by Isabel Wilkerson (2010)
A lifetime ago, I went on a date with a beautiful man whose name means “to travel across or through.” Like me, he is black, gay, grew up in Texas, and loves words. Unlike me, he loves God, almost as much, if not more, than he loves words, so I knew that whatever we were traveling through or across together wouldn’t take long. I didn’t mind. Even now, if he called me, I would answer. After our first meal together, he walked with me into a bookstore and led me — without detour — to the spine of the book he wanted me to read. As I type now, I’m picturing his slender finger gently running down the hardback cover of Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. I was fresh out of graduate school where I had studied creative writing; he was politely stunned that I hadn’t already heard of Wilkerson or her tremendous account of the Great Migration. He didn’t shame me for what I didn’t know; instead, he had led me to my history. This matters.
Holding the weighty volume in his hands — like a Bible, I noted — he rhapsodized about what she had accomplished, using hundreds of hours of interviews and research to construct a definitive look at the era in which millions of African-American refugees went North in order to flee Jim Crow’s caste system. Wilkerson focuses on three people from three different parts of the South who embark on three very different life journeys. She also zooms out to contextualize their stories within the broader swell of history. It’s also beautifully written with an eye for detail any poet can appreciate. —Saeed Jones. Excerpted with permission from Saeed’s newsletter The Intelligence of Honey. Read more here.
The Round House by Louise Erdrich (2012)
I’ve read and loved many of Erdrich’s novels, which delve into an interwoven world of families in and around one fictional North Dakota Native American reservation, but I think The Round House is the best she’s written since her first, Love Medicine. At its center is a 13-year-old Ojibwe boy, Joe Coutts, whose mother has been the victim of a brutal rape near a ceremonial round house on the reservation. The book delves into the failures of the legal system in Native American communities and the blind eye it turns to violence against Native American women: Joe pursues justice for his mother when the system won’t give it to her, and in the process, he reveals a long, dark, and complex trail of family and tribal history that fuels his own self-discovery. I love Erdrich’s beautiful, simple prose, and the way she writes about the weight of the past, of family and spirit and myth, on her characters and the world. Everyone should read her books. —Molly Hensley-Clancy
Building Stories by Chris Ware (2012)
The best part of Chris Ware’s graphic novel is maybe the format: Instead of a traditional book, Building Stories comes as a box filled with pamphlets, hardcovers, newspapers, flip-books, and a folded-up board. All these little segments come together to tell the story of three people living in the same apartment building in Chicago: a young woman living alone on the top floor, another woman living with her hateful boyfriend in the middle, and the elderly landlord who’s been in the building forever on the ground floor. Oh, and also, there’s an extended story about a bee, whose fate is ultimately quite tragic.
You don’t have to read the collection in any particular way — the magic of Building Stories is that it all connects, no matter how you tackle it. Like all great books, it makes you feel less alone, and then deeply alone, depending on whose story you’re reading and which iteration of it you’re in. But the way Ware ties it together, with evocative illustration and cutesy flare, makes you want to pick it back up even after you’ve read the whole box. —Scaachi Koul
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed (2012)
Advice columns have had something of a renaissance online over the past few years, and much of that boom can be traced back to Tiny Beautiful Things and its author, Cheryl Strayed. Strayed is perhaps most known for her bestselling memoir Wild, but she was also the writer behind the Rumpus’s hugely popular advice column “Dear Sugar.” But “collection of advice columns” doesn’t really do justice to what this book is — it reads more like a long phone call with your wisest friend, both raw and soothing, a punch to the gut and a cool hand to a hot forehead. Viscerally personal, Strayed uses her own stories — the loss of her mother at 22; the years she worked as a waitress, youth advocate, and the “coffee girl” in an office; as well as her first marriage, divorce, and second marriage — to guide her responses to letter writers. All are approached with empathy and candor. Guaranteed, at least a few of the letters will hit you hard and feel like they were written just for you. Once you’ve read this book, you will almost certainly read it again, sometimes starting from the beginning, sometimes flipping through to the letters that you dog-eared when you needed them most. —Julia Reinstein
My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard (2009–11; published in English 2012–18)
Over the course of six volumes that are really one long book, Karl Ove Knausgaard tells the story of his own life, covering everything from his childhood in 1970s Norway to his writing and publishing the books themselves and becoming a literary celebrity. The characters in My Struggle are real people whose names largely haven’t been changed; Knausgaard describes his life in exhaustive detail, from important events like his father’s death to daily frustrations like getting his kids ready in the morning. Sometimes My Struggle thrilled me; sometimes it made me laugh; sometimes it frustrated me. But mostly, it mesmerized me. Knausgaard collapses the distance between himself and the reader, putting you right there with him as you become invested in his life and his relationships with the others who populate the work. The controversies surrounding My Struggle, like the ethics of Knausgaard’s disclosures about his family or its provocative title (the same as Hitler’s Mein Kampf in Norwegian), have shaped much of the discourse about the work. But as flawed and challenging as they are at times, no other books from our era capture life in all its banality and occasional transcendence quite like Knausgaard’s. —Rosie Gray
The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante (2012–15)
On the surface, this is not an easy series to love. The two women at the heart of the story can be unthinkably awful to each other, the first novel’s plot does not pick up until about two-thirds of the way through, and the violence depicted in the series is at times disturbing to the point of needing to put the books down. Yet in the course of two weeks, I devoured the four-part epic tracing the friendship between two women in post-WWII Naples, compelled by a kind of magnetic need to understand Elena Greco (Lenù), the narrator, and her childhood friend, the incandescent and ferocious Lila — one most memorable characters that I’ve encountered in 21st-century fiction.
The notoriously private Elena Ferrante (who uses a pen name) has taken on a kind of mythic quality in her elusiveness; her insistence on anonymity has turned her into something of a fictional character herself. Yet the author insistently grounds her fiction deeply in reality, in terms of socioeconomic and historical contexts as well drawing on her own life. The relationship between Lenù and Lila is the binding force of the novels, but the series is not one only about female friendship. Instead, Ferrante uses Lenù and Lila’s comings of age as a means of exploring larger topics: the role education plays in class division, the cyclical nature of violence (especially violence against women), and the rise of feminist thinking in postwar Italy. The Neapolitan Novels are expansive and unflinching, an unforgettable study of two lifetimes intertwined. —Jillian Karande
Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon (2013)
“There is no such thing as reproduction.” The first sentence of Far From the Tree challenges an idea that has guided generation after generation — that children are meant to be the perfect product of their parents’ combined genes, that their sunny disposition, wit, or intelligence is the result of some kind of biological inevitability.
The result of 11 years of research and writing, 900 pages long, and filled with thousands of interviews with 300 families, this book is a challenge to the reader too. It is about raising children with schizophrenia and autistic children, prodigies and criminals, children with dwarfism or who are deaf, about bringing up trans boys and trans girls. It is about how having a child entails inviting a stranger into your house, and loving them no matter what. It is a terrible cliché to talk about the journey a writer goes on while writing a book, or the one taken by the reader. But with Far From the Tree, it is both appropriate, and not quite sufficient, to explain the experience as a journey. There was, for me at least, a before and an after, a world in which I hadn’t read it, and one in which I had. Its scope is like that of a Russian novel, but it is the rigorous way in which Solomon applies his scientific research to the human stories he tells that makes this book a masterpiece. —Paul Hamilos
Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala (2013)
When I first learned what Wave was about, after coming across a review of the memoir by Teju Cole back in 2013, I thought, Wow, I do not have the emotional bandwidth to read this anytime soon. Deraniyagala, a Sri Lankan economist who lived in London, lost her husband, parents, and two young sons during the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in 2004 the day after Christmas. Wave is her honest chronicling of the aftermath. I finally read it in one sitting a few days ago. It’s an unflinching, brutal account with indelible scenes: Deraniyagala floating in the dirty water in a daze, getting blackout drunk months afterward, contemplating suicide as she deals with her immense grief. She lovingly renders the cozy, privileged life she enjoyed with her husband Steve, who loved Sri Lanka as much as Deraniyagala did, and their sons, Vikram, the inquisitive, budding earth scientist, and Malli, the imaginative, whimsical one. “I am in the unthinkable situation that people cannot bear to contemplate,” Deraniyagala writes. But thanks to this book, beautifully written and utterly devoid of empty platitudes, we get a glimpse of what that situation was like, and I’m eternally wowed by her strength. —Tomi Obaro
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt (2013)
When Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was published in 2013, shortly after winning the Pulitzer for fiction, everyone around me was telling me it was the book of the 9/11 generation and that I absolutely had to read it. I didn’t. That was a mistake.
The first hundred or so pages of The Goldfinch are, arguably, some of the best first hundred pages of a book ever. We meet the tween protagonist, Theo Decker, when he is about to be at the center of a massive terror attack at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, killing his mom and destroying his life. The prose is vivid and compelling, it’s a page-turner without the glaring, manipulative tricks. Early 2000s New York (which happens to be my hometown) is painted lovingly and accurately.
After Theo is forced to leave New York, the color fades as he dulls his own pain in the deserts of Nevada, and the novel turns into a different book. It drags for a couple hundred pages too long and is rife with errors: bad grammar, confusing sentences, typos, and factual inaccuracies (the completely unsubstantiated urban legend is that Tartt’s editors were too scared of her to edit her). Once the narrative returns to New York, wading through these flaws becomes worth it again, but the errors take you out of the narrative and make you stare at the Pulitzer Prize sticker on the cover in confusion.
However, I hope that the fact that I nearly took a red marker to my copy to cross out entire pages only gives more weight to the fact that I chose it as one of my favorite books of the decade. It’s a crime novel, an art history thesis, an LGBTQ coming-of-age story, and a meditation on toxic masculinity all wrapped up in 976 pages. Don’t enter the 2020s without reading it. Also, don’t see the movie. —Ema O’Connor
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer (2014)
I’ve never bought so many copies of the same book as I have of Annihilation (at least three) to replace all the ones I kept insisting on giving away to anyone who seemed remotely receptive. VanderMeer’s creepy, stylish, and singular science fiction novel is the first in a trilogy, all of which is worth reading, but Annihilation is the best of the three books and stands on its own. (It’s also a much more memorable and strange piece of art than Alex Garland’s 2018 movie adaptation.) The setting VanderMeer creates feels fresh, even though it sounds familiar — a postapocalyptic wilderness where science and reason quail in the face of fantastical creatures and inexplicable phenomena — while the messy psychological dynamics between the characters, four nameless women scientists on a doomed expedition, are spot-on and even more haunting than the surreal stuff. The structure of the story is onion-esque, the language is deliberately stylized and often opaque, very little is ever explained — and yet I think that on some level, this book made more sense to me than anything else I read this decade. —Rachel Sanders
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (2014)
“[B]ecause white men can’t / police their imagination / black men are dying” is the money quote from Rankine’s definitive book-length reflection on the sinister ways racism manifests itself in America. That quote actually wasn’t included in the book’s first printing but was added later, to devastating effect. I’ve thought about that quote many times — changing the genders occasionally — ever since Citizen came out in 2014 and joined Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2015 Between the World and Me in being the two Big Books About Race everybody seemed to be reading, or perhaps more accurately, wanted to appear to be reading, in the mid-2010s. Both books are still timely, still poignant, but it’s Rankine’s that lingers most in my mind, in part because it was so experimental. Art theory alongside discussions of Serena Williams’ body. And that heartbreaking list of names at the end of the book: in memory of Trayvon and Mike Brown and Walter Brown and so on — the list keeps growing and so too does Citizen’s power. —T.O.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)
I read Station Eleven for the first time on a plane, which is either a brilliant idea or a ridiculous one — it depends if you like reading dystopian fiction as you hurtle through the air in a tin can. From the first page, though, I found it riveting. What sets Station Eleven apart from so many other recent dystopian novels is the warmness of St. John Mandel’s writing, the lived-in details of each of these characters’ lives as she toggles back and forth between life before the flu pandemic and life afterward. It’s the kind of book that stays with you. Fingers crossed, the upcoming HBO miniseries isn’t a disaster. —T.O.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill (2014)
Books about straight people and their miserable marriages are a particular favorite of mine, but Dept. of Speculation is in a league all its own. Short enough — and gripping enough — to read in a single sitting, Jenny Offill offers us a portrait of a marriage that blooms with the happy certainty of youth but sours after the birth of a baby and the derailment of best-laid plans. It’s hard to describe what makes this book so dizzyingly special — magical, even — but it has something to do with how devastatingly smart and funny and freaking sad the most mundane stuff of life can be: mundanity smushed right up against the shocking and the profound. When Offill’s narrator, the wife, tries to figure out how everything went wrong, she turns to history and books and philosophy and religion: Kafka, Buddhism, the plight of Russian cosmonauts. Gorgeous vignettes guide us through this quietly remarkable book, one I can imagine returning to at different points in my life again and again. —Shannon Keating
Tenth of December by George Saunders (2014)
Saunders became a seriously famous writer in the 2010s for the great reason of publishing his best book so far, Tenth of December, a collection of short stories about the everyday ways the world can be cruel and how the cumulative effect of such cruelty can (try to) strip people of their humanity. Run through Saunders’ semi-sci-fi, glitchy highbrow/lowbrow voice, he tells stories about people who buy young girls for decoration, a troubled veteran, and criminals forced to take experimental drugs that read distant but familiar, like one piece of everyday life has been pushed to its logical conclusion. The titular story — a warm heartbreak — runs closer to realism than most of Saunders’ work, featuring a father of adult children who is dying of cancer and a lonely teen, who meet in the woods when the older man tries to end his life to spare his family. —K.M.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (2015)
It still astonishes me that a little genre-bending book of autotheory-meets-memoir about queer family, gender, language, and desire — all things that are very much my shit — managed to break into the mainstream literary world in such a major way. It’s strange when a book moves and shapes you so completely that it seems as though it was written just for you, then you see, like, three different straight men reading it on the subway.
The Argonauts begins with a scene of anal sex on a concrete floor. Nelson writes in the second person, addressing the one she loves: “You had Molloy by your bedside and a stack of cocks in a shadowy unused shower stall. Does it get any better? What’s your pleasure, you asked, then stuck around for an answer.”
Though I’ve read it countless times by now, sometimes in chunks and sometimes all the way through, The Argonauts can still take my breath away. At a time in my life when I was figuring out my own queerness, my own gender, my own relationship to love and family and the work of being a writer — all things, let’s be real, I’m still figuring out — The Argonauts gave me permission to keep dreaming myself into being. —Shannon Keating
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (2015)
Hanya Yanagihara's second novel broke me in the most beautiful way. It’s a raw — sometimes horrifying — depiction of trauma, love, and friendships. Some scenes in the book are so graphic that at times I had to put the book down. Never have I wanted to reach out and hug a character more than I did the main character, Jude. His coming-of-age story was anything but healthy. It’s a story I only want to subject my heart to once, but it is also one I will never, ever forget! —Morgan Murrell
In an era where writers can’t seem to cram enough adjectives into a sentence to explain every inch of a character, Rachel Cusk stands out with her spare, lightly sketched narrator. But that doesn’t mean that her narrator, and novels, aren’t completely mesmerizing. In 2015’s Outline, the first in Cusk’s luminous trilogy, followed by Transit (2017) and Kudos (2018), what we learn about the narrator fits neatly in a paragraph — novelist, British, divorced, mother. And in the absence of an overpowering self, Cusk’s narrator teases out the stories of those around her, often in order to make sense of her own place in the world, as both a woman and a writer.
She is in flight at the beginning of Outline, on her way to teaching in Athens, when we first see her power in use as she listens to the man sitting next to her divulge his family’s secrets. The narrator’s reticence in divulging her own interiority acts as a fascinating exercise in withholding, one that marks Cusk’s entire trilogy and proves to be a respite from today’s overstuffed fiction. And though she gives us very little of herself, she never entirely erases herself from the page. Instead, through other people’s stories, she pieces together a collage of whom she might want to be. —Karolina Waclawiak
One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway — and Its Aftermath by Åsne Seierstad (2016)
Seierstad, a war journalist, came home to write this story of the 2011 massacres in Norway, where 77 people, including dozens of teenagers, were murdered by the right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik. It’s an incredible work of journalism. The opening scene, in which she describes the massacre in gut-wrenching detail, is one of the most brutal things I‘ve ever read: meticulously researched, starkly written, and yet deeply empathetic. What I particularly love about One of Us is that it’s not like a lot of the most famous books about crime, such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Seierstad delves deep into the killer’s history, motivations, and ideology, but she doesn’t ever seek to make excuses for Breivik or try to get you to see him as anything but a monster. And she focuses with so much empathy and specificity on the victims — which means that while One of Us is partly a story of radicalization and white nationalism and the haunting failures of the Norwegian government to stop the massacre, it also has this element of hope about the future of a country that can embrace immigrants and the dreams of the idealistic young people whom Breivik tried to silence. —M.H.C.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer (2017)
Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel moved me in ways I can’t quite shake long after I wept tears that stained its final, beautiful pages. Sure, like the novel’s protagonist, Arthur Less, I’m a white gay male writer who feels sometimes like I’m staring into the abyss. Still, it’s Greer’s alternately hilarious and poignant writing that resonates most strongly with me. In the book, Arthur is running away — from his much younger ex’s wedding to another man, from nagging doubts about his own talent as a writer, and from time itself as he rapidly approaches 50, feeling somehow like “the first homosexual ever to grow old.” So begins a globe-trotting tragicomedy that follows Arthur as he visits New York, Mexico, Italy, Germany, Morocco, France, India, and Japan — all to avoid the inevitable. Haunted by both the memory of his first lover and his most recent, he encounters old friends and new during his travels, all the while struggling with a lingering question: Will he ever be enough? For himself and for someone else? Or is he always doomed to be just that: less. Just like his lovers, I was grateful to spend time with Arthur. —David Mack
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (2018)
Teju Cole’s Open City, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, Oyinkan Braithwaite’s thriller My Sister, the Serial Killer — the 2010s saw a flourish of Nigerian writers garnering attention from European and American audiences. But no book in my mind feels as stunningly original as Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater, a mesmerizing wholehearted rejection of colonial influences that recalibrated my brain. Ada, born to an Igbo father and a Sri Lankan mother, is a moody young girl who contains ogbanje — spirits from another realm. The book tells the story mainly from the spirits’ perspective as we watch Ada grow up and eventually move to the US for college. In some ways the narrative is familiar: She’s a fish out of water in a new country, etc., but it’s the deftness of the spirits’ angle, and the way they talk about mental illness, gender, and even Jesus Christ himself, that leave such an indelible impression. —T.O.
Severance by Ling Ma (2018)
Tales of apocalypse and not-so-distant dystopias have taken on new urgency in the past decade of pop culture, and like recent narratives that have captured our imagination — Black Mirror, The Hunger Games, The Handmaid’s Tale — Severance begins with a premise that feels recognizable. We meet Candace Chen, an unfulfilled millennial who lives in modern-day New York, works in publishing, and dates a guy she met on her fire escape. As a mysterious flu-like pandemic causes people to turn into zombies, doing the same rote activities over and over again, we reckon with the chilling normalcy of Candace’s routine as she keeps commuting to the office and working on her blog. It’s uncomfortable because, well, in the face of impending disaster, would any of us really react that differently?
What makes Severance dazzling is the underlying theme of cultural identity interwoven through the story. The sci-fi trappings of the novel, we find, actually serve as a lens to sharply examine Candace’s complicated relationship with her mother and her heritage — there’s a scene involving a late-capitalist twist on the tradition of burning joss paper that particularly made me gasp. Whereas most immigrant stories focus on the search to feel at home, Severance makes an extraordinary case for embracing rootlessness when the world is in turmoil anyway. —Delia Cai
My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh (2018)
When my friend recommended this book, she said she’d read it in a single day and it had made her feel completely nuts. She cautioned me to try to break it up, but I couldn’t. It’s the sort of novel that envelops you, a cancel-your-plans-to-read triumph.
Part of it, I think, is the attractiveness — especially after this time-melting decade — of hibernation. “My past life would be but a dream, and I could start over without regrets, bolstered by the bliss and serenity that I would have accumulated in my year of rest and relaxation,” the unnamed narrator (a narcissistic, apathetic 24-year-old whom this reader found herself simultaneously hating and rooting for) says early on, explaining her mission to sleep for a year thanks to some high-powered (fictional) pharmaceutical drugs. I couldn’t help but sort of nod along.
The book is set at the beginning of this century, but it feels so relevant to this moment, as the reader pieces together what’s happening in the world while the narrator tries to sleep. It’s oddly relatable, laugh-out-loud funny, and a strange treat. —Addy Baird
Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney (2018)
Before all the cool city-dwelling girls you knew were reading Sally Rooney’s Normal People, from this year, they were all devouring Conversations With Friends (which is 100% the better book — fight me!). The fact that Rooney is my age and has already published two acclaimed works of fiction could have easily put me off her forever, but fortunately, my jealousy hasn’t prevented me from loving the hell out of this book. I deeply related to Frances, a young woman in college in Dublin who’s sort of interested in writing and definitely interested in her best friend (and ex-girlfriend!) Bobbi, as well as her new older friend’s husband, Nick. Frances feels out of step with many of her peers because she doesn’t come from money, and because she can get a little too high on her own supply: She’s well-read, aloof, and darkly funny. Conversations is about how often smart young people can over-intellectualize themselves to death while trying to actually enjoy the spoils of their youth — and it’s about female friendship-meets-romance, and love, and sex, and ambition, and family. Rooney is a master of dialogue, only one of her talents that makes reading this delightful romp of a book such a pleasure. Not all great books need to be a drag — who knew! —Shannon Keating
She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey (2019)
The second half of the 2010s unfolded like a crisis, exposing American institutions as either incapable of dealing with abuse or actively masking the darkness within. Concurrently, at a complex financial and reputational time for the US media, Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, and a series of other journalists dominated the period. Though the Times reporters published extensively about Harvey Weinstein, their book on the subject offers so much more. Reading She Said, you learn how exactly the premier journalists in the country put together a complicated investigation — from navigating dead ends and bad tips to unweaving the complex conflicts of interest behind an open secret. She Said reads like a mass-market thriller, turning the reporting process into a drama and the journalists into detectives. Kantor and Twohey show us the opaque systems filled with onetime media heroes who’ve become villains, weighted toward protection of financial interests above all else. As Rebecca Traister wrote of Ronan Farrow’s own telling of the Weinstein cover-up, “They’re all friends, it feels, as you read this frightening volume, and it seems as though they all have bad histories with women, sex, and power.” —Katherine Miller ●
An earlier version of this post miscounted the number of books in this list! Sorry we're bad at math.