50 Books That Define the Past Five Years in Literature


Five years ago this month saw the publication of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 in English — which made it one of those rare moments when you could walk into a coffee shop, step onto a bus, or enter a bookstore and find someone raving about or devouring an ambitious novel that topped a thousand pages. Bolaño’s posthumously published book topped almost every year-end list and signaled yet another shift in literary tastes, creating larger audiences for works in translation, historical storylines, and narrative complexity.

The years since the publication of 2666 have been a strange but undeniably excellent time to be a fan of literature. Between the uncertain future of the publishing industry, the rise of indie presses, new literary magazines, and, of course, the Internet and ereaders, I believe we will look back on this bittersweet period for the book industry as a very unique and fruitful time for book lovers. These 50 books provide several clues as to why that is, but also give a glimpse into what the future holds, with a handful of titles written by younger or debut authors. These books aren’t ranked, nor is the inclusion dependent on sales or awards; these are 50 books that show what is great about literature here and now.

Open City, Teju Cole (2012)

It’s hard to believe that Cole only has only published a novella and this novel on the life and times of a Nigerian immigrant student, and not volumes and volumes of his prolific writings for such publications as The New Yorker, Granta, and the New York Times, but a novel this wonderful and fully realized will do (for now).

The Patrick Melrose Novels, Edward St. Aubyn (2012)

Although it collects books from the last 20 years, this recent compilation of St. Aubyn’s unflinching writings on the fall of an upper-class English family has earned a new round of praise from readers who can’t seem to put down these Patrick Melrose tales — and writers who wish they could replicate them.

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel (2009)

The first volume in an as yet unfinished triology that taught the world that Hilary Mantel is not only a force of nature, but also one of finest writers of historical fiction in the English language. Let’s count the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, along with Wolf Hall.

Haruki Murakami,1Q84 (2011)

You never thought that random guy you work with would come up to you and start talking about Japan’s most popular writer, how he really dug that reading all 1000-plus pages of his latest work to be translated into English. Then 1Q84 came out, and suddenly you found out just how many people love Haruki Murakami.

The Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins

As the film trilogy continues to unfold and spread the influence of Collins’ novels, it’s safe to say that, in a post-Harry Potter world, the dystopian Hunger Games books have redefined YA for teenagers and adults alike.

Wild, Cheryl Strayed (2012)

It has been hard not to get caught up in Cheryl Strayed mania, and specifically the sort of excitement this moving memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in the wake of her mother’s death has sparked. That it remains on the bestseller list 20 months after its publication and is currently being adapted into a film are testaments to the emotional power and broad appeal of Strayed’s story.

The Ask, Sam Lipsyte (2010)

Sam Lipsyte was (and still is) the sort of writer’s writer who MFA students try to emulate. The Ask, which currently stands as his greatest work, closed out the first decade of the new millennium as one of its best novels. While it’s easier to start with his brilliant short stories, this novel is the book newbies should be pointed to first.

Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, Zadie Smith (2010)

We talk about Zadie Smith as one of our great novelists, but she deserves equal acclaim for her essays and criticism. This collection is the first to compile her nonfiction, but hopefully it won’t be the last.

Shoplifting From American Apparel, Tao Lin (2009)

Few books on this list are likely to spark as much controversy as Lin’s novella, and that’s because few contemporary writers inspire the type of love and hate that Lin does. No matter what you think of his work, the influence Shoplifting — and the rest of Lin’s work — on contemporary literature only grows stronger each year.

Inferno (A Poet’s Novel), Eileen Myles (2010)

Without a doubt one of the most important voices in contemporary poetry, and the type of true original we need more of in literature. This book — and everything else Myles has ever put into the world — should be considered a classic.

The Middlesteins, Jami Attenberg (2012)

Jami Attenberg took the great Jewish novel of Roth, Bellows, and Ozick, cleaned it up, and gave it a modern spin with The Middlesteins.

Just Kids, Patti Smith (2010)

For those who were already familiar with her legendary body of work, it was hardly surprising that reading Smith’s memoir of her life and times in 1970s New York would turn out to be a magical experience. The joyful shock came when the National Book Award and the broader reading public agreed.

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Lydia Davis (2010)

In certain circles, Lydia Davis is considered the current god of short fiction. Even if you don’t agree, she certainly is one of a select group of the form’s greatest writers, and that’s why this thick collection should be treated as a bible.

How Should a Person Be?, Sheila Heti (2012)

Heti is the rare writer who is totally unafraid to take thematic and stylistic risks, and that’s why she’s in a class all her own. This strange and wonderful novel about art, friendship, and women’s lives, which caused so much discussion and controversy upon its release, is sure to be cited as a huge influence for years to come.

Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan (2011)

John Jeremiah Sullivan was the type of writer who other writers aspired to write like even before this collection of his best essays appeared. Pulphead just made it easier to convert those who didn’t already know just how good he is.

This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Díaz (2012)

We don’t need to heap any more praise onto the Pulitzer Prize-winning Díaz, other than saying that this collection of interconnected stories about the troubled romantic life of Yunior — who readers will remember from his 2007 masterpiece The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao — is every bit as essential as that novel.

Scorch Atlas, Blake Butler (2009)

Butler is one of the strongest new voices in literature. Scorch Atlas is the book that helped him kick off a streak of incredibly strong releases, and has also made him one of the most talked about young writers working today.

When the Only Light Is Fire, Saaed Jones (2011)

With one of the strongest poetry debuts in recent memory, Jones has a voice that you will be hearing from for a long time, whether it be through poetry or his job as editor of BuzzFeed’s LGBT section.

Heroines, Kate Zambreno (2012)

Part literary history, part personal essay, entirely engrossing and written in a unique and undeniably powerful new voice, Zambreno’s examination of the lives of literature’s forgotten ladies is also an examination of the writer’s own life. It is an unforgettable read, and one that will no doubt continue to spark conversation for years to come.

Battleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins (2012)

Quite possibly the strongest debut short story collection on this list, those who have experienced the Dirty Realism that is Battleborn are fully aware of Watkins’ power. Those who haven’t read it are missing out.

The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach (2011)

Harbach, one of the founding editors of n+1, takes a decade to try and produce his own Great American Novel and ends up earning comparisons to Herman Melville. Not bad. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another ten years for his next one.

A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan (2010)

Those of us who paid close attention knew that sooner or later Jennifer Egan was going to get her due. This, her Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Critics Circle-winning great rock and roll novel, was that due.

The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst (2011)

Stretching several decades, Hollinghurst’s look at love, gay culture, and British society in general is the kind of book that inspires fervent word-of-mouth recommendations.

Sag Harbor, Colson Whitehead (2009)

Whitehead came rushing out of the gate in 2006 with The Intuitionist, but this coming-of-age novel set in the mid-1980s cemented his place as one of America’s great writers.

The Possessed, Elif Batuman (2010)

Batuman’s stories of her time spent in the Russian-literature trenches earned a description in The New York Times as “channeling Janet Malcolm by way of Woody Allen,” and displayed a rare, self-effacing wit and keen talent for observing the weirdos and the weird.

Swamplandia!, Karen Russell (2011)

There’s always that worry that a young author with a really impressive debut collection of short stories won’t be able to make the jump to the novel game. Russell proved that theory wrong with this Pulitzer Prize runner-up that ended up being one of the greatest Florida novels written.

The Magicians, Lev Grossman (2009)

Grossman came up with a formula that seems so simple that it’s shocking somebody didn’t beat him to it: adults like YA, and everybody loves a good fantasy novel, so why not write a YA trilogy that’s geared more towards the 18-plus crowd? It certainly paid off, and has lots of writers following suit.

Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward (2011)

Ward’s book of gritty Southern realism, set in days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, is a wake-up call that prompted critical comparisons to Faulkner. And with her 2013 memoir Men We Reaped, she’s only getting better…

In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, Matt Bell (2013)

Bell is a writer’s writer who can weave together a complex, frightening, but also incredibly beautiful story like no other. In this, his debut novel, the world was treated to something truly powerful and moving.

When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays, Marilynne Robinson (2012)

Anytime Marilynne Robinson puts out a book, be it fiction or, in this case, essays, it inevitably earns a spot on best-of lists. Yet there was something about this lovely collection that struck a deeper chord with readers, and gave writers something to reach for.

Skippy Dies, Paul Murray (2010)

There just aren’t enough new novels that get people to exclaim, “Oh my god! You haven’t read [insert title here].” Irish author Paul Murray’s 600-plus-page, darkly humorous boarding-school novel is one of the exceptions. People get straight-up obsessed with this, for very good reason.

I’m Trying to Reach You, Barbara Browning (2012)

The great dance novel, sure. But Barbra Browning threw everything into this novel published by indie Two Dollar Radio, exploring how we deal with sorrow and race in contemporary America.

The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner (2013)

Since we’re still in the middle of Rachel Kushnermania, we won’t get too deep into one of the most beloved books of this year, but we will add our voice to the chorus chanting that The Flamethrowers is very much worth your reading time, and certainly not the last you will hear from this young literary heavyweight.

Alien vs. Predator, Michael Robbins (2012)

Robbins is without a doubt one of contemporary poetry’s strongest voices, but he’s also one hell of a critic. His bestselling collection is just the tip of the iceberg as to what he’s capable of, but it is also really worth the hype.

Tenth of December: Stories, George Saunders (2013)

Plenty of people already knew that Suanders was one of the modern masters of the short story, but this was the book that finally made the rest of the world stand up and take note.

Ayiti, Roxane Gay (2011)

There is a chance that Roxane Gay has published something great every day for the last few years. That’s why it’s shocking that — although this will change in 2014, when she has two books slated for publication — this incredible little collection is her only proper book to date. When we make a new version of this list in five years, we imagine it will include several of her works.

Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010, Adrienne Rich (2010)

Amid all the good news for literature in the last five years, we did lose Adrienne Rich, one of contemporary poetry’s great voices. Thankfully, she also put out another stellar collection that gives us one last volume to remember her by.

Four New Messages, Joshua Cohen (2012)

What else does Joshua Cohen have to do to show us he’s a writer with few equals? He’s got the epic novel (2010’s Witz), plenty of great criticism to his name, and this collection that proves he can excel in the short form as well.

The Informers, Juan Gabriel Vasquez (2009)

Since this list is inspired by 2666, it’s only fitting that one of the earliest and best entries in the post-Bolaño renaissance of Latin American fiction being translated by big publishers, and loved by American readers, should appear on this list.

Stone Arabia, Dana Spiotta (2012)

The literary establishment was quick to crown A Visit From the Goon Squad the great rock and roll novel — until Spiotta put this book into the world, and suddenly it looked like Jennifer Egan was going to have to share the crown.

Lightning Rods, Helen DeWitt (2012)

DeWitt took 12 years to give us a follow-up to the much-beloved 2000 novel The Last Samurai, so it’s a good thing Lightning Rods was absolutely brilliant.

Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart (2010)

Super and sad as advertised, this dystopian “true” love story might be the satirist’s — and literary-world comedian’s — best novel to date.

what purpose did i serve your life, Marie Calloway (2013)

Welcome to the future, when we have no problem letting it all hang out via an ever-increasingly number of social media platforms. Calloway became the poster child for this moment with her controversial story “Adrien Brody,” which helped create a firestorm leading up to, and following, the release of her first book. Like her or not, Calloway pushes buttons and gets people taking.

Half a Life, Darin Strauss (2010)

There are three types of memoirs: the good celebrity ones, the total bullshit celebrity ones, and the type of true story that Strauss gives us about an accidental tragedy, and what comes after. Few books will move you like this one.

The Tiger’s Wife, Téa Obreht (2011)

One of the most interesting debuts of the last five years was a bestseller from a then-25-year-old literary wunderkind that played around with magical realism. How often does that happen?

The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud (2013)

This is Claire Messud we’re talking about, so obviously the book is going to be good. But The Woman Upstairs is also responsible for a whole lot of productive discussion about likable and unlikable characters.

Collected Poems 1962-2012, Louise Glück (2012)

So, Louise Glück put out a massive collection of her work in 2012. That’s sort of a really big deal.

Gods Without Men, Hari Kunzru

This beautiful and sprawling book made inspired glowing reviews from nearly every critic, and for good reason: it is a new postmodern classic that puts Kunzru in a league with Pynchon and DeLillo.

The Orange Eats Creeps, Grace Krilanovich (2010)

Considered a “hidden gem” by NPR, Krilanovich’s debut packed in a whole load of punk rock, science fiction, dirt, and otherworldly horrors, and made her one of those authors weird kids of all ages get obsessed with.

Freedom, Jonathan Franzen (2010)

No matter what you think about Franzen as a person, it’s hard to deny his place in contemporary literature. Freedom remains one of the biggest books of the decade, and few writers are as capable as Franzen of provoking strong responses. This sprawling, decade spanning novel that followed and expanded out from the Berglund family marked a big moment for American literature, and everybody has an opinion on it even if they haven’t read it.