Reading Highlights of 2019

To be honest…this was a somewhat disappointing year for classic literature, which is probably my fault. I set my Goodreads challenge lower than last year (only 30 books as opposed to last year’s 40). I also read far more nonfiction than fiction, making the odds of reading a superb novel quite low (and I read several superb novels in 2018).

Still, there were some great reading experiences this year, so perhaps it all turned out for the best. Here’s the highlights:

Learning Cool and Scary stuff in AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order. My first book of the year was by far one of the best. The title is dreadfully sensational, but it was actually a well-written book, covering everything from technology to history and cultural differences. It was also my introduction to the concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI). (More on that below…)

Hanging out in the Rocky Mountains with Isabella Bird. I’m so glad I stumbled across this book at the thrift store! She was a gutsy and entertaining lady, and I got a picture of the Wild West era I’d never seen before. Really fun book.

Encountering local history and hard questions in the novel No-No Boy. This book about a young Japanese-American haunted by his citizenship was unforgettable…it might join my list of Axes, even though it really wasn’t a “great” novel. I realize that doesn’t make much sense—I guess what I’m saying is, the unique subject matter makes this a very important book in spite of its flaws.

Reading Anne Frank’s diary for the first time. Enough said.

Discussing feminism past and present for Ruth’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Readalong. Between the nuance of the book and the diversity of opinions, this was a fascinating and valuable experience!

Unexpectedly zipping through 12 Rules for Life. I wasn’t expecting this tome to be such a page-turner. I had my issues with it, but overall it was definitely an interesting book.

FINALLY reading Nostromo! This book was every bit as difficult and ultimately rewarding as I thought it would be. The story is undoubtedly a masterpiece by any standards; unfortunately, Conrad’s style here was just really, really dense. Either way, I’m so glad I read it, at long last.

Contemplating love and relationships with Cleo’s C. S. Lewis and Erich Fromm readalongs. And not just love, but also political science and philosophy! I really enjoyed analyzing both authors’ thoughts, comparing them with each other and with my own experiences.

Considering the future of jobs with Andrew Yang. So…as much as I enjoy the topic, I try to avoid politics on this blog, since it involves so much unpleasantness. (I consider myself a right-leaning independent with libertarian sympathies, if that matters to anyone.) That said, I have to admit I’ve been following Andrew Yang’s campaign this year with enormous interest. I’ve watched hours of interviews and commentary on his policies, as well as read both his books: The War on Normal People (2019) and Smart People Should Build Things (2014). Regardless of how you feel about his economic proposal of UBI, it’s his illustration of the automation crisis, backed up by examples and data, that is so sobering and the reality check we desperately need to hear. I highly recommend both of these books (especially The War), and they pair well with Kai-Fu Lee’s AI Superpowers.

Learning even more Scary stuff with Edward Snowden. I read Permanent Record, and my brother and I listened to the Joe Rogan interview together (yep, all 3 hours of it…though not in one sitting 🙂 ). If I had to pick one “book of the year,” it would probably be this one. It’s not merely an autobiography; it’s a portrait of an entire era and generation, those of us who spent our childhoods in a (seemingly) more innocent time and came of age post-911, and who remember a world without ubiquitous computers and tracking mechanisms. He speaks for many, which made this a phenomenal read.

Last but not least, I’m currently reading Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, which so far is proving to be an excellent bookend (pardon the pun) to 2019’s reading.

Top Ten of 2018 + Reading Goals Recap

There’s three weeks left in the year, but I honestly don’t expect to get much reading done till my Christmas break (beginning the 20th!!!), so I thought I would start my yearly retrospective a bit early.

These were my reading goals for 2018:

  • Bring back Book Journals – Kind of a fail. I started a book journal with Ben-Hur but lost momentum early on.  I’m still tacitly reading it, and maybe during my break will start posting about it again.
  • Read more non-fiction.  Check!  Of the 45 books I read (or partially read) this year, almost a third were non-fiction, and some of the fiction was based heavily on real life.  That’s pretty good for me.
  • Escape the comfort zone.  Check.  I read a number of books this year that definitely challenged me, and some made me extremely uncomfortable.
  • Revive the blog.  Check.  While podcasting, I made an effort to write posts that complemented the episodes, and that worked out nicely.

In spite of having more or less reached my 2018 goal of 40 books, I have to admit only a fraction of the books really stand out to me as I think about it now.  Some were duds; others were momentarily entertaining but failed to leave a long-lasting impression.

Here, then, are my top ten books of the year (excluding re-reads):

10. The Undead: Organ Harvesting, the Ice-Water Test, Beating Heart Cadavers–How Medicine Is Blurring the Line Between Life and Death, by Dick Teresi
What a title… This wasn’t a cheerful read, but I thought it was very educational, especially the sections on the ambiguity of death itself. 

9.  Please Look after Mom, by Kyung-Sook Shin
A moving and memorable novel about family, old age, and culture.

8.  Various stories by Flannery O’Connor
Can’t believe I hadn’t read O’Connor before.   

7.  The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea, by Bandi
Disturbing, dark, and challenging to anyone who is a writer.

6.  About Orchids: A Chat, by Frederick Boyle
A sad history story about one of my favorite flowers.

5.  Embers, by Sándor Márai
Another book I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read before.  The ideal book for fans of the introspective, nostalgic novel, almost like something by Ishiguro…

4.  84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff
A short, poignant book to make you laugh, then cry.

3.  A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro
I don’t generally like or read ghost stories, but this one is a masterpiece.  It’s also featured in one of my favorite podcast episodes from this year – “What Is a Classic?

2.  CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping, by Kerry Brown
To my own surprise, I really gravitated to this biography of a very powerful, and somewhat mysterious, leading figure of 2018.  Absolutely worthwhile.

1.  The Sea and Poison, by Shūsaku Endō
This book is a Kafkian “axe” if ever there was one.  I spent the better part of a week in shock over the book itself, as well as over my research for the episode “Doctors, Murderers.”  Hard as it was, I’m glad I pushed myself and tackled a subject I was almost too afraid to talk about on the podcast.

That’s it for me.  What were some of your favorites from this year?