12 of the Best Modern-Day Classics We’ll Keep on Our Shelves Forever

October 7 2020

As our years of reading fly by, we often think about the many modern-day stories that are so rich and brilliantly written that we can’t help but already regard them as treasures of good literature. In ten, twenty, and even fifty years from now, these books are bound to be on the shelves of all avid readers. Each of these stories are packed with compelling characters, immersive plotlines, and beautifully fluid narratives that make them shine among our shelves. In our opinion, these are some of the best modern-day classics that we have come to know and love. 

All the Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr

Marie-Laure is a blind French girl whose father works in Paris’s Museum of Natural History. But when the Nazis invade, she and her father are forced to flee, taking with them the museum’s most valuable jewel. Back in Germany, Werner Pfennig and his younger sister are left as orphans. As he grows, Werner becomes infatuated with a radio he finds, and he soon learns how to fix and manipulate the hardware. Werner becomes a radio expert, and is enlisted to track down the resistance. ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE beautifully intertwines these complex characters’ lives. 

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All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a New York Times Book Review Top Ten Book, National Book Award finalist, more than two and a half years on the New York Times bestseller list

From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the stunningly beautiful instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

Marie-Laure lives in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where her father works. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, Werner Pfennig, an orphan, grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find that brings them news and stories from places they have never seen or imagined. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments and is enlisted to use his talent to track down the resistance. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.

Doerr’s “stunning sense of physical detail and gorgeous metaphors” (San Francisco Chronicle) are dazzling. Ten years in the writing, a National Book Award finalist, All the Light We Cannot See is a magnificent, deeply moving novel from a writer “whose sentences never fail to thrill” (Los Angeles Times).

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Americanah
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

After departing Nigeria for America, Ifemelu waconfronted head-on with what it means to be black. Despite academic success and striking beauty, she grapples with her identity in this new land. Her lover, Obinze, had dreams of fleeing their military-run homeland and joining Ifemelu in America, but with new immigration restrictionshe was left to begin an undocumented life in London. Now fifteen years later, the duo reunites in a newly Nigeria to reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland. 

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Americanah
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This powerful story of race and gender is centered on Ifemelu, a brilliant and self-assured young woman who departs military-ruled Nigeria for an American university where, for the first time, she is forced to grapple with her identity as a black woman. Ifemelu faces difficult choices and challenges, suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships, and eventually achieves success as the writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. Fearless and gripping, Americanah is a richly told story set in today’s globalized world.

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Beloved
by Toni Morrison

BELOVED was written by Toni Morrison, a recipient for the Nobel Prize for literature. This story tells a dark tale of a woman who, after escaping slavery in the 1840s, kills her own children to save them from that same horrific lifeBut, as one would expect, the guilt of those actions come back to haunt her every day. The honest and poignant depiction of slavery and how it bleeds into every ounce of her identity and for generations to come makes this story truly powerful.  

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Beloved
Toni Morrison

Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Filled with bitter poetry, Beloved is a towering achievement.

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Sing, Unburied, Sing
by Jesmyn Ward

Living in poverty along the coast of Mississippi, thirteen-year-old Jojo serves as the caretaker to his toddler sister, Kayla. His absent white father has been in jail and his irresponsible Black mother, Leonie, has a history with drugs. The only fatherly figure for Jojo can rely on is his grandfather, Pop, who taught Jojo the importance of love, compassion, and survival as he navigates his place in his family and learns what it truly means to be a man. When Jojo's father is released from prison, Leonie packs the kids up and makes way across the state as danger, destruction, and the truth about Leonie's family unfolds. 

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Sing, Unburied, Sing
Jesmyn Ward

WINNER of the NATIONAL BOOK AWARD and A NEW YORK TIMES TOP 10 BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR

A finalist for the Kirkus Prize, Andrew Carnegie Medal, Aspen Words Literary Prize, and a New York Times bestseller, this majestic, stirring, and widely praised novel from two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, the story of a family on a journey through rural Mississippi, is a “tour de force” (O, The Oprah Magazine) and a timeless work of fiction that is destined to become a classic.

Jesmyn Ward’s historic second National Book Award–winner is “perfectly poised for the moment” (The New York Times), an intimate portrait of three generations of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. “Ward’s writing throbs with life, grief, and love… this book is the kind that makes you ache to return to it” (Buzzfeed).

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn’t lack in fathers to study, chief among them his Black grandfather, Pop. But there are other men who complicate his understanding: his absent White father, Michael, who is being released from prison; his absent White grandfather, Big Joseph, who won’t acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given, who died as a teenager.

His mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in his and his toddler sister’s lives. She is an imperfect mother in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is Black and her children’s father is White. She wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. Simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high, Leonie is embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another thirteen-year-old boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic and unforgettable family story and “an odyssey through rural Mississippi’s past and present” (The Philadelphia Inquirer).

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White Teeth
by Zadie Smith

At the center of this invigorating novel are two unlikely friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. Hapless veterans of World War II, Archie and Samad, and their families, become agents of England’s irrevocable transformation. Zadie Smith’s debut and epically human novel of multicultural families in England touches on practically everything—religion, race, gender, science, colonialism, identity, eugenics. Its no wonder that this powerful novel is so highly regarded.  

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White Teeth
Zadie Smith

At the center of this invigorating novel are two unlikely friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. Hapless veterans of World War II, Archie and Samad and their families become agents of England’s irrevocable transformation. Zadie Smith’s dazzling debut caught critics grasping for comparisons and deciding on everyone from Charles Dickens to Salman Rushdie to John Irving and Martin Amis. But the truth is that Zadie Smith’s voice is remarkably, fluently, and altogether wonderfully her own.

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Pachinko
by Min Jin Lee

PACHINKO tells the story of a young woman’s love affair and her legacy. In the early days of the twentieth century, teenaged Sunja falls in love with and becomes pregnant by a wealthy, married man. After learning that he’s married, Sunja refuses her lover and instead marries a gentle but sickly minister, leaving with him to Japan. In the decades that follow, the complexity of Sunja’s choices alter the fates of generations to follow. 

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Pachinko
Min Jin Lee

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My Brilliant Friend
by Elena Ferrante

This story follows two friends, Lila and Elena. Lila, who is perfect, talented, and beautiful, is stuck working for her father’s shoe business. Elena, on the other hand, has a chance to escape to another life than she has with her education. Ferrante writes the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her two protagonists. MY BRILLIANT FRIEND is a sweeping ride as you dive deeper and deeper into the friendship that connects Elena and Lila. 

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My Brilliant Friend
Elena Ferrante

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The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead

UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead shows the brutal history of the United States. The story follows escaped slaves as they search for the Underground Railroad that will take them out of the South. In this ingenious and beautifully written novel, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath Southern soil.  It’s harrowing, powerful, and moving, with lyrical writing that will forever be etched in our minds and hearts. 

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The Underground Railroad
Colson Whitehead

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MENTIONED IN:

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By Off the Shelf Staff | August 26, 2019

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The Round House
by Louise Erdrich

THE ROUND HOUSE transports readers to the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota as a boy on the cusp of manhood seeks justice and understanding in the wake of a terrible crime that upends his family. This greatly beloved novel is a powerful coming-of-age story, a mystery, and a tender account of family, history, and culture.   

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The Round House
Louise Erdrich

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Bel Canto
by Ann Patchett

BEL CANTO, winner of the PEN Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2002, is set in Peru at a birthday party hosted by the country’s vice president. RoxanCoss, opera’s most revered soprano, has just finished a mesmerizing performance when a band of terrorists breaks into the house and holds everyone for hostage. This riveting story of danger and suspense is written so eloquently that readers will feel a deep sense of empathy for the characters.  

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Bel Canto
Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel is set somewhere in South America at a birthday party hosted by the country’s vice president. Rozanne Coss, opera’s most revered soprano, has just finished a mesmerizing performance when a band of terrorists breaks into the house and holds everyone for ransom. Salon calls Bel Canto “a story of passionate, doomed love; of the glory of art; of the triumph of our shared humanity over the forces that divide us.” OTS calls it “the most elegant, meditative hostage-takeover novel ever.”

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How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents
by Julia Alvarez

In acclaimed writer Julia Alvarez’s 2010 novel, she tells the story of a family who flees the Dominican Republic in 1960. After their father is discovered in an attempt to overthrow the dictator, Rafael Trujillo, the four Garcia sisters must begin a new life in New York. The sisters, Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofía, attempt to fit into their new culture, despite their neighbors’ resistance to them. Meanwhile, their parents hold on tightly to their old customs. For the girls, being caught in a life between the old and new is painful but often fascinating and full of wonder. 

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How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents
Julia Alvarez

This brilliant, buoyant, and beloved novel gives voice to four sisters growing up in two cultures. The García family fled the Dominican Republic for New York City in 1960 when their father’s role in an attempted coup was discovered. In the wild and wondrous and not always welcoming USA, their parents try to hold on to their old ways, but the girls try to find new lives: forgetting their Spanish, straightening their hair, and wearing bell bottoms. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents captures how it is both liberating and excruciating to navigate the old world and the new.

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The House of the Spirits
by Isabel Allende

One of the most important novels of the twentieth century, THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS is an enthralling epic that spans decades and lives, weaving the personal and the political into a universal story of love, magic, and fate. Esteban is a volatile, proud man whose pursuit of political power is tempered only by his love for his wife Clara, a woman with a mystical connection to the spirit world. When their daughter Blanca embarks on a forbidden love affair the result is Esteban’s unexpected granddaughter, Alba, a beautiful and strong-willed child who will lead her family and her country into a revolutionary future. 

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The House of the Spirits
Isabel Allende

“It was an enormous pleasure for me to reread this book three decades after it first made its mark on me. I found myself still enraptured by the words of these women, still dazzled by the magic potion that is Isabel Allende’s gift for storytelling. And as I reached the final page, I smiled in wonderment at the forces that led me to where I am today, and was thankful for the reminder that our future is written in the stars.”

Read Johanna Castillo’s review here.

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