I read around thirty books this year. I was shooting for one a week, but fell a little short: still, this is the most I’ve read since I was in middle school, so I feel pretty good about it.
These are the ten which stuck with me most, in no particular order:
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath — I read this, as I suspect many others did, on the insistence of Master of None. 1 It was hard to separate the cut of the meat from the butcher, given Plath’s history, but I keep circling around the central passage of the fig tree which Aziz recites.
The Clasp, Sloane Crosley — This is the first book I’ve read in one day that wasn’t by J.K. Rowling. Even as I was reading it, I wasn’t entirely sure what was captivating me so strongly. The prose was strong but not stellar; the characters were interesting but not enthralling; the plot was clever but not perfect. Even as I was reading it, I felt its flaws, but I couldn’t put it down. It might have been the commiseration I had with the protagonist, who was lucky and unlucky and disillusioned and feeling an overwhelming sense of incompletion with a post-college life. When I finally finished the book, it was 3am and I felt lighter.
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates — It was hard to get through BtWaM, and not because of the dense, beautiful prose or the sprawling indictment of the American institution. The central thing Coates keeps returning to is the physical body as a symbol of freedom, and how whips and belts and chains and bullets don’t just rend the flesh but slay the freedom supposedly bestowed on each American. I’m a white kid from suburban Virginia; I can’t say that the idea of bodily harm resonated with me, but its lack of resonance — and the conviction with which Coates refuses to eulogize a “stillborn” American dream — speaks volumes to me about my privilege and the harrowing experiences I’ll never suffer from.
The Thin Man, Dashiell Hammett — A softboiled noir and a great palate cleanser for the rawness of BtWaM. Nothing world-changing, but a pleasant thing to read in an Irish cabin 2 and it felt like half-crime fiction, half-buddy cop comedy.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Raymond Carver — I remember going through these stories in an udon place on 15th, with the first long September rain coming down outside. I didn’t really know what Carver was about at first; his stories are short and sad and disquiet. I had to pause between them and watch an episode of HIMYM or go for a walk or something to keep my mind off of them.
A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway — This had been on my list of books to read for years, but it never seemed vital enough to actually pore through. It was a charming and simple and foolish book, and I loved it (now understanding Midnight in Paris more as its successor).
The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman — My favorite book of the year. I’m not going to gush about it — enough others have in the decades of its existence — but know that it is that good and that timeless. Norman changed the way I thought about technology.
Microserfs, Douglas Coupland — If DoET was a primer on how the way we use technology hasn’t really changed in the past couple decades, then Microserfs is a primer on how the way we create technology hasn’t really changed either. It’s not great literature, but it should be required reading for anyone who is creating technology. It speaks to the ecstacy and agony of software development as a craft and as an industry, complete with a microcosm of the startup myth as a kicker.
Bluets, Maggie Nelson — The most powerful fiction I read this year (and in a very long time), Bluets felt more like an extended lyric poem than an actual book. Nelson confesses, at the beginning of the book, that the goal of the work is to be a compendium of the color blue: her result, if not quite that, is a discourse on hope and hopelessness, the sense of being filled and the sense of being emptied. It is an utterly unique work of art.
Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill — A book that at times filled the same holes in my head that Bluets did; a poetic and bittersweet narrative about connections that are made and then severed and the trials of both states. It’s inventive and quiet and rhythmic.