Of course I haven't read all the highly acclaimed books of the decade. Some I wasn't even interested in. Some I started and didn't like and put down. Some I read all the way through and they still don't make this list. Many I simply haven't gotten around to.
BTW, I am going to do a separate list of religion and philosophy books.
These are the books I liked, I enjoyed, I found memorable or meaningful, or that I thought were great.
24) It Happened in Oklahoma by Robert L. Dorman
This is not a comprehensive or weighty history (I've read some of those too), but a series of interesting stories and tidbits. It was in this book that I read about the archaeological find of the oldest piece of art in North America here in Oklahoma; and later, using its description of that location, I found it during my Western Oklahoma travels during the centennial year of 2007.
23) The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
The novel served as a critique of America in the Bush years by imagining what would have happened if America had elected Charles Lindbergh, a Nazi sympathizer, in 1940. The thought experiment itself is fascinating enough, and Roth tells the story well with a tension and focus that I appreciated. But I felt that the novel didn't know how to end and the story became unwieldy as it advanced. In some ways, I think he was unable to fully commit to the potential for horror.
22) The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie
I am a sucker for Rushdie. Even when his novels do not rise to greatness, his use of language and imagery delights me. The purpose of this novel is to explore themes of interfaith dialogue and a pluralistic society, and he does it in an imaginative, fun way that also teaches us Westerners some things about Muslim and Central Asian history that we probably didn't already know.
21) The Historical Atlas of Oklahoma by Charles Robert Goins and Danney Goble
So, I've been on something of an Oklahoma history kick the last few years. This volume was published just after the centennial and is a beautiful book (and for book lovers, the joy of the physical object is itself an important part of the reading experience) filled with fascinating maps that you can stare at for long periods of time and excellent essays and sidebars on the state's history.
20) Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People by Joan Roughgarden
I used to read a lot of popular science books, but I almost never do anymore. I guess we go through phases. And this biology book I read more for the queer theory aspects. It was a fascinating, eye-opening, educational read as the book is a comprehensive and systematic overview of its topic. It's basic theme is that nature is rainbows all the way down.
19) Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie by Roxie Dunbar Ortiz
This memoir of a family which stayed in Oklahoma and struggled with poverty, race, and class issues moves the reader and records an important part of our national story. The Red in the title has many meanings. Her mother was Native American. Her father a Socialist (as this state elected more socialists to office than any state ever has). It is a reminded of the progressive history of Oklahoma and how that was defeated and the trauma it caused one family.
18) Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss
This was a delightful, funny book that reacquainted us with some of the things we have forgotten (or never knew) from junior high English. If you love language, then you must read this book. Sticklers of the world unite!
17) 2666 by Roberto Bolano
Honestly, I had originally left it off of the list. In its totality I think the book is a failure and the longer I reflect on it the more that conclusion is affirmed. But, there was some amazing writing and some amazing story-telling contained in it, and because of that, I had to find a place for it. The parts that are good are among the best things I have ever read.
16) Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
I don't read a lot of comic writing, but this collection of essays had me laughing often and retelling the stories. I probably need to peruse my copy again and, maybe, finally get around to reading some more. Sedaris, however, I prefer to listen to on the radio.
15) Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Of the Founding Fathers biography industry I have only read a few, but this is the best of those I've read (I was not a fan of McCollough's John Adams -- I know that puts me in a minority -- I prefered Truman). I learned a lot from this book and it was an engaging read. I became solidly a Hamiltonian and have found that to be important ideological ground to stake out again in our current economic situation.
14) The Best Poems of the English Language by Harold Bloom
How can mere contemporary mortals compete against the best English language of all time? The reason I included this, however, is because of Bloom's own essays and introductions and explanatory notes. Plus what he selects is itself noteworthy. He made me fall in love with poets I had never really cared for before. He introduced me to writing I did not know but now cannot live without. And he enriched my understanding of poetry, language, and myself.
13) A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
I far prefered this to The Kite Runner. I didn't dislike The Kite Runner, I just felt that the writing itself was not very strong, though the story was quite good and significant in educating Americans on Afghanistan. But this novel went even further with that, with more fascinating characters, and much stronger writing. It does influence my take on America's Afghan policies.
12) Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler
A fascinating read. I picked up a copy while on vacation and was so mesmerized that I rushed out to check out the library's copy when I got home so I could finish it. The book tells the history of the world through the history of its languages -- their rises and falls, the influences on one another (and culture, politics, etc.), and the development of images and concepts over time. Again, if you love language, you should really read this. Oh, and it was also helpful in understanding the ancient near east both for the purposes of biblical studies and contemporary global politics.
11) Atonement by Ian McEwan
I can never decide what I ultimately think of this novel. I really like his writing style (On Chesil Beach was so tightly woven, I recommend it, but it was not as broad and frustrating a story as this one). The surprising turn at the end makes for interesting reflection. The book is uneven, and, I don't think, fully sucessful. But it doesn't let you go.
10) 1776 by David McCollough
A history of the Revolutionary War that reads with the fascination of a well-told story. You think you know this story, but there is much that you don't. And what you don't is fascinating and engaging with splendid characters and turns in the plot. Seriously.
9) Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie
I read this not long after reading The Kite Runner. I thought Rushdie actually did a better job of exploring the history, culture, and issues that had generated the major international crises of this decade. The story is set in Kashmir as the peaceful coexistence and centuries old way of life of the Hindu and Muslim communities is shattered by war and fundamentalism. And, as always, the language can't be beat.
8) Plan of Attack by Bob Woodward
I don't read many current events books (and I didn't read all of Woodward's Bush saga), but I did read this one when it came out because the administration was pointing to it as a good discussion of why it was doing what it was doing. As a critic, I wanted to know more of the inside story. I came away from the book an even bigger critic than I went in. I have written on this blog many times about this book, so I won't say more now, but it was an essential part of helping to frame the public policy debate for me in this decade.
7) Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
I don't want to try to review this books separately, so, maybe unfairly, I'll take the series as a whole, but I will look through the lens of the final book The Deathy Hallows. The earlier books may have been more tightly focused, but it was with the last book that we grasped the full breadth and depth of her enterprise (and her actual writing style, not just imagination and story creation, had improved as well). What a joy it has been in this decade to participate in the global experience of reading and discussing these books with people of all ages and walks of life.
6) Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Whoever has my copy -- give it back now! A tour de force. A slice of American history I did not know. Characters and a culture that were fascinating. And a topic that could have weighed down a novel, but didn't. A grand rumination on bodies, sex, identity, culture, immigrant experience, family, shame, history, race, the city . . . and to pull it off so successfully.
5) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
This is just a good book. A good story. Good characters. Good writing. For me it also helped in the preparation for coming out, but without that personal side, it is still one of the best books of the decade.
4) Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
My favourite author begins his autobiography with this first volume about his childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, and, in the process, raises intriguing questions about memory, identity, and telling our own story. Writing about the fantastical memories of his childhood, he admits that with some of it he does not know what really happened, but that isn't so relevant as the memory which is what has actually shaped him and his story.
3) Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott
When I wasn't laughing out loud, I was crying.
2) The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
A magical fable with deep philosophical and theological concerns. This was one of those books we were reading and pressing on friends and family.
1) The Road by Cormac McCarthy
There is no dispute for me that this is the best novel of the decade. In fact I think it is automatically in the canon of American literature in a way that nothing else from this decade is assured of that place (it really wasn't a period of great literature, was it?).