I read about 125 books this year, and these are the ones that come to mind when I think of the word “best”. They are very different, and you won’t like all of them, but they all do something well.
To quote my book-review post from last year:
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!
For a list of every book I remember reading, check out my Goodreads account.
Best List of All the Books
These are in alphabetical order, save for the first four, which I liked most of all.
- The Neapolitan Quartet (series, all four books)
- The Book of Disquiet
- Negima! Magister Negi Magi
- A Civil Action
- Azumanga Daioh
- Behind the Beautiful Forevers
- Digger (free!)
- Great (free!)
- Gone Girl
- Parable of the Sower
- Strangers Drowning
- Strong Female Protagonist (free!)
- The Road to Wigan Pier (free!)
- The Vision of the Anointed
- The Yale Book of Quotations
- Them: Adventures with Extremists
- We Learn Nothing
Best Book About the Big Picture: Sapiens
Yuval Harari’s masterpiece has a subtitle: “A Brief History of the Human Race”. The first chapter is titled “An Animal of No Significance”. The last is “The End of Homo Sapiens”.
Sapiens tells our story, from the microbial origin to dreams of a distant future. There aren’t many names or dates; the author’s focus is on fundamental shifts in the way we were able to live, from sharper bones to faster boats.
The writing is beautiful. The protagonists are inspiring (you’re one of them). And an important central idea is something I’ve never seen expressed so cleanly: That the discipline of history isn’t living up to its full potential until it learns to track the progress of our emotional well-being. Are we happier than we were 30,000 years ago? Or in the 17th century? How can we know? How can we become happier?
I’m starting to go off on a tangent; it’s tempting to keep talking about this book for as long as I can possibly hold your attention. It’s my favorite book of the year, and it’s the best $5 you can spend on Kindle Cloud Reader. Buy it.
Best Book(s) About the Small Picture: The Neapolitan Quartet
These are four very traditional novels: One protagonist telling her own story over the course of sixty years. She also tells the story of her best friend Lina Cerullo, one of the most convincing smart characters ever written onto a page.
“Elena Ferrante”, the pen name of the author, writes about the lives of women in a patriarchal world (mid-century Italy) with brutal honesty. You hear her stories of poor, uneducated characters, and it’s as though you grew up with them, in the same circumstances. Ferrante makes marrying the son of the middle-class grocer in your neighborhood sound more thrilling than any romance in a Jane Austen novel.
But while the writing is wonderful (these books are #2 through #5 in my most-highlighted books of the year), Lina Cerullo is the key to the series. She is the smartest person in the neighborhood — perhaps in all of Italy — and we know this because Ferrante makes us feel it.
It’s hard to write a convincing genius, but Ferrante avoids the usual pitfalls (nobody plays chess or writes equations on a blackboard). Lina’s brilliance develops in a hundred small moments throughout the quartet, as she twists people and situations to her own advantage and changes her small, constrained world for the better. She makes Ender Wiggin and Hermione Granger look like cardboard cutouts. And unlike Ender or Hermione, she lives in a place where being “smart” offers no clear advantage — which makes her combination of Neapolitan street smarts and Napoleonic strategy all the more thrilling to watch.*
*It’s hard to tell whether Napoleon was actually good at strategy, but there’s no good way to make “Carl von Clausewitz” into an adjective.
Best Book About Nothing: The Book of Disquiet
“My life: A tragedy booed off stage my the gods, never getting beyond the first act.”
This is my most-highlighted book of the year. It is about a man who avoids interacting with other people whenever possible, lives for the sake of his daydreams, and would rather not be alive at all — less because he feels depressed than because life is boring.
I… still don’t understand why I like this book as much as I do. I’m not much for nihilism, and this could be a textbook on nihilist philosophy. But the narrator is a very optimistic nihilist; he finds pleasure in absurdity, and contentedly observes the happiness of others without wishing them ill.
The book is endlessly quotable, and I’ll soon put all my favorite passages online. For now, I’ll say that reading The Book of Disquiet is like playing with a monochrome kaleidoscope: Everything is a dreary shade of gray, but what you see is an ever-shifting landscape of gray, never the same pattern twice, and you could watch for hours without getting bored.
Best Intensely Frustrating Book: Negima!
It’s hard to know what to say about a series that features over two dozen compelling, memorable characters while also showing most of those characters in their underwear.
There’s no getting around it: Negima!, a manga series about a ten-year-old boy wizard (Negi) who teaches English and magic to a class of Japanese high-schoolers, contains ridiculous amounts of fanservice — that is, underage girls (with adult proportions) swimming in pools, getting their clothes blown off by gusts of wind, and so on. (Negi is also PG-13 naked for a few panels in many of the early chapters.)
This makes it really hard to recommend. I almost cut it from the list entirely. But if you ignore/flip past the fanservice, you’ll find one of the greatest stories ever told in cartoon form. Despite starting with a few stumbling chapters of high-school misadventure, Negima! soon embarks on a series of epic quests, filled with clever writing and character development and interesting combat scenes and difficult moral decisions. (After one chapter-long debate between a hero and a villain, I spent a few minutes just staring off into space, trying to figure out whose side I was on — and I couldn’t decide, which is a rare thing indeed.)
I could rant about the virtues of the series for pages. Nearly every girl in Negi’s class of thirty has her own arc, chock-full of meaningful character development. The “villains” are complex characters with worthy motives, who in some cases may be doing more good than the heroes. The non-magical characters react with appropriate confusion to the strangeness of their world. The jokes are hilarious. There’s a chaste, adorable lesbian romance. There’s this panel, which sums up my entire worldview:
And the fanservice almost ruins the whole thing. It’s more the fault of the manga business than the author — he makes plenty of self-mocking jokes about his obligation to feature half-naked characters. Still, it’s completely understandable if you decide never to pick this up.
(For more on the issues/rewards of reading the series, I recommend this review.)
Best Boring Book: A Civil Action
A Civil Action is about a lawsuit and involves a lot of paperwork. Imagine a John Grisham novel— flamboyant lawyer, interesting case, copious attention to detail — but with all the boring parts left in, and without a happy ending.
I think the boredom factor makes the book better: It’s easy, when you think about laws and regulations, to forget that our legal system is extremely complicated, and that high-profile “simple”, “obvious” cases are seldom simple or obvious. I learned a lot from reading A Civil Action, and while some parts dragged, that helped me get into the mind of the lawyer protagonist, whose life was similarly dull and difficult while he slaved over this case.
Read this book before you apply to law school.
Best Comic Strip: Azumanga Daioh
I think of Azumanga Daioh as the Japanese Peanuts. It’s about a group of students, each with one defining character trait, living their lives without much help from adults. It is laugh-out-loud funny, but doesn’t shy away from the cruelty and confusion of childhood.
You can finish the series in a single day, but by the time you finish, you might feel as though you’ve been reading it for years. The characters find themselves in the same situations over and over again, and this gives the comic a timeless feel. Sakaki will successfully pet a cat as soon as Charlie Brown kicks the football. Osaka’s bizarre ideas are about as helpful as Lucy’s psychiatric advice. Chiyo has the same incorruptible spirit as Linus. And Kiyohiko Azuma has the good-humored wisdom of Charles Schultz in his prime.
That said, you might still enjoy this even if you’re not a fan of Peanuts! You can try the series here.
Best Books About Poverty: Behind the Beautiful Forevers // The Road to Wigan Pier
I read these back-to-back, but I’m only now realizing how similar they are. Each book covers a different place and time — Depression-era England for Wigan Pier, modern India for Beautiful Forevers — but the settings have a lot in common. Poor people are trod upon both by the wealthy and by other poor people. The day-to-day facts of an average life, presented in sufficient detail, seem almost unbearable to readers in the developed world. If you grew up in either place, you’d spend your time eating bad food, falling sick due to malnutrition and poor hygiene, and probably working with your hands in a polluted area.
The books do have some important differences. George Orwell (Wigan Pier) includes a long essay on socialism, which he unconvincingly presents as a reasonable solution to most of the problems he’s found. Katherine Boo (Beautiful Forevers) mostly reports on what she sees without recommending any particular change (not a bad thing, since the Indian situation is very complicated). Orwell spends time in many places and doesn’t interact with any one person for long, while Boo embeds herself in a single neighborhood and carefully develops her characters. Orwell is the better writer, and Boo is the better journalist.
As someone who tries to give a lot of money away, I want to learn as much as I can about the lives of the people I might be supporting. Since I’m writing this on a laptop in a room the size of an average house in the Mumbai slum, in the middle of a wealthy American city, books might be the best way for me to do that. If you have similar goals and a similar lifestyle, I recommend these books especially highly.
(I also recommend this review of Beautiful Forevers.)
Best Epic Fantasy: Digger
Redwall meets Lord of the Rings meets Terry Pratchett, with the virtues of all three and very few of the vices. Digger ought to be a thousand times more popular. You can help that happen by reading it now (for free).
In this series (the length of several graphic novels), a smart, stubborn wombat goes on an adventure, makes friends of many species, and kicks a lot of ass. Did I mention the wombat? She is the first fictional animal I’ve ever wanted to marry. She actually reminds me of my fiance, which means I picked a good fiance.
The art and dialogue are terrific, but something else sets Digger apart: With the possible exception of the humans, every person in Digger has a story to tell, and a life outside the story, and a deep concern for their own goals and well-being. How often do you see a side character abandon a quest because “I like you guys, but I actually have other stuff to do”? Not often enough.
Best Story That Is Impossible to Describe: Great
You can read it for free, and it gets going very quickly — you’ll know whether you like it after your first fifteen minutes. You can finish in a few hours. You’ll remember it for a long time after.
Best Airport Thriller: Gone Girl
I flew a lot this year, and this was the best book I read on an airplane. (I don’t read many thrillers, so I was completely unprepared for the various twists.)
Gone Girl is a paragon of its genre, with just enough literary flair to keep my attention when the action slowed. If you are stranded in an airport with nothing to read, this will be in the airport bookstore and you should buy it instead of a magazine.
Best Dystopia: Parable of the Sower
When writers cover the end of the world, the world generally ends for some dramatic reason — zombie plague, nuclear exchange, Old Gods, etc.
Parable of the Sower posits a new form of apocalypse; an apocalypse where, for no apparent reason, people begin to treat each other badly, become suspicious of strangers, and give up on government and religion and any other ties that bind, until all of our contracts fall apart and we become a society of lone wolves.
Parable continually escalates this great Coming Apart, the collapse accelerating from the first page to the last. It’s like Octavia Butler took my favorite parts of Atlas Shrugged, cut the other 700 pages, and added a narrator whose superpower is competence. Despite the calming presence of that narrator, this book might be the scariest I read this year. Highly recommended.
Best Book About Good People: Strangers Drowning
Larissa MacFarquhar conducts long-form interviews with a series of people who are either:
- Going beyond the call of duty to help other people, or
- Behaving in accordance with “the call of duty”, and it’s the rest of us who are doing something wrong
It’s not that simple, of course — there might be a wide expanse of morality between “saint” and “sinner” — but MacFarquhar doesn’t shy away from the possibility that we feel a natural but unfair aversion to people whose moral behavior puts ours to shame.
This interesting point aside, the book is written well, and the subjects are all very different. One abandons her life of comfort to distribute birth control in Nicaragua; another gives up his free time to stop his fellow Japanese from committing suicide; a third adopts over a dozen children and works tirelessly to raise them well.
What her subjects have in common: They’re all seen something wrong in the world, and responded in a fashion that felt natural at the time. Even if few of us have such expansive moral instincts, we can surely learn from people who feel compelled to help complete strangers — after all, most of the people we’re in a position to help are complete strangers. If you’re looking to spend some time this year thinking about your own morality, Strangers Drowning might be the best thing you could read.
Best Book About “Bad People”: Them: Adventures with Extremists
Jon Ronson’s book is close to the opposite of Strangers Drowning. He doesn’t interview serial killers, but he does hang out with British jihadists, reptile-possession conspiracy theorists, and the Grand Wizard of the (reformed) Ku Klux Klan. Unsurprisingly, he finds that all of his subjects are people just like you and me — people trying, in their own minds, to fix problems and reveal important truths.* Most of them are delusional, but then, aren’t we all?
Well, we aren’t as delusional as the reptile-possession conspiracy theorists, but much of this book still resonated with me. And some of the extremists’ most prominent talking points contain a surprising amount of truth: the Bilderberg Group meets a lot of important politicians before they get famous, Ruby Ridge was the government’s fault, and Ronald Reagan really was part of a club that performs ritual cremation in front of an owl statue in the middle of the woods. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
*They also do a lot of damage to the world — these are not especially nice people. Ronson doesn’t sugar-coat their worst desires and beliefs. But he does at least take them seriously, which is an important part of actually learning about them.
Best Political Book: The Vision of the Anointed
I’m not especially liberal, but almost everything I read is liberal — I’ve struggled to find modern conservative writers whose styles really work for me.
Thomas Sowell is an exception. I learned a lot of surprising things about the United States from this book, all of them written in clear, evidence-driven language without fluff.
The Vision of the Anointed is a useful reminder of how we ought to react to claims about policy: “Really? How do you know? What’s happened when we did something like this in the past? Are we sure the changes were caused by the policy? Does the data support the conventional wisdom in this case?”
This is the kind of logic you can get from a lot of blogs nowadays (Slate Star Codex and The Incidental Economist come to mind), but Sowell does it especially well, and from a conservative perspective, which makes this a useful book for liberals and centrists and people like me who have no idea what category they are.
Which isn’t to say that Sowell has no bias — his goal is to find fault with liberal claims and policies, and he often ignores the foibles of his allies. But the same is true for almost any liberal writer you’ll find, and Sowell is a fine counterpoint.
Best Essays: We Learn Nothing
Tim Kreider’s collection feels like a good conversation at a party — the kind where you’re talking to someone you’ve just met in the corner of the room, and you’ll never see each other again, and no one else can hear you, so you’re free to reveal the things you’ve always thought but haven’t been able to say.
Take “Escape from Pony Island”. Kreider writes about a friend who becomes obsessed with the idea that Peak Oil is imminent, and that anyone who doesn’t plan ahead will likely die in the resulting collapse of civilization. This friend brings up Peak Oil at every opportunity, and makes a very convincing case that Kreider and all his other friends are in terrible danger. Kreider can’t figure out how to prove his friend wrong, and suspects his friend might actually be right. But instead of stockpiling cans in his basement, he decides to just stop listening to his friend, because the real cost of being annoyed is harder to pay than the hypothetical cost of a terrible death.
Any other writer would talk about “expert consensus” or make some other excuse for not stockpiling cans. Kreider simply admits that he did something “irrational” because he didn’t care enough to do otherwise. This is the kind of honesty which fills up We Learn Nothing and is hard to find anywhere else.
Also, the back-cover summary is quite good:
In We Learn Nothing, satirical cartoonist Tim Kreider turns his funny, brutally honest eye to the dark truths of the human condition, asking big questions about human-sized problems: What if you survive a brush with death and it doesn’t change you? Why do we fall in love with people we don’t even like? How do you react when someone you’ve known for years unexpectedly changes genders?
This is very much a book of “big questions”, and though Kreider doesn’t always have the right answers, he has original answers. Also, he draws funny cartoons to go with the essays, which has to count for something.
Best Book I Already Reviewed: The Yale Book of Quotations
One man’s attempt to put all the best things anyone ever said into a single book. Unsurprisingly, the result is an interesting read.
For more, see my full review (and interview with the author) right here.
Best Chapter: The first chapter of Sam Harris’ Waking Up. Most of the book is a dry guide to a very narrow form of meditation, but Harris begins by justifying the need for meditative practice in chillingly apt language:
Our pleasures, however refined or easily acquired, are by their very nature fleeting. […] You can’t get enough of your favorite meal until, in the next moment, you find you are so stuffed as to nearly require the attention of a surgeon—and yet, by some quirk of physics, you still have room for dessert. The pleasure of dessert lasts a few seconds, and then the lingering taste in your mouth must be banished by a drink of water. The warmth of the sun feels wonderful on your skin, but soon it becomes too much of a good thing. A move to the shade brings immediate relief, but after a minute or two, the breeze is just a little too cold. Do you have a sweater in the car? Let’s take a look. Yes, there it is. You’re warm now, but you notice that your sweater has seen better days. Does it make you look carefree or disheveled? Perhaps it is time to go shopping for something new. And so it goes.
Harris presents secular spiritual practice as an alternative to this stream of small annoyances, and does so in beautiful language, alongside well-wrought passages on mindfulness, contentment, and other nice things.
This wonderful first chapter is free. If you like it as much as I did, you might like the rest of the book — but don’t feel compelled to finish it.
Best Half of a Book: The Professor in the Cage follows an English professor who tires of academic life and starts to train as an MMA fighter. I began the book to follow that story, but wound up engrossed in the other half — a history of one-on-one combat, from the jungle to the gentleman’s duel. The author’s personal story wasn’t all that satisfying, but his chapters on, say, the importance of size relative to skill in a fistfight (depressingly high) were terrific.
(Caveat: I’m the kind of person who can cheerfully watch clips of kung-fu films for an hour straight, so I probably liked this more than most.)
Special Note: Supporting Authors
Many of these books are comics, or are otherwise available “for free” on the internet. Whenever I read a long story online and like it, I donate $10 or so to the author. The exact amount varies — I give more to authors whose work isn’t as well-known, and to authors whose work has changed the way I think or live my life. (In some cases, I could also just buy the books, but I don’t like owning too many physical objects.)
Anyway: If you read something for free, and it really moves you, remember to support the author!