The best 21st century books

38 authors have picked their favorite books about 21st century and why they recommend each book.

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Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude

By Ross Gay,

Book cover of Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude

Poet Ross Gay is a shape shifter who observes the struggle of living in a human body such with compassion and intelligence and artistry that he not only describes such struggles, but also transports us inside of the elements that create them. In this meditation on love and life and loss, we are soothed by the garden, the beehive, the orchard; by the mourning doves and dung-filled dirt and knots of dead bees that he reaches for to nourish and calm and heal. Gay is very much alive to the living and the dead around him. This collection of poems brings us back to life with gratitude transformed.

Who am I?

Journalistic interviewer Jacqueline Raposo has created hundreds of stories discussing the human condition for magazines, websites, podcasts, and her book, The Me Without—a personal growth memoir exploring the science and spirit of habit change. Chronically ill and disabled, she’s never uncovered a new app, product, or study as directly beneficial to emotional health as time spent observing the natural world.

I wrote...

The Me, Without: A Year Exploring Habit, Healing, and Happiness

By Jacqueline Raposo,

Book cover of The Me, Without: A Year Exploring Habit, Healing, and Happiness

What is my book about?

At the age of thirty-four, journalist Jacqueline Raposo finds herself chronically sick, single, broke, and wandering in a fog. Weary of trying to solve her problems by adding things to her life, she attempts the opposite and subtracts habits including social media, shopping, sugar, and negative thoughts over the course of one year. In this intimately curated search for self-improvement, Raposo confesses to the sometimes violent and profound shifts in her social interactions, physical health, and sense of self-worth. With the input of doctors, psychologists, STEM experts, and other professionals, she offers fascinating insights into how and why our brains and bodies react as they do to habits, and sheds light on the impact of everyday choices on our mental state. Part memoir, part case study, this book offers an inspiring example of how to forge your own journey, expose your wounds, and help yourself heal. 


By Maria Golia,

Book cover of Cairo: City of Sand

Maria Golia’s witty and discerning portrait is -- hands-down -- the best book on Cairo. Golia, the author of acclaimed works on jazz, natural history, photography, and a forthcoming history of tomb raiding (!), writes about the Nile’s megacity with tremendous empathy, erudition, and – after 35 years of living in Cairo – an insider’s nuanced eye. Packed with humor and irony, it’s a book that begs to be read aloud. As I prepare for my own return to Egypt after a decade away, Cairo: City of Sand is first on my list.

Who am I?

I traveled the length of the Nile River from source to sea through Uganda, South Sudan, Sudan, and Egypt to write a book that the Daily Beast called "a masterful narrative of investigative reportage, travel writing, and contemporary history," and that the Village Voice named to its ten best books of the year.

I wrote...

The Black Nile: One Man's Amazing Journey Through Peace and War on the World's Longest River

By Dan Morrison,

Book cover of The Black Nile: One Man's Amazing Journey Through Peace and War on the World's Longest River

What is my book about?

Upon hearing the news of tenuous peace in Sudan, foreign correspondent Dan Morrison bought a plank-board boat, summoned a friend who'd never left America, and set out from Uganda, paddling the Nile on a quest to reach Cairo-a trip that tyranny and war had made impossible for decades. With the propulsive force of a thriller, Morrison's chronicle is a mash-up of travel narrative and reportage, packed with flights into the frightful and absurd. From the hardscrabble fishing villages on Lake Victoria to the floating nightclubs of Cairo, The Black Nile tracks the snarl of commonalities and conflicts that bleed across the Nile valley, bringing to life a complex region in profound transition.

Half a Life

By Darin Strauss,

Book cover of Half a Life

At sixteen years old, Darin Strauss had just received his first driver’s license and was on his first unsupervised drive, when a classmate, on a bicycle, swerved in front of his car.  She was killed instantly.  There was never a question of actual culpability: bystanders described the girl on the bike as literally driving in front of his vehicle, as though intentionally (a theory corroborated by suicidal thoughts recorded in her last diary entry the night before the accident). But this did not alleviate the trauma of killing someone, and the anguish and guilt that Darin Strauss carried forward for many, many years into his adult life, and probably always will. “Half a Life” refers to how he lived thereafter; halfway in his own existence, and the other half in constant preoccupation with the girl whose life was no more. This book will fill you with such empathy and compassion…

Who am I?

I am a therapist, and I work with people from all walks of life and with all manner of suffering. I am drawn to memoirs because I consider it the real self-help genre of literature. Like good therapy, a good memoir will make sense of a story: how it happened, why it happened, how it affected the person, and what they did (do) to face it, and thrive in spite of it. As a writer, I take pride in bringing that same quality to my work. I have been asked many times, “How can you bear to reveal all that stuff about yourself, especially when it’s unflattering?” The answer is always “Isn’t that the part that matters? Isn’t that the part where the growth occurred? Isn’t that what makes the story worth telling?”

I wrote...

Trailing: A Memoir

By Kristin Louise Duncombe,

Book cover of Trailing: A Memoir

What is my book about?

Something unexpected occurs when Kristin Louise Duncombe moves to New Orleans to begin her adult life as a psychotherapist: She falls madly in love with a Médecins Sans Frontières doctor, abandons all of her plans, and follows him on a medical mission to East Africa. Just when she has managed to establish a life for herself in Nairobi, a violent carjacking catapults her into a state of acute post-traumatic stress, and her life thereafter devolves into a world of intense anxiety that permeates every aspect of her existence. Forced to examine questions about her relationship, career, and personal identity, she struggles to save her marriage while facing the most difficult fight of her life: saving herself.

Probing deeply into her tumultuous search for identity, she captures the essence of the experience with extraordinary authenticity and honesty. 

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

By Elizabeth McCracken,

Book cover of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

This extraordinary book combines a lived experience with the powerful writing of an accomplished author.  Unexpectedly, in her mid-thirties, she finds a man to love and a baby is on the way. But then, the agony:  the baby dies in utero in the ninth month. She tackles head-on the deepest feelings and questions this brings. I like the way she unsparingly describes her experience and her grief, and then how she processes this and finds a way to move on. 

Who am I?

I am a psychiatrist-novelist. As a psychiatrist, I’ve seen many patients struggling with infertility and miscarriage. As a novelist, I became intrigued with the idea of having false pregnancy (pseudocyesis) be a key element in a character’s life. My primary goal was to create an engrossing good read. I also wanted to show the psychological trauma of infertility/miscarriage. Another goal was to portray psychiatric patients, the psychiatrists who treat them, and psychiatry in a realistic way. I’m so gratified by the reader reviews: “gripping”...“spell-binding”...“rich, satisfying read”...“a page-turner”...“Illuminating”.  

I wrote...

The End of Miracles: A Novel

By Monica Starkman,

Book cover of The End of Miracles: A Novel

What is my book about?

The End of Miracles is a novel that brings readers up close to a suspenseful journey, fueled by loss, across the boundaries between sanity and depression, madness and healing.

After years battling infertility, a woman’s seemingly-miraculous pregnancy brings joy. The pregnancy, however, ends tragically in a late miscarriage. Margo is devastated and emotionally shaken. Soon, though, she feels pregnant again and joy returns. But this pregnancy is false. Inevitably, her fantasy clashes with the reality of an ultrasound. Margo unravels psychologically, and her concerned husband takes her to a psychiatric unit. Fearing that the sometimes-chaotic environment there is making her worse, Margo seizes an opportunity to flee. Alone on the city streets, new fantasies propel her to impulsively commit a startling act with harrowing and dangerous consequences for herself and others.

They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us

By Hanif Abdurraqib,

Book cover of They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us

An amazing example of how music can solidify personal experience and growth, this essay collection is fueled by stunning writing and a nuanced dissection of culture and our places within it. Never heavy-handed, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us invites readers to revisit the cultural touchstones of their lives and find new entryways into memory and how it shapes our lives. 

Who am I?

Finding a voice is something I struggled with since childhood. Always afraid of being invisible or silent, finding common ground with writers who excelled at relating the human condition became a safe haven. I made a choice to focus on creative work that explores what is means to be simply human--to examine the hopes, needs, wants, and energies that make our daily lives move.

I wrote...

The Incredible Shrinking Woman

By Athena Dixon,

Book cover of The Incredible Shrinking Woman

What is my book about?

A quiet retelling of a life in the background, Athena Dixon's debut essay collection, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, is a gentle unpacking of the roles she learned to inhabit, growing up as a Black woman in a small Midwestern town, to avoid disruption. But after the implosion of the life she'd always wanted, Dixon must explore the implications of her desire to hide as she rebuilds herself in a world that expects freedom to look boisterous. As Dixon presses the bruises of her invisibility, these essays glide between the pages of fan fiction, the rush of new panties, down the rabbit hole of depression, and reemerge on the other side, speaking with the lived authority of a voice that, even when shaking, is always crystal clear.

Soul Babies

By Mark Anthony Neal,

Book cover of Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic

I am recommending this book because it took me back to Wallace and Dent’s Black Popular Culture when I was struggling to understand why my doctoral program frowned upon interdisciplinarity. This book helped me understand why I was not interested in just writing literary criticism. It gave me methodological tools and language to articulate why the research I wanted to do matters. Importantly, it also gave me a definition of the term “post-soul” that during the early 2000s was bandied about but rarely defined. I love this book because Neal was the first scholar I encountered who unapologetically claimed to be a scholar of Black popular culture.

Who am I?

I am a scholar of African Diaspora cultural studies, which means I spend a lot of time analyzing texts in various forms: books, art, film, music, and even laws and legal documents. The cultural texts I study were produced by people. I am passionate about Black popular culture, because it dismantles some of the enduring divisions between academic institutions and the people who live beyond their walls. It is a field of study that is always in flux, especially now with twenty-first-century advances that position popular culture as almost always at our fingertips.

I edited...

Are You Entertained?: Black Popular Culture in the Twenty-First Century

By Simone C. Drake (editor), Dwan K. Henderson (editor),

Book cover of Are You Entertained?: Black Popular Culture in the Twenty-First Century

What is my book about?

The advent of the internet and the availability of social media and digital downloads have expanded the creation, distribution, and consumption of Black cultural production as never before. At the same time, a new generation of Black public intellectuals who speak to the relationship between race, politics, and popular culture has come into national prominence. The contributors to Are You Entertained? address these trends to consider what culture and blackness mean in the twenty-first century's digital consumer economy.

In this collection of essays, interviews, visual art, and an artist statement the contributors examine a range of topics and issues, from music, white consumerism, cartoons, and the rise of Black Twitter to the NBA's dress code, dance, and Moonlight. Analyzing the myriad ways in which people perform, avow, politicize, own, and love blackness, this volume charts the shifting debates in Black popular culture scholarship over the past quarter-century while offering new avenues for future scholarship.


By Ben Hubbard,

Book cover of MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed Bin Salman

The assiduous New York Times reporter digs deeply into the persona of the Saudi crown prince, and is rewarded with many anecdotes. Unsurprisingly, most are anonymous. A revealing one is: “One foreign official recalled that the prince’s leg never stopped bouncing during their meeting, making him wonder if the prince was nervous or on some sort of stimulant.”

Who am I?

British by birth, American by naturalization, Simon Henderson started in journalism as a trainee at the BBC before becoming its correspondent in Pakistan. Joining the Financial Times a year later, he was promptly sent to Iran to cover the 1979 Islamic revolution and went back again for the U.S. embassy hostage crisis. He now analyzes the Gulf states, energy, and the nuclear programs of Iran and Pakistan as the Baker fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

I wrote...

After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia

By Simon Henderson,

Book cover of After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia

What is my book about?

I have written about the Saudi royal family – the House of Saud – for nearly 30 years. My first in-depth study was After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia. I followed this up in 2009 with After King Abdullah: Succession in Saudi Arabia. My latest study, A Fifty-Year Reign? MBS and the Future of Saudi Arabia published in 2019, examines the circumstances by which Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman may, or may not, become king.

Whatever happens the kingdom is changing, with social liberalization, a less central role for the Islamic religious hierarchy, and attempts to move the economy away from its dependence on oil. But MbS is an autocrat with a streak of ruthlessness, as illustrated by the detention and torture of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and the murder and dismemberment of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Tenth of December

By George Saunders,

Book cover of Tenth of December: Stories

George Saunders balances humor and horror in a way very few can, in a word: perfectly. Every single one of the stories in this collection makes me smile and laugh and then with a turn, gasp and stop reading because I need to take in what is actually happening.

Saunders is a master at creating characters that are innocent and good-hearted, yet must deal with their life choices in this (at times) cruel world. His voice is unmistakable, both endearing and dark.

Who am I?

I can’t remember a time I haven’t been drawn to and fascinated by the link between absurdity/humor and horror. Both genres involve setups and payoffs. The tension built up needs to be released in either a gasp or a laugh. In my own writing, I try to make myself giggle in joy at the ridiculousness of a situation and then recoil at the underlying horror that anchors it to the real world. It’s a balance I constantly try to reach and that I personally find is a joy to read.

I wrote...

The Carp-Faced Boy and Other Tales

By Thersa Matsuura,

Book cover of The Carp-Faced Boy and Other Tales

What is my book about?

Beautiful, haunting, and grotesque, The Carp-Faced Boy and Other Tales offers stories reminiscent of traditional Japanese folktales alongside contemporary horror fiction. Matsuura’s unique voice, in its poignancy and lightheartedness, is unforgettable.


By Natalie Scenters-Zapico,

Book cover of Lima:: Limón

I had been wanting to read this book for a while. Then I read this book. Then I realized I needed to revise my book. Then I reread the book. Then I researched Natalie Scenters- Zapico because I think I fell in love.

Who am I?

As a person who reads solely for pleasure regardless of research, I make it a mission while writing to read books I actually enjoy on topics I wanna learn more about. I chose the books on this list because I’m also a person who reads multiple books at once in various genres, it keeps me honest; aware of holes and discrepancies in my own work and pushes me towards some semblance of completion. All the writers on this list do multiple things at once and I admire their skill and risk in coupling creativity with clarity.

I wrote...

The Collection Plate: Poems

By Kendra Allen,

Book cover of The Collection Plate: Poems

What is my book about?

Looping exultantly through the overlapping experiences of girlhood, Blackness, sex, and personhood in America, award-winning essayist and poet Kendra Allen braids together personal narrative and cultural commentary, wrestling with the beauty and brutality to be found between mothers and daughters, young women and the world, Black bodies and white space, virginity and intrusion, prison and freedom, birth and death. Most of all, The Collection Plate explores both how we collect and erase the voices, lives, and innocence of underrepresented bodies--and behold their pleasure, pain, and possibility

Both formally exciting and a delight to read, The Collection Plate is a testament to Allen's place as the voice of a generation--and a witness to how we come into being in the twenty-first century.


By Jorie Graham,

Book cover of Place: New Poems

There is not a better poet writing in English. For Graham, language is a beautiful, purposeful tool and she is using it, without pretense, to dig deeper and deeper into the ground of being. She asks the questions beneath the questions, and though she does not pretend to answer them, the reader shares and marvels in her asking, in her attention to being human and alive.

Who am I?

Leah Naomi Green is the author of The More Extravagant Feast, selected by Li-Young Lee for the Walt Whitman Award of The Academy of American Poets. She received the 2021 Lucille Clifton Legacy Award for compassion, courage, truth-telling, and commitment to justice, as well an Academy of American Poets 2021 Treehouse Climate Action Poetry Prize. The More Extravagant Feast was named “one of the best books of 2020” by The Boston Globe, is a silver winner of the 2020 Nautilus Book Awards, and was featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered”. She lives in Rockbridge County, Virginia where she and her family homestead and grow or find much of their food for the year.

I wrote...

The More Extravagant Feast: Poems

By Leah Naomi Green,

Book cover of The More Extravagant Feast: Poems

What is my book about?

The More Extravagant Feast focuses on the trophic exchanges of a human body with the world via pregnancy, motherhood, and interconnection—the acts of making and sustaining other bodies from one’s own, and one’s own from the larger world. Leah Naomi Green writes from attentiveness to the vast availability and capacity of the weedy, fecund earth and from her own human place within more-than-human life, death, and birth.

Lyrically and spiritually rich, striving toward honesty and understanding, The More Extravagant Feast is an extraordinary book of awareness of our dependency on ecological systems—seen and unseen.

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