feature: Life Stories in Literature

A Dozen 21st Century Books I Think Will Become Classics

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Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

Here’s how it works: Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl assigns a topic for each Tuesday. If you check this link, you’ll find she’s assigned topics for several future weeks so you can plan ahead. She adds, “create your own top ten (or 2, 5, 20, etc.) list . . . Feel free to put a unique spin on the topic to make it work for you!”

Each week Jana posts a Linky on her blog where you can (if you want) share a link to your post and check out other bloggers’ posts.


This was the Top Ten Tuesday topic for March 29, 2022, but it grew into such a big topic for me that I didn’t complete it on time. Today’s topic is Books with [___] On the Cover, but since I’m not much into covers I’m substituting this one instead.

Life Stories in Literature

Themes

identity

family

we are what we remember

inside vs. outside stories

imposters

hidden identities & secrets

trauma

creating/controlling one’s own narrative

cultural appropriation

alternate life options

alternative selves

turning points/life decisions

when/how lives intersect

multiple points of view

rewriting history

change your story, change your life

Introduction

When I began to think about what might make a particular book a future classic, I discovered that I could only think in general terms. Some of the books I’ve read since 2000 deal with topics that I imagine will remain pertinent as people continue to meet the challenges of life in an ever-changing world as the twenty-first century marches on.

I’ve therefore decided to focus here on books I’ve read that illustrate these topics. Even if the individual books I’ve chosen do not become classics, I imagine that their subject matter will remain current and relevant for a long time. And whatever other characteristics may define a classic, longevity is one of the essential qualities.

I couldn’t whittle the list down to 10, so here are a dozen novels that present ideas or issues I imagine people of the future will still be thinking and writing about. 

Across time and space, humanity has continued and always will continue to search for answers to the questions of identity, meaning, and purpose.

book cover: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life (2015) by Hanya Yanagihara

(scroll down to #4)

I start with this novel not only because it’s atop my list of the best novels I’ve ever read but also because, at the time I read it, the Life Stories in Literature approach was incubating in my brain. When I look back on my blog, I find that I had started to discuss this topic in 2014, but the whole concept didn’t coalesce until just about a year ago

This novel addresses what it means to be a person in the complex world of humanity. It includes all the major themes that Life Stories in Literature encompasses.

Cover: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell

This novel, which I think I read before A Little Life, also contains all the major themes that I look for in a great work of literature. Mitchell’s breadth of scope here is now always at the back of my mind when I read fiction.

cover: Dark Matter

Dark Matter (2016) by Blake Crouch

Blake Crouch uses science fiction to explore how scientific advances of the future might affect human life. Although the experiences the characters in this novel face aren’t yet possible, if (more likely, when) they become possible, people will still be looking for the meaning of their lives.

cover: We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker

We Begin at the End (2020) by Chris Whitaker

Quotation: "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be loved forwards." Soren Kierkegaard

Chris Whitaker has written a compelling novel that beautifully illustrates Kierkegaard’s famous quotation. This story demonstrates how we continue to adjust our life story throughout our lives as we learn how to understand more deeply the significance of events.

book cover: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr

This novel, set during World War II, perfectly illustrates how significant encounters between people can be. Initially the interaction between the novel’s two main characters seems fleeting and insignificant, but Doerr emphasizes how that interaction plays out in future generations.  

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (2014) by Anthony Marra

Another war novel, set in 2004 in a rural village in Chechnya, also demonstrates how important and far-reaching human interactions can be, especially during times of war. Meeting the characters in this book allows us to understand both the agony of some choices circumstances force people to make and the great resilience and courage of the human spirit. 

I very much hope that, in the future, war becomes something that people will have to learn about through books rather than through personal experience.

Cover: Miracle Creek

Miracle Creek (2019) by Angie Kim

This novel effectively uses multiple points of view to demonstrate that people are individuals and that each may perceive events differently. The core story of a Korean family’s relocation to the U.S. addresses the need for global awareness, but the multiple points of view demonstrate how “the immigrant experience” is not a single concept. Rather, the three people in this Korean family (mother, father, teenage daughter) all have unique perspectives in their search to find identity and meaning in their adopted country.

Tell Me an Ending (2020) by Jo Harkin

Here’s another example of a science fiction novel that examines an issue that may become a reality in the future. The issue here is memory. Future science may develop the ability to manipulate individual memories. Erasing traumatic memories could, theoretically, eliminate post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But if we could manipulate memory, should we? If it’s true that we forge our sense of self through our memories, what would doing so mean in practice?

book cover: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (2014) by Atul Gawande 

This nonfiction book “offers examples of freer, more socially fulfilling models for assisting the infirm and dependent elderly, and he explores the varieties of hospice care to demonstrate that a person’s last weeks or months may be rich and dignified.” (Source: Goodreads)

book cover: The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel A. van der Kolk

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014) by Bessel A. van der Kolk

Modern medicine has greatly advanced both the duration and the quality of human life. But this nonfiction work encourages us to recognize the mind-body connection in our efforts to advance understanding in health care. 

cover: Circe

Circe (2018) by Madeline Miller

History has always been written by the victors, and throughout most of human history those victors have been men. Many writers are now recognizing the importance of restoring the voices of people whom history had effectively erased: subjugated peoples and, particularly, women.

The first book serving this purpose that I remember reading is The Red Tent (1997) by Anita Diamant. This novel tells the story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob, in the Book of Genesis. Although Dinah receives only this cursory mention in the Bible, Diamant imagines a rich and complex life for Dinah and other women within the context of the culture of the time.

Because The Red Tent came out just before the start of the 21st century, I’m including Circe on this list. Miller’s novel is one among a number of novels that have expanded this trend of giving voice to history’s forgotten people over the past 20 years.

book cover: The Doctors Blackwell by Janice P. Nimura

The Doctors Blackwell by Janice P. Nimura

A recent nonfiction work in the same vein is The Doctors Blackwell by Janice P. Nimura. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree (1849). Her younger sister, Emily, also became an M.D. a few years later. These two women were at the forefront of the movement to open the profession of medical doctor to women. 

Whereas Madeline Miller’s novel rescues Circe from the oblivion of ancient history and mythology, Janice Nimura is able to tell the much more recent story of the Blackwell sisters on the basis of historical documents. But whether through fictional imagining or historical documentation, both of these books aim to give voice to people whose existence history has previously tried to erase.

© 2022 by Mary Daniels Brown

15 thoughts on “A Dozen 21st Century Books I Think Will Become Classics”

    1. Mary Daniels Brown

      Thanks, Lydia. I enjoyed your post as well. You make a very good point, that people need to see themselves represented in the books available for them to read.

  1. What an interesting list. I have ‘A little life’ on my shelf and I want to read it but I keep hearing it puts you through the emotional ringer. I did read ‘to paradise’ parts of which I enjoyed, but it was too long.

    Cloud Atlas I loved, just the ideas and the scale of the storytelling. Enjoyed the Doerr one as well and definitely will look out for some of the others, especially the van Der Kolk one.

    1. Mary Daniels Brown

      Thanks, Adrian. “A Little Life” will definitely put you through the wringer, but it will also teach you what it means to be human. I highly recommend it, alongside a big box of tissues.

    1. Mary Daniels Brown

      I totally agree, Susan. If I had to define classic literature, the presence of timeless, universal themes would be the core of that definition. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. Thanks, Nicole. I agree with you that nonfiction works usually aren’t on lists like this, but I hope these nonfiction works will shape the cultures that produce future fiction dealing with these ideas.

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  4. I like your nominations, Mary, many of which I haven’t encountered. Cloud Atlas and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena are two of my favourite books of the century so far. I’ve yet to read my copy of All The Light We Cannot See – I’ll have to dig into my To Read pile and retrieve it! A Little Life is one I was wary of when it came out but perhaps I’ll borrow it from the library.

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