Way back on January 1, 2015, I set a goal to restore my love of reading books. In 2016, I read 25 and declared “my love of reading books has officially returned.” In 2017 I read 31 and I’m closing out 2018 at 44! I find myself happier and happier every year with the progress that I’ve made.
Now that 2018 is coming to a close, I though it’d be fun to reflect on everything I’ve read this year. And it was! Revisiting each book, my thoughts at the time, and passages I highlighted has been an interesting way to process the year and has helped inspire what I want to cover in 2019.
I’ve grouped things in a few different ways to help remember my reasoning for picking them up.
Absolutely beautiful and heartwarming and heartbreaking and just an all around excellent observation of humanity.From my Goodreads review of Exit West
Exit West was a Christmas Gift last year. I finally picked it up in March and finished it in just a couple of sittings. If I remember correctly, the first sitting was only a few pages and I was completely captured during the second. This book stunned me in such a good way. The story was absolutely beautiful and everything about the book made me feel—the sadness of uncertainty, the complexity of love; the struggle of migration and forced refugeeism.
I immediately fell for Mohsin Hamid and made a point to seek out his other work. With each book—The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Moth Smoke, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia—I followed a similar routine. Pick up the book, start reading, and, after a sitting or two, look around dazed.
Oh, politics. I’ve made a point over the last several years not to fall into the genre of political junk. I spent too much time with that in the early 2000s and couldn’t imagine things being any better.
Alas… these are strange times.
It’s like there’s a pile of bad candy in front of you and you try some anyway and then can’t get the taste out so you keep on eating more.My Goodreads review for Fire and Fury
Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House was one of the first books I read in 2018. Starting off the year with joy! And it was absolute trash that told me exactly what I thought it would.
This of course set the stage for Fear: Trump in the White House later in the year. When it came out, I had to read it. I gave my time to Michael Wolff, I should toss some to Bob Woodward too! This one felt a bit better because it was Woodward, but I copy/pasted my Fire and Fury review—a pile of bad candy.
My biggest takeaway from the book is how much politics has become one side vs. the other rather than a bargaining collective. Comey hits home with this by trying to portray a justice department that takes no side. Whether that is true or not, the contrast is interesting.My Goodreads review for A Higher Loyalty
James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty was a bit better than the others and much less sensationalist. At face value, it’s nice to believe in a world where a loyalty to truth can exist. A better editor and maybe less of a rushed timeline would have been nice.
If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems, it’s better never to really understand those problems. There is an upside to ignorance, and a downside to knowledge. Knowledge makes life messier. It makes it a bit more difficult for a person who wishes to shrink the world to a worldview.Michael Lewis, The Fifth Risk
My favorite political read of the year was The Fifth Risk, by Michael Lewis. I sighed—literally, out loud!—when this came out. I knew I was going to read it even though I had sworn off reading political junk for the rest of the year after all of the others.
Turns out, this one was different. I went in expecting a political fluff book and I got a detailed look at how several parts of the US Government work. I was particularly fascinated with the knowledge that I picked up on NOAA and the weather forecasting industry.
John le Carré
On my flight home from Nashville last December, I read my first John le Carré book, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, in one sitting and had a complete blast. I had seen a review for his new novel, A Legacy of Spies, and decided that I needed to work through the George Smiley series before I read the latest. I found a Vulture article, written in 2017, that provided a good order in which to read le Carré’s books that I decided to follow somewhat.
After that flight, I was hooked. And in 2018, I read 6 more.
And now it was pouring with rain, Smiley was soaked to the skin, and God as a punishment had removed all taxis from the face of London.John le Carré, Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy made the 2011 movie so much more understandable and solidified my interest. I then went back to the beginning and started to work through the others in order: Call for the Dead, A Murder of Quality, The Looking Glass War, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People. Things got a little sluggish at times, but each of them paid off in one way or another. Le Carré’s use of the English language is just so much fun.
Girders held up the roof; earnest moral statements enlivened the flaking green paint. “Punk is destructive. Society does not need it.” The assertion caused him a moment’s indecision. “Oh, but society does,” he wanted to reply; “society is an association of minorities.”John le Carré, Smiley’s People
With those down, I now only have a few of the George Smiley series left for 2019! We also enjoyed The Little Drummer Girl series on AMC, so I’ll probably pick that up in book form at some point soon.
I’ve had the joy of being in a book club for the last 3 years. Each time we meet to discuss one book, the next host chooses what we read next. We met up 5 times this year (I think) and covered a mix of fiction and non.
My hope from the start has been to participate in a larger conversation by creating something worth sharing.Peter Korn, Why We Make Things and Why It Matters
Our first book of the year, Why We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman, by Peter Korn, was an interesting perspective on craft. I found the author’s lifetime support of patrons intriguing and do wish he had spent a little more time talking through that. His thoughts on sharing ideas and community are often excellent.
One of the curious aspects of the Twenty-First Century was the great delusion amongst many people, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area, that freedom of speech and freedom of expression were best exercised on technological platforms owned by corporations dedicated to making as much money as possible.Jarret Kobek, I Hate the Internet
I Hate the Internet, by Jarrett Kobek, is a cynical and depressing Vonnegut-ish take on the internet in the 2010s. It’s fiction, and expresses everything you want to express about the current state of social media, but it doesn’t make you feel any better.
The perfect “subject” for the aims of this [brainy] economy is the person who continuously itches his ears with the radio, preferably using the portable kind which can go with him at all hours and in all places. His eyes flit without rest from television screen, to newspaper, to magazine, keeping him in a sort of orgasm-without-release through a series of teasing glimpses of shiny automobiles, shiny female bodies, and other sensuous surfaces, interspersed with such restorers of sensitivity—shock treatments—as “human interest” shots of criminals, mangled bodies, wrecked airplanes, prize fights, and burning buildings.Alan W. Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity
I dog-eared the crap out of The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety, by Alan W. Watts, one of the few books this year that I did not read on the Kindle. This is a philosophical read that keeps you shaking your head when you realize it was written 50 years ago. So much of us has not changed. That said, it provides some interesting insight for reflection.
Aside: I ran into Paul Clark for the first time in 5 years at the WordCamp Europe after party and he, unprompted, told me about an Alan Watts Chillstep mix he had recently gotten into. I had actually brought the book to Belgrade with me, so the coincidence was that much more coincidental.
Life provides for reflection! Let’s continue.
The food is so good that he already misses this place. Does that mean he’s close to the memory horizon?Aaron Thier, The World Is a Narrow Bridge
I had a lot of fun reading The World Is a Narrow Bridge, by Aaron Thier. I kept interrupting Michelle to read relatable passages out loud. I just went back to the book’s description to try and figure out how to summarize it and I think the provided “how to live and live in an age of catastrophe” does the trick.
Research shows that while goal visualization is important, after a certain point our mind begins to confuse it with actual progress.Ryan Holiday, The Ego Is the Enemy
Our last book of the year was The Ego Is the Enemy, by Ryan Holiday, which we sat down and chatted about last week. I got a little snake oil feeling, but also found it full of interesting, applicable anecdotes. There’s a good chance somebody could write a similar book titled The Ego Is the Friend, and it too would be full of interesting, applicable anecdotes. 😉
It was, he repeated in virtually every sermon, a matter of us against them, and the mission was to change the country, the world, through example rather than intermingling with outsiders on their unacceptable terms.Jeff Guinn, The Road to Jonestown
I belatedly finished one of last year’s picks, The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, by Jeff Guinn, half-way through this year. It was a comprehensive and fascinating tale of Jim Jones and the power of cult.
What Ryan had learned from this is that your failures keep returning to you, while your successes are something you always have to convince yourself of.Rachel Cusk, Outline
Our first book for 2019 is Outline, by Rachel Cusk, which I happened to read earlier this year. Ahead of the game! I found it to be fun and quick the first time around. I will probably reread as a refresher before we meet.
In addition to the categorized groupings above, I wound my way though a bunch of other fiction for various reasons. I’ll cover these in the order that I read them.
It is as if we have stopped the human clock of the village, that’s what I were thinking. The hands have stuck and the hours will be no more.Sebastian Barry, Days Without End
Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry, is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read.
Every time I try to express more than that, my mind goes blank. But it’s sad and it’s hopeful and it’s complex. And now that I look, I’m surprised I didn’t end up visiting more of Barry’s many published novels this year!
Not too compelling, though the pace was pretty good.My Goodreads review of Artemis
I had a lot of fun with The Martian, so I was happy when I saw that Andy Weir had another one coming. Unfortunately, Artemis was pretty forgettable and at times really annoying. Weir’s attempt at telling the story from the female main character’s perspective might have been more interesting if it didn’t come across as written by a teenage boy.
Anything is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout, is a short story collection that comes across as a novel. I remember enjoying the writing, but I don’t remember many details. I did mention how wonderful the mix of punctuation was in one of my notes.
The explosiveness of Jerry’s aggression at a Ping-Pong table exceeded his brother’s in any sport. A Ping-Pong ball is, brilliantly, sized and shaped so that it cannot take out your eye. I would not otherwise have played in Jerry Levov’s basement.Philip Roth, American Pastoral
When Philip Roth died earlier this year, I decided to pick up American Pastoral, his Pulitzer Prize winning novel from 1997. I had previously read The Plot Against America, which I loved, many years ago, and Portnoy’s Complaint, which didn’t really connect for me, more recently. American Pastoral was good. I enjoyed the story and the chaos. There’s a good chance I’ll continue his American trilogy in the near future.
Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Ahmed Saadawi, was a fascinating story that does an excellent job of being exactly its title while conveying the reality of Baghdad post-American invasion.
We listened to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Pecuiliar Children, by Ransom Riggs, while driving through Nevada and Utah this summer. This was my second ever audiobook and first in 7 years. I called the main character a “bit of a twit”, but we had a lot of fun with the book.
At some point in 2018, Octavia E. Butler, a popular and highly awarded African-American science-fiction writer, came across my radar—I wish I remembered how—and further impressed upon me the lack of diversity in my reading. I picked up Kindred, her very dark time travel novel and thoroughly enjoyed it. I have Parable of the Sower fresh from the library now and am excited to get started towards next year’s list.
In the Distance, by Hernan Díaz, was an excellent story. I enjoyed the western setting, the larger than life Swedish traveler, Håkan, and how well the utter sadness of being alone in a foreign place was conveyed. The more I think about it, the more I want to read this book again!
“!” said the stranger, and grabbed his arm.Terry Pratchett, The Color of Magic
I read and had a lot of fun with Terry Pratchett’s first Discworld book, The Color of Magic, after deciding I should get to know his work before reading the book he co-authored with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens, which I have waiting for me on the coffee table.
One of the blurbs for The Color of Magic gave Terry Pratchett a “revered position in the halls of parody next to the likes of Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, and Carl Hiaasen.” I enjoy Vonnegut and Twain, so I decided to check out Hiaasen’s first book as well. Double Whammy was fun enough, but didn’t really compare and made me wonder if I even had the right author. I probably won’t continue with that series.
And finally, I cruised through the short, but fun All Systems Red, by Martha Wells, the first of The Murderbot Diaries. A little more depth would have been nice, but I’m still interested in seeing what happens to “Murderbot” in the second.
I went into this thinking I probably didn’t read a lot of non-fiction this year, but it’s not far off of half my reading, so I’m feeling pretty good now. These are the non-fiction books I found my way through in 2018, not otherwise grouped, in the order they were read.
In most places and most of the time, liberty is not a product of military action. Rather, it is something alive that grows or diminishes every day, in how we think and communicate, how we treat each other in our public discourse, in what we value and reward as a society, and how we do that.Thomas E Ricks, Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom
I finished Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E Ricks, on January 1st after spending most of my time with it in 2017. A good way to get a jump on the year! It was full of interesting information. I went in much more familiar with Orwell, who the author seemed a little less enthralled with, and it was nice to get an intro to Churchill. I noted that the parts of the book covering World War II were very interesting.
I grabbed Emotional Intelligence: Empathy, a compilation of 10 Harvard Business Review articles on empathy, from the Seattle airport before a flight back to Pullman. It was a quick, interesting read and I dogeared a few things to go back to later, but then left it on the plane!
Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World had some interesting stuff. I appreciated that Timothy Ferriss gave the reader permission to skim in the beginning, and I did that quite a bit. The questions and answers I most enjoyed were around the books that people read and gifted to others. I made a bunch of highlights to go back to later and it inspired a few of my other non-fiction picks for the year.
In every case in which heat exchange does not occur, or when the heat exchanged is negligible, we see that the future behaves exactly like the past. For example, for the motion of the planets of the solar system heat is almost irrelevant, and in fact this same motion could equally take place in reverse without any law of physics being infringed. As soon as there is heat, however, the future is different from the past.Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, by Carlo Rovelli, was exactly that—brief. And interesting!
There is poetic justice in the fact that a quarter of the world, and two of its seven continents, are named after a little-known Italian whose sole claim to fame is that he had the courage to say, ‘We don’t know.’Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, was a really, really interesting take on the history of us and our impact on the history of others. I noted that my excitement started to wane towards the end, but I enjoyed it all the same.
Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl, was one of those books mentioned over and over again in Tribe of Mentors. I wrote a post earlier in the year when I finished that covered some of his thoughts on freedom. There are two books in one here, both powerful and thought provoking: a man’s survival through four different Nazi death camps during the Holocaust and a discussion of meaning and logotherapy, a form of psychotherapy developed by Frankl.
“Wow.” was my Goodreads review for Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions, by Valeria Luiselli. The 40 questions are those Luiselli must ask undocumented Latin-American children facing deportation during her work as a volunteer interpreter.
Avoid the anonymous “we” and “they,” because they mask personal responsibility. Things don’t just happen by themselves—they happen because specific people did or didn’t do specific things. Don’t undermine personal accountability with vagueness.Ray Dalio, Principles: Life and Work
I slogged through Principles: Life and Work, by Ray Dalio, but still found it interesting enough to highlight a million bits. Beyond the interesting story of transparency and data in his fund’s decision making, my biggest takeaway was my wish that he had a better editor.
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann, was an amazing and heartbreaking history that covers the systematic murders of Osage people in the 1920s and the utter incompetence of law enforcement. The book was immediately hard to put down once I started and I’m looking forward to reading his The Lost City of Z next year.
I started The Balkans: A Short History, by Mark Mazower, back in May as a way to be at least somewhat familiar with the history of Serbia before my trip to Belgrade in June. I made it half-way before the trip and then finished it up yesterday. The Balkans have such an interesting history and this made me want to read more about the politics of the Ottoman Empire in general.
Continuing with the travel trend, I picked up How the Canyon Became Grand: A Short History, by Stephen J. Pyne, in the Grand Canyon gift shop during our excellent road trip in August. It’s a well written overview that follows the canyon’s history from a largely ignored, unusable piece of land through different ages of “discovery” in the US, and into its current status as protected National Park.
People will never stop being horrible on the internet. There will never not be garbage. But in a functioning society, someone comes to collect the trash every week.Sara Jeong, The Internet of Garbage
And finally, I wrapped up The Internet of Garbage, by Sarah Jeong, which wasn’t on my radar at all until she joined the New York Times editorial board in August. The perspective, history, and analysis of free speech, spam, and online harassment was interesting and very much worth the read. A lot of food for thought.
That’s that! On to a new set of books in 2019. I’m still thinking about my reading challenge for next year, but leaning toward 52. That seems like a number I’d be happy sticking with for a few years.
And of course—if you read, you should add me as a friend on Goodreads! It’s probably my favorite social network. If you haven’t used Goodreads yet, this explainer continues to be useful. 📚
Responses and reactions
Thanks for taking the time to write this up, Jeremy! Looking back over my own reading year provides a real insight into my frame of mind for the year, and it's great to read someone else going through the same steps.
I think it's admirable that you manage to leave book reviews. I can never bring myself to do it. It's one thing to write up a few paragraphs about a bit of interesting non-fiction. But it's an enormously difficult task to come up with something non-crass and non-trivial to say about the kinds of rich novels that affect me most deeply. So I choose to say nothing at all :-D Plus, I can't stomach the idea of reducing my thoughts to star ratings. But I am a fan of thoughtful reviews written by others!
Thanks, Boone! I hear you on the reviews and stars. I left a 2 star review for Artemis and then spent time feeling really bad judging someone's work like that. But I guess that's part of the reflection. :)
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