In 2018, reading took a backseat in the sport utility vehicle of my life, taking up a spot right next to the car seat we installed for our newborn son. Suddenly, it found itself competing with a bunch of foreign pastimes for my free time, like diaper changing; chair rocking, walking, sometimes dancing (a slow waltz, mind you) the baby to sleep; and hunting for pacifiers. (Why does it seem like every time a pacifier is most critically needed, it seems to have disappeared?) In the back seat, stuffed toys, board books, foam letters, used diapers started to pile on top of it. But it was never completely buried.
I took a look back on my year and was pleasantly surprised. I didn’t read quite as much as I did in 2017. But my reading list didn’t entirely comprise of board books and other forms of books you can put in your mouth, either.
When there’s a will, there’s a way. I devised ways to get my reading time in. I seized spare time during my son’s naps and breastfeeding sessions. On flights, I resisted naps and the crossword puzzles in airline magazines. At bedtimes, I crawled under the covers with my iPhone light on, terrified of waking up the baby but determined to get a few pages of reading in before I dozed off.
And now, I look in the rearview mirror, and it’s been a fun reading year. I said in my year-end book review last year how social reading can be, despite the act itself being strictly solitary. It was more true than ever for me this year: more than half the books I read this year was recommended at one point to me by my family, friends, co-workers. Ray Dalio’s Principles: Life and Work came up several times in conversations with a colleague. At least three (The Dispossessed, The Running Man, and A Man Called Ove) were all suggestions on my Facebook post linking to the 2017 book review blog article. The #1 book on this list was recommended to me by my sister.
It’s also funny how looking back on the books have told me about my year. I read my first John le Carre novel, and it was a pick up from the first estate sale I’ve ever attended. I knocked off two books that had been on my waiting list forever (The Once and Future King and Seeing Voices), sparking a feeling of (no, not joy, Marie Kondo) relief, a clearing of guilt perhaps not unlike the feeling after you’ve just completed a visit with friends that you’ve promised, but neglected, to see for far too long. I’d been following the author of #4 on this list on Twitter for a while, and finally decided to buy a book of his and was rewarded with a rip-roaring tale. Also, because of a writing project of mine, my book choices leaned heavily towards the memoir genre—which explains how three memoirs landed in my top five.
And now, without any further delay (how can it be March already!?), the top books I read in 2018:
The Top Five
5. Porcelain: A Memoir, Moby, 2016
Against all odds, a memoir written by a musician landed on my list. While the book did feature his music career, it was about so much more. It was about living in an abandoned factory as a teenager, grappling with Christianity, the club scene in 90’s New York City, resisting and then giving in to a drug habit. Moby’s stories of going to record stores every week to listen to and grab the latest releases on vinyl, and then lugging stacks of these records over to clubs where he DJ’d were a neat glimpse at the not-so-distant past, when you couldn’t purchase and download songs at the touch of your thumb. Moby writes his story with a personal touch and humor that drew you in, and every time I put it down I looked forward to the next time I could pick back up where I left off.
4. Old Man’s War, John Scalzi, 2005
It only took me a couple days to burn through this book, and boy was it a heck of a run. I’d been following the author, John Scalzi, on Twitter for a while. One day at a Barnes and Noble I came across his name, boldly emblazoned on a book cover in full caps, space fighters and a planet under fire in the background. You can’t get any more sci fi than that. The story’s set sometime in the future, where old people on Earth can volunteer to fight in the planet’s interstellar defense force. They have to serve 10 years, and in return they get a brand new, genetically perfected body and a second chance at life in a colony on another planet. Scalzi has a fun, wry writing style and paces the story just right—every time you end a chapter you just have to start the next one.
3. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander, 2010
Every year I join in a Secret Santa thing with my extended family. Last year for the second year in a row I kept my wish list simple: I wanted my Santa to give me his or her most favorite book, and to have a conversation about it. I was expecting a paperback summer beach read, a lightweight to toy with on the mat. I got this instead, a sumo wrestler towering over me. Not going to lie, it wasn’t an easy read. But it was worth it.
Jim Crow never really went away, Micelle Alexander argues. It was just quietly, slowly replaced by a far more insidious system of oppression. Alexander lays it all on the table, starting with how the War on Drugs and its damaging rhetoric led to a prison system of a size never before seen in mankind, overwhelmingly occupied by people of color. She explains how, in place of poll taxes and literacy tests of the Jim Crow era, we now have felonies slapped on people convicted of minor possession drugs, stripping away their rights to vote, and greatly reducing their chances of employment and generally shunning them from society. She dives into the dangers of the ‘colorblind’ society we now have, shifting our definitions of racism to outright acts (such as the use of the n-word), and ignoring more subtle forms, such as the study that found that 95% of people, when asked to picture a drug user, thought of a black person—even though only 15% of drug users are black.
Most striking was Alexander’s argument that ‘black exceptionalism’ contributed to the new Jim Crow. Stories of successful, wealthy black people became weapons that opponents wielded to argue that this new form of systemic racial oppression existed. It was written in 2010, so Barack Obama was the prominent example. We had a black president, how can you argue that such racism is still prevalent in America?
Six years later we said goodbye to President Obama and ushered in a president who ran on a campaign promise to build a border wall, referred to African countries as ‘shithole’ countries, tried to enact a Muslim ban, made fun of the Trail of Tears, and referred to Mexican immigrants as ‘rapists.’ The list is a lot longer, but I’ll just link to this article instead of wasting any more space here.
In the age of Trump, in a time when Colin Kaepernick cannot get a job because he knelt to protest oppression of people of color, this was a timely read. Shout out to my Cousin Aubree for the gift.
2. Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt, 1996
Hot damn, this was a really good read. I’d never read someone who wrote quite like McCourt does. His sentences run, run, and run. They meander, take quick twists and turns, and roll on with the rhythmic patter of a cross-country runner’s well-worn sneakers on a countryside trail.
And the stories he tells, sweet Jesus. Poverty like I’ve never seen: infant deaths, subsisting on sugar water and food stolen from neighbors, living in rented hovels right next to the neighborhood outhouse. An alcoholic father blowing paycheck after paycheck on bar tabs, a determined mother getting by ‘on the dole,’ and going to great lengths for survival. A heartbreaking read, well worth it.
1. The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls, 2005
The second consecutive memoir featuring an alcoholic father, The Glass Castle tops my list for 2018. My sister Cindy read it some time ago and told me it was so good. I didn’t believe her until I cracked it open. Rex Walls, the author’s father, steals the show. To evade debt collectors, he uproots his family dozens of times before Jeannette turns ten. One minute he’s tying himself to the bed to prevent himself from drinking when Jeannette tells him his birthday wish is for him to stop drinking, the next minute he’s burning down the Christmas tree because there are presents and he didn’t buy them himself. You love him and you hate him all at the same time.
The real heroes are Jeanette and her siblings, who endure their eccentric and self-damaging pair of parents, and go on to create substantial lives for themselves. It’s heartwrenching, it’s poignant, it’s worth your time.
Full List of Books I Read in 2018
A Man Called Ove Fredrik Backman
Unbroken Laura Hillenbrand
Outliers Malcolm Gladwell
The Once and Future King TH White
Born Standing Up Steve Martin
‘Tis Frank McCourt
The Running Man Stephen King
The Glass Castle Jeanette Walls
Lord of the Flies William Golding
The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest Steig Larsson
Seeing Voices Oliver Sacks
The Honourable Schoolboy John le Carre
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life William Finnegan
We’re Going to Need More Wine Gabrielle Union
It’s Not Yet Dark Simon Fitzmaurice
Angela’s Ashes Frank McCourt
Hit Makers Derek Thompson
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness Michelle Alexander
Principles: Life and Work Ray Dalio
Old Man’s War John Scalzi
The Dispossessed Ursula K. Le Guin