Just as surely as the first week of January brings new diet books, the last week of December brings Top 10 or Top 100 lists. These lists are way too late to inspire holiday shopping, so they must serve another function. Perhaps they are a quick way to come up with copy when magazine editors would rather be partying. Perhaps these editors know that, at the end of a year or a decade or, not so long ago, a millennium, a lot of us feel the need to examine, sort, take stock, evaluate.

Since 1997, when I made a long commute bearable by reading, I've been keeping a list of every book I read. Before then, when people asked if I'd read any good books lately, I could assure them that I had—but I had no idea what they were. Now I can prime myself before attending social functions where that question might come up. I decided it would be fun to look at my lists for this decade and choose a favorite novel and nonfiction book for each year.

I quickly realized I could not limit myself to two excellent books a year, so I decided to allow two in each category. The criteria: I had to remember what they were about (not so easy: I was amazed at how many titles I did not remember at all). They had to be interesting—no moral uplift or literary elegance unless I truly liked the books. And they had to stand alone: I did not include books that are part of series, even though that meant leaving out some of my very favorite authors (I listed 10 of them on my blog).

The subheads refer to my year of reading, not the year of publication. Most books were published a year or two before I read them—I waited for the library to acquire them, or for the paperback edition to come out. Some books were published whole generations before I discovered ...

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