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The best books of 2016

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2016

Best Books 2016

It’s just the beginning of December and the lists of the best books of the year are already starting to stack up like so many clichés about nightstand book piles. Here’s what book editors, voracious readers, and retailers have to say about the year’s top books.

Tyler Cowen almost never steers me wrong, so I’ll lead with his best fiction of 2016 and best non-fiction books of 2016 lists. Cowen seems more enthusiastic about the year’s non-fiction than fiction, recommending The Age of Em by Robin Hanson and Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History. He also recommends Atlas Obscura, which arrived in my book pile and was immediately commandeered by my 9-year-old who has read it straight through three or four times now.1

The NY Times somehow narrowed down the entire year’s output to The 10 Best Books of 2016. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad made this list and many others for good reason: it was an excellent and essential read. Also on the list is Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer.

From Buzzfeed, The 24 Best Fiction Books Of 2016. Includes The Vegetarian by Han Kang and The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan.

Amazon’s editors selected their top 100 picks for the year. Included are The Girls by Emma Cline, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, a book that came out very early in the year and was well-regarded but got lost in the shuffle a little as the year went on.

For their list of the best books of 2016 (part two), The Guardian asked writers what they had enjoyed reading during the year. Yuval Noah Harari (whose Sapiens I’ve been yapping about all year) recommends Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie picked Hisham Matar’s The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, and Taiye Selasi “adored” Swing Time by Zadie Smith. Oh and my fave Hilary Mantel (where’s that next Cromwell book?!) recommends Ian McGuire’s The North Water.

The Telegraph’s top 50 books of the year is a wider-ranging list than most, with picks ranging from the Man Booker prize-winning The Sellout by Paul Beatty to several books about sports, including an autobiography by FC Barcelona’s star midfielder Andrés Iniesta called The Artist.

On its list of the Top 20 Fiction Books of 2016 The What recommends Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett and The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie.

See also 2015’s best books. Ferrante and Ta-Nehisi Coates were the clear favorites last year. I haven’t read Between the World and Me yet, but the Neapolitan Novels were fantastic.

Update: Shane Parrish of Farnam Street offers 5 Noteable Nonfiction Books of 2016, including Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life.

Update: At the Washington Post, Carlos Lozada shares his picks for the most surprising, hopeful, and overrated books of 2016. Among them are Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It…Every Time and Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.

Update: Bill Gates just released his annual list of some of his favorite 2016 books. The first book on the list is David Foster Wallace’s String Theory, a collection of his writing about tennis — here’s his full review.

When it comes to books, it’s pretty rare that I get intimidated. I read all kinds of books, including ones that only the harshest college professors would assign. And yet I must admit that for many years I steered clear of anything by David Foster Wallace. I often heard super literate friends talking in glowing terms about his books and essays. I even put a copy of his tour de force Infinite Jest on my nightstand at one point, but I just never got around to reading it.

If you’re a long-time reader, I’m not sure if there’s anything more I can say to convince you to read Wallace’s tennis writing, but just give his piece on Roger Federer a try.

Update: They just keep coming! For their Year in Reading 2016, The Millions surveyed a number of contributors for their favorite books of the year — Annie Proulx highlights Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane. The Globe 100 Best Books of the Year list includes Nicholson Baker’s Substitute. NPR built a Book Concierge to help you find the perfect 2016 book — I found White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg by applying the Seriously Great Writing filter.

Update: From Maria Popova at Brain Pickings, The Greatest Science Books of 2016. On the list are Time Travel by James Gleick and Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game.

Update: The NY Times book critics selected their top books of 2016, including Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 by Volker Ullrich.

A bunch of New Yorker writers selected books they loved in 2016. Among the picks were Liz Moore’s The Unseen World and Works and Days by Bernadette Mayer.

Update: The WSJ asked some notable people what their favorite books of 2016 were. Stephen Curry read Dan Brown — calling him “a master at intertwining history and fantasy” — but also Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers — but failed to call him “a master at intertwining history and fantasy”.

The readers of Goodreads chose their favorite books of 2016, including Hamilton: The Revolution and Adulthood Is a Myth by Sarah Andersen.

Every year, the New York Public Library picks the Best Books for Kids and Teens. Their 2016 lists include Fiona Robinson’s Ada’s Ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer and Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen by Jazz Jennings.

Update: The NY Times also asked many notable people what they read in 2016. Bryan Cranston read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Update: From Buzzfeed, The 18 Best Nonfiction Books Of 2016 including Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography.

  1. The other day he said to me, “Daddy, you should read this book. I think you’d really like it. There might be some interesting stuff in there for your website.”

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