15) The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Okay, we get it: it’s cold and dark and everything is gray and brown. But aside from too frequently reminding us of the setting and refusing to use apostrophes, McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic Pulitzer-winner succeeds, striking the balance between pulp entertainment and legit literature as well as anything else this decade.
14) Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
None of the series ever quite earns the term “literature,” but we all know you don’t care. At their best, the HP books strike a balance between the brash wish-fulfillment they began with and the overwrought, emotionally heavy tragedy of the 5th installment. The 6th novel is written the best. Goblet of Fire is the best story though, and it gets extra points for the little ways it makes you feel like the novels are all one story, and for being about a badass wizard contest.
13) The Death of Adam by Marilynne Robinson
Robinson’s essays are so relentlessly thought-out that to call them thought-provoking would understate their impact. From her treatise on the ethical problems of Darwinism to her apologetic essay on John Calvin, you’ll come to a series of astonishing conclusions: that she actually thinks this is a topic worth writing about, that she’s persuaded you to take an interest in it, and finally that she’s persuaded you of her (frequently outlandish) thesis.
12) Atonement by Ian McEwan
Novels about novelists aren’t generally my favorite, but Atonement is just so good. As Vic Bobb has noted, McEwan’s control of voice and perspective is second to none.
11) Jimmy Corrigan the Smartest Boy on Earth by Chris Ware
It may be a glorified comic-book, but I bet it can make you cry.
10) How to Be Good by Nick Hornby
Hornby returns with exactly the same hilarity as in, well, all of his books. But How to Be Good marks out new territory as well: he writes from a female perspective and brings moral and spiritual issues into the foreground. And the plot is delightfully unpredictable: every prediction I made of where the story was going was dead-wrong.
9) Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
Foer’s second novel is the odyssey of precocious eight-year-old oddball Oscar Schell through post-9/11 New York. It’s beautiful and hilarious and heartbreaking and brilliant, and it’s over so fast.
8) How We Are Hungry by Dave Eggers
The subjects of these short stories range from the utterly commonplace to the absurd. But the collection has an elusive unity that (I think) has something to do with form. Maybe it’s postmodernism filtered through modernism, or something, but whatever it is Eggers has mastered it. So whereas his memoir felt over-written and hypothetical, with these stories we know he’s in control, because again and again the experiments turn out just right.
7) The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy
McCarthy’s novella-as-a-play is perilously short (just 60 pages) and minimal in narrative scope (one uninterrupted conversation between two people, set in one room). McCarthy proves himself a master of dialogue, and The Sunset Limited develops drama even more subtly than the Hitchcock film it could have been. It’s totally absorbing: I read all of it without looking up from the page. And for all its simplicity, it is an astonishingly sophisticated dramatization of the essential difference between atheism and Christianity (and of why that difference makes a difference).
6) Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
Wallace is the James Joyce of our time. He made a name for himself (and a McArthur Genius grant) with his towering novel Infinite Jest, and authored a few story collections, but his essays are where it’s at. He’s a writer blessed with (literally) unmatched observational prowess, a virtuosic command of the English language, and a keen moral sense that he’s constantly trying to account for. And he’s fucking hilarious.
5) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Imagine if instead of a movie the Godfather Part II had been a book. Now imagine that instead of the mafia it was about the rise of 1950’s comic book moguls. Michael Chabon writes like Coppola directs, doing all the heavy lifting so we don’t have to; and to read his massive, meticulously researched Pulitzer-winner is pure pleasure.
4) Old School by Tobias Wolff
There are some subjects that no writer should be able to write about no matter how good he is. Tobias Wolff doesn’t care though, and his novel about a high school fiction writing contest has long passages--about just how hard writing fiction is, and why English teachers are always somehow more interesting than their colleagues--that do the impossible. Add to that a wholly unpredictable conclusion that does exactly what a conclusion is supposed to do, and we’ve got a big success. He also writes excellent short stories.
3) Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
It seems impossible that a book so full of wisdom as this could have been written by anyone in his twenties. It’s relatively short, but it packs such a punch, at turns inspiring, sad, and existentially heavy, that you might mistake it for a Russian novel (high praise) if it weren’t so frequently hilarious.
2) The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Long novels that require careful reading are definitively out of fashion. That’s because long books are difficult—to write, and to read, and (thus) to get paid for writing. Sure, people read HP and Twilight, and those are long as hell (sic), but that’s the literary equivalent of eating a whole Jumbo-Bag of Doritos by yourself. It takes a damn good chef to make us want to eat our veggies, and that’s just what Jonathan Franzen is (well, as a writer). Imagine a book that combines the overwhelming intricacy and god-like fullness of Leo Tolstoy with the humor and post-modern self-awareness of Thomas Pynchon … and now imagine that through some miracle that book is actually pretty readable. That’s The Corrections. It is an epic of the Midwest and American family life, but also of betrayal and forgiveness, and of what it means to be a good person. It is (if you ask me) Franzen’s masterpiece (better than 2010’s Freedom). It is worth your attention. Give it some time and it will pay you back, with interest.
1) Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
I’ll argue to the death that this novel is as beautiful as anything ever written, ever. But it wins best book less for this than because it’s so courageously un-cool. Robinson all but tells us that wisdom comes with age, that prayer is important, and that life is only worth living in obedience to God. This is not a recipe for success in America’s intellectual culture—the one that runs publishing houses and parcels out book awards. But she won herself a Pulitzer anyway, based on nothing, it seems, but the strength of her writing. Her experiments with form are just as aware of postmodernism as anything else on this list, but they’re executed so subtly that the book could pass as classical. Also, it’s really, really beautiful.