Around this time last year, I realized that I had read an abysmal number of books in 2017 — no more than 3, including books I was obligated to read for my English classes. Of course I hadn’t read 90% of what I’d been assigned for class, but who does?
Anyway, a year ago I made a commitment to read at least 20 books in 2018. 20 seemed like a good number; about one book every two weeks. If I counted poetry books in this (alongside novels and nonfiction books), I could easily read over one book each week.
Over the course of this year I discovered many problems with counting for the sake of counting. Namely that this whole “tracking” thing was supposed to measure my reading “output,” but it turns out I do a majority of my reading online — PDF articles linked on Canvas, journalistic articles, tweeted screenshots of poems. I continued counting despite this, and finished 23 books this year.
To me, there still seems to be something uniquely whole and cohesive about books. Here are seven that stayed with me long after I read them, in no particular order. They are a mix of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari – nonfiction
My main motivation for picking up Sapiens was to get a better understanding of evolutionary psychology — why our minds are wired the way they are, humankind’s genetic family tree, etc. and the first 1/4th or so of the book really delivers on that end. The author does a great job of describing the sociological factors at play throughout most of our evolutionary history, which explains much of our social anxiety and dependence on one another. It’s interesting how biology has so little regard for our well-being and only cares about what will maximize reproduction. I found the sections on hunter-gatherer societies especially fascinating; they were much more peaceful than we might understand them to be (tribal warfare was uncommon), and their lifestyle (walking 20+ miles each day, eating an extremely varied diet, living in close communities) was infinitely better suited to our biology. Considering how we evolved in those societies and only started farming 10,000 years ago (it’s pretty much been downhill in terms of human wellbeing since then), it’s no wonder why we’re so ill-suited to modern life. Things like the adrenaline system and the constant urge to reproduce have become useless artifacts in our DNA.
The book is thoroughly researched and gives the reader a true sense of how briefly we’ve been on this planet. I skimmed the rest after farming was introduced, though. The rest of the book reads like a world history textbook mixed with a sociology primer, beginning with Mesopotamia and all of the ancient civilizations. The first few pre-civilization chapters were the most valuable to me. However, the sections describing how social bonds are forged, which enable us to build cities and ultimately trust complete strangers, were also very interesting.
I’ve heard that the sequels to this book are even better than this one and offer interesting solutions to 21st century problems based on Harari’s extensive knowledge of human development.
Severance by Ling Ma – fiction
I found this book through a New York Times book list, and the description immediately caught my attention. While researching it, I remember gleaning that this was a zombie apocalypse novel, except that the apocalypse was a direct consequence of global capitalism — virus-stricken workers become doomed to repeat their daily routines like clockwork until their bodies disintegrate. I also heard it was a love story, a Chinese immigrant tale, an office novel, and a hilarious satire with moments of horror and suspense. After reading the first few pages in a bookstore, I was hooked.
Not only are Ling Ma’s sentences beautifully crafted, but I laughed out loud several times throughout the first few pages. The story weaves past and present together seamlessly, where the “present” is post-apocalypse. The narrator, Candice, finds herself in the wilderness and must band together with a group of survivors, except the leader of this troop is a middle-aged manager named Bob who vapes French Vanilla flavored nicotine pods. The “past” describes a young professional’s life in New York City, which is depressingly realistic, yet cuttingly funny. The novel also brings us to factories in China, where the zombie-generating disease originates. Not only is this premise creative, it illustrates the human force behind all of our possessions (and resulting sickness).
The book left me with a deep gratitude for my parents and culture, who also immigrated from China. It also left me painfully aware of how much stuff I am surrounded by, where that stuff comes from, and how many people have suffered to bring it to where I am. I am still amazed by how many wonderfully complex facets are included in this book. I’m not sure how Ling Ma makes it all work, but she does.
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin – fiction
This feels like a book I should have read long ago, but then again, I feel that way about everything James Baldwin has written. I picked up a copy for an American Literature course, and ended up reading it two times in one sitting, highlighting different passages and dog-earing pages.
For me, Baldwin’s critique of America (represented by the character of David) is the most hard-hitting aspect of this novel. David not only embodies this country, but he is also an incredibly human character. He is unable to love anyone more than himself, because love requires bravery and a willingness to dirty oneself. The theme of cleanliness repeats itself around David and the Americans depicted in the novel, who are infantile and overly attached to the myth of their purity. They want to travel the world and have love affairs without being truly affected by any of their interactions. They want to live as though watching their carefully curated lives from a screen, without taking any real risks. Giovanni tells David that he (David) will not bear the “stink” of love and life, which is what leads to the disintegration of all of his relationships. To me, Baldwin’s characterization of America feels accurate on a fundamental level.
What truly shocked me about this novel was how closely David’s fears seemed to align with my own. This story was not only a haunting tragedy, but a reminder that I can choose to live life to the fullest possible extent, bearing the “stink” of mistakes and others’ judgments. Without making this choice, I am a clean American, unable to do anything that jeopardizes my own precarious sense of safety.
Ghost of by Diana Khoi Nguyen – poetry
Even briefly flipping through this unforgettable poetry collection, I knew that Nguyen had done things with her poetry’s formatting that I had never seen before. The book depicts a deep-seated grief, and the shapes of words are used to illustrate this theme as much as the language itself. Some poems have the depth of a newspaper collage, where stanzas are written in all different directions and overlay each other. Other times, words are used to visually depict their meanings (ringlets like ripples in water, or most painfully, a person’s silhouette cut from the shape of a poem, leaving a human-shaped hole within the block of text). The visual presentation of these poems is unbelievable. The second poem on this page showcases this wonderfully.
Visual splendor aside, Nguyen’s writing is impressionistic. She transported me into the dream-world of grieving a loved one, where images and sensations take precedence over the waking world’s logic. Days and moments blur into each other, overlapping family with deaths, time with place. In these poems, the logic of missingness makes sense. There is a strange magic to these words that I am still trying to process and translate into a language I can fully understand. Nonetheless, this book helped me enormously through a dark period, while challenging me poetically in ways that I had never experienced before.
10% Happier by Dan Harris – nonfiction
This was one of the books that first motivated me to start meditating. I was already aware of the benefits (stress/anxiety reduction, increased focus, better sleep, improved relationships… the list seemed endless) but was concerned that becoming too serene would lead me back to complacency. School and work-based stress, alongside fear of being inferior to my high-achieving peers, were the main motivators getting me off my ass during the first half of 2018. Towards the end of 2017, I had experienced a period of nihilistic resign and often told myself, “Productivity is an illusion because death erases everything I’ll do, and so there’s no point in really pushing to do anything.” I broke out of that mindset, thankfully, but was afraid that meditation would give me reason to feel that way again.
In the second half of the book, Harris tackles that same question of productivity vs. mindfulness, and how the two can be balanced without canceling each other out. Of course, I could not afford to drop my life for weeks or months at a time to go on retreats with meditation masters in India; nor could I afford to continue feeling so overwhelmed about relatively small problems. I figured if this incredibly busy and type-A guy can figure out a way to integrate meditation into his routine without losing his competitive “edge,” maybe I can, too.
My favorite chapter by far was the one where Dan describes his experience on his first ten-day meditation retreat. He walks through the entire retreat day-by-day in incredible detail, not sparing a single moment of agony or eventual blissful concentration. Reading this made me want to go on a meditation retreat and try meditating more than anything else up to that point. The first half of the book is mostly autobiography, which is fun (especially if you are interested in television media or his experience as a war correspondent), but the “meat” of the book for me was in the aforementioned second half. I can honestly say that reading this book changed the course of my life. I listen to the 10% Happier podcast at least a few times a week; it feels like I am passively gaining the knowledge and wisdom of an entire community of experienced meditators.
Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Lowen – nonfiction
Much like the first book in this post, Sapiens, my interest in picking this up was not rooted in the book itself so much as what it could teach me. As it turns out, the answer is a lot. The opening pages stunned me — I had no idea Helen Keller grew up to be a radical communist, nor did I know half of the terrible policy decisions of Woodrow Wilson. I knew that American history textbooks suffered from omission and exaggeration (for example, the mythologizing of Christopher Columbus), but also knew that my knowledge contained large gaps. Reading this book filled in many of those gaps and gave me a greater, more factual understanding of American history.
Of course, most college students already know that Columbus instigated 500 years of genocide and colonialism, and that their history textbooks conveniently brushed over the perspectives of slaves and indigenous Americans, save for a passage of Frederick Douglass or Squanto. However, this book goes into far more detail than those broad omissions that many of us haven’t heard of. It provided me with a firmer foundation to stand on when I think about and discuss America’s flawed past. Instead of vaguely gesturing towards certain people or ideas, I have a review of the specific decisions that guided American history.
Eye Level by Jenny Xie – poetry
Excuse the pun, but I have never felt more seen by a poetry book. Beneath all of its different localities, a piercing loneliness is woven throughout Eye Level in a way that paradoxically makes the reader feel less alone. If Ghost of is a book that walked me through dreams and grief, Eye Level is a book that walked through the real world and my own longing mind. It explores the world, yet focuses on particular interior moments. The language is simple, almost sparse, yet the spaces on the page are where I find my eye being drawn towards. This book reminds me of a novel with its plot and characters gutted. All that’s left are the details of place and a sensation of moving towards something, though no one can be sure what that place is.
This beautiful book carried me through a time where I felt especially lost and without any real structure in my life. Not only is it reassuring in its familiarity (all of us go through those periods), but it reminded me that loneliness is, partially, a story I tell myself.
12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos by Jordan Peterson – nonfiction
I decided to buy this book towards the beginning of my first summer of teaching. I remember struggling to keep it together as my classroom devolved into chaos, and petty drama erupted between my students daily. “An antidote to chaos” was desperately needed in my life. On one hand, Peterson’s writing on gender did not do it for me. His gendering chaos as feminine and order as masculine strikes me as especially funny (given the state of young men’s lives, which the author tackles directly in his online recorded lectures)…
But overall, this book has a powerful motivating aspect that is hard to overstate. The author does not only tell the reader to get themselves together, but gives them actionable steps to take. There are so many great quotes in this book that I have written in my notebook or other places, to remind myself that happiness does not equal more pleasurable moments, and that responsibility is ultimately going to give me purpose. The Biblical passages effectively serve their purpose of illustrating the twelve rules. Even the somewhat out-of-place chapter on child-rearing helped me shift my relationship with the kids I was teaching. Peterson reminded me that parents (and other caregivers) are nurturing and caring proxies for the outside world. I realized that if I did not deliver consequences for my students’ poor behavior, society would inevitably punish them in far harsher ways.
I have re-read this book many times since this summer, and each re-reading gives me a renewed sense of purpose. At risk of sounding like a sales pitch: I truly think that I have been able to better harness my potential as a result of reading this book. I have since resolved to stop lying, embrace responsibility, and care less about what others think. It became clear to me how Peterson’s work has “sparked” the healthy maturation of thousands of young adults.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for taking the time to read this post!
My goal for 2019 is to read at least 30 books. One of my reasons for starting this blog was to provide accountability for this goal and others. I aim to write about these books on here as I read them. I also hope to write more list posts like this one (maybe “most impactful books I read from my undergraduate syllabi,” or something similar).
I think now that I’m no longer in school, part of me already misses writing and reflecting on the things I read. To help channel this, I plan on creating a reading “syllabus” for myself to follow, which will cover January-June 2019. Even though I’ll be working 40 hours a week and studying for the Praxis (PA teaching certification exams), I should have more free time than I did as an undergrad. If I do make this syllabus, it will most likely contain more nonfiction than fiction.
As a sidenote, I now think I was meant to be a Philosophy major than an English major. If I had the chance to go back and restart my undergraduate career, I would definitely major in Philosophy and minor in visual art and/or creative writing.