Actually, constructing a canon of any kind is a little weird at the moment, when so much of how we measure cultural value is in flux. Its supposed permanence became the subject of more recent battles, back in the 20th century, between those who defended it as the foundation of Western civilization and those who attacked it as exclusive or even racist. But what if you could start a canon from scratch? We thought it might be fun to speculate very prematurely on what a canon of the 21st century might look like right now. We asked each of them to name several books that belong among the most important works of fiction, memoir, poetry, and essays since and tallied the results.
The purpose was not to build a fixed library but to take a blurry selfie of a cultural moment. Any project like this is arbitrary, and ours is no exception. But the time frame is not quite as random as it may seem. This mini-era packed in the political, social, and cultural shifts of the average century, while following the arc of an epic narrative perhaps a tragedy, though we pray for a happier sequel.
They also reflected the fragmentation of culture brought about by social media.
A Premature Attempt at the 21st Century Canon
But given the sheer volume of stuff published each year, it is remarkable that a survey like this would yield any kind of consensus—which this one did. Almost 40 books got more than one endorsement, and 13 had between three and seven apiece. At least one distinctive new style has dominated over the past decade.
Whether it changes the world is, as always with books, not really the point. It helps us see more clearly. Better not launch this canon into space just yet. By Christian Lorentzen. It is also, more precisely, a novel about universal human potential. A boy undertakes rigorous training and goes in search of his father.
What makes it a story of our time is that the boy lives in an insufficiently heated London flat with a single mother. What makes it singular is that his training begins at age 4, when he starts to learn ancient Greek, before quickly moving on to Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Japanese, Finnish, etc. Is this boy, Ludo, a genius? Sibylla, his mother, is of two minds about it.
Mill, who did Greek at age 3. So a novel that appears on the surface to be elitist — concerned as it is with great works of art, scientific achievement, and excellence generally — is actually profoundly anti-elitist at its core.
She knows it happened to her parents — a teenage-whiz father who was accepted to Harvard but made to go to seminary by his Christian father; and a musical prodigy mother who never went back to Juilliard for a second audition — and to herself. Whatever the world had in store for Sibylla changed forever the night Ludo was conceived.
Per our panel. The Corrections , by Jonathan Franzen September 1, 6 votes Arriving in bookstores ten days before the September 11 attacks, The Corrections recounts the tragicomic breakdown of a 20th-century American dream of middle-ness: midwestern and middle-class. The Lamberts, with their mentally disintegrating patriarch, Christmas-obsessed mother, and grown siblings tackling depression, professional failure, adultery, and celebrity chefdom, may not seem as universal as they once did, but the sensation of certainties evaporating as we pitch headlong into this still-young century has only gotten stronger.
The Same Sea
DISSENT: Freedom August 31, I prefer this in large measure because it focuses on a feature of human life that has gotten less fictional coverage than family and love: male friendship. The ratio of taut plot to ghastly subject matter is disturbingly effective. Kathy H. The questions it raises are perfectly of-our-century. Never Let Me Go is a prime example of an author with impeccable taste in ideas and the control to execute them.
Most authors are lucky if they have one of those things going for them. This novel is a rare symphony of both. How Should a Person Be? Slipping imperceptibly from ironic to earnest, challenging to chatty, her voice is sui generis and ideally suited to capturing the experience of making art — and decisions — in the modern world. The concerns of her breakout work of autofiction include sex, self-documentation, aesthetics, and friendship, as well as the titular question. The title is a perfect joke, a mission statement of deranged grandiosity, straight-faced and self-aware. Across four books and over the lifetimes of its two unforgettable main characters, the Neapolitan quartet explores female rage, agency, and friendship with a raw power.
All that over a decade when women have begun to express their anger and agency in new ways. Lila and Elena grow up inured to the violence and corruption that defines their hometown of Naples in the s, even as they yearn for something better: beauty amidst the ugliness, and intellectual fulfillment, which can be as heady as romantic love. Her 21st-century classic is structurally just that kind of awoke re-shuffling. The book is a world: teeming, immeasurable, unplumbable, materially solid but finally enigmatic.
Yet Faye is less a protagonist than a character-shaped black hole, pulling stories and confessions out of everyone she encounters as if by inexorable gravitational force. Their disclosures allow Cusk to examine the ways we try and fail to make meaning out of life. The result is fiction like ice water, cold and clear, a mirror of our time. At the same time, the novel opens out into a deeply moving portrait of England careerning from the quiescent s into the horrors of World War II.
A bravura account of the Allied retreat from Dunkirk stands as one of the most indelible combat scenes in recent literature, slamming home the confusion, terror, and banality of war with visceral immediacy. The 21st century is young, but this one will be on this list 50 years from now. The narrator, a self-loathing stoner American poet on a fellowship in Madrid, is a privileged jackass trying to appear deep. How can we live with our own fraudulence? Why should we make art, and what kind of art can we make now?
To all these questions Atocha Station is an answer. DISSENT: September 2, is the story of a poet and novelist the author of a book very much like Leaving the Atocha Station as he contemplates in vitro uncoupled parenthood, radical politics, fleeting love, and a looming, potentially lethal arterial condition. Lerner moves from touristic escapism and the question of artistic fraudulence to the deeper burdens of settling, reproducing, and creating something great. On top of that he gives the much bemoaned Brooklyn novel a good name. Kushner sets her heroine, Reno, in the middle of all of it, usually astride her battered Moto Valera; passionate, vulnerable, relentlessly curious, and only a little bit compromised.
The book is a feminist action-adventure, a love note to the last decade before neoliberalism choked the world, and a monument to sheer gumption. Books endorsed by two panelists. Erasure , by Percival Everett August 1, The University of Southern California English professor has published some 30 volumes, mostly fiction, and Erasure is among his best. A comic romp through academic pieties and perversities, it centers on a literary hoax gone bad, in ways that predicted our current higher-educational climate.
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Everett is always, in a sense, writing about race, and always not. He also writes about himself — and not — with a Hitchcock-like cameo in the form of a derelict-in-his-duty, wastrel of a literature professor by the name of Percival Everett. Downtown Manhattan is their center of gravity, but these characters have been scattered, before waking up to find themselves so much human debris in the wake of personal failures, betrayals, and AIDS. The Known World , by Edward P. Jones August 14, This intimate portrait of the great national nightmare of slavery comes disguised in the britches and mourning dresses of an antebellum historical novel.
It was widely praised upon publication for revealing an obscure chapter of American history — free people of color who owned slaves — but the history itself was largely invented. Having denied the consolations of historical distance, The Known World forces a reckoning with a moral horror that lives still. The novel begins in a buzz of fear and the pitch increases steadily, unbearably.
The Line of Beauty follows a young gay man, Nick, who lives with the family of a Tory MP under Thatcher — who makes an unforgettable cameo appearance. This is the story of two initiations. How we care for people in pain is at the heart of this moving, unsentimental look at our fragility, written with remarkable metaphorical and lyrical power. This is McCarthy at his most restrained, and consequently most resonant.
There is no fiction subject more trendy and more urgent than the multifarious possible ends of the world; McCarthy led the way, and might be impossible to surpass. Some poets are easy to love; Seidel is so good you revere him despite yourself. He also captures the absurd melancholy of modern existence in dark, crystalline stanzas.
It could be written for an audience in ascendancy, told in vernacular but expertly formed and composed. It could concern the intensely personal, but telescope out to the historic and the political. The astounding Oscar Wao did all of that, leaving us with a lasting understanding of the American experience as encompassing lives beyond our blinkered borders. The Chameleon On November 14, , technicians at the Stade nuclear power plant, just outside Hamburg, switched off the kilowatt reactor for the last time.
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Get Started. About Store Membership Print Podcast. Facebook Twitter. It deals with a taboo topic and is meant for adult listeners only. This story is for all those who have ever wanted to see President Obama in person but couldn't. It tells what it was actually like to be there among the 50, or so other people that day, March 7, , when the first black president of the United States of America came to speak at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
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Is there anything you wish you could do over? This is a very short audiobook about regret, and trying to live in such a way that you never have to have that again in your life. What is the key to doing that? One question At the first one I thanked the people who came to hear me, and told them I thought they had a right to know if I could write or not, right from the beginning.
So I told them I would play them the audio version of "The Killing of Train-Man Brown", and that afterward, if anyone wanted to leave, there would be no hard feelings. No one left. What can you do, what can you say, when your child becomes discouraged? I said nothing. I wrote this letter to her instead. Tell your child you care.
That she's wonderful and special. This is not an e-book or a short story. This is merely a piece of short prose. Do not purchase it expecting it to be a longer piece. It is not. It is what it is. This story came to me in the form of a letter and email, and I am publishing it with the author's permission, I hope, word for word, with nothing changed or left out except the author's name and the city where he lives In the time of Eric Garner's death, what happens when a white man "can't breath.
Will Bevis is a prolific writer of short, sometimes very controversial slice-of-life stories, articles, essays, and memoirs that make you feel you are right there, experiencing the story as it happens. Many are also available as audiobooks.