The 2000s were a tumultuous time for words printed on old-fashioned paper. Memoirs went gangbusters. A boy wizard induced literary pandemonium. The notion of reading on screens (computer screens, Kindles, iPods and so forth) exploded in popularity, causing a certain amount of hand-wringing about the fate of the book. And the very definition of truth got a rigorous debate thanks to a fellow named Frey.
Amidst that turbulent environment, a slew of memorable texts emerged: some fiction, some non-fiction, all worth reading and cherishing. Today we present our 20 favorite books across all literary genres, with reviews by Paste staff and luminaries like Rosanne Cash, Arthur Phillips and David Langness.
Wherein our hero expands upon a feature he originally wrote for Spin magazine, traveling the United States ostensibly to visit rock star death sites and tell the stories of their departed. Over the course of the book, he comes to terms with the romantic relationships he’s shared with four women, culminating in a story that, as its title humorously informs us, is 15% fiction. Exhausting? Surprisingly, no. Along the way, he names cars after Star Wars creatures, compares ladies to Kiss solo albums and makes myriad bold connections and claims involving anything from Rod Stewart to 9/11. In short, Killing Yourself to Live is everything we’ve come to expect from the mind of Chuck Klosterman. This time, he just decided to pack it into a Ford Taurus and take it on the road. Austin L. Ray
Journalist, author and pop sociologist Malcolm Gladwell’s engaging first book is still his best work to date. Gladwell dives headfirst into a paradigm hunch he’d had while covering AIDS for The Washington Post: What if all events unfolded the way epidemics do; What if everything—from business to social policy to advertising—has a Tipping Point at which it hits critical mass and begins spreading like wildfire? Writing smartly, with passion, clarity and wonder, Gladwell uses a series of convincing case studies to anchor a thought-provoking argument that—over the last decade—has helped shape the way we think about the world. Steve LaBate
Subtitled “Non-religious thoughts on Christian Spirituality,” Blue Like Jazz reads like a memoir in which Christian thinker Donald Miller invites us along on his own weird spiritual journey. Peppering the pages with hip musical references and funny stories about his friends, Miller admits that Christianity involves quite a few paradoxes but argues that the faith is still relevant in a post-modern world. Spiritual leanings aside, his tone is instantly likeable, and there’s comfort in the realization that he’s really not trying to evangelize. “My most recent faith struggle is not one of intellect. I don’t really do that anymore,” he writes. “Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don’t believe in God and they can prove He doesn’t exist, and some other guys who do believe in God and they can prove He does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it’s about who is smarter, and honestly I don’t care.” Kate Kiefer
No one expected Continuum’s 33 1/3 series to cover Céline Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love—we were used to glowing observations on records that don’t suck, like Pet Sounds and OK Computer and Exile On Main Street. Céline seems like an easy target—she’s just so detestable, especially for fellow Canadians like Globe And Mail writer Carl Wilson. But Wilson avoids cheap shots in favor of a brainy socio-cultural examination of taste: Why do so many people love her? Why do so many more people hate her? What does this say about us as culture consumers? While Love isn’t Dion’s most popular album, it’s her most egregious—mostly because it features that ubiquitous song from Titanic—and Wilson gives it his undivided attention, even attending one of her Vegas shows. Now that’s a devoted author. Kate Kiefer
Anyone can write a book set in New York; many do. Few can write about a book about the immigrant experience in New York, which is of course the real story of the city—the tired, hungry, and poor; the con and the mark; the half-lit memories of home; the joy of having arrived. Netherland has been compared to The Great Gatsby, but O’Neill has more faith in the American Dream than Fitzgerald ever did, and the America that emerges at the end of his third book is wondrously, terribly alive. Matthew Shaer
The biggest revelation was learning that the mass-market meat industry is just as cruel to its human employees as it is to those poor old cows. Schlosser’s meticulous exposé challenged Americans to think hard about what we eat, and to demand alternatives. It also forced the burger barons to make serious changes in the way they do business. Or maybe, you know, they were gonna do that anyway. Nick Marino
The Harry Potter series is an entertaining read with wide appeal and obvious references. But J.K. Rowling’s phenomenon is far from derivative. She culls from a wide array of children’s and fantasy literature, historical works and philosophical treatises to produce an original and potent story that grows in nuance and emotional realism as its central characters (and target readers) grow older. Rowling has done more than produce one of the entertainment world’s biggest brands and ignite a passion for reading in a new generation (or two). She has created a rich universe populated with compelling characters in a powerful parable of love and sacrifice. Tim Regan-Porter
A girl with a big imagination thinks she sees something. She is wrong, but she sticks to her guns. Lives are ruined. As an old woman, she wonders if she can repair her irreparable mistake. That summary seems so slight, yet this novel has stuck with me for years, and I expect it will stick with me forever. Love story, war story, childhood memories, a story about stories… “Can I make it up to you?” we lightly ask those we trespass against. What do you do when the answer is “No”? Arthur Phillips
Every so often, a book revises a people’s view of their own culture—not with theories, but by constructing a narrative based on forgotten facts and the stories of real people. Blackmon’s deep research and dispassionate prose help us understand the contemporary South by casting new light on the not-so-distant past. Slavery by Another Name won a 2009 Pulitzer Prize. It documents a system of labor conscription that was more barbaric and widespread, and more basic to the region’s history than most had realized. Ken Edelstein
David Sedaris’ breakthrough collection is a hilarious, heartwarming, eye-opening and often unnerving tour of its creator’s debilitating insecurities and rampant ego. The natural-born writer rattles off gutbusting screeds on family, drugs, art, travel, education, his too-bizarre-to-be-fabricated redneck thug of a brother “The Rooster” (“Fuck it, motherfucker. That shit don’t mean fuck to me.”) and what it’s like to be a gay carpet-bagging yankee uprooted as a child and shipped south of the Mason-Dixon line. Sedaris’ prose is effortless, charming, insightful and, above all else—real. Steve LaBate