25 Books to Read Before you Die: 21st Century

This is one of the 215 lists we use to generate our main The Greatest Books list.

  • The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

    A gifted artist, Harriet Burden, frustrated by the lack of recognition she receives due to her gender, conducts an experiment where she presents her work under the guise of three male fronts. Her plan backfires when the third front, Rune, refuses to admit that the work was not his own. After Rune's sudden death, Burden reveals her experiment, but is met with skepticism and scorn. The novel explores themes such as gender bias in the art world, identity, perception, and the nature of art itself.

  • The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

    A Christian minister is sent to a distant planet to teach its inhabitants about Christianity, leaving his wife behind on a rapidly deteriorating Earth. As he becomes more absorbed in the alien culture and his religious mission, his wife's desperate messages about natural disasters and societal breakdowns on Earth become increasingly alarming. The minister faces a moral and emotional dilemma, torn between his duty on the alien planet and his love for his wife and home planet.

  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

    This novel is a unique blend of six different stories, each set in a different time and place, spanning from the 19th century South Pacific to a post-apocalyptic future. Each tale is written in a different style, reflecting the time and setting it represents, and they are all connected through shared themes and recurring motifs. The stories are nested within each other, with each interrupted by the next, only to be concluded in the second half of the book. The novel explores themes of predacity, civilization, reincarnation and the eternal recurrence of the same behaviors throughout history.

  • Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching by Mychal Denzel Smith

    This book is an exploration of the intersection of race, gender, and politics in modern America, as seen through the eyes of a young black man. It examines the impact of key figures like Barack Obama, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown, while also delving into the author's personal experiences with mental health, masculinity, and the shifting landscape of black identity. The narrative is a mix of memoir, cultural criticism, and political commentary, offering a powerful and insightful look at the complexities of black manhood in the 21st century.

  • The Empathy Exams: Essays by Leslie Jamison

    "The Empathy Exams: Essays" is a collection of thought-provoking essays that delve into the complexities of human emotions, particularly empathy. The author uses personal experiences, from being a medical actor to running ultramarathons, to explore how people understand others' pain and how it affects their own lives. The book is a blend of memoir, criticism, and journalism, investigating topics like poverty, female pain, and incarceration, and challenging readers to think about empathy in new and profound ways.

  • The Lost City of Z by David Grann

    This gripping non-fiction book follows the story of a British explorer who, in 1925, ventured into the Amazon jungle in search of a fabled civilization known as Z. The explorer and his party vanished without a trace, sparking numerous attempts to find them and the lost city. Nearly a century later, the author himself journeys into the Amazon, uncovering fresh evidence and revealing the shocking truth about what really happened to the lost expedition. The book combines history, biography, and old-fashioned adventure to create a captivating tale of exploration and obsession.

  • Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

    "Citizen: An American Lyric" is a compelling and thought-provoking exploration of racial prejudice in contemporary America. The book, written in a blend of poetry, prose, and visual images, delves into the everyday experiences and microaggressions that people of color face. It also addresses larger events from the news that have impacted the Black community. The book is a powerful commentary on race, identity, and belonging, challenging readers to confront their own biases and perceptions.

  • The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

    "The Faraway Nearby" is a reflective exploration of the interconnectedness of the world, seen through the lens of the author's personal experiences and relationships. The book delves into themes of empathy, storytelling, and the human capacity for both kindness and cruelty, using the author's relationship with her mother and her struggle with illness as a poignant backdrop. The narrative weaves in and out of different topics and locations, from the Arctic to fairy tales, drawing insightful connections and offering a unique perspective on the human condition.

  • Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

    This book is a profound work of non-fiction that focuses on the author's experiences as a young lawyer fighting for the rights of those wrongfully convicted or excessively punished. The narrative primarily revolves around the case of a black man sentenced to death for a crime he didn't commit. The author not only exposes the inherent racial bias and systemic flaws in the American criminal justice system, but also provides a compelling argument for compassion in the pursuit of justice.

  • Honored Guest by Joy Williams

    "Honored Guest" is a collection of short stories that explore the themes of death, loss, and grief. The narratives delve into the lives of various characters dealing with these themes, such as a mother dying of cancer, a woman coping with her mother's death, and a girl struggling with her father's unexpected passing. The stories are poignant and often surreal, offering a deep examination of human emotions and the complexities of life and death.

  • I Loved You More by Tom Spanbauer

    This novel explores the complicated love triangle between a gay man, his best friend, and the woman they both love. Set in New York City and Portland, the narrative delves into the intricate dynamics of their relationships, the pain of unrequited love, and the struggle of coming to terms with one's sexuality. The protagonist's journey to self-discovery and acceptance is heart-wrenching and poignant, offering a raw and honest look at love, friendship, and identity.

  • The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán

    The Invented Part is a novel that explores the life and mind of a renowned writer who is struggling with writer's block and feeling irrelevant in a rapidly changing world. As he grapples with his own existence, reality, and the nature of fiction, he embarks on a journey that takes him through his past, the lives of his friends and family, and even through the works of his literary heroes. The novel is a mix of science fiction, pop culture references, and philosophical musings, all woven together by the writer's desire to understand and redefine his place in the world.

  • Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon

    This book explores the experiences of families accommodating children with physical, mental and social disabilities and differences. The author examines various conditions such as deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, disability, prodigiousness, transgender, and criminality. The book delves into the challenges, struggles, but also the triumphs, of these families and how they find profound meaning in their differences. It's a comprehensive study of identity, love, and acceptance.

  • Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

    Set in a parallel 19th-century England, this novel tells the story of two practicing magicians, Mr. Norrell and Jonathan Strange. Norrell, who aims to restore magic to respectability in England, is initially thrilled by Strange's natural aptitude for magic, and the two form a student-teacher relationship. However, their partnership soon deteriorates into rivalry as Strange, driven by the loss of his wife to the fairy realm, seeks to reintroduce the old, wilder forms of magic that Norrell disdains. Their conflict escalates, culminating in a magical duel that has profound consequences for the future of magic in England.

  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

    The novel is set in a graveyard over the course of a single night and is narrated by a dazzling chorus of voices. The story is centered around the death of President Lincoln's 11-year-old son Willie, who resides in the Bardo, a transitional state between life and rebirth in Tibetan tradition. As Willie interacts with the other spirits stuck in this realm, his father visits the crypt to mourn, causing a struggle among the ghosts over the boy's soul. The narrative explores themes of grief, the impermanence of life, and the unresolved issues that keep us from moving on.

  • Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

    Set in a post-apocalyptic world, the novel follows the life of Snowman, who believes he may be the last human on earth, as he struggles to survive in a new, harsh environment. He is surrounded by genetically modified creatures, and his only companions are the Crakers, human-like beings created by his brilliant but disturbed friend Crake. Through Snowman's memories, the story of how the world came to be this way is revealed, involving a love triangle with the mysterious Oryx and the catastrophic consequences of Crake's scientific experiments.

  • March: Book One by John Lewis

    "March: Book One" is a graphic novel that depicts the early life of a key figure in the American civil rights movement. Raised in rural Alabama, he grows up inspired by the activism surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the words of Martin Luther King Jr., which sets him on the path of nonviolent protest. The novel highlights his commitment to the fight for equal rights and his journey from a young boy on a farm to one of the key figures in the civil rights movement.

  • A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

    This book is a comprehensive exploration of scientific knowledge, covering a wide range of topics from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization. The author aims to understand how we got from nothing at all to where we are now, exploring subjects such as geology, chemistry, paleontology, astronomy, and particle physics. The book also delves into the lives of the scientists behind the discoveries, making the complex concepts accessible to the average reader.

  • The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

    "The Sympathizer" is a gripping spy novel set during the Vietnam War. The protagonist is a half-French, half-Vietnamese army captain who is a communist double agent. After the Fall of Saigon, he moves to America with other South Vietnamese refugees and struggles to reconcile his dual loyalties as he continues to spy on his fellow countrymen in exile. The novel explores themes of identity, war, and politics, while providing a unique perspective on the Vietnam War and its aftermath.

  • Salvage the Bones: A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

    Set in a poor rural community in Mississippi, this novel follows the story of a pregnant teenage girl named Esch and her three brothers as they navigate their lives in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. Their mother is dead and their father is a neglectful alcoholic, leaving the siblings to fend for themselves. The book explores themes of poverty, racism, and survival, showcasing the resilience and strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

  • War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges

    This book is a profound exploration of the allure and devastating effects of warfare, written by a war correspondent who has experienced conflicts firsthand. It delves into the intoxicating nature of war, the reasons why societies are drawn to it and how it can give a sense of purpose, albeit a destructive one. The author also discusses the psychological impacts of war on individuals and societies, and the ways in which war can distort our understanding of love, friendship, and compassion.

  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

    The novel is a historical fiction set in the 1500s, during the reign of King Henry VIII. The story is told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, a man of humble beginnings who rises to become the King's chief minister. The narrative explores the political and religious upheavals of the time, including King Henry's break with the Catholic Church and his controversial marriage to Anne Boleyn. The protagonist's cunning, ambition, and survival instincts are central to the plot as he navigates the treacherous waters of the Tudor court.

  • The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

    The book delves into the question of what we should have for dinner. It explores the paradox of the omnivore's dilemma, detailing the food chains that link farm to table, and explaining how the industrial revolution has changed the way we eat. The book also discusses the implications of our modern diet on our health and the environment, suggesting that we should return to more traditional methods of food production and consumption. It advocates for a more conscious and sustainable approach to eating.

  • The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

    In an alternate reality where Jewish refugees found sanctuary in Alaska during World War II, the book follows a homicide detective in the Yiddish-speaking metropolis of Sitka as he investigates the murder of a former chess prodigy. The detective's quest takes him from the city's seedy underbelly to the highest echelons of power, and he uncovers a vast conspiracy that threatens the very existence of the Jewish homeland in Alaska. The novel is a blend of detective fiction, alternate history, and Jewish humor.

  • The Echo Maker by Richard Powers

    The novel revolves around a man who, after surviving a near-fatal car accident, wakes up with a rare neurological condition known as Capgras syndrome. He believes his sister, who has been caring for him, is an imposter despite all evidence to the contrary. A renowned neurologist, struggling with his own personal and professional dilemmas, is called to help unravel this complex case. The narrative delves into the mysteries of the human mind, the bonds of family, and the fragility of identity.

About this list

Powell's Books, 25 Books

It’s hard for us to believe that it’s been 17 years since we first toasted the new millennium. In January 2001, a gallon of gas cost $1.46. Facebook was three years from launching. 9/11 hadn’t happened. Huge political and cultural shifts were only months away… and some of the best books we’ve ever read were waiting in the wings. This year, for our fifth annual 25 Books to Read Before You Die list, we’ve selected novels, poetry, short stories, and nonfiction that speak to central concerns of 21st-century life: among them, race, heredity, identity, war, and the vanishing wild. From double agents to Hurricane Katrina to intergalactic travel, these 25 vastly different books create a stunning portrait of the dislocation, perseverance, and hope at the heart of life in 21st-century America.

Added over 4 years ago.

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