Anybody remember how anxious and thrilled we were in those last months of the 20th century? When we weren’t at war and we had a budget surplus and it looked like Al Gore would be president? The prospect of a 21st century filled with new technologies, new art and literature loomed large and bright. But now, as we look back at what was decidedly a shitty decade for an incredible variety of people in an equally incredible variety of ways (evictions/invasions/bombings/etc), it’s surprisingly hard to be pessimistic about the books that assessed, satirized, dramatized and distracted us from the events of the past 10 years.
Goethe said that the decline of a nation’s literature is the precursor to that nation’s fall, and with this look back at the books that defined the decade, we’d like to tell Goethe to suck it. Almost in spite of ourselves, we’re still writing, translating, publishing and even occasionally buying good books in this country.
To be clear: there were plenty of bad books over the course of the decade, as well. We watched that Nick McDonnell kid rake it in and James Frey get a well-earned tongue-lashing on television. We need not mention Dan Brown, and if that makes us elitists, then, fine. We’re elitists. Dan Brown sucks.
Worse still may be the self-help arena, which has continued to distinguish itself as a place where the insecure can go to justify their inane self-love or equally inane self-loathing. He’s Just Not Into You, The Fast-Track One-Day Detox Diet, any of Dr. Phil’s gems, The Secret… nonfiction is a treacherous arena, so we’ve decided to skip it altogether. Which isn’t to say that there wasn’t plenty of wonderful non-fiction published in the last decade. Evan Wright’s Generation Kill made the best of the ridiculous embedding of reporters while Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion helped pull atheism out of the closet. Still, the following list sticks to fiction because, well, we like it more. And it likes us (we think).
While the following list has not attempted to qualitatively rank books within in a particular year or in comparison to other years from the decade, we’ve selected titles that we believe have staying power and/or that we feel helped define the year it was published. We’ve also taken the liberty of including titles that we feel were underrepresented upon publication or that you may have missed. So get reading—you’ve got some catching up to do.