At the end of last year, I decided to take a look back at all of the books I’d read in 2018 and provide some ranking to them. This was partly because I like lists, but also partly because I wanted to provide some objectivity to how I felt about the various books I’d read for the first time. I’ve decided to repeat this exercise in 2019, albeit with a much larger list, as you can see below. As was the case last year, if there was a book you read that’s on my list below, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I read a ton of good books this year, so there’s some books I loved and would have been top five in last year’s list — such as 10:04 by Ben Lerner — that are relatively low on this list. This is largely driven by the fact that there were several good books recommended to me. For the most part, these recommendations did not disappoint.
This post is part one of two in this series. For part two, click here. Once it’s posted on December 30th, that is.
I have a few books I’ve chosen not to rank for various reasons. Those books, along with why I’ve chosen not to rank them, are listed in alphabetical order below.
- Computer Machinery and Intelligence by Alan Turing – I read this solely as research for my work in progress and nothing more. It’s a super interesting read, but it’s way too short to be considered a book.
- Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (Translated by John Minford) – Considering this translation is 85% analysis by people other than the actual writer, I didn’t feel it fair to judge Lao Tzu’s work based off of this specific copy. Plus it’s a religious text and people get antsy when you do that.
Also, spoilers ahead for many of these books. If you care about that sort of thing.
31. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
aka: Just because a book is famous doesn’t mean it’s good.
No. Just no. This might make my list of worst books of all time. I generally love philosophy books, but this was cringeworthy. If I wanted to read a book rebuking education, I’d read Ayn Rand again. At least that’s transparent about being horrible philosophy.
30. Sunburn by Laura Lippman
aka: How many unlikeable characters can you cram into a single book?
Never judge a book by its cover — or its back cover blurb. After I finished a book that appears much later on this list, I realized that I wanted to read another psychological thriller immediately after because of how engrossed I got in that book. So I picked up Sunburn, drawn in by its well-designed cover and the synopsis that the back of the book gave me, only to be majorly disappointed in how flat the book fell. It’s almost as if the author tried to see if they could write an entire book solely with characters who have no redeeming qualities. Which was super confusing, as I’ve really only heard good things about Laura Lippman as a writer. I finished the book so that I didn’t give up early on another book I didn’t like1, but Sunburn felt like a waste of a week and a half of my commute more than anything. The final 10% of the book in particular was infuriating. Sure, lots of bad people got what was coming to them in the end, but the least likeable character in the book gets the happy ending. Why? At least the audiobook reader was good?
29. The Bassoon King by Rainn Wilson
aka: The old baha’i and switch
I genuinely went into this book assuming I’d get a biography of Rainn Wilson. My hope was that there’d be a decent amount of focus on his time on The Office, however, I knew that he had done other work, so I assumed we’d get into that. Instead, the book was just as much an exploration of Wilson’s spiritual journey and relationship with drugs in his youth as it was anything else. Wilson is funny — I laughed harder at certain parts of this book than I did at many books higher on this list — but I spent more of the book wondering why I was reading this than genuinely being interested. Its highs are very high, but the lows are frequent and extended.
28. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
aka: Everyone’s a little bit racist…and lying
Here we have a great premise of a book and a story style I love — the murder mystery — ruined by rampant stereotyping and a final sixth of the book that falls flat. Most of the characters in the book spend time talking about how Brits are stuck up and reserved or how Americans are pragmatic jerks or how Italians just love to stab people. I get that it’s not a long enough book to develop a cast of nearly 20 characters all deeply, but nearly everyone was a walking stereotype (mostly driven by how others spoke of them). Even if you want to go with the defense that the book is just “a product of its time”2, the first 80% of the book is spent setting up an entire plot line, only for it to be thrown out for the final 20%. Then, after the final 20% of the book builds up a second narrative about the book’s true killer, the final page of the book decides to say fuck it and none of it matters. I was left wondering why I’d even read it.
27. The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data by Michael P. Lynch
aka: My biggest Twitter pet peeve, now formatted as a book
Have you ever followed someone on Twitter — let’s call them Account A — because one of your friends follows them? You realized from your friend’s retweets that Account A is interesting, insightful, funny, or whatever quality you’re really looking for in a good Twitter follow. Beyond that, Account A shares many, though not necessarily all, of the world views you have, reinforcing them from a source of credibility. But then, once you begin following Account A, you realize that they’re often talking to their followers like they’re kindergartners — treating the broader consumer of their content as having no knowledge of particularly prevalent concepts. Account A also retweets themselves constantly, not to mention retweeting people who talk about how awesome and insightful Account A is3 ? That’s pretty much The Internet of Us. Amazingly informative book. But I felt like I was in a college class led by a professor who was only teaching the class because they were forced to (because they were super knowledgeable in that field), and were sleepwalking through it as a result.
26. Ulysses by James Joyce
aka: A rambling Irish odyssey.
Truth be told, this book was long, boring, and not particularly easy to follow via the audiobook. Perhaps I would have liked it better and/or understood it more if I were reading a physical copy, but I don’t have time to read an 800 page book just laying around in my week. I did that with Anna Karenina a few years ago and while that was worth it, Ulysses wasn’t. On the plus side, the audiobook performance read by John Lee had amazing voice work — to the point where it might be the best read book on this entire list.
25. The Personality Brokers by Merve Emre
aka: Personality testing and religion have a lot more similarities than you realize
Despite largely being a biography of the authors of the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory rather than a breakdown of that test (and other personality tests as I had hoped it would be), I had three primary takeaways from this book:
- Holy shit Katherine Briggs was a horrible human being.
- Personality testing is a lot like religion/faith. Neither has much, if any, scientific validity. That said, there is a lot people can draw out of each of them. Much of it can be good and be a positive way to improve peoples’ lives. But there’s a lot of ways it can be used to manipulate and oppress people, nevermind the fact that it can be used to reinforce someone’s own bigoted tendencies (see #1).
- People who use personality testing and an end-all, be-all way to control their employees’ careers is frightening…and more common than you’d think.
24. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
aka: Paint the bird feathers by numbers
This was one of the books that the internet recommended to me (though I sadly can’t remember where I got this recommendation from), so I was excited to read it. And considering the five month wait I had to spend on a wait list for the book, I expected this to be a showstopping book of epic proportions. Hell, I waited longer for this book than Michelle Obama’s book. That said, I can sum up this book in one sentence. Decent story, terrible ending. It was predictable chapter by chapter, particularly after reading a couple of other books on this list. I was interested in the story, hence placing it above the books below it on the list. But more often than not, I found myself wishing the story would go somewhere other than where it did with the turn of every page. I actively said ‘oh, goddammit’ multiple times as I read the book. At least Jumpin’ and Mabel were entertaining?
23. Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker
aka: As I said in my first book, everything is your parents’ fault.
I read this book as research for my current WIP. In reading this book, I learned a ton about CPTSD, how it manifests itself, how people can cope with it, and several other topics. It was an immensely useful book roughly 75% of the time. That said, while part of the premise of this book is that CPTSD is driven by childhood trauma, there were several scenarios and ancedotes that the author blamed on childhood trauma that clearly were not caused by the child’s parents. The biggest one that jumped out to me was a story about how a sexual assault victim who was assaulted as a child also got assaulted later again in life. According to the author’s story, because the woman’s parents had done nothing to address the assault from her childhood, the woman was prone to getting assaulted again later in life. Just. No. Not even a little. Also, if you take a shot every time Walker mentions his first book, you’ll be unconscious by chapter 7.
22. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks
aka: As I said in my previous books, the brain is fucking weird.
If you take a shot every time Sacks mentions something else he’s written, you’ll be unconscious before you start reading. It earns the nod to being one spot higher on this list than the previous book solely because the stories in it were much easier to listen to. Granted, part of that is subject matter, but still.
21. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
aka: I fully understand why I gave up on this book three times in the past
Of the various books on this list, this is one of two I had attempted to read before 20194. In fact, I had attempted to read Dorian Gray on three separate occasions since I started college at the recommendations of various folks whose book opinions I respected. I never made it past the first quarter of the book on any of those occasions. I figured picking up the audiobook ready by Stephen Fry would help — and it did, as I finally finished the book. That said, despite Fry’s great performance, the book is exactly what I remembered it to be: boring, fatalist, and tedious. The moral to the story is still good, in that your misdeeds will eventually be your undoing by hook or by crook. But the other lessons I think Wilde is trying to show in his story fall flat, particular with a character as uninteresting as Dorian Gray is.
20. Failure is an Option by H. Jon Benjamin
aka: Sometimes diarrhea in a rental car ends better than expected
First off, I swear to god the aka line makes sense once you read the book. Second, for a book that I picked up because all of my other to-read books were on hold — and even then only because I’m a fan of Archer — this was a surprisingly entertaining listen5. Benjamin is relatable in many of his failures and some of the stories are fun. As a web series or movie, I feel like Failure is an Option would be hysterical. As a book, it fell flat at times, but was still enjoyable. The book wasn’t a failure, even though Benjamin spent a lot of time self-deprecating its quality. If anything, it was probably the most average book on this list, dividing the good (or better) books above it from the bad books below it.
19. Sherlock Holmes: A Baker Street Dozen by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
aka: Characters, not plot depth, can make stories
Despite my love for the various Sherlock Holmes television series and movies that have come out over time, I’ve never actually read any of the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I decided to rectify that by reading a compilation of the stories. And yes, the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are great characters and their adventures are entertaining. The biggest thing that jumped out to me is that arguably the most common flaw that people pointed out in my book — that the short stories don’t build up backstory and skip over potentially relevant details for sake of moving the plot along — is the EXACT thing that happens in every single Sherlock Holmes story. Granted, I’m not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In fact, I’m far from it. But seeing this did make me feel slightly better about my writing.
18. When the Lights Go Out by Mary Kubica
aka: A book of dualities on every level you could imagine
I reviewed When the Lights Go Out earlier this year, so for sake of not rehashing that all over again, I’ll keep this short. The Jessie Sloane arc of the book is genuinely one of the best slow burn character descents into madness I’ve ever read. Full stop. The Eden Sloane arc of the book was bad. It was on par with Sunburn, only with a character you’re actively rooting against because you can see the impact this woman has on her daughter. I want more of this book and to never read it again all at the same time.
17. Me of Little Faith by Lewis Black
aka: This book isn’t too ba…what the fuck just happened?
The first 85% of this book is exactly what I expected from Lewis Black having been a fan of his standup and watching him on The Daily Show. Witty, sarcastic commentary with disregard for the absurdities of pretty much anyone and everyone. It was a good book, but not an amazing one. Then the last 15% of the book happened. He wrote a multi-character play with multiple flashbacks inside of it. And this was already inside of him telling a story within a book. That’s like 16 walls. Me of Little Faith gets bumped up a few spots just because of how weird, unexpected, and oddly effective this was.