Yay! It's my favorite time of year: the
let's reflect time of year! The
best books of [year] time of year! YAAAAY.
Alright. This year, I read 73 books. Of these, 24 (33%) were by women and 15 (21%) by writers of color. Pretty bad stats, given the actual proportions of who's writing stuff in English. Once again, I disproportionately read the work of white dudes.
In terms of how I decided what to read, I mostly followed my nose; where by "following my nose", I mean that it was a combination of what the algorithms and the zeitgeist fed me, as mediated by my long-term reading goals (weighted low) and my short-term mood when selecting what to read next (weighted very high). Maybe I'll be more intentional about reading next year.
I read a handful of books early in 2018 that I basically spent the rest of year citing and referencing as much as possible. In all these cases, I was surprised I had read them this year, since they had become so completely absorbed in my thinking - they felt like foundational texts from long ago. These were:
Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind, which Explains Everything About Politics. Politics are very on my mind these days, thanks to the 2016 election and the hyper-polarization we seem to be experiencing in the US, Italy, Germany, UK, Tanzania, India... okay, everywhere the light touches, Simba. Haidt's book is a great combination of rigorous experimental evidence and social psychology to explain why us hairless apes get so funky and intense about politics (and other tribal affiliations). I really enjoyed his takeaway of the "five moral tastes", and how left-leaning Western humans have lost the ability to taste all five. I can't make myself taste authority! AND YOU CAN'T MAKE ME.
Tony Judt's Postwar. I didn't think I needed a postwar Europe explainer. Now I think EVERYONE NEEDS IT AND EVERYONE NEEDS THIS ONE. This reframed my understanding of World War 2 and many European countries' histories (especially Austria, France, the Netherlands). It provided useful kick-in-the-butts around certain well-known periods as 1968 and the Thatcher Years. It was dispiriting. It destroyed myths. It was so good.
Tim Wu's The Attention Merchants. A wonderful explainer of the driving economic forces behind our attention economy and, as Bruce Schneier calls it, surveillance capitalism. The roots go deep. Delete your Facebook, for the love of God, it's the cigarettes of the modern era.
Charles Mann's 1491. I put Charles Mann and James Scott in the same mental bookshelf: they write God's-eye-view sweeping, hyper-macro interpretations of history and politics. They've both made me totally reframe my understanding of big-deal things like the state (via James Scott's Seeing Like a State) and, in 1491's case, the New World. I learned so much about the pre-Colombus Americas via this book. I was inspired about specific indigenous cultures like the Inca. It gave me a strong pan-Americas fellow feeling. But, even more grandly, it made me think big picture about, well, the rise and fall of civilizations - and how much human innovation can be lost at the end of a gun, germs, and steel.
Emily Oster's Expecting Better AKA how to be pregnant. Ho ho jk jk. I kid. Sort of. TL;DR: Be an economist about it! Oster uses statistical know-how, combined with the decision making framework we learn in Economics School, to talk about the inherent risk and uncertainty of pregnancy. I referred to it constantly, and referred all my friends of childbearing age to it as well. My citation rate on this book was very high.
Most pleasurable in the moment
Then there were the books that, while they didn't indelibly tattoo my DNA, were just a whole lotta fun to read. These were the page-turners, the stay-up-late-ers.
Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air. Weird to call this a page-turner, but this intelligent, sparkling memoir of a 30something neurosurgeon with late stage lung cancer is. You will probably sob at the end. But you will also feel spiritually refreshed.
Gore Vidal's Julian. A dark, funny drama about early Christianity vs. late stage Rome, as embodied in the idealistic, handsome and short-lived Emperor Julian. Snarky and amusing, and also deeply tactile. You live and breathe the 4th century AD! (And yes, I put Anno Domine instead of Common Era as a nod to the book's sad conclusion - Christian Dark Ages win, after all.)
Angie Thomas's The Hate U Give. Great YA, moving and powerful and refreshing. The protagonist is so sensible and lovable, you just wish you had a friend like this when you were a teen.
Dexter Palmer's Version Control. After such a disappointing slew of mediocre mainstream SF in the last couple years, FINALLY a good one! This time travel story was layered and delightful. I sometimes cite it for its insightful acumen regarding dating apps (their incentive is not to get you into a relationship, but to keep you on the app - and they do this by leveraging a false sense of abundance and decision fatigue!).
There were a few books that I found pretty lame - that Shashi Kapoor biography was a huge missed opportunity, and the Sex Criminals series went off the rails. But the absolute worst book I read, by far, was Light Years. My goodness. That was a book club book - and, I mean, I love that book club makes me read outside of my comfort zone - but this was so far out of my comfort zone as to be in hell. There were so many layers of horribleness - from the racist caricatures, the "male gaze" POV and mansplainy sexism, the moral vacuousness of the main characters, and the pretentiousness of the writing style - OOOOOOF.
Sad little dharma nook
I'm supposed to always have a dharma book in circulation, after a promise to myself made many years ago that I would keep the dharma fires alive in my heart forever. I've always interpreted the Three Jewels of Buddhism as a three-legged stool of community (sangha), practice (buddha), and study (dharma). And
study usually meant
reading a book or maybe a video or podcast.
Anyway, this year I kept a low simmer of dharma books, namely via Stephen Batchelor's After Buddhism (basically boring) and Robert Wright's Why Buddhism is True (much better). The New Yorker had a great essay/review of both books which both accurately captures the history of American Buddhism, all its inherent tensions (karma?! ladies kill the dharma?!!), and how these two books are situated within and address that tension. It's good! Honestly, it's also probably sufficient.
Yes, so 2 books and 1 essay. I told you dharma was sad this year.
Ursula Le Guin died
Also sad, of course, was the loss of Ursula K. Le Guin - AKA my guiding light of speculative fiction. I used to say that Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson were battling it out for top SF author spot in my heart, but - after having read more KSR and more Le Guin - I can safely say Le Guin is my number one. She wrote so many masterpieces. Even her short stories are startlingly good (the one about the crazy sex ratio and the crazy society it engenders!). Also her super interesting Taoism stuff!
Anyway, this year, in memory of her, I re-read Left Hand of Darkness (which, with The Dispossessed, I consider one of her magnum opuses and maybe one of the top books of SF ever!?) and also started her YA fantasy series, The Wizard of Earthsea.
Well, I really should address a few things.
Better representation. English is a big language, written by a bunch of people. I really should make a better effort of reading outside the white dude demographic.
More science fiction. I am always delighted when I find a new SF book to love, but I never make time for it! The Gollancz SF masterworks has been a pretty reliable source of finding incredible, unknown-to-me, underrated-by-everyone masterpieces (Gateway! Random Acts of Senseless Violence! Floating Worlds!).
Branching out into historical fiction. I got super pumped after reading Julian, and kind of remembered that I used to love history? And the ancients? Big time. I pretty reliably enjoy this stuff, but never, ever think of it as being "my thing". Well! I hereby declare that historical fiction is also my thing! I've got Bring Up the Bodies and Creation somewhere around here, and the author of Floating Worlds, Cecelia Holland, was apparently way big in historical fiction before she wrote her crazy awesome sf?
I also discovered r/52book this year, which is just fun preening about "oh look how much I read!" and a nice place to get pumped/inspired by fellow bookworms. Onwards!