This list is sort of paradoxical, in that I don’t feel at all qualified to write it, considering how many great books I haven’t read this decade. At the same time, I feel extremely passionate about my choices near the top here, even more so than in my other lists. Here it is, completely subjective, and knowingly ignorant, the list of my thirty favorite books of the decade (as a side note, I’m still unsure about the legality of taking photos from other places on the internet for these entries, so I’ve elaborately staged my copies of these books for photos; this was fun for me, because I got to think about how to stage them, and fun for Johanna, because she got to laugh at me every time she walked into a room and caught me staging a photo of a book):
30) The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (2007)
I expected to like this book more. It seemed to have everything I usually love in novels, and received overwhelmingly great reviews. I ended up feeling a little bit disappointed; it didn’t totally click with me. It reminds me a bit of Everything is Illuminated: a relatively unknown author, interwoven storylines with different settings and time-periods, a main character with an unorthodox way of speaking, an underwhelming movie adaptation (the Oscar Wao movie isn’t out yet, so I’m just guessing). There are actually almost certainly other books that I enjoyed more than this one from this decade, but like the next entry, the list would have felt odd if I had excluded it. It sits on my bookshelf next to Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem in the “Disappointing books about comic book nerds that I should probably give a second chance” section.
29) The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (2003)
Obviously this doesn’t make the list on merit alone. The writing is pretty excruciating at times; I remember being particularly taken aback by the part where Langdon is teaching some inmates about the Mona Lisa:
“I heard he was a fag,” said a small man with a goatee.
Langdon winced. “Historians don’t generally put it quite that way, but yes, Da Vinci, was a homosexual.”
“Is that why he was into that whole feminine thing?”
Actually, Da Vinci was in tune with the balance between male and female. He believed that a human soul could not be enlightened unless it had both male and female elements.”
“You mean like chicks with dicks?” someone called.
This elicited a hearty round of laughs. Langdon considered offering an etymological sidebar about the word hermaphrodite and its ties to Hermes and Aphrodite, but something told him it would be lost on this crowd.
“Hey, Mr. Langford,” a muscle-bound man said. “Is it true that the Mona Lisa is a picture of Da Vinci in drag? I heard that was true.”
[skipping down a bit…]
“You sure that’s not some Harvard bullshit way of saying Mona Lisa is one ugly chick.”
[a bit more…]
“Has anyone heard of an Egyptian god named Amon?”
“Hell yes!” the big guy said. “God of masculine fertility!”
Langdon was stunned.
“It says so on every box of Amon condoms.”
Yikes, Mr. Brown. As a reader, I’m insulted, and sort of offended. I love the fact that he goes out of his way to make the prisoners seems like the world’s biggest lummoxes, yet they’re still engaged enough in Langdon’s lecture to participate, and even seem to spend their time in the yard discussing whether the Mona Lisa is actually a drag self-portrait of Leonardo. I enjoy picturing someone checking this book out from the prison library and then shaking their head in disbelief as they read this chapter.
Anyway, the book is still here at number 29 because when I stop to think of the books from this decade that almost everyone I know is at least aware of, it’s basically this and Harry Potter. And that should count for something. Plus, it’s fast-paced, fun, and considerably better than most of its ilk.
The real Dan Brown mystery is why it took him so long to capitalize on this book’s success. He took six and a half years to release The Lost Symbol, which has, predictably, sold like hotcakes, but no one cares as far as I can tell.
28) Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland (2003)
I have so many unread history books on my shelves that when I not only finish one, but breeze through it and go out and purchase another book by the same author (in this case, the still unread Persian Fire), it sticks with me. This book deals with probably the most interesting period in Roman history, the transition from Republic to Empire, and serves as great background reading for fans of the HBO series Rome. My favorite book about Rome other than I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves. The Jeep Wrangler Rubicon was also released in 2003. Coincidence?
27) No Logo by Naomi Klein (2000)
I read this book during the third quarter of my second year at the University of Chicago, in Dan Drezner’s Globalization class. It’s the only thing I remember from that class (my fault, not his; I liked Drezner as a prof), and one of the most memorable readings assigned to me during college. I can picture this book hitting 20-year-old Jared like a ton of bricks; I’m sure I hadn’t even attempted to think about this stuff before. I should really re-read this and see if it still has the same impact. I even decided that I should attempt to expose my dad to it, and bought it for him for Christmas. Oh, the heady early days of college, when I was even more of a sanctimonious asshole than I am now.
26) The Amber Spyglass by Phillip Pullman (2000)
I came late to this book and its predecessors. I know that by the time I read it the Golden Compass movie had already come out, and my friend Andy W. had already gone online and filled out a quiz to find out what his dæmon was. This book lacks a lot of the charm of the Harry Potter series, but has a nice seriousness about it, and perhaps a more compelling main character in Lyra Belacqua. I really enjoyed the direction the story took in the two sequels, and I’m disappointed that the movie adaptation doesn’t seem to have done well enough to merit continuing the series. The canon of Young Adult fiction had quite a few additions this decade, between this, Mr. Potter, and the Twilight books.
25) Old School by Tobias Wolff (2003)
This is a book that I really liked when I first read it, and really liked when I read it again recently, but would have absolutely loved had I read it as a senior in high school. In high school, when I was out on my own discovering The New Yorker and Harper’s and so many other things, I would have given anything to go to a prep school with ivy on stone walls and lectures from visiting authors. By the time I got my hands on this book, I had been ever so slightly disabused of my romanticized notions about the Northeast, but enough remained for me to still get caught up in it. It certainly didn’t hurt that one of the visiting authors in the book is Ernest Hemingway; this really is right in my wheelhouse.
24) Life Stories: Profiles from The New Yorker edited by David Remnick (2000)
Always one of my favorite parts of the magazine, The New Yorker’s profiles are usually interesting regardless of the subject. I think I bought this collection initially to read the Hemingway piece (in which he is in fine, late-career, dickish form), and at the time I probably only knew whom a third of the people featured were, but I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing. I need to revisit it, because if I recall correctly there is a George W. Bush profile from 2000 that I’m sure would be fascinating today.
23) Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)
My friend Anna was living in Rome while I was in London. Prior to one of my trips to visit her I did my best to work through a stack of books, including this, The Life of Pi, and a few others. My thinking was that she might have trouble finding English language novels in Italy, so I should finish the books I’d been meaning to get around to and just leave them there with her. Well, firstly, I did not end up needing an excuse to finish this book quickly, because I remember staying up all night to finish it, and secondly, I must have decided against leaving it with her, because I still have it. Combining a contemporary, compelling main character with a multigenerational family story told through flashbacks really seemed to be one of the most common storytelling techniques this decade. Add in the fact that the main character is intersexed, and this book really feels of its time, for better or worse.
22) Moneyball by Michael Lewis (2003)
Between this, The Blind Side, Liar’s Poker, and marrying Tabitha Soren, Lewis has a pretty good resume going. I’m not sure how much this book actually changed the way baseball teams were run; I’m guessing that the stat revolution was inevitable. It definitely changed the way outsiders thought about how baseball teams were run, though, and it changed the way I planned for my fantasy baseball draft every year. I would really like to re-read it to see how it holds up, especially considering the recent struggles of Billy Beane and the Athletics. Unfortunately, I can’t find my copy. This also means that I couldn’t take a photo of it, so instead you get a photo of my dog wearing a baseball bandana.
21) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (2000)
When I picture myself reading this, I picture myself at my middle school, which is odd and obviously not true. Whatever remains of my middle school self loved this book, though. The best of the many novels this decade with comic books floating around in the background, and Chabon’s best, definitely. Like a lot of books that I love from the late-high school, early-college period, I’m almost afraid to go back to it. I worry that I’m too cynical or have a lower tolerance for sentimentality than I did then. Or maybe the fact that I don’t really read books like this anymore is the reason I’ve become more cynical.
20) A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon (2006)
The underrated, sort of ignored second novel by Mark Haddon. Not as momentous as his first, and it sort of lacks a hook, but a great little story nonetheless. Probably the most “British” book on this list, as both the title and the ending make clear. Like a lot of the best contemporary fiction, it can’t decide if it’s a tragedy or a comedy. If this were a television show, I might call it a dramedy.
19) The Beatles: The Biography by Bob Spitz (2005)
This was a late-decade addition to the list for me; I only picked it up during my recent Beatles spree that coincided with the release of the remasters and Beatles: Rock Band. This has all the necessary ingredients to become one of my favorite biographies: interesting subject, a story I already know a bit of, decent writing, and lots of pages. I like my biographies long, and I’m generally disappointed when I’ve finished.
As far as I can tell, Spitz is pretty thorough and even-handed, especially compared to a lot of what has been written about the Beatles. There were some fact-checking complaints in the Amazon reviews I read when I bought it, but you’re never going to please an audience as obsessive as this. Considering how much time is spent on the pre-Beatles days, I wouldn’t have minded a bit more post-breakup coverage, but oh well. I came away thinking everyone in the band was an asshole other than poor Ringo.
18) Saturday by Ian McEwan (2005)
A paranoid novel for a paranoid decade, and in both, the paranoia is not completely unfounded. The number two book on this list captures the sadness after September 11th; this book captures the unease. We also cover aging, contentment, parenthood, marriage, and finding happiness in everyday things, all in the course of the titular Saturday. The days are just packed!
17) Walt Disney by Neal Gabler (2006)
Again, this passes the biography checklist as described in number 19 above. I picked this up prior to a trip to Disney World, not at all expecting to get as sucked into it as I did. Disney is a fascinating character, and a true visionary. I can’t really tell how much the Walt Disney Company had their hands in this, but it seems fair enough. The portrayal of Disney is somewhere between the whitewashed version from The Magical World of Disney and the anti-Semitic, frozen head version of urban myths. So that seems about right.
While telling Disney’s story, and without much need for divergence, Gabler also tells pretty much the complete story of early Hollywood in general and animation specifically. It’s amazing how instrumental Disney and his early employees were in so many of the technological breakthroughs of the day.
16) Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller (2002)
I will read an oral history of pretty much anything; it’s one of my favorite ways of telling a story. So, obviously, an oral history of one of my favorite television shows of all time was bound to end up on this list. SNL has had quite a bit more written about it than your average show, but nearly all of that was written in the eighties and early nineties, and it is all disproportionately weighted towards the first five or so years. It’s nice to have a relatively up-to-date history. I also enjoy the slight slant away from coverage of the performers and towards Lorne Michaels, a somewhat mysterious figure who has always intrigued me.
15) No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy (2005)
I believe I said in my movie list that the movie adaptation was slightly better than the book, but I really love both, and I would probably feel differently if I’d read the book before seeing the movie. This book seems to serve as sort of an amoral bridge between McCarthy’s more traditional Westerns and The Road, which he released the following year. Anton Chigurh would be one of the best characters of the decade even without Javier Bardem’s portrayal; he is fully fleshed-out, yet still wholly enigmatic.
14) Nasty Bits by Anthony Bourdain (2006)
I’ve long been a fan of Anthony Bourdain. He reminds me a lot of my favorite sportswriter, Bill Simmons: not as cool as he thinks he is, full of references to things that aren’t as relevant as he thinks they are, a little bit cheesy, but still someone with interesting opinions and an interesting perspective. He has kind of an awkward but cool uncle vibe. I’d only seen him on television, on his show, No Reservations, and as a guest judge on Top Chef. I knew he had gotten his big break by writing Kitchen Confidential, but I also suspected that he wrote his voiceovers for his television show, and based on those I really did not expect to like his writing. But I was wrong. This book is insightful, fresh, well-written, and consistently interesting from chapter to chapter.
It’s always surprising to find someone who is better in a new medium than you would expect them to be; it reminds me of Rick Steves. I’ve always been a big fan of his guidebooks, and I also found him charmingly nerdy on his television travel show, but I assumed that his radio show/podcast would be unbearably boring. I couldn’t imagine that his interviews would be at all interesting. But it turns out that what reads as dorky naiveté on television somehow translates as enthusiasm and sincerity on radio, and his complete lack of irony leads to really interesting conversations with his guests. The same is true of Bourdain; his weaknesses on television somehow transform into strengths in this book. Plus, he gets to badmouth people and things that Travel Channel would never let him touch.
13) Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (2002)
Both its fans and its detractors treat this book unfairly. Fans overlook its flaws and critics dismiss it as form-over-function post-modern fluff. I sort of disagree with both. The magical realism historical chapters are a bit tiresome, but the modern-day chapters are touching and riveting and carry the book. The character Alex, in particular, is transcendent, and his broken English is one of my favorite things in any book I’ve ever read. He’s on the list of most interesting characters of the decade based entirely on how they speak, along with Oscar Wao, Anton Chigurh, Valentino Achak Deng, and Christopher Boone.
12) America: The Book by Jon Stewart and The Daily Show Staff (2004)
Between “Indecision 2004” and this book, The Daily Show was really firing on all cylinders six years ago. Probably intended to be a dip in and dip out sort of book, but I read it all the way through, afraid to miss a single joke. This book is jam-packed from margin to margin and very obviously took a lot of work. But I have to imagine that it was work very loosely defined. It seems like an exceedingly fun book to put together. What a great time capsule this will be when I’m trying to remember where my head was at the halfway point of the Bush administration.
11) Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman (2003)
To be perfectly honest, this is really just serving as a representation of everything Chuck Klosterman wrote this decade; I don’t completely remember which essays of his were in which collection. The only thing that stands apart, really, is his novel, Downtown Owl (which I also enjoyed quite a bit). This was the first thing of his I read. Klosterman is an interesting guy in that he isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, but if he were any smarter he probably wouldn’t spend his time thinking and writing about the things that he does. So, basically, he’s the smartest person willing to write almost exclusively about hair metal, basketball, porn, and other pop culture minutia. And he is, therefore, right up my alley.
10) Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (2000)
I actually didn’t end up reading the Harry Potter series until 2007. I had given it a shot a few years before, but I only made it through the first book and a half before giving up, confused as to what the hysteria was about. Eventually I decided to just get through them, if only because of their cultural significance. The first two were just like I had remembered them: simple, repetitive, a little boring, and overwhelmingly Young Adult. The third one showed a bit more promise, but still felt slight. This one, the fourth, was where the series really took off and became the surprisingly adult classic that it is today. It’s almost jarring how Rowling maintains the same formula from the first three books and still manages to change to feeling of the entire story. And it’s admirable that her writing grows along with her audience. Plus, the movie adaptation introduced the world to the dreamy Robert Pattinson.
9) Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris (2007)
I picked this book out randomly in the English-language department of a bookstore in Munich near the beginning of a long, somewhat lonely trip. When I got home I gave it to Johanna to read, and the two of us passed it along to a few people, with mixed results. It seems like how much you like this book is directly related to how much time you’ve spent in a cubicle. Maybe it makes sense that I loved this book so much considering I was reading it on the trip that I had quit my office job to take. This is much more bizarre than your average office angst story, the middle bit takes a turn that I wasn’t expecting and was initially not on board with, and the ending is possibly a little over the top. But it never felt like anything that definitely couldn’t happen at KPMG in Chicago. An odd, lovable book.
8 ) Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris (2000)
Naked is my favorite David Sedaris book, but it came out in the nineties. I’ll choose Me Talk Pretty One Day here, but like the entry at number 11, it’s mostly just serving as a token representation of the author’s work over the course of the decade. I thought things might be headed downhill with Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, but When You Are Engulfed in Flames was a return to form, and I’ve now settled into expecting a new, enjoyable collection of essays every four years or so. He grew up in Raleigh, so I feel like re-reading this now that I’ve moved down to Chapel Hill.
7) The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (2003)
If you were to ride the L in Chicago during rush hour from 2004 to early 2007, you were pretty much guaranteed to see at least one person in your car reading this book. More popular in the Windy City than any of Daley’s “One Book, One Chicago” selections. It’s fun to be in a metropolis where everyone is loving a nonfiction book about a century-old murder. Especially great for U of C graduates, although I get sad thinking about all of the fabulous buildings on the midway that were disassembled after the fair. This is an outstanding book, regardless of where you live, and is apparently my favorite non-fiction book of the decade.
6) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (2007)
J.K. Rowling has done quite a few remarkable things over the course of her publication career. She created a group of classic, timeless characters in a time when most culture seems completely disposable. She got a generation of people that hadn’t ever really thought about picking up a book excited about reading. But perhaps her most remarkable achievement was her seventh book, in which she managed to tie up ten years’ worth of storylines, leave no major threads hanging, and satisfy all of her obsessive readers. One misstep in this book and she could have alienated fans and seriously affected her legacy. No higher-pressure literary tightrope walking was attempted this decade. And she pulled it off.
Other successful efforts to satisfy an obsessive fan base in the past ten years: Peter Jackson pulling off The Lord of the Rings, The Simpsons Movie (although this really just felt like the fans trying to talk themselves into something decent after years of crap), the relaunch of the Batman movies (especially Heath Ledger’s Joker), the Red Sox finally winning the World Series in 2004, Pam and Jim’s wedding on The Office.
Unsuccessful efforts to satisfy an obsessive fan base this decade: The end of The X-Files, George Lucas trying to tie everything together in Revenge of the Sith, Clerks II, the relaunch of the Superman movies, the series finale of The Sopranos (although I was perfectly happy with it).
5) What is the What by Dave Eggers (2006)
Like in my movie list, there is a sizable gap between my top tier of books and the rest of the list, and this is the first book in the top tier. Numbers thirty through six were relatively arbitrary, but I’ll defend these top five to my grave.
Valentino Achak Deng is one of my favorite characters of the decade, and his immigrant naiveté and lack of irony forced Dave Eggers, while telling his story, to move beyond the writing style he had established in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, You Shall Know Our Velocity, and How We Are Hungry. I personally love everything he’s written, but it was a nice change of pace and started him on the path that led to Zeitoun in 2009. Whenever I think about this book I feel like I should donate to a Sudan-related charity. I guess I did, technically, by buying the book, but it makes me want to do more. I saw on the Wikipedia page for this book that it was required reading for the incoming class of 2012 at Duke. That’s pretty great, but really, that’s small-scale; although it’s slightly painful to admit about one of my favorite books, this would have been perfect for Oprah’s Book Club. I’m actually kind of surprised that never happened.
4) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon (2003)
Even in a decade completely packed with eccentric, memorable characters, Christopher Boone stands out. Using a young person as a narrator is risky. If done well, it can be an extremely effective emotional device. If it’s over-the-top, or if the kid just doesn’t seem authentic, it will make a book unreadable. Haddon not only pulls off a young narrator, he pulls off a young narrator with Asperger Syndrome. One of the most interesting perspectives of any novel I’ve ever read. This list has made me want to go back and read all of these books again, and I think I’ll start with this one.
3) The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
What a bleak book. I mean, the ending could have been a bit more miserable, I suppose, but this book is dark. Cormac McCarthy wrote this book while in his early seventies. That seems too old to be healthily dwelling on things like this.
That said, I love this book; it was maybe the book I had the hardest time putting down during my first reading this decade. This was actually the first McCarthy book I read, and I’ve been working my way backwards. I’d spent much of the middle part of the decade reading non-fiction and filling in holes in my twentieth century fiction. Discovering this book got me on a kick of contemporary fiction that continues to this day.
2) Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (2005)
As much as I enjoyed Everything is Illuminated, I never would have guessed that Jonathan Safran Foer would pull this stunning sophomore book out of his hat. The writing here is just amazing. Rich, interesting, inventive, a dozen other adjectives. If not for my sentimental attachment to the number one book on this list, I might have the two of them flip-flopped. An extraordinarily moving book that I’m pretty sure turned Johanna into a mess on the CTA when she was reading it. It’s ostensibly a post-9/11 book, but it’s really a story about losing a parent. When I go back and re-read this book I always end up finishing it in an evening. This might seem a bit too effusive, but I really love this book.
1) A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (2000)
This book is so intertwined with my DNA at this point that I can’t even pretend to take an objective view of it. My copy is completely dog-eared. The copy I bought for Johanna during our second year of college is completely dog-eared. This book came around at the perfect time for me. When I first read it, I’d never seen anything like it, and had never even thought about writing the way Eggers did. What some people saw as gimmicky I saw as amazingly innovative, and I still feel that way, pretty much. Beyond the writing style, though, the story itself is great. Tragic and hilarious and wide in scope. I haven’t read it in a few years and I’m sort of afraid to; it might hit a bit close to home and totally wreck me.
I think Dave Eggers might be my favorite writer. The things that annoy people about him tend to be the things I like best, and I’m not afraid to admit that. The unexpected thing about his writing is that it’s so meta and post-modern that you would expect it to be full of irony and cynicism, but instead it’s heartfelt and sincere to a fault. I would be a better person if I thought the way he wrote, and that’s pretty big praise.