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:
- Ian Svenonius, Censorship Now!!
- Warren Craghead, TrumpTrump: Volume 1
- Emil Ferris, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters
- Tim Kreider, I Wrote This Book Because I Love You
- Damon Krukowski, The New Analog
- George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo
- Mohsin Hamid, Exit West
- Robert Louis Stevenson, An Apology for Idlers
- Paul Karasik & Mark Newgarden, How To Read Nancy
- David Rakoff, Half Empty
- Andrew Epstein, Attention Equals Life
- Ellen Ullman, Life In Code
- William Finnegan, Barbarian Days
- Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (read out loud with my son, Owen)
- Roberts & Kastner, eds., Nina Katchadourian: Curiouser
Phew! If you need them, here are some tips for reading more.