My favorite reads: 2018
Last year, I set out to read 52 books in 52 weeks (inspired by Nicole Zhu). This year, I dedicated myself to learning more, which meant “reading” more.
This year, I learned that Warren Buffett spends up to 5 hours a day reading. Now, I’m not quite there yet. But I firmly believe that acquiring a huge store of knowledge is what gives us interesting ideas. Our brains are weird, magical things: if we just pack enough facts in there, they’re recombine in ways we’d never expect to produce something new.
As a kid, I couldn’t get enough of books. I started reading before kindergarten (thank you, Dad, for reading to me every night and stoking my innate curiosity). I found every way I could to read more, even bringing them to restaurants and reading before the food came (yes, when I was with others). My dad was notorious for reading many books at a time, and wasn’t a particularly fast reader. I used to steal his books and try to read them before he noticed (I’m still not sure if he knew, but probably.)
Over the years, as reading for college, grad school, and work took over, I stopped reading for the sheer enjoyment of it, and stopped devoting the time to it I should. Then I decided to go back to my first love.
When I decided to read more books, specifically, there were a couple of reasons. First, in our fast news culture, so much is lost. Media rarely reports on the broader narrative that day-to-day events are a part of, and we lose understanding of our place in history. Second, I was worried that my social media use (mostly Twitter, let’s be honest) was training my brain to only focus in short bursts.
This year, I finished 76 complete books, reading in 3 different mediums: paper, Kindle, and Audible. Yes, I’m aware that some folks don’t consider Audible reading, but I get to make the rules. ;) Now, I couldn’t possibly review every book I’ve read this year, and genuinely don’t think I’d want to. I didn’t love everything I read this year, but thought it was worth writing down some thoughts about the ones I’d urge you to read.
My best of 2018
Mostly, random thoughts and brain dumps. But you should read these.
So You Wanna Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
Honestly, one of the best books on race I’ve read, period. She structured the book around the most common questions that folks have about race and racism, and it’s unsurprisingly meticulously researched and footnoted. But her biggest accomplishment in a breathtaking book is how approachable and understandable her prose is. I found myself sending copies to coworkers, friends, and Twitter followers. You probably should too.
Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economics, and Companies by Geoffrey West
This book is quite the opposite: extremely academic, but no less fascinating. His dive into how things grow and scale seemed for me to be foundational knowledge that seeped into how I saw many other things this year. It gave me a bit more existential dread re: climate change (don’t read the part about when bacteria takes up half the petri dish…), but this will likely increase my understanding of an uncountable number of phenomena in the years to come.
Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being by Martin Seligman
This was the year I said “Fuck it!” to happiness. It’s short, fleeting, and trying to chase it leads us down some very destructive paths. But wellness, that I could get behind. I love that this is evidence-based, and has simple practices that improve your overall mood and outlook on life. In a year and world where so much destruction and chaos feels out of our control, this has helped me immensely feel that I can impact my experience. It also dovetails nicely with my meditation practice and studying of Buddhism.
Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal With People Who Try to Control You by Patricia Evans
Perhaps the book that will change my life and work the most. This year, I’ve learned how I’ve consistently had relationships (of all sorts, not just romantic!) with people who are controlling, and I’ve struggled to set boundaries and not just “see the good” in people. This book helped me more deeply understand the psychology of controlling people, how they cannot ultimately be reasoned with to stop, and how I might avoid replicating those behaviors as I recover from my own trauma. If I could recommend 1 book this year, this would be it.
Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber
This probably spawned more discussions with my partner than anything else this year (yes, we debate capitalism for fun). While there’s something a bit off about his discussion of capitalism, flipping our frame on money on its head was a great intellectual experience. This was a recommendation from a colleague at work (thank you Ellie Day!!), and one of the best recommended books I read this year. It’s a doorstop, but worth it.
The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita
I didn’t want to like this book, and I didn’t want to agree with it. I’d read a lot of BDM’s papers in grad school, but this was a highly digestible take on why autocrats and democrats aren’t really that much different. Just the size of their constituencies are. I think it’s a useful take, but BDM’s purely rational choice model is a bit illogical to me: we know that homo economicus is not real, and I don’t think that the underlying assumptions are completely enough to describe what’s happening globally in politics.
The Complete Robot by Isaac Asimov
I’ve always been interested in fantasy, and this year was given a few gifts in the sci fi genre. This collection of short stories was incredibly fun. They felt like logic puzzles I actually enjoyed. The fact that the most accomplished character was a woman (with a few too many spinster tropes, but let’s remember when this was written) felt progressive. It’s a big book, but the short stories make it an easy “pick up and put down” read. Great for commuting.
Nepantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color by Christopher Soto
I’m very much *not* a poetry person, I told myself. This anthology made me realize that I just wasn’t into poetry about…baseball players (thanks, freshman English). While not all subject matter here dealt explicitly with race and/or queerness, the undercurrent felt familiar and warm. I’m looking to read more poetry in the new year, and seeing how it begins to reshape how I experience the world (and my own thoughts).
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Probably self explanatory. She comes across as measured, thoughtful, and kind. I got it on Audible so that I could listen to her read it. You should too.
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
My dad handed this to me on Christmas Eve, and I finished it within 24 hours. It reads like a spy thriller, but is based on a horrific true story of the murder of a huge number of people from the Osage tribe (located now in Oklahoma) for their oil wealth in the early 1900s. Especially given how hidden the outright genocide against our Indigenous populations is, this is an incredibly important book. If you liked Bad Blood or Over the Edge of the World (and you should!) pick this up immediately.