“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.”
Aaron Gertler, The Best Books of My 2015
The Book of Disquiet is remarkably difficult to talk about. And yet, when a stranger messaged me on Facebook because they’d seen that I was a fan, we wound up talking about it for an hour, stumbling around in circles trying to explain the way we felt.
(Reviewing the book is like trying to make up a new language in the middle of a conversation.)
The book’s Goodreads entry features nothing but four-and-five-star reviews on the first page. The second page, along with lots of additional praise, contains:
- A single one-star review, which appears to be ironic (“it is the very fact of its valuelessness that gives it its value”).
- A three-star review where the reviewer becomes furious at Pessoa for writing only half of a brilliant book, when — like a loving parent — they know he could have done better.
It would seem that, for any common definition of “hate”, The Book of Disquiet is almost impossible to hate. And that seems right. Can you hate the air you breathe? Can you hate the ground on which you walk? Can you hate sleep?
Part II in my very occasional series on applications that don’t succeed.
Why I do this: Most people who apply for prestigious positions fail, and it seems healthy to acknowledge that truth. Otherwise, we end up in a world where all we can see are the triumphs of the people around us, in stark contrast to our own failures. (Some people refer to this as “Facebook envy”.)
So I’m swimming against the tide, by showcasing the times I wrote something with all my might, only to receive a rejection letter.
Brought to you by the library system of the University of California, San Diego.
This is the fourth in a series of annual book reviews:
I read fewer books this year than in 2016, thanks to a new marriage and a few online serials that consumed a lot of reading time. But I’ve improved my selection process: I’m finishing more of the books I start, and learning more from the books I finish. As a result, I’d put this year’s class up against any of the other years in a… book fight?
(My Goodreads account has a rating for every book I remember reading.)
The Best Books
The first five are, in order, the books that I’ve thought about most often this year, and that I remember most vividly. The rest appear in no particular order.
- Ache Life History
- The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
- Tools of Titans
- Against Democracy
- The Damnation of Theron Ware (free to read online, from Project Gutenberg)
- Killers of the Dream
- The Subjection of Women (free to read online, from Early Modern Texts)
- Intelligence: A Very Short Introduction
- Hard to Be a God
- The Traitor Baru Cormorant
- The Gods Are Bastards (free to read online)
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
I review the best books I read, but reviews are often almost useless. Many books should simply be read — and the best review is to quote from them, at length, so that others can begin reading right away.
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
The Yale Daily News Magazine just published my glowing review of The Yale Book of Quotations. I also profiled the book’s creator, Fred Shapiro. This is my last piece of original journalism for any Yale publication.
The article includes an interesting call to action. Fred needs help writing the next edition. If you’d like your favorite quote to end up in a book that sells tens of thousands of copies, read until the end, or just read the pitch right now.
Twenty-Four Quotations About the Yale Book of Quotations
“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”
–Francis Bacon, Of Studies
“Dictionary, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.”
–Ambrose Bierce, The Cynic’s Word Book
The Yale Book of Quotations (YBQ) is a magnificent beast of a tome, a rare creature found only in libraries and the homes of the most devoted litterateurs. Most books have one or two quotable lines. The YBQ has over twelve thousand. And though it is 1100 pages long, it remains, fundamentally, the project of a single man: Fred Shapiro, a librarian in the Yale Law School.
TL;DR: Immortality may seem like it would be boring. But an awful lot of people have hobbies and projects that would probably work out better if those people had more time to get things done. What’s more, these activities might be more exciting the longer they went on, rather than less.
To illustrate this, I use the example of a Go master, who is in love with a fiendishly hard game and might continue improving for centuries, given the chance — and that’s just one popular board game in a universe of activities.
I’d like to clear up a common misconception about living forever.
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
The life of a man whose death was untimely, and never would have been timely. An entertaining book and recommended read, especially if you like movies, the art of journalism, or the state of Illinois.
I lack the energy to summarize the book, and lives are hard to summarize anyway. So instead, here are some of the best lines (from a man who averaged 1.2 great lines per review).
On Art Petacque, Ebert’s colleague at the Chicago Tribune:
“He was our mob reporter. He was priceless for his sources. He was the only Chicago newsman who knew all mob nicknames. It was rumored he invented many of the nicknames himself.
“Nobody ever complained. What would Joey “The Clown” Lombardo do? Write a letter to the editor?”