Cormac McCarthy dazzled readers with his Border Trilogy, then held them to the fire with The Road. This hypnotic dirge about a father and son trudging through the charred remains of a post-apocalyptic America is complemented by writing that’s as perfectly spare as a zen sand pit. At stake is the essence of what it means to be human as a boy and his father travel grim roads pursued by cannibals while “carrying the fire” (meaning: not bowing in to immediate needs, not mortgaging their futures to support their present, and not sacrificing morals to satisfy their urges). It’s a timeless story, bleakly told, and one that transfixed an over-leveraged and war-mired America.
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (1996)
As is always the case, the book is better. But in Fight Club‘s case, you can at least still discuss the IKEA nesting instinct and soap derived from liposuction dregs with anyone who just rented the DVD. Chuck Palahniuk’s book about manhood in career-obsessed America has become part of our national vocabulary. It’s a cataclysmic romp through consumer culture, a big middle finger to the powers that be, and a bittersweet story about disillusioned men. Just remember, the first rule of Fight Club is…
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (2007)
Junot Diaz’s ultimate underdog story of lost love, ancestral identity, and the battle against an inter-generational curse called the “fuku,” won places on over 35 best-book-of-the-year lists for 2008 and scored the Pulitzer Prize. Loosely based on the history of the Dominican Republic, and heavily dosed with equal parts science fiction geekdom, prostitution, the horrors of dictatorial rule, and the unbreakable bonds of family fate, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao tells the tragic story of fat kid and self-described “ghetto-nerd” Oscar de Leon.
The Beach by Alex Garland (1996)
The Beach, Alex Garland’s modern twist on Lord of the Flies, fillets the post-college urge to “discover” uncharted third-world countries while simultaneously illustrating socialism’s inherent failings. It has become de facto required reading for twenty-somethings and can be found in Eurorail rucksacks and high school backpacks the world over. Borrowing from Vietnam war movies, video games, and earnest slacker culture, The Beach opens with a suicide and only gets darker from there.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)
Zadie Smith’s carefully woven story addresses the struggle to maintain identity as an immigrant, the roles of luck and chance in life, and religion in all its varied forms (from fundamentalism to blind faith in science). At turns manic, funny, elegiac, and satirical, White Teeth culminates in a bombastic finale featuring warring religious factions, romantic revelations, and a genetically engineered FutureMouse. A recipient of numerous awards upon release and selected by Time Magazine as one of the 100-best books since 1923, Smith’s novel gets her point across with panache: no matter our skin, creed, or ancestry, we’ve all got the same color teeth.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1996)
No, not everyone has read Infinite Jest. That’s a fact. But just about every literary reader has at least heard of David Foster Wallace’s freakishly huge and profoundly amazing opus. Those who’ve read it twice say it’s four times as good the second time. Those who’ve read it three times don’t say anything, stuck as they are in an endless feedback loop of footnotes and narrative curlicues. Wallace’s lush language, his brilliant cultural satire, and his encyclopedic vocabulary propel this fascinating tale about a dystopian America. Central issues range from drug addiction to family functionality, and from depression to junior sports.
The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster (1987)
The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster’s notorious meta-mystery identity crisis series, bends the boundaries of fiction by ripping the sheet off reality. He inserts himself (the author) into conversations with himself (as a character) who is losing his mind while “the author” (a different character entirely) catalogues the whole thing. These three collected novellas, all centered in New York City, transcend cult classic status. The trilogy is passed from person to person like an illicit relic. It’s Auster at his finest, and subversive literature at its most puckish.
A Million Little Pieces by James Frey (2003)
Few books have exploded into the cultural mainstream with quite the detonation of James Frey’s “memoir.” This gruesome, personal story of drug-addiction and rehabilitation landed on Oprah’s Book Club list, launching a sales run that topped 5 million copies. But when a magazine sought, and couldn’t find, Frey’s police mug-shot to use in an article, the story’s veracity was challenged, ending up with an inquisition showdown in which Oprah Winfrey brought Frey and his publisher to their knees on national TV. From the iconic cover-art to the refunds sent by Random House (along with an apology for duping readers), Frey’s novel/memoir/scandal has certainly left its mark on a generation.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985)
Ender’s Game is set in a world that has been united in a battle against the alien “Bugger” race. Nine-year-old Ender Wiggins is monitored and then selected for training at command school, where he eventually becomes leader of the Earth’s spacefleet and exterminates the entire Bugger species. Orson Scott Card’s science fiction novel, which has been taught in schools across the country, is a mesmerizing study of gifted children corrupted by their teachers — and a diversely beloved cult favorite. It’s at once a philosophical inquiry into moral responsibility and a thrilling shoot-em-up in zero gravity. The novel won the two most prestigious awards in science fiction (the Hugo and Nebula), and is a (sometimes clandestine) favorite among all serious lovers of literature.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (2000)
Dave Eggers’ memoir follows the 21-year-old author trying his best to raise his 7-year-old brother. It’s a story about growing up, coping with the loss of both parents to cancer, trying to make a mark in the world, and properly rearing a kid, all at the same time. Eggers delivers rueful self-criticism, introspective and apologetic narration, and a punctilious lambasting of pop culture’s trappings. Although A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius remains somewhat divisive among lit snobs, Eggers’ subsequent development of unique writing forums and effective youth tutoring programs has made an indelible impression.
Shortlisted! Other literary touchstones of the last 25 years…
The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993) Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002) Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts (2003) The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (2005) Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (1997) The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (2001) Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling (1997 – 2007) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (2000) Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (2003)