Note: this post originally came out in October, 2016 and has been updated with additional recommendations as of July, 2018.
I want to hit the pause button on the travel talk for just a second. The National Authors Day is coming up, and that has gotten me thinking about all the working authors and how some of their works have deeply inspired me.
Thanks to the plethora of free literary classic on Kindle, I sometimes have a hard time justifying purchasing new books instead of getting an old one for free. Especially when the list of classics I still want to read is so long (the complete works of Wharton and Tolstoy come to mind). However, there is something magical about reading a new book (maybe even a new author) and falling hard. Beyond just the pleasure of reading a good book, it’s wonderful to think that its creator is out there, planning, drafting, editing, the next thing that will surprise you. Edith Wharton is amazing (for reals), but her cannon is complete. Something fresh by an author not even at their peak yet, that’s special.
So in honor of National Author’s Day, here are ten books that changed my life written in the last decade.
This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
This book is sad. Sad. Sad. Sad. Sad Sad. Every vignette is a heartbreaker. I put it down and picked it up over and over. I did that, not because I didn’t love it, but because every time I finished a section, I needed time to recover. Can a book about a guy who can’t stop cheating be devastating, even when you never feel too much sympathy for the women? Yup.
Junot Diaz is a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner, so it’s no surprise this is exquisitely crafted. But it’s the emotional devastation that the main character Yunior goes through, losing women and family, that stays with you. So if you want to read the “Cheater’s Guide to Love,” and see how the incredibly macho Yunior has his heart broken over and over, pick this up. I finished it three years ago, and I think about it monthly.
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Note: Since this list was first compiled, Junot Diaz has been accused of sexual misconduct. While I find his behavior abhorrent, I still think this book was a great read. However, this changes my understanding of the novel, which I still believe is worth reading.
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
I fell in love hard with The Magicians and the two follow-up novels The Magician King and The Magician’s Land. So much so that I’ve actually written about it before. And no, I’ve never seen the Syfy show, and I don’t plan on it for a long time. These could arguably be my favorite books ever of all time the end, and I don’t want to visit someone else’s interpretation of them. That could change in the future.
The gist here is brilliant. Quentin goes to Hogwarts and then saves Narnia. Here Narnia is called Fillory, and Hogwarts is a college of magic for Americans. The age change means that these books are full of sex and drugs and adult angst. And instead of being a precocious child whose innocence wins the day, Quentin is kind of an asshole. Everyone is an asshole. Magic is messed up shit. If Grossman wanted to write twenty more in this series, I would gobble them up.
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Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
I wanted to love Sweetbitter. I heard about it during an interview on NPR (where else?). The author is about my age. The novel is set right around the time that I was moving to Philadelphia from college to figure out how to be a grown-up. The main character is moving to New York for similar reasons. And there’s lots of gossip and men and city life. I wanted to love it.
But I hated it. The characters are stereotypes. This is Coyote Ugly in a restaurant dressed up as literature. I couldn’t tell where the author’s experiences ended and the character’s experiences began. Nothing seemed consequential. The descriptions of the restaurant industry were interesting, but beyond that, yuck.
So why is this on my list? How did it change my life? It’s not my favorite book. It didn’t leave me with a wrenching heartache. Instead, it cured me of the wish to write something similar. The women of my generation will be the heroines of many novels, but we came up in a sex-blog and Sex and the City culture that was fascinating fifteen years ago. Maybe even ten years ago. But it’s played to death, and we need to move on to deeper stories.
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Dear Life by Alice Munro
Alice Munro is a Canadian short story goddess. I think a professor gave me an assignment the last time I read a short story outside of a writing workshop. If I was going to invest in a book, why wouldn’t I just grab a novel? Why invest thirty pages in one story, and then turn around and have the next forty about something else for it’s all the same author?
Oh, I was so wrong. This collection made me reconsider the entire art form. I’m in love. Her stories gloss together, so by the end, you don’t have a character or narrative in your head. Instead, it’s a series of jarring moments: a child drowning, the moment a mother realizes her children have been murdered, a woman left broken-hearted and unable to recover.
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Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder
I first heard about Bloodlands on an episode of the New York Review of Books podcast. They interviewed Timothy Snyder, and his voice and vision hit me. So many new books about World War II are garbage, but Snyder had something completely new to say. In this book, he looks at eastern Europe as a block influenced by its location in reaction to Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia and how those two nations, in concert, affected the local populations.
If the Holocaust has a place, and that place is in Eastern Europe, then that changes how we think about and study it. World War II is just a chapter in a decades-long saga of mass killings in the region, and Snyder ties Stalin’s starving the Ukrainians to the Nazi’s extermination of the Jews, to both sides’ treatment of partisans, in one devastating history.
I have sought out Snyder’s work over and over since I read this about five years ago. As revolutionary as this book is, he did it again with Black Earth. I even get excited when I see he has a new podcast interview out. It’s rare for someone to make you think about old ideas in completely new ways, and Snyder does that for me every single time.
Update: Since this article was originally published, Timothy Snyder has come out with another literary hit. Check out On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century which speaks to today’s political climate.
Check prices on Amazon for Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder
Hell and Good Company by Richard Rhodes
Even for a serious history fan, there were so many pretty little blanks in my head when I left college. I rectified Roman history when I got into Dan Carlin and Mike Duncan’s podcasts. I went deep into Mongolian history with Dan Carlin and a few great books from Audible. I’ve brushed up my World War I, my understanding of Mayan and Aztec cultures, explored Indian history, and read up on the dynasties of ancient China. But the Spanish Civil War? I couldn’t tell you much beyond Franco, Nazis, Guernica.
Then I heard a podcast episode from Melvin Bragg about the topic, and I had to know more. IMMEDIATELY.
And Hell and Good Company: the Spanish Civil War and the World it Made was just the ticket. Thorough. Interesting. Well-written. Well-narrated (I grabbed the audiobook for a road trip). Gap closed.
Check prices on Amazon for Hell and Good Company: the Spanish Civil War and the World it Made by Richard Rhodes.
Lives of the Artists by Calvin Tomkins
The subtitle of the Lives of the Artists is Portraits of Ten Artists Whose Work and Lifestyles Embody the Future of Contemporary Art. The author is an art critic for The New Yorker magazine. Tomkins crafted this by pulling from his collection of New Yorker profiles to create a list of the most enigmatic working artists today.
If, like me, you love museums but don’t know the art world, this is a glimpse of how deep and shallow that world can be: the cult of the personality covering up serious work, the blurred lines between art and Hollywood, and what it means to be at the top of the art game.
Check prices on Amazon for Lives of the Artists by Calvin Tomkins.
Fascinate by Sally Hogshead
I just discovered this one last month, while listening to an interview with the author on an episode of the Social Pros podcast. About halfway through the interview, I hit the pause button, opened up Audible, and bought the book. Then I listened to it feverishly.
Fascinate is about how to figure out the best marketing strategy for a brand, but it also applies to people’s personal brands. (She actually has a separate book focused on individuals, but the lessons are the same and this is the book I found first). Don’t take my word for it, take this personality quiz and see if you think she knows what she’s talking about.
If you’re struggling with shaping your personal brand, this will help you immediately. The friend I recommended it to used it to reshape her job search, that’s how insightful it is.
This marketing book gave me the clarity of a thousand self-help books. I can’t sing its praises enough.
Check prices on Amazon for Fascinate by Sally Hogshead.
Great by Choice by Jim Collins
Great by Choice came ten years after Collins’ smash success Good to Great. In the intervening time, he went further into his research on what decisions great companies make and how they differ from their competition.
I read this around the time it came out, and while I don’t remember the case studies or data points, the central messages have never left me. I read it when I was in sales management, but now that I’ve changed careers it might be time to dust off the cover of the old Kindle eBook and give this one another spin.
Check prices on Amazon for Great by Choice by Jim Collins
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Ruben
Happiness doesn’t happen to you. Happiness is something you do. You create it. You seek it out by knowing yourself and building your habits and world in a way that makes sense for you.
I can’t remember if I heard about Gretchen Rubin’s blog or her book first, but I love both. And her podcast. Basically, I love all her stuff. She’s nothing like me. Her life is nothing like mine. But she is able to distill happiness research and lessons in a way that goes beyond the personal (that makes ME happy) to a framework for creating happiness in your own life (this is how ONE creates happiness).
This book documents her own efforts to make herself happier through measurable goals, and she always is striving for good, not perfect. This is funny, inspiring, and thoughtful.
Update: Since this post came out, Ruben has released a new book, which is also fantastic. If you’re already devoured the Happiness Project, then check out The Four Tendencies!
So these are my ten books that changed my life written in the last ten years. Do you have any recent books to recommend? If so, please share!
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