Each year, I make a list of the books that I read for the first time and most enjoyed. As usual, many of the books that I read last year were very good but only a few will stick with me for a long time.
8. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (2013) by Malcolm Gladwell – I enjoyed this a lot. I learned a lot and Gladwell presents one fascinating story after another, although I slightly preferred the other books of his that I’ve read over this one. The last couple chapters in particular felt like they had been cut from The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference and were a better fit there. Regardless, this was an easy and enjoyable read. Recommended.
7. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017) by Timothy Snyder – I liked this but it felt rushed at times and I wish it would have had a little more behind each of the twenty lessons. In terms of approach, it was a good move to start by listing all twenty lessons right away and then explaining them. One thing did irk me, however, and that was the author’s establishment bias. He notes how propaganda is put out by Russian-produced news stations but not the propaganda disseminated by U.S. news stations, he notes ways in which we are closer to tyranny because of the current president but not ways in which we are closer to tyranny because of previous presidents, etc.. I liked his overall message but wish he could have distanced himself from the establishment narrative a little more.
6. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (2015) by Jon Ronson – This books dissects how social media shaming has become a force for both good and bad and often ruins lives. Ronson starts with an account of a journalist who added slight falsehoods to a Bob Dylan story and how the shaming he received was completely uneven with the scale of what he had done. The rest of the book goes into detail on various other times that social media shamings have ruined people’s lives and the group think that causes today’s society to engage in that kind of behavior. A really fascinating read.
5. Siddhartha (1922) by Hermann Hesse – As a huge fan of Paulo Coelho’s, the biggest compliment I can give this book is saying that if Coelho had been born 70 years earlier and been German instead of Brazilian, this is a book he would have written. Everything that I enjoy about Coehlo’s writing was present here as well. I felt like I was learning about life via a simple, very accessible tale. I’ll definitely be adding Hesse’s other major works to my to-read list.
4. I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2016) by Iain Reid – This story reminded me of what it would be like if David Lynch spent his time writing books instead of making movies. The book does an excellent job of being creepy and keeping you guessing as to what is really happening. I had a feeling the end would use the device that was ultimately employed but I was wrong about the direction in which it was delivered (avoiding spoilers). There were a couple books I enjoyed more than this one in 2019 but I found myself thinking of this book long after I had finished it, and that’s the mark of a good book.
Odd side note: The worst part of this book is the publisher’s description, which focuses on something that happens 75% of the way through the book. This can only lead to either misleading readers or else making them feel like the first 75% of the story is a waste when it isn’t at all.
3. Awakening the Buddha Within: Eight Steps to Enlightenment (1998) by Surya Das – This was excellent. I’ve read a couple books that are similar, most notably I Am That: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. What makes this book so much more enjoyable than the others I’ve read is that it’s accessible and casual at every turn. There were huge chunks of I Am That that were dense and just didn’t make sense to a novice like me. This book excels by being extremely easy to follow while also not preaching. Highly recommended if this subject matter interests you at all.
2. Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage (1981) by Kurt Vonnegut – This is Vonnegut at his nonfiction best. As much as I liked A Man Without a Country, I think this was superior. Among the highlights for me were his thoughts back when he was a writing teacher, the self interview he did for the Paris review, his family’s thoughts on his writing, and the impact that the Dresdon fire bombing that he wrote about in Slaughterhouse 5 had on him throughout his life. Much of the book is classic Vonnegut in the fact that it is humorous and pessimistic, but there are also plenty of touching parts where you feel like you are actually getting to know the man behind the sarcasm and wit.
1. Wolf In White Van (2014) by John Darnielle – It’s extremely rare to find a book that is flawless in approach and execution but there isn’t a single thing I would change about Wolf In White Van. There are two ways authors can evoke childhood memories from their readers. The first is by focusing on pop culture, as Ready Player One successfully does. The second is by focusing on the sense of alienation that all kids have at one time or another. Darnielle excels in this regard, and yet it is only one aspect of the story that is excellent.
The story itself is enthralling but it also leads to a mystery of what ultimately happens, which is not fully explained until the end. The climax, detailing what happened, worked perfectly for me. However, the best part of this book might be the second mystery, which you can only think about after you finish the book, and this is ‘Why’ the climax happened the way it did. As for this element, you have to remember small clues Darnielle gives throughout the book. A sentence here and a sentence there provide hints as to why this series of events unfolds. If you’re like me, you’ll be thinking about all of the subtle clues that are offered as the story plays out to a haunting conclusion. Answers are never clearly given, you have to work for them, and I absolutely loved that.
Even when I read this I knew it would be my favorite book of the year. The last book I can remember that evoked such a successfully haunting story is Hannah Pittard’s The Fates Will Find Their Way, which I also loved.
Honorable mention: Into Thin Air (1997) by Jon Krakauer – This isn’t included above because it was my third time reading it. I originally read this in high school and loved it. It’s by far my favorite outdoors / nonfiction adventure / true-life disaster book. Krakauer has a straight forward way of recounting the events that unfolded in a way that’s extremely engrossing. He originally went to Everest to write an article for Outside magazine about the commercialism of the world’s highest peak and how it had become over-traveled and polluted as a result. Through recounting the events of that expedition, he successfully discourages others from wanting to do the same thing. In that regard, the book is not only entertaining but also an effective public service announcement.