Reading results in one of two situations for me:
There are the books I hated reading, but that stick with me and still wake me up in the middle of the night or come to mind while I am driving years later.
Then there are the books that were an absolute excitement to read – begging to be picked up or have plans delayed on their behalf – but fade in effect very quickly.
The real treasures do both, but those are often far between.
Below are a few works I grappled with this year that I put in either that first or final category. Some are new, some are old. But they each do their job effectively: they made me think about things in a slightly different shade, at an alternate angle or maybe in a brand-new way.
1 – The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake – Aimee Bender
I regularly reference this as my favorite book and thus felt compelled to re-read it this year to see how it has weathered in the half dozen years since I first encountered it. It still absolutely slays me. A coming-of-age story with a small dose of magical realism as metaphor, it captures the painful internal awkwardness of adolescence better than anything I have ever read – though entry #2 gets a close second place in this category.
2 – A Separate Peace – John Knowles
Another re-read, I hadn’t experienced this since I was prep-school aged myself. As an adult, it resonated with a bittersweet familiarity in it’s complex examination of adolescent male friendship. I marveled mostly at how the story isn’t trapped by it’s historical time period (World War II). The nuances of the quest to shed boyness for manhood seemingly haven’t changed much in the past six or seven decades.
3 – Weapons of Math Destruction – Cathy O’Neil
I heard Cathy guest on a podcast discussing the algorithmic leanings of our society and was fascinated by her point of view. As a mathematician, she breaks down how formulas and technology determine the range of options many of us have and how this can be a scary and challenging thing. The book is plainspoken and easy-to-digest and left me thinking a little differently about everything from insurance premiums to job applications.
4 – The Everything Store | Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon – Brad Stone
Brad Stone has been covering Amazon as a tech reporter for most of the past two decades and offers a comprehensive glimpse of Bezos as leader, visionary and disrupter that is both fascinating and a bit unsettling. This book is a must-read for it’s relevance to daily news relating to the innovation and frontiering for which Bezos and company are responsible.
5 – Them – Adventures with Extremists – Jon Ronson
Ronson was top-of-mind this year for an innovative podcast he created about the pornography industry, but his immersive and sometimes irreverent style of first-person journalism was as equally revelatory back in 2003. Back then, he wrote this travelogue-style collection of profiles about men with radical views that reads hauntingly prophetic in a Trump America.
6 – Grief is the Thing with Feathers – Max Porter
This sliver of literature flits between bits of poetry and prose while anthropomorphizing death as a big black bird. It’s a tiny book with a massive, unsettling punch.
7 – Commonwealth – Ann Patchett
My favorite stories follow characters over long periods of time and give the reader a glimpse into the forces that create the man or woman out of a child. Patchett takes this concept and injects it with a narrative structure that leaves the reader to uncover the heartbreak and big decisions that define someone with a slow reveal that stretches over five decades. The construction of the story is breathtaking, but the story itself is just as beautiful.
8 – Everybody Lies – Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are -Seth Stephens-Davidowitz
A timely tome that can be shelved next to Cathy O’Neil’s aforementioned foray into algorithms, Everybody Lies attempts to explain how anonymous data that has been collected throughout the World Wide Web can be used for some good old-fashioned cultural anthropological research. It is scary but fascinating and somehow reassuring. In the end, all of us really do stretch the truth.