The New Canon: 15 Modern Classics You Should Read Right Now

People may tell you that literature is dying, but plenty of authors are hard at work redefining the book world with groundbreaking and mind-bending works sure to be read and reread for quite some time. With so many books vying to be the next “Great American Novel”, this is merely a list of those who have earned their eminence and moved a generation some believed was devoid of literacy. Let us know what makes your list of modern classics in the comments.

1. Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)

What is it about?

Spanning three generations, this novel chronicles a hermaphrodite’s shift in gender identity in 1960’s Detroit. The story jumps between Greece, Detroit and San Francisco in this moving coming-of-age tale with a twist.

Why you should read it:

While Oprah sang this novel’s praises by including it in her book club, Eugenides is a very skilled storyteller that understands the often-complicated relationship between family and sexuality.

2.The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen (2001)

What is it about?

Centered around a family from the American Midwest, The Corrections tells the story of a dying patriarch’s three children as they suffer the consequences of modern American life.

Why you should read it:

Still relevant over ten years later, the Corrections foresees the inevitable shift the 21st century will have on the American psyche. Franzen’s portrait may be sprawling and humorous, but most important it is deeply personal.

3.The Fortress of Solitude – Jonathan Lethem  (2003)

What is it about?

Two boys growing up in 1960’s New York City receive superpowers, but must suffer the consequences of adolescent haberdashery when their newfound talents put them in a lot of trouble.

Why you should read it:

Lethem knows how to intersperse a litany of historical and cultural artifacts without sparing the past of its nostalgic and emotional burdens.

4. Gilead – Marilynne Robinson (2006)

What is it about?

As Father Ames faces his final days, he recounts his family’s past all the way back to the civil war. A meditation upon death and a subtle examination of daily American life, Robinson seems to be searching for the roots of spiritual transcendence in the ordinary.

Why you should read it:

Don’t be fooled by the plot; this novel does away with the bells and whistles to dissect the emotional and moral foundations we hold ourselves upon.

5. White Teeth – Zadie Smith (2000)

What is is about?

Set in modern London, Zadie Smith’s debut novel chronicles Bangladeshi and Jamaican families as they struggle to express their identity in an increasingly saturated society.

Why you should read it:

Smith has no intention to make grandiose statements about the modern immigrant condition. Rather, White Teeth is an unbiased view of modern urban life through the lens of characters we learn to love and hate in startlingly uncanny fashion.

6. The Savage Detectives – Roberto Bolaño (Published posthumously in English in 2007)

What is it about?

Set over several decades all around the world, the novel tells the story of an elusive Mexican poetry group called the Visceral Realists–and those just as eager to find its origins.

Why you should read it:

Roberto Bolaño’s posthumous popularity is still growing, but considering the depth of this novel, it’s no wonder that this encyclopedic and complex novel will continue to be read for years to come.

7. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell (2004)

What is is about?

Cloud Atlas is a compilation of six different stories set in the past, present and future, from the South Pacific to rural Belgium to a futuristic South Korea. It is told in Matryoshka-doll fashion about people facing their mortality while realizing they are part of a deeper, more transcendent pattern of life.

Why you should read it:

While the movie championed hope and personal connectivity, an attentive read of this challenging book is doubly rewarding.

8. Joseph O’Neill – Netherland (2008)

What is it about?

Netherland tells the story of Dutch immigrant Hans as he tries to adapt to a post 9/11 New York City by joining the Staten Island Cricket Club.

Why you should read it:

New York City has long been the setting of the immigrant novel, but O’Neill writes a more mature version of the American Novel, where the page is not necessarily a hub of falsifiable ideals.

9. Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami (2002)

What is it about?

Haruki Murakami’s novel is a mind-bending retelling of Oedipus Rex from the vantage point of a 15 year old boy named Kafka, though Murakami’s world is a place where nothing is as it seems.

Why you should read it:

Kafka on the Shore may be confusing, but Murakami’s language is surprisingly approachable considering the inherent complexity of the content.

10. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon (2000)

What is it about?

Similar to The Fortress of Solitude, this coming-of-age tale combines the cultural nostalgia of comic books amid a world that is slowly losing its innocence. When Josef Kavalier escapes Nazi-occupied Prague, he joins his brother in creating a world-famous comic book, The Escapist, resulting in a intricately-woven saga brimming with the American Spirit.

Why you should read it:

Chabon has released several successful works since Kavalier and Klay, but few, if any, match this novel’s unbounded energy.

11. House of Leaves – Mark Danielewski(2000)

What is it about?

House of leaves is another mind-bending tale combining horror and postmodern satire that literally flips the haunted house-story upside-down. When a tattoo artist enters the house of a recently-deceased man, he discovers a manuscript about a shape-shifting house that drives its tenants to unspeakable actions.

Why you should read it:

This work will immediately redefine your conception of postmodern literature. Reading this book is frustrating and at times seemingly impossible, but Danielewski revives the journeying spirit that so many novels lack.

12. A Visit From the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan (2010)

What is it about?

A series of connected short stories, a story about the impermanence of time moves too quickly for the musician characters to even keep up.

Why you should read it:

Egan references Marcel Proust in the epigraph, and this novel serves as a good introduction/substitute to the timeless but lengthy In Search of Lost Time, at least for those who don’t have time for 3000+ page novels.

13. Life of Pi – Yann Martel (2001)

What is it about?

Recently made into an oscar-winning production, Yann Martel’s novel is an exploration of spirituality through the eyes of a precocious boy lost in the Pacific with a tiger on a lifeboat.

Why you should read it:

Not only is the novel’s language accessible, but the story takes on different forms when told to different people, and most people who read it end up with a completely different interpretation of the story.

14. Junot Diaz – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)

What is it about?

The story of a young Dominican boy named Oscar Wao becomes a deep exploration into three generations of a cursed family who struggle to make ends meet in New Jersey as immigrants.

Why you should read it:

Dr.Who, Dominican and Jersey vernacular and the odd literary reference all make their way into this novel, capturing youth in America in a few authors have done before.

15. Cormac McCarthy – The Road (2006)

What is it about?

Set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, The Road is a less political than personal novel about a father and a son salvaging whatever shred of humanity they can find in the bleakest of worlds.

Why you should read it:

McCarthy has retold the Frontier experience with a nightmare vision about the failure of humanity in such a way that makes you cling to the characters like the last remaining threads of a tattered coat.

53 thoughts on “The New Canon: 15 Modern Classics You Should Read Right Now

  1. EK says:

    There is nothing I hope more than for “Goon Squad” to die a quick, horrible death. Egan’s book is nothing but fluff disguised as wit. It’s filled with flat character types and rock ‘n roll cliches. It has no right on any “best of” lists. much less the distinction of being canonized. I just can not contain my disdain of this book; poor construction and just plain bad writing from first to last. But hey, she quoted Proust, right? She’s gotta know literature if she quotes Proust! Right? RIGHT?!

    Side note: “House of Leaves” deserves high praise and is worth the effort to read. It’s not nearly as difficult as most people seem to make it out to be, but it will demand your full attention, lest you miss any of the amazing detail put into that work.

    • qwiklit says:

      I wouldn’t exactly call it ‘fluff’. Egan presents many characters living what they believe to be their ideal life (or rock bottom), but are nevertheless torn away by time. I’m not saying it’s good because she references Proust, but I think that the story’s design says a lot about the American experience.

      • elk5048 says:

        Firstly, let me say that, upon retrospect, the quotation comment seems a bit snarkier toward you, the blogger, than I had initially planned. Blame it on my vehement hatred of Egan’s book.

        Continuing:

        The most definite thing Egan does in “Goon Squad” is present many characters. Many, many characters. All very similar and relatively indistinguishable from one another. Each living stereotypical rockstar/ music biz lives. She’s not presenting or saying anything new about these people or the lives they lead. All of the necessary props are there: drugs, sex, music, criminal activity. From line one of the “novel” (and let’s face it, this book is a collection of loosely linked short stories; in my world, that does not a novel make) it feels like we’ve been here and done this, whether “here” is VH1 Behind the Music, or “this” is a movie like “Rockstar,” except without Markie Mark. And none of this even touches the fact that not one of Egan’s characters is in the least bit likable. I mean, if Nabokov can make a pedophile even slightly likable, why can’t Egan make me empathize with a single character in her bloated book? Perhaps it’s just me, but I would think that American consumers of pop culture and art would be sick of being asked to relate to people (real or not) who had everything they wanted, but threw it all away over poor decision which they have consciously made.
        Maybe this is what you mean when you speak of the American Experience, but I see very little about the American Experience that I and millions of others face every day. The AE that is tackled in the book is made of obvious points and seems, like most of the book, incredibly forced. Yes, we know that people have an unhealthy dependency on technology that separates them from human interaction as seen in the incredibly tedious scene of two people texting each other from across a cafe table. What Egan is saying here, again, is nothing new. It’s simplistic observation posing as insightful commentary.
        Now, I’ve seen a lot of the praise for this book center around the PowerPoint chapter. I will give Egan this, the young girl who narrates the PPT chapter is probably the most interesting character in the book. Unfortunately, such little time is spent with this girl that we can’t make a total connection with her, and she does not reappear anywhere else in the book. Add to that the distance created between the viewer of a PPT and its creator, and the connection becomes even more scrambled. The general purpose of a PPT presentation is to present information while taking the focus off of the presenter, which could be a wonderful conceit for a writer who actually wants to explore the effects of technology on social culture. But in Egan’s smug, fumbling hands, this PPT chapter is just a cutesy gimmick (make no doubt; this is a gimmick, not thoughtful experimentation) that robs us of a closeness to the only potentially interesting character in Egan’s near 300 page rambler.
        What bothers me most about the praise Egan and her overblown writing get (Pulitzer? Really? WTF? as I’m sure Egan says) is that there are so many great writers out there that get snubbed in so many major “best of lists,” Daniel Woodrell and Arthur Phillips are two that come to mind as phenomenal writers who deserve much more coverage in the lit world than they currently receive (and I’m sure there are plenty of great writers that I have yet to find who get even less attention). The only explanation I can find is that
        Egan’s publisher and agents threw more money and publicity at this gimmick than at other, more substantial works.
        All I can hope for this book is that it die, quickly and in immense pain, like a book grabbed up by a fireman in “Fahrenheit 451.” In fact, if this is the future of the “Great American Novel,” then I can certainly sympathize with the antagonists of Bradbury’s dystopia.

        Last note, more direct:

        I apologize if it seems that I have hijacked your blog. It is your site and your are certainly entitled to your opinion, as anyone else. I am just so incredibly in protest of this novel and the suggestion that it be canonized has sent me into a dizzy spell in defense of all thing literary. I haven’t read all of the books on this list, but I do agree with a few inclusions like Danielewski, McCarthy, and Bolano. But much of the list seems very commercial. I contend that the group of books written in the 21st century that attain canonical status will be composed greatly of books that have been snubbed or simply glazed over in favor of publicity for those pushed by publisher. I simply do not think that much of today’s writing will stand the test of time, and I think “Goon Squad,” with it’s gimmicks and thin and detestable characters, will hardly be remembered in short time.

        Thanks for the response to my initial comment, by the way. Though I hold a conflicting view on this subject, it is a pleasure to discourse with you and your readers on this subject.

      • qwiklit says:

        I do agree the PPT chapter was gimmicky, but I think your “bloated”-ness comment is a bit off because your impression of this book is that it is messy and disorganized, which is true if you were expecting one streamlined plot, but is untrue considering some of things Egan was trying to do. Just like Danielewski’s novel (or, considering Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, or even Lethem/Chabon’s use of an integrated, comic-book style, Goon Squad presents a convergence of voices, and not one authoritative one. This list is only an offering and not a concrete proclamation of what *is* literature, but I believe that this style speaks more to what America is today than what it was 50 years ago. That being said, though, I appreciate your criticism, I would rather see people challenge this list then regurgitate it at wine-and-cheese parties.

      • extraspeciald says:

        While I don’t feel nearly as violent toward Goon Squad as EK does, I certainly agree that it’s a thin, overrated book full of cardboard characters. Down with it!

  2. PS says:

    Interesting list, have read seven out of 15, didn’t much like ‘The Corrections’, could not complete ‘Kavalier & Clay’. ‘House of Leaves’ sound interesting.

  3. maryka says:

    I would nominate “Everything is Illuminated” by Jonathan Safran Foer. So funny, poignant and beautifully written. The book is so much richer than the film (which I also enjoyed).

    • Yes! This was my first thought, that “Everything is Illuminated” should be on this list. Have only read four of these, but some of them are on my list of to-reads. Must say, “Middlesex” is an amazing work.

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  5. Karenmarie says:

    Read three and agree that they are stunning: Middlesex, Kavalier & Klay, The Road. Hated and didn’t finish Life of Pi and White Teeth. Have Kafka on the Shore and Cloud Atlas on my shelves to read, and look forward to researching the other 8. The descriptions on quite a few say how challenging they are and sometimes it’s good to read a challenging book. Just not always.

  6. Robert Davidson says:

    Did he/she pick that list from other reading lists or were those books actually read? With few exceptions, there must be 200 novels that are better. How about ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Half-time Walk’, and
    Alan Furst novel, ‘Mountains of the Moon’, ‘Wolf Hall’, ‘Serena’, any Daniel Woodrell novel, for starters?

  7. I found house of leaves to be wonderful and kind of awful at the same time. I read it almost obsessively (as had a few of my friends) ad enjoyed every moment but when I was done with it, for she reason I didn’t want to keep it in my house! There is just something kind of unsettling abut this one, well wrth the time ad effort though.

  8. I have read most of these, but 12. A Visit From the Goon Squad was unreadable horseshit to me, no matter how much it’s lauded. Love the other picks! I highly recommended ANYTHING by Murakami as well.

  9. Greg says:

    I read a lot of non-fiction and fiction and usually finish what I start. This list has three books I never finished! The worst was Savage Detectives — hundreds of pages on a group of poets without a word of their poetry! Finished and didn’t like White Teeth and works of Franzen and Chabon other than those on this list. The Diaz novel on this list is very good, his other works not as good. Pi and the Road are OK. I intend to read Cloud Atlas because I liked the movie. Overall, I guess I’m not “post modern” — Love the 19th century French, Russian and English classics, 20th century Third World and American Black writers, leftie and feminist novelists like Marge Piercy. Most “post modern” work poses no alternative to the “post modern” hyper-commercial, monopoly capitalist culture.

    • Christine says:

      I like this–I guess I’m not “post modern” either! I hated Goon Squad and Oscar Wao. Life of Pi didn’t do anything for me. Kavalier & Clay was ok, but I prefer Chabon’s other books. Slogged through Franzen’s Freedom, so am not motivated to try Corrections. I might try a couple of the others on this list, but am taking commenters’ replies into serious consideration!

  10. old mama says:

    I wish you would enhance your influence by using the word “comprise” correctly. It means to include, to embrace, to contain. Never say “is comprised of.” Instead, say “comprises.” If you must use the “is … of” construction, say “is made up of.” Thank you.

  11. Julie says:

    Well, the four books I’ve read that are on the list (Middlesex, Adv of Kevalier & Klay, Life of Pi and yes, Visit from the Goon Squad) are all books I loved. Yes, I loved Visit from the Goon Squad. Maybe because I knew people like the characters in the book and could really relate to it. I can’t wait to check out the other titles (many of which are already in my queue to read), because it appears the blogger and I have similar taste in books. Thank you for the list.

  12. lynda self says:

    I couldn’t finish The Goon Squad either, but i loved so many of these: The Life of Pi, White Teeth (and her new novel NW), The Road, and especially Netherland and Gilead. Some i haven’t read, but i have made a list. Thanks.

  13. Betty says:

    Kreeg deze lijst van mijn schoonzoon. Heb er zeven gelezen en ga kijken of de andere acht ook vertaald zijn in het Nederlands.

  14. I’ve read almost all of these, and they’re fine, of course. I join you in highly recommending them, but sheesh — I am so effing bored by what passes for “great” American fiction these days. Over-edited, constipated products of a narrow-minded literary establishment that is utterly full of itself, laughably incestuous, seriously sexist and desperately in need of a proctologist. This list might serve as the colonoscopy.

    • Larry V says:

      I left my own comment below, but I have to give Joni’s comment a real thumb’s up. A better title for this opinion list might have been: Is This the Best This Generation Can Do?

  15. Nik says:

    “We Were the Mulvaneys” by Joyce Carol Oates belongs on the list. The only one I would really argue with is “The Corrections.” I am one of the many that loathed that book. “Middlesex” definitely belongs at number one.

  16. Is it really possible that only 3 of the top 15 modern must-reads are written by women? This list skews too male & postmodern for my taste. I loved The Corrections, White Teeth, and Kafka on the Shore, though.

  17. It seems the prerequisite for being a “classic” these days is that a lot of hard work has to go into the reading of them. Can’t be simply a beautifully written fine story, like The Yellow Birds for example. And me with a couple of English degrees. Back to Middlemarch for me.

  18. mirabile-dictu says:

    How to cause a controversy in three words or less, ‘Top ______ List.”

    To all of those leaving comments on what does or does not constitute the best of modern literature: put your pants on! This is opinion people. Not fact.

    To the blogger–thank you. I have read, and been entertained by (if not in love with) most of the books listed. I will definitely check out those I have yet to read.

  19. Emmeso says:

    So many of these are all art and no heart. Could not make it through Cloud Atlas, Life of Pi, and several others. Is there any here that actually make you *feel* anything? I’m often left just thinking, “Oh how clever… ” but really, are there any stories here anyone *cared* about? Or is that just a sign of the times? I mean, I liked White Teeth, Oscar Wao, The Road, Middlesex, The Corrections, but I can’t say I really cared about what happened to any of the characters or in the story, for the most part. I’m an avid reader, but find I just have to drag myself through so many current “classic” books before I give up and reread something that has a little soul.

  20. Larry V says:

    Have read about half the list. Agree with about a third of it. One special note: Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was pretentious crap.
    The complaints about there only being 3 women on the list point precisely the problem with such a list in the first place. It will be viewed primarily through the lens of politics, not literature, and with such a ‘hot’ list, it’s guaranteed that it will change by Monday. Why not just pick the last ten books you read, or what’s on the NYT BS list, or use a dartboard. Except for the Overblown Life of Junot Diaz, of the books I’ve read, all were competent and entertaining, but I’m unlikely to hand any of them to my grandchildren and say you must read this. It has withstood the test of time. It’s much more likely we’ll all be saying Jonathan Who in twenty years.

  21. Rose says:

    Cloud Atlas, The Road, and Middlesex I loved and will never forget. Life of Pi was enjoyable but I’ve mostly forgotten it already. Oscar Wao and The Corrections can be bumped off the list as far as I’m concerned.

  22. I’ve read four of these and tend to agree with the choices, except for one: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I thought it was drastically overrated. Yes, it put certain demographics in the spotlight that were previously under-represented, and that’s fine, but besides that? Not much there in there.

    I think John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars might be a worthy addition to this list too.

  23. The list is almost two-thirds white men and that depresses me. That aside, House of Leaves & Oscar Wao were amazing (Diaz does cool things with Dominican history & culture & of course race in America & it’s actually really rewarding if you read it from that perspective; House of Leaves is just plain fun to read). The Road was cruel & sad & depressing & so, so good. I wanna read Savage Detectives, Cloud Atlas, & Kafka on the Shore. Most of the others (especially the ones written by a Jonathan) sound like the same old pretentious-WASP-who-thinks-they-are-profound-and-won’t-shut-up song and dance. Yawn.

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  26. shaunti knauth says:

    What is with the plot summary of Fortress of Solitude??!! there was no magical ring in that book, and no mad-cap fun either. Great book, but not as described here.

    • Robert Davidson says:

      Where angels fear to tread . . . a should read list? The list sounds like to you tried to hit on every ‘hot’ theme of the day. Very trendy. I’ve read most of those books and if you’re trying to lure more people into the world of literature, your list is more likely to send them back to reality TV. I’m glad you enjoyed them.though.

  27. Pink-P says:

    I saw this list last spring and set out to read the list, which I have now done. I usually just read classics or historical fiction so these were all different for me. Some observations: This was a male dominated list with a lot of common themes such as NY City, the immigrant experience and coming-of-age. There were also several Pulitzer prize winners on the list. I believe that I am more Mann Booker oriented but I still liked a lot of the books. All of the authors could write and I never felt like I was losing brain cells while reading them. However I only loved a couple of them. My favorite was Gilead, which was an absolute gem of a book, full of grace, wisdom and surprising tension for a story centered around 3 Congregationalist ministers. My 2nd favorite was Kafka on the Shore. I will definitely look for more of Murakami’s novels. Some of the others just seemed empty and bleak to me but I’m sure that is just my taste. Regardless, I enjoyed the list and feel that I am a more informed reader for having gone through it.

  28. tolstoink says:

    Garbage. All of them. Bestsellers designed to pander to the lowest common denominator. Again, political correctness wins out over truth, beauty, fact..I’ll stick with merit, I think. Chandra, Marquez, carson

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  30. Can’t believe anyone who has actually read GILEAD would classify it as “garbage” or “designed to pander to the lowest common denominator.”

    • I’m glad you enjoyed GILEAD but what Tolstoink was trying to say, I think, was that bestsellers in North America tend to be herd-driven efforts that will, sadly, have a short life span. True literary merit seldom enters the evaluation process while quirky styles, hot subject matter, and questionable critical tastes tell the masses what they should read. Only by reading extensively will the truth of that come home.

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  32. Aaron says:

    Interesting list…I may have to check out a few of these, although they may not be to my taste. (I usually prefer the older classics.)

    I also wanted to point out that “haberdashery” has nothing to do with shenanigans, as suggested in your blurb about The Fortress of Solitude–at least, nowhere that I could find. Instead, it refers to a store that sells men’s goods or sewing notions, or to the items sold in such a shop.

    A small correction that I thought a site about literature might want to note!

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