2018 Reading List

This is a list of the books I’ve read so far in 2018, most recent first, with brief reviews.

Past years’ reading lists: 20172016 | 2015 | 2014

38. A Book of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates

Damn. This is the best book by Oates I’ve ever read. That doesn’t mean it’s her best book, of course, since she’s written well over a hundred and I’ve read maybe a dozen—but still, it’s fantastic. This book is the story of two American families (really, more specifically, two daughters): that of an abortion doctor who is murdered by a Christian fundamentalist, and that of the murderer. It’s a big book—over 700 pages—and the prose is intentionally wordy, bloated, as if none of the characters can quite get a grasp on reality. The book’s second half takes a turn I never would have expected (but that also doesn’t surprise me given what I know of Oates’s interests and previous writings), and the final 50 pages are unexpectedly tense. Only once I finished the final sentence did I realize I’d been holding my breath.

36 & 37. Livia Lone and The Night Trade by Barry Eisler

I went on a bit of an Eisler binge the last couple weeks after discovering that he’d published three new novels I’d somehow missed. Two of the novels are about an entirely new character he’s created, Livia Lone, and they’re a doozy. The second book in the series, The Night Trade, is a fairly straightforward thriller (albeit one with some deeply motivated characters), but the first, eponymously titled, book is much more than that. I highly recommend it—with the caveat that it is about sex trafficking, particularly the trafficking of children, and it bumps up against (and maybe even crosses) some boundaries in its depictions. That said, one could argue that, in order for the reader to fully understand the horrors of this world they normally might be oblivious to, an amount of boundary-bumping is necessary.

35. Enough by Patrick Rhone

I’ve read this book by my friend Patrick before, but I gave it a quick reread recently because the question of just what is enough for me has been on my mind lately.

34. Zero Sum by Barry Eisler

Somehow I missed that my favorite thriller author, Barry Eisler, had published three new novels in the last few years, including this latest entry in the excellent John Rain series. Zero Sum is great. I devoured this book. Read it in two days.

33. Undisclosed Manuscript (finished 10/1)

I’m not sure whether I’m allowed to reveal that I’ve read a yet-to-be released manuscript a publisher sent me, so this will be a placeholder for now.

32. Lethal White by Robert Galbraith (finished 9/29)

Robert Galbraith, if you haven’t heard, is a pen name of J.K. Rowling, under which she writes her Cormoran Strike detective novels. Lethal White is the fourth novel in the series, and even though it’s 650 pages, I devoured it in a week. It’s just as good as the first three.

31. Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier (finished 9/17)

I’ve heard Lanier’s name and references to his work pop up in my reading and research for a few years now, most notably references to his book You Are Not a Gadget, but I hadn’t actually done any exploring into who he is or his ideas. Then, recently, I heard him on Sam Harris’s podcast discussing social media and his latest book. If you scroll through my reading list below, it’ll become clear that social media, its use and disuse, and the depth of life we seem to be losing because of it, has been a big focus of my reading this year, so of course I had to read Lanier’s Ten Arguments. And you probably should too. Especially if you’re still using social media.

30. Ulysses by James Joyce (finished 9/14)

I’ve tried to read Ulysses three times. The first two times, I stopped around page 30.  Not because the book isn’t beautiful (one of my favorite sentences of all time: “He lathered lightly the farther cheek.”), but because it’s extremely difficult. Reading Ulysses is deep work. I doubt most people, in our distracted social media age, could do it. Which is why this time I committed to that depth, deleted my social media accounts even. I started this third attempt at reading Ulysses back in April.  I got distracted by a dozen other books along the way. I reactivated and then redeleted my social media accounts. But I finished reading the book. And now I feel like a burden has been lifted from my shoulders—a beautiful, beautiful burden of my own choosing. Worth it.

29. Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard (finished 9/9)

The final book in Knausgaard’s Seasons cycle, this one takes an interesting approach, blending the personal encyclopedia entries of the first two books with the narrative diary-style entries of Spring. In addition, enclosed within in the diary entries is a piece of fiction—a short story about about a young married woman who falls in love with a soldier during World War 2. This short story was the most engrossing part of the book. The encyclopedia entries, like in Autumn and Winter, are mixed in their levels of depth and insight, but the entries for Bats, Fainting, Skin, and Ladybirds struck me as particularly effective. I also can’t get the term “clinker-built double-ender” out of my head, even though I’d never heard it before reading this book—my knowledge of boats is limited.

28. The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye by David Lagercrantz

After recently seeing the trailer for the movie adaptation of The Girl in the Spider’s Web, staring Claire Foy as Lisbeth Salander, I was reminded that I had yet to read the latest novel in the Millennium series. It’s entertaining. It’s not spectacular by any means, but it’s not quite your run-of-the-mill thriller either. It’s smart, and Lagercrantz continues to do Steig Larsson’s characters justice, even if Salander is disappointingly not in the book as much as one would hope. Eye for an Eye was also a quick read— it’s the shortest book in the series by at least 200 pages.

27. Crushing It! by Gary Vaynerchuk

I first started reading this book when it came out near the beginning of the year. I read the first couple chapters, skimmed the rest. I was at the time deeply frustrated with social media. I still am, but I decided to give this book another shot recently. I like Gary Vee. I like his energy; he’s motivational. And he’s not wrong when it comes to knowing where the world’s attention is and where, sadly, a large chunk of entrepreneurs need to place their own attention to get the audience they’re looking for. Crushing It! is a worthwhile read for anyone who’s running a business’s social media or who’s interested in developing a (cringe) personal brand.

26. How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan (finished 8/3)

This is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in a while. Part memoir, part travelogue, part history, and part science journalism, How to Change Your Mind explores the world of psychedelics, with heavy emphasis on pcylocibin, LSD, and DMT. Not only does Pollan, with his usual engaging style, tell the history and science of psychedelics, he also embarks on three guided “trips” himself, and he relates the experiences to the reader in great detail (insomuch as it’s possible to relate that kind of experience). Even if you’re not interested in ever trying psychedelics yourself, I still highly recommend giving this a read for incredible insight into how the human mind works and interacts with nature.

25. Calypso by David Sedaris (finished 7/17)

This is Sedaris’s best book. I had the pleasure of watching Sedaris read a few of these essays in person a couple years ago, and reading them was just as entertaining.  Like all his other books, Calypso is, of course, hilarious (I laughed out loud in public a lot while reading these essays), but it’s also biting, a little dark, a little sad. The suicide of Sedaris’s sister Tiffany is the glue that holds these essays together, permeating nearly every page. In some essays the glue is thicker than in others, and when it is the result is heavy, plasmatic: you can move the words, but do you deserve to? And never has Sedaris delivered a gut-punch like the way he does with the end of the antepenultimate essay, “The Spirit World.”

24. Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World by Michael Harris (finished 7/15)

Another book read in my pursuit of figuring out what it means to live a deep, focused life and just how a person can go about doing so in our modern, connected world. I enjoyed Solitude. It’s a worthwhile read, but it’s worth noting that it’s more of a what-to and a why-to book than a how-to book. But I suppose expecting a how-to book was expecting too much; if living a deep, focused life could be condensed into a 200-page set of instructions, more people would be doing it. Solitude, and, indeed, solitude, is an important piece of the puzzle, though.

23. The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (finished 7/7)

Fuck, this novel was good. Surely Kushner will receive her third National Book Award nomination for this one, and I have a feeling she’ll finally win.

22. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson (finished 6/27)

There’s a good chance you’ve heard of Dr. Peterson. A recent New York Times profile maligned him (unfairly, perhaps even dishonestly, from what I can tell). He’s, at best, a controversial figure. I’d heard him speak before, and whenever I did, I came away wondering whether he was either much much smarter than me or just bullshitting his way through seemingly high-minded ideas. After reading his book, I believe Peterson is sincere, and the 12 rules he proposes are at the very least reasonable, if not completely obviously. Much of his reasoning behind them, however, is nonsense. And I mean that in the most literal sense. There’s a lot )of word salad in this book, but I believe it comes from a genuine place of trying to find meaning in what Peterson unfortunately believes is a horrible world. I think he’d be much happier if he accepted that life is, in fact, inherently meaningless, and thus we should spend our time enjoying it and making things and connecting with others; he should accept also that, while myths and religious texts do often contain truth and value, sometimes silly stories are just silly stories.

21. So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport (finished 6/1)

Ever since reading Cal’s book Deep Work a few years ago, I’ve been slowly implementing its principles into my own life. In recent months, I’ve been especially upping my commitment to working—really, living—deeply. In my efforts to pursue greater depth, I decided to finally read this, Cal’s first career-focused book, which rightly argues that “‘follow your passion’ is bad advice.”

20. Spring by Karl Ove Knausgaard (finished 5/29)

The third entry in Knausdaard’s new four-part series, the first two books of which I described a couple reviews below this one. Spring is very different from the first two entries in the series. Instead of a collection of short essays, it’s an extended letter to Knausgaard’s now two-year-old daughter, describing one troubling day during his wife’s pregnancy. Like My Struggle, the beauty here is in the banality, although there are moments of profundity as well, especially the final few paragraphs.

19. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

This was a reread. I read Isaacson’s biography of Jobs when it first came out, but I was only 21 at the time, so I wanted to read it again now, to see what insights an older mea would make of Jobs’ life and temperament.

17 & 18. Autumn and Winter by Karl Ove Knausgaard (finished 5/12)

Knausgaard’s follow-up to his My Struggle cycle is a pleasant read. These books are parts one and two of a four-part series of short essays about various items or concepts a person regularly interacts with in the world, interspersed with a few short letters to Knausgaard’s unborn (and then newborn) daughter. There’s gold in many of these essays, although it can take some sifting to find it. I have the third book, Spring, on order.

16. We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates (finished 5/5)

A collection of Coates’ essays originally published in The Atlantic, one each year, during Obama’s presidency, along with eight new essays from Coates offering some background about what his life looked like during each of those years, all capped by one more new essay about Trump as “the first white president.”  I don’t always agree with Coates, but he’s a damn good writer, insightful, and never fails to offer a perspective many of us just wouldn’t have access to any other way

15. Sleep by Nick Littlehales (finished 4/19)

This relatively short book is presents an approach to sleep from the one we’re normally fed. Specifically, Littlehales, who is an “elite sports sleep coach” (a job position he essentially created for himself) advocates for the idea of thinking of sleep in terms of cycles per week rather than hours per night. It’s an interesting approach, and one that makes some sense. I’ve been integrating some of Littlehales’ ideas into my own sleep routine. That said, many of the finer details in this book will come as nothing new to anyone who cares even a little bit about sleep quality.

14. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (finished 4/15)

Another wonderful work from Egan, one of my favorite living novelists. There’s a lot going on in this novel, and I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll just say that it takes place mostly during World War II and is about gangsters, female naval divers, and the merchant marines. And the prose is rich, elegant, and envy-inducing. Even the acknowledgments page(s—there are about four or them) are beautiful and lay out the incredible amount of research that went into crafting this story.

13. Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History by Bill Schutt (finished 3/30)

Cannibalism has always been one of the few, if not the only, things that “sqee” me out. I’d heard a lot about this book last year, though, and the author was even featured on Paleo Magazine’s podcast, so I wanted to read it in an attempt to demystify the phenomena. I’m glad I did. This book is a great zoological and anthropological look at canibalism in nature and in human history. It’s actually a quite positive book, and it’s often very funny.

12. No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal (finished 3/20)

I wanted to like this so much more than I did. The characters are wonderful, and there are many moments of brilliant subtlety and humor. But the author repeatedly makes distracting, amateurish grammar mistakes and redundancies, even though other time he shows glimpses of mastery of the English language. And, unfortunately, the book goes on for 30 pages too long, almost as if the publisher insisted on an epilogue the author didn’t want to write.

11. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (finished 3/9)

I enjoyed this debut short story collection. The stories are an eclectic mix of Queer themes, often with a dystopian or otherwise sci-fi backdrop.

10. Sex Criminals: Vol. 4: Fourgy by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

Fraction and Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals is one of the best ongoing comic series of the last decade. While they’re not published as often as one would like, they’re worth keeping up with. This fourth volume is just as funny, raunchy, and almost paradoxically real as the rest of the series.

9. Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright

This book’s title is provocative. Its subtitle, however, is more to-the-point: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. I’ve been meditating regularly for about four years now, although my practice has been slipping since last November (I’m meditating maybe four days a week, and rarely for more than ten minutes, whereas I used to sit for 20-30 minutes daily). Wright’s book is a good kick in the pants for my own practice, and it’s a thorough explanation of the benefits of meditation for people who want to start a practice, but are motivated by more than just stress reduction or being ten-percent happier. This is a book for people who want to meditate because they’re interested in discovering a deeper understanding of the very nature of what it means to be a living, sentient being.

8. Unsubscribe by Jocelyn K. Glei

As a magazine editor, I receive a lot of email. More than I used to. I read this book hoping I’d pick up some tips for making my email more manageable, but most of what’s in here seemed obvious to me.

7. Straight Queer by Paige Ferro

I was a beta reader of this early-draft manuscript by my wife. I can’t say more than that, but this book is good.

6. Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman by Richard P. Feynman

I’ve been meaning to read this for a while, and I’m so glad I finally did. Not exactly a memoir or a science book so much as a collection of hilarious and often outrageous true stories from Feyman’s sublimely interesting life, this book should be read by anyone who wants to learn to think differently, challenge the status quo, and not fear offending others in the pursuit of truth and good ideas.

5. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

This isn’t a book I would normally have picked for myself. I don’t read a lot of fantasy (although I tend to enjoy it when I do), but my wife gave this to me (along with a varied slew of other books) for Christmas. I enjoyed it a great deal. I read it quickly, during breaks from hiking and climbing waterfalls in the jungles of Mexico (seriously!). Much of it is steeped in African myth and folklore of which I don’t have the knowledge to fully appreciate, but it’s obvious that Okorafor does, and that she crafted every allusion and plot twist with care. An engaging book with important themes, including misogyny, genocide, and female genital mutilation.

4. Deep Work by Cal Newport

This was a reread. This books is a valuable mental reminder and reset at the beginning of each year.

3. Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides (finished 2/3)

This collection of stories—a mix of old and new—isn’t as good as any of Eugenides novels (although he does revisit a couple of those novels’ characters here), but I still thoroughly enjoyed it. The titular story, which happens to be the longest, was my favorite

2. Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates (finished 1/20)

Oh boy, was this a tough one. In a good way. Oates’s first attempt at tackling the gothic novel, Bellefleur is long, meandering, full of parenthetical asides and digressive details and dozens of characters. It’s my kind of book. It took me nearly a month to read (I started at Christmas), but the payoff was worth it.

1. Theft by Finding by David Sedaris (finished 1/2)

I love diaries. Reading them always kickstarts my own journaling habit (although it’s not like that habit ever needs much kickstarting—I’ve been regularly making journal entries at least every few days for years now—but reading others’ tends to boost my pace to daily for a little while), and there’s immense value in delving into the internal thoughts and observations of other people, especially people who we respect and admire (and maybe more importantly those we don’t). Theft by Finding is a curated compilation of David Sedaris’s diaries 1977-2002. Sedaris’s observations are funny, often ironic, sometimes shocking, and occasionally a bit sad. What really makes this collection worth it for me is the narrative that develops over the years: watching Sedaris, through his own daily records, evolve from (arguably) a struggling drug addict alcoholic in his early twenties in to the wry, mature essayist I had the pleasure of meeting a couple years ago.