The 10 Best Books I Read This Year
I recently came across the term “productivity dysmorphia.” It’s when, no matter what you’ve accomplished, you feel like you haven’t done anything at all. I wouldn’t say I discredit things I've done, I just forget them a lot of times, a sort of achievement amnesia; so as many of you know I created a system to track my wins throughout the year so that I can remind myself that I did more in my free time than watch TV and be repeatedly heartbroken by Arsenal Football Club.
One of the most enjoyable parts is reflecting on the books I’ve read; and thanks to the pandemic, there was plenty of time to read this year. So, to keep my bibliophilic dysmorphia at bay, and to answer the question I get the most—“Any books you recommend?”—here's a list of my 10 favorites, in no particular order. (Full list of all 28 books I read at the end of the post, including my least favorite book of the year.)
The Masterpiece - In Cold Blood
Chances are, you’ve at least heard of this book. It’s called “the original non-fiction novel.” The topic at hand is not exactly a rose spritzer (a grizzly murder of a Kansas family in 1959), but the writing and story-telling is exquisite, and the depths of research is cavernous. It unfolds like a Scorsese movie, but always within the bounds of reality. As one reviewer said, “The book was conceived of journalism and born of a novelist.” If you have the stomach for a gruesome story (don’t lie! I see your true-crime podcast list!) you will be rewarded with Truman Capote’s literary genius.
The Back-In-Time Book - Rules Of Civility
I clearly have a thing for Amor Towles because last year I had his A Gentleman In Moscow on my list. My wife and I listened to the audio version of ROC together. We’d extend car rides or sit in our parking spot, entwined with the high society life of New York City in the late 1930’s. As any good fiction book does, it gives you characters to root for, especially its heroine. Having lived my life in New York City at a similar age as these characters, it was both an escape and a reminder of the possibilities that await around every corner when you’re old enough to earn a living, but young enough to build a life. This book is a warm blanket and a cup of tea.
The Epic - Lonesome Dove
I had never heard of the “Western of all westerns” until I saw it on a list of “Every book a guy should read before he dies.” Pulitzer or not, I was nervous if I had the old West in me for 984 pages. My wife would want me to remind you that I’m the furthest thing from a ranch-hand either side of the Mississippi. In fact, in all my journeys around the world I have still yet to even ride a horse (wtf!). But goodness me, this book was everything. I couldn’t put it down. Love, loss, humor, adventure, friendship, honor, coming of age, one last ride, and of course all of the buffalo herds you could ever want. From the Rio Grande to the Canadian border you won’t go on a better ride into the sunset (using these things called a “stirrup” and a “rein,” I’m told).
The Pandemic Read - The Dog Stars
Timely, to say the least. Written in 2012, it’s about a man who has survived a flu-pandemic which has killed everyone he knows. But it’s not The Walking Dead or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s tender, it’s heart-breaking, it’s inspiring. It’s also one of those stories that has you wishing you could be as unpretentiously cool as Hig, the lead character. I like this review from the Columbus Dispatch “A post-apocalyptic adventure novel with the soul of a haiku.” It’s a reminder that even at the end of the world there’s still hope, and things worth living for.
The Why-We-Are-Who-We-Are Book - From Here to There: The Art and Science of Finding and Losing Our Way
No surprise that I like to get off the beaten path, but what does it mean to get lost, and how do we still find our way? It’s not a surprise that this made Wired’s “Most Fascinating Books Of The Year” because this book was a constant, audible, “Huh!” My wife was tired of me yelling out, “Babe, get this…” This book had all of the great pillars of science writing: history, research, stories, and humor. For a species that ended up inhabiting the globe, it’s a fantastic look into how wayfinding shaped who we are and how we think: from the grid cells in our brain, to the cities we’ve built.
The How-Have-I-Not-Read-This-Yet? Book - Dune
I might get some eye rolls from those who have known that this was one of the OG science fiction novels (no disrespect to Isaac Asimov, of course), but as you can see from some of my other entries, I’m making up for lost time. It’s hard not to realize what other worlds this book inspired after it was published in 1965. Star Wars. Blade Runner. Alien. 2001: A Space Odyssey. If you’re into far off worlds, feuding familial “houses,” love stories, the hero’s journey, and sand worms that can eat machinery the size of a deep sea oil rig, then this is your escape.
The Punch-In-The-Gut Book - There, There
The amount of “Best of” lists and awards this book won is never ending. Now I can see why. Like the movie Crash, the story is about disparate individuals converging on one moment in time, except here our characters are from Native communities in Oakland, CA. I felt like I was ushered into an “America” I knew nothing about but could now see in detail. It’s a tragic story whose grip tightens as the pages turn, leaving you with its imprint long after it’s over. This is one that lingers, for all the complex and necessary reasons.
The (Other) Science Fiction Book - Project Hail Mary
If you loved The Martian, you’re going to dig this. Andy Weir has a knack of giving you a science lesson where you would do anything to not hear the bell ring. Air pressure, gravity, The Periodic Table, microbiology, language, and relativity are the glue that binds this story of discovery and friendship in a galaxy far, far away. What’s at stake? Only life itself. NBD.
The Essays - This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage
Ann Patchett. I just don’t know what to do with her. Her writing is just so accessible, so down to earth, and yet rich with colors I‘ve never seen. Her everyday words somehow bounce off the page in ultraviolet and infrared, illuminating the world in a whole new light. I bought this book for her story “The Getaway Car,” but time and again, each new essay (out of the 23) would become my new favorite. “Tennessee” might take the cake as the one that will stand out to me for years to come. I’ve already read it a handful of times.
The Reading As Meditation - The Snow Leopard
For those who have spent time in the high mountains at all, this will read like a love story between man and nature. But even those who haven’t felt the strange charm of exhaustion on a godforsaken slope will feel the meditative hypnosis that Mathiessen talks about Buddhism, spirituality, and what it means to be alive (and conscious of that fact). You’ll feel the cold in your toes, the sun splattering on your face, and the earthen awe through Matthiessen’s dreamlike trance. Good thing you’ll do this without gasping for breath on a Himalayan ridge.
Bonus! My Wife’s Favorite Book - Red, White, And Royal Blue
I haven't read it, but Sam could not stop talking about this book. It’s listed as a romance novel, but based on the giggles emanating from various corners of our home, it's also a comedy. She never read a book so fast while begging it not to end. The premise? What happens when America's First Son falls in love with the Prince of Wales? In 2019 it was “Book of the Year” according to NPR, Vogue, and Vanity Fair.
Complete list of books I read this year:
A Confederacy Of Dunces
A Moveable Feast
A World Without Email
Crime & Punishment
Getting From Here To There
In Cold Blood
My Year Abroad
Pity the Reader
Project Hail Mary
Rules Of Civility
The Bastard Brigade
The Best Of Me
The Dog Stars
The Ice Pick Surgeon
The Midnight Library - My least favorite book of the year!
The Long Goodbye
The 10th Of December The Snow Leopard
This Is A Story Of A Happy Marriage
Long live words. Long live books; for the things they teach, the worlds they create, and the escapes they provide.