10 Great Books I Read in 2014
This was a tough exercise, but it was also a nice gift to myself for reading a lot this year! Plus it will give me a reference for what to re-read in the new year. Presented in no particular order.
by John Irving
This was my first Irving novel, and I liked it so much I read A Prayer for Owen Meany soon afterward. Some people prefer the latter, but Garp is the one that hooked me most. It’s rare that a literary novel of this length reads so quickly, but this is a page-turner. Irving is a master of scenery and he has New England down cold (no pun intended). One of the blurbs for Meany mentioned how internally consistent and vibrant Irving’s world is, and I couldn’t agree more. It was easy to suspend disbelief, which is important because the characters in this book do some zany shit — but it makes sense if you know them. As for the moral? After reading Garp I can guaran-damn-tee that I will never, ever, cheat on my wife.
by Oliver Sacks
I’ve written about this book already, but it merits more praise. Sacks has gone on to write loads of great material in what I’d call the medico-literary genre, and this is the one that started it all. It’s a moving series of case histories and reflections on a group of patients with severe post-encephalitic Parkinson’s disease, who are miraculously “awakened” and released (albeit temporarily) from their infirm states. What seems at first like a routine chronology of various disease states becomes a heartfelt and profound meditation on what makes one truly human. I don’t know anyone who is better at demystifying the impenetrable experience of living with such a severe illness — or anyone who does it with such wondrous empathy.
Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future
by Peter Thiel
A Silicon Valley darling months before it was even released, this one lives up to its hype. What I liked most is that it’s a fundamentally optimistic take on technology and business, and it encourages people to tackle problems that appear too huge or too complex to solve. To solve such problems requires creating something new in the world, not merely a souped up version of an existing thing; Thiel argues that this is actually the only sane way to start a business. He strips the mystery from his experiences with Paypal, Facebook, and Palantir and explains in plain language how to use those lessons to launch a new venture. Thiel is an interesting guy, to say the least, and you may not definitely won’t agree with all of his views, but we need people like that around.
I actually started reading this last summer, and finished it in April. Don’t kid yourself, this book is incredibly long and it’s hard to read at first. If you persevere, however, you’ll get a feel for the diction (choice of translation is important — I recommend the Stewart and Long version available on Gutenberg mostly due to Long’s copious and illuminating footnotes on the Roman lives) and you’ll get hooked by the stories. Many of them are more myth and legend than history, but they are foundational material to Western culture: they’d be important to read for that alone, even if they weren’t so damn entertaining. It was eye-opening to get the full story behind guys like Brutus and Demosthenes, who are known very narrowly today, and I discovered new heroes like Camillus and the Gracchi . If you want to dip a toe in, my advice is to start with Life of Alexander and Life of Caesar, and go from there.
by Seth Godin
The premise of this book is so simple; yet millions of people marketing products ignore it every day. And that premise is: you should make something remarkable, as in literally worth remarking on: something that people will tell their friends about. Like if you’re driving along a highway, past dozens of identical farms with identical cows out to pasture, and you suddenly see one cow that is purple. You would stop and take a picture and post it to Facebook. But how many companies make boring shit that is no different from everything else, and then expect to sell it through sheer advertising power? It’s like trying to get you to take a picture of a nondescript cow on a nondescript farm, just because they told you to — you’ll never do it because you’ve already seen it a million times. It’s unremarkable. Anyway, this book gives lots of examples of what is and is not a purple cow, but it doesn’t tell you how to make one because if it were that easy everyone would do it.
by John Kennedy Toole
This is one of those books I heard nothing but amazing things about, but never got around to reading. And then I read it and it was as amazing as everyone said it would be. Ignatius J. Reilly is an incomparable character. His actions are so absurd, so distasteful, so misdirected. He lives in a world that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the real one. But I ended up rooting for him all the same. In fact, every character in this book is entertaining, and as a whole it’s more consistently hilarious than anything I’ve ever read. The picture it paints of New Orleans is to die for. I’m hard-pressed to decide what it’s about, and maybe it doesn’t matter.
by Albert Camus
There’s something indefinable about this book that makes it one-of-a-kind. Maybe the way Camus uses such stark language yet paints such evocative scenery with it. Maybe the way Camus straight-up dares you to hate his protagonist. Maybe the way you want to wring Meursault’s neck and hug him at the same time. Maybe the way it’s so brazen in its existentialism, and how, true to form, it gives you no easy answers at the end. What I find fascinating is that there are as many different reactions to it as there are people who’ve read it. Hate it, love it, have no clue what to make of it — it strikes a chord.
by Mary Shelley
The rare classic that’s as relevant as ever. Lots of juicy themes: confronting one’s own inner darkness, messing with science and technology in an unholy manner, the condition of being unable to find happiness. And it’s so much richer and more epic than the story as it has come down through popular culture. The nature of the monster’s revenge is way more personal for Victor than it’s usually portrayed. The monster himself is a far deeper character: in the novel he actually speaks coherently and is given to philosophizing, and his actions are driven by very human concerns (he’s got serious self-image issues, for one). I believe anyone could read this book find aspects to interest them.
by Alex Haley
Ridiculously good. It can’t be easy to write a book with a sweep of 200 years, let alone one that’s as coherent and unified as this one. A staggering achievement; I can’t say enough about it. One thing is that it’s probably not what you’re expecting. I mean, I haven’t seen the movie, but I think everyone knows about the scene where Kunta Kinte is being whipped because he refuses to give up his name. That scene never happens in the book, so don’t hold your breath. The actual text more nuanced. Haley devotes a lot of time at the beginning to exploring Kunta’s life in his village in The Gambia. This part is long and detailed and not always that interesting, but it’s well-written and informative, and it’s necessary to achieve the crazy-great payoff at the end of the book. Listen, I could go on and on, so just read it, read it, read it.
If This Is a Man (Italian title)
by Primo Levi
Not an easy read. This is Levi’s recounting of his time at Auschwitz. What he describes here is one of the most depraved, appalling, inhuman experiences people have ever been put through. Yet this is humanity. As much as we’d like to ignore it, escape it, pretend it away, this is what humans are capable of. This is what you are capable of, what I am capable of. That’s why I think that everyone should read this book. It’s so frightening to imagine that this could be inside of us, and we recoil from doing so — which is why it’s so important that we do imagine it.
Originally published at profoundreading.com on January 6, 2015.