I traveled less in 2019 than I ever have in my adult life and since I do much of my reading on trips (flights, trains, etc), I read a little less than usual.
That said, I still read some great books this year and my reading skewed more towards fiction than in the past. There’s probably an escapism lesson there but I’ll spare you. Here are my picks for the best books I read in 2019:
This was the best fiction book I read in 2019 by a long shot. You know those books that you’re sad to finish because you’re going to miss the characters, who over the course of the story, now feel more like friends than fictional beings? That’s this book. Count Alexander Rostov is simply one of the best characters I’ve ever come across.
And while A Gentleman in Moscow is clearly fiction, it pulls from a ton of real historical events, namely Russian/Soviet history from the Revolution in 1917 to the 1950s. While I was already familiar with the general arc of these events, their impact becomes (perhaps surprisingly) greater through fiction – as it relates the horrors of that time period to its direct human impact. It’s one thing to read abstractly about Russian aristocrats being exiled, tortured, or killed because of their status – it’s quite another to read a personal tale about an aristocrat becoming a Former Person (yes that’s a real thing) through no fault of their own, besides being born into the aristocracy.
Maybe I’m developing a thing for books about Russia but I thought this was an incredible book. I’d heard about Solzhenitsyn over the years through writers like Jordan Peterson but hadn’t heard about this book specifically. I came across Cancer Ward while reading Paul Kalanithi’s excellent book When Breath Becomes Air – Cancer Ward was one of the books Dr. Kalanithi read while trying to grapple with his impending death. As I’ve spent this entire year dealing with a similar issue (though for a close family member, rather than myself), Kalanithi’s endorsement resonated with me.
This book is a semi-autobiographical account of life in a Soviet-era cancer ward. Without giving away the entire story, this book does an incredible job taking the reader on the rollercoaster of emotions that accompanies a fatal diagnosis – everything from denial to hope to (maybe) acceptance. It also captures the experience of caregivers – everyone from doctors to nurses to family members. And it does so in a very real way, showing for example that doctors are prone to errors (and why) as well as the logistical nightmares that nurses face caring for dozens of patients at a time.
Maybe the most shocking thing about this book is how similar Solzhenitsyn’s experience in a 1955 Soviet cancer ward is to what I’ve seen in modern American facilities over the past couple years. Don’t get me wrong – our modern equipment is fancier – we have computers, and the latest and greatest medical technology. But the overall quality and expectations – those are shockingly stagnant. We’ve made a lot of improvements to the quality of treatment but the quality of death hasn’t changed much, and may have even gotten worse – depending on your value system.
This was one of the most creative stories I’ve ever read. I’m hesitant to say too much about it because I don’t want to give you any spoilers but imagine a book that incorporates neuroscience, memory, and physics…along with a furiously-paced plot. It’s the perfect book for a long flight if you like sci-fi thrillers. Crouch’s other book Dark Matter was great too but Recursion was a notch better. I can’t wait until the Recursion movie comes out.
In this incredibly deep and well-researched book, Halberstam explores (like only he can) the changes that took place in America between the start of the automobile industry all the way through the mid-1980s. The book goes through and seamlessly weaves together the interconnected stories of Henry Ford, unions, Japan’s WWII war machine, the rise of Japanese autos, the managerial revolution, and much, much more. Halberstam tackles the massive transition that took place in the US economy during the 1900s. Even between 1950 and 1980, there’s a massive shift. During the 50s, 60s, and 70s (partially), it was possible for someone to earn enough to buy a house and support a family without a college degree, often through taking a manufacturing job. And now…that’s obviously a far-fetched dream. Halberstam points to the rise of the managerial and financial class as a major reason for this transition, putting particular emphasis on MBAs and the desire to “optimize” returns for shareholders.
If you enjoy narrative nonfiction, Halberstam is quite literally the best of the best. Another one of his books that sports fans will enjoy is The Breaks of The Game, about the 1979-1980 NBA season.
This book is the perfect corollary to The Reckoning and I was very fortunate to accidentally be reading the two books simultaneously. Arnade is a former banker turned photographer and author who traveled around the US to visit communities outside the “mainstream”, like The Bronx, New York, Gary, Indiana, Bakersfield, California, and several others. His purpose was to document the day to day lives and struggles faced by those in the “back row”.
Arnade’s front-row back-row concept is the central premise of the book. There are some individuals who, whether due to their upbringing, luck, effort (or all three), are in the driver’s seat of the modern economy. These people are software engineers, executives, bankers, product managers, etc. You know who they are. The mirror image of this is those individuals who (for similar reasons) are on the opposite end of this spectrum. They’ve been left behind by the modern economy for reasons explained quite well in David Halberstam’s The Reckoning (see above). Drugs play a major role in this book but Arnade rightly points to this as being a symptom of the overall feeling of despair and hopelessness rather than the root cause.
What made this book especially impactful for me were the photographs. Arnade doesn’t hold back. There are dramatic pictures of people shooting up and living on the street, of course, but there are also images of a friend group meeting for a morning coffee at McDonald’s and families enjoying a moment together. Ultimately, the images provide a glimpse (and a glimpse is all one can access, without experiencing these things for themselves) of the day to day struggle for dignity in the back row of America.
I’m going to admit something a little embarrassing. Going into this book, I didn’t know it was fiction. As I kept reading, it started to dawn on me that something might be…off. And by the end, I figured out that this is a work of fiction. Maybe my love for this book has something to do with thinking it’s a true story but that shouldn’t diminish it in any way. This book is simply phenomenal. Life of Pi is a uniquely written survival/adventure story about a shipwreck survivor. And that’s all I’ll say about that because I don’t want to give any spoilers.
If there’s one thing the last couple years have taught me, it’s that you can’t predict anything in life. One minute you’re happy and laughing and the next minute, your world is shattered. That’s just how things work – you can’t really predict most tragic events. Once More We Saw Stars is a story about this unfortunate reality. Greene’s story is about the tragic death of his two year old daughter, Greta, who died after a brick fell on her head outside their NYC apartment. But the book is not just about death. It’s about the aftermath, the struggle to adjust to a new reality, and recovery.
If you’re dealing with loss or illness, I urge you to read this book. And even if you’re not, this book will provide greater perspective on what others are going through. Jayson Greene is an incredible writer so reading this book is (perhaps paradoxically) a therapeutic experience.
Despite the seemingly endless appetite for humanity to conquer Earth and all its territory, there is at least one animal species that is thriving in human environments – the coyote. These creatures are now present in every major US city, including New York City, and are multiplying faster and faster. Flores uses this as the backdrop for the story of the coyote, diving into mythology, biology, and history. If you have even a passing interest in Native American legends, biological quirks like coyotes breeding faster when hunted, and American wildlife control (the US government kills over 68,000 coyotes per year), this book is definitely worth reading.
My friend Eric Walsh recommended this book to me a couple years ago and I finally got around to reading it this year. I’m glad I did. I’ve never been into poetry but reading this book might have changed that. There are just some emotions better expressed through poetry than anything else.
The background provided in each section really helps too, as it provides context into Rumi’s life as well as historical background. There is some controversy over the accuracy of the translations by Coleman Barks as they are based on other translations, but that doesn’t change the impact this poetry will have on you.
I’m a sucker for books that make me look at the world differently. Saying Biocentrism makes you look at the world differently is an understatement. The central premise is that consciousness is not just a byproduct of our physical universe but instead, a fundamental part of its very existence. This is not to be confused with the “thinking mind” (the part of you that makes decisions and discussed in Elephant in the Brain). Biocentrism focuses more on the “I”, the fact that there is a conscious observer at all.
Perhaps surprisingly, I thought this book dovetailed nicely with The Simulation Hypothesis by Riz Virk. The Simulation Hypothesis, for those that aren’t familiar, argues that our reality is a simulation or a videogame. This hypothesis has been put forward most famously by Nick Bostrom and Elon Musk but Virk shows that the idea has been around for thousands of years. There are a lot of similarities between Simulation Theory and Biocentrism – both of which will have you looking at the world differently.
While I know all of these theories are just speculation (I don’t anticipate any of them being proven), they’re still fun to think about and explore.
This is another really fun work of fiction. Basically the entire book is a series of short stories, each of which tackles a different potential version of the afterlife. Each story will make you look at yourself and place in the universe differently. For example, in one story you find out God is a microbe and isn’t aware that you exist. In another, God decides to create a fully egalitarian system where everyone makes it to heaven, with unforeseen results. In another, people become background actors in other people’s dreams. The key to all of the stories is they can’t be disproven…or proven.
It’s a quirky book that was so much fun to read. And helps you realize that no one knows what’s going on in this crazy universe we live in.
Those are my picks for 2019. If you’ve read any of these books and have comments or if you have recommendations of your own, I’d love to hear them.