1) If you give the same book to 100 people, they’ll read 100 different books.
2) We’re constantly changing, rewiring, shedding our old cells, so if you re-read a book, it will be a different book from the one you read before.
Notes on the art of reading books.
1) If you give the same book to 100 people, they’ll read 100 different books.
2) We’re constantly changing, rewiring, shedding our old cells, so if you re-read a book, it will be a different book from the one you read before.
I read so many good books this year, but here are 15 favorites:
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death
Earlier this year Postman’s son Andrew wrote an op-ed with the title, “My dad predicted Trump in 1985 — it’s not Orwell, he warned, it’s Brave New World.” Postman wrote: “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.”
Lao Tzu & Ursula K. Le Guin, Tao Te Ching
Every one of these poems reads like a subtweet of the president. Le Guin’s footnotes are great, too: In response to “having a lot of things, a lot of money: / shameless theives. / Surely their way / isn’t the way,” she writes, “So much for capitalism.”)
David Eagleman, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
An imaginative, extremely readable book of short stories. I read at the very beginning of the year and it has stuck with me. (I think about these two afterlives a lot.)
Tove Jansson, The Summer Book
All of Jansson’s work makes me want to move to Finland and live on an island. Less fanciful than my beloved Moomin comics, these stories have an undercurrent of sorrow to them. Really gorgeous book.
Laura Dassow Walls, Henry David Thoreau: A Life
There’s been a lot of anti-Thoreau sentiment in the past years (heck, Kathryn Schulz published an article in the New Yorker called “Pond Scum”), and I didn’t even think I liked Thoreau, but Walls does a beautiful job of painting a portrait of a writer who was deeply rooted in and connected to his place, who tried his best to carve out a “deliberate” life for himself. (Pair it with NYRB’s reader edition of Thoreau’s journal, which I’ve been reading daily.)
Tamara Shopsin, Arbitrary Stupid Goal
Certainly my favorite book cover of the year, the graphic designer’s memoir drops you right into a kid’s eye view of 1970s Greenwich Village. With it’s chunked sections and hand-drawn illustrations, it gave me the same kind of quick, skippy joy I get when reading Vonnegut.
Stefan Zweig, Montaigne
Zweig wrote this before his suicide, while exiled in Brazil during World War II. To get Montaigne, Zweig said, “you should not be too young, too deprived of experience and life’s deceptions, and it is precisely a generation like ours, cast by fate into the cataract of the world’s turmoil, to whom the freedom and consistency of his thought conveys the most precious aid.”
Alan Jacobs, How To Think
I read this book twice: first, when Alan asked for a blurb, and second, when I offered to interview him at Bookpeople upon its publication. It’s a brisk, 150-page plea for sanity. Alan is a rare writer: one who not only genuinely loves to write books, but also genuinely loves teaching.
Sarah Manguso, 300 Arguments
I had a couple of magical Manguso readings this year: On a summer trip to San Francisco, I bought this in the morning at Christopher’s Books in Potrero, and then read most of it later that afternoon in the Yerba Buena Gardens. Later in the year, I found a used copy of Ongoingness: The End of A Diary in a market in Antigua, Guatemala, and read that in one sitting, too.
Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell, The Disaster Artist
I’ve been watching The Room for years, and I first read Bissell on the subject in Magic Hours. This was a total behind-the-scenes trip, and it is no surprise to me that the movie based on it has gotten great reviews. (I still haven’t seen it.)
Walter Murch, In the Blink of an Eye
A short, brilliant book about film editing that has quite a few lessons for writers, too. (It would make an excellent companion to Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies.) I first read about Murch in Lawrence Weschler’s book about his adventures in astrophysics, Waves Passing In The Night, which I picked randomly off my local library’s New Arrivals shelf.
Norman Brosterman, Inventing Kindergarten
This is not only a beautifully produced illustrated history of Friedrich Froebel’s institution, it also presents a compelling case that kindergarten influenced the origins of abstract art and modern architecture. (The juxtaposition of children’s art with paintings and blueprints reminds me of David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge.)
Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living
I learned about this 1937 bestseller while reading Will Schwalbe’s Books For Living. It’s basically a book about the ancient Chinese art of chilling out and living a good life. (One thing: If you pick it up, just skip chapter 8 and Lin Yutang’s sexist views.) The book celebrates other writers who got me through the year — Thoreau, Whitman, Lao Tzu. I find it fitting that the only other person I knew who’d ever read it was the late Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who said in 2010, “If you read 1 book this year… make it this… no words to describe.)
David Sedaris, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls
I read this one, then I read his collected diaries, Theft By Finding, and then I read the visual compendium, which might have even been the most interesting of the three books, but I’m listing this one because it’s hilarious, although with the interstitial fiction bits, it’s sort of like one of those classic 90s hip-hop albums where you skip the “skit” tracks.
Eve Babitz, Slow Days, Fast Company
I love reading and thinking about Los Angeles, and I love writing that’s smart and trashy, so I liked this a lot.
Okay, jeez, it was a good reading year, so here are 15 more:
Phew! If you need them, here are some tips for reading more.
I’m working on my 2017 year-end list. (Above list is from September, so no spoilers.) 3 years ago I got up on a high horse about how ridiculous it is for readers who aren’t professional critics (or affiliate bloggers) to make their year-end lists before the actual end of the year. (Do none of these people read books in December?) It’s a dumb thing to make a big deal about. People love year-end lists before the year’s end (including me, honestly) because they can see what they missed, argue, add to their Christmas lists, buy and write-off their taxes while they still can. It’s mostly harmless, so who cares?
I’ve been keeping a list of my favorite books for over a decade now, and the question on my mind is whether I should bother making a year-end list at all. I mean, I love sharing books I think deserve an audience — it’s the best part of putting out my weekly newsletter — but I’ve begun to weary of ranking books. (My favorite year-end list features no ranking at all: Steven Soderbergh’s media diary.) Reading is such a unique, personal experience, created by the author’s text, the quality of the printing (or e-device), the setting, and the mind (and mood) of the reader. Ranking books in any way, even by gathering up a top ten list, seems, at best, arbitrary, at worst, harmful to the spirit of what makes reading so awesome.
Still, I love a good list, and I love looking back on the year and making a list. I’ve always thought the best lists are more like a diary or a snapshot of a moment in somebody’s life, like John Porcellino’s Top 40 he’ll put in the back of King-Cat:
Reading JP’s lists give you another glimpse into who he is, beyond his comics. (For the past 3 years, I’ve ripped him off with my year-end top 100 lists.)
So I’ll keep on, but I’m going to try, as best as I can, to acknowledge that each of these lists is just a moment in time, just a snapshot of how I feel when I make them. I love the idea of the year-end list as an “interchangeable set of favorites” in the words of Stephanie Zacharek, who wrote of her year-end list: “If I’d eaten something different for breakfast on the day of making up the list, my number 2 might have been number 1, or vice-versa.”
One other thing: I’d like to go back occasionally, revisit my lists, see how they hold up. I’ll usually make a top 10 list of books, and then add on another list of 10 more good books. Often it’s this second list of books that contains the most interesting stuff. To quote Zacharek again:
[T]he end of a critic’s, or a moviegoer’s, list is where the oddball magic really happens. The movies here are the stragglers, the drifters, the hobos that not all of society loves. These are movies that may have been kicked off the list, put back on and kicked off again – they don’t ask for easy membership in any club. These are movies that may have reached us in ways we can’t quite parse, even after we’ve spent hours or days thinking and/or writing about them. If all top-10 lists are subjective (and all are, no matter how pompous some critics may be in presenting their choices), the tail end of the average list is truly the untamed wilderness, the place for inexplicable passions, for wooliness, for massive quantities of “What the f—itude?”
So, let’s have a little fun at the end of this post, and revisit a few years:
2015. Great year. No complaints!
2006-2010. Too painful to think about!
Stay tuned for 2017.
Since for the past year I have been thinking about seasons, seasonal time, moon phases, etc., here’s Chang Ch’ao from the 17th century, writing in his book, Sweet Dream Shadows, about what you should read during each season, translated by Lin Yutang, in his book, The Importance of Living:
One should read the classics in winter, because then one’s mind is more concentrated; read history in the summer, because one has more time; read the ancient philosophers in autumn, because they have such charming ideas; and read the collected works of later authors in spring, because then Nature is coming back to life.
As a bonus, here’s Ch’ao on what you should do on a rainy day, depending on the season: “A rainy day in spring is suitable for reading; a rainy day in summer is suitable for playing chess, a rainy day in autumn is suitable for going over things in the trunks or in the attic; and a rainy day in winter is suitable for drinking.”
Last night I was reading a new book by a writer I admire and a voice in my head kept asking, “How? How is he so good?” and another voice kept replying, “Because, he’s lived longer, thought harder, and written more than you, you buffoon.” (Factoring out in-born talent, of course.)
It reminded me of Junot Diaz, who, when pressed for advice, said, “Read more than you write, live more than you read.”
10 books I loved this year, in no particular order:
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
I loved this novel, which runs on the voice of the main character, an old preacher named John Ames, who is writing a letter to his seven-year-old son about his life and struggles with his faith. Beautiful book.
Ursula Franklin, The Real World of Technology
A series of radio lectures given in 1989, and yet, 100% relevant to today, as we face the rise of techno-fascism. A book and a thinker I wish more people knew about.
Olivia Laing, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone
A terrific hybrid of memoir and art writing — I particularly loved the sections on David Wojnarowicz and the AIDS crisis.
Steve Silberman, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity
A fascinating history that includes everything from Nazis to Tesla to Rain Man. A ton here relevant to education and parenting kids who think differently.
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America
Some people question how much of this travelogue is true, but who the hell really cares when the writing is so delicious? Steinbeck himself wrote about the impossibility of capturing a nation based on one trip.
Tom Hart, Rosalie Lightning
A devastating comics memoir about losing a toddler, using art to sort through your life, and the struggle of being an artist with a family in America. Amazing feat.
John Holt, How Children Learn
Holt’s work, first published in 1967, had more of an impact on how I parent and how I think about education than any other book I read this year. His message is simple: children are learning animals, and the best way to teach them is to trust them and get out of their way. Still feels radical.
Chris Offutt, My Father, The Pornographer
Offutt’s memoir about his upbringing and his dad’s writing career also functions as a kind of cautionary tale of working from home and making a living from your art. Really great writing.
Jon Klassen, The Hat Trilogy
It’s tough to hit that sweet spot in the venn diagram of books kids love that adults love to read, and it’s just as to tough to wrap up a beloved trilogy. I spent a lot of bedtimes reading these books.
Joy Williams, Ninety-Nine Stories of God
A weird, wonderful batch of super-short stories. Perfect pre-dream reading.
Here are 15 more books I liked, all of which could’ve easily made my top 10:
“If a book is tedious to you, don’t read it; that book was not written for you.”
—Jorge Luis Borges
Supposedly, a young man once stopped Borges on the street and told him how disappointed he was with the writer’s latest book. “Oh, that’s okay,” Borges said. “It wasn’t written for you.”
I’m a big fan of the phrase “it wasn’t for me” when asked about books (and music and TV and movies and so forth) that I didn’t get into.
I like the phrase because it’s essentially positive: it assumes that there are books for me, but this one just wasn’t one of them. It also allows me to tell you how I felt about a book without precluding the possibility that you might like it, or making you feel stupid or put down if you did like it.
“It just wasn’t for me.” No big deal.
The wonderful thing is that “me” is always changing. Every day you’re a different you. So when you say, “It wasn’t for me,” maybe it’s not for the “me” right now—maybe it’s for the “me” in the future.
Connecting with a book is so much about being the right reader in the right place at the right time. You have to feel free to skip things, move on, and maybe even come back later.
And you have to feel free to say, “It wasn’t for me.”
Here’s a short list of tips that have helped me form good reading habits over the years. Share it as much as you like. You can also download a printer-friendly version and hang it in your workspace or classroom.
And to keep you on track, here’s a wallpaper for your phone:
See also: 33 thoughts on reading
Tove Jansson, Moomin: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition
No book gave me more pleasure this year. When my son Owen was born, all I seemed to be able to read was oldNancy comics. After my son Jules was born, it was Moomin. These comics are so, so wonderful. They belong in everyone’s library.
Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
A book that made me rethink the way I operate online. You know this is an important book because it seems like every week there’s an additional chapter to be written in it. Ronson’s writing is smart and hugely entertaining — if I hadn’t already read Shamed, The Psychopath Test probably would’ve been on this list, too.
James Sturm, Market Day
A beautiful comic about the struggle of the artist to produce work of value in a market economy.
Dave Hickey, Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy
Some of the best writing about art and culture I’ve ever read. My highlights.
Sally Mann, Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs
Mann is that rare master of both pictures and words, and her memoir shows off that mastery: the visual images are perfectly woven into the text to tell her story. My highlights.
Sarah Ruhl, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write
Short essays about making art and raising children, and the interesting ways that one influences and provides insight into the other. I really liked it. My highlights.
I read this book to my son so many times this year I couldn’t count. Fantastic illustrations, weird and bizarre. A modern fairy tale.
T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
A classic book of poems to read when you’re traveling, or moving from one place to the next. (When aren’t we?) My highlights.
A perfectly-executed book in form and content. My highlights.
Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity
Joe Hill called this “the Moby-Dick of parenting books,” and he’s right: it’s too-long and it takes forever to get through, but you get taken somewhere, and you’re really glad you read it. I would lie in bed at the end of the day, exhausted, listening to my loud newborn honk and coo and wheeze and snore in the next room, read about the struggles of all the parents and their stories in the book, and I’d think, “Shit, man, I can handle tomorrow.”
Jenny Offill, Dept. Of Speculation
A wonderful novel about art, marriage, and motherhood that you can read it in one sitting. My highlights.
James Marshall, George and Martha: The Complete Stories of Two Best Friends
When you find books you love reading to your kid as much as they love being read to from, you know you’ve got something special. These books are perfect in format, and so much fun.
David Allen, Getting Things Done
“One of these things is not like the other…” A productivity classic for a reason. I went out and bought a filing cabinet after reading. My highlights.
Corita Kent and Jan Steward, Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit
A wonderful book about making art that deserves a better cover, better production value, and probably a re-release. My highlights.
Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
I don’t think this one hit me the way it hit some readers I know, but it’s very good, with a really smart system of quotation, and a good, solid ending.My highlights.
Oliver Sacks, On The Move
Messy and loses a little steam at the end, but it’s incredibly readable, and just a tad smutty at times, which is pretty delightful. Damn, what a life! (My highlights.)
John Seabrook, The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory
If you’ve suspected lately that you’re not just old and pop music really is getting worse, Seabrook does a great job of explaining why. My highlights.
Mary Karr, The Art Of Memoir
Hey, it’s a Mary Karr book, so there was a helluva lot of underlining. She sure can write a sentence. (My highlights.)
I don’t know why these books work for me — they’re like stumbling on the Twitter feed of the most fascinating art buff, and scrolling and scrolling, but yet, they build and build towards something. I read them at night, and they put me into a kind of hypnotic state. (I got through about 20-30 pages until I fell asleep.) I consider these one big book and would love to see a collected edition of all four.
In no particular order, here are 20 personal favorites…
Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
The perfect blend of subject matter (dealing with aging parents), an artist at the top of her game, and audience (boomers dealing with aging parents, millennials watching their parents deal with aging parents, etc.) For everyone with parents.
Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples, Saga
A book about parenting disguised as an intergalactic space epic. Especially great for new parents, and a perfect reason to visit your local comic book shop.
P.G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves
No book made me laugh more this year. An absolute delight. If you’ve never read Wodehouse, this is where to start.
Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk
Trashy, gross, and awesome. For the snot-nosed punk in your life.
Carl Wilson, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste
John Green, The Fault In Our Stars
A “YA’ book supposedly for teenagers, recommended to me, believe it or not, by a middle-aged man, that made me cry on two separate plane flights.
Ken Grimwood, Replay
What would happen if you got to live your life over? A dark precursor to Groundhog Day.
Denis Johnson, Train Dreams
A short dream-like novella, perfect for reading in one long sitting.
Worth reading just for the playlist it’ll generate, but also for Questlove’s encyclopedic musical knowledge and thoughts on art-making and show business.
John Williams, Stoner
Every person I talk to about this book says the same thing:Why is it so good? It shouldn’t be so good. The prose is so clear and the story so streamlined that it just goes by. Definitely one I’ll be re-reading.
Neil Gaiman, The Sandman (complete series)
Very rich, and definitely a series I’ll be re-reading. The writing is mostly better than the art, which is downright spotty and confusing in spots (except for McKean’s consistently brilliant covers). A classic for a reason.
Paul Zollo, Songwriters on Songwriting
The title says it all: tons of interviews with great songwriters. Perfect for songwriters, duh, but also great for any writer, as many interviews dive into the creative process.
Mankoff writes about his history as a cartoonist, his time as cartoon editor of theNew Yorker, and how humor works. Really smart, perfect for cartoon geeks and New Yorker fans. (My highlights.)
Joshua Wolf Shenk, Powers of Two
Steven Johnson, How We Got To Now
Histories of key technologies that led to modern life as we know it. A great, fully illustrated, deluxe followup to his wonderful Where Good Ideas Come From.
Adam Sternbergh, Shovel Ready
Fun, terse, sci-fi hard-boiled noir. A perfect example of the kind of the book that happens when somebody sits down and writes what they want to read.
Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
A memoir disguised as a book of advice columns. For anyone struggling. (Who isn’t?)
Joe Hill, NOS4A2
Creepy. Oh, so creepy. This book is crazy because around page 300 or so you realize this is usually the point where other novelists would wrap things up, and holy shit, there’s another two acts to go.
Wendy MacNaughton, Meanwhile in San Francisco
Wendy is the artist friend whose work makes me the most jealous. Beautiful book.
Lynda Barry, Syllabus – LB’s workshop syllabi collected into a book that feels like one of her students’ composition books. Perfect for teachers and wannabe writers.
And here are 20 more very good books, in no particular order (if history is precedent, and Stephanie Zacharek is right that the end of lists like this is where the “oddball magic happens,” in a few years, many of the books in my top 20 will seem dull to me later, while many of the following books will shine, and beg to be re-read):
Feel free to reply to me with your favorite book(s) you read this year, or better yet, make your own post and send me the link: @austinkleon
My previous year-end round-ups: 2006-2014.