5 Contemporary Books I’d Add to the Literary Canon

Back in October, I wrote a post about classic books I didn’t finish. In today’s post, I want to talk about books I did finish, books I think are so good they should be considered classics someday.

First, it might be helpful to identify what I mean by a classic. I like the famous definition from Italo Calvino: “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” I think of a classic book as being a title that’s widely read and discussed decades after its publication. It’s a book that has endured because of a specific reason, whether that’s a timeless story, a profound message, the exploration of universal truth, an in-depth look at culture, or clever writing. The books I’m sharing today have that something special that will allow them to endure. Keep reading to see if you agree. 

Book cover for Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn ward. Living with his grandparents and sister on a Gulf Coast farm, Jojo navigates the challenges of his mother's addictions and his grandmother's cancer before the release of his father from prison prompts a road trip of danger and hope.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Published: 2017

I remember finishing this book and being stunned by it. I read it all in one day was tempted to start all over again after I read the last words. This novel explores a lot of different things, but what stands out to me is how Ward addresses addiction and sibling love. Jojo shows such tenderness and kindness toward his little sister, and it’s those moments that shine so brightly in a dark story. Leoni, Jojo’s mother, cannot provide what her daughter needs due to her addiction, so Jojo picks up the slack. I appreciate how Ward shows the different roles family members can take on when necessary and how addiction affects everyone in the addict’s orbit. 

Book cover for A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they're broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Published: 2015

I can’t think of another novel that affected me quite as profoundly as A Little Life. Before I started this book, I kept seeing the word “heartbreaking” in just about every review. That’s for a good reason: it is indeed heartbreaking, and it’s not a story for everyone. If you’re a sensitive reader, this is probably not the book for you. But if you’re looking for a story about friendship and surviving trauma, there is much to appreciate here. Jude’s story is bleak and full of tragedy, yet Yanagihara shows how sometimes the smallest things can keep a person going. It took me a few days after finishing this book to get over it. Once you meet Jude, you won’t forget him. 

Book cover for Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Middlesex tells the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides, and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family, who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City and the race riots of 1967 before moving out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan. To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret, and the astonishing genetic history that turns Callie into Cal, one of the most audacious and wondrous narrators in contemporary fiction.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Published: 2003

It’s easy to see why this book won a Pulitzer prize. It’s epic in scope, beautifully written, and wholly original. I haven’t read anything else quite like Middlesex. Cal’s story and that of her family are fascinating from beginning to end. This book is over 500 pages, yet I finished it in less than a week. Not only is it a masterful story, but it’s highly readable and engaging.

Book cover for Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. In 1956, toward the end of Rev. John Ames's life, he begins a letter to his young son, an account of himself and his forebears. This is also the tale of wisdom forged during his solitary life and how history lives through generations, pervasively present even when betrayed and forgotten.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Published: 2004

When I read fiction, I don’t tend to underline passages very often. Open my copy of Gilead, though, and you’ll see page after page bearing my uneven scrawl. I mentioned this novel in my post about Christian faith in mainstream fiction, and if you read that, you’ll know part of the reason why I appreciate this book so much is because Robinson handles Ames’s faith with honesty and nuance. Readers can learn a lot from this novel, yet it’s never preachy. Rev. Ames is a character who has stayed with me, and I bet he’ll stay with you, too. 

Book cover for Columbine by Dave Cullen. What really happened April 20, 1999? The horror left an indelible stamp on the American psyche, but most of what we "know" is wrong. It wasn't about jocks, Goths, or the Trench Coat Mafia. Dave Cullen was one of the first reporters on scene, and spent ten years on this book-widely recognized as the definitive account. With a keen investigative eye and psychological acumen, he draws on mountains of evidence, insight from the world's leading forensic psychologists, and the killers' own words and drawings. Cullen paints raw portraits of two polar opposite killers. They contrast starkly with the flashes of resilience and redemption among the survivors.

Columbine by Dave Cullen
Published: 2009

I was in middle school when the Columbine tragedy occurred, and was equally horrified and fascinated. School shootings had happened before, but never at that scope. It’s easy for us to watch the news and think we know precisely why these shootings occurred, but in this book, Dave Cullen challenges every assumption and presents facts that can’t be denied. It’s hard to read, yet is an essential book if we’re hoping to understand more about what turns a kid into a killer. 

So what do you think? Do you agree with any of my additions to the canon? What books do you think should be added? 

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