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These are the big books this holiday season, to read or give

From Barack Obama's new memoir to the sci-fi sequel 'Ready Player Two,' good reads that you'll want to put on your list as 2020 draws to a close.

Two of the season's big books
Two of the season's big booksRead moreLibrary of America (left) / Grand Central Publishing (right)

Peak TV has peaked, movie theaters are no-go zones, the Eagles are painful to watch, and the squirrels outside your window are just lying around looking at their phones. We’re in the doldrums, and all signs point to a long, dull winter.

But at least we have books.

Books to give as gifts. Books to give ourselves. Good ones are coming out all the time, which is why we’ve assembled a list of some top new titles to help point you in the right direction. There, our job is done.

Now it’s up to you to skip the easy option and instead place your orders with a favorite independent bookshop, where your money will mean more.

African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song, Kevin Young, editor. You’re not meant to read this thick, handsome anthology from cover to cover, but if you did you could make out the shape of history. From slavery to Civil War, jazz to civil rights, MOVE to Katrina, and so on. As editor Kevin Young (also the poetry editor at the New Yorker) says in his intro: These poets, “wrote about what they saw around them, but also what they dreamt up — even if it was a dream deferred, derailed, or flat-out denied.” The poets include W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, June Jordan, Gil Scott-Heron, Hanif Abdurraqib, Jamila Woods, Paul Beatty, Major Jackson, and more than 200 others, each with a bio to provide context. Several pages are dedicated to local living legend Sonia Sanchez.

Ready Player Two, Ernest Cline. The much-anticipated sequel to 2011′s Ready Player One promises more of what made that book so popular: wild adventure, a crazy virtual reality, a fleet of beloved old toys, a nest of not-quite-obscure pop-culture Easter eggs, and a handful of underdog gamers saving the world/ruining the economy by winning a trivia contest. It’s easy to get cynical about a franchise with so many cross-promotional opportunities — and a Spielberg movie adaptation that shaved some of the edge off — but that would be overthinking it.

We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence, Becky Cooper. In her engrossing and vivid new book, ex-New Yorker staffer Becky Cooper dissects a cold case that had become the stuff of legend and rumor at her alma mater: the 1969 murder of Jane Britton. The Harvard archaeology grad student was found bludgeoned to death in her apartment, her body sprinkled with red ochre powder (like you’d find at a Stone Age burial site). An obsessive researcher, Cooper digs past the urban legend and Ivy League pomp to make We Keep the Dead Close a thoughtful, detailed page-turner.

Black Hole Survival Guide, Janna Levin. Author/theoretical cosmologist Janna Levin writes about black holes the way a park ranger regards a grizzly: awed, fascinated, respectful, but not afraid. “Keep a safe distance,” she writes in the pocket-sized guide, “and you will neither be torn apart nor sucked up.” In prose that revels in the immensity and dispassion of the barely known universe — and bolstered by Lia Halloran’s illustrations of strange celestial shapes and astronauts floating in inky voids — Levin makes space sound like a somewhat reasonable place. And if you do get “mangled and granulated” by the big nothing at the center of our galaxy, it isn’t personal.

A Promised Land, Barack Obama. In the intro to this 768-page memoir, the first of two, Obama looks back on his career and wonders whether he was “too tempered in speaking the truth as [he] saw it, too cautious in either word or deed.” Starting with 44′s unlikely rise to political prominence and ending with the SEAL Team Six raid in Abbottabad two and a half years into his first term in office, A Promised Land offers eloquent, precise, and personal insight into an era that feels like a thousand years ago. You’ll have ample time to immerse yourself in the Part I journey before Part II arrives; its release date has not yet been announced.

Oak Flat: A Fight for Sacred Land in the American West, Lauren Redniss. The author makes her niche in the little-discussed “visual nonfiction” genre, writing and illustrating books that read like journalism but feel like artsy graphic novels (only without all the boxes and speech bubbles). This one tells the story of the San Carlos Apache Tribe in Arizona who’ve been defending their sacred land from the shovels and dynamite of a copper mining company since 2014. Between gentle, full-page colored pencil drawings of kind faces and blissful landscapes, Redniss offers mountains of research and interviews.

The Killer’s Shadow: The FBI’s Hunt for a White Supremacist Serial Killer, John Douglas and Mark Olshaker. When it comes to true crime, nobody’s got war stories like Douglas. During his 25 years in the FBI, he helped launch the bureau’s criminal profiling unit, assisted in manhunts all over the country, and sat down to interview some of the most notorious serial killers of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. It’s no wonder his gritty, straightforward books are so popular — he was there. This time, he and writing partner Olshaker recount the cross-country hunt for a racist psychopath who killed more than a dozen people between 1977 and 1980.

One Life, Megan Rapinoe. Generally speaking, an athlete’s mid-career memoirs are the least memorable, lacking, as they often do, wisdom born of perspective and regret. But there’s also something to be said for striking while the iron’s hot, which is surely the case with Rapinoe — a gold-medal-winning and world-renowned soccer player with a few more years in the tank and an activist streak that very much resonates with the right now. In One Life, she leaves it all out on the pitch, as they say, with bits on growing up, playing on a boys team, coming out, kneeling during the anthem, standing up for pay equity, competing at the highest levels, and more.

The Thirty Names of Night, Zeyn Joukhadar. It’s been five years since the trans Muslim artist at the center of Zeyn Joukhadar’s new coming-of-age novel lost his mother in a anti-Islamic attack, and still he feels lost. Half grief-stricken and half numb, the unnamed young man finds himself unable to paint; instead he wanders the New York City streets talking to his mother’s ghost, making a note of every white male patriarchy transgression that comes to mind and looking for signs in the appearance of birds which seem to materialize out of thin air. (“In the years since your death, the city has been drawing birds the way an open wound draws flies.”) Quietly powerful and full of surprises, The Thirty Names of Night is the literary heartbreaker of the season.

The Preserve, Ariel S. Winter. Stephen King gave a thumbs up to this sci-fi murder mystery set in a world where robots are the dominant species after a global plague wipes out most of humanity. Luckily the bots look just like us and seem pretty chill, and they’ve begun setting up idyllic preserves where humans can live free. The peace is shattered, however, when a corpse is found behind a grocery store, and now it’s up to a human police chief and his robot partner to solve the crime. Equal parts noir and sci-fi, The Preserve is a smart little page-turner that gets its hooks into you early and keeps you guessing.

A few more to consider:

  1. Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America, Ijeoma Oluo. With its provocative title and blunt dissection of race and privilege, Mediocre could be one of the season’s most important conversation starters.

  2. The Butchers’ Blessing, Ruth Gilligan. There’s lots of buzz about this folkloric thriller set “in the gothic wilds of Ireland.”

  3. Black Futures, Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham (editors). This glossy oversized book celebrates Black American culture with photos, recipes, essays, memes, and more, with contributions by King Britt, Rasheedah Phillips, Amanda Williams, Teju Cole, Solange, Zadie Smith, and others.

  4. Best of Me, David Sedaris. A greatest hits collection of stories and essays by the New Yorker’s resident beloved satirist.

  5. Under-Earth, Chris Gooch. Prisoners in a massive subterranean penal colony wade through garbage for scraps they can trade for food and shelter. This graphic novel is pretty grim, even for a dystopia. But maybe you’re into that sort of thing?