The Best Books of 2016


Librarians are, if nothing else, resourceful.  It's my job to be able to determine what the very best books in the world are in any subject for any person who needs a library.  Quintessential is a moving target for any subject or genre as more and more ideas, scholarship, and stories are unleashed on the world.  What a nice problem to have, if you ask me.  One of the best ways to ensure I don't miss anything fantastic in publishing from one year to the next is to watch the lists that pop up in December for gift buyers and readers alike.  Here I find titles that stay in my arsenal for years to come -- I need to be able to look back on what the highest quality publications were for every audience and interest under the sun. 


These lists get repetitive if you only look to the big hitters.  What I'll include for you here are those on more specific subjects.  Sure, I can look through all of 2016's food writing, for example, but Food & Wine Magazine has had their eye on the best of the best all year long.  What I'm not emphasizing here, though it does creep in: fiction.  Yes, fiction.  The thing we read most, which also makes best-of lists easier to come by.  You'll see the same dozen bests on The New York Times, and in your local retailer.  You'll recognize titles because they've been marketed hard to you this year.  I'd like to give attention (and I need to catch up on) those subjects and genres that get a bit less fuss.  While many of those big literary hits were outstanding, I believe it's the test of time that will (or won't) make them true classics.    

I'll start with the most general lists, then dive into specific topics.  Towards the end: my personal reading delights this year.  If you're here in the Tetons (or you just love them), also see my post on Best Books of the Greater Yellowstone 2016.

National Public Radio's book concierge is, as always, the most comprehensive on all topics and such a nice resource to browse through.  I love that their system allows you to click category check boxes (rather than clicking through each laboriously).  You can choose multiple boxes to see books that belong in two categories (as most good books do).  Some of the better categories this year:  Seriously Great Writing and Let's Talk About Sex (quite the theme in publishing this year, it seems).   

Of the big media players, I enjoyed that The Wall Street Journal decided to list "The 20 Books That Defined Our Year" rather than simply saying "Best Of."  Their list is a bit more diverse and interesting than the repeats I'm seeing elsewhere, as well. 

Buzzfeed of course has a different take on things: "...essay collections, memoirs, and nonfiction reads that we absolutely loved in 2016. (Ranked in no particular order.)" 


My favorites are always the lists of best covers; it really is the way we judge.  LitHub provided "60 best covers as chosen by designers in the industry."  Slate called its selection the "most eye-catching and imaginative cover art of the year."  The New York Times Book Review had their art director act as arbiter of taste

The New Yorker graced us with the best in poetry books.  Their more general "Books We Loved" of 2016 was more diverse, unique, and unexpected than some.

The thinking man's books: Science Friday listed their best, which you can listen to at the link if you prefer.  Always-in-good-taste Brain Pickings has a roundup here.  David Disavlo wrote The Best Brain Books of 2016 for Forbes.  Subtitle: "science, technology and the cultural ripples of both," which is a better description of what this list holds.  Fast Company listed Best Business Books, of course. 

I could write a whole separate post on all of best Children's literature selections out there, from picture books to Young Adult novels.  To dive down that wormhole, start with School Library Journal and Publishers Weekly.  

Cookbooks and food writing are a tricky market: There's a lot of great presentation out there, but who do you trust to create and test recipes that are functional and delicious?  Who is writing things about gastronomy that hasn't been said before?  Here is where a best-of list from the experts is dire. Try NPR's cookbooks and food.  You'll see some overlap of titles in best cookbooks from Epicurious and Food and Wine

Who but Rolling Stone could decide on the best music books of the year?  I will say NPR's selection of the same has a surprisingly younger, hipper edge to it. 

Top 10 Architecture Books of 2016 is an international list that comes from an annual award granted by the Frankfurt Book Fair with the Deutsches Archtekturmuseum. 

Vulture, eyes on culture as always, decided on the Best Books About Art (not to be confused with art books or coffee table books).  Back in NPR's book concierge, we have the Best Books for Art LoversThe Spectator (from the U.K.) lists the best art books of 2016, including "delicate silhouettes, sumptuous majolica, stunning French courtesans and 500 years of animal art."  You can imagine my disappointment that they haven't included many graphics.  

Best Photography Books of the Year from American Photo Magazine.  The Guardian's Best Photography Books 2016.  Oversize books are underrated for their ability to tell a story, contribute to the understanding of a subject.  Thanks to Slate for the nice angle: coffee table books with a history bent 2016.

The editor of True West Magazine has put together an incredibly comprehensive list of publishing about the American West in 2016:  It includes titles from academic presses and for the general reader.  Nonfiction, fiction, art books, you name it.  Just when you think the list couldn't go on, he hits another topic (Law & Order, Native American History, the Cultural West, and on and on).


From across the pond and other perspectives:  If you're interested in what the rest of the English-speaking world is reading, see the BBC's 10 best books of 2016.  I always enjoy the slightly different feel of cover design coming from other countries.  You will see some slight overlap with American lists -- they do partake of the best of our best.  The Guardian catches some gems in the Best Books You May Have Missed.  If you're looking to read things from other perspectives on our planet, see Paste Magazine's Best New Novels Translated Into English.  If you are one to have noticed the dearth of books by women and writers of color, try Lithub's 10 Overlooked Books by Women in 2016 and Best Books by Black Authors by The Root. 

As a sidenote, I see that The Guardian is also (rather ambitiously) listing The Top 100 Nonfiction Books of All Time. They're up to #47, I'll certainly be following along.  Maybe we can look to 2017 to add to the wealth (and add to our own library). 

Me? As I said, it's my job to be resourceful.  Which is why I'm not declaring definitive bests:  I'm a researcher and a gatherer, and I firmly believe "to each his own" -- that's what allows me to tailor libraries to anyone, not just to those who share my tastes.  So I will leave you with the books I simply enjoyed very much this year.  They weren't all written in 2016, and they aren't my favorite books ever.  But when I think of moments of delight on page this year, I think of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, The Shepherd's Life by James Rebanks, Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf and Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler.  You can see what I'm reading now on Goodreads

What a strange year it has been -- what art, what writing will come of it in 2017?

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