The Best Books of the Decade, According to Our Editors

In Reading Lists, Reading Lists - Staff Picks by The Editors

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As we welcome in a new decade — that sweet, sweet symmetry of the year 2020 — we’ve taken a long, hard look back at the books that came out between 2010 and 2019 and continue to stick with us. There were plenty of exclamations like “this book only came out in 2013?” and “THIS BOOK CAME OUT IN 2010?!” There was lots of reflection: On social justice movements, like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo; on literary trends that came and went (YA dystopias, anybody?); on the rise of tech companies, lauded as dreams come true, and their fall from grace, revealed to be nightmares; on all the great turns of phrase that will stand the test of time. After much agonizing, Scribd’s editors laud these as the finest books of the decade.

ALEX’S PICKS:

M Train by Patti Smith

Leave it to Patti Smith to craft a memoir comprised of coffee, travel, TV mysteries, and dreams, and make of it one of the most magnetic books of the decade. Her quotidian life — lyrically and intimately portrayed — is seemingly lived between cups of coffee. Daily trips to the neighborhood cafe are punctuated by eccentric journeys: to a society dedicated to an obscure scientist of continental drift; to the graves of her artistic idols, from Frida Kahlo to Jean Genet to Akira Kurosawa; to a London hotel room where she binge-watches The Killing; to a decrepit bungalow on Rockaway Beach that, by some miracle, survives Hurricane Sandy. She’s most affecting when depicting love and loss, whether what’s been lost is seemingly trivial—a tattered coat, a worn edition of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle — or overwhelming — her husband, a dear friend, youth itself. Despite these, what ultimately emerges is a contagious sense of beauty and optimism. This is one of those books that makes you look at the world a little differently as you read it — it makes you aware of all the tiny beauties and idiosyncrasies that make life bearable. Many of Smith’s memoirs have this quality, but M Train best embodies it.
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Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado essentially broke the literary scene with this collection of wonderfully weird and brilliantly crafted short stories. We often discuss genre-bending authors, but Machado bends the genres she tackles — from fantasy to horror to realism to comedy — so far that they seem to create a new shape altogether. From the secret purpose of a green ribbon tightly wound round a woman’s neck, to an artists’ retreat that sparks uncomfortable connections, to a dressmaker who discovers the dresses she sews are filled with ghosts, it’s very hard to pick a single standout from this collection. But I will mention that one of them is a series of Law & Order: SVU synopses that slowly veer off into the absurd, and it is wonderful.
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Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Exit West is an excellently written and beautifully observed piece of fiction. It seems necessary to state that outright, lest it get lost to the buzzy political context surrounding the novel. Because that context is hard to ignore: The book seems so pertinent to our ongoing political climate that it’s tempting to imagine that Mohsin Hamid employed a seer while crafting the novel.

The story of a young couple’s burgeoning romance, Hamid’s story is set against the backdrop of an anonymous Middle Eastern country on the brink of civil war. As war becomes inevitable, the novel brings the dissociative reality of a familiar city being transformed into a network of checkpoints and battle zones into sharp relief. But the story also takes a turn for the fantastical with the slow reveal of a series of doors that transport people to various countries around the world. Able to scrape together the costs for their passage, the couple takes a leap of faith — only to find themselves transported from the hell of war to the extreme discomfort of life as a refugee.

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Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

This is a story of a family on the brink of falling apart as they traverse a nation at war with its own values. It’s the story of a woman who wants to document the experiences of children who fled war and violence, only to be kept in cages — children who have lost the chance to be children. This is some weighty stuff. But the novel doesn’t feel heavy; it’s filled with moments of levity and tenderness. This is an unflinching reflection of our world as it is, even as it employs fiction’s ability to transport and entertain.
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Tenth of December by George Saunders

When I was putting together this list, I thought of this collection, and then convinced myself it hadn’t come out this decade. It feels that foundational to modern fiction — I couldn’t imagine that it came out as recently as 2013.

George Saunders is one of the most celebrated living authors for good reason, and those reasons are on vivid display in this collection of ten incandescent, strange, and utterly unique stories. Saunders combines deep pathos with an irrepressible ear for humor, and manages to make extremely eerie — even violent — scenes feel human, and finally revelatory. These are stories that stick with you, that pop out of your unconscious in weird moments and prompt you to examine the world around you a bit more closely.

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Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee

I recently reread this collection of stories, and was thrilled to find that the writing had only improved in my estimation. Lee’s writing is a rare beast: astonishing, evocative, strangely beautiful, but never ostentatious, never overshadowing the humanity of her characters or the emotional arc of her narratives. Each story in Bobcat is a glimpse into a fully realized world, populated with characters at once unique and familiar. But it’s the writing that makes this one of my favorite recent reads. In one story, the male narrator at a Taliesin-esque artists’ colony contemplates his mentor: “He is wistful in my memory, staring off, imagining a building that might at last equal nature — generative and wild, but utterly organized at heart.” She might as well be describing her own work.
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Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

At one point in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s celebrated book, he writes:

“I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”

This statement encapsulates both the thesis and the experience of reading Between the World and Me. The book is written as an essayistic address to his teenaged son, as Coates grapples with America’s history of racism, his own experiences growing up black in this country, and the most recent displays of police violence against the black community — so often directed at boys barely older than his son. It’s a hard look at the violent paradigms upon which our society is based, and it’s often painful to read; such a harsh light shining on that reality is blinding. But for so emotionally and intellectually devastating a book, I couldn’t bear to put it down. Coates writes these brutal truths poetically, celebrating the beauty of the black body even as he describes all the ways that it is threatened and destroyed. There are no simple solutions in this book, nor are there any empty promises of hope for a better future. But that’s not Coates’ goal here. Instead, he serves as a voice to offer us the questions, to spark our own wrestling journey towards some answer — to be made conscious of the terror and the beauty.

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On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee

It’s tempting to compare Chang-rae Lee’s beautifully eerie literary dystopian novel to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Both bend the expectations and perceived limitations of literary fiction and dystopian sci-fi; both eschew the more overt tropes of the latter genre, painting a picture of a future that is quietly devastating in its realism. In both novels, the future presented is less shocking in its outlandishness than shocking in its feasibility, in how terribly easy it is to see us in them.

In On Such a Full Sea, that recognition comes in the extreme social stratification of his future America. The story begins in B-Mor, a city placed squarely in the middle of the tripartite social classes. B-Mor, it becomes apparent, was once Baltimore — its creepily well-maintained subterranean mall and work camp atmosphere revered by current occupants for having grown out of a city that, they are taught, became unlivable due to the extremes of poverty, neglect, and implied climate change, hundreds of years previously. The story, in fact, is narrated by the collective residents of B-Mor, in an eerily subjunctive mood that only allows the swelling unrest of the city to shine through in glimpses. It’s uncomfortably easy to see how the current system of power abused, freedom denied, and minority rights trampled could one day evolve to look like B-Mor.

Dystopian fiction works when it reflects back our own worst selves, walking a fine balance between escapism and cautionary tale, functioning as fantasy as well as wake-up call. On Such a Full Sea achieves both with a grace, subtlety, and realism that makes these reminders of the precariousness of our world more palatable, if no less devastating.

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KATIE’S PICKS:

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

I love Train Dreams. It’s one of my favorite books ever. It’s the only book that, immediately after devouring it cover-to-cover, I turned right back to page one and read it all over again. Twice in one sitting. And I keep coming back to reread it, year after year. It’s that good. Train Dreams doesn’t shy away from the ugliness in America’s history in the West, and the story will break your heart, but it’s also gorgeous and dreamy and haunting in all the best possible ways. Denis Johnson is a legend for a reason, and his lean novella packs a punch. One that will leave you tingling long after you finish it.
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The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

This book is as wonderfully weird, subtly funny, and smartly written as its title. A quirky, stylized genre-bending Western filled with dark humor and a bit of gore, it channels old-timey pulp and Cormac McCarthy alike. In the gold-crazed Wild West of 1851, two infamous hitmen brothers, Charlie and Eli Sisters, travel from Oregon City to San Francisco and California’s famed gold fields on a murder-for-hire gig. The more thoughtful brother, Eli, wants to be a better person, and his deadpan narration is both strangely funny and moving. It’ll have you rooting for the hitman.
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Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

Elizabeth Holmes seemed like the next Steve Jobs. Her startup, Theranos, promised to revolutionize the medical industry with a game-changing blood testing device. The young Stanford dropout convinced titans of industry to invest in a big idea that sounded “too good to check.” At its height, Theranos was valued at almost $10 billion. Magazine covers splashed her story everywhere. But not everyone was in her thrall. A Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter at the Wall Street Journal got an inside tip alleging fraud and deception, saying Holmes was hyping a healthcare technology that didn’t work and using sleight-of-hand blood testing — all at high health, financial, and emotional cost for the patients being duped. This thrilling page-turner is the result of the deep investigation triggered by that tip. It details the lies, intimidation, secrecy, legal bullying, and public misrepresentation that made everything come crashing down. I couldn’t put it down. And I can’t stop talking about it. You may think you know the main beats of this story, but you have no idea about all the juicy, crazy stuff that really happened until you read this book.
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Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

I love nonfiction that reads like a thriller. David Grann (The Lost City of Z) brings to life one of our nation’s most chilling murder conspiracies. Illuminating a dark period of racism, greed, corrupt lawmen, and ruthless outlaws, Grann animates his meticulous, detective-like research into a page-turning mystery. In the Wild West of the 1920s, Native Americans in Osage County are murdered, one by one, after oil is discovered on their land. Undercover agents with the newly formed FBI blunder blindly in their investigation to find the killer hidden among vicious frontier gangs and seemingly respectable townsfolk. This book kept me guessing until the final pages, and what Grann uncovers will stick in your gut.
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Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward writes gorgeous sentences. I couldn’t stop reading them over and over again in her novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing. Brimming with gems, it’s no wonder the book won the National Book Award when it came out in 2017. Ward draws on Morrison, Faulkner, and Greek myths to play with the classic American road novel, weaving magical realism into the modern, rural South. She blurs the lines between the living and ghosts, black and white, and three generations of family. Meth competes with traditional herbs as a poultice for characters’ pain. Tender love between siblings, together with grandparents’ quiet, fierce love, provide a balm for a young brother and sister with troubled parents. Even so, violence, racial injustice, and past and present pain pervade throughout the story. Her lyrical sentences rise together to form a penetrating story that lingers like fog on the Mississippi bayou where the novel is set.
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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

You don’t know her, but she’s helped you out. Thanks to Henrietta Lacks, scientists have made countless lifesaving medical innovations, including developing vaccines, IVF, and gene mapping. But the story of Henrietta Lacks isn’t one of heartwarming scientific progress. Lacks, a young African American mother of five, was dying of cervical cancer in 1951 when, without telling her, doctors took tissue samples of her cells for research. Her cells did something almost magical: they continued to reproduce, creating a never-ending supply of cells for research. In this powerful story, journalist Rebecca Skloot and Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter, investigate how Henrietta’s cells revolutionized medical science, the medical research system that exploited an unsuspecting patient, and the Lacks family’s struggle to cope with their mother’s “immortality.”
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Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Take a post-apocalyptic road trip with a nomadic troupe of actors, who brave violent attacks by pillaging outlaws to perform Shakespeare for scattered survivors of a devastating flu pandemic. This beautifully written page-turner is more than an adventure to stay alive. The actors live by the motto “Because survival is insufficient,” a line taken from Star Trek that they inscribe on their caravan and tattoo on their bodies. Station Eleven explores the question of what endures after civilization collapses. It’s also just a really good story.
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Light for the World to See by Kwame Alexander

I’m a big fan of Irish author Tana French’s gripping Dublin Murder Squad series. In each book, French plunges readers into the deep end of a murder investigation through the eyes of a different investigator. If I could, I’d put all of the books in the series on this list, but her 2010 Faithful Place was the first one to come out this decade, so I’ll start here. Twenty-two years ago, childhood sweethearts Frank Mackey and Rosie Daly planned to run away together to escape their dysfunctional families, but Rosie never showed up. Frank figured she stood him up. Now, he’s a detective, heading up Dublin’s undercover police unit, when Rosie’s suitcase turns up behind a fireplace in a squalid house in their old neighborhood.
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The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Part true-crime detective book, part history book, and part intriguing anecdotes, the newest book from Susan Orlean (The Orchid Thief) is all love. Love for libraries and the lionhearted public servants who work doggedly to keep library doors wide open for their communities. Like Erik Larson in The Devil in the White City, Orlean uses the hunt for a criminal to lure us into the history of something less sensational, but no less fascinating. The Library Book begins with a disastrous fire that consumed the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986 and the subsequent search for the suspected arsonist, igniting readers’ interest in the world of the public library. She digs beneath the library’s quiet hum to unearth the many bustling departments and intriguing personalities at the heart of this institution that symbolizes shared knowledge and inclusive community.
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There There by Tommy Orange

Funny, devastating, thrilling, and smart, Tommy Orange’s novel is a vivid, character-driven story featuring a chorus of different Native American voices living in Oakland, with the town itself a character. A different person narrates each chapter, and as their stories unfold, connections click into place for the reader. Sometimes small and fleeting, sometimes momentous. In addition to their shared town, the characters are united by the upcoming Big Oakland Powwow which they will all be attending. Right off the bat, Orange drops a bomb that propels the narrative forward, adding a thriller-like suspense as we know they are barreling toward the doomed powwow.
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ASHLEY’S PICKS:

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games trilogy — my favorite series of all-time — ended with the 2010 release of Mockingjay. And while plenty of people don’t love this installment for one reason or another — too many unnecessary deaths, too poorly written, too many cruel twists — it really just shows how masterful Suzanne Collins is as a writer. She makes it clear that we are the Capitol. Wars don’t care about your romantic frettings. Of course, I’m super excited for the prequel novel dropping in 2020.
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Partials by Dan Wells

What sets Partials apart from the glut of dystopian YA is Dan Wells’ focus on world-building, particularly the witty dialogue between his diverse cast of characters and the lengthier passages about the little details. While we’re still getting certifiable dystopian hits (let’s be real, this genre has been hailed for saving us from our darkest timelines since at least the early 1900s), it’s safe to say that the crop of YA dystopian novels in the beginning of the decade was a shining moment for these bleak stories.
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The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

With lyrical prose, The 5th Wave is one of the most beautiful stories of humanity’s downfall. Cassie, who manages to survive the first four waves of alien attacks on Earth, leads the charge and takes a commanding spot on the YA heroine pedestal. It’s high time for any fellow humans to get on this hype train. (This concludes the YA dystopia portion of this list!)
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Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Most people would pick The Fault in Our Stars by John Green as one of the best books of the decade, and probably overall as his greatest work to date. But while all of Green’s novels are infused with some touching or sad parts of his life, Turtles All the Way Down is perhaps the most personal, as it explores mental health issues that have plagued the author. It’s an existential story rendered with Green’s signature mix of humor, history, and heartbreak, and the experience Green has gained from over a decade of writing novels puts this one above TFiOS for me.
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A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit From the Goon Squad was one of those books that sat on my shelf for most of the decade. Sometimes, I would take it off my bookcase and pack it in a suitcase as my travel companion. But I never found the time to read it, even when I schlepped it halfway around the world. When I finally sat down with this novel (or is it a short story collection?) in my apartment, it lived up to the hype. Time is a goon, and it’s gonna beat everybody up: That process is rarely captured with such simplistic elegance and gentle care as in Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work about has-been and could-be music stars that breaks many narrative conventions.
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Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

After reading many of Roxane Gay’s short stories in 2012, I knew I had found a new favorite author. At the time, she had about 40,000 Twitter followers. Now, she has over 650,000. Gay is one of the breakout stars of this decade, and I'm happy to have hopped on the bandwagon early on. In these profound essays, everything from professional Scrabble to abortion to Lena Dunham comes under loving scrutiny. Told in simplistic yet soul-crushing prose, these musings show how media affects us.
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Rust by Jonathan Waldman

Rust was one of the first works of microhistory I read, and definitely the one that made me realize I really love that subgenre of history. Corroding metal is certainly something I’ve thought more about in adulthood, as I lament chips in the paint on my car and the rusty rings left behind by any cans sitting in the kitchen sink. At heart, Rust captures the spirit of human ingenuity in the face of seemingly impossible odds in a duel with Mother Nature. Jonathan Waldman’s work is a testament to how rust can’t corrode human genius and perseverance.
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Rust by Jonathan Waldman

Vince Beiser’s investigation into the depletion of sand as a resource to build roads, beaches, and more just blew open a whole new dystopian world for me (and as we’ve already established, I love dystopias). Next time you go to the beach and build a sand castle, just think: Members of the sand mafias are probably fighting over the little grains you’re playing with. This is a fascinating look into the economy of sand and the environmental impact of this crucial, diminishing material.
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The Outlaw Ocean by Ian Urbina

An eye-opening exposé about the lives of pirates, poachers, stowaways, environmental vigilantes, and other sailors and slaves of the high seas. Every chapter is riveting. It’s hard to get a holistic picture of a landscape that covers more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, but Ian Urbina does a damned fine job finding the most fascinating ships in the ocean and revealing a world most of us hardly ever see. I’ve already been wary of seafood and cruises, but now I’m doubly paranoid about all the dangers presented by the sea. I’ll stick to shore, worrying about our diminishing sand supply.
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The Most Human Human by Brian Christian

In the span of 2010 to 2020, I went from a college student to a tech company employee advocating for the arts. And as our technology continues to evolve at an astonishingly quick rate, I feel myself turning into a digital dinosaur and a conservative curmudgeon at the ripe old age of 30. That’s why The Most Human Human has stuck with me for most of the decade, as I continue to struggle to balance the digital world with my real one. The book is full of poignant observations about the ways humans and computers differ (or operate similarly). If you’re interested in machines or art, and especially why machines can’t make their own art, Brian Christian’s debut is for you.
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