Writing a best of the decade reading list is daunting and at first I wasn’t sure which direction to go with it. Initially I thought I’d just choose my favorite 10-15 books that have been published in the last 10 years, but I realized pretty early down that particular path that this would lead to a very top heavy list. I didn’t read nearly as much early in the decade as I do now, and what I was reading were typically classics or other books for grad school. Then I thought, okay, I’m going to go year by year and choose my favorite book for each calendar year. This way I’d be sure to have some balance in my list. But a similar problem arose for this method. Looking at my reading, there was really only one book published in 2010 that I read and truly loved versus close to 40 new beloved releases in 2019. It didn’t seem fair to have to cut out so many later reads just to balance the list. Plus, some years were treasure troves of books (I’m looking at you, 2014) while other years were a little more barren.
Finally, I decided to curate my best-of-the-decade list in a more personal manner. The books in this list were all published in the last decade and have in some way defined my reading over the last 10 years. These are the books that have shaped me as an adult reader, a post-college lifelong learner, educator, and a person. They are the books that helped me fall in love with reading again or allowed me to appreciate a genre at which I’d previously turned up my nose. And I didn’t limit myself to 10 either. Get ready to bask in nostalgia and add some books to your TBR, because here are the 25 books that defined my reading this decade:
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart (2010). I still think about this novel all the time. Shteyngart’s near-future dystopia where paper books have all but disappeared and people spend all their time rating each other on apps was so incredibly prescient. I mean, this book basically predicts Tinder. Super Sad True Love Story was also the first of the new wave dystopias I encountered this decade. These are the dystopias that explore worlds that people buy into with their loyalty to technology rather than totalitarian regimes that are thrust upon people. The Circle by Dave Eggers and Feed by Matthew Tobin Anderson are a couple other examples of books that follow in this vein.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011). This was one of the first literary award winners I read as an adult outside of a classroom setting, and it remains one of my favorite books of all time. The story is simple: middle-aged Tony Webster is forced to reconsider some of the events of his past after an old friend returns to his life. As Tony looks back, he begins to question the narrative of his life that’s defined him and Barnes meditates on the differences between the stories we tell ourselves and the ways our choices affect those around us. The Sense of an Ending uses one of my favorite types of literary magic. Barnes waits until the last moment to reveal information that both completely works with the novel as a whole, but also changes the way you view everything you just read. Some other favorites that pull this trick are Atonement by Ian McEwan and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (2011). I loved mythological retellings as a child, but Miller was the first author to give me the adult versions of those stories I didn’t know I needed. Retelling the Iliad from the perspective of Patroclus, this novel is lyrical, romantic, and unputdownable. It’s one of the books I’ve recommended most often this decade and I’ve also had to opportunity to watch my students fall in love with it as well. While this books explores what it means to be human (one of my favorite literary themes), it also reminded me that sometimes I just need a good love story in my life. Miller’s follow-up, Circe, is also a favorite of mine.
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (2012). As a high schooler and college student, I did not do a good job of reading diversely. Salvage the Bones is the book that changed that for me. I read this in a graduate course called “Class Fictions” and discussing the intersections of race, class, and gender in Ward’s novel was totally eye-opening for me. Plus, this book has a great story and a teenage protagonist who will simultaneously break your heart and inspire you. The book follows Esch in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. Esch has just discovered that she’s pregnant and lacking a mother figure of her own, turns to her brother's dog China and mothers from Greek mythology as her guidance on what it means to be maternal. This book is absolutely magical, and I recommend Ward to anyone who loves Ta-Nehisi Coates, Colson Whitehead, or Toni Morrison.
Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead (2011). This was personally recommended to me by Fresh Air book critic Maureen Corrigan, which is probably still one of the coolest bookish things to ever happen to me. Seating Arrangements revolves around a wedding weekend and is the best rich-people-behaving-badly book I’ve ever read. Most of the novel focuses on Winn Van Meter, a truly horrifying embodiment of wealth, privilege, and the good-old-boy mentality. Winn’s daughter’s perfect wedding should be a pinnacle of his life, but it instead fills him with existential dread. Watching disaster strike is truly delicious, but Shipstead also provides serious commentary on class stratification and authenticity. If you’re looking for your next Gatsby, this is it.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013). Americanah is another all-time favorite book and I will read literally anything Adichie writes. This is a powerful coming-of-age story about a young Nigerian couple who immigrate to different countries in search of more opportunities for themselves. In America, Ifemelu excels at her university, but understandably struggles with confronting American racism, while her boyfriend Obinze enters the UK illegally in the hopes of eventually reuniting with her. This book is sheer perfection and I will be eternally grateful to Adichie for forging a path for other amazing Nigerian writers and introducing me to books like My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀, and Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi.
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer (2013). The Interestings follows a group of precocious and talented camp friends from childhood to adulthood, describing their successes, failures, and betrayals in agonizing detail. I’ve always known that I enjoy books about unlikeable characters, but The Interestings ignited my love for stories of adult friendship and the blend of jealousy and love that can come with those relationships. Other excellent stories of adult friendship are The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman and The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2014). This is the book that taught me to appreciate the way a novel’s structure could support its theme. Set during World War II, Life After Life follows Ursula as she works toward fulfilling her destiny of murdering Hitler (this isn’t a spoiler...it’s the opening scene!). Ursula’s journey is far from simple as each chapter concludes with a decision that results in her death. The subsequent chapter then begins with a slightly altered course of events and gets Ursula a little closer to her ultimate fate. This book is absolutely remarkable in its storytelling, and Atkinson’s writing is pure magic.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (2014). Since becoming a high school teacher, I’ve found it’s important for me to read books about the emotional experiences of teenagers, lest I forget how much they have going on in their lives. Ng is one of the absolute best at capturing and conveying those feelings, and Everything I Never Told You is the sort of book every teenager, parent, and teacher needs. Ng tells us going in that this story is a tragedy as it opens with 15-year-old Lydia’s death. Yet throughout, she gives us glimmers of hope and guidance on resisting the urge to internalize our pain.
Lila by Marilynn Robinson (2014). While I attended religious schools growing up and currently teach at a Jesuit high school, I don’t consider myself a particularly religious person. Because of that, I’ve always shied away from books about faith. Lila is a beautiful and quiet novel about a young woman with a traumatic past who finds solace in an unconventional marriage to a small town pastor. In part through her marriage, she discovers her own version of faith and spirituality that revolves around nature, motherhood, and self-forgiveness. This book inspired me to read more of Robinson’s work as well as other books that incorporate characters’ spiritual journeys like The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall and The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry.
The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman (2014). This decade I learned that while I loved the Narnia and Harry Potter books as a kid, fantasy really isn’t my thing as an adult reader. In part because it capitalizes on this childhood nostalgia, The Magicians series is one of the few exceptions--and the third book in the series is the best. Set in a (very self-aware) Hogwarts type college, this series follows young magicians in training. The Magician’s Land is particularly beautiful because it questions what grown up life with magic might really look like. But it doesn’t solely exist in the darkness of reality as it also includes one of the most beautiful fantastical scenes I’ve read in years. If you grew up with Harry, I highly recommend this series, not as a readalike, but as an examination of the wonder and the problems evoked in the fantasy genre.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (2014). I rarely say this, but Just Mercy might be one of the handful of books I think every American ought to read. Stevenson is an Alabama lawyer who works to get inmates off death row and is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Just Mercy chronicles his life as a lawyer as well as in-depth portraits of some of the people he’s defended. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book that’s so concurrently heart-wrenching and inspiring. This was the book that showed me how much I have to learn and fostered my love for social justice reads. Some recent favorites in this category have been The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and The Stonewall Reader.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015). In addition to being an introduction to one of my favorite writers of the decade, Between the World and Me sparked my passion for both memoir and critical race theory. Framed as a letter to his son, Coates explains what it means to be a Black man in America today and provides definitions of race and racism that blew my privileged mind. I reread this book often, and it’s come to really shape me as a teacher. Some of my 2019 favorites like How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and Black is the Body by Emily Bernard are my attempts to build on the foundation laid by Between the World and Me.
What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarity (2015). I’ll admit it: I used to be a total snob about reading. Most of what I read were classics and if I read anything contemporary, it would be something from some literary awards list. I still love that sort of literary fiction, but Liane Moriarty reminded me that reading can be pure fun. That’s not to say that her books are without depth--I love the commentary What Alice Forgot provides on marriage--but I pick up these books because they make me literally laugh out loud. Other books that have made me feel this way (and that 2010 Sara would find totally appalling) are Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman and The Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (2015). Two of the realizations I’ve had while mulling over my decade of reading are that I read a lot of books about marriage and that I love books that include multiple perspectives on the same events. Fates and Furies epitomizes both of these conventions, and includes some of the fiercest, most electric prose I encountered this decade. What Groff does beautifully in this book is create a hyperspecific, almost unrealistic marriage to make a more general and relatable statement about relationships. It’s brilliant. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a more recent example of a book doing something similar.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (2016). Commonwealth perfectly captures my love for multigenerational family stories and for, well, Ann Patchett. This is the first of Patchett’s work I read and I’ve found several new favorite books since first “discovering” her. What I love about Commonwealth is the way it explores how one event (an adulterous kiss between two married people) transformed countless lives and an entire extended family. Commonwealth also includes characters who are writers and readers, which I absolutely loved. If you love family dramas too, I also recommend The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo and A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016). I love everything about this wonderful book. It’s expansive and deeply moving, and after having the opportunity to teach it in a class I love it all the more. Homegoing begins with the story of two sisters: one is sold into slavery and the other marries a British officer and remains in Ghana. The rest of the book follows these women’s descendents generation by generation. Honestly it’s hard to say more about this book other than that it’s spectacular and you should read it. To paraphrase Jane Austen, if I loved it less, I might be able to talk about it more.
All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister (2016). All the Single Ladies is one of the first contemporary works of feminist nonfiction I’ve read, and it’s set me on a course of empowerment and education. In this book, Traister explores the increasing number of women remaining single, what societal changes allowed for this, and how it impacts women and culture. The research is fascinating, and I think about anecdotes and data from this book at least once a week. A few other books I’ve loved in this genre are She Said by Jodie Kantor and Megan Twohey, Good and Mad also by Rebecca Traister, and Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (2017). This decade I discovered a real love for magical realism, and Exit West is probably the best version I’ve found yet. In his story about two refugees who fall in love amidst civil war, Hamid uses the motif of magical portals to highlight the urgency of escape and migration. This is also a tender story of first love and the bonds of friendship that ended perfectly but left me in tears. After loving Exit West, I also read and loved several other works of magical realism, including Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.
The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne (2017). This is one of the few really long, epic stories I’ve read in the last few years, and it’s also one of those books I never wanted to end. Boyne writes about Cyril, the son of a teenage mother who’s adopted by a couple that treats him well but keeps him at a distance. Each section of the book meets up with Cyril in seven year increments as he comes out, comes of age, and discovers where he came from. It’s a poignant book about love and redemption, but it’s also guaranteed to make you literally laugh out loud.
The Power by Naomi Alderman (2017). I wasn't sure if I loved and adore The Power when I first read it, but in the two years since I've probably talked about it more than any other book I've read this decade. It's extremely relevant and thought-provoking. In this novel, Alderman creates a contemporary world where women and girls begin waking up with the power to transmit electric shocks through their hands. This new evolutionary development to leads to personal, political, and religious upheavals around the globe. The Power asks readers to consider what the world would look like if women could physically dominate men, and even if you don't like the answer Alderman poses, this book will make you think hard about sex, gender, and the social constructs we've been groomed to believe. The Power is also the first book I read in the wave of feminist dystopian novels that are popping up nearly 30 years after Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Other works that offer commentary on gender through a speculative fiction lens are Vox by Christina Dalcher, Red Clocks by Leni Zumas, The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh, and of course Atwood's Gileadian sequel The Testaments.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (2018). Ottessa Moshfegh is the author who taught me to love weird books. My Year of Rest and Relaxation is about an independently wealthy twenty-something woman who decides to spend a year medicating herself into near-constant slumber. The book often feels like a weird fever dream, but it also offers fascinating insights into privilege, boredom, friendship, and desire. After falling head over heels for this one, I’ve enjoyed reading Mosfhegh’s backlist (Eileen is even weirder) as well as strange, horroresque books like Bunny by Mona Awad.
There, There by Tommy Orange (2018). I loved this books for it’s blunt yet lyrical prose and the way the characters leapt off the page. I’ve always enjoyed reading books told from multiple perspectives, but Orange takes this tactic to new heights by writing in 12 distinct voices and subtly interweaving the lives of his characters, right up until the point they all meet at the novel’s climactic scene at the Big Oakland Powwow. It’s a remarkable feat of storytelling that both builds on American literary tradition and is uniquely its own. There, There also served as a reminder of how little I’ve read about Native American communities and how much I have to look forward to in pursuing these stories.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (2019). My favorite work of fiction in 2019 is also one of my favorites of the decade. This is a difficult read about a horrifying topic, but it’s also a perfectly constructed novel. Inspired by a real “reform school” for boys in the Jim Crow south, The Nickel Boys follows two boys who befriend each other and help each other survive the devastation and abuse perpetrated by the school’s wardens. I’m still thinking about the ending of this one and I can’t wait to read it again.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (2019). This decade I discovered that I love reading memoirs, and In the Dream House is a memoir in a league of its own. In this book, Machado depicts and reflects on the abuse she experienced via that hands of her former girlfriend. In the Dream House examines what it’s like to experience something (in this case abuse in a queer relationship) that you have no framework to understand and through this it comments on the importance of representation of diverse experiences in art. This book is also a masterful exploration of genre as each chapter embodies a different trope, including erotica, plot twist, and choose your own adventure.
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