The 25 Best Books of the 21st Century (Sort Of)

Scott Pack
Sep 28 · 13 min read

This time last week Twitter was awash with people sharing, discussing, commenting on, agreeing and disagreeing with a marvelous piece of clickbait that The Guardian had posted on its website: The 100 Best Books of the 21st Century. I enjoyed the debate and, being the contrary so-and-so that I am, took perverse pleasure in the fact that I had been unable to finish reading the books ranked at #1 and #2, despite several attempts.

Naturally, I thought the list was wildly inaccurate, as did lots of other people. I was also a little miffed that books from the year 2000 were included because that was the final year of the 20th century, not the first year of the 21st. And don’t blame me for that, blame the Gregorian calendar. Others noted the fact that it was dominated by books originally written in the English language, that very few children’s books were included, and no picture books featured at all. As a list of the best books of the current century, it was somewhat lacking.

It was also, in many ways, a great list, with some books that I had never heard of as well as lots I have been meaning to read for ages and anything that prompts me to pick up a new book, let alone create a list of things to read soon, is ultimately a good thing. And any article or list that gets lots of people chatting about the books they love is even better.

I wanted to keep that conversation going in my Twitter timeline, while also having a bit of fun, so I invited people to tweet me with their three favourite books of the 21st century to see if I could collate an alternative list.

My original tweet asking for your favourite books.

I had no idea what the response would be, nor what books would end up towards the top, but I can now reveal the results. 670 votes were cast across 461 different books and well over half the tweets I received were from people I don’t follow on Twitter or who don’t follow me. Hundreds of titles received just one or two votes but there were sufficient books getting way in excess of that to create a meaningful Top 25. So here it is, The 25 Best Books of the 21st Century as decided by some random people on Twitter.

25. Normal People by Sally Rooney (2018)
In a spooky example of clickbait synchronicity, Normal People was also #25 on the Guardian list so perhaps we just all have to accept that this is the 25th best book of the 21st century and be done with it.

24. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride (2013)
The first book on our list that did not appear in the Guardian Top 100 at all, but it certainly won’t be the last. Its omission surprised me seeing as it won lots of awards and was a Guardian Book Club selection just three years ago. When I asked people to submit their favourite books, as opposed to the books they considered to be the best, I expected there to be lots of crowd-pleasing yarns in my final list, and I don’t consider ‘crowd-pleasing yarns’ to be a bad thing at all I hasten to add, but this experimental novel certainly does not fall into that category. All the more reason to welcome its inclusion here.

23. Milkman by Anna Burns (2018)
Our third book in a row from the island of Ireland, and our second ‘difficult’ novel. Not my choice of adjective but one which kept cropping up in coverage of its Man Booker Prize win last year. Of course, the subsequent huge sales suggested the book was either not difficult at all or that readers are not afraid of a bit of a challenge. It was, however, not on the Guardian list.

22. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (2013)
The first book in our countdown of which I am a big fan (I have not read #25, couldn’t finish the other two) so I am delighted to see it on here, especially as it was nowhere in the Guardian Top 100. An atmospheric and haunting debut novel based on the true story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland. A film adaptation, starring Jennifer Lawrence, is apparently in development. If you are a fan of this book then I can thoroughly recommend The Blue Fox by Sjón, a slim novella which has a similar feel, I think.

21. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (2006)
#10 on the Guardian list and just outside the Top 20 on this one. A book that has been sitting on my shelves for more than a decade and I should really get round to reading it. The first African author on our list, following one Australian and three from Europe. Chimamanda is now a major literary voice with considerable cultural clout worldwide.

20. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011)
One criticism levelled at the Guardian list was that it was a tad light on ripping yarns, on commercial or mainstream fiction and on genres outside of the more literary fare. I think they did make an effort to chuck in a few more popular bestsellers but, come on, this is the Guardian, for goodness sake, the list was always going to be heavy on the literary side of things. The Night Circus is a historical fantasy novel that was originally written during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, an online-based creative writing month that encourages writers to complete a draft of a novel during November) and is perhaps unique in that respect in this Top 25.

19. All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (2014)
I must confess this is book that I had heard of but knew nothing much about before compiling this list. Each time someone nominated it I made a mental note to check it out and now that it has made the Top 20 I will definitely be reading it soon. A tale of two troubled sisters, the novel was shortlisted for major awards and has clearly resonated with a significant number of readers.

18. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (2004)
The first book in our countdown that is written by a man and [spoiler alert!] the only one that was originally written in a language other than English. This translation from the Spanish by Lucia Graves has been a huge bestseller and I suspect it remains much loved because it is, in many respects, a novel about books, about the magic of books and the passions they can spark. One of my very few claims to fame is that, for a short while, there were London Underground posters for this book which included a quote from me beneath a quote from Stephen King. This book was nowhere on the Guardian list and I do consider that a major omission.

17. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014)
I am a fan of Doerr’s earlier novel, About Grace, which I think is hugely underrated and I sincerely hope the massive success of this novel, about a blind French girl and a German soldier during WWII, has sent some people in its direction. Another title that ended up high in this poll but was not included in the Guardian one.

16. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (2013)
The only author with two books in this Top 25, which is clearly worthy of note. This one did not make the Guardian list but I suspect the editors restricted their Top 100 to one book per author, which is a decision that means their final selection cannot really contain all the best books. No such rules here. This tale of love across continents and decades was only a small number of nominations ahead of Half of a Yellow Sun and if Adiche had not written two much-loved books that split the vote then she would have easily been in the top three.

15. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004)
It would have been, I think, a major surprise if this novel did not appear somewhere on the list. An ambitious literary experiment that paid off and is highly readable to boot. This missed out on the Man Booker Prize to The Line of Beauty which, while certainly a fine book, has perhaps not lingered in the hearts of as many readers in quite the same way. It certainly didn’t get a single vote in this poll. Cloud Atlas is the only title ranked lower in our list than it is in the Guardian one, where it is #9.

14. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (2003)
Another book that was bound to appear here somewhere and considered by many to be a modern classic. It was notably absent from the Guardian list which strikes me as more than a bit daft. I am pleased that the awful film adaptation will soon be replaced by a more faithful television version.

13. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (2011)
Miller’s retelling of the story of Achilles and the Trojan War from the point-of-view of his lover, Patrochlus, is just one of many adaptations of classical mythology that have been published to considerable acclaim in recent years. Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls made the Guardian list but Miller’s novel did not. I liked Barker’s take on things to an extent, but her book claimed to retell the story from the view of the women, and it frankly didn’t deliver on that, which was a disappointment. The Song of Achilles, on the other hand, does deliver on its promise and almost shared the Top 25 with Miller’s second novel, Circe.

12. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2008)
Feel free to shout me down on this one but I am going to suggest this is the first real surprise entry in our Top 25. Nowhere on the Guardian poll and not really, I confess, on my radar either. I had heard of it, and was aware of a television adaptation, but there my knowledge ended until it kept cropping up in your nominations. Time and time again. A collection of linked stories about a retired schoolteacher that, a decade on from publication, remains much loved by enough of you to almost get it in the top ten.

11. Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (2015)
The second surprise in a row, if you ask me. I am evangelical about Haruf and the quiet beauty of his novels so I was thrilled to see this book keep getting nominations. Two more of his novels, Eventide and Benediction (actually the only two others of his published this century) also received multiple votes but this one was ahead of them by some distance. A simple, short novel about a widow and a widower who form an unlikely relationship. It is a masterpiece, in my opinion.

10. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004)
This epic novel (well over 800 pages) about a pair of battling magicians during the Napoleonic Wars did not get a look-in with the Guardian but was an overwhelmingly popular choice with people voting in this poll. I must confess that I have never made it past the opening pages and only managed one episode of the television series but I was perhaps more daunted by the size of the thing than anything else. Maybe I should give it another go?

9. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (2017)
One of those popular word-of-mouth hits that everyone seems to have read, be reading or is about to read. Selling over two million copies in just two years is remarkable and little wonder, then, that it ended up in our top ten. And, I suspect it would still fare well if we repeated the poll in five or ten years’ time.

8. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005)
A book about the power of reading that is set during WWII and narrated by Death himself. A novel that has been a crossover hit, selling in huge numbers to children and adults alike. The third book in a row, and the third in our top ten, that did not get a sniff of the Guardian Top 100.

7. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013)
Perhaps there is something about really long books that means they linger in readers’ hearts and minds more than short ones. Certainly there are a number of big fat tomes in our list and this one clocks in at 880 pages. I wonder if it is the immersive quality of a lengthy read, the fact that we spend weeks in the company of the characters, that means they resonate more? The recent film version of the book has been a massive flop, which is a shame, but a book of this length was surely better suited to several episodes of a television adaptation?

6. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)
This is the oldest book in our list and is the fifth title in a row from the top ten that doesn’t appear anywhere in the Guardian’s selection. Middlesex is a coming-of-age story with an intersex narrator that manages to be sensitive and epic and funny and moving. It is also another big fat novel.

5. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
This bleak, spare novel was a Top 20 selection for the Guardian but rides much higher here. Not a bundle of laughs, by any means, but proof that it isn’t just feel-good stories that readers consider their favourites.

4. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013)
Our list and that of the Guardian begin to converge a bit more as we get closer to the top spot. Atkinson plays with time and traditional narrative in a novel that has already spawned a sequel, that sequel also getting a few votes but not quite enough to break into the Top 25.

3. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)
This is the highest entry in our chart that did not feature anywhere in the Guardian 100 Best Books of the 21st Century. There were always going to be books in this list that weren’t in theirs but six of the top ten seems a high percentage, perhaps suggesting a slight disconnect between what critics see as ‘the best’ and what readers actually enjoy. There was a point a few days into the voting when this looked like it might come out on top, but it was pipped to the post as the week went on.

2. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (2015)
If anyone doubted whether this was a fair poll then the fact that my most hated book of all time has made it to #2 should settle the issue. Whatever I may think, this is a novel that has deeply moved, and resonated with, a huge amount of readers and is another brick of a book at over 700 pages. But it is also a divisive one, with many people tweeting me to say how much they disliked it. I think it is fair to say that this is very much a Marmite book.

1. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)
Fanfare please! Although the readers who contributed to my poll and the anonymous compilers of the Guardian list disagree in many respects, they are of a oneness when it comes to the best book of the current century. Wolf Hall was occasionally challenged for the top spot, with Station Eleven and A Little Life both getting close at times, but by the end of voting Hilary Mantel’s hugely acclaimed novel was a good decapitated head in front of her rivals. Perhaps interesting to note that the follow-up, Bring Up the Bodies, did get a handful of votes but nowhere near enough to challenge the Top 20.

So there you have it, the favourite books of the 21st century according to you. Or some of you, at least. I won’t go into much analysis here, except to note that the above list contains no non-fiction and very little in the way of genre fiction, which I think is a shame, but I have written a follow-up piece that shares lots more data from the voting and highlights many other books that didn’t make this list. For now, though, thanks to everyone who voted and I sincerely hope there are some books discussed here that you now want to go and read.

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