The 50 Best Books of Literary Journalism of the 21st Century

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For the past couple decades, we’ve felt that the best books being published—the most riveting, the most richly rendered, the most likely to last—are the works of literary journalism. You know the books we mean: books built on robust reporting and impossible-to-invent characters; books featuring sweeping 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 quickening pace of nearly everything in our lives, manage to fix us in place and to light up our brains. For the best books of this kind, writers slow down, look close and wide, and organize the diffuse and the chaotic into definitive narratives that help us better understand our present times, and those of the recent past. These stories arrange our world, inspire art (film, TV), and endure. Which is why this is the form that so many of our most gifted journalists turn to, to do their finest work.

Some of the best and most notable works of this sort from the previous century—works like John Hersey’s Hiroshima; Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff; Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer; James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time; Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief; Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, et cetera—are canon at this point. But we wondered which works published since 2000 might serve as a modern update. On our quest to create a list of the great books of literary journalism from the 21st century, we canvassed dozens and dozens of American journalists who do this kind of reporting and writing at the highest level. Among those we asked were winners of 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 favorites, or the most envy-inducing, or the most inspiring, or the most plain enjoyable. As Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower (among other works that firmly fit in this genre), helpfully put it when providing his nominations: “I intend only to recommend books that gave me actual pleasure in reading. There aren’t very many in any case, as most of my reading is always devoted to research. But I had some nice snacks along the way and an occasional full meal.”

We asked writers to steer away from straight biography, memoir, history, and criticism (though some of the best books on this list have a little of E: All of the above). At times, we ended up breaking our own rules to accommodate overwhelming favorites—and weighted things a little heavily in the direction of subjects GQ has always been most interested in. We wound up limiting the list to one book per author, despite the fact that many authors had multiple books nominated. And we ultimately ruled out essay collections; each of the books here unearths and unspools the story of one place, event, subject, or set of people. You may very well take issue with the order (it’s plenty subjective), but no book here doesn’t belong. Consider this a heat map of sorts of the books that were cited most frequently and passionately—a most-enjoyed, most-admired, most-awe-inducing 50. We hope you love it, hate it, or at least find something great to read.

1. Behind the Beautiful Forevers

by Katherine Boo, 2012

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