There are two ways of looking at a list like this: 1) It’s like pizza. Even a bad one is still pretty good. 2) It’s like pizza. It’s so simple, how did you screw it up?
In my defense, I had to consider a lot of questions when naming the best books of the 2010s: Which ones summed up the era, or commented on it in an important way? Which will stand the test of time? Which broke ground? Which ones resonated most with readers and the givers of awards? Which ones did George Saunders write?
I expect that pretty much nobody will agree with one hundred percent of these choices. That’s fine. Some people put pineapple chunks on their pizza. I prefer pepperoni with a Lactaid chaser. It’s all good.
A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010). Looking back, it’s a wonder that Jennifer Egan’s masterpiece — is it a novel? a short-story collection? a literary rockumentary? (yes, yes, sort of) — was such a hit. There’s all that format-skipping, the time-jumping, the way so many lovely, damaged characters worm their way into your heart only to wander away too soon. A Visit From the Goon Squad is a weird one, for sure. But it’s a world populated by young punks, busted-up rockers, and other lost souls, so a bit of weirdness is in order.
My Brilliant Friend (2012). Despite a dearth of red weddings and beheadings, Elena Ferrante’s four critically canonized Neapolitan Novels are nonetheless enjoying a new life on HBO. My advice, now and always: Read before you watch. The beauty and power of this series — starting with this tale of childhood rivals-turned-BFFs in a poor Italian villa — emanates as much from Ferrante’s passionate prose, translated by Ann Goldstein, as from her memorable characters and explosions of hot-blooded violence. (HBO knows what it is doing.)
Tenth of December (2013). True, George Saunders also summoned an avalanche of buzz (and a Man Booker Prize) for 2017’s Lincoln in the Bardo — his first novel — but by then the master satirist had already released one of the best books of the decade. The short stories published in Tenth of December show Saunders at his most seasoned, agile, and inventive, describing (barely) tweaked iterations of the dystopia we’re already living in. It’s all funny till you think about it. Then it’s too dark. Then it’s funny again.
Americanah (2013). No two best-books-of-the-decade lists are exactly the same (fingers crossed), but this unanimously lauded novel is bound to be on most of them. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is everything you want from a 600-pager. The story crosses the globe with its protagonist, Ifemelu, from Nigeria to the U.S. to the U.K., etc., and each stop offers fresh opportunities to flex her charming wit. The bits set in Philly are spot-on; the author attended Drexel in the mid-’90s.
The Goldfinch (2014). In Donna Tartt’s bewitching and best-selling behemoth, 13-year-old Theo loses his mom to a terrorist attack at an art museum, but emerges from the debris with a tiny, priceless painting tucked into his coat, a decision that haunts him on his winding road to adulthood. The Goldfinch was hotly anticipated thanks to Tartt’s earlier, masterly The Secret History, yet it ended up dividing as it conquered. Several high-profile critics called it bloated, cloying, and infantile, but it won a Pulitzer, so they can go kick rocks.
The Fifth Season (2015). Before N.K. Jemisin launched her insanely popular Broken Earth trilogy, no black author had ever won the Hugo Award for best sci-fi/fantasy novel. By the time it was over, she’d won three in a row — something nobody else has accomplished ever. It all starts with this book, in which Jemisin chisels out a complicated mythology and caste system on a world plagued by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and climate upheaval. The strong, multidimensional characters are what stay with you most.
Sing, Unburied Sing (2017). There are no monsters in Jesmyn Ward’s brutal, gorgeous third novel, but ghosts are everywhere. Some are walking, talking spirits with unfinished business, but mostly it’s real-world specters that haunt a rural black family: tragedy and injustice, addiction and incarceration, misfortune and regret. This book’s a heartbreaker. Ward released two novels in the 2010s, this one and 2011’s Salvage the Bones, and both won National Book Awards.
The Underground Railroad (2017). The “magical realism” tag is a good fit for Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer and National Book Award winner, which involves an actual subterranean locomotive delivering slaves to freedom. But don’t expect a fairy tale. Runaway slave Cora suffers all manner of cruelties and indignities on her journey, each leg of which takes cues from historical atrocities. Readers of literary fiction may be surprised to know Whitehead’s book also won praise as science fiction, including an Arthur C. Clarke award, the U.K.’s top sci-fi honor.
10:04 (2017). There’s a storm brewing off the coast in Ben Lerner’s funny, asymmetrical novel, but the protagonist — a paranoid and self-involved author, also named Ben — takes little notice. He’s just wandering New York City, listening, remembering, overthinking. As a result, 10:04 works like a you-say-when dystopia. It’s up to the reader to decide whether Ben’s many worries will add up to something life-threatening, or even important. Driven by heady ideas, Lerner’s is one of the most fascinating voices to emerge in the last decade.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019). As you might expect from a poet doing a cannonball into the fiction pool, Ocean Vuong laces every sentence, every molecule, of his first novel with ache and urgency. This led some critics to decry his book for its allegedly purple prose. They’re not crazy; there is a purplish tint to Vuong’s semiautobiographical coming-of-age story about a gay kid born in Vietnam and growing up in Connecticut with an abusive mom. But the color fits. You telling me you weren’t an overdramatic teenager?
The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (2010). If you shoot at a tiger, you better kill it. That’s the main lesson in John Vaillant’s spellbinding tome describing the lives of Siberian villagers who live in the forest among the most fearsome — and surprisingly, disturbingly vindictive — predators to ever walk the earth.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010). Rebecca Skloot’s bestseller is often summed up as a science story, about uncannily unkillable cancer cells outliving their human host and leading to breakthroughs in treating polio, Parkinson’s, HIV, and more. But this book is primarily a human story about a woman who grew up in the same rural Maryland cabin as her slave ancestors, who got married and had kids and loved to dance, and who died at 31 in 1951. And it’s about her descendants, who struggle with poverty and poor health as their matriarch’s cells become a money-making commodity.
H Is for Hawk (2014). Charming and gripping, Helen Macdonald’s memoir details her efforts to train a goshawk (like a hawk, but bigger and scarier) while also dealing with the sudden passing of her father. Though Macdonald draws few obvious parallels between the grief in her heart and the bird of prey on her forearm, the gorgeously direct prose of H Is for Hawk will nonetheless leave you contemplating the forces of nature that guide our existence.
Between the World and Me (2015). America’s mistreatment of young black men predates the country itself, but thanks to movements on the streets and online, their names were seared into our psyches in the 2010s: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, the list unfortunately goes on. With this intellectually and emotionally stirring bestseller — part memoir, part letter to his 15-year-old son — journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates ignited a national conversation about the feature-not-a-bug inequalities built into our society.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (2015). A young woman tweets a racially charged joke on a flight from New York to South Africa; before the plane can land she’s been roasted, doxed, and fired. Is this the wisdom of the Twitter crowd, or mob rule? Jon Ronson, a frequent contributor to This American Life, explores the horrifying true stories of people pilloried by the social media masses.
Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (2016). You can correctly guess from the title two things about Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award winner: 1) It’s gonna be long and 2) it’s not gonna be fun. But it is authoritative and essential, laying bare the stories, trends, events, laws, and people that have shaped this country’s (mis)understanding of race. I found Stamped From the Beginning so brutal and relentless that I switched to audiobook partway through, to force it into my system like a bitter pill. Recommended.
Educated: A Memoir (2018). Tara Westover’s endlessly fascinating memoir is about surviving her survivalist family, whose fundamentalist, off-the-grid, quasi-libertarian doctrine dictates distrust of government, schools, building codes, hospitals — even seat belts. It’s frustrating to the point of absurdity how often their beliefs come back to bite them via horrific car accidents and poor work conditions on their farm. Unforgettable.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup (2018). If you’ve seen Silicon Valley on HBO, you know: Tech investors love expensive little boxes. That’s part of the reason Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes was able to get so many moneyed fools to fund her fraudulent Theranos start-up and its never-gonna-work portable blood labs. Bad Blood author John Carreyrou is the reporter who broke the story. Even if you’ve heard the podcasts and seen the documentaries, you’ll find lots to sink your teeth into in his exhaustively researched book.
How Democracies Die (2018). The Donald Trump presidency has summoned a flood of books by scholars, insiders, pundits, and journalists. This one, by Harvard University political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, stands out for its thoughtful analysis and worldly perspective. History, the authors explain, is full of egomaniacal authoritarians (especially in Europe and Latin America) who weaseled their way into power with fear-mongering and a proven playbook. It’s no comfort to learn this, but we live in uncomfortable times.
In the Dream House (2019). Penn professor Carmen Maria Machado followed up her bestselling 2017 short-story collection, Her Body and Other Parties (soon to be adapted for TV), with this critically acclaimed memoir. So, yeah, she’s had a good decade. It’s probably a coin flip as to which book better deserves to be on a best-of-the-decade list, but let’s give the edge to the new one for the way Machado employs a selection of literary lenses — noir, murder mystery, choose-your-own-adventure — to recount a story of emotional abuse in a queer relationship.