If Spicy Booktok Romance Isn't Your Thing, Try These 5 Deep-Thinking Contemporary Lit Books

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If you're an avid reader, then you already know the joy that comes with curling up with a good book. There's nothing quite like getting wrapped up in places and characters, and falling in love with a story. Each book we read invites us into its world, and even the ones that we may not categorize as our favorites still make an impression on our lives, and we carry that with us forever. 

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But reading isn't just about falling in love with characters and plots, it's also really beneficial for our mental and emotional health. "[When we read] we have more opportunity to deepen our insights, our epiphanies, our sense of our own best thoughts," professor and literary advocate, Maryanne Wolf, told Today. "It gives us more empathy, perspective — taking into [consideration] other people's viewpoints, thoughts, and feelings. One of the great benefits is not just to the individual's insights; it's to the individual's ability to participate in democracy with a critical, empathic mind ... In this minute of our society in this tiny, strained, moment in human history, we need to have people have communication with each other."

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As much as beach reads or romantic comedies might bring something to the table in the same way that indulging in candy does, those types of books aren't for everyone. If the thought of Elin Hilderbrand — aka the "Queen of the Beach Read" — makes you wince a bit, then you might be a fan of deep-thinking contemporary literature instead.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

To get straight to the point, "A Little Life" isn't an easy read. Although the story revolves around four friends — and who doesn't love a buddy novel? — it doesn't take long to realize that there's so much more going on with these characters and most of it isn't good. But here's the thing about this novel: it's an ode to humanity. Even people with the most seemingly perfect lives can suffer immensely and as humans, we find solace in realizing that this means we're not alone.

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"A Little Life" became an instant contemporary classic upon its publication in 2015, and currently has almost 400k five-star reviews on Goodreads and over 50k five-star reviews on Amazon. Dua Lipa is also a fan of the book, writing in March 2023, "I'm not exaggerating when I say this novel challenged everything I thought I knew about love and friendship. It's one of those books that stays with you forever."

While it deals with severely triggering topics like rape, self-harm, and suicide, Yanagihara's ability to navigate these topics so eloquently with the sensitivity and humanity they deserve, is outstanding. Will reading "A Little Life" break your heart? Absolutely. But when one delves into the complexities of the human condition, that's bound to happen. Besides, everyone can use the benefits of a good cry from time to time.

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Intimations by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith's debut novel, "White Teeth," put her on the map. Based in London, the book tells the story of two friends and their families, exploring race, religion, what it's like to be an immigrant in a foreign land, and many other topics that result in a masterpiece.

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While "White Teeth" is a great contemporary book to read if you haven't already, it makes more sense to look at one of Smith's more recent novels. Or rather, an essay collection. "Intimations" is a series of six essays that Smith began to write in the early days of the Covid pandemic. As she often does in her work, she tackles race in this collection, including the murder of George Floyd and the disparity in cases and deaths from COVID-19 based on race and income. "The virus map of the New York boroughs turns redder along precisely the same lines as it would if the relative shade of crimson counted not infection and death but income brackets and middle-school ratings," Smith wrote. "Death comes to all — but in America, it has long been considered reasonable to offer the best chance of delay to the highest bidder."

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Although the thought of revisiting 2020 might be difficult, Smith's reflections on those months and their impact are worth a read. We need to be reminded, especially those who have forgotten, what 2020 was like so we don't make the same mistakes — not just in hindsight, but in the present. 

Knife by Salman Rushdie

To call Salman Rushdie a controversial writer is an understatement. Although he had already established himself as a success with his second novel, "Midnight's Children," which won the Booker Prize in 1981, his fourth book, "The Satanic Verses" made him a household name. After all, it's not every day that a writer receives a fatwa (a death warrant) from the Ayatollah Khomeini.

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While the fatwa didn't stop Rushdie from writing, it did force him to live in hiding for about 10 years. It was a terrifying time that he recalls in his memoir, "Joseph Anton," his pseudonym during that decade. Although the fatwa was declared over in 1998 by Iran's president, that didn't stop radicalized individuals from threatening Rushdie's life. In August 2022, Rushdie was stabbed at an event in Chautauqua, New York. During the attack, he sustained injuries to his liver and neck, losing sight in one eye and use of one hand.

This attack led Rushdie to write his memoir "Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder." What's great about this book, especially if you've never read any of Rushdie's work, is that you're being introduced to the man behind the controversy and, in some circles, a legend. It illustrates his gift for the written word while delicately exposing his vulnerabilities as a man who narrowly escaped death. Like all of his work, "Knife" is a beautiful piece of contemporary literature that reminds us that the pen will always be mightier than the sword.

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Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng

Like Zadie Smith, Celeste Ng is one of the best contemporary writers out there right now. Although it was her second novel, "Little Fires Everywhere" that brought her international fame — and a miniseries based on the book — her most recent novel, "Our Missing Hearts" makes this recommendation list. Ng may only have three novels to her name so far, but she has already proven her ability to weave complicated tales within the family dynamic. In "Our Missing Hearts," Ng does it again with the relationship between a 12-year-old boy named Bird and his poet mother who disappeared under mysterious circumstances just three years before.

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Unlike her first two books, this one dives into a dystopian United States where censorship, inequality, and authoritarianism reign supreme (maybe not so dystopian, after all?), and is as much of a novel as it is a social commentary on the times in which we're living. It makes you question what side you're really on and what that choice says about you. Albeit, in a far less heavy way than you get with "1984," but still in a sign-of-the-times type of darkened mood.

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride

When James McBride's "The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store" was published in summer 2023, it was an immediate success. So much so that less than a year later, it's sold more than a million copies. As he has in previous books, McBride digs into race and religion against a backdrop called Chicken Hill, a neighborhood that's home to Jewish immigrants and African Americans. The characters come alive as their personal struggles overlap, revealing the painful truth that the story takes place in 1936, but not much has changed by way of progress. Despite this, the community works together as a force against the time.

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McBride has a knack for being able to do something that not all writers can: everything. "There are writers who are interested in story, writers who are interested in character, writers who are interested in place, and writers who are interested in voice," McBride's editor, Jake Morrissey, told The New York Times. "He manages, either by intention or by some other alchemy, to be able to hold all four of those strains in his hands at once."

After you finish "The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store," check out "The Good Lord Bird," which was made into a series starring Ethan Hawke, and McBride's debut, "The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother." Both are excellent in their own way, and McBride's voice is one we should all be listening to.

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