What is the point of writing a “best books of the year” list?
If you are Amazon or the New York Times — and if you are, how are you reading this, you enormous corporation? — you write the list because you expect that people will buy books from you, or at least listen to you, no matter what you recommend.
I do not expect either of those things to happen. At best, the person reading this might decide to look up a single free story on the internet, or check out a single book from the library.
Thus, I’ve sorted this list into a series of “bests”: a Best Graphic Novel for people who like those, a Best Book About Selling Stuff for people who like those, and so on. Whoever you are, I’d probably recommend many of these books to you. And some of them are free, including my #1 for the whole year!
If you’d like to see a list of every book I remember reading, check out my Goodreads account.
The Best Books of My 2014
Best List Of All The Books
Not in any particular order, save for #1.
- Worm (this year’s favorite) (free!)
- Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death (free!)
- Stories of Your Life (some of the stories are free online)
- A Path Appears
- Making Minds Less Well-Educated Than Our Own
- Poking a Dead Frog
- One More Thing
- The Motivation Hacker
- Mission in a Bottle
- Getting Everything You Can Out Of All You’ve Got
- Ogilvy on Advertising
- Building Stories
- The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
- The Charisma Myth
- Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead
Best Free Short Story
Written by James Tiptree Jr., who was actually a woman named Alice Sheldon.
That’s an interesting story and you should read it, but you should also read “Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death”, which is ~20 pages long and might haunt you for a long time. Highly recommended, especially if you agree with statements like “nature is brutal”, “evolution is cruel”, and “no one will save us from ourselves”.
Best Set of Essays By Someone Down-To-Earth
You’ve read author-doctor Atul Gawande before (if not, here you go, start anywhere). This is his first book, and it might be my favorite book of his, because he doesn’t sound confident. He’s not yet “the famous Atul Gawande” who can be published in The New Yorker whenever he wants. He’s just a young surgeon trying to make his way in a very confusing medical world.
This is perfect for people who like humility and people who are suspicious of their doctors. But I’m roughly neutral on both of those positions, and I still liked it.
Best Book That Will Make You A Better Person, Or At Least Make You Feel Better
Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl Wu-Dunn write 400 pages about how to improve the world, and you finish the book feeling as though the world can actually be improved, which doesn’t always happen with books like this.
Best of all, they actually tell you how you can improve the world. I’ve been interested in charity for a long time, but I still learned a lot. And while I don’t agree with the author on every policy they support, I will recommend this book to many friends.
Best Book I Already Reviewed
Best Book About Being Funny // Funniest Book About Being Good
Mike Sacks interviews a large number of funny writers and records the honest stories that are sometimes hard to find. Some of the subjects are modern masters who tell you how to be a better writer and/or get a job being funny; others are 90-year-old female comedy legends who talk about the time they rejected JFK (twice).
As you read this book, you’ll learn a lot about life and watch a lot of old Saturday Night Live skits on Yahoo, because it turns out that Yahoo owns SNL. Who knew?
Best Stories I Wish I Had Written
In one of my ideal lives, I am a famous DJ who becomes friends with Skrillex and convinces him to give his tour profits to charity.
In another one of my ideal lives, I am B.J. Novak, and I just published this book.
Novak takes the kinds of insane ideas people have in the shower — what if there were a Comedy Central roast of Nelson Mandela? — and implements them flawlessly, fifty times in a row. This is one of the books that is least like any other book that has ever been written. In a good way.
Best Book, If You Think Of Books As Investments
Nick Winter had a productive year. Here, he discusses several days from that year literally from start to finish. He also provides an excellent beginner’s guide to Beeminder, one of my favorite apps.
My favorite thing about this book — other than the fact that it cost $3 and increased my productivity by around 5% thereafter — is that Nick is a regular guy. You can write him emails and he will answer them. (I have, and he did.)
For all the good intentions of people like Tim Ferriss and Tony Robbins, you know that those gurus are doing things that you cannot do because you are not rich or ridiculously smart and charming. Nick Winter may be ridiculously smart and charming, for all I know, but he at least gives the impression of being approachable.
Best Book To Help You Understand Business
I read a lot of startup books — some good, some really bad — before I found this. It contains ~40 stories of what it is like to be an entrepreneur. It’s probably the most honest startup book I’ve seen; you learn about personal crisis, thieving suppliers, employee betrayal, undeserved good luck, and just about everything else that can happen to new companies no matter how great their products are.
This is the first book I would recommend to any person who wants to start a company. (There are two others: Jay Abraham’s book, which is next on this list, and The Lean Startup.)
Best Book About Selling Stuff
Jay Abraham is a strange guy. He likes to brag about how much he can convince companies to pay him in a single day. He is friends with a lot of people who get paid huge amounts of money for vague and sometimes contradictory advice. He is not one of those people.
He is, instead, a fire hose of ideas, some of which will be relevant to whatever you are selling. I photograph book pages when I want to remember something I’ve read; this had my highest photo-to-page ratio of 2014. Within the first five pages, Abraham convinced me that he is a genius. This is not easy to do.
Try the Amazon sample before you read the whole thing; it is extremely representative of the book.
Second-Best Book About Selling Stuff
David Ogilvy is one of the great marketing geniuses of the 20th century, and he also built a company that remains successful to this day. His secret? Using lots of numbers to test folk wisdom. Here, he shares those numbers with you and explains why people who say otherwise are wrong. Then he shows you a picture of the castle he owns in Scotland, in case you needed extra proof.
This gets “second-best” after Abraham because the idea density is lower and because there are many digressive stories some people won’t enjoy, but Ogilvy is a better writer than Abraham and includes lots of beautiful pictures. It was a close call.
Best Graphic Novel
This book comes inside a box and is not actually a book. It is actually a neighborhood full of characters who are as human as anyone in, say, a Tolstoy novel. You may have seen this book reviewed somewhere. The hype is accurate. You will remember these stories for a long time. This is the kind of book you pass along to your children as though it were an heirloom.
Best Stories That Are Worlds Unto Themselves
Many authors struggle for a lifetime to write a story that really feels like it’s being told by someone who never lived in this world. Ted Chiang has at least two of those in here, plus a few very good near-future stories, plus some fantasy deep enough to support a full-length novel of its own. When I think about what Chiang looks like, my mental image is a man floating above Earth in a space suit, writing with a pencil.
Perhaps his best story of all came out too late for this collection. You can read it for free right here.
Best Stories About Emotion
I started this book because I like one-sentence stories, and Davis writes those. She also writes 15-page stories without clear endings about people just sort of living their lives. I normally don’t like those at all. But I read this book on a train at night and had a moment where I looked out the window and saw houses and realized they were full of people who feel as deeply as I feel, and I began to love those people.
If you need more moments like that in your life, Lydia Davis can help.
Best Book For Shy People Who Want To Be Less Shy
Olivia Fox-Cabane is one of the few authors I really want to meet after reading their book. Partly to see how she takes her own advice, and partly because she sounds like the really cool big sister I never had. (Given the success of her consulting business, I suppose there are CEOs who feel the same way.)
This book had a significant impact on how confident I feel in social situations, even though I don’t practice nearly as often as Fox-Cabane recommends. If you’ve read a lot of cheesy “be more confident” articles online and you’re wary of the entire genre, don’t worry; The Charisma Myth doesn’t have very much in common with those.
Best Interviews With Celebrities
I don’t read gossip magazines, and I can’t recognize the faces of most well-known actors, but I can’t get enough of a certain kind of celebrity interview — namely, the kind that Neil Strauss practices.
This book contains 100 or so famous people with very unusual lives putting those lives, and the personalities that have been shaped by those lives, on display. (My blog has a tag called “The Lives of Others”, which was inspired by the existence of stories like these, where you get a glimpse into what it’s like to exist in a totally different world than the one in which you live.)
One line from the Amazon preview serves as a fair sample of the material:
Do you ever think about—
MADONNA: Do I think about dying? Is that what you were going to ask?
No, but that’s a better question than I was going to ask.
MADONNA: (Answers her own question)
Best Thing I Read All Year, Period.
Wildbow is the pen name of one of the world’s most talented genre fiction authors. Writing a web serial in his spare time, he produced the equivalent of one novel every two months, and the result was the most realistic superhero story I’ve ever seen.
The characters are smart and make rational decisions; those decisions have meaningful consequences; there are so few plot holes that there may not actually be plot holes. I lost a lot of sleep reading this over the last year, perhaps because I read it three times.
To quote one reviewer:
People think about their powers. They fight to win. They’re not omniscient and sometimes they overlook things, but they learn from their mistakes. They use their powers in intelligent, innovative, and sometimes hideously creative ways. In a genre saturated with contrived circumstances, plot-holes, and “why didn’t he just” moments, Worm delivers a believable narrative about intelligent, motivated people fighting for high stakes with superhuman tools.
If you like superhero stories, fanfiction, science fiction, or urban fantasy, this should be near the top of your list. If none of those appeal to you, Worm is still worth a try, though you have my permission to give up at some point.
The first “arc” may seem a bit slow. But Wildbow becomes a better writer as the story goes along, and that is thrilling to watch. I actually think about aspects of my own life and philosophy using Worm metaphors sometimes. I’m struggling to put my appreciation into words. You should just read the story.