Over the past two decades, we’ve felt that the best books published – the most fascinating, the most richly rendered, the most likely to last – are the works of literary journalism. You know the books we hear: books built on solid relationships and characters impossible to invent; books featuring radical plots and cinematic scenes (but true); books drawn with the novelist’s eye for detail and incident (but real); books that tell stories that, despite the accelerated pace of almost everything in our lives, manage to fixate on us and light up our brains. For the best books of this genre, writers slow down, look up near and far, and organize the diffuse and chaotic into definitive narratives that help us better understand our present time and those of the recent past. These stories arrange our world, inspire art (film, television) and endure. This is why it is the form that so many of our most gifted journalists turn to to do their best work.
Some of the best and most notable works of this genre from the previous century, such as those by John Hersey Hiroshima; that of Tom Wolfe Good things; Janet Malcolm The journalist and the murderer; that of James Baldwin Fire next time; that of Susan Orléans The orchid thief; Truman Capote In cold blood, et cetera — are hot at this point. But we wondered what works published since 2000 could serve as a modern update. In our quest to create a list of the great books of literary journalism of the 21st century, we interviewed dozens and dozens of American journalists who do this kind of reporting and writing at the highest level. Among those we interviewed were winners of the Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards and National Magazine Awards, as well as a number of GQ contributors. We wanted to know which books were their favorite, or the most envied, or the most inspiring, or the most enjoyable. Like Lawrence Wright, author of The impending tower (among other works that fit perfectly into this genre), helpfully stated during his nominations: “I only intend to recommend books that have given me real pleasure to read. There aren’t many anyway, as most of my reading is still about research. But I had some great snacks along the way and an occasional full meal.
We asked writers to step away from biography, memoir, history, and review (although some of the best books on this list have a bit of E: All of the above). Sometimes we ended up breaking our own rules to accommodate overwhelming favorites and weight things a bit in the direction of topics. GQ has always been the most interested. We ended up limiting the list to one book per author, despite the fact that many authors had multiple nominated books. And we finally ruled out essay books; each of the books here unearths and unfolds the story of a place, an event, a subject or a group of people. You can very well dispute the order (it’s very subjective), but no book here belongs to it. Think of this as a heat map of the kinds of books that have been cited most frequently and with passion – the 50 most loved, most admired, and most impressive. We hope you like it, hate it, or at least find something great to read.
1. Behind the Eternal Beauties
by Katherine Boo, 2012