“A man’s mind is known by the company it keeps.” – James Russell Lowell
I try to read a book a week. In 2019, I read more than that – some for the second or third (or more) time. Here are the 22 of the best and 2 of the worst:
The Best – and Worst – Books I Read in 2019
- The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (2014)
A page-turner/science fiction/mystery – and a time travel novel without time travel – that explores what it means to be human. One critic described this book as “Ground Hog Day on Red Bull.”
- Awakenings by Oliver Sacks (1999)
I saw the movie. This was Sacks’s account of how, as a doctor in the late 1960s, he revived patients who had been neurologically “frozen” by sleeping sickness.
- The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot (1922)
Eliot’s magnum opus, written in extremis, came to embody the spirit of the years following WWI.This was probably the sixth time I’ve read it, and it gets better every time. A portion of the content is academic; another portion is personal. So a third of it I still don’t understand, but so much the better for the next read.
- A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (2003)
I’ve been reading this off and on since the summer and have not yet finished it, but I intend to. It’s very funny.
- The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson (2019)
With his wryly lucid prose, Bryson documents the attempts, both successful and failed, to learn more about the human body in all its glorious complexity.
6. Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism by Harold Bloom (2019)
Harold Bloom was one of my favorite literary critics. He was erudite, intelligent, and knowledgeable. In this book, he covers a vast landscape of poetry and prose, stopping to provide insights into and observations about some of the greatest writers of all time.
- Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin (1955)
I must have read Baldwin before, but this book stunned me. Baldwin had a reputation as an intellect, but this collection of essays about his experience as a black man in mid-century America is very, very strong.
- Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer (2019)
If learning about punctuation and grammar sounds painful, this book may change your mind. Dreyer, who was the copy chief of Random House, offers up lots of “inside knowledge” on the literary virtues and vices that professional editors look out for when apprising manuscripts. Although the subject matter is sometimes technical, the experience of reading the book is always fun and fast moving, thanks to Dreyer’s enthusiasm for his life’s work.
- The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952)
My fourth read of this classic and beautifully written novella. Hemingway’s prose style and storytelling is at its height here. If he had written only this, his importance as one of the most influential writers of the 20thcentury would be preserved.
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1902)
Another classic. My second read. This was a book club selection, read simultaneously with The Old Man and the Sea. Both powerful and profound. A very interesting contrast in literary styles.
- 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson (2018)
I am a fan of Jordan Peterson as a YouTube intellectual. And yet this book was better than I had expected. This is not a self-help guide, but a treatise on what it means to live a meaningful life. The range and depth of Peterson’s thinking helped me understand why he’s so good at debate.
- The Coddling of the American Mind : How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (2018)
The first third of this book felt like everything I’d already figured out, but the last two-thirds took me to new and exciting perspectives in understanding what has gone wrong with American culture and consciousness in the past 50 years. The last part could be read as an instruction manual for parents that want to save their children from the moral miasma we’ve gotten into. (I sent copies to my three sons.)
- Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham (2019)
Higginbotham’s superb account of the April 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is one of those rare books about science and technology that read like a tension-filled thriller. Replete with vivid detail and sharply etched personalities, this narrative of astounding incompetence moves from mistake to mistake, miscalculation to miscalculation.
- The Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders (2013).
George Saunders is one of my favorite contemporary writers, and The Tenth of December is Saunders at his best. These are brilliant but gentle satires on contemporary life in America. It’s hilarious and scary and joyful – often all at once.
- Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense by Rory Sutherland (2019)
Here’s a look into my world – the world of copywriting and direct marketing – written by an articulate, erudite, and opinionated British businessperson.
- Interview With the Vampire by Ann Rice (1976)
I forced my book club to read this, hoping they would see in it, as I did, a profound exploration of the limits of human imagination. Ann Rice is a highly underrated writer. I made the case. They didn’t get it. But maybe you will.
- The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age by Leo Damrosch (2019)
This is a delightful read – conversations from some of the most interesting intellectuals and artists of the 18thcentury at London’s Turk’s Head Tavern, including Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, the actor David Garrick, the historian Edward Gibbon, and, of course, Johnson’s loyal biographer James Boswell: “a constellation of talent that has rarely if ever been equaled.”
- How Not to Die Alone by Richard Roper (2019)
Set in England, Andrew’s job is to find relatives and friends of people that die alone. He has no friends except for an online chat group of train nuts. It sounds miserable, but it’s actually very smart, insightful, and funny.
- All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946)
The rise and fall of Willie Stark, a politician in the American South in the 1930s. (The story was apparently inspired by the life of Louisiana senator/governor Huey Long.) Some of our book club saw it as strictly a political novel. I thought it was much more than that. I thought it was about what it is to be human.
- Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
Half science fiction, half anti-war movie, the book follows the life of Billy Pilgrim from childhood to his service as a soldier in WWII to his life as a suburban family man after the war. I had never read Vonnegut before. I was happy with this introduction.
- Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (1963)
The protagonist, Jonah, begins to write a book about what some Americans were doing the day the USA bombed Hiroshima, and from there the book goes on a wild journey to the bizarre island dictatorship of San Lorenzo. It then gets weirder and weirder. The primary theme of the book – free will – is explored in some depth. But for the life of me, I can’t remember what insights, if any, were offered.
- Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King (2013)
A gripping account of Thurgood Marshall’s defense (as a young attorney) of four young black men (the Groveland Boys) accused in 1949 of raping a woman in Lake County, Florida. This is a must read for anyone interested in racism in mid-century America.
And now here are the most overrated books I read this year…
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (2019)
If Whitehead is as smart as his admirers say, he’s pandering here to a think-what-I-should readership.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (2018)
A feminist novel that is insulting to women.