It seems like there are three kinds of books that make the bestsellers lists — the ones that are crucially relevant and contemporary at the time, the ones that are the latest in a series of novels by those freakishly prolific authors who pretty much live on the bestseller list (you know, like Stephen King, Danielle Steele, John Grisham…), and the ones that usually seem to just come out of nowhere and are really, really, really good — that is, the ones you’ll want to read again and again in the years to come.
In the past 25 years, there have been some pretty amazing books that have snuck onto the bestsellers lists, sometimes even unseating bestselling royalty like Nora Roberts. Just because a book is a bestseller doesn’t mean it’s something you want to reread. I mean, Dennis Rodman’s memoirs and The Cat Who series made the bestsellers lists in the '90s, and they might be nice to read the first time, but that doesn’t mean you want to read them again (I mean, unless, you do, in which case more power to you). But these books are the bestselling books from the last 25 years that you should totally dust off and pick back up.
1990: A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
Let’s be real. You probably didn’t understand it all the first time, and you probably won’t get a lot of it this time around either, which will make it completely brain exploding every time you pick it up again.
1991: Middle Passage by Charles Johnson
In a year when the No. 1 bestselling book was an embarrassingly bad sequel to Gone With the Wind, Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage was a breath of brilliant air. But, despite winning the National Book Award in 1990 and being pretty universally praised for Johnson’s obvious exhaustive research in making the novel realist, it’s not that well known today. So if you weren’t one of the people in ‘91 who got this incredible book to the bestseller list, you might want to pick it up now.
1992: Backlash by Susan Faludi
Susan Faludi’s Backlash claimed that there is a historical trend in which the media tends to orchestrate a sort of “backlash” against women when feminist movements seem to be making “too much” progress. A reread of this one might be just the thing as 23 years later women have made strides with promising women presidential candidates and publishers who’ve signed on for a year of publishing only women.
1993: Race Matters by Cornel West
Turns out race still matters, and there are plenty of race matters in this book that are still so relevant today. It’s a good book to reread now and then and see what’s changed and what’s stayed (sadly) the same.
1994: Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
It’s so pretty! Why wouldn’t you want to read it again? And maybe this time try some of the recipes!
1995: Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou
It’s one of the most edifying poems you’ve ever read, and we can all use a reminder now and then of our own phenomenality. You know the famous lines:
I'm a woman
1996: The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks
OK, first I have to say, this was also the year that Bill Gates’ The Road Ahead hit the bestsellers list and included...you won’t believe it… A CD-ROM! And '80s babies, you’ll love this one. Dominique Moceanu — you remember that epic Olympics — wrote an autobiography that apparently everyone bought but me, since it also hit the bestseller list. But let’s be real: Those aren't exactly priority rereads. Nope, we’d all rather willingly have our hearts torn up up into little lush pieces again by that evil man Nicholas Sparks.
1997: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Despite the title, there’s nothing small about this story. It’s epic, like saga of complex emotions and people and tragedies epic, which means you probably missed a things or seven on your first read anyway. Rereading this book after almost 20 years, will be like reading a whole new novel.
1998: Paradise by Toni Morrison
Yes, I realize that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone also blasted to the top of the bestseller list in 1998, but you know you’ve already reread the entire series at least twice by now and will probably do it again every few years. While you’re in-between Harry Potter rereads, you should totally pick up Paradise again. It’s the last novel in this series, but it’s also probably the best, or at least the most complex, so a couple of rereads will only make it better.
1999: White Oleander by Janet Fitch
This one is a tough one with a big reward. On the first read, it’s kind of hard to get through all of the suffering that the protagonist gets through, but this time you know there’s a bit of a payoff in the end, so you can just enjoy a beautiful book about very hardships that some struggle through and look forward to the end.
2000: Beowulf by Seamus Heaney
Lots of really great books came out and topped the bestseller list in 2000, including Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. But Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf was practically an act of pure magic. Seriously, since when do thousand-year-old epics show up on bestsellers lists in the 21st century? The man nailed it, and it should be read over and over again.
2001: The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan
David McCullough’s John Adams also made an appearance on the bestseller list this year, but the documentary based on the book has Paul Giamatti in it, so, uh, do that. As for Amy Tan’s beautiful prose, no film could ever outdo it. With some seriously brilliant character development over three generations of these women’s lives, Tan creates characters that you’ll want to hang out with again. So why not go back and say hi to LuLing and Ruth?
2002: Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
What a weird life, right? You read it the first time and felt kind of guilty every time you laughed, but the book just keeps throwing all this hilarity into the dark, disturbing, messed-up-ness. Reading this book is a strange experience, and who wouldn’t want to relive that (well, probably not Augusten Burroughs, I guess)?
2003: Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
For some readers, reading Random Family was a chance to step out of their own comforts and into the lives of people who live so incredibly differently. For others, it was a chance to finally see their own lives represented. Either way, it’s important to keep stories like the ones in Random Family fresh in your mind.
2004: The Dark Tower Series by Stephen King
If The Hobbit and Clint Eastwood had a baby, The Dark Tower series is what it would look like. Stephen King is one of those authors who live so comfortably on the bestseller list he’s probably broken in a favorite spot where he takes off his shoes and puts his feet on the coffee table. That said, The Dark Tower series is easily his best. If you’ve already read it, you hardly need the convincing to reread, but if you haven’t yet, then maybe the fact that Sony’s looking at making a movie of it in 2017 will be enough to get you started.
2005: Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
Remember that crazy frenzy over that unique economics book Freakonomics? That was 2005. Well, go ahead and sort through controversies and complications of social science vs. economics arguments that have since then both praised and lambasted that one. Meanwhile, I’ll just be over here reading about living trickster gods who are less concerned with figuring the world out by numbers and more interested in having a little fun with all the world’s strange contradictions instead.
2006: The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama
As his second term comes to an end, doesn’t it seems apt to take a look back at his own hopes for his time in office and for the U.S? At the very least it, it could serve as a reminder to read the new political memoirs and declarations with at least one eyebrow raised.
2007: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
The footnotes in this book alone deserve a reread. Nobody can deny that Oscar Wao is pretty much a work of genius — a work of genius that places tyrants and violent political histories in the same realm as unremarkable lovelorn über nerds, reminding you of the sad fact of the perfect ordinariness of violence.
2008: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
Unaccustomed Earth is one of those quietly brilliant books that critics and reader rave about but it somehow still manages to fly a little under the radar (for a bestseller, that is). There’s something in how Lahiri uses the intimate lives of her characters to subtly shine a light on issues and ideas that touch the lives of everyone no matter the culture and country.
2009: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
You know how Malcolm Gladwell does that thing where he explodes you brain by picking apart and analyzing perfectly ordinary ideas to reveal just how extraordinary they are? Well, he does that here, too. Only he does it with your ideas about success. And it’s kind of super helpful for helping you get over all those perfectly normal feelings of failure we all suffer through.
2010: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
Yes, the Great Migration is a crucial, often misunderstood, part of American history, something that every citizen should know about her country. And that is one seriously great reason to reread this gem. But also, it’s kind of a crazy beautifully written book.
2011: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
1Q84 is one of those books that takes you away, that you kind of book that presents this magical little world for you to just disappear into for a while. And at more than 1,000 pages, that’s kind of a LONG while, but you still miss it a bit afterwards. There’s nothing wrong with a return visit!
2012: The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Justice systems and cultural tradition and belief systems clash in this novel of a racist tragedy that forever changes a family and challenges a community. Seeing as these are issues that have affected every community throughout history and today, a reread could do everyone some good.
2013: Tenth of December by George Saunders
George Saunders’ short stories are just brilliant and take on all those big, existential questions that keep you up at night or make that glass of whiskey just the thing you need. And he does it with the exactly perfect tint of humor that you need to make it go down smooth. But the stories got a lot more going on than a single read lets on. It’s always worth it to revisit a good Saunders story.
2014: Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton
Sure, seeing as the presidential campaigns are in full force, you could reread Ben Carson’s One Nation or Hilary Clinton’s Hard Choices, both of which were bestsellers in 2014. But what might be even more important than reading the puffed up biographies and political agendas of the candidates is taking some time to remember the incredibly different and significant individuals that these candidates are supposed to be representing. Sure, this book and blog only cover New York, but it’s a start.
2015: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
If you’re going to reread anything in the same year that it came out, this is definitely the one. Sure, this book messed you up good. The tear stains might not even be dry yet, but maybe this time through you can handle all the feels a little better and come away with all the stuff you missed the first time around.