Top Books of the 2010s

As the 2010s come to a close, the Reader Services Department at the Boston Public Library has been reflecting on the past decade of books. All books are important in their own way, of course, but which books can we look back at and say, "Five years later I'm still thinking about it" or "that one really spoke to us"? We read books one at a time, considering each on its own merits. The end of a year and the end of a decade is a great time to try and think about the big picture. Plus, it's a lot of fun! Our office has been a pitched battlefield for weeks as we argue out the relative importance of artistic vision, popular appeal, critical reception, and our own personal taste. I've never enjoyed an assignment more. The final result: fifteen lists of our "2010s Top Ten" books in different categories, ranging from picture books to self-help guides. We don't actually hope you agree with all our choices. We hope you'll argue with us! Part of the joy of "best of" lists is getting outraged over what's been left out. 

The biggest movement in the publishing industry over the last ten years has been the push for increased diversity and especially #OwnVoices. #OwnVoices, if you've never heard the term before, refers to books where the author shares a marginalized identity with their characters – a book about an African American protagonist written by an African American author, for instance, or a book about an autistic protagonist written by an autistic author. The phrase #OwnVoices was originally coined by author Corinne Duyvis, but it has been fiercely championed throughout the book community and especially by We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit organization founded in 2014 that advocates for diverse representation in children's literature. You will see its impact throughout our lists, but especially in our choices for picture books, middle grade books, and young adult novels

Sometimes it's possible to point to a single book that kick-started or exemplifies a literary trend, and 2012 had two, though they're not similar in any other respect: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. Even before it became a movie, Gone Girl (and its iconic cover, a truly brilliant design choice) was everywhere. Domestic suspense, unreliable narrators, and books with "girl", "woman", and other female designations in the title have dominated the thriller market ever since, and our top ten picks for thrillers are no exception. 

You won't find Fifty Shades on any of our lists of best books, but there's no denying that its impact on this decade of literature has been huge. It raised the profile of erotic romance and showed mainstream publishers that repackaging a self-published book could, under the right circumstances, be massively profitable. Since then traditional publishers have successfully brought out self-published gems ranging from Andy Weir's unexpected astronaut hit The Martian and Becky Chambers' award-winning space road trip The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet to Ngozi Ukazu's college hockey romance comic Check, Please! and Instagram star Rupi Kaur's poetry collection Milk and Honey. You'll find several self-published books on our list of the decade's best romance – and you might also detect the influence of Fifty Shades in the steamy sex scenes lurking behind many seemingly innocuous covers. 

This decade has also seen trends in other streams of pop culture that have had an impact on the books we read and talk about. The tremendous popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, HBO's Game of Thrones, and the Star Wars franchise, among others, have pulled speculative fiction into the mainstream, and we'll be seeing the results of its new visibility for years to come. With that increased visibility has come increased accountability to a broad range of fans and readers who want to see greater diversity and inclusion – and increased attention to the writers who were producing diverse speculative fiction already. Ann Leckie broke into the industry with her debut Ancillary Justice, the first book to win a trifecta of major speculative fiction awards (the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Arthur C. Clarke awards); N.K. Jemisin was the first African American author to win a Hugo Award for best novel, for The Fifth Season, then won the award again for both of the subsequent books in the trilogy; Ken Liu introduced the burgeoning science fiction scene of China to American readers with his masterful translation of Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem. Our lists of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and graphic novels give a taste of the changes each of the subgenres has undergone from 2010 to 2019. 

As American politics become ever more divisive and our society more stratified, readers turn to nonfiction for help understanding their world and how to live in it. Our social justice picks highlight the best and most important books of the decade that showcase the perspectives of those who have been marginalized, whether due to poverty, race, gender, or sexuality. These books offer the reader an opportunity to think about their role in improving the world around them, but just as important is the improvement of the self. This decade's prominent self-help books give advice on how to make better habits, organize your home, and become just that little bit happier – all concepts that have become more important in an increasingly chaotic world. Memoir, which gives readers a vicarious ride through another person's challenges and triumphs, at its best bridges the space between the two. As we relocated the books about social justice and self-help books and memoirs to their own lists, we ended up winnowing down our general nonfiction picks to mostly history – some recent, some looking much further back. In times of crisis, it's natural to look inward, so it's maybe not surprising that the majority of the books on our nonfiction lists are specifically about America and Americans. 

Also, we like to think that our beautiful city is kind of a big deal, so we included a list of the best books about Boston published in the past ten years! 

Our last list, and by far the most difficult to select, is of course plain old fiction. Out of the thousands and thousands of novels published between 2010 and today, how could we choose only ten? We agonized... we argued... we compromised. In the end, we came up with ten books we think are true gems, which we hope can at least try to represent the diversity of the many great novels that were published in the past decade. If you disagree with our choices, we hope you'll tell us so!


Check out all fifteen of our "2010s Top Ten" book lists:

  1. Top Ten Picture Books of the 2010s
  2. Top Ten Middle Grade Books of the 2010s
  3. Top Ten YA Novels of the 2010s
  4. Top Ten Self-Help Books of the 2010s
  5. Top Ten Social Justice Books of the 2010s
  6. Top Ten Graphic Novels of the 2010s
  7. Top Ten Romance Novels of the 2010s
  8. Top Ten Thrillers of the 2010s
  9. Top Ten Nonfiction Books of the 2010s
  10. Top Ten Sci-Fi Novels of the 2010s
  11. Top Ten Fantasy Novels of the 2010s
  12. Top Ten Horror Novels of the 2010s
  13. Top Ten Memoirs of the 2010s
  14. Top Ten Boston Books of the 2010s
  15. Top Ten Novels of the 2010s

Disagree with our choices? Tweet us @BPLBoston and let us know! #BPL2010sTopTen

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