Books are slow food. It generally takes two years, two hardworking years, to cook up a book from idea to publication. Some writers can go faster — those who publish a book a year (or more) are working at top speed — while others write much more slowly, ruminating and reworking and false-starting for a decade or more. By the time we readers get them, books are self-contained objects, narratives that have evolved outside of the relentless news cycle and Twitter chatter. More than any other medium, books give us deep, rich stories that stand apart from the hubbub.
Except sometimes, that years-long process winds up being right in the center of the conversation. Which brings us to these, the 10 most important books of 2016. No matter when they started or how long they took, they touched on something that was essential this year, and will be essential when we look back at it from 2017 and beyond.
“The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead
Pick your metaphor: Grand slam, EGOT, Royal flush. Whitehead’s novel “The Underground Railroad” — the story of a young woman’s escape from slavery via an imaginary railroad that brings her to different, imperfect versions of America — was a success on every level. Its publication date was moved up by a month so Oprah could pick it for her popular book club; it also won the National Book Award for fiction. Reviewing it for The Times, critic-at-large Rebecca Carroll wrote that the book is “a fiercely salient reckoning of what it means, has meant and continues to mean to be black in America.” Whitehead, who was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2002, told Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” that he was “reluctant to immerse myself” in the history of slavery; it took him 16 years to write.
“Trump Revealed: An American Journey of Ambition, Ego, Money, and Power” by Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher
This swift book is the exception to the rule. Kranish and Fisher worked like lightning to get “Trump Revealed” to print while he was a presidential candidate (it was published in late August, a month after the Republican convention). The writers turned the reporting of their fellow Washington Post reporters into a detailed, researched story of Trump that included 20 hours of face-to-face interviews with the man himself. As we look ahead to a Trump administration that appears particularly disinclined toward transparency, this book is all the more valuable in understanding how Trump, our president-elect, has behaved in the past as a manager, businessman and private person.
“Evicted” by Matthew Desmond
Desmond moved to a trailer park in Milwaukee in 2008 known for its substandard conditions to begin gathering stories of eviction; later, he moved into a run-down apartment complex. He follows eight families struggling to get by while paying more than 70% of their incomes for housing, falling behind, being evicted, trying again. Desmond, now a Harvard professor, has a close-up empathy that makes the book lasting. The housing crisis for families like these is not over; there may be another landlord, like one Desmond tracked, who will evict a single mother and her children two days before Christmas this year.
“The Sun Is Also a Star” by Nicola Yoon
Yoon’s sophomore novel was a National Book Award finalist for young people’s literature. It’s told from two main points of view: Daniel, a poetry-loving Korean American teenager whose parents want him to be a doctor, and Natasha, a student who hopes to be a scientist and is trying to prevent her family from being deported back to Jamaica. The swift, romantic story follows the threads of these two teens’ lives and those they intersect with over the course of a day. This book for young adults is full of intelligence, understanding and hope.
“Shrill” by Lindy West
At 34, West came of age as a writer in the full light of the Internet, a young feminist speaking out against fat-shaming — publicly addressing her colleague at the Stranger, Dan Savage — and writing about periods and rape jokes at Jezebel the Guardian. On “This American Life,” she chased down an Internet troll that had been stalking her. These pieces are collected here, along with her thoughts about how vital it is for young women to raise their voices: the book is subtitled “notes from a loud woman.”
“The White Donkey” by Maximilian Uriarte
It was 2010 when Uriarte, a lance corporal in the Marine Corps, created the online comic “Terminal Lance,” which swiftly developed a fan base. Using some of the same characters, he created a more serious and involved graphic novel, “The White Donkey,” based on his 2007 deployment in Iraq. First self-published by Uriarte with a Kickstarter campaign that raised eight times its original goal, the graphic novel was then picked up by Little, Brown and released to a wider audience ready to see Fallujah through the eyes and (digital) pen of someone who was there.
“City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp” by Ben Rawlence
According to the UNHCR, there are more than 65 million people worldwide who have been forcibly displaced. The world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab in northern Kenya, is the temporary-turned-permanent home to as many as 600,000 people. That’s where Rawlence, a former researcher for Human Rights Watch, spent five months for this book. “‘City of Thorns’ is as much about the rest of us as it is about the refugees it describes,” Jill Leovy wrote in our review. “It evolves into a meditation on the war on terror, the European refugee crisis, and corruption in the developing world without ever releasing its tight focus on Dadaab.”
“Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen
One of our biggest rock stars, Springsteen has written a new canon of rock songs that deeply integrate his own desire, trouble and longing with the larger story of America. This memoir, the first from the 67-year-old, tells of his Catholic upbringing, his youthful ambitions, his adult convictions and his deep commitment to social justice. In our review, Randy Lewis writes, “What emerges unequivocally is his almost singled-minded devotion not to scoring hits, or finding fame and fortune, but to creating a body of music that matters.”
“Frantumaglia” by Elena Ferrante
Ferrante, the Italian author of the internationally bestselling Neapolitan novels, is a phantom, a pseudonym. “Frantumaglia” is an autobiographical assemblage of writings, sharing some of her history (possibly fabricated) and explaining that she wants to remain unknown because of the burdens put on female writers. Weeks before the book’s American release, a European journalist claimed to have discovered Ferrante’s true identity, raising questions of who needs to know what about whom. For those who like fiction, the idea of crafting a character who is the stand-in for the novelist is more interesting than poking into a publisher’s financial records. “Frantumaglia” is the real accomplishment.
“Swing Time” by Zadie Smith
Smith is one of today’s literary lights, and her novel has the flow of Fred and Ginger in “Swing Time,” the movie that gives this novel its name. It’s about two young, mixed-race dancers growing up in England; the friends push and pull against each other as they deal with class, ambition and race. One becomes the assistant to a starlet, adding the complications of fame and its absence, threaded through with shifting senses of belonging. “Its precision is thrilling even as it grows into a book-length meditation on cultural appropriation, played out on a celebrity-besotted global stage,” writes our reviewer Karen Long, calling it “a multilayered tour-de-force.”