10 of the most influential books of the twenty-first century (so far)

Our website editor makes the case for ten books with clout.

I wonder how many hugely popular books from the 1900s have disappeared without trace; books that readers at the time would not believe could be forgotten. It can be hard to know the true influence of something while you're living through it. Sparks die out. Movements lose momentum. Progress is reversed. This doesn't stop it being a fun thing to think about, though. Here are ten books from the last twenty-five years that I think have been truly influential, at least within the present moment: books that have challenged perceptions, shaped conversations, had a particular emotional resonance or changed the direction of publishing. I'll see you back here in 2124 to find out if I'm still right. 

A Little Life

by Hanya Yanagihara

Book cover for A Little Life

An exploration of the limits of human endurance, A Little Life is known for its visceral impact on readers, and is by far the most discussed book I have come across in both face-to-face conversation and online. Responses to the book on TikTok consistently rack up six-figure viewing figures, in turn introducing even more readers to the work – a cycle of influence which has propelled the book to over 2.5 million sales. The novel follows four friends, Willem, Jude, JB and Malcolm, who meet at college in Massachusetts and form a firm friendship, moving to New York upon graduation. Over the years their friendships deepen and darken as they celebrate successes and face failures, but their greatest challenge is Jude himself – an increasingly broken man scarred by an unspeakable childhood.

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The most important environmental book ever written.
George Monbiot on The Road

The Road

by Cormac McCarthy

Book cover for The Road

Although climate change isn't directly mentioned in the text, this depiction of a world where humans are the only surviving form of life is such an affecting, haunting piece of work you'd be hard pressed not to have its catastrophic vision in mind when faced with the latest startling temperature statistics. With stark, unadorned prose befitting the barren, burnt out post-apocalyptic landscape it inhabits, The Road follows a man and a young boy as they walk, seemingly endlessly, to the coast. There's danger behind every tree stump, horror within every potential refuge and a dark, heavy sky above in this masterpiece of American fiction from Cormac McCarthy

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Gone Girl

by Gillian Flynn

Book cover for Gone Girl

When Nick Dunne wakes up on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary to find his wife missing, he quickly becomes the police’s chief suspect. Amy’s friends reveal she was afraid of him, there are strange searches on his computer and persistent calls to his mobile phone, but Ben swears he knows nothing about any of this. So what really happened to Amy Dunne? This twisty psychological thriller became a worldwide sensation when it came out in 2012. Its success revealed an underappreciated appetite for stories of flawed anti-heroines living realistically complex lives, and a wave of unreliable, and often unlikeable, female leads followed, dominating the bestseller charts and the box office.

Station Eleven

by Emily St. John Mandel

Book cover for Station Eleven

Set before, during and after a devastating virus kills 99% of the world's population, Station Eleven follows the progress of the Travelling Symphony, who perform music and Shakespeare in the settlements that have emerged post-collapse. But as their newfound hope is jeopardized, we're faced with a critical question: in a world devoid of civilization, what is worth safeguarding? And to what lengths would one go to ensure its preservation? The Covid pandemic took Emily St John Mandel's 2014 novel from bestseller to global phenomenon. By the end of 2020, it had sold over a million copies, with lines from the book replacing The Handmaid's Tale's 'nolite te bastardes carborundorum' as the literary tattoo of choice, as readers took strength and inspiration from the survivors' ethos. If that doesn't count as influence, I'm not sure what does. 

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by Marjane Satrapi

Book cover for Persepolis

These two graphic novels (The Story of a Childhood and The Story of a Return) form an astonishing visual memoir of growing up in Iran. The intelligent and outspoken child of radical Marxists, and the great-grandaughter of Iran's last emperor, Satrapi bears witness to a childhood uniquely entwined with the history of her country. The books transformed Western readers' image of Iran and particularly of Iranian women, and their reception and success had the knock-on effect of helping those new to the form, like me, appreciate the power and brilliance of graphic novels. 

Black and British

by David Olusoga

Book cover for Black and British

The book that helped change the conversation on 'black history', providing vivid confirmation that it cannot and should not be kept separate and marginalised. Unflinching, confronting taboos, and revealing hitherto unknown scandals, Black and British describes how the lives of black and white Britons have been entwined for centuries. Taking us from Roman Britain to the present day via the medieval imagination, Elizabethan ‘blackamoors’ and the global slave-trading empire, Olusoga shows that the great industrial boom of the nineteenth century was built on American slavery, and that black Britons fought at Trafalgar and in the trenches of both World Wars. 

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This is Going to Hurt

by Adam Kay

Book cover for This is Going to Hurt

A Sunday Times number one bestseller for over a year, Adam Kay's diaries of his life as a junior doctor – by turns hilarious and awful – were sent to health secretary Jeremy Hunt so many times he invited Kay in for a meeting. I'll leave you to decide whether the book had any influence there, but its record of 97-hour weeks, life and death decisions, a constant tsunami of bodily fluids, and hospital parking meters that earn more than medical professionals clearly had a profound effect on readers. I know of more than one person who, having read it while under the care of the NHS, promptly went out and bought presents for everyone involved in their treatment. A must read.

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Conversations with Friends

by Sally Rooney

Book cover for Conversations with Friends

While many readers and critics fell hardest for Normal People, I'd propose this, Sally Rooney's debut, as her standout work. It's the first book I think really captures, in an authentic, unclunky way, how conversation in the modern world, its continuous movement across communication channels and devices, works – and feels. It's also the novel that introduced us to Rooney's pared back, matter of fact style, the effect and effectiveness of which feels almost impossible to describe, but which many have tried to recreate since.

Bad Blood

by John Carreyrou

Book cover for Bad Blood

You may well have heard about Theranos, the blood-testing start up with the star founder and $9 billion valuation, which turned out to be built on lies. Maybe you listened to the podcast, watched Amanda Seyfried in The Dropout, or followed Elizabeth Holmes' fraud trial. Both the CEO and COO are now in prison, and owe $452 million between them. And it all started here, with journalist John Carreyrou, the first to break the story. An investigation, and a book, with undeniable influence. 

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Sorrow and Bliss

by Meg Mason

Book cover for Sorrow and Bliss

Is this the obscured woman’s face that launched a thousand obscured women’s faces? It's certainly one of the earliest examples of the ubiquitous cover trend. Whether holding her head in her hands, faceplanting into furniture, or standing disquietingly with her back to us, for a year or more woman with concealed face was everywhere. And while Sorrow and Bliss was a huge hit, I'd suggest there was more than just an attempt to mimic a winner's look at play. The cover's influence is indicative of the book's position as a forerunner of a wider publishing trend, Sorrow and Bliss's jacket design becoming the (partially hidden) face of a boom in books about chaotic, unsettled, unhappy millennial women, living in chaotic, unsettled, unhappy times.