Something like 300,000 new books come out every year in the U.S. That’s about one book for every thousand Americans. Compare that with the 75,000 albums and singles released, or the mere 700 films that receive a theatrical release of any sort in a year.
In an era where we rely on technology to cut through huge swaths of data, it might be a surprise that a Pew study reveals that 68% of people still discover books from other friends, family, and co-workers, as opposed to 28% from online bookstores. Word-of-mouth is still a more powerful recommendation system for literature than any Amazon algorithm.
So who better to name the year’s best books than the people who penned the most acclaimed novels and nonfiction titles this year? I asked a handful authors to tell me about a book they loved and what they learned from it.
Angela Flournoy, Author of The Turner House
I spent two sleepless nights in July watching and rewatching Sandra Bland’s #sandyspeaks videos on Facebook. The woman was gone, having died in a Texas jail cell, but the videos— coupled with footage of her hostile arrest—reinforced something for me: for many people a black woman’s body and mind are confounding. Enter Voyage of the Sable Venus: and Other Poems, by Robin Coste Lewis, a collection of poetry that examines the way the black female figure has been discussed and depicted in Western art over the centuries. Lewis hails from Compton, and in a year where I spent entire days listening to To Pimp a Butterfly, it seemed right that one of the best books to come out was written by a woman raised in that city a generation before Kendrick Lamar.
Lauren Groff, Author of Fates and Furies
Here by Richard McGuire is an astonishment, and one of the most moving meditations on time passing that I've ever read. The graphic novel takes place in a single large room, with superimposed boxes showing what happened in that same spot in the past or what will happen there in the future. The book serves as a reminder to look, to pay attention, to think about time more as a palimpsest and less as an arrow, and I will be giving it to practically everyone I know.
Paul Murray, Author of The Mark and the Void
Beginning with My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet follows the interweaving lives of two women, Elena and Lila, from their girlhood in Naples through the turbulent Italy of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. It sounded to me when I first heard about it like exactly the kind of thing I wouldn't like. But the voices of the characters are so powerfully alive, the events so vivid, the relationship between the women so stormy and complex, that the books hit me like a fist, over and over again. The Quartet is a staggering achievement, but it's also unputdownably exciting, smart, passionate and alive. It will blow you away.
Elisa Albert, Author of After Birth
You know how sometimes you force yourself to read a novel because novels are supposedly all morally/spiritually challenging/rewarding or whatever? But a lot of them happen to be boring as HELL, so you find yourself slogging dutifully through like you're ten and it's microwaved lima beans for dinner again?? Yeah, no. A great novel feels like a love affair you can't resist, even though you thought you had a "type." Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin is an unconventional stunner by an awesome new writer.
John Seabrook, Author of The Song Machine
I really enjoyed Warren Zanes's Petty, his recent biography of Tom Petty. Music bios and memoirs are a certain specialized interest of mine—I read virtually all of them, from Britney Spears to Shania Twain (her memoir is really good) to Keith Richard's. I like the Petty book because it answered for the first time some of the questions I had about this most enigmatic of rock stars, and it was also a very interesting book about the life of a band (the Heartbreakers) over multiple decades - a band in which one member occasionally steps out to be a rock star. A very complex and volatile dynamic that I can sort of relate to, having been in bands myself, and actually I'm in a new band now with a literary rock star, David Remnick. Zanes clearly knows what he's talking about, having been in a band himself. The inner life of bands is as fascinating as that of rock stars and Zanes gets both into this book.
Tony Marra, Author of The Tsar of Love and Techno
In 2015 I tried to mainly read novels set in other countries, which is why I’m a little surprised the one I learned the most from is set in Berkeley, my own backyard. In Welcome to Braggsville, T. Geronimo Johnson has written a brilliant, blistering aria of an America divided by race, privilege, and politics. It’s like a year’s worth of The Daily Show compressed into a narrative that recent headlines have made even more heartbreakingly resonant.
Julia Pierpont, Author of Among the Ten Thousand Things
It’s commonly acknowledged that when two people have nothing to talk about, they’ll talk about the weather. With Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future, Lauren Redniss reinstates grandeur and mystery to this enormous subject. Part textbook, part storybook, her work could be described as graphic nonfiction, with stunning results. Talk about the weather? I’d love to.
Lincoln Michel, Author of Upright Beasts
Postmodernism still has a bite to it. That's one thing we learned from Valeria Luiselli's intelligent and charming novel about Gustavo "Highway" Sánchez Sánchez, an auctioneer who sells the teeth of famous writers. The Story of My Teeth—-which was written in collaboration with workers in the Jumex juice factory in Mexico City—weaves together fiction, nonfiction, fantasy, metafiction, and dental musings into one of the year's most unique novels.
Stephen Witt, Author of How Music Got Free
David Graeber's Utopia of Rules, his brief examination of modern bureaucracy, is disorganized and repetitive, but one passage has stuck with me. Toward the end, Graeber, an anarchist, observes that the first grammar book for any language can only be a description of the way people talk. Once a grammar book exists, however, people tend to treat it as authoritative—even though if it written a century later, it would contain quite different “rules.” The reader is left to work out the implication: that modern “laws” are a snapshot of 18th-century power relations rather than a living tradition, and that if, by consensus, we drafted them from scratch today, they might look quite different.
Margaret Lazarus Dean, Author of Leaving Orbit
I was first exposed to Mark Doten’s The Infernal when we gave a reading together in Minneapolis along with three other writers. Doten’s reading was electrifying (and only partly because of a strange interlude during which a person walked in very late carrying a full meal of fried food, then plopped down right in front of us to eat it, upon which Doten requested some of her fries, then happily munched them while reading). The reading was in an auditorium of something like 300 people with raked seating, so from the panel at the front of the room we were able to watch in real time the faces of all 300 people absorbing Doten's bonkers prose. I watched moods of literary experience pass over them like weather systems. They looked intrigued, then delighted, then disgusted, then delighted at their own disgust, then disgusted by the delight they took in their own disgust. When I read the book myself, I recognized from page one the incredibly specific literary moods I'd seen on these strangers’ faces. I’d known them all along, as they are the moods of the twenty-first century. They had just never been reified in quite this way before. What a bonkers, disgusting, delightful thing.