Living Legends: 40 Contemporary Books Everyone Should Read

Updated 04/24/19
Contemporary Fiction
@saasha_burns

There are enough classics and 20th-century greats to keep us bookworms busy for the rest of time, but that doesn't mean there aren't contemporary books worth adding to our giant stack of to-reads. In fact, some of the most life-altering books also happen to be recent releases. Since it can be overwhelming to sift through the whole genre, and we couldn't read all of them if we tried, we're highlighting books published in the 21st century that everyone should read in their lifetime. And they're not written in old English, which makes them a little more accessible (and, arguably, fun).

From under-the-radar page-turners to Pulitzer Prize–winning masterpieces, these living legends will definitely be considered required reading for generations to come. Read on for the best contemporary fiction books of the past two decades and add the most enticing to your own library

Jhumpa Lahiri The Interpreter of Maladies $10
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Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize–winning short story collection will make you feel it all. There's the young couple coping with a stillborn birth, a young woman entangled in an affair with a married man, a doctor who doesn't speak the same language as any of his patients, a displaced family, and several other engaging characters who all grappled with common, universal issues as well as culturally specific ones. Though Lahiri covers an impressive breadth of experiences, each story is both moving and bittersweet.

  

"Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination."

Another Great Contemporary Read: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Haruki Murakami 1Q84 $13
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Set in Tokyo in 1984, 1Q84 follows a woman who begins to realize that she has somehow entered a parallel universe. We slowly begin to meet the rest of the cast, each with seemingly unrelated lives, though they eventually converge in what is a mystery, love story, and fantasy all at once. Haruki Murakami is an expert storyteller, and this is a great one to start with if you haven't read any of his work yet (especially if you're an avid sci-fi fan). It'll no doubt make you fall in love with his style, and lucky for us, he's written a ton of novels.

 

"But there are certain meanings that are lost forever the moment they are explained in words."

Another Great Contemporary Read: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Miranda July No One Belongs Here More Than You $10
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Though her novels are great, we're partial to Miranda July's short story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You. Short and sweet but loaded with messages and lessons, each short story is as whimsical as it is profound, startling, and tender. Each tale is thematically unique, but they each fit within the same direct tone and overall feel, and each character is charmingly awkward, offbeat, and quirky while also managing to be totally relatable. Take, for example, the woman who gives swimming lessons in her kitchen, a nurse with a monomaniacal obsession with the royal family, a nameless person feeling the weight of every decision and conversation they've had all within the short span of a bath.

 

"What a terrible mistake to let go of something wonderful for something real."

Another Great Contemporary Read: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

Zadie Smith On Beauty $12
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Described as both infinitely wise and hilarious by critics, Zadie Smith's novel On Beauty is a must-read. It's about an interracial family living in Wellington, Massachusetts, a college town, whose dynamics and experiences serve as a microcosm into the ways in which the personal and political inevitably overlap. If that quick description sounds vaguely familiar, it's because it's loosely based on E.M. Forster's Howards End.

"She did what girls generally do when they don't feel the part: she dressed it instead."

Another Great Contemporary Read: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Angie Thomas The Hate U Give $14
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The Hate U Give was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. At the center of the story is a teenage girl from a poor neighborhood who attends a fancy prep school as she tries to find a balance between the two worlds after police fatally shoot her unarmed best friend. It's a resonant must-read that feels especially topical in today's political climate.

"Brave doesn't mean you're not scared. It means you go on even though you're scared."

Another Great Contemporary Read: Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Ian McEwan Atonement $9
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This incredible thriller/mystery/romance novel by Ian McEwan will satisfy all your bookworm cravings at once. The story pivots around a terrible crime that happened at a family home in the 1930s, and then traces the ramifications as they play out over the course of the next 60 years. Once you finish the book, make sure to watch the film adaptation, which stars Keira Knightley and Saoirse Ronan.

"A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn and not easily mended."

Another Great Contemporary Read: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

Mark Haddon The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime $9
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By far one of the most inventive mystery novels of our time, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is written in first-person from the perspective of a young boy described as "a mathematician with some behavioral difficulties." It opens up with him witness the death of a neighbor's dog, as the story unfolds, we learn that it's not just a mystery; it's also a tale about perception, belonging, and connection. 

"Prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away. I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them."

Another Great Contemporary Read: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Roxane Gay Difficult Women $14
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Turning the gender trope of women being "difficult," on its head, Roxane Gay's collection of short stories is a tour de force. Written from a place of sincere compassion, she manages to create a cast of very flawed, very real women from all walks of life. The flexibility of short story collections allows her to experiment with a few different forms in each story, too, which is a joy as a reader who appreciates rage and variety.

"Everything in my head feels loose, lost."

Another Great Contemporary Read: The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner

Hari Kunzru White Tears $11
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This brilliant and biting novel by Hari Kunzru is so much more than just a ghost a story or murder mystery about the underbelly of the music world, but if you enjoy a spooky read that will linger long after you've put it down, you can't miss White Tears. It feels like a very timely read, as it reveals and unpacks a variety of issues, like racial conflict and cultural appropriation in the contemporary U.S. 

"The inventor of the radio believed that sound waves never completely die away, that they persist, fainter and fainter, masked by the day-to-day noise of the world. Marconi thought that if he could only invent a microphone powerful enough, he would be able to listen to ancient times."

Another Great Contemporary Read: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson 

Carmen Maria Machado Her Body & Other Parties $11
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These short stories are so gripping that you'll find yourself hungry for more on the last page of each one. It's pretty incredible how much Maria Machado packs into one story. Some are eerie and some are erotic while some teeter on the absurd, and all of them are emotionally impactful. Its sci-fi meets fantasy meets horror all rolled into one fantastic feminist feat.

"I understood that knowledge was a dwarfing, obliterating, all-consuming thing, and to have it was to both be grateful and to suffer greatly."

Another Great Contemporary Read: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Cormac McCarthy The Road $13
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When it comes to post-apocalyptic novels, The Road is legendary—so legendary, in fact, that you may remember it from your middle school or high school required reading list. If you didn't read it then, you definitely should now. This masterpiece hones in on a father-son duo trekking across a desolate, ruined America, though the future they're trekking toward is uncertain. It presents a moving and tender take on finding hope without hope and the strength of kinship.

"'What's the bravest thing you ever did?' He spat in the road a bloody phlegm. 'Getting up this morning,' he said."

Another Great Contemporary Read: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Viet Thanh Nguyen The Sympathizer $10
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A half-French, half-Vietnamese double agent relocates to America after the fall of Saigon, and betrayal, both personal and political, ensues. At once a love story and a spy novel about the legacy and evils of colonialism, the Vietnam War, and ensuing refugee experience in the U.S. you won't soon forget The Sympathizer. It's satirical, sharp, suspenseful, and poignant. Oh, and it won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2016. 

"I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces."

Another Great Contemporary Read: The Gun Dealer's Daughter by Gia Apostol

Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending $11
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Written almost like a psychological thriller without being at all spooky, this coming-of-age book is about a now-middle-aged man trying to unpack a memory about the death of his childhood friend when his close childhood reemerges in his life. It's about the way our present shapes our past, and the other way around. It's a deeply introspective, emotionally affective read that's also written in sophisticated, beautiful language. 

"History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation."

Another Great Contemporary Read: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Anthony Doerr All the Light We Cannot See $13
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If you're looking for more Pulitzer Prize winners to add to your bookshelves, you won't want to miss this one. Anthony Doerr spent a decade perfecting the story, which is a period piece follows two young people whose paths collide when they're trying to rebuild their lives after WWII. 

"For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one's own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes."

Another Great Contemporary Read: The Goldfinch by Donna Tart

Junot Díaz This Is How You Lose Her $12
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Controversial figure though he may be, Junot Diaz's collection of short stories is a modern-day classic that will no doubt make you some kind of way. If you're going through a breakup or have ever experienced heartbreak, it will be especially life-changing and comforting (depending on which stage of the breakup you're in, of course). He also captures certain moods and cultural norms that represent the contemporary moment unlike any other.

"And that's when I know it's over. As soon as you start thinking about the beginning, it's the end."

Another Great Contemporary Read: Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros

Aravind Adiga The White Tiger $3
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The White Tiger is such a masterpiece that it's hard to believe this is Aravind Adiga's debut novel. And we're not the only ones who think it's amazing, seeing as it won the Man Booker Prize in 2008. The narrator is a poor Bengali chauffer, who drives around a rich landlord for a living until he makes a violent, risky, and life-changing decision that changes everything. Though it touches on a variety of themes, it's most celebrated for its depiction of the caste system in India. 

"Strange thoughts brew in your heart when you spend too much time with old books."

Another Great Contemporary Read: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex $10
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This coming-of-age family history explores gender identity, immigration, sexuality, political unrest, corruption, and the quest for belonging, both internal and external. With sharp political and social commentary, as well as a resonant and moving personal narrative, Middlesex is as triumphant as it is ambitious.

"I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974."

Another Great Contemporary Read: Exit West by Mosin Hamid

Ali Smith Hotel World $12
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By far one of the most inventive novels ever written. Ali Smith's Hotel World is known for her experimental representations of time, language, and consciousness both formally and thematically. Her writing is evocative and unique because she does not strive to capture the human experience through linear, realist representations but rather through the internal worlds of her characters and the use of metafiction.

Hotel World explores these themes as well as the notion of loss and grief when a young hotel chambermaid falls to her death. It's separated into five different sections narrated by each protagonist: the dead girl's spirit, her sister, the hotel receptionist, a homeless woman who lives outside the hotel, and a reporter staying in the hotel. 

"I could lick it off with my tongue, if I had a tongue again, if my tongue was wet, and I could taste it for what it is. Beautiful dirt, grey and vintage, the grime left by life, sticking to the bony roof of a mouth and tasting of next to nothing, which is always better than nothing."

Another Great Contemporary Read: Sing Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Laurie Weeks Zippermouth $10
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The tone of this novel has a momentum that'll grip you right from the start and fling you to the edge of desire and sanity along with our snappy protagonist as she runs from the monotony of mainstream culture. Though on the surface, it's a book about a woman's spiral into drug abuse and mental illness while coping with unrequited love, it's so much more than that. The narrator offers us some biting insight and remains laugh-out-loud hilarious even during painful moments. Like us, you'll probably panic (or just cherish your copy even more) when you find out this is Laurie Weeks's only book.

"I decided I was in love with this girl and I couldn't eat, couldn't sleep. I wanted her to drop by in the afternoon for a nap. It didn't seem likely, but that was part of the pleasure, like the agony of fixating on a dead movie star the way I'd become obsessed at age fifteen with the long-decomposed actress Vivien Leigh, aka Scarlett O'Hara, and her later, more bummed out incarnation, Blanche DuBois."

Another Great Contemporary Read: Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles

Tao Lin Richard Yates $14
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Notoriously deadpan and dark, Tao Lin is one of the most distinctive voices of our generation. Though the form often replicates G-chat-style messaging between a fictional Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment, this novel dives into deep philosophical musings about the meaning of life, art, and language in the information age.

"Haley Joel Osment said 'Party girl' which was a term they had for people who did not speak in a quiet monotone and were not severely detached."

Another Great Contemporary Read: Brief Interviews With Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

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