Anyone looking for trends in our selection of the best books of the ’00s might have a hard time finding them amid the wizards, 19th-century serial killers, dysfunctional families and such. Narrowing down our decisions was pretty tough, and the process required a number of back-and-forths about what was significant as well as beautifully executed, which book from a given author represented his or her best of the decade, and so on. So consider these alphabetically listed selections 30 of the many, many memorable books published this decade, and as always, let us know what we missed.
Devil In The White City (2003), Erik LarsonDevil In The White City
as a historic true-crime novel, devoted to telling the chilling story of the serial killer H.H. Holmes, with the Chicago World’s Fair simply serving as a backdrop. But what makes the book so remarkable is the level of detail provided by Larson’s research into the setting and the protagonists. Architect Daniel H. Burnham wanted to parlay the fair into a forum that would make Chicago a global city; his quest gets as much page time as the grim details about how Holmes murdered more than 27 young women, and it’s just as compelling. The result is a non-fiction thriller, a tale of creation and destruction filled with bizarre facts and stories that expose the best and worst of human ingenuity.
Fargo Rock City (2001), Chuck Klosterman
is that it’s a great book about relationships and a miserably anachronistic one about music: Nick Hornby’s steadfast, monolithic devotion to the super soul hits of the ’70s fails to get anything right about the intersection of ’90s music and love. Enter Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City
, the most trenchant book ever written about that ’80s punchline, “hair metal.” Over the course of his engaging, infinitely quotable discursus, Klosterman unpretentiously maps what music can mean, both within its own imposed narrative, and once it reaches the outside world. He veers all over the place: one moment he’s giving readers a detailed analysis of Guns ’N Roses’ Use Your Illusion
video trilogy, and the next, he’s talking about why metal turned him into an alcoholic, and why it’s weird that Pavement never talked about the beer they were drinking. His passion is contagious: You don’t have to like (or even be familiar with) the music to be sucked into a world of beautifully argued, casually hilarious passion. In terms of books about what listening to music can mean when you love it to the point of idiocy, few are better.
A Brief History Of Time
Freakonomics (2005), Steven D. Levitt and Steven J. Dubner
, for instance. But there’s even more glory in writing books that make those fields fun
. The bestseller Freakonomics
, co-authored by journalist Steven J. Dubner and “rogue economist” Steven D. Levitt, is an excellent example. By defining economics as “the study of incentives” rather than anything specifically tied to money or commercial interests, Levitt freed himself up for economics-style analysis of everything from dropping crime rates to the outcomes of sumo-wrestling matches. Like any mass-appeal, pop reevaluation of a scientific field, Freakonomics
was controversial, with detractors questioning Levitt’s premises, processes, and conclusions. But just opening up the field to a wider consideration and discussion was a victory, and Levitt and Dubner’s lively prose and intriguing conclusions were icing on the cake.
Nickel And Dimed
Nickel And Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America (2001), Barbara Ehrenreich
is an urgent exception.
Nixonland (2008), Rick Perlstein
Bonnie And Clyde, Doctor Dolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?
Pictures At A Revolution: Five Movies And The Birth Of The New Hollywood (2008), Mark Harris
, and the winner, In The Heat Of The Night
—is one of the great Hollywood books: deeply reported, sharply nuanced, and hugely entertaining even when diving into production minutiae. Harris doesn’t caricature subjects even when the temptation must have been overwhelming, such as drunken, racist Dolittle
star Rex Harrison, soft-liberal Dinner
producer-director Stanley Kramer, and haughty New York Times
film critic Bosley Crowther, whose one-man crusade against Bonnie And Clyde
cost him his job. And the great stories are innumerable, as when The Graduate
director Mike Nichols breaks down the skepticism of producer Joseph Levine over Nichols’ multiple uses of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds Of Silence” in its first 40 minutes: “I ran it, and he said, ‘I smell money!’” says Nichols, “thereby endearing himself to Paul Simon for all time.”
Them: A Memoir Of Parents (2005), Francine Du Plessix Gray
The Tipping Point
The Tipping Point (2000), Malcolm Gladwell
’s view of declining crime rates contrasts sharply with the one found in Freakonomics
—the concept seems not only solid, but downright prescient, arriving as it did before talk of Internet memes became a part of casual conversation.
The Wisdom Of Crowds (2004), James Surowiecki
business writer, hadn’t put real-life example and surprising science behind it. His persuasive book shows how properly constituted groups outperform individual experts, even on tasks where no member of the group seems to contain the relevant expertise. From the very first example—a county-fair guess-the-number-of-gumballs-in-the-jar contest—through the much-maligned terrorism-predicting “markets” set up by U.S. intelligence in the wake of 9/11, Surowiecki cuts through common-sense solutions to show that our reliance on pundits and geniuses is misplaced. Together, we know more than Alan Greenspan knows separately, which reveals our culture of overpaid technocrats to be thoroughly backasswards. Pair this book with Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers
, and you have a blueprint for a truly enlightened democratic capitalism.
The World Without Us
The World Without Us (2007), Alan Weisman
. Weisman starts from an irresistible premise—how long would it take the planet to erase all traces of human society if we all disappeared tomorrow?—but bolsters it with a tremendous feel for place, sticking readers in the middle of the quiet solitude of the last old-growth forest in Europe, or the controlled chaos of an oil refinery, with equal ease. Weisman managed the rare feat of getting readers to consider their impermanence while also thinking about how it might be a good thing.
The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay (2000), Michael ChabonKavalier & Clay
, it felt fresh and new. Though he wasn’t the first to dabble in blending these influences, his was the breakthrough novel that made the technique safe for others to try. And even now, after all the imitators, his book still feels alive in a way that few pulp novels or epic family sagas do, as it follows two boys in Great Depression New York City who invent a comic-book superhero. While the book’s occasional trips off into pulp adventure can seem a little goofy, its wistful, romantic heart and longing for Golden Age archetypes to chart a course for truth and justice remain potent.
Atonement (2001), Ian McEwan
Bel Canto (2001), Ann Patchett
The Blind Assassin
The Blind Assassin (2000), Margaret Atwood
follows several interlocked threads, as Atwood plays games with identities, connections, parallels, and altered histories. In one thread, she explores the childhood of two sisters, Iris and Laura; in another, Iris is a cantankerous, elderly widow, and Laura is an apparent suicide whose posthumously published novel became an enduring classic. Atwood only gradually reveals what happened between these bookends, and she keeps readers guessing, as it becomes clear that what the world remembers about Laura has very little bearing on what actually happened. Like many Atwood novels, Assassin
is a puzzle box, but luminous writing, well-drawn characters, and the keenly melancholy theme of generational amnesia have more to do with the novel’s success than the series of reveals Atwood puts her readers through.
Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao (2007), Junot Díaz
Carter Beats The Devil (2001), Glen David Gold
easy to read, but his sense of emotion makes it take up space in the heart.
The Corrections (2002), Jonathan Franzen
, is due to arrive next fall, just in time to inform the next decade.
The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time (2003), Mark Haddon
is also among the best page-turning thrillers of the decade.
Empire Falls (2001), Richard Russo
is set in just such a place, a rust-belt Maine town that’s kept going even though the industry that led to its creation can no longer sustain it. Russo brought his by-then-familiar command of memorable characters and comic moments to a novel more ambitious than any he’d attempted before. The book captures a time and place unnerved by a future that offers no reassuring promises of a better tomorrow beyond the comfort its inhabitants can give each other.
Fortress Of Solitude
Fortress Of Solitude (2003), Jonathan Lethem
, but that’s what he ended up with. The novel ties together a lifetime of obsessions—with music, art, fathers and sons, comics, and more—and grounds them in the 1970s Brooklyn of Lethem’s childhood. It’s a place of sadness, peril, and racial unease, but it’s also overflowing with the imaginative possibilities of childhood, at least until crises and looming adulthood start to shut them down. It’s a novel immersed in the past, but deeply distrustful of nostalgia and fully aware that the pain of youth has a habit of lingering, and even the presence of magic does little to secure happiness.
Gilead (2004), Marilynne Robinson
, Robinson proved herself one of the greatest American writers of her generation, winning the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for literature for her equally heartbreaking Gilead
. Few could have predicted that the same pen that channeled orphans Ruth and Lucille coming of age in rural Idaho could so masterfully evoke an aging Congregationalist minister, looking back over his life with wonder for the grace given him but regret for his namesake, the son of a good friend who never took the path his elders would have chosen for him. Replete with references to Calvin, Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach, and other thinkers with whom Reverend Ames takes respectful issue, Robinson’s novel serves as a gentle theological treatise, but it never loses the glow of human relationships.
Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince (2005), J.K. Rowling
series was undeniably the biggest literary phenomenon of the ’00s. Though the first installments from the ’90s were inarguably children’s books, beginning with 2000’s Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire,
the series began to morph into something decidedly more complex, reaching its apex in 2005 with Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince.
The penultimate entry in the seven-part series is most notable for the shocking death at its climax, probably the series’ most unexpected, harrowing moment. But even more remarkable is the fact that it spends 650-plus pages basically filling in backstory and moving pieces into place for the series’ conclusion without sacrificing momentum or character development. (Though it perhaps attempts to cover too
much ground at times, giving some elements short shrift.) In spite of whatever other limitations she has as a writer, J.K. Rowling is at her best in Half-Blood Prince
, capably unspooling her epic yarn in the straightforward yet enthralling manner that accounts for the series’ unprecedented success.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004), Susanna Clarke
still feels as light as a feather, and its tale of the friendship and rivalry of the two greatest magicians of their age has the ageless quality of all truly great fantastical fiction, reassuring without being entirely trustworthy, and utterly intoxicating.
The Virgin Suicides
Middlesex (2002), Jeffrey Eugenides
adds layer after layer around a kicky, potentially sensationalistic premise. Cal is born Calliope to a family of Greek descent, and spends years living as a girl, unaware of the intersexed condition that makes him genetically male. Jeffrey Eugenides follows the path of the gene that leads to that surprising revelation, tracing it back to Old World conflicts between Greece and Turkey while considering its place in the novel’s sharply realized 20th-century New World of 1970s Michigan. The past doesn’t die, it just mutates, and maybe, hopefully improves, on its way from one generation to the next.
Never Let Me Go (2005), Kazuo Ishiguro
, Never Let Me Go
ends up becoming a testament to the many ways love finds to stay alive.
The Road (2006), Cormac McCarthy
surprising is the way McCarthy manages to find a modicum of purpose in all that despair, creating a world in which all normal reasons for living—accomplishment, social structure, the possibilities of the future—have been ruthlessly stripped away, then showing how existence still struggles onward, in spite of all barriers against it. It’d be a stretch to call The Road
uplifting, and the book has more than its share of horrors, but what makes it such a powerful, wrenching experience isn’t the aftermath of society’s collapse, but the suggestion that, even removed from sentimentality, the basic forward momentum of a dependent and his protector remains. Things don’t have to be good to continue, but they will
continue, and sometimes that’s all that’s left.
The Story Of Edgar Sawtelle (2008), David Wroblewski
on a farm in northern Wisconsin, and with some of the characters replaced by dogs bred by the Sawtelle family for extraordinary intelligence. And not a word of this lengthy, immersive journey into the struggle of young Edgar to break through the dangerous relationship between his uncle and his mother feels like a gimmick. Full of detail about the training methods that make the Sawtelle dogs special, and anchored by a fugitive quest for justice with only adolescent and canine wits to sustain them, Edgar’s story has the mesmerizing quality of great literature. It’s a world that feels found by accident, unknown to outsiders, and so beautifully tragic that readers will beg the pages to turn more slowly.
The Terror (2007), Dan Simmons
is a rewarding, haunting read. Just make sure to check the thermostat before opening the cover, whatever the season.
The Time Traveler’s Wife
The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003), Audrey Niffenegger
earns the tears it so copiously extracts, and creates an epic love affair perfect for the turn of the millennium.
White Teeth (2000), Zadie Smith
follows an unconventional friendship that becomes a portal into a world where every character’s story sounds truer than the last. The chance meeting of Archibald Jones and Samed Iqbal, fellow World War II veterans who reunite in 1970s London, are just the first brushstrokes in a richly detailed portrait of a neighborhood changing faster than its inhabitants can understand as they struggle to find meaning in a world radically altered from their forefathers’. In spite of its Dickensian spread, Zadie Smith’s debut novel never feels overstuffed or self-consciously stylish. Instead, its assured tone guides readers through genetic controversy, radical Muslim groups, and past-as-prologue, toward a profound commentary on assimilation and culture in the lives of her diverse subjects.