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Every year, the National Book Foundation crowns the best US literature of the year in five categories: Non-fiction, fiction, translated literature, poetry, and young adult books.
25 judges (five experts per genre) nominated by former winners, finalists, and judges spend the summer reading hundreds of hopeful submissions (about 150 for poetry to more than 500 for nonfiction) in search of standout books.
By mid-September, they name their 10 favorites on a longlist. By mid-October, they cut it down to their top five. No one knows who the winner will be until the very day it’s announced, when judges meet to hash out the best book.
Winners, announced in November, receive $10,000, and finalists receive $1,000. Both can expect a boost in prestige and book sales.
Past fiction winners for National Book Award in fiction include now-classics “Sophie’s Choice” by William Styron, “All the Pretty Horses” by Cormac McCarthy, and “The Corrections” by Jonathan Franzen, as well as recent rising stars “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward and “Interior Chinatown” by Charles Yu.
Below, you’ll find the 10 nonfiction books that made the National Book Award fiction longlist this year, including new novels by Pulitzer Prize-winning authors of “All the Light We Cannot See” and “The Overstory“, an Obama summer reading selection, and an Oprah’s Book Club pick.
Descriptions provided by Amazon and lightly edited for clarity and length.
“Cloud Cuckoo Land” by Anthony Doerr, available at Amazon and Bookshop, from $21.49
Set in Constantinople in the 15th century, in a small town in present-day Idaho, and on an interstellar ship decades from now, Anthony Doerr’s gorgeous third novel is a triumph of imagination and compassion, a soaring story about children on the cusp of adulthood in worlds in peril, who find resilience, hope — and a book.
In “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” Doerr has created a magnificent tapestry of times and places that reflect our vast interconnectedness — with other species, with each other, with those who lived before us, and with those who will be here after we’re gone.
Note: Doerr’s earlier novel, “All the Light We Cannot See” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015.
“Matrix” by Lauren Groff, available at Amazon and Bookshop from $15
Cast out of the royal court by Eleanor of Aquitaine, deemed too coarse and rough-hewn for marriage or courtly life, 17-year-old Marie de France is sent to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished abbey, its nuns on the brink of starvation and beset by disease.
At first, taken aback by the severity of her new life, Marie finds focus and love in collective life with her singular and mercurial sisters. In this crucible, Marie steadily supplants her desire for family, for her homeland, for the passions of her youth with something new to her: devotion to her sisters, and a conviction in her own divine visions. Marie, born the last in a long line of women warriors and crusaders, is determined to chart a bold new course for the women she now leads and protects.
But in a world that is shifting and corroding in frightening ways, one that can never reconcile itself with her existence, will the sheer force of Marie’s vision be bulwark enough?
“Abundance” by Jakob Guanzon, available at Amazon and Bookshop from $14.40
Evicted from their trailer on New Year’s Eve, Henry and his son, Junior, have been reduced to living out of a pickup truck. Six months later, things are even more desperate. Henry, barely a year out of prison for pushing opioids, is down to his last pocketful of dollars, and little remains between him and the street. But hope is on the horizon: Today is Junior’s birthday, and Henry has a job interview tomorrow.
To celebrate, Henry treats Junior to dinner at McDonald’s, followed by a night in a real bed at a discount motel. For a moment, as Junior watches TV and Henry practices for his interview in the bathtub, all seems well. But after Henry has a disastrous altercation in the parking lot and Junior succumbs to a fever, father and son are sent into the night, struggling to hold things together and make it through tomorrow.
“Zorrie” by Laird Hunt, available at Amazon and Bookshop from $16
As a girl, Zorrie Underwood’s modest and hardscrabble home county was the only constant in her young life. After losing both her parents to diphtheria, Zorrie moved in with her aunt, whose own death orphaned Zorrie all over again, casting her off into the perilous realities and sublime landscapes of rural, Depression-era Indiana. Drifting west, Zorrie survived on odd jobs, sleeping in barns and under the stars, before finding a position at a radium processing plant. At the end of each day, the girls at her factory glowed from the radioactive material.
But when Indiana calls Zorrie home, she finally finds the love and community that have eluded her in the small town of Hillisburg. And yet, even as she tries to build a new life, Zorrie discovers that her trials have only begun.
“The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois” by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, available at Amazon and Bookshop from $21.38
W. E. B. Du Bois, the great scholar, once wrote about the problem of race in America, and what he called “Double Consciousness,” a sensitivity that every African American possesses in order to survive. Since childhood, Ailey Pearl Garfield has understood Du Bois’s words all too well. Bearing the names of two formidable Black Americans — the revered choreographer Alvin Ailey and her great grandmother Pearl, the descendant of enslaved Georgians and tenant farmers — Ailey carries Du Bois’s Problem on her shoulders.
To come to terms with her own identity, Ailey embarks on a journey through her family’s past, uncovering the shocking tales of generations of ancestors — Indigenous, Black, and white — in the deep South. In doing so Ailey must learn to embrace her full heritage, a legacy of oppression and resistance, bondage and independence, cruelty and resilience that is the story — and the song — of America itself.
Note: This book has also been selected by Oprah’s Book Club.
“The Prophets” by Robert Jones, Jr., available at Amazon and Bookshop from $16.99
Isaiah was Samuel’s and Samuel was Isaiah’s. That was the way it was since the beginning, and the way it was to be until the end. In the barn they tended to the animals, but also to each other, transforming the hollowed-out shed into a place of human refuge, a source of intimacy and hope in a world ruled by vicious masters.
But when an older man — a fellow slave — seeks to gain favor by preaching the master’s gospel on the plantation, the enslaved begin to turn on their own. Isaiah and Samuel’s love, which was once so simple, is seen as sinful and a clear danger to the plantation’s harmony.
As tensions build and the weight of centuries — of ancestors and future generations to come — culminates in a climactic reckoning, “The Prophets” masterfully reveals the pain and suffering of inheritance, but is also shot through with hope, beauty, and truth, portraying the enormous, heroic power of love.
“Intimacies” by Katie Kitamura, available at Amazon and Bookshop from $15.95
An interpreter has come to The Hague to escape New York and work at the International Court. A woman of many languages and identities, she is looking for a place to finally call home.
She’s drawn into simmering personal dramas: her lover, Adriaan, is separated from his wife but still entangled in his marriage. Her friend Jana witnesses a seemingly random act of violence, a crime the interpreter becomes increasingly obsessed with as she befriends the victim’s sister. And she’s pulled into an explosive political controversy when she’s asked to interpret for a former president accused of war crimes.
A woman of quiet passion, she confronts power, love, and violence, both in her personal intimacies and in her work at the Court. She is soon pushed to the precipice, where betrayal and heartbreak threaten to overwhelm her, forcing her to decide what she wants from her life.
Note: This is one of Obama’s 2021 summer reading list books.
“The Souvenir Museum: Stories” by Elizabeth McCracken, available at Amazon and Bookshop from $16.99
In these stories, the mysterious bonds of family are tested, transformed, fractured, and fortified. A recent widower and his adult son ferry to a craggy Scottish island in search of puffins. An actress who plays a children’s game-show villainess ushers in the New Year with her deadbeat half-brother. A mother, pining for her children, feasts on loaves of challah to fill the void. A new couple navigates a tightrope walk toward love. And on a trip to a Texas water park with their son, two fathers each confront a personal fear.
“Hell of a Book” by Jason Mott, available at Amazon and Bookshop from $16.20
In Jason Mott’s “Hell of a Book,” a Black author sets out on a cross-country publicity tour to promote his bestselling novel. That storyline drives “Hell of a Book” and is the scaffolding of something much larger and urgent: Since Mott’s novel also tells the story of Soot, a young Black boy living in a rural town in the recent past, and The Kid, a possibly imaginary child who appears to the author on his tour.
As these characters’ stories build and converge, they astonish. For while this heartbreaking and magical book entertains and is at once about family, love of parents and children, art and money, it’s also about the nation’s reckoning with a tragic police shooting playing over and over again on the news. And with what it can mean to be Black in America.
Who has been killed? Who is The Kid? Will the author finish his book tour, and what kind of world will he leave behind? Unforgettably told, with characters who burn into your mind and an electrifying plot ideal for book club discussion, “Hell of a Book” is the novel Mott has been writing in his head for the last 10 years.
“Bewilderment” by Richard Powers, available at Amazon and Bookshop from $21.64
The astrobiologist Theo Byrne searches for life throughout the cosmos while single-handedly raising his unusual nine-year-old, Robin, following the death of his wife. Robin is a warm, kind boy who spends hours painting elaborate pictures of endangered animals. He’s also about to be expelled from third grade for smashing his friend in the face. As his son grows more troubled, Theo hopes to keep him off psychoactive drugs. He learns of an experimental neurofeedback treatment to bolster Robin’s emotional control, one that involves training the boy on the recorded patterns of his mother’s brain…
With its soaring descriptions of the natural world, its tantalizing vision of life beyond, and its account of a father and son’s ferocious love, “Bewilderment” marks Richard Powers’s most intimate and moving novel. At its heart lies the question: How can we tell our children the truth about this beautiful, imperiled planet?
Note: This is also shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Powers’ earlier book, “The Overstory” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2019.
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