverance, and wonder for nature that the New York Times calls "painfully beautiful" and Business Insider considers a Defining Book of the Decade.  

Related: 7 Murder Mystery Books Like Where the Crawdads Sing  

best books of the 21st century where the crawdads sing

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Tolstoy Therapy

20 of the best modern novels of the 21st century

I only share books I know and love. If you buy through my links, I may earn a commission (learn more).

best modern novels of the 21st century

I’ve been thinking a lot about classic books lately. I recently shared my list of the best classic books everyone should read , but as I put this together, I kept asking myself one question…

What about the best novels of the 21st century ?

I’ve been chipping away at this list for a few weeks now, including the best contemporary novels from the last twenty years that I think everyone should read.

These are the modern books I think will become classics (if they aren’t already), including Pulitzer Prize-winners, one-of-a-kind graphic novels, and wonderfully immersive multi-generational novels .

Add these to your reading list, turn it into a modern classic books bucket list, or just pick one to escape into next. Enjoy!

The best novels of the 21st century that are becoming modern classics

The overstory by richard powers (2018).

books of 21st century

The Overstory   is a Pulitzer Prize winner and, at least in my eyes, one of the best novels of the 21st century so far. It’s a paean to the vast, interconnected, and magnificently intricate world that we depend on in so many ways: the world of trees.

In this stunning and ambitious novel, Richard Powers weaves together interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond. 

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (2009)

books of 21st century

Not only do I think Cutting for Stone  is one of the best modern classic novels, but it’s also one of my top book recommendations if you  don’t know what to read . It starts fairly slowly, but soon becomes an incredible book that’s just as fantastic as Verghese’s 2023 bestseller The Covenant of Water .

Cutting for Stone is the story of Marion and Shiva Stone, twin brothers bound together by a preternatural connection and a shared fascination with medicine, coming of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution.

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (2002)

books of 21st century

Kafka on the Shore is Murakami at his best : weird, escapist, and still so perceptive about what it feels like to be human. It’s one of my favourite  books to get lost in  and a real modern classic.

Comprising two distinct but interrelated plots, the narrative runs back and forth between the life of fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura, who has run away from home, and an aging man called Nakata.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (2015)

books of 21st century

A Little Life   has become known as  the book with content warnings .  Don’t read  A Little Life  and expect an easy read with a happy ending. But I still think it’s a book that offers beauty and – at times – a glimmer of hope.

Hanya Yanagihara’s modern classic novel is a group coming-of-age story about four bright and ambitious men who meet at college as randomly assigned roommates and remain crucial parts of each other’s lives.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014)

All the Light We Cannot See book

All the Light We Cannot See  nails the perfect formula for a story. It’s a heartbreaking book about love and life that will change the way you see the world .

As a  New York Times  bestseller and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this is the story of a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of WWII.

Circe by Madeline Miller (2018)

Circe book cover

One of the best modern novels I’ve read this decade, Circe  is Madeline Miller’s  captivating and defiant reimagining of the daughter of Helios and the ocean nymph Perse.

After unleashing her strange and destructive powers, Circe is banished to the island of Aiaia. But she won’t be left in peace for long, and it’s for an unexpected visitor, the mortal Odysseus, whom Circe will risk everything. If you love reading this, you can also get excited for the  HBO Max adaptation of  Circe .

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013)

books of 21st century

How could I ignore Donna Tartt in a collection of modern classic books? The Goldfinch is Donna Tartt’s 2013 masterpiece of love, loss, and obsession . In this Pulitzer Prize winner, a young New Yorker grieving the loss of his mother is dragged into a gritty underworld of art and wealth.

(Note: At Donna Tartt’s usual cadence of a book a decade, we should be expecting another book soon… at least in theory.)

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver (2000)

Book_Prodigal Summer

Although Demon Copperhead won Kingsolver the Pulitzer, it’s Prodigal Summer that I always recommend. Crafted with luscious prose and depicting an abundant summer in bloom , Prodigal Summer  is one of the best modern novels set in nature .

The beautifully written story has three parallel plots, all focused around a farming community in the Appalachians. This trio must  start afresh , discover who they really are, and have faith in new beginnings.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (2020)

books of 21st century

Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Piranesi is the story of a man who inhabits a mysterious and labyrinthine world of halls and chambers, known as the House, and spends his days exploring its many rooms and tending to its needs.

Susanna Clarke’s unique blend of fantasy and mystery , combined with gorgeous poetic language, has made this novel a true modern classic.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (2006)

books of 21st century

With her signature combination of cultural commentary and introspective reflection, Alison Bechdel is one of the most significant voices in contemporary queer and feminist literature of the 21st century. (She’s also the name behind the Bechdel Test .)

Bechdel’s graphic novel, Fun Home , is one of the best books of the 21st century, innovatively using the graphic novel format to tell a deeply personal story that explores themes of family, identity, and the nature of memory.

11/22/63 by Stephen King (2011)

books of 21st century

If you ask book lovers for their can’t-put-down book recommendations , you’ll probably get bored of hearing  11/22/63 . But it really is fantastically gripping.

When the world lost President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, a country changed. But here, Stephen King asks – in his characteristic gripping way – what if someone could change it back?

That person turns out to be Jake Epping, a thirty-five-year-old English teacher in Maine, whose friend and owner of the local diner, Al, lets him in on a secret. He shares that his storeroom is a portal to the past, a particular day in 1958, where every turn leads to a troubled loner hatching a plan.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017)

books of 21st century

Pachinko  is a modern masterpiece – and absolutely one of the best books of the 21st century so far. This  five-hundred-page epic  about multiple generations of a Korean immigrant family (and their changing fortunes) spans their homeland, Japan, and the US.

I re-read  Pachinko  in time for the Apple TV adaptation and found so much to fall in love with all over again. It’s so raw and compulsively readable – and a recommendation with one of the highest satisfaction rates for people who  don’t know what to read .

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (2003)

books of 21st century

Not only is The Kite Runner one of the most popular books of the twenty-first century, but it’s also one of the most emotional books you’ll ever read. In fact, you’ll probably never forget it .

This is Khaled Hosseini’s story of Amir, a young boy from Kabul, and his relationship with his friend and servant, Hassan, against the backdrop of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

books of 21st century

I could choose several novels by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as the best modern classic books. But if I had to pick just one, I’d recommend Americanah , her striking 2013 story of two Nigerians making their way in the US and the UK.

Ngozi Adichie’s modern bestseller raises universal questions of race , belonging, the overseas experience for the African diaspora, and the search for identity and a home.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (2011)

books of 21st century

My Brilliant Friend is one of the best portrayals of female friendship in fiction , as seen through the lens of Elena and Lila, who grow up in a working-class neighborhood in Naples in the 1950s.

Read this modern classic for lyrical prose, emotional complexities, and a vivid look at the social and cultural milieu of post-war Italy.

Normal People by Sally Rooney (2018)

books of 21st century

Normal People is the classic modern (and very dysfunctional) love story . It will make you want to scream at its characters, but if you’re anything like me, you can probably recognise something of yourself in them. Sally Rooney’s bestseller should be required reading for twentysomethings .

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín (2009)

books of 21st century

Brooklyn is one of the few modern novels I was required to read (in this case, as part of a modern Irish literature university module) that became one of my favourite books.

Colm Tóibín’s transatlantic story is one of the best modern novels about home and belonging , as well as a powerful exploration of how those notions – alongside our identity – are challenged the moment we leave our homeland to live abroad. Now in 2024, you can look forward to the much-awaited sequel, Long Island , in May.

Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman (2001)

books of 21st century

As one of the most influential young adult novels ever written, Noughts & Crosses is Malorie Blackman’s groundbreaking exploration of race, identity, and social injustice through the lens of a dystopian alternate reality.

The book tells the story of Sephy, a “Cross”, and Callum, a “Nought”, who fall in love in a society where the racial power dynamic is reversed from that of our world.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)

books of 21st century

The first person to win the Booker Prize for two novels in a trilogy (!), Hilary Mantel was a literary giant . Any of the books in the Thomas Cromwell series can be classed as modern classic books – or the best historical fiction of all time .

With masterful storytelling and meticulous research to begin the trilogy, Wolf Hall is Hilary Mantel’s impeccably crafted tale of Thomas Cromwell’s rise to become one of the most powerful men in the court of King Henry VIII.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016)

books of 21st century

Homeg o ing  is Yaa Gyasi’s powerful multi-generational novel that follows the lives of two half-sisters born in the eighteenth century, Effia and Esi, and their descendants across eight generations in Ghana and America .

As one sister marries an Englishman and leads a life of comfort, the other sister is captured and sold into a very different life. With outstanding prose, this extraordinary novel illuminates America’s troubled history and legacy today.

The best modern books of the 90s that are now classics

Northern lights by philip pullman (1995).

books of 21st century

You can argue that Northern Lights isn’t the best book in the trilogy, but it’s where His Dark Materials all begins for Lyra Belacqua and her daemon Pantalaimon.

With imaginative world-building, complex characters, and thought-provoking explorations of freedom, authority, and morality, Philip Pullman crafted one of the greatest modern classics.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler (1993)

books of 21st century

If you loved  The Handmaid’s Tale , read  Parable of the Sower  next. Octavia E. Butler wrote about race and gender at a time when science fiction was almost exclusively the domain of men, and crafted a world that’s eerily similar to our own.

In this influential modern classic, the badass  strong woman protagonist  is a teenager who spends most of the story disguised as a man while the world around her crumbles.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992)

books of 21st century

The Secret History  is Donna Tartt’s bestselling modern classic with dark academia vibes, centered around a group of isolated classic students at an elite New England college.

If you want to nerd out as you read this cult favourite, I’ve compiled a list of  the 30+ books mentioned in  The Secret History .

Looking for more of the best books for your reading list? I share some of the greatest novels of all time in these lists:

  • 30 best books of all time for your bucket list (classics + modern)
  • 10 of the best multi-generational novels to immerse yourself in
  • 20 of the best classic books to read in your lifetime [my must-read list]
  • 12 of the best classics that are actually easy to read

Lucy Fuggle is a professional writer, reader, and creator of Tolstoy Therapy. Drawing on her love for books and a degree in English Literature, she started Tolstoy Therapy in 2012 and has shared the most feel-good, cozy, and beautiful books for over a decade. After working as a content specialist with leading companies for nearly 10 years, she now focuses on her own websites and books ( Mountain Song , Your Life in Bloom , and Simple Business ). She grew up in England and now lives in Denmark with her husband. For more book recommendations, subscribe to Tolstoy Therapy's weekly email to inspire your reading list.

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Out of the ordinary … Wangechi Mutu’s video The End of Eating Everything at In the Black Fantastic exhibition, Hayward Gallery, London, until 18 September.

Top 10 21st-century fantasy novels

In recent decades, the best world-building fiction has begun to shed its roots in European mythology in favour of new ideas challenging the limits of the real

A t the heart of every fantasy is something unreal, impossible, or at the very least, so extraordinary as to take us outside the universe we think we live in. Fantasy world-building surrounds those unreal things with recognisable furniture and plausible emotion, so that Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” can kick in. As writers from Tolkien to Pratchett have taught us, the task for both writers and readers is easier when the impossible involves motifs and storylines we recognise from oral narratives such as tales, legends and myths. That also ties most fantasy literature, up to the turn of the millennium, to European culture, because the myths we know are likely to be Greco-Roman or Norse; the tales, German or French or sometimes Scandinavian.

However, in this century, a new wave of fantasy challenges that European dominance. Writers of colour and writers from indigenous cultures use magical narratives to depict experiences and express viewpoints difficult to convey within the constraints of realism. One of the effects of fantasy is the way it forces us to consider the categories of the real, the possible and the ordinary – all the norms that fantasy violates. And, in particular, the new fantasy reveals how culture-bound those norms are. Non-European traditions mark off boundaries differently and include as natural entities things we might think of as supernatural. Out of those different ways of setting the limits of the possible and assigning meaning to the impossible come different versions of the fantastic.

The works I list here not only tell engaging stories set in vividly imagined worlds, they are also worth reading for the way their versions challenge our sense of the ordinary and the limits of the real.

1. The New Moon’s Arms by Nalo Hopkinson (2007) Caribbean Canadian writer Hopkinson is known for her science-fiction world-building, but she also excels at more intimate fantasies. The magic in this book involves the menopausal protagonist’s manifesting objects from her childhood as well as her encounter with a selkie child. The novel immerses readers in the sensory experience and social dynamics of its island setting, and its focus on the belated coming-of-age of a middle-aged woman challenges expectations about fantasy narratives.

2. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (2010) Like much of Okorafor’s work, this novel draws on her experiences as the child of Nigerian immigrants, hearing stories and spending time with extended family in Africa. Protagonist Onyesonwu, whose name translated from Igbo provides the book’s title, is the child of rape, fitting into neither of two societies but inheriting powers from both sides of her parentage. In a switch from the conventional “chosen hero” narrative, Onyewonsu ends up rewriting the prophecies and remaking her world. In this and other science fantasies, Okorafor helped to invent a form she calls Africanfuturism , which has been embraced by readers and emulated by a talented new generation of African and diasporic writers including Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki and Khadija Abdalla Bajaber.

3. Redwood and Wildfire by Andrea Hairston (2011) Playwright and scholar Hairston pits Native and African American folklore against racism in this journey from the Jim Crow south to the beginnings of a Black movie industry at the Chicago World’s Fair. Stage magic converges with genuine conjuring to challenge violence and oppression. In a sequel, Will Do Magic for Small Change, Hairston follows her protagonists back to their African roots and forward into a future among artists, ghosts, and (surprisingly) aliens.

4. Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson (2012) Wilson was working as a journalist in Cairo during the Arab spring uprisings of the early 2010s. This World Fantasy award-winner combines computer hacking and Arabic mysticism in a dazzling tale of love, economic disparity, adventure, and the power of metaphor. Along the way, Wilson also satirises herself in the minor character of an American convert to Islam who is blind to most of the magic going on around her.

5. A Stranger in Ol ondria by Sofia Samatar (2013) In this gorgeously written tour of a complex secondary world, Samatar explores ghosts, culture clashes and the effect of written language on a purely oral culture, while also providing engaging characters and a rousing adventure story. The imagined world of the fiction reflects Samatar’s own immersion in multiple cultures as the daughter of a Somali immigrant and a scholar of Arabic literatures with teaching experience in Sudan and Egypt.

All the awards … NK Jemisin at New York Comic Con 2019.

6. The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin (2015) Jemisin won all the awards, and justly so, for the books of her Broken Earth trilogy, of which this is the first. The books might take place in a far future on a world that is not our Earth, but clearly they also connect with the here and now, with themes of climate change, environmental degradation, racial injustice and the burdens of the past. A daring second-person narration and a complex, admirable but not always likable hero make this book much more than the sum of its themes.

7. The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard (2015) Alternating between science fiction and fantasy, de Bodard has already amassed an impressive number of Nebula, Locus, and British Science Fiction Association awards. This novel is the beginning of a gothic fantasy series involving fallen angels and a war that has left Paris half in ruins and contaminated by magical pollution. The contamination reaches the depths of the Seine, where, unknown to most people (and other beings) on land, a community of Annamese, or Vietnamese, dragons has taken refuge. The series reflects the multi-racial politics and multicultural reality of contemporary European cities.

8. Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse (2020) Roanhorse caught the attention of the fantasy and science fiction community in 2017 with a satirical short story called Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience . She followed that up with a pair of science fantasies juxtaposing Diné legends on a post-apocalyptic landscape, and, in Black Sun and its sequels, has ventured into epic fantasy. Her fantasy world is a magical version of Meso-America without European invasion: its conflicts result from tensions within and between the factions and religious cults of the continent of Meridien.

9. The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2020) With this book, Coates moved deftly from nonfiction to novel-writing. His story is set in the pre-civil war south but rarely uses the word “slave” to describe the people Coates calls Tasked. Rich historical detail conveys the terrible effect of the Task on everyone caught in the system, and especially young, gifted Hiram Walker. Walker’s own Task includes tending to the feckless legitimate son of the master, who is his half-brother. From his mother, Hiram has inherited an unpredictable magical gift of escape, the Water Dancing of the title. As he learns to harness this gift, he goes to work for the great Harriet Tubman. Like Octavia Butler in Kindred, Coates finds the horrors of slavery too overwhelming for mere realism: only the fantastic can take the reader into such a world.

10. A Master of Djinn by P Djèlí Clark (2021) Historian Clark departs from his studies of the American past in this magical alternate history set in a steampunk Cairo in the early 20th century. The novel is a mystery featuring a stubborn female detective taking on powerful human and non-human adversaries. The real interest is not so much in the plot as the characters’ interaction and the richly detailed setting. This Cairo is a meeting-place of east and west, north and south (one of the recurring themes is the racial profiling of Nubians and Abyssinians by the paler Egyptian aristocracy), past and present, science and magic, all deftly invoked in details of architecture, costume and custom.

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REDLAB: Research in Education and Design

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Publications

Student teams in search of design thinking.

Goldman, S., Kabayadondo, Z., Royalty, A., Carroll, M. & B. Roth. (2014). Student Teams in Search of Design Thinking. In C. Meinel, H.Plattner & L. Leiffer (eds.) Design Thinking Research: Building Innovation Eco-Systems. Springer International, 11-34

Abstract: The research explored student teams as they worked independently of instructors and coaches to understand how students learn the design thinking process. Two approaches to the research were explored: taking cues from team members’ reflections on their working sessions; and, analyzing communication bids made by students using interaction analysis techniques. Teams from two design thinking classes at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (d.school) at Stanford were studied. Results indicate that groups struggled for sustained and focused talk and activity relating to their assigned tasks, yet ultimately, established ways to communicate and accomplish assigned tasks. The findings implicate course design, suggesting more attention to team process and communication.

Download the full paper, pdf

Learning from What Doesn't Work: The Power of Embracing a Prototyping Mindset

Introduction: You can read all the books beforehand, but there is nothing quite like the first moment you hold your newbord infant in your arms. Learning on the job is really what parenthood is all about. That kind of immersion is much like what Stanford University students experienced as they became mentors to East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy middle schoolers during the Spring quarter. The students were enrolled in the class Educating Young STEM Thinkers, which was part of an NSF grant called "d.loft." The focus was to integrate design thinking, mentorship, and STEM learning. The students who were a mix of engineering, math, education and science majors, were learning design thinking -- a human-centered innovation process--as they were teaching it. This article highlights how this group of dedicated and passionate students dove passionately into an experience that changed the way they thought about learning in some very small and very big ways.

Destination, Imagination, and the Fires Within: Design Thinking in a Middle School Classroom.

Carroll, M., Goldman, S., Britos, L., Koh, J., Royalty, A. & M. Hornstein. (2010). Destination, Imagination, and the Fires Within: Design Thinking in a Middle School Classroom. International Journal of Art & Design Education, 29, 1, 37-53.

Abstract: The purpose of the Taking Design Thinking to Schools Research Project was to extend the knowledge base that contributes to an improved understanding of the role of design thinking in K- 12 classrooms. The ethnographic qualitative study focused on the implementation of an inter- disciplinary design curriculum by a team of university instructors in a public charter school. Three questions framed the study. How did students express their understanding of design thinking classroom activities? How did affective elements impact design thinking in the class- room environment? How is design thinking connected to academic standards and content learning in the classroom?

Becoming a Design Thinker.

Carroll, M., Britos, L., & S. Goldman. Becoming a Design Thinker. London: Berg Publishers Open University (Publication date: January 2012)

Abstract: This is a chapter about design thinking. It describes both the process and the mindsets that support a way of thinking that is both creative and analytical. Design is not linear in the way characterised in many diagrams of design.  It is convoluted and complex, requiring designers to loop backwards and forwards between the present and past stages in cycles of iteration. At the core of this chapter are some practical pointers and insightful observations on what characterises good design thinkers. The chapter is supported with references to some of the leading design thinkers in design practice and design education today.  

Full paper coming soon!

Innovation in the Classroom: Design Thinking for 21st Century Learning

Kwek, D. (2011). Innovation in the Classroom:  Design Thinking for 21st Century Learning. Stanford University. Unpublished Master’s Thesis.

Abstract: This study explores how design thinking as a new model of learning is used in classroom learning. Through lesson observations and interviews, a fuller understanding is developed of the motivations that drive teachers to adopt this innovative approach and the considerations they have when using it in the teaching and learning of core content. The findings showed that the teachers were not passive recipients of this new pedagogical tool and have “appropriated” it in multiple unique ways – to suit different purposes, different learning contexts and their different subjects. Another key finding is that mastery of academic core content still drives how design thinking is used to intersect with classroom learning. This study thus emphasizes the need to promote 21st century skills and academic content knowledge as similarly important student outcomes.

The Windaloobah Project: Design Thinking in a Middle School Mathematics Classroom

(Under review)

REDlab Team Conference Presentations

Hasso Plattner Design Thinking Research Program ( HPDTRP ) Community Workshop “Design Thinking Assessment Metric for Use in Education” June 2011

International Reading Association 2010 (Chicago, Illinois) http://www.reading.org/General/Conferences/AnnualConvention.aspx

American Educational Research Association SIG Meeting, Design & Technology Interactive Presentation 2010 (Denver, Colorado)

American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, "The Antarctica Challenge" 2010 (Denver, Colorado)

National Council of Teachers of English College Composition & Communication 2010 (Louisville, KY) http://www.ncte.org/cccc/conv

The 8th International Conference on Interaction Design & Children 2009 (Como, Italy) http://www.idc09.polimi.it/c4c.html

Make Believe REAL: Designing a Preschool for the Future 2009 (Como, Italy) http://www.idc09.polimi.it/IDC_C4C_Carroll.pdf

Creativity & Cognition Conference Oct. 28-330, 2009 University of California at Berkeley 2009 (Berkeley, California)

" Design  thinking is an approach that uses the designer's sensibility and  methods for problem solving to meet people's needs in a technologically  feasible and commercially viable way. In other words, design thinking is  human-centered innovation. " - Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO

Articles on Design Thinking

In this section, we have included some articles you might find helpful about design thinking and more specifically, design thinking in K12 education.

Hasso Plattner Institute of Design ( d.school ), website http://dschool.stanford.edu/

K-12 Initiative , wiki https://dschool.stanford.edu/groups/k12/wiki/702d6/Research_Team_Resources_Page.html

An account of design thinking in the classroom The Bully and the Bystander Design Challenge

Understanding Design Thinking

This section comprises video and other media that provide insights into how design thinkers feel about the work they do.

d.school's K-12 Education Lab , video http://www.vimeo.com/14194255

Shelley's talk at the K-12 Initiative Grant , text http://stanford.edu/dept/SUSE/taking-design/index.html

Zaza's reflections on design thinking http://www.vimeo.com/14349986

Melissa's reflections on design thinking http://www.vimeo.com/21570907

Resources for the Classroom

IDEO's Design Thinking for Educators . These tools contain the process and methods of design, which we have adapted specifically for K-12 teachers to help them be more intentional about the solutions they design every day.

A design thinking version of The Antartica Project : A Middle-School Mathematics Unit

A design challenge package for teachers on Biomes, Animals and Adaptation

REDtalks: Current research in K-12 and Design from the REDlab Workshop 2011

To watch the talks for free, visit our workshop page.

©Stanford University. Stanford, CA 94305 (650) 723-2300

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Top 21 Albums of the 21st Century: Which is the Best?

Posted: February 13, 2024 | Last updated: February 13, 2024

Some made history through sales while others became critical hits, but these 21 albums all managed to make history in the 21st century!

The 21 Best Albums of the 21st Century

<p>Adele tops the list of 21st century bestsellers with her 2011 album, <em>21</em>. She sold a whopping 31 million copies of this record, which beats the #2 bestseller by over 4 million sales! </p> <p>This was Adele's second studio album and was recorded between May 2009 and October 2010. It included many of her best-known singles, including "Rolling in the Deep", "Someone Like You", and "Set Fire to the Rain." </p>

Adele tops the list of 21st century bestsellers with her 2011 album,  21 . She sold a whopping 31 million copies of this record, which beats the #2 bestseller by over 4 million sales! 

This was Adele's second studio album and was recorded between May 2009 and October 2010. It included many of her best-known singles, including "Rolling in the Deep", "Someone Like You", and "Set Fire to the Rain." 

<p>Norah Jones set a 21st century record all the way back in 2002 with her debut album, <em>Come Away With Me</em>. Since its release, the album has sold 27 million copies, giving it the #2 spot for best sellers of the era. </p> <p><em>Come Away With Me </em>incorporated elements of folk, blues, and jazz and helped cement Norah Jone's musical style. Singles off the album included "Come Away With Me" and "Don't Know Why." </p>

Come Away With Me (Norah Jones)

Norah Jones set a 21st century record all the way back in 2002 with her debut album,  Come Away With Me . Since its release, the album has sold 27 million copies, giving it the #2 spot for best sellers of the era. 

Come Away With Me  incorporated elements of folk, blues, and jazz and helped cement Norah Jone's musical style. Singles off the album included "Come Away With Me" and "Don't Know Why." 

<p>Eminem didn't waste any time in making one of the best selling albums of the 21st century. His 2002 release, <em>The Eminem Show</em>, quickly rose through the charts and has currently sold 27 million copies. </p> <p><em>The Eminem Show </em>was the fourth studio album from the rapper and marked a change in style for the rapper. Critics cite this as one of his most personal albums and a step away from his on-stage alter ego, Slim Shady. </p>

The Eminem Show (Eminem)

Eminem didn't waste any time in making one of the best selling albums of the 21st century. His 2002 release,  The Eminem Show , quickly rose through the charts and has currently sold 27 million copies. 

The Eminem Show  was the fourth studio album from the rapper and marked a change in style for the rapper. Critics cite this as one of his most personal albums and a step away from his on-stage alter ego, Slim Shady. 

<p>Not content with just one best-selling album of the century, Adele decided that her 2015 album, <em>25</em>, should repeat the popularity that her previous one brought her. This one managed to sell 23 million copies. </p> <p><em>25 </em>contained four singles for the British singer, but by far the most popular was "Hello." The single alone sold millions of copies within weeks of being released. </p>

Not content with just one best-selling album of the century, Adele decided that her 2015 album,  25 , should repeat the popularity that her previous one brought her. This one managed to sell 23 million copies. 

25  contained four singles for the British singer, but by far the most popular was "Hello." The single alone sold millions of copies within weeks of being released. 

Fallen (Evanescence)

This has to be a mistake, right? Evanescence isn't the worst band ever, but is  Fallen  really one of the best albums of the 21 century? If we're judging by sales, absolutely. 

This debut album from an Arkansas rock band managed to sell 17 million copies worldwide. The album also featured two of the band's best known songs: "Bring Me to Life" and "My Immortal." 

<p>Amy Winehouse was at her peak when she released her 2006 album, <em>Back to Black</em>. Unfortunately, this would be the second and final studio album of her career. </p> <p><em>Back to Black </em>managed to sell an impressive 16 million copies and was a critical succes as well. The album also features possibly her most famous single of all time, "Rehab." </p>

Back to Black (Amy Winehouse)

Amy Winehouse was at her peak when she released her 2006 album,  Back to Black . Unfortunately, this would be the second and final studio album of her career. 

Back to Black  managed to sell an impressive 16 million copies and was a critical succes as well. The album also features possibly her most famous single of all time, "Rehab." 

<p>2003's <em>Meteora </em>was Linkin Park's follow-up album to their debut hit, <em>Hybrid Theory</em>, and this new album was even more of a commercial (and critical) hit. It has sold over 16 million copies. </p> <p>Major hits off the album include "Numb" and "Somewhere I Belong" and a few tracks were even used on the remix album they did with Jay-Z a few years later. </p>

Meteora (Linkin Park)

2003's  Meteora  was Linkin Park's follow-up album to their debut hit,  Hybrid Theory , and this new album was even more of a commercial (and critical) hit. It has sold over 16 million copies. 

Major hits off the album include "Numb" and "Somewhere I Belong" and a few tracks were even used on the remix album they did with Jay-Z a few years later. 

<p>However you feel about Avril Lavigne and her music, you can't argue with the numbers behind it. Her 2002 debut album, <em>Let Go</em>, managed to sell over 16 million copies--putting it in the top 10 best-selling albums of the century. </p> <p>The album included some of her most famous hits like "Sk8er Boi" and "Complicated", which performed just as well as standalone songs. <em>Let Go </em>is also Lavigne's best-selling album to date. </p>

Let Go (Avril Lavigne)

However you feel about Avril Lavigne and her music, you can't argue with the numbers behind it. Her 2002 debut album,  Let Go , managed to sell over 16 million copies--putting it in the top 10 best-selling albums of the century. 

The album included some of her most famous hits like "Sk8er Boi" and "Complicated", which performed just as well as standalone songs.  Let Go  is also Lavigne's best-selling album to date. 

<p>Usher's fourth studio album, <em>Confessions</em>, was a hit at the time and continues to be to this day. With over 15 million total sales, it was the second best-selling album of the 2000s and one of the top ten bestsellers of the 21st century. </p> <p>When Usher brought the album to producers, it was a whopping 40 songs long. However, it eventually got whittled down into the hit album that we know it as today. </p>

Confessions (Usher)

Usher's fourth studio album,  Confessions , was a hit at the time and continues to be to this day. With over 15 million total sales, it was the second best-selling album of the 2000s and one of the top ten bestsellers of the 21st century. 

When Usher brought the album to producers, it was a whopping 40 songs long. However, it eventually got whittled down into the hit album that we know it as today. 

<p>If Lady Gaga was looking for fame with her 2008 debut album, <i>The Fame</i>, she definitely found it! The album has sold over 15 million copies since it was released. </p> <p><em>The Fame </em>introduced the world to Lady Gaga with hits like "Just Dance" "Poker Face" and "Paparazzi." The album racked up five Grammy nominations and two wins, and it was definitely not the last we'd hear from Lady Gaga! </p>

The Fame (Lady Gaga)

If Lady Gaga was looking for fame with her 2008 debut album, The Fame , she definitely found it! The album has sold over 15 million copies since it was released. 

The Fame  introduced the world to Lady Gaga with hits like "Just Dance" "Poker Face" and "Paparazzi." The album racked up five Grammy nominations and two wins, and it was definitely not the last we'd hear from Lady Gaga! 

<p>Singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens probably realized he didn't have an instant hit on his hands when he was working on his 2005 release <em>Illinois</em>. The concept album, whose songs are all about the state, features arcane references, unusual instrumentation, and weird lyrics. </p> <p>However, this indie album has withstood the test of time. In addition to being critically acclaimed at the time of its release, it finally achieved gold status a full ten years after it was released. </p>

Illinois (Sufjan Stevens)

Singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens probably realized he didn't have an instant hit on his hands when he was working on his 2005 release  Illinois . The concept album, whose songs are all about the state, features arcane references, unusual instrumentation, and weird lyrics. 

However, this indie album has withstood the test of time. In addition to being critically acclaimed at the time of its release, it finally achieved gold status a full ten years after it was released. 

<p>Loretta Lynn has had a long, accomplished career--if she didn't release a thing in the 21st century, she'd still be one of the most iconic country musicians of all time. However, she delighted all her fans with the 2004 release of her album, <em>Van Lear Rose</em>. </p> <p>This was Lynn's 42nd (yes, you read that right), and it was produced by Jack White of The White Stripes fame. The blending of her and White's musical styles was a match made in heaven, and the album quickly became the most successful one of her career. </p>

Van Lear Rose (Loretta Lynn)

Loretta Lynn has had a long, accomplished career--if she didn't release a thing in the 21st century, she'd still be one of the most iconic country musicians of all time. However, she delighted all her fans with the 2004 release of her album,  Van Lear Rose . 

This was Lynn's 42nd (yes, you read that right), and it was produced by Jack White of The White Stripes fame. The blending of her and White's musical styles was a match made in heaven, and the album quickly became the most successful one of her career. 

<p>To say that Kendrick Lamar's 2015 album, <em>To Pmp a Butterfly</em>, took the world by storm would be an understatement. Lamar had a respectable career before the release of this album, but <em>Butterfly </em>catapulted him into the upper echelons of fame. </p> <p>This was no simple rap offering from Lamar--the album includes jazz, funk, and soul influences, just to name a few. By 2017 the album had gone platinum and racked up 11 Grammy nominations and one win. </p>

To Pmp a Butterfly (Kendrick Lamar)

To say that Kendrick Lamar's 2015 album,  To Pmp a Butterfly , took the world by storm would be an understatement. Lamar had a respectable career before the release of this album, but  Butterfly  catapulted him into the upper echelons of fame. 

This was no simple rap offering from Lamar--the album includes jazz, funk, and soul influences, just to name a few. By 2017 the album had gone platinum and racked up 11 Grammy nominations and one win. 

<p>Lana Del Rey has tried on a number of different styles and sensibilities throughout her career, but she was absolutely at her best with the old school Hollywood glam of 2012's <em>Born to Die</em>. At a time when popular musicians were leaning heavy into the party world electronica, Lana was going all in with beautiful, bleak love songs accompanied by a string orchestra. </p> <p><em>Born to Die </em>was one of the best-selling albums of the year, with over 7 million copies sold by 2014. Singles from the album included "Video Games", "Born to Die", and "Summertime Sadness." </p>

Born to Die (Lana Del Rey)

Lana Del Rey has tried on a number of different styles and sensibilities throughout her career, but she was absolutely at her best with the old school Hollywood glam of 2012's  Born to Die . At a time when popular musicians were leaning heavy into the party world electronica, Lana was going all in with beautiful, bleak love songs accompanied by a string orchestra. 

Born to Die  was one of the best-selling albums of the year, with over 7 million copies sold by 2014. Singles from the album included "Video Games", "Born to Die", and "Summertime Sadness." 

<p><em>Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots </em>was The Flaming Lips' first 21st century album, and it ended up being one of the best of all time. The songs on the album loosely follow the story of Yoshimi as she (surprise, surprise) battles the pink robots. </p> <p>This was the 10th album by the band, but it was really the first time they saw major mainstream success. <em>Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots </em>went gold in 2009 and has sold over 550,000 copies. </p>

Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (The Flaming Lips)

Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots  was The Flaming Lips' first 21st century album, and it ended up being one of the best of all time. The songs on the album loosely follow the story of Yoshimi as she (surprise, surprise) battles the pink robots. 

This was the 10th album by the band, but it was really the first time they saw major mainstream success.  Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots  went gold in 2009 and has sold over 550,000 copies. 

<p>No matter how you feel about the actual suburbs, there's no denying that Arcade Fire's 2010 album, <em>The Suburbs</em>, is one of the best the band has ever put out. According to band member Win Butler, the album "is neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs – it's a letter <em>from</em> the suburbs."</p> <p>The album was both a critical and commercial success for the band--including a Grammy win for Best Album of the Year. Additionally, it has sold over 1 million copies worldwide. </p>

The Suburbs (Arcade Fire)

No matter how you feel about the actual suburbs, there's no denying that Arcade Fire's 2010 album,  The Suburbs , is one of the best the band has ever put out. According to band member Win Butler, the album "is neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs – it's a letter from the suburbs."

The album was both a critical and commercial success for the band--including a Grammy win for Best Album of the Year. Additionally, it has sold over 1 million copies worldwide. 

<p>Joanna Newsom's creaky voice and harp playing might not be everyone's cup of tea, but there's no denying she's a songwriter to be reckoned with. Her 2006 release, <em>Ys</em>, proved that you didn't have to be conventional to be good. </p> <p>The album is only five tracks long, with songs ranging from seven minutes to almost twenty and features all the dense, arcane imagery that fans have come to expect from her. Whether you need a song about birds rising from the dead or trickster monkeys, <em>Ys </em>has something unusual and lovely for you. </p>

Ys (Joanna Newsom)

Joanna Newsom's creaky voice and harp playing might not be everyone's cup of tea, but there's no denying she's a songwriter to be reckoned with. Her 2006 release,  Ys , proved that you didn't have to be conventional to be good. 

The album is only five tracks long, with songs ranging from seven minutes to almost twenty and features all the dense, arcane imagery that fans have come to expect from her. Whether you need a song about birds rising from the dead or trickster monkeys,  Ys  has something unusual and lovely for you. 

<p><em>Decoration Day </em>is not the Drive-By Truckers most uplifting album, but it's absolutely a must-listen for fans of country rock. This is also the first DBT album to feature Jason Isbell, who would later go on to pursue a successful solo career. </p> <p>Love, death, divorce--<em>Decoration Day </em>covers all the major themes you'll find in country music and then some. </p>

Decoration Day (Drive-By Truckers)

Decoration Day  is not the Drive-By Truckers most uplifting album, but it's absolutely a must-listen for fans of country rock. This is also the first DBT album to feature Jason Isbell, who would later go on to pursue a successful solo career. 

Love, death, divorce-- Decoration Day  covers all the major themes you'll find in country music and then some. 

<p>Washington rock band Sleater-Kinney had released six albums before 2005's <em>The Woods</em>, but this would be their debut on a major label. Considering its success, this was the best decision the band ever made. </p> <p>The album as a whole lacked a lot of the raucuous grittiness of their older albums, but it was replaced by a more polished sound that fans responded well too. While the album sold less than 100,000 copies, it more than made up for that with critical acclaim. </p>

The Woods (Sleater-Kinney)

Washington rock band Sleater-Kinney had released six albums before 2005's  The Woods , but this would be their debut on a major label. Considering its success, this was the best decision the band ever made. 

The album as a whole lacked a lot of the raucuous grittiness of their older albums, but it was replaced by a more polished sound that fans responded well too. While the album sold less than 100,000 copies, it more than made up for that with critical acclaim. 

<p>If you're sick of mainstream musicians who don't write their own songs and don't play an instrument, then look no further than St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark). Album after album she's proven that she knows how to write a line and play a guitar riff, but she's definitely at her best on her 2014 self-titled album. </p> <p><em>St. Vincent</em> won the Grammy for Best Alternative Album in 2015, as well as a slew of praise from critics and fans. At different times, Clark has described the album as "brighter" than her previous work but also as "a party record you could play at a funeral." </p>

St. Vincent (St. Vincent)

If you're sick of mainstream musicians who don't write their own songs and don't play an instrument, then look no further than St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark). Album after album she's proven that she knows how to write a line and play a guitar riff, but she's definitely at her best on her 2014 self-titled album. 

St. Vincent won the Grammy for Best Alternative Album in 2015, as well as a slew of praise from critics and fans. At different times, Clark has described the album as "brighter" than her previous work but also as "a party record you could play at a funeral." 

<p>The album artwork for Animal Collective's <em>Merriweather Post Pavilion </em>is so trippy you might not make it past the cover, but if you do, you'll discover an unusual hit from one of America's strangest bands. </p> <p>Heavy on electronics and digital sampling, <em>Merriweather Post Pavilion </em>is absolutely a product of its time. But still, the group managed to transcend a lot of the cliches and pitfalls of electronic and experimental music to create one of the most unique and memorable albums of the 21st century. </p>

Merriweather Post Pavilion (Animal Collective)

The album artwork for Animal Collective's  Merriweather Post Pavilion  is so trippy you might not make it past the cover, but if you do, you'll discover an unusual hit from one of America's strangest bands. 

Heavy on electronics and digital sampling,  Merriweather Post Pavilion  is absolutely a product of its time. But still, the group managed to transcend a lot of the cliches and pitfalls of electronic and experimental music to create one of the most unique and memorable albums of the 21st century. 

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Survival in the 21st Century

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Survival in the 21st Century

Edited by Deichtorhallen Hamburg

240 pages | 180 color images | 6.69 x 9.45 | © 2024

Art: Art--General Studies

Earth Sciences: Environment

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Review: Smart, funny, playful novel tackling the 21st century’s most pervasive fear is a delight to read

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All the Words We Know by Bruce Nash. Photo / Supplied

The publisher’s blurb compares this Aussie novel to The Hundred-Year-Old Man who Climbed Out the Window . Wrong: Bruce Nash’s story is good. In fact, good-quadruple-plus. Its narrative faces up to one of our most pervasive 21st century fears. It acknowledges, records and somehow de-demonises that fear.

Rose, the protagonist, may not comprehend the connection between an empty wheelchair by a high window and the nightgowned figure sprawled in the rest-home carpark below, or the significance of “the older fellow” whose image her children always leave the photo album open at when they visit, but we do. Rose can’t because she’s being inexorably eroded by dementia.

She lives days where understanding and illusion co-exist. “I know that my friend isn’t here … All through the dark night, I lie in my bed, facing up to things.” The anodyne invitation to join in a nice game of bingo brings her (unspoken) response, “I would sooner be pulled apart by horses.” Yet she’s perplexed by the man who now lies in that friend’s bed with his mouth open, by the significance of the nice boy – is he? – who mops the corridors. Things won’t fit together; won’t do what they should.

Words, in particular, play games with her. In one of Nash’s most astonishing achievements, they mislead, desert, yet enrich her thoughts and speech: Is her granddaughter called Charity or Chastity? Does she herself have a care manager or a scare manager? Is it parachute or parakeet, incontinence or incongruence? Can it possibly be cognitive discotheque? At the same time, she’s constantly making her own wordplays – “although I am in bed, I refuse to lie”, correcting syntax and grammar, hinting at what a fine mind was once there. Towards the book’s end, botanical names pour from her. It’s glittering, inventive, poignant. Words allude, hint, never pin down. They’re music as much as meaning.

A winner: Bruce Nash's latest book is about memory, language and love. Photo / Supplied

Astronomers and optometrists know that if you want to see something clearly, you look at it slightly aslant, and so it is with Rose’s world. She builds nuanced, puzzled yet incisive portraits of her attentive, slightly hang-dog son; sighing Christian daughter; teenage twins spliced to their phones; the non-visiting daughter-in-law who once muttered that Rose was an impossible old cow. (“It almost made me like the bitch.”)

Yes, the sweet old thing has her own street-toughness. She hears and revels in every four-letter mumble from the nice corridor mopper – if he ever utters them. The hand-patting, teeth-gleaming care / scare manager doesn’t fool her. She goads her kids with word games. There’s even a mini-crime novel element she helps to resolve.

In a world of stasis, repetition and confusion, Nash keeps his plot moving and deepening. Raptures of a garden and love return more and more to Rose’s mind. There’s no silly miraculous recovery, but towards the end someone actually gets an answer correct at Quiz Night, and the lunchtime meatballs seem to taste better. Our heroine (and she is) has informed and transformed others, while she moves into her own form of serenity. “I have become Rose … I am what I am … And there is love.”

Yes, I’ve written a bit of a rave. Many plaudits, Bruce Nash. You’ve produced quite a wonder. Or do I mean winner? In fact, I mean both of those.

All the Words We Know by Bruce Nash (Allen & Unwin, $36.99) is out on February 27, 2024.

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Paperback Rebooting Romance: A 21st Century Love Story Book

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Rebooting Romance: A 21st Century Love Story

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Embark on a cosmic journey with "Echoes of Destiny," a captivating tale set in the quaint town of Crestwood. As the townsfolk navigate the ordinary rhythms of life, they are unknowingly drawn into a cosmic tapestry that connects their destiny to the celestial realms. Guided by a mysterious stranger and armed with artifacts like the Key of Harmonia and the Eclipsian Chalice, the group faces trials, unveils forgotten lore, and confronts adversaries... Read Full Overview

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  11. The Guardian 100 Best Books of the 21st Century

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  13. The Sunday Times 100 21st-Century Novels to Love

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  14. The Best Books of the 21st Century

    Oryx and Crake (2003) By Margaret Atwood. Dystopian and transportive, Margaret Atwood's Orynx and Crake, part of her MaddAdams trilogy, tells of one man's journey through an out of control world, that is the byproduct of genetic engineering and corporate interest. Reconciling the loss of his best friend Crake and his alluring love Onyx ...

  15. 20 of the best modern novels of the 21st century

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  16. The 50 Best Fantasy Books of the 21st Century (So Far)

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  18. REDlab- Research in Education & Design

    Introduction: You can read all the books beforehand, but there is nothing quite like the first moment you hold your newbord infant in your arms. Learning on the job is really what parenthood is all about. ... Design Thinking for 21st Century Learning. Kwek, D. (2011). Innovation in the Classroom: Design Thinking for 21st Century Learning ...

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  23. Survival in the 21st Century

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  24. earth's living resources in the 21st century

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  25. Review: Smart, funny, playful novel tackling the 21st century's most

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  26. 100 Best Novels Of The 21st Century Books

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  27. Historical Atlas Map Of Santa Clara County ...

    The collection focuses on rare 16th to 21st century maps of North and South America, the World, Asia, Africa, Europe, and Oceania. The collection includes atlases, wall maps, globes, school geographies, pocket maps, books of exploration, maritime charts, and a variety of cartographic materials. Digital collection 75828 digital items. More ...

  28. Rebooting Romance: A 21st Century Love Story

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  29. Best of 21st Century Non-fiction (1018 books)

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