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.

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Illustration by Frederik Peeters

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Read Alice Gregory’s Completist column about Janet Malcolm.

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Janet Malcolm may be both America’s best journalist and the one most critical of the enterprise of journalism. This collection of profiles and critical essays, featuring pieces on Diane Arbus, Ingrid Sischy, Edith Wharton, and David Salle, reveals, as usual, her formidable abilities for scene-setting, characterization, and formal innovation. But her essay “Thoughts on Autobiography From an Abandoned Autobiography” declares that years of committing acts of journalism have destroyed her imagination. The book, Alice Gregory wrote in May, matter-of-factly highlights “the fraudulence of profiles in general: The subject and the journalist construct an event together for the sake of retroactively describing it.”

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

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Read Troy Patterson’s review of Bleeding Edge.
Listen to the Audio Book Club
discuss Bleeding Edge.
Read Forrest Wickman’s
catalogue of Pynchon’s WTFs.

“Who you gonna call when a screaming comes across the sky?” Troy Patterson asked in September­—who else but America’s great clown laureate of paranoia Thomas Pynchon, who, in this novel set in 2001 New York, explores the deflating dot-com bubble, the systems of chatter that give rise to trutherism, and the tight hold family can have even in the dystopia of the modern world. (Fittingly, this novel about the weirdness seeping in from every side featured an all-time weird audiobook performance, from the amazing Jeannie Berlin.) “Reading Bleeding Edge,” Patterson wrote, “tearing up at the beauty of its sadness or the punches of its hilarity, you may realize it as the 9/11 novel you never knew you needed.”

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

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Listen to the Audio Book Club discuss The Flamethrowers.

Rachel Kushner’s fiery novel of speed, sex, art, and revolution divided critics when it was published this summer (and some suggested the divide had more to do with critics’ gender than the book itself). But the book is a tour de force, setting its heroine, Reno, loose on the Nevada desert, the 1970s New York art scene, and the street riots of Rome. It’s a story that many readers love fiercely: When Dan Kois admitted in September’s Audio Book Club that he didn’t quite get the novel, Hanna Rosin was unimpressed: “Well, I know the book is great, Dan, and so therefore I know the fault is with you.”

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Listen to the Audio Book Club discuss Going Clear.
Listen to June Thomas
interview Lawrence Wright.
Listen to Lawrence Wright
read from the book and answer questions.

Years in the making, unpublishable in the United Kingdom, dense, weird, and jaw-dropping: Lawrence Wright’s epic history of Scientology is not just an immensely valuable chronicle of a uniquely American subculture. It’s also a fantastically entertaining story, featuring three larger-than-life spiritual leaders: L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s self-promoting, difficult founder; David Miscavige, the church’s charismatic current leader, whose wife hasn’t been seen since 2007; and Tom Cruise, the church’s best and worst ambassador to the world. In April’s Audio Book Club, Hanna Rosin was in awe: “I bow down to Lawrence Wright. I cannot believe the feats of reporting that went into this book.”

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

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Read the Slate Book Review author-editor conversation between Donna Tartt and Michael Pietsch.
Listen to the Audio Book Club
discuss The Goldfinch.

Once every 10 years or so, Donna Tartt emerges with a big, ambitious novel that rockets to the top of the best-seller list and has everyone you know furiously turns pages, desperate to find out what happens next. This new book, about an orphaned boy and a stolen painting, is just as addictive as The Secret History, but Tartt’s book is also illuminating about the impact art can have on a person’s life and heartbreaking about the loneliness of loss. “She’s very, very good at what she does,” Meghan O’Rourke said in December’s Audio Book Club. “I don’t know anyone who can write the books she does.”

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