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Let’s celebrate the best books of the 21st century! As we mark 25 years in it, it’s a good time to reflect on the books that made the biggest impacts. Here, you’ll find my curation of the most influential modern books I’ve read, and you’ll learn why they’re top book recommendations. You will want to add all of these five-star reads to your literary bucket list!

best books of the 21st century: the literary lifestyle's ballot.

Background: Inspired by the New York Times

To commemorate the first 25 years of this century, the New York Times compiled the top 100 books published from 2000-2024. In doing so, they asked noteworthy names in literature to submit their own top 10 lists.

It inspired me to do the same. Naturally, my list of the best books of the 21st century is limited to books I read. I chose only five-star reads, and I also tried to think beyond what was simply a book I loved. Rather, I tried to pick books with lasting influence and meaning in real life.

Best Books of the 21st Century

Fiction

  1. Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver (2022)
  2. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (2019)
  3. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2019)
  4. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (2020)
  5. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017)
  6. The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride (2023)
  7. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (2012)
  8. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (2020)

Non-Fiction

  1. Know My Name by Chanel Miller (2019)
  2. The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett M. Graff (2019)

Why These Books Are the Best of the 21st Century

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver (2022)

  • Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Women’s Prize for Fiction
  • A New York Times “Ten Best Books of 2022”
  • New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal bestseller 
  • Oprah’s Book Club pick

My Review: ★★★★★

Plot Summary: Demon Copperhead is a fictional story inspired by Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. It reimagines the classic tale, setting it in contemporary Appalachia and addressing current social issues, including poverty and addiction.

Why It’s the Best: The character of Demon Copperhead is so well drawn that it feels like a memoir of modern Appalachia. Kingsolver’s personal ties to the area and its people allow her to transcend stereotypes. She powerfully conveys how she (and they) feel. She is outrageously angry. She is fiercely loyal. It all comes through in this character-driven novel of a boy who is representative of a people forgotten, discarded, and betrayed.

Related Posts: Demon Copperhead Review | Demon Copperhead Book Club Questions | Demon Copperhead Characters | Demon Copperhead Summary


The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (2019)

  • Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize
  • New York Times bestseller and Notable Book
  • Today Show Book Club pick
  • Named one of the Best Books of the Year by NPR, The Washington Post; O: The Oprah Magazine, and more
  • 2020 Audie finalist for Audiobook of the Year and Best Male Narrator

My Review: ★★★★★

Plot Summary: The Dutch House is essentially about an unbreakable sibling bond. After the Conroy family moves into “The Dutch House” outside of Philadelphia, Maeve becomes like Danny’s mother as they grow through decades of life and often return to the nostalgia of their childhood home. 

Why It’s the Best: The Dutch House is a book that gives you “all the feels,” especially if you love a good family saga novel as much as I do. It offers the nostalgia of growing up and tenderly explores themes of grief, wallowing in the past, forgiveness, parenthood, and sibling love. Narrated empathetically by actor Tom Hanks, it’s also one of the best audiobooks of all time. The ending gave me chills.

Related Posts: The Dutch House Review | The Dutch House Book Club Questions | Best Ann Patchett Books


A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2019)

  • #1 New York Times bestseller with over 2 million readers
  • Now a Paramount+ with Showtime series

My Review: ★★★★★

Plot Summary: A Gentleman in Moscow is about a Russian aristocrat under house arrest in a hotel for decades, beginning in 1922 Moscow. Not just historical fiction, it ventures into romance, political thrills, family drama, and more, along with colorful characters including a young girl, a famous actress, and hotel staff.

Why It’s the Best: The Count breathes life into the Metropol hotel, making them both feel not just real to the reader but absolutely unforgettable. The book’s lasting legacy is in its themes of finding purpose and joy despite your limitations. It beautifully and memorably shows the importance of resilience, friendships, and change in difficult circumstances.

Related Post: A Gentleman in Moscow Book Club Questions


Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (2020)

  • National bestseller
  • Women’s Prize for Fiction and National Book Critics Circle Award Winner
  • “Novel of the Year” at the Dalkey Literary Awards
  • Shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize
  • Longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction

My Review: ★★★★★

Plot Summary: Set in England during the late 1580s, Hamnet is loosely based on the death of William Shakespeare’s eleven-year-old son from “The Black Death,” which inspired his famous play, Hamlet, about an opposing scenario in which a son grieves his father, King Hamlet.

Why It’s the Best: Hamnet is a work of literary art with meticulous plotting, heavy use of literary devices, and a very lush, literary writing style that lingers with you long after the final page. Every word counts in this book about grief, making these feelings immensely palpable.

Related Post: Book Club Questions for Hamnet


The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017)

  • GoodReads Choice Awards “Best of the Best
  • William C. Morris Award Winner
  • National Book Award Longlist
  • Printz Honor Book
  • Coretta Scott King Honor Book
  • #1 New York Times Bestseller

My Review: ★★★★★

Plot Summary: The Hate U Give is the story of Starr Carter, an African American teenager who lives in a “thug” neighborhood but goes to a private school in an upper-class, white neighborhood.  After witnessing her unarmed African American male friend be shot and killed during a routine traffic stop, she struggles with coping in two distinct and different worlds.

Why It’s the Best: The Hate U Give touches upon issues of race, class, and police brutality through a very likable protagonist and the incredibly vibrant characters in her life. This makes it feel like a fresh perspective that is neither forced, preachy, or overly dramatic. The reader deeply cares about the characters and easily learns about walking a mile in their shoes. It’s an unputdownable book for both teens and adults.

Related Post: The Hate U Give Summary


The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride (2023)

  • Instant New York Times bestseller and notable book
  • Barnes & Noble’s Book of the Year
  • A best book of the year by NPR/Fresh Air, Washington Post, The New Yorker, and Time Magazine

My Review: ★★★★★

Plot Summary: The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store is set in 1926 suburban Pennsylvania, where immigrant Jews and African Americans live peacefully. A young, deaf, and orphaned boy named Dodo is institutionalized at a local asylum and his Jewish Chicken Hill neighbors and extended African American family members plan to rescue him.

Why It’s the Best: The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store is a love-affirming novel about race, religion, disability, and the power of community. What’s especially remarkable is how McBride uses 100+ characters to show how people, real and fictional, can affect each other’s lives for better or worse. This book breaks your heart then puts it back together again. It left me with the biggest and best kind of book hangover.

Related Post: The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store Character Guide | The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store Discussion Questions


Know My Name by Chanel Miller (2019)

  • Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography
  • Instant New York Times bestseller 

My Review: ★★★★★

Plot Summary: Know My Name is the memoir of the Stanford sexual assault victim, whose victim impact statement at her assailant’s sentencing went viral.

Why It’s the Best: Know My Name doesn’t just name the victim — it offers the deepest insights into her heart and mind. It’s one of the most thought-provoking non-fiction books I’ve ever read. She makes you question everything you thought you knew about sexual assault. It’s especially impactful in her own voice, as an audiobook memoir.


My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (2012)

  • New York Times bestseller
  • Now an HBO Series

My Review: ★★★★★

Plot Summary: The first in a historical fiction series of books set in Italy, My Brilliant Friend follows two young female friends in the slums of Naples post-World War II. Both are smart, but only one becomes educated. Along with an entire neighborhood of characters, themes of gender, education, class, Italian politics, and more are explored.

Why It’s the Best: My Brilliant Friend is an intimate portrait of life at this time and place. The reader explores the highs and lows of each character, and everything from their best traits to their absolute worst is uncovered over decades of time. It’s an absolute masterclass in character development that makes you fall in love with the writing of the secretive author.

Related Post: My Brilliant Friend Books


The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett M. Graff (2019)

  • 2020 Audiobook of the Year and Multi-Voiced Performance Audie Awards
  • New York Times bestseller

My Review: ★★★★★

Plot Summary: The Only Plane in the Sky is a book about September 11, 2001 that offers a minute-by-minute breakdown told entirely through the dialogue of five hundred people, from children in distant parts of the U.S.A. to the President of the United States at the time, George W. Bush.

Why It’s the Best: The Only Plane in the Sky is the most thoroughly researched and curated book I’ve ever read, and this detail pays reverence to the most pivotal day in America in the 21st century. It’s breathtaking, emotional, raw, and real. Told by 500+ people, the audiobook format, in particular, provides an extremely engaging educational experience.


The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (2020)

My Review: ★★★★★

Plot Summary: The Vanishing Half is a heavily thematic story of two light-skinned Black sisters, who go on to live life as different races over decades of time.

Why It’s the Best: What makes this book especially memorable is the cast of complex characters that impart its themes. Every word and every character choice meant something, and it’s mesmerizing to read. The plot structure was also meticulously planned, jumping in time, yet providing an easy-to-follow narrative through small slices of life.

Related Posts: The Vanishing Half Summary | The Vanishing Half Discussion Questions

Conclusion

The best books of the 21st century are not just great reads– they are the most impactful and well-written of the hundreds I’ve read. They books say something remarkable about life through literature.

If you’re deciding where to start, I especially recommend my favorite book of all-time, My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante.

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