2016 was a rough year, but not for readers. There were some incredible books that not only dazzled us with their gorgeous prose, but also changed our very perception of the world around us. We decided to publish this list after Christmas so that you can use the money you just got from Christmas to get these books for yourself. You’re welcome. Here are the editors choices for their favorites of the past year.
Colson Whitehead is completely deserving of the NBA award given to him because of this book. He brings the underground railroad to life as he follows the life of a slave escaping from her life in the south. Whitehead—in writing that seems utterly unique in today’s standards—shows the resilience slaves had to have, the brutality of those who enslaved, and the simple fact that America may not have ever been great to begin with.
It often seems we live in a world with great compassion for those far away and little for those within our own borders. Vance’s memoir about growing up poor in Appalachia make people out of this year’s political caricatures. In a display of rare civility, Vance writes with knowledge and humility: there isn’t a whisper of condemnation for either those of Appalachia or those who have misunderstood them. Reading this work is an investment in your own humanity.
Patchett’s brilliant writing takes another leap in this book about the dissolution of the family and the fragility of life. This incredible novel tells the story of three generations of a family falling apart at every turn and is told with the wit and beautiful characters Patchett is always apt to create.
“Incommunicable attributes” is a complicated theological term, but Jen Wilkin’s book on the topic is anything but that. Wilkin walks readers through ten attributes that God alone boasts, the ones he doesn’t share with humanity. Her explanations of God’s character are approachable for all people, not just those with theological education, and the breadth of her exposé on the human heart is equally as wide. Wilkin will leave every reader in awe of a God who is unlike us and aware of the places we long to surpass our limitations, and free to run to a God much grander than we have realized instead of trying to be him.
As one of the greatest writers alive today, Zadie Smith creates a vivid picture of two dancers—one with talent, and the other whose talent is lacking. It is a story about identity, friendship, and disappointment. It may not be as good as her other novels, but Smith has a writing style that will suck you in and keep you turning the pages.
Ben Winters managed to write an alternative reality where our world and one of make-believe are more than intertwined. Underground Airlines imagines modern day with one historical tweak: the civil war never happened and slavery is legal in four states. With his historical “what if,” Winters creates an entirely different category where what’s real life and what’s a concoction of Winter’s mind are impossible to discern. This mystery-thriller will come to an end but you won’t be able to leave it behind in your mind or your life.
If you want to laugh and cry on the same page of a novel, this is the one for you. Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel in eleven years brings the reader into the life of a Jewish family and reminds every reader about the slow decay that time can have on a marriage, a family, and a life. His prose is beautiful and his dialogue is immaculate. This novel, at the very least, will force you to examine your own life.
Larry Taunton made a splintered splash in publishing this year with his book The Faith of Christopher Hitchens. It was splintered because those who liked Hitchens—typically secular journalists—thought the book was a sham, with Taunton touting his “friendship” with Hitchens in order to sell books. Those who didn’t like him—religious conservatives—praised the book for looking behind the veil at the world’s most famous atheist and finding, doubtfully, a silent convert.
Though this isn’t a book, the story behind Gospel of Jesus’s Wife—a small papyrus scrap that ruptured much of Christian scholarship a few years ago—is the most fascinating essay we read all year. It’s more investigative journalism than scholarship, but the secrets buried in an ancient manuscript, and what secrets remain in the story of its provenance, will leave your mouth hanging open. It did ours. There isn’t much more we can say about it other than this: If you have thirty minutes to spare on some slow afternoon, sit down and read it.
Enjoy reading these incredible books!