1963 — The Bell Jar , Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath’s only novel manages to be both elegant and filled with raw, seething emotion – no small feat, and not the least of the reasons the reading world is still obsessed with her. There were a host of other great books this year, but the Plath legend (not to mention the Plath legion) still looms so large in our collective unconsciousness that this one seems by far the most essential to a modern reader’s repertoire.
Also recommended: Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak; The Group, Mary McCarthy; V., Thomas Pynchon; Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut; The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan
1964 — Herzog , Saul Bellow
Sure, Herzog is a midlife crisis book. It’s also a triumph of style, this wordy, beautiful epistolary novel, an examination of strife both existential and practical, a philosophical experiment with emotional roots. As Jeffrey Eugenides wrote, “If you’re in the market for a safe neuro-enhancer, something to break you out of your foggy-headedness, a pill more powerful than Adderall or Provigil, with no side effects other than pleasure, then pick up Herzog and open it — anywhere — and read.”
Also recommended: Come Back, Dr. Caligari, Donald Barthelme; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl; A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway; Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby Jr.; The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein
1965 – The Autobiography of Malcolm X , as told to Alex Haley
This book is an influential classic of American autobiography, a required volume for anyone interested in American history, spiritual conversion, race, class, politics, or just an extraordinary read.
Also recommended: Kosmos, Witold Gombrowicz; Ariel, Sylvia Plath; Cosmicomics, Italo Calvino; The Painted Bird, Jerzy Kosinski; Dune, Frank Herbert
1966 – Against Interpretation , Susan Sontag
Sontag’s most famous collection is essential reading for anyone interested in art or literature for something more than pure entertainment. Impossibly brilliant, cocksure, and ever-curious, she will continually blow you away.
Also recommended: In Cold Blood, Truman Capote; The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein; The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon; Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys; Paradiso, José Lezama Lima
1967 — The Master and Margarita , Mikhail Bulgakov
Yes: Bulgakov over Márquez, and it’s not only because The Master and Margarita is this writer’s favorite book. Or maybe it is, a little. This novel – in which the devil and his retinue visit 1930s Moscow and raise, well, hell – is hilarious, mind-expanding, snide, brilliant, a compelling tale, a brutal satire, a rewritten history, and one of the best novels of this or any year.
Also recommended: One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez; Snow White, Donald Barthelme; The Outsiders, S. E. Hinton; The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Styron
1968 — Slouching Towards Bethlehem , Joan Didion
Didion’s first collection established her as a phenomenal prose stylist, an incisive mind, and a relentless chronicler of the American experience. A very few of the essays collected here seem dated in 2013, but most sing with truth even under the pressure of decades.
Also recommended: The First Circle, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
1969 — I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings , Maya Angelou
Now this was a tough one. Ultimately, though, the impact of Angelou’s masterpiece, which James Baldwin called “a Biblical study of life in the midst of death,” eclipses all else published this year. The book, a beautiful work of literature in its own right, also opened pathways for African-American women – and women, and people – and launched the career of an American treasure.
Also recommended: Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut; Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth; The Edible Woman, The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin; Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Vladimir Nabokov
1970 – Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret , Judy Blume
No one gets teenagers like Judy Blume. For so many young people, this book was a revelation, and it will probably remain a cultural touchstone for all time.
Also recommended: Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion; The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison; Deliverance, James Dickey; In the Night Kitchen, Maurice Sendak
1971 – The Complete Stories , Flannery O’Connor
This posthumous collection is the only one of its kind on this list, but it was impossible to ignore. O’Connor is the enduring master of the Southern macabre, as exhaled coolly with one’s cigarette smoke. Every story is a revelation.
Also recommended: The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories, Cynthia Ozick; Rabbit Redux, John Updike, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson
1972 – Invisible Cities , Italo Calvino
This was a difficult choice, since it precludes the inclusion of If on a winter’s night a traveler later on. But while that novel is a particular favorite of a certain literary editor, you can’t argue with Invisible Cities. In this luminous exploration of the mind, the reader listens in as Marco Polo describes various imaginary, impossible, phenomenal cities to the emperor Kublai Khan. Reading this book is like jumping into a pool of cool, clear water – and then staying under until you start to hallucinate. In a good way.
Also recommended: My Name Is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok
1973 – Gravity’s Rainbow , Thomas Pynchon
Pynchon’s masterpiece is widely heralded as one of the best American novels ever written, and one of the pillars of postmodern fiction. Complicated, very long, and mind-expanding, it’s a book for these times or any.
Also recommended: The Princess Bride, William Goldman; Sula, Toni Morrison
1974 – The Dispossessed , Ursula K. Le Guin
There is no last 50 years without Ursula Le Guin. Or at least, there shouldn’t be. This book, which took home handfuls of Best Novel awards in the world of science fiction in its year of publication, was described by Gerald Jonas of The New York Times as being “so persuasive that it ought to put a stop to the writing of prescriptive Utopias for at least 10 years.” It might not have done that, but that doesn’t take away from its power one bit.
Also recommended: Carrie, Stephen King
1975 – The Great Railway Bazaar , Paul Theroux
This book is one of the most important travelogues of the last 50 years, one that likely launched a thousand train trips, and written by a fascinating, outspoken literary figure the like of which we rarely see anymore.
Also recommended: Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt; Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow; Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany; J R, William Gaddis, Ragtime, E.L. Doctrow
1976 – Speedboat , Renata Adler
It may be a novel, or it may be an anti-novel, but whatever it is, Adler’s Speedboat is an unrelentingly magical piece of writing, filled to the brim with curls of thrilling language and commonplace observations put just so. Plus, the book manages to capture what it’s like to be young and in New York – or just to be alive and looking around yourself – like almost nothing else. You might shrug, but everyone tries to accomplish this, and almost everyone fails.
Also recommended: Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, Raymond Carver; A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean
1977 – The Shining , Stephen King
This is the book that established King as the, well, king of the American horror novel. Smart, culturally resonant and scary as hell.
Also recommended: Falconer, John Cheever; A Book of Common Prayer, Joan Didion; A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick; Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
1978 – The Sea, The Sea , Iris Murdoch
Murdoch’s inventive Booker Prize-winning novel swirls as much as its namesake – with self-delusion, with obsession, with the ebb and flow (not to put too fine a point on it) of friendships and love affairs. A stunning novel by one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.
Also recommended: A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Madeleine L’Engle; Requiem for a Dream, Hubert Selby Jr.; The World According to Garp, John Irving
1979 – The Bloody Chamber , Angela Carter
Fairy tales are an integral part of the way we read novels and stories – hell, they’re an integral part of the social fabric. Carter’s feminist, adult re-imaginings of the greatest hits are necessary and brutal for anyone whose parents ever read them off to sleep.
Also recommended: Kindred, Octavia Butler; The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams; A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin; The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer; Sophie’s Choice, William Styron; The White Album, Joan Didion; If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino
1980 – Ender’s Game , Orson Scott Card
Despite his unfortunate politics, Orson Scott Card wrote one of the best, most engaging, and most cerebral books about war, the government, and being a kid. Not to mention that he created the scariest and coolest computer game ever.
Also recommended: The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco; Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie; A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
1981 – Outside Over There , Maurice Sendak
People make a fuss over Where the Wild Things Are. It may be deserved, but this, this twisted, gorgeous, upsetting little book is Sendak’s masterpiece. And the masterpiece of a national treasure is worth extra.
Also recommended: Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson; Sixty Stories, Donald Barthelme; Lanark, Alasdair Gray; What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Raymond Carver
1982 – The Color Purple , Alice Walker
Walker’s epistolary novel, which won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, has become a much-challenged classic for its treatment of the African-American female experience in the 1930s – with all the sexual politics, racism, and violence that that entailed. A powerful, moving American mainstay.
Also recommended: The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende; The BFG, Roald Dahl; Waiting for the Barbarians, J.M. Coetzee
1983 – Cathedral , Raymond Carver
Carver is nearly synonymous with excellence in short stories, and with good reason. The tales in this book are brilliant, restrained, and surprising, maneuvering with careful grace.
Also recommended: Winter’s Tale, Mark Helprin; The Loser, Thomas Bernhard
1984 – Money , Martin Amis
Money is Martin Amis’s masterpiece, a fierce, hilarious book about the hedonistic downward spiral of an English commercial director. Smart and mean, this is the book that makes Martin Amis, Martin Amis.
Also recommended: The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks; The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros; The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera; Neuromancer, William Gibson
1985 – The Handmaid’s Tale , Margaret Atwood
Yikes. This year might have presented the most difficult of choices. Just look at that spread. Let’s say The Handmaid’s Tale because it’s brilliant, because it’s terrifying, and because unlike some books that are creeping up on their 30th birthdays, the older it gets, the more relevant it seems.
Also recommended: Self-Help, Lorrie Moore; White Noise, Don DeLillo; Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez; Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy; Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry
1986 – Maus: A Survivor’s Tale , Art Spiegelman
Spiegelman’s graphic novel/memoir of his father is one of the loveliest, best-written, and most terrifying books about the Holocaust to date.
1987 – Beloved , Toni Morrison
Morrison’s searing, backbreaking book tackles slavery, motherhood, and death in perfect prose. It’s probably the best book from the last 50 years. Your torn-out heart will haunt you for at least that long.
Also recommended: The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster; The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe; Hatchet, Gary Paulsen; Watchmen, Alan Moore
1988 – Bad Behavior , Mary Gaitskill
Mary Gaitskill is the patron saint of the modern woman. Her debut collection is raw and sexy and frankly burning up with intelligence.
Also recommended: Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey; Matilda, Roald Dahl; The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie; Wittgenstein’s Mistress, David Markson
1989 – Geek Love , Katherine Dunn
This novel is supremely uncomfortable, exceedingly bizarre, and at times has the potential to upset the most ironclad of stomachs and hearts. This is why it is a masterpiece.
Also recommended: The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro; The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan
1990 – The Things They Carried , Tim O’Brien
You probably read this in school, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t wonderful. A groundbreaking, now-classic meditation on war and memory.
Also recommended: L.A. Confidential, James Ellroy; The Buddha of Suburbia, Hanif Kureishi; The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk
1991 – Possession , A.S. Byatt
A literary mystery, a campus novel, a love story, and an investigation into the complex world of art and knowledge, all in one volume.
Also recommended: Mating, Norman Rush; Mao II, Don DeLillo; American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis; A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley
1992 – The Secret History , Donna Tartt
It’s hard to throw Jesus’ Son under the bus here, so if it cools your mind, consider it a tie. But Tartt’s debut is such a perfect campus novel, so palpably beautiful with all its pagan rituals, elusive love affairs, dead languages, and youths both murderous and studious, that it slinks into your mind and colors your vision for years to come. It must not be ignored.
Also recommended: Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson; The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje; Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson; The Volcano Lover, Susan Sontag
1993 – The Shipping News , E. Annie Proulx
E. Annie Proulx is an understated master, and her Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning novel, a darkly funny treatise on the American family, bubbling with unforgettable characters, is good evidence.
Also recommended: The Giver, Lois Lowry; Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, Roddy Doyle; The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides
1994 – The Ice Storm , Rick Moody
An audacious and witty dissection of the American family for anyone who has ever had impure thoughts.
Also recommended: Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, Lorrie Moore; Gun, With Occasional Music, Jonathan Lethem
1995 – Sabbath’s Theater , Philip Roth
Arguably Roth’s best novel, and less arguably featuring one of the most disgustingly loathsome characters in fiction, Sabbath’s Theater is stuffed to the leaking brim with depravity, brutality, wild masturbation, and then, inexplicably, tenderness. It’s hilarious, and horrible, and a great book.
Also recommended: The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald; Blindness, Josè Saramago; The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman
1996 – Infinite Jest , David Foster Wallace
Screw 1996. This was the best novel of the decade. Not only is Infinite Jest challenging, hilarious, frustrating, and heartbreaking, but as the years go on, it only seems more prescient, more appropriate, more dangerous.
Also recommended: Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk; CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, George Saunders
1997 – Underworld , Don DeLillo
Here’s another candidate for the Great American Novel, a complex, ambitious book about American life in the latter half of the 20th century. Nonlinear, affecting, and (like so much of DeLillo’s work) incredibly adept at capturing the feel of our everyday American surreality.
Also recommended: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami; Mason & Dixon, Thomas Pynchon; American Pastoral, Philip Roth; The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy; Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling; A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace; Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer
1998 – Birds of America , Lorrie Moore
Lorrie Moore is the Flannery O’Connor of contemporary letters, the funniest, darkest female voice of short fiction, leading a parade of impersonators in her wake. This collection is sharp and strange and a little sideways – just how short fiction should be.
Also recommended: The Hours, Michael Cunningham; Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse, Anne Carson
1999 – Disgrace , J.M. Coetzee
Coetzee’s harrowing, Booker Prize-winning novel of a disgraced professor and his daughter in post-apartheid South Africa is terrible and beautiful, delving into exploitation and love and loss and the meaning of humanity. It’s no surprise that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature just a few years after its publication.
Also recommended: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky; Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem; Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
2000 – Pastoralia , George Saunders
There were many fantastic books published this year (see below), and the one that makes this list was neither the biggest selling nor the most extensively covered. But George Saunders is a national treasure, and this collection may be (no promises) his best. In any event, he is one of the few writers today who seems to know the way forward – however icky and strange that way might be.
Also recommended: White Teeth, Zadie Smith; Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris; The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon; House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski; A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers; Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
2001 – Austerlitz , W.G. Sebald
All of Sebald’s work straddles a misty, perhaps imaginary line between fiction and nonfiction, between history and present, memoir and biography. His books are dreamy, digressive, haunted by memory, each inviting endless submergence. “I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all,” our eponymous Austerlitz says, “only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like, and the longer I think about it the more it seems to me that we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead.” Both gorgeous and important.
Also recommended: Atonement, Ian McEwan; The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
2002 – Middlesex , Jeffrey Eugenides
Eugenides’s greatest novel is a multi-generational family epic, a love letter to Detroit, and an essential exploration of youth and difference. It’s also probably the best novel ever to tackle intersexuality.
Also recommended: Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami; The Little Friend, Donna Tartt; Train Dreams, Denis Johnson
2003 – The Known World , Edward P. Jones
This startling, complex novel tackles an oft-ignored topic: the world of black slave owners in antebellum Virginia. Unflinching, finely woven, and sometimes devastating, it’s a must-read. The judges of the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award agree.
Also recommended: Cosmopolis, Don DeLillo; Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood; The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini; The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem
2004 – The Epicure’s Lament , Kate Christensen
There may have been one or two More Important books published this year – but there weren’t any more delicious, delightful ones. Be kind to yourself and pick up Christensen’s electric, hilarious novel, featuring one of the most memorable and most lovably unlikeable characters in recent memory.
Also recommended: Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell; Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke; The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst; Gilead, Marilynne Robinson; 2666, Roberto Bolaño
2005 – Magic for Beginners , Kelly Link
Link’s stories are complex works of realism/fantasy/horror, sometimes cheeky, sometimes serious, always surprising and dreamlike and smart. Salon once described her writing as “an alchemical mixture of Borges, Raymond Chandler, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and well, there’s just no better way to put it than that.
Also recommended: Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro; Parallel Stories, Péter Nádas; The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
2006 – The Road , Cormac McCarthy
2006 was a good year for books indeed. Most essential is probably McCarthy’s The Road, the epitome of the harrowing post-apocalyptic novel, which takes so many risks, not least in its language, and cuts to the marrow.
Also recommended: Fun Home, Alison Bechdel; The Children’s Hospital, Chris Adrian; Black Swan Green, David Mitchell; In Persuasion Nation, George Saunders; The Book Thief, Markus Zusak; Twilight of the Superheroes, Deborah Eisenberg
2007 – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao , Junot Díaz
This book has been anointed with many prizes, but not without good reason. Díaz has one of the strongest voices in contemporary fiction, a rough-edged one, a slightly slick one, an essential one. All that aside, this is a great story (or set of stories) with a cast of characters you won’t forget this century.
Also recommended: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon; Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson
2008 – Dangerous Laughter , Steven Millhauser
Millhauser’s collection is a relative sleeper, which is why it makes the list. Millhauser is beloved by many writers and readers, but he should really be more of a household name, in particular for his stories, which are restrained and glistening explorations of strangeness, each one wilder and closer to home than the last.
Also recommended: Netherland, Joseph O’Neill; Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri
2009 – Lit: A Memoir , Mary Karr
The always excellent Mary Karr’s latest work is both a memoir and a deconstruction of the memoir, a master class in the form. That aside, Karr’s voice is what makes her work so particularly wonderful: acerbic and matter-of-fact, but deeply felt, honest, humble, a brilliant mind at work behind a smart aleck’s grin.
Also recommended: Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Wells Tower; Chronic City, Jonathan Lethem
2010 – A Visit From the Goon Squad , Jennifer Egan
Egan’s most recent novel won the Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a host of gushing accolades from just about everybody with two working eyes. Concerned with past and future, self-destruction and self-creation, family and self, and, of course, Powerpoint, it’s a pretty good candidate for the Great American Novel of the 21st century.
Also recommended: Point Omega, Don DeLillo; Freedom, Jonathan Franzen; The Ask, Sam Lipsyte; How to Read the Air, Dinaw Mengest; The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell; Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart; Half Empty, David Rakoff
2011 – Pulphead , John Jeremiah Sullivan
Pulphead is one of the most perfect essay collections to be published in recent memory. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll marvel at Sullivan’s brilliance and verve, at the mundanity and insanity of the secrets he uncovers.
Also recommended: The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes; Swamplandia!, Karen Russell; The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach; Pym, Mat Johnson; The Tiger’s Wife, Téa Obreht; Stone Arabia, Dana Spiotta
2012 – Building Stories , Chris Ware
Ware’s Building Stories was a sensation last year, and with good reason. As the physicality of the book is changing, it’s important to celebrate the writers who push at the boundaries of what’s possible, what’s satisfying, what makes a good story. Ware has always done so, and never more than in this overgrown, epic graphic novel.
Also recommended: Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel; Wild, Cheryl Strayed; The Round House, Louise Erdich
2013 – The Flamethrowers , Rachel Kushner
It’s hard to tell which contemporary novels will stand the test of time and which will be forgotten by this time next year, but Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, with its fiery prose and breadth of purpose, is a solid bet. At the very least, it’s this reader’s favorite novel so far this year.
Also recommended: Tenth of December, George Saunders