The most important books of the decade, according to Vox staff.
The books that stay with you are weird. I (Vox book critic Constance Grady) have read countless books in my life, and some of them were great books and some of them were terrible, but do I remember, say, The Sun Also Rises in as much detail as I remember the third volume in the Baby-Sitters Club series, The Truth About Stacey, where the truth is that she has diabetes? I do not.
The books that are most important to you personally are books that hit you at just the right moment, that manage to change your mind about something, that get you through a hard time, that give you something you can use to help you make your way through the world. (For instance, The Truth about Stacey taught me all about diabetes, which, no offense Ernest, but Hemingway has never done anything nearly that useful for me.)
So looking back at the books that were most important to you during a certain period of time is like looking at a map of your own mental development: Here’s where I went through my unfortunate Ayn Rand phase and used the word “objectively” a lot; here’s where I was very depressed and read a lot of essays about food to try to comfort myself; here’s where I needed something absolutely beautiful in my life and found the perfect book to provide it.
The 2010s were a decade in which the world fundamentally changed, in which America said goodbye to its first black president and brought Donald Trump into the White House, in which the climate change apocalypse began, in which pop culture became increasingly fragmented and also TV got really good. Most days, I felt I absolutely needed a book that would either make the world more understandable or at least make it easier to deal with.
So as the 2010s draw to a close, I’ve asked members of Vox staff to name a single book that came out this decade that was the most important to them personally: one that changed their life or how they saw the world, or stuck with them in odd or unusual ways. Here, in chronological order by publication date, are the books from the past 10 years that were absolutely perfect for Vox staffers at the moment when we read them. We hope that they might be perfect for you, too, right now.
Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows by Melanie Joy, 2009
The single largest shift in my worldview over the past decade came when I started taking the scale and severity of animal suffering seriously. That process didn’t begin for me with Melanie Joy’s Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, but her book is the one that helped me think through the awful question I was left with: Why did it take me so long to admit what I always knew was true? Why is it so easy to disconnect from our moral intuitions?
Joy’s book left me with more than a framework for thinking about how we treat animals. It left me with a framework for thinking about how dominant ideologies disguise, protect, and conserve themselves. And that’s helped me see the world a lot more clearly, in contexts far beyond the animal suffering issues Joy is addressing.
—Ezra Klein, editor at large
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson, 2010
This book reframed my understanding of American history, particularly the United States in the 20th century, with some of the best storytelling I have ever read. As a work of narrative nonfiction, it’s a brilliant example, with detail-rich prose and three vibrant, deftly drawn characters. As a work of history, it shines a much-needed light on the courageous people who protested Jim Crow by leaving the South.
It wasn’t until I read The Warmth of Other Suns that I thought of migration as a radical act, but now I wonder how I ever learned history without encountering the concept. Wilkerson’s portrayal of the Great Migration changed the way I think of all immigrants, whether from Europe or Central America or the Southern United States.
—Jillian Weinberger, senior audio producer
Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan, 2011
I don’t remember why I picked up John Jeremiah Sullivan’s 2011 essay collection Pulphead. It’s an unassuming book, squat and squarish, and the title isn’t particularly evocative. In 2011, I’m not even sure I knew who Sullivan was.
But over the past decade it’s become the essay collection I’ve most often recommended to others, and one of the works that’s most influenced my own writing. That’s largely due to its opening essay, “Upon This Rock,” which first appeared in GQ in 2004. Sullivan writes cheekily of attending Creation, a major Christian musical festival. He arrives expecting to file an essay about how weird a Christian musical festival is, collect his check, and go home.
Instead, he meets a group of pot-smoking West Virginian Christians who take him under their wing. They end up reminding him of his own past as an earnest Christian teen, and he feels a wistful longing to return to a time when he found it possible to believe. It’s a perfect essay, the best in the book, and as I’ve taught it to college students and re-read it over the years I’ve found it reminds me how to write about faith and doubt in a generous and hilarious way. All of Sullivan’s writing is wonderful, but Pulphead and “Upon This Rock” will always hold a beloved spot in my heart.
—Alissa Wilkinson, film critic
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, 2012
I’ve always been an introvert. But I didn’t discover that until I read Quiet. Susan Cain’s book completely changed how I think about everything from my friendships to my learning style. I adjusted my work habits to align with what would make me more productive. I embraced my recharge strategies, like spending a night in or traveling solo.
Quiet uses anecdotes and scientific research to explore what drives extroverts and introverts. Cain explains why a mix of personalities is beneficial for everyone to have, and how most people will find themselves somewhere on a spectrum. But she also makes a case for the importance of valuing the softer voices in the room, pointing to famous introverts like Rosa Parks, Dr. Seuss, and Steve Wozniak as evidence.
You might find pieces of yourself in these stories about those who struggle to fit into a world that emphasizes extroversion. Or maybe you’ll recognize the tendencies of someone you know. Either way, Quiet will give you a language you didn’t know you needed.
—Lauren Katz, senior engagement manager
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, 2016
In Evicted, sociologist Matthew Desmond embeds himself into the lives of eight struggling Wisconsin families in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Some of the families live in a trailer park and others occupy small apartments in one of Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods, but they all exist on the cusp of eviction and are chronically indebted to their landlords. Some qualify for housing assistance or welfare, but with how much rent costs, it’s still not enough to live on.
At its heart, Evicted is a story of economic exploitation. It’s also an incredibly empathetic and detailed case study fittingly published in 2016 — a year of hyper-partisanship and heightening social and economic anxieties. It made me cry and feel incredibly helpless about the nature of American poverty; while the conditions that trap people in poverty are often painted in broad strokes, Desmond humanizes and brings dignity to their lives.
—Terry Nguyen, reporter for The Goods
We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson, 2017
We Have No Idea is a cartoon-illustrated, pop-science book with a surprising number of jokes about ferrets. But I found its premise revelatory. The book is about unknowns: The basic aspects of the universe that humans barely understand, or don’t understand at all. An example: We have no idea what 95 percent of the universe is made out of. Normal matter and energy — everything we can see or interact with — only makes up five percent. Whoa.
I loved We Have No Idea for its clear descriptions of physics that were neither watered down nor straining to prove how smart the book’s authors are. But moreover, it inspired me to think about the power of humility.
That concept has since infected my life, and my work. Intellectual humility is an essential tool for learning. When we face the grand chasm of our ignorance, we should be in fearsome awe of it. But, also, we should feel excited for humanity’s potential to fill it in, one tiny frustrating bit at a time.
—Brian Resnick, senior science reporter
The End of the World: Supervolcanoes, Lethal Oceans, and the Search for Past Apocalypses by Peter Brennan, 2017
I finished reading The End of the World and immediately went fossil panning, because the book is full of vivid descriptions of creatures that crawled across the planet millions of years ago. Like Opabinia, a lifeform with five eyes and an arm-like proboscis, or Hallucigenia, fittingly named because it looks like something out of a horrible fever dream. The End of the World makes you want to go out and see some of these creatures for yourself, even if they’re only traces left over in rocks.
But the book also details the dramatic climate change events that wiped out these creatures in the first place. It blends science and narrative so that you can picture acidifying oceans or volcanic eruptions, while understanding the role that greenhouse gases played in eliminating huge percentages of life-as-we’ll-never-know-it.
Author Peter Brennan is careful to emphasize that we can’t use past climate change events to make perfect predictions about our future. But he offers a firm understanding of what’s happened before when the chemical balance of our atmosphere changed quickly. And it’s scary.
—Byrd Pinkerton, podcast producer
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, 2010
When I was a kid, I read all the time. So many books! Most of them novels! Then I got to high school and required reading totally deflated me. The books were old, and largely written by dead men, and I didn’t like them very much. College didn’t help. It wasn’t until I read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, published the month after I graduated, that my love of fiction was reignited.
The book felt so fresh, with each of the 13 chapters offering a different intersecting story. They span time and place, sending the reader on a Kenyan safari in 1973, and to the New York suburbs of the 1990s, and through a near-future California desert famously rendered in Powerpoint.
A Visit From the Goon Squad completely exploded what a book could be to me, and firmly got me back into contemporary lit. I also loved that it was written by a woman in her 40s, who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for her astonishing achievement. It even led to my second-most mind-expanding reading experience of the 2010s: Egan’s incredible 2012 short story “Black Box,” which was serialized on the New Yorker’s Twitter account over the course of nine nights.
—Julia Rubin, editor for The Goods
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, 2010
When I first read Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, it made me frankly, very mad. In the extremely near future, an expressly schlubby man named Lenny falls in love with the gorgeous Eunice, 15 years his junior, seemingly mostly because she wears effectively see-through jeans. Romance, so beautiful.
I’d picked it up because “love story” was right there in the title — I’m a simple woman — but nine years later it’s the near-future that sticks with me, because at the time, I didn’t see how close it was. In the novel, everyone everywhere is glued to their äppärät, a device just far enough removed from our 2010 iPhone that it took me years to see that there was effectively no daylight between them (again, I’m simple). The US economy is in collapse (and the country’s international standing is trash), but the national pastime is shopping. Social media — heavily favoring pictures over words — controls our relative value in the world. At the beginning of the decade, this all still seemed a little ways away. A little ways was all it was.
I still wonder if there wasn’t, say, a woman who wasn’t physically perfect that might have been a nice match for Lenny, but Shteyngart’s vision of our world dogs me; super sad and super true.
—Meredith Haggerty, deputy editor for The Goods
50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James, 2011
No single creative work has more directly changed my life than Fifty Shades of Grey. I haven’t read its commercial publication under the Fifty Shades title, but I have read its original incarnation — the Twilight fanfic known as Master of the Universe, which underwent only a few find-and-replace tweaks before Bella and Edward were unleashed on the masses in 2012 in their new, original forms — doe-eyed corporate underling Anastasia and de-fanged Christian, a moody billionaire with a domination kink.
Fifty Shades of Grey became one of the best-selling books of all time, spawned a billion-dollar movie franchise, and inspired the creation of an entire new publishing subgenre: “new adult,” catering to Fifty Shades fans who craved more unapologetically scandalous fanfic-esque romances with emphasis on character over plot. And they got exactly what they wanted; in fact, Fifty Shades itself was part of an entire cottage industry of “pull-to-publish” Twilight fanfics.
Before Fifty Shades, most publishers didn’t know fanfiction existed; after, publishers targeted fanfic fans directly in books like After and Fangirl. Before Fifty Shades, few people outside of fanfic culture took fandom seriously; after, interest was so high that just a few months after the book’s release, I landed a job reporting exclusively on fandom culture — and I never had to justify my interest in fandom again.
—Aja Romano, culture reporter
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, 2012
I’m cheating a little bit here, because I already named my official Most Influential Book of the Decade. (It’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., because no other book makes me aware of systemic misogyny quite as strongly as it does, except for the anthology titled “my news push alerts circa the 2010s.”) But as Vox’s book critic, I’m abusing my power to give myself a runner-up pick. And I like to think that Amy Dunne, the titular Girl who is Gone, would be proud of me for it.
Gone Girl changed the cultural vocabulary of the 2010s. It helped birth the dominance of the domestic thriller, dark and psychologically twisted novels about marriage and children and the home. It helped launch the rise of the antiheroine. It gave us the iconic Cool Girl speech and allowed us to put a name on a rising and insidiously creepy archetype.
But beyond all that, Gone Girl is also a genuinely good book. You could read it for the first time in 2012 and not know anything about the famous twist and be shocked; you can read it today in 2019 having been thoroughly spoiled, and you will still have a fantastic time. Seven years after its first publication, Gone Girl’s analysis of the power dynamics of gender and marriage is just as scathing and ferocious as ever — and it’s also weirdly, darkly romantic.
Toward the end of the book, Amy is thinking about her marriage to the doltish Nick, and realizing that despite their unhappiness, they are perfect for each other. She thinks: “I am a thornbush, bristling from the overattention of my parents, and he is a man of a million little fatherly stab wounds, and my thorns fit perfectly into them.” Aww?
—Constance Grady, book critic
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, 2012
I lent someone my copy of My Brilliant Friend, the first of Elena Ferrante’s four-book series known as the Neapolitan novels. For the entire time the book was gone, its absence made me feel anxious.
The story of Lila and Lenù, two girls growing up in poverty in 1950s Naples, felt personal to me, not so much for the plot but of all the things it reminded me of as I read it. Everyone has had a best friend, but Ferrante admits all the messiness that goes into that friendship: not just the love, or the shared secrets, but the competitiveness, the envy, the urgency to impress.
And all the insecurities, which are amplified when you compare yourself to someone you both admire and trust. Lenù, who is the narrator, worries about her exams, and whether she’s smart enough. She stares in the mirror and stresses over her zits. But Ferrante also doesn’t avoid the moments when Lenù realizes that she’s triumphed, is maybe luckier than Lila, and experiences a mix of regret and sadness and satisfaction. It was startling to see all this on Ferrante’s pages, an entire novel that is a diary entry few would have the courage to write.
Ferrante’s entire tetralogy felt like that to me, but it all starts with My Brilliant Friend. She creates such a precise world, and keeps you there, bound to her characters — Lila and Lenù and everyone they encounter. Each of the four novels breaks this in some way, but all their force comes from what Ferrante builds in book one. That’s why it felt as if something was missing from my bookshelf, for as long as it was gone.
—Jen Kirby, foreign and national security reporter
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2013
Americanah is a love story. It’s a meditation on racism in America. And it’s a reflection on the balancing act immigrants face, as they seek to reconcile different aspects of their identities.
Since I first picked it up more than five years ago, Americanah remains one of the most electrifying works I’ve ever read because of its ability to capture how all of these things are inextricably linked. Through biting, gorgeous prose, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie deftly illustrates the complexity of America’s relationship with race, and how it informs every moment and interaction.
Adichie does this both within the narrative itself and how the narrative is framed. Ifemulu, the Nigerian-born protagonist of Americanah, describes her perspective as an academic fellow who moves to the United States eager for a new experience and homesick for her old life, and intersperses this telling with posts about race that she publishes on a blog.
Across both mediums, Adichie masterfully cuts to the root of existing inequities, and the euphemisms we use when we talk about race and gender. In one passage, she describes fraught discussions of racism between people of color and their white partners and friends:
“We don’t want them to say, Look how far we’ve come, just forty years ago it would have been illegal for us to even be a couple blah blah blah, because you know what we’re thinking when they say that? We’re thinking why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway?”
—Li Zhou, Capitol Hill reporter
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, 2014
For me, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet was an electrifying, consuming experience unlike any other fiction I encountered this decade. The four-book series tells the story of Elena “Lenù” Greco and Lina “Lila” Cerullo of Naples, and their complicated friendship, with the scope of an epic — gripping plotting, vivid personalities, and ruthlessly intelligent explorations of class, gender, family, and violence.
But years later, the installment I think about the most is the least characteristic of the four: volume 3, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. As far as the larger plot goes, it seems at first like a transitional book, characterized mainly by the separation of the central pair of characters as Lenù moves away from her dysfunctional Naples neighborhood, for married life and a career as a writer.
Yet it’s that separation that allows for both the stunning condensed sequence on Lila’s life-or-death struggle to reform the factory where she works, and for Lenù’s isolation and dissatisfaction with married life and motherhood, to truly creep in. Ferrante’s grand design finally becomes clear when Lenù returns to her neighborhood for a supremely uncomfortable dinner, and realizes that everything’s changed. She’ll spend the rest of the series trying haphazardly to go home again, but she can’t, not really.
—Andrew Prokop, senior politics correspondent
Modern Lovers by Emma Straub, 2016
I love a midlife crisis book. You could say I have a type: I love stories about groups of friends in their thirties and forties living in cities and trying to sort out what they want out of their marriages, their careers, and their lives (see also: The Emperor’s Children, Fleishman Is In Trouble, The Interestings). So when I read Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers in 2016, I could tell from the first few pages that it would stay with me for a long time.
The book follows two families living in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn: Elizabeth and Andrew and their teenage son Harry, and Zoe and Jane and their teenage daughter Ruby. Elizabeth, Andrew, and Zoe have been friends since college, and now they’re all married with kids, living near each other in the same Brooklyn neighborhood and hanging out all the time — what should be the perfect life, except all of them are unsatisfied in different ways. Zoe and Jane run a celebrated, quintessential Brooklyn farm-to-table restaurant, but they’re miserable in their marriage. Elizabeth is creatively stifled by her job as a realtor, while Andrew is aimless, living off of family money with no real career and no sense of what he wants to do.
Modern Lovers reminds you that being a grown-up doesn’t mean you have all the answers, and that everyone is just trying to figure it out. The book’s four adults make lots of mistakes, and sometimes it seems like the two teenage kids are the ones who have it together the most. I’ve re-read it twice since it first came out, and it’s been a delight every time.
—Nisha Chittal, engagement editor
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, 2017
Exit West was published in 2017, the same year President Trump signed the Muslim ban, Brexit was being fiercely debated, and I had lost track of how much time had passed since I read anything that wasn’t about current events or policy.
It was the perfect book to gradually move me out of my fiction funk. Exit West uses a love story and magical realism to depict the global refugee crisis of our era. It is the story of two young adults who fall in love during simpler times in an unnamed, picturesque city that is home to both tradition and modernity.
The couple’s lives are grossly interrupted when the city that serves as the backdrop to their romance descends into chaos and conflict. As the couple’s relationship grows more intimate during desperate times, author Mohsin Hamid paints a vivid picture of a city’s transformation from home to a place that is better off left behind. Through the young couple’s evolving relationship and descriptions of magical gates that transport people to other corners of the world, Hamid allows his reader to engage with the emotional experience of becoming a refugee.
—Haleema Shah, producer for Today, Explained
My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Kabi Nagata, 2017
Among the many things I shed post-college, good and bad, were novels. Years of studying English and reading dozens of books a year left me feeling shamefully burned out, a feeling that was amplified by a job that involved reading and writing. I collected books I wouldn’t read, and I knew I wouldn’t read them.
That’s when I turned to graphic novels. The shorter, stylish, gripping works of illustrated fiction lent themselves to easy reading with the same lasting impact of many picture-free works. The ones that resonated most were personal works by marginalized authors, the same kind I was drawn to in the traditional fiction category; the characters’ journeys of self-discovery were typically mirrored by evocative artwork that did some of the heavy-lifting for me, filling in the visuals that prose required me to render in my mind.
Perhaps no graphic novel solidified the medium’s importance to me as My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness, an English translation of a Japanese series of webcomics that were later printed and bound. Author-illustrator Kabi Nagata tells a vulnerable, autobiographical tale of the period of depression she suffered in her late 20s, accompanied by a sexual awakening that only complicated matters.
Centered on a repressive element of Japanese society, the book can be at times heart-wrenching and difficult. Nagata holds nothing back in discussing the mental health struggles that left her penniless and home-bound for months on end. But having the beautifully written and illustrated finished product in my hands gave me comfort to know that Nagata eventually found some drive, even if she hadn’t quite beaten her depression. It’s the kind of fiction that I find empowering, bolstered by a unique cartoon style that is only possible in a visual medium. My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness has the same punch as the harshest memoirs, tempered by a digestible form I couldn’t stop consuming.
—Allegra Frank, associate culture editor
The Power by Naomi Alderman, 2017
For much of my childhood, reading was my greatest pleasure. I devoured books, great heaps of them. But the further I got into adulthood, the less I read. I couldn’t focus.
The books I was able to stick with deeply considered the balance between gender as a social construct and gender as something innate, lurking somewhere in our brains. Enter Naomi Alderman’s The Power, in which women the world over are suddenly gifted with a stark and literally shocking ability that lets them send great jolts of electricity into attackers. The long-accepted power imbalance — men have more raw physical strength, and women must learn to navigate that truth — is upended overnight. But despite the book’s provocative premise, it isn’t a work of rah-rah pop feminism. It’s a story about how difficult it is to possess any amount of power and not end up abusing it.
I read The Power in late January 2018, around two months before I realized there was a very good reason I was so drawn to stories like it. I spent most of the book wondering what happened to trans women in its world, which isn’t addressed. (One character, assigned female at birth, is definitely trans-adjacent, but Alderman doesn’t attempt to pin them down with any specificity.) In retrospect, it’s a little embarrassing that I spent so much time thinking about this particular question without realizing why. I also spent a lot of time thinking about how much more likely I would be to transition if it meant gaining societal power.
Now, 13 months into hormone replacement therapy, doors are heavier, grocery bags take more effort to manage, and men sometimes yell crude things at me on the train. But I’m also happier and better and more myself. I’m reading again. Power doesn’t always mean raw strength. Sometimes, power means finding the place you call home.
—Emily VanDerWerff, critic at large
The New Me by Halle Butler, 2019
The protagonist of Halle Butler’s The New Me is a single 30-year-old temp worker who goes home to watch Forensic Files every night, and from the first page onward you are basically allowed to hate her.
Millie is the sort of millennial mess whose misery is mostly her own fault: She finds the women in her nondescript Chicago office and the rest of humanity worthy of disgust, even the people she chooses to befriend. She drinks too much and possibly also smells bad, all the while telling herself that tomorrow will be different.
When I read The New Me this summer, having just turned the corner into my late 20s, I realized that Millie was the amalgam of a series of looming fears I’d held onto for the entire decade: A lonely, embittered woman, Millie is what happens to women who rely on alcohol and junk food to feel their feelings and spend the rest of their time dissociating in a kind of static emotional winter to avoid the horrors of modern urban life. The worst part about her, though, is that she’s relatable. Because in the late 2010s, who’s really all that happy anyway?
—Rebecca Jennings, culture reporter for The Goods
The only thing we can say for sure about the 2020s is that (a) if they do not roar as much as the 1920s did, that’s on us and we have only ourselves to blame, and (b) the world will keep changing and getting ever weirder and more confusing, and we will need books to help us make our way through it. The titles we’ve listed here can help get you started as we embark on the next 10 years, and in the meantime, we’ll begin looking for the next books we’ll need to make sense of the decade ahead.
Author: Constance Grady