This was a good year for reading, since I spent it sitting with my Kindle on airplanes. (Kindles are great — like tablets, but without all those fussy little apps that distract you from reading.)
Of the ~150 books I read this year, 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.
For a list of every book I remember reading, check my Goodreads account.
Best List of All the Books
In no particular order, save for the first four, which I liked most of all.
- Rememberance of Earth’s Past (series, all three books)
- The Steerswoman (series, all four books)
- Chasing the Scream
- Rationality: From AI to Zombies
- The Last Samurai
- The Fifth Season
- The Found and the Lost
- The Future and its Enemies
- On the Run
- The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage
- The Partly Cloudy Patriot
- Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air
- Machete Season
- How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
Best Hard Sci-Fi: The Remembrance of Earth’s Past Trilogy
The books which induced a Chinese studio audience on a government-run television program to chant, in unison:
Cixin Liu is the Chinese… well, there’s no good comparison, because he is a legend whose standing in China surpasses that of any sci-fi author in America (past or present).
His trilogy also denies comparison, because I’ve never read anything remotely like it. But I’ll try anyway: The Three-Body Problem resembles a communist Snow Crash, while The Dark Forest is The Hunger Games crossed with the Foundation series, and Death’s End is… something something Charles Stross.
(The universe ends somewhere within this chaos. I almost didn’t notice.)
So imagine all that, but it also somehow combines a feeling of “humanity for the win!” with “we are but ants in the emptiness of space”. And features a bloody war between a philosopher and a race of alien video-game designers. Oh, and the Cultural Revolution. Just… just read it, okay?
Best Hard Fantasy: The Steerswoman Series
The protagonist is a sword-wielding nun who worships Truth instead of God.
What, you want more?
Terrific stories about a world whose cleverest non-magical denizens use rationality and cross-cultural understanding to save the planet from evil wizards. But it’s not nearly that simple, because these books tell of a real world filled with real, complex people, people who love and learn and change and, above all, contemplate. (The contemplative scenes are where the action happens. I’ve rarely seen such furious thinking in literature.)
Anyway, these are completely un-put-down-able, and if you’ve read this far, I think you’ll like them. I hope someone turns them into a TV series so Rosemary Kirsten can buy a castle.
Best Hard Reality: Chasing the Scream
A dark, dark history of the War on Drugs, mixed with many sad scenes from the present and seasoned with a single dash of hope. This is the ideal balance for the topic.
Johann Hari isn’t a very good journalist, but he’s one heck of a writer. Every chapter of Chasing, from the killing of Billie Holiday to the vanishing of Portugal’s drug laws, feels like it should win a Pulitzer (though most of the book isn’t news — just old facts given new life). There are true heroes, true villains, and (most of all) truly awful public policy.
I’ve never read a book that made me regret so deeply my choice not to become a lawyer, or a lobbyist, or someone else in a position to fix the (expletive) government. Try not to read this unless you’re ready to be angry.
Note: Hari’s work is controversial. Here’s a good negative review of the book, for perspective. (I disagree almost completely with the reviewer.)
Best Reality: Rationality: From AI to Zombies
Eliezer Yudkowsky isn’t a cult leader, and he isn’t an all-knowing sage. That said, he’s a very smart guy who spent a long time thinking about how to become less wrong about things. In his efforts, I think he has indeed become less wrong than most people about most things.
Rationality is a collection of blog posts, mostly on subjects we don’t think about often enough:
- Why is the truth important? What do we lose when we trade in some of our truth to win an argument, or feel better about a politician, or ignore one of our mistakes?
- How often do we actually change our minds? How can we do it more often?
- What’s the point of truth? Once we have it, what happens next? What are we actually supposed to be doing with ourselves?
The writing is often genuinely funny, genuinely inspiring, or both. Some people can’t stand Yudkowsky’s style, but I’ve had mostly good results sharing excerpts of the book. It’s also very cheap on Kindle, free to read online, and great for sampling in small bits on a phone.
Note: Here’s a good positive review, and a fun interview with the author. It’s hard to find a good negative review, but if you Google “Eliezer Yudkowsky RationalWiki”, you’ll see the inevitable results of a life spent arguing with people on the Internet.
Best Bizarre Novel: The Last Samurai
A brilliant, literary mother gives birth to a brilliant, literary child and raises him to be brilliant and literary. Then the boy decides to find a father by tricking a series of brilliant men into adopting him. There’s a lot of brilliance to go around. (The author is also brilliant.)
The results? If I were British, I’d say “brilliant”, but I’ll instead say “unique”. The characters are unlike anything else in fiction, so it’s impossible to predict what they’ll do. I laughed out loud a few times, which doesn’t happen unless I am simultaneously amused and surprised. You’ll also laugh out loud, if you can get past the first few pages.
The lessons on linguistics and mental math sprinkled throughout are also a treat. As Tyler Cowen notes, this is a book written for smart people. (I’d say “curious people”, or “people who love learning”, which I think is close to what he meant.)
Best Bizarre Stories: Axiomatic
Greg Egan has a story for every weird idea he can come up with, and they range from good to some of the best I’ve read, ever (“Axiomatic”, “The Hundred Light-Year Diary”, “The Safe-Deposit Box”).
Characters buy personalities, send their journals into the past, engineer Biblical plagues, and pull babies out of black holes. No detail goes unwritten. Egan seems to have lived in each of these worlds for a few weeks before telling their stories.
Best Regular Novel: The Fifth Season
Good old-fashioned epic fantasy. Earthquake witch survives the Apocalypse, is persecuted by her village, goes to the big city, finds a Mysterious Old Wizard Mentor, and wins a Hugo Award.
I can’t find much to say about The Fifth Season: I picked it up, read it, and didn’t stop reading until I was done. As it turns out, 15,000 Goodreads voters weren’t wrong.
Best Regular Stories: The Found and the Lost
Ursula K. Le Guin (whose collected novellas comprise The Found and the Lost) builds a few deep worlds and sets many stories within each. She excels at shifts in perspective; we often see our narrator become the enemy of the next narrator, who is then a neutral character in the next story, and so on.
Searching for the quality which defines these stories, I settle upon “mature”. Characters have modest ambitions, they fail as often as they succeed, and there’s a pervading sense that we’re only seeing a tiny fragment of a world too large to describe with any justice.
I read this collection just after Axiomatic, and the maturity played well against Egan’s youthful acrobatics. The novellas don’t often wow, but they exist peacefully until they end, and that’s enough.
Best Libertarian Book: The Future and its Enemies
I love reading “big idea” books from 20 years ago. It puts a fresh spin on things not to keep seeing the same names and headlines. Instead, I can focus on ideas, and Virginia Postrel’s ideas are generally good.
The Future and its Enemies explores the centuries-old war between “statists” (who regulate, restrict, and roll back change) and “dynamists” (who invent and experiment, but don’t force change on others). Postrel writes an unabashed dynamist manifesto, but in a year where every major Presidential candidate was a statist, it’s nice to see a book that reminds me my own era’s problems aren’t unique.
(For example, statists have been forcing unnecessary licenses on hairdressers since the days of Vidal Sassoon.)
If you’re a libertarian, or close to it, Future is a fun read with lots of stories you can bring to your next Nineties-themed dinner party. But I’d recommend the book most strongly to an old-fashioned conservative or a socialist progressive. Postrel pokes fun at your positions, but kindly, and with a back-to-basics style that may help you see the political world with new eyes.
Best Socialist Book: Evicted
Matthew Desmond, a sociologist who writes clean, non-academic prose, doesn’t get socialist until the end of the book. But he really isn’t fond of landlords, so Evicted still qualifies.
People get thrown out of their homes quite often. Mostly with good reason — they don’t pay rent, for example — but with devastating consequences nonetheless. For years, Desmond lived among poor families who were forced to move, over and over, and tried to figure out what was going on.
His answers won’t surprise you: Many people don’t have jobs, some jobs don’t pay the rent, children are expensive, poverty leads to bad decisions, and landlords are…
…well, the landlords seem perfectly nice, for the most part. Desmond thinks they make too much money, but I prefer his housing-voucher solution to his “force landlords to rent to people they feel worried about” solution. Frankly, if I were a landlord, I’d be deeply reluctant to rent to some of Desmond’s subjects. (One of them kicks her housemate in the face, then shoves a friend through the window of her next apartment.)
But even if Desmond the sociologist draws some questionable conclusions, Desmond the author writes a deep, affecting portrait of a society where basic shelter is very hard to find. This is the book on the list that I most disagreed with; even so, I couldn’t possibly leave it off.
Best Totally Honest Book: On the Run
“If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women.”
— Matthew Desmond, Evicted
As Matthew Desmond lived the story of eviction, Alice Goffman lived the story of incarceration. In fact, she almost went to jail herself, but that’s not the point of the book.
From a house in a high-crime Philly neighborhood, Goffman spent six years getting to know families whose lives are defined by run-ins with the police. The men of these families avoid friends and lovers who might turn them in, sell each other clean urine to dodge drug tests, and sometimes get thrown in jail on purpose when someone on the outside wants to kill them. They also get thrown in jail after schoolyard fights, or when they ride to school in a car stolen, unbeknownst to them, three owners ago.
Sociology is a brutal discipline. On The Run began as a college thesis, but soon became Goffman’s raison d’etre. In the process, she lost her friends and almost lost her life (to a stray bullet that breaks her windshield: in the aftermath, she retreats to Princeton for a few days, but soon returns).
Though a strong work of reportage, On The Run is on my list because of the author’s research notes. The length of a novella, they depict Goffman’s transformation from a know-nothing Ivy Leaguer into a white woman who, against all odds, blends in comfortably with some of the most dangerous men in America. It’s like watching a brain transplant in motion — and all the more fascinating for the way Goffman’s author-self somehow resurfaced to write her book at the end.
(For a conservative view of Goffman’s work, see — of course — Heather MacDonald. She makes many points I’d thought about while reading, and I recommend the review even if you’re not a fan of her essays.)
Other Best Totally Honest Book: Conundrum
The memoir of a British soldier and travel writer who is the epitome of manliness, and who becomes a woman 40 years before Caitlin Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover.
Conundrum, as Jan Morris acknowledges, is dated: Society’s views on gender and sex change very quickly, and there’s no way a progressive reader could make it through the book without wincing a bit. Not many authors avoid this, and I can’t fault Morris for failing to predict how things would turn out in 2016.
That said, I think she wrote the best book she was capable of writing. The prose is wonderful, but more important to me is that I never felt like the author was hiding something or twisting her own feelings to make readers believe anything in particular. This is a novel of introspection: “Here’s how I felt, and here’s how I felt at another time, and you may notice contradictions, but I can only report what was happening in my mind at the moment.”
It’s rare to see a good writer speak with such unflinching honesty about sensations most people will never experience, and I learned a lot, though I expect to learn other things when I read trans memoirs of the modern day.
Best Graphic Novel: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage
Underrated historical figures (Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage) fix computers the size of buildings and save London from runaway calculators.
Reads like Kate Beaton channeling Neal Stephenson. Lots and lots of footnotes. Total joy throughout — save for the bits where Sydney Padua reminds us that her characters, in reality, never lived up to their ambitions, having arrived on the scene 50 years too early…
…but this is a wonderful tribute nonetheless, and it all looks like this:
Best Journalism: The Partly Cloudy Patriot
Sarah Vowell works for NPR, so I’m calling Patriot “journalism” even though it’s really just “someone smart writing about her family and her feelings, also America sometimes”.
Vowell is irreproachable as an essayist. And like Virginia Postrel, she writes far enough in the past (2002) that the topics feel new. I’ll never see Al Gore in quite the same light.
An Amazon reviewer notes: “If you’re in the mood for a couple hours of affable sociopolitical discourse, [this is] an ideal book.” I was in that mood the day I picked up Patriot, and I highly recommend the experience.
Best Research: Sustainable Energy — Without the Hot Air
Sometimes, you just want numbers. And in this case, the numbers are free. Free!
My Best Book of 2014, Worm, featured a superhero whose power was organization: The bigger and more complicated the plan, the better. He becomes a villain when the government rejects his brilliant strategy to solve world hunger.
David MacKay is the nonfictional version of this. He tells you facts, then more facts, then combines the facts into a plan that would clearly work, if only everyone would cooperate!
He isn’t as frustrated as I am, unless he hides it very well behind his graphs. He just gets on with the facts, at a rate of approximately 0.8 facts per sentence. (Many of the non-factual sentences are quotes from other writers who make things up, and require correction from Mr. MacKay.) If two sources disagree, MacKay breaks down their claims into a single question, answers the question, and moves on. He even uses colored fonts to make his numbers easier to read!
I’m a little bit in love with this man, and judging by his miraculous Amazon reviews, I’m not the only one. And his book, again, is free. Please join me in my devotion.
Best Book About Our Terrible Past: Machete Season
“Some struck slowly from wickedness. Some struck quickly so as to finish up and go home early to do something else. It was not important. It was each to his own technique and personality.”
In The Act of Killing, my top film of 2013, genocidal gangsters stage a musical to celebrate their butchery. The raw joy of justified murder also permeates Machete Season, a series of interviews with Rwandan killers.
Jean Hatzfield, the author, had written a book of stories from survivors. Why, then, talk to the murderers? Why would anyone want to listen?
To learn about killing, I suppose. The Rwandan genocide was no Holocaust, with its industrial gas chambers and IBM punch cards. It was a boisterous hunt, as Hutu men young and old gathered each morning in the local soccer field to pick up machetes and dash into the jungle. Hunters of animals turned cheerfully to the work of hunting humans. Even if reluctant, they killed for pragmatism — to earn extra food or avoid scolding from their wives. Killing became their work and their play:
“The more we cut, the more cutting became child’s play to us. For a few, it turned into a treat, if I may say so. In the evening you might meet a colleague who would call out, “You, my friend, buy me a Primus or I’ll cut open your skull, because I have a taste for that now!””
Germans had the Final Solution, a grand plan to complete the millennia-long work of Jewish extinction. One Hutu calls his own work “the perfect solution”: No grandeur, just convenience. (You get the Tutsis’ farmland and animals, so why not do as the radio says?)
That’s what Machete Season gives us: A vision of murder without remorse, without excuse, without history, without future. Just the removal of inconvenient animals who were neighbors last year, and who laughed at your jokes about killing them all someday:
“What [the Hutus] said was so cleverly put, and repeated so often, that we Tutsis as well, we found them funny to listen to. They were clamoring for the massacre of all the cockroaches, but in amusing ways. For us, the Tutsis, those witty words were hilarious. The songs urging all the Hutus to get together to wipe out the Tutsis—we laughed out loud at the jokes.”
As for the book itself: Hatzfield asks a lot of questions and keeps out of the way. That’s all that needs to be done.
Best Book About Our Uncertain Present: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
No other book this year gave me such a vivid picture of its setting. In Filthy Rich, Mohsin Hamid tells of a nameless country (likely Pakistan) and the second-person protagonist who leaves a poor neighborhood for the big city. There, he becomes (“you become”) a water-bottle manufacturer with enough money for a team of armed guards. (To ward off assassination from rival water-bottlers, of course.)
The book is an instruction manual, and Hamid takes his work seriously. You learn to bribe officials, pirate DVDs, and meet new people by growing a beard and becoming an Islamist. These lessons are given in good humor, and you quickly come to root for your own success, even as you become a thief and a killer and a bad husband.
Filthy Rich could have been set in any number of countries, and those countries make up something like ninety percent of the world’s population. In today’s world, wealth and vice appear to be nearly inseparable. This may not be a new condition, but it still makes me wonder how the world, Rising Asia and elsewhere, will transition to reward invention rather than force.
But don’t just read it because it makes me sad. Read it because it’s funny, and because it tells a nation’s story in half the space normally required for such endeavors.
Best Other Stuff
- “We Go Forward”, by Shen Nanigansen
- “A Slow Boat to China”, by Haruki Murakami
- “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, by Ted Chiang
- “Mountain”, by Liu Cixin
- Ursula K. Le Guin, on the underrated Go Set a Watchman
- Gwern, on the science and flaws of The Genius Factory
Happy reading! (And let me know what you think of the books.)