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.