The 10 Most Crucial Books of 2013

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 6 2013 10:44 AM

The Slate Book Review Top 10 of 2013

The 10 most crucial books of the year.

(Continued from Page 1)

Read Amanda Hess’ review of Lean In.
Listen to the DoubleX Gabfest’s
discussion of Lean In.
Read Katherine Goldstein’s
account of joining a Lean In circle.

Every once in a while a book comes along that sets the topic of conversation for months to come. This spring, Sheryl Sandberg’s call to arms for women in the workplace was that book. Even before it was published, it was mandatory to have an opinion about Sandberg and her message; once it was out there, it spurred a yearlong conversation about gender, work, ambition, and privilege in every magazine, on every blog, and around every water cooler. Love it or hate it, Sandberg and her book will forever be a founding document for a generation of career women who found in its pages advice, sympathy, understanding, provocation—or just a way to start the discussion they’ve been needing to have for years. Sandberg may not “speak to every woman’s circumstance,” Katherine Goldstein wrote in April—“is there any book that does?”—but “she succeeds in speaking to mine.”


Read L.V. Anderson’s review of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
Read Katie Roiphe’s
essay on the novel.

Adelle Waldman’s pitch-perfect portrait of a very specific urban type—the “Sensitive Literary Man,” as Katie Roiphe wrote in July—had members of the tribe recognizing themselves, with horror, all summer long. But the novel isn’t just an anthropological success; it’s an impeccably written comedy of manners in which a smart, sensitive, modern guy dates a girl he should be all accounts be crazy about—but instead finds out that, as L.V. Anderson wrote in July, “perhaps his dick is not beholden to the same progressive ideals his brain is.”

A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor


Read Marian Ryan’s review of A Prayer Journal.

Written in 1946 and 1947—when the barely-20-year-old Flannery O’Connor was a student at the University of Iowa—and only recently discovered in her papers, this slim journal of meditations and prayers reveals a devout Christian and an ambitious writer struggling to reconcile those two sides of her soul. A Prayer Journal is the rare book that instantly forces you to reconsider everything you know about a writer’s life and work, though the overwhelming sentiment the book spurs is sadness at how early God took her away. As Marian Ryan wrote in November, “To think, if she had lived, and written, all those years!”

Tenth of December by George Saunders


Read the Slate Book Review author-editor conversation between George Saunders and Andy Ward.
Listen to the Audio Book Club’s
discussion of Tenth of December.
Listen to Saunders
read from and answer questions about the book.

George Saunders has been a writer’s writer, a sentence-fetishist’s darling, for a long time. But when the New York Times Magazine declared Tenth of December “the best book you’ll read this year”—on Jan. 3—readers took notice, pushing this lovely, bizarre short story collection onto the best-seller list. Luckily, Saunders is as mordantly creative as ever, using the corrupt languages of this modern world—ad copy, teenspeak, bureaucratese—to explore the barriers against human dignity and the boundlessness of the human heart. Indeed, if this book feels different from his previous stories, it’s due to Saunders’ dogged optimism: “I found myself trying to avoid,” Saunders said in his author-editor conversation in January, “what we might call the ‘knee-jerk negative swerve.’ Or ‘the choice that indicates humans are always shit.’ ”

Wool by Hugh Howey


Read Tammy Oler’s review of Wool.

Though it’s on our 2013 list, Wool was first published in 2012. This story about humans trapped in an underground silo amid a post-apocalyptic wasteland was self-published as an ebook, which climbed inexorably up Amazon’s rankings until a New York publisher took notice, signing Howey up to a sweetheart deal and releasing Wool in print this spring. What’s most unique about Wool, though, is the way that Howey has opened the creative process up to his vocal fans—and the way he not only allows fan fiction but actually endorses it. Wool is a DIY, new media success story, sure—so it’s gratifying that it’s also a thrilling sci-fi novel, equally adept at world-building, pulling the rug out from under its readers, and commenting in classic sci-fi fashion on our own present day. “Being in the silo is like living in a world where the decisions were made a long time ago by people you didn’t vote for,” Tammy Oler wrote in March. “Sound familiar?”