I love lists and I’m clearly not the only one. A man who has earned a significant reputation for his understanding of intra- and intercultural intertextuality, Professor Umberto Eco, has even written a substantial book on humanity’s obsession with lists—in fact, he argues for the transcendence of list making.
I love lists because they are an arbitrary yet rewarding way to pick an intellectual argument that is, simultaneously, engaging and inconsequential.
I particularly love end-of-the-year, retrospective lists. I enjoy the fond look back—the gentle nostalgia—of reminding myself of things that moved me in the recent past.
In that spirit, here is a list of my favourite books, in reverse order of personal importance, that I read this past decade. I have wilfully included books not actually written in the past decade, but rather, encountered by me in that time. However, I have tried to lean into the past ten years as much as I can, given my reading habits. I have also chosen not to include truly excellent books, like Dune, that I re-read—preferring to stick to fresh experiences.
“Personal importance” is the principle criterion for this list. This list and its order are in no way meant to convey the absolute qualitative value of a given book in my mind. Coetzee’s Disgrace is certainly one of the best books I read in the past ten years, but it was also kind of a drag. There has to be something about the book that really moved me and sometimes books that are ostensibly just out to entertain can also be enlightening. If nothing else, one’s personal reactions to a given piece of entertainment can help to illuminate interesting corners of your own psyche. All of which is to say: these books are my favourites, but not necessarily the best.
I encourage anyone who might be out there reading this post to argue vehemently in the comments for or against any of these choices. But, take note, I reserve the right to point out to everyone just how damn wrong you might be.
Without further ado, here is my list of personal, decade’s-best, top-10 books:
The Steel Remains, Richard Morgan
Can I respect myself for including a book as pulpy as this in my top-10? Apparently! The Steel Remains is a hardcore noir-influenced high-fantasy barnburner—jam packed with graphic violence, sex and profanity. Morgan distils his Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock influences in an even more noirish crucible than either master could have created. Remains is shamelessly entertaining and the story exists in such a successfully realized universe that you come away feeling splattered by its various unmentionable fluids. And despite the ruthlessness of its execution and bleakness of its worldview, it is still somehow moving. Its high fantasy façade also conceals a stealthy but rewarding core of science fiction conceits.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers
I hesitated to include this choice on the list at all, but I can’t deny this book its due. In the wake of AHWOSG, an entire generation of hipster imitators has emerged, almost swamping the original in a wave of trite poseur-product. However, this book is really as stated: a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. It succeeds in touching the reader through carefully detailed observation of the human condition rather than sentimentality. And while this book is often mistaken for ironic, it is really something else. AHWOSG is bitingly funny, but honest. Its meta-fictional games are actually about the challenges of approaching a sentimental, personal subject in a clear-eyed and truthful manner—“truthful” in impact and emotion rather than factual detail. AHWOSG is messy in the way that life is messy. As Anthony Burgess once wrote: “…all fiction is autobiographical and all autobiography is fictional…”…I think…more or less…I’m too lazy to look it up, but it was in Earthly Powers. Anyway, nothing Eggers has done since comes close.
American Gods, Neil Gaiman
Gaiman is a borrower. When people go on about Neil Gaiman they most often describe him as a storyteller—conjuring images of old-timey troubadours and fireside ghost stories. This is mostly crap. While he is an excellent storyteller, particularly live, this image of him is too parochial and backwards. I think his real strength as an artist lies in straight-up, post-modern appropriation and recontextualization; masquerading as folksy tale spinning. There’s a bit of the punk-rocker in NG. His stories contain all the goblins and werewolves and Grendels of antiquity, but there are hard edges and revisionism on every page. This feeling for the ennui and strangeness inherent in contemporary life informs all his best work—and American Gods reflects a high point in his maturation as an artist. It also represents a seminal work in the development of the urban fantasy subgenre (even though large chunks of the book occur in open spaces and small town USA) as practiced most effectively by Charles de Lint. There is something incredibly sticky about the possibility of turning a corner and bumping into Woden or Spider Anansi in a local dive-bar—the idea that our mundane everyday could be haunted by the gods and monsters of the ancient world is thrilling. But NG goes the logical step further and imagines a world in which humans create those gods and monsters out of our imaginations and then drag them around, all over the world with us. This conceit allows him to create characters that are simultaneously grounded and relatable and yet representative of broad philosophical and metaphysical questions: death, lust, chaos, time and more.
Accelerando, Charles Stross
I have a soft spot for the classic SF “fix-up”—a book that began as short stories and was later Frankensteined into a novel. It’s a concept that is common to classic SF, due to the fact that the genre emerged from pulp magazine roots, which were the province of short stories and serials. (Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Sturgeon’s More Than Human are two of the most famous examples of successful fix-ups—and personal favourites of mine). I’m not sure why I enjoy the fix-up so much. Something about the way in which the shifts in tone and approach from story to story can’t be entirely smoothed over appeals to me on a gut level. Accelerando is the perfect fix-up for the 21st Century. Using black plastic nerd glasses as a metaphor for posthumanism is only the first of a long line of brilliant devices littered throughout the book’s ramshackle tour of our immediate, near-term and far-flung futures. Stross bombards the reader with so many—at least to me—new and radical concepts about the future of economics, technology, identity and intelligence that he almost overwhelms. What saves Accelerando from being too didactic is its whirlwind approach to pacing and its endearing sense of humour. The musical term “accelerando” is the perfect title: the book moves faster and faster into and beyond the singularity—rushing past the point in which our whole solar system is inhospitable to old fashioned humans. Accelerando was the first book I ever read that employed the “rapture of the nerds” concept of the singularity, and I haven’t looked at any technology the same way since. Accelerando’s starting point is: what does a real post-scarcity economy look like? And it finishes deep in the mists of a post-human, post-everything futurescape—using the through-line of a single family to keep us on the rails—gutsy and brilliant.
Use of Weapons, Iain M. Banks
Early in 2000 I read Banks’ fantastic Look to Windward and was so hooked on his Culture that I quickly read four more of his SF books and one of his non-genre offerings—all of which were excellent—but Weapons is the one that I find most sticky. It kind of has it all: a galaxy-spanning utopian technocracy that clashes with more primitive civilizations at its edge; a CIA-like espionage organization; quirky AI concepts; page-turning action and adventure and gripping confrontation between different sets of ethics and moral frameworks concerning the cost of violence. All of which becomes secondary as you work your way through two parallel narratives running backward and forward through time. Narratives that begin to show the unreliability of the narrator and that culminate in a shocking ending. Weapons is a grand space opera filtered through the lens of a gritty personal psychodrama.
Perdido Street Station, China Miéville
China is one of my new geek heroes—along with Brian Eno and Alberto Manguel—for several reasons. First, China is a fellow devotee of the great H.P. Lovecraft, but his work rises so far beyond simple pastiche that it seems almost revolutionary—an exquisite mix of Lovecraft, steampunk and deep world-building. Second, let’s talk about that world-building: I read an interview with China where he described his technique as something close to gaming; wherein he assigns attributes to characters and makes maps and designs systems. Third—even though I don’t share his politics—he is a vocal Marxist—it’s just refreshing to read genre fiction that’s so thoroughly informed by a political worldview that also completely resists devolving into didacticism. Lastly, he is almost single-handled responsible for the emergence of the wonderful New Weird subgenre. PSS is the perfect representation of the disparate elements of China’s approach to fiction. It’s a lushly rendered urban dreamscape full of monsters living side-by-side with common humanity. China’s fictional city-state of New Crobuzon feels so real you can almost taste the soot in the air. A subtext of transformation runs throughout the book—personal, political and genetic—that is expressed in a variety of literal and metaphoric ways. If PSS is about any one thing it might be expressed as: change is painful but necessary…or at least inevitable. China’s remade, particularly the monstrous, Lovecraftian bad guy of PSS, serve, in part, as metaphors for the way cities are continuously re-imagined by new immigrants. New Crobuzon and its inhabitants constantly roil, merging and parting facets of each other—like all of China’s fiction with its wild and weird influences and antecedents.
Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell
This book snuck up on me. I had picked up a cheap paperback copy on a whim having read a mention of its portrait of restaurant life in the Paris of the late 1920s. Cooking is a hobby of mine and I’ve had several friends in the industry. I’ve always been intrigued by the life of a chef. (Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential would have definitely made this list if I had confined myself to books actually published in the last 10 years—but, you know, he’s no Cormac McCarthy.) But DAOIPAL knocked me flat. It’s the most unsentimental examination of the grind of poverty I’ve ever read. Orwell’s observations of the Felliniesque characters he mingles with in his race to the bottom are brilliantly evocative. In fact, “Felliniesque” does Orwell a disservice. Orwell’s book is full of obviously real, flesh-and-blood humans in difficult circumstances. DAOIPAL is not a sideshow or a Hallmark special, but rather an unparalleled paean for social justice—“unparalleled” in my experience by being so plainspoken and direct, without a hint of sermonizing. DAOIPAL becomes a very tense read, somewhat like a thriller, because you begin to worry about every new person who enters Orwell’s narrative: where is their next meal coming from? How can people live like this?
Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry
I’ve written about Lonesome Dove here before and my admiration for it is undiminished. If you had told me at the beginning of this decade that not one, but two westerns would be on my top-10 list I would have questioned your sanity, but here we are. McMurty’s ability to put you into the heads of all of his carefully realized cowboys and Indians and farmers and gamblers and prostitutes is remarkable. And his willingness to then put them all through the wringer verges on nihilism. He denies us easy resolutions for any plot thread and we ultimately thank him for it—a great book.
The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
An SF riff on The Count of Monte Cristo; a precursor to cyberpunk; a stylistically ambitious 1950’s-era modernist experiment; and an Arthur C. Clarke-style cosmic freak-out about the evolution of man—The Stars My Destination is all of these and more. An initially despicable lump of a protagonist who evolves first into the perfect case study for the limits and costs of revenge and then moves beyond that into something completely different: Gully Foyle becomes a stand-in for mankind on the brink of real change. A breathlessly fast and hugely entertaining book—stop reading this right now and acquire a copy. Trust me.
…and finally, the #1 book I read this past decade….
Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
“In that sleep and in sleeps to follow the judge did visit. Who would come other? A great shambling mutant, silent and serene. Whatever his antecedents, he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go. Whoever would seek out his history through what unraveling of loins and ledgerbooks must stand at last darkened and dumb at the shore of a void without terminus or origin and whatever science he might bring to bear upon the dusty primal matter blowing down out of the millennia will discover no trace of ultimate atavistic egg by which to reckon his commencing.” In Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy created one of the greatest literary villains ever conceived: the Judge—the personification of violent, immoral conflict: “It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be….War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.” If the judge was the only good thing about Blood Meridian it would still be worth reading, but there is so much more. As with most great works of art, many people dislike Blood Meridian and I can sympathize with them. It’s a brutally violent and darkly nihilistic book, but similar to McCarthy’s The Road, there is a tiny, pale core of something hopeful about it. The main character of “the kid” seems like such a cypher for so much of the book, it’s easy to dismiss Blood Meridian as a whole, but the point—at least to me—is the gradual building up of the kid into a real character, piece by piece. The tiny bit of light Cormac throws us is the possibility that even someone born into inhuman brutality and neglect can eventually evolve into something slightly better. And that that evolution is an end in itself. I think the obscure coda at the conclusion of the book is akin to Camus—it might be worth just going through the motions. But broad philosophizing aside, Blood Meridian is built from exquisite prose, detailed historical research and an unparalleled glimpse into the depths of the void of human depravity—a masterpiece by any measure.
Honourable mentions (i.e. “the next 10”):
11. The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
12. Ravelstein, Saul Bellow
13. The Pale Blue Eye, Louis Bayard
14. The Road, Cormac McCarthy
15. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Michael Chabon
16. Look to Windward, Iain M. Banks
17. The Glass Key, Dashiell Hammett
18. Rainbows End, Vernor Vinge
19. Battle Royale, Koushun Takami
20. The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman