10 Must-Read Books of the Last Decade (Or So)

From Cormac McCarthy to N.T. Wright, a few essential reads for your summer list.

BY C. CHRISTOPHER SMITH CULTURE / BOOKS June 08, 2016

Summer is in full swing. It’s that wonderful time of year when many of us find ourselves with a little extra time for reading. Instead of picking up the latest book to be adapted to a summer blockbuster to read on the beach, maybe this year would be a good time to catch up on some of the most important books that have been published in recent years.

While picking the 10 best books out of the millions of titles that have been published in the last decade is certainly an impossible task, consider this a primer. Almost all of these titles have won awards for being among the best books for the year in which they were released.

How many of these have you read?

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Not only did this novel win both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, but the many-layered story it weaves as Congregationalist minister John Ames recounts the lives of his father and grandfather—who also were ministers—is a rich theological reflection on life in our times. “Robinson’s prose is beautiful, shimmering and precise;” wrote Publishers Weekly, “the revelations are subtle but never muted when they come, and the careful telling carries the breath of suspense … Many writers try to capture life’s universals of strength, struggle, joy and forgiveness—but Robinson truly succeeds.”

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Also a Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Road recounts a gripping story of a journey made by a father and son in a post-apocalyptic world. One prominent reviewer noted: “It could be the most important environmental book ever. It is a thought experiment that imagines a world without a biosphere, and shows that everything we value depends on the ecosystem.”

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Soon to be released as a movie, this is arguably the most important Young Adult novel released in the last decade. Although the idea of a plot centered around the friendship of two teens struggling with cancer might seem like a downer to some, the story that Green develops here is one of deep joy and rich humanity.

Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright

Although Wright has churned out many popular and scholarly works over the last decade, this one stands out as the perhaps the most important and accessible. He guides readers through vital questions about heaven and resurrection and what they mean for our day-to-day life as followers of Jesus. Read this book slowly and carefully reflect on its message.

This Day: New and Collected Sabbath Poems by Wendell Berry

These Sabbath poems, written during Berry’s regular Sunday jaunts into the woods on his farm, will very likely be the poet-farmer’s greatest legacy. They not only turn our attention toward the light of hope in our dark times of ecological and economic crisis, but, in the very intentional Sabbath practices out of which they were born, Berry guides us in a narrow way forward toward this light of hope, a way not defined by progress or profits, but by an increasing attentiveness to our membership in the rich family of nature in our own particular places.

Building Stories by Chris Ware

This work is by far the most innovative book on this list in its format: 14 smaller works—cloth-bound books, newspapers, broadsheets and flip books—that come together in a box set. This collection of works, which centers around an unnamed female protagonist, can be read in any order. The Chicago building in which the main character lives is itself a primary character throughout the work—even at times expressing its own thoughts—making Building Stories a compelling and creative reflection on the spaces we inhabit, particularly in our increasingly urban world.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

In one of the most important books of social and racial criticism to emerge in the last decade, Michelle Alexander explores why the U.S. incarcerates such a large percentage of its population (and especially African-American males). This book is an eye-opening call for renewed public conversation about race and criminal justice in our nation.

Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks and A Writer’s Life by Kathleen Norris

Norris uses her own life, and particularly the story of her marriage to the late poet David Dwyer, as a framework to explore the multi-faceted temptations of acedia—that depressive sapping of energy, motivation and focus that often leads to restlessness.  Probing the question: Why do so many people today experience depression-like symptoms?, Norris reflects on some of our deepest cultural neuroses, and remind us of the rooted wisdom of the monastics, which shines the light of hope in the midst of our individual and cultural brokenness.

The Sacredness of Questioning Everything by David Dark

Few writers have the capacity that David Dark has to orchestrate familiar stories from literature and popular culture as part of engaging theological discourse. In this smart work, Dark challenges us to remember that God is bigger than all our questions and that questioning has a healthy role in our growing deeper in our Christian faith The Sacredness of Questioning Everything offers a powerful argument for churches as spaces in which conversations matter.

Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling by Andy Crouch

Humanity has an important role to play in creation, argues Crouch in this crucial work, through the work of cultivation. “One who cultivates,” he says, “tries to create the most fertile conditions for good things to survive and thrive.” This is an essential work for understanding the mission of God in the world, and how we engage with that mission in our churches, homes and workplaces.

An early version of this article appeared in 2014.

C. CHRISTOPHER SMITH

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