In my line of work, I’m lucky enough to be able to read between 100 and 200 books a year — and while that might sound like a lot, as a professional bookworm, I’m well aware of the fact that for every spectacular book I read each year, there are another ten amazing reads behind it. So trying to narrow down a list of the most important books of 2016 was about as easy as it was impossible; especially since many of the most celebrated books of the year — fiction, nonfiction, and poetry alike — dealt with intense, difficult, and timely topics: race, politics, misogyny, the gender gap, global warming and the environment, protest movements, poverty and economic exploitation, growing up and growing old, the meaning of life in the face of death, and so, so much more.
Selected not only for their subject matter, but for their intelligent, artful, and often beautiful prose and poetry, these are books that stand in the good company of dozens of other important, eye-opening, life altering books that were published this year. Some of them have been honored with national and international book prizes, others were nominees on the shortlists of those same prizes, and still more simply made a significant difference in the lives of readers — which is exactly what the most important books of the year were written to do.
Here are 18 of the most important books of 2016.
1. A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind by Siri Hustvedt
Investigating the gender biases that influence everything from how we perceive art, literature, and the world around us, to how we engage with our bodies and minds together, to how healthcare and medical research have been historically male-centered, Siri Hustvedt’s A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women is a challenging and well-researched essay collection that merges science and art, and invokes feminist ideals in a whole new way.
2. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Recent winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad re-imagines the underground railroad as an actual railway, complete with train stations and steam engines, and manned by a cast of revolutionary characters who risk their lives transporting slaves to freedom in the United States. Cora, a former-slave from a Georgia cotton plantation who travels north, is a key figure in this novel, that explores the myriad manifestations of freedom and enslavement.
3. Girl Up by Laura Bates
Available in e-book and coming to the U.S. in print this July, the intelligent, sassy, and funny, Laura Bates’s Girl Up adds another much-needed voice to the conversation about female body image, highlighting the false portrayals of female bodies in the media (and the way social media has increased this ten-fold,) the double standards that are enforced upon the female body and sexuality that men are not subject to, and the ways sexual education classes are failing to address the needs of young women.
4. The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth's Newest Age by David Biello
The destruction of the environment is undoubtedly one of the most complex — and urgent — issues of modern time. And with natural disasters, global warming, mass extinction, and all those starving polar bear photos on Instagram, it also seems to be one of the most hopeless. David Biello’s The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth's Newest Age tackles the environmental crisis while shedding light on the individuals around the world who are doing small things to make great changes, demonstrating that there is still hope to be had if we all truly open our eyes and start helping out in whatever ways we can.
5. Look: Poems by Solmaz Sharif
Nominated for this year’s National Book Award for Poetry, Solmaz Sharif’s debut collection Look explores how humans go to war today: against other countries, against ourselves, and against our own language, and against the ways we express the truths about our lives. Incorporating words and phrases from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms into her poetic lyric, Sharif has written a jarring and haunting collection that will really make you think.
6. If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo
Written by a trans writer and featuring a trans model on the cover, Meredith Russo’s YA novel If I Was Your Girl tells the story of a transgender teenager named Amanda — formerly Andrew — who is beginning anew as the newest student in her school in Lambertville, Tennessee. After surviving a hate-based attack in her old town, Amanda is determined to keep her secrets, get through her senior year inconspicuously, and move on with her life. But then she meets Grant — a kind, cute boy with whom Amanda wants to share everything. But she’s terrified the truth of her life will push Grant away. If I Was Your Girl is a love-filled, hopeful story about living your truest life and never letting prejudice and hate win.
7. The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution by Micah White
From Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, the past decade has born witness to some serious protest movements — but have these movements really changed the world, as their organizers hoped? What constitutes a “successful” protest, and what does it really take to make major social and political change through civil disobedience and direct action? Micah White, co-creator of the original idea for the Occupy Wall Street protests, asks these questions and more in his book The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution, and expresses hope for the evolution of collective action and mass mobilization.
8. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Bring on the waterworks (and possibly a highlighter, for all the lines in this book you’ll want to remember) because Paul Kalanithi’s memoir When Breath Becomes Air is one of the most meaningful and heart-wrenching books of the year. At 36-years-old, married, and planning for his future after having just completed a decade-long training as a neurosurgeon, Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Faced with his own mortality, Kalanithi began an epic journey inward, exploring what life means when the future your planned for is suddenly taken from you, and how to find joy and hope while walking towards death.
9. Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa
Published all the way back in January, Sunil Yapa’s novel Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist is set within the 1999 WTO protest in Seattle and is this year’s must-read for activists, world-changers, and pretty much everyone else. The novel centers around Victor, a homeless 19-year-old struggling to understand the injustices and inequalities of the world, and his place in all the chaos. Victor's personal journey of self-realization parallels the heightening violence of the protests in a way that is haunting and unforgettable, and will leave readers changed.
10. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
Sociologist Matthew Desmond takes readers into the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee, and into the lives of eight families — families not dissimilar to the millions of families who exist all over America today — in order to tell a story of poverty and eviction, single-motherhood and public housing, street violence and homelessness. Well-researched and thoughtfully written, Desmond’s work demonstrates how decades of economic exploitation, inequality, racism, and lack of adequate social services has brought the United States to the exact place we stand today.
11. Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn introduces readers to an Ivy League-educated anthropologist named August, who is summoned back to her hometown of Brooklyn for her father’s funeral and finds herself mired in decades of memories she’d long left behind. At 11-years-old and in the wake of her mother’s death, August joined a clique of three other girls who became one another’s surrogate family as they grew up beneath the shadow of racism, national violence, and their neighborhood’s challenges with drug use, crime, and poverty. Written through a series of short, poetic vignettes, Another Brooklyn reads like a love song to black girlhood, drawing readers into the intimate spaces occupied by each of these four girls.
12. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
Blending memoir with history and social analysis, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis has received a ton of buzz in post-election America, as a story that sheds light on why the victory that was so unthinkable to millions of Americans was actually quite evident to millions more. Vance grew up in a poor Appalachian town, surrounded by the struggles of the white working class, and his book demonstrates how communities like his own feel they've been left behind by history, creating a hopelessness and a resentment that could very likely resonate through American culture for years to come.
13. The Sellout by Paul Beatty
The well-deserved winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout takes readers from a Los Angeles ghetto all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, critiquing and satirizing racism and racial tensions in America. Beatty’s narrator is the child of a recently-murdered police officer, who is attempting to reintroduce widespread, government-enforced segregation policies into the United States.
14. The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
Nicola Yoon’s latest YA novel, The Sun Is Also a Star, introduces readers to two teenagers: a Jamaican immigrant Natasha and Korean American Daniel — an unlikely pair made even more so by the fact that Natasha and her family are about to be deported. And while Natasha is determined to come up with a last-minute plan that will allow her family to stay in their New York home, she also finds herself caught up in an immediate, all-encompassing romance with Daniel. Unfolding over the course of just over a single day, The Sun Is Also A Star is a novel about facing one’s fate head-on and rising up to meet love when you least expect it.
15. The Performance of Becoming Human by Daniel Borzutzky
Winner of this year’s National Book Award for Poetry, Daniel Borzutzky’s poetry collection, The Performance of Becoming Human, is filled with raw, edgy, and occasionally-violent verse that will shake up your typical reading habits. This collection tells a story about how politics destroys people, how systemic violence destroys communities, and how humans struggle with being defined by, even as they transcend, the borders they face.
16. Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In by Bernie Sanders
Whether or not you were “feelin’ the Bern” during this election, Bernie Sanders’s recent book is definitely one you’ll want to check out. Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In — which takes readers behind the scenes of Sanders’s presidential campaign and shares his continued vision for political revolution, progressive economics, environmental justice, racial and social equality, and healthcare for all — will remind you that there are still tons of people out in the world working for the greater good, and that now — more than ever — losing hope is not an option.
17. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing begins with two sisters, Effia and Esi — born in different African villages at the same time, to the same father, and growing up unknown to one another. One is sold into slavery, while the other marries an Englishman and lives in relative freedom. From a civil war in 18th-century Ghana to 20th-century Harlem, this novel will take you around the world and back, into the disparate experiences of Effia and Esi and their descendants, depicting how two lives so close together can diverge in such extreme ways.
18. The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andrés Reséndez
Nominated for this year’s National Book Award for Nonfiction, Andrés Reséndez’s book The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America will make you rethink everything you learned in school. Shedding light on the enslavement of America’s indigenous people and arguing that slavery — more than disease and violence — was really what decimated the people who were already living here when the Europeans arrived, Reséndez argues that everything taught about disease in the New World (that Europeans unwittingly carried diseases for with the indigenous population had no immunity, therefore causing massive and deadly outbreaks) is actually false.
19. Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland by Miriam Horn
Another 2016 title that brings the topic of environmental conservation front and center is Miriam Horn’s Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland. This book takes a journey down the Mississippi River, introducing readers to five different people who have dedicated their lives to caring for the land and conserving the environment — although they wouldn’t necessarily call themselves environmentalists. They’re a rancher, a farmer, a riverman, a shrimper, and a fisherman for whom conservation isn’t just a hot political topic, but inherent to their ways of life.
20. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild
Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right is another title that tries to explain exactly what happened during the last election. Thoughtfully written and researched, this book takes a nuanced look at Tea Party politics, profiling a community of people who most-need the federal government’s help, and also most-refuse to support its right to help them. A sociologist at Berkeley, Hochschild makes space for the smaller, more personal voices of right-bent voters tell a larger tale of what is going on in Conservative politics in America.