10 Books That Swept Me Off My Feet in 2019
From Atlas Shrugged to Speaker for the Dead — and everything in between.
This year I read 62 books. That’s a book a week, and a tiny bit more. My reading choices are often weirdly eclectic (from Astro Boy to the Quran), but maybe that’s alright. There’s no way you can read only critically acclaimed, time-tested classics for a year and remain sane. There’s also no way life-changing wisdom is limited to these critically acclaimed, time-tested classics.
So here are my ten eclectic favourites of 2019. The ten books that opened my eyes, blew my mind and swept me off my feet. In alphabetical order, because all of them are the best.
There are three things you should know before picking up Atlas Shrugged:
- Stephen King called Rand’s prose “wooden”¹. That was kind of him.
- The most popular paperback edition of Atlas Shrugged is 1,168 pages long. Or, if you are an audiobook person, 63 hours, comprised mostly of immaterial stuff not happening. You have to really want to finish it.
- If you do finish it, it will change your life.
This is how Rand describes Objectivism, the philosophy behind Atlas Shrugged:
“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”
Atlas Shrugged is a fascinating, insightful, thought-provoking book. Rand even has what to say about sex:
“Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life.”
My values are very different from Rand’s, yet her worldview enriched mine beyond anything else I read in 2019.
Alexievich has a way of unlocking the hearts of those she talks to. Not just of those who were hurt, but of those who did the hurting, too.
Boys in Zinc goes back to the 1980s, the Soviet-Afghan War. The real war is never fair or heroic. It’s horrifying, shameful, cruel, and infinitely sad. Grieving mothers gather in a cemetery to talk to their dead boys; young women are forced to trade sexual favours — it’s their “duty”; haunted sons come back, but wish they hadn’t.
“In the hospital I saw how a Russian girl put a teddy bear on the bed of an Afghan boy. He took it with his teeth and played with it because he had no arms. ‘Your Russians did this,’ the words of his mother were translated to me. ‘Do you have children? What? Boy or girl?’ I don’t know until this day what was bigger in her eyes — terror or forgiveness.”
Alexievich has published four other books in her Nobel prize-winning Voices of Utopia series. I reread Voices from Chernobyl every few years. In Russian, it’s called Чернобыльская молитва, or Chernobyl Prayer. I don’t go to church, but I pray for those whose stories fill its pages.
Oh, and if you find it hard to read Alexievich’s books, here’s a tip from my little sister: don’t rush, take breaks after each chapter, fill them with… romantic comedy. I’ve heard Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and Bridget Jones are perfect for the job.
The traditional approach to philanthropy could be described as “I feel, therefore I give”. Indeed, giving from the bottom of one’s heart is a beautiful act. But how can you know that your donation will truly make a difference? The answer is effective altruism: using evidence and reasoning to determine the most effective ways to benefit others.
Doing Good Better is an accessible, highly-readable, inspiring introduction to effective altruism. Read it. It will change your life. But more importantly, it will help you change the lives of others.
Effective altruism is about asking “How can I make the biggest difference I can?” and using evidence and careful reasoning to try to find an answer. It takes a scientific approach to doing good. Just as science consists of the honest and impartial attempt to work out what’s true, and a committment to believe the truth whatever that turns out to be. As the phrase suggests, effective altruism consists of the honest and impartial attempt to work out what’s best for the world, and a commitment to do what’s best, whatever that turns out to be.
When my sister told me she was going vegan, I made fun of her. After reading How Not to Die, I decided to become a vegan, too. Now my dad makes fun of me.
To be clear, I did not manage to become a vegan. Maybe 2020 will be the year — in 2019, I simply could not give up Meiji Bulgaria Yoghurt. But I did become a vegetarian*. Dr Greger convinced me (a die-hard gyukatsu fan) with a mix of hard science, an overwhelming amount of references, just the right amount of repetition, and perfect chapter names. Because yes, I do want to know “How Not to Die from Digestive Cancers”.
* With exceptions. I can’t tell my Grandma I won’t eat her vėdarai when I visit for Christmas — she’s been waiting for a year to cook them for me.
I devoured it all, including appendices, acknowledgements, and references. I don’t remember ever having so much fun while reading a book.
The Code Book is an infinitely enjoyable history of encryption that starts with Mary, Queen of Scots (beheaded…) and ends with quantum physics (🤯). Singh tells wonderful stories. He can also explain mathematics as if it was as easy as, well, 2+2. I know it’s said that if you think you’ve understood quantum mechanics, you’ve clearly misunderstood it, but I swear I did get it. Singh is that good.
That said, I might have taken my fascination with the topic a step too far. My next few letters to my sister were in code, and I had to help her decipher the last one while she was visiting me in Tokyo…
I love crime novels. I am also anxious about getting older with every year (duh) and dying before I’ve read all the great books out there. So I love crime novels from a distance. Because no matter how good a crime novel is, there are probably better books I should read first.
JK Rowling’s Cormoran Strike series is an exception. I’ve long given up any hope of figuring out whodunit in her novels — though it’s still a ton of fun to get to the bottom of the mystery. Instead, I read Cormoran Strike because I am intimately acquainted with Robin and her douchebag husband Matthew (seriously, she should have never gotten married). Because I know where Strike lives (Denmark Street, not far from FOPP, a music store where you can get two books for a fiver). And because Rowling’s stories become real in my head like nobody else’s.
Lethal White is as good as it gets. A failed marriage, a blackmailed minister, a disturbed witness, a dead horse… It’s a perfect slow burn; a maze of motives and red herrings; and a back story that hit close to home.
I think marriage is nearly always an unfathomable entity, even to the people inside it.
Few things make me ashamed of being European. The 1992–1995 Bosnian War is one of them. Maas tells of the people he met, both Serbs and Bosnians; of the stupid risks he took; of UN peacekeepers bathing Bosnians trying to escape the siege in searchlights, turning them into easy prey for Serbian snipers.
The book finishes before the Srebrenica massacre. As you close it, you know that we could have prevented it. We knew what was happening. We knew enough for Mass to write a book, for God’s sake. And yet we stood still and watched them die.
I never thought that one day I would talk to a skeleton. That’s what I did at Trnopolje. I walked through the gates and couldn’t quite believe what I saw. There, right in front of me, were men who looked like survivors of Auschwitz. I remember thinking that they walked surprisingly well for people without muscle or flesh. I was surprised at the mere fact that they could still talk. Imagine, talking skeletons! As I spoke to one of them, I looked at his arm and realized that I could grab hold of it and snap it into two pieces like a brittle twig. I could do the same with his legs. I saw dozens of other walking skeletons of that sort. I could break all of their arms, all of their legs. Snap. Snap. Snap.
Sarajevo is one of my favourite cities in Europe. History is written all over its bullet-ridden walls and cratered streets. And yet as you sit in a noisy café in the bustling old town, you get a feeling that good things can happen.
Love Thy Neighbor is a reminder that bad things can happen, too.
Jane Austen changed my life. I find myself in love with numerous fictional characters, dreaming of an advantageous marriage with a wealthy gentleman, and quoting Pride and Prejudice in my head whenever an opportunity presents itself.
What are men to rocks and mountains?
Austen’s prose is perfect, her dialogues ooze with sarcasm, and her love stories shatter you to pieces…
(If that sounds appealing, go grab Sense and Sensibility and Emma, too.)
Remember Atlas Shrugged? That book will, without a doubt, be the longest 1,000 pages you have ever read. Shōgun will be the shortest.
Set in Japan in 1600, Shōgun is a story of honour, war, and love. At 1,152 pages (or 54 hours), it’s a hefty historical novel. Yet I wish it was longer. I wish I could learn what happened after it ended. I wish the entire history of Japan had been told through the eyes of John Blackthorne, an arrogant, ignorant sailor who became a humble, trusted samurai.
[…], by universal custom, your enemy is never more polite than when he is planning or has planned your destruction.
Back in 2013, I read Ender’s Game. I’d never read a book so… profound? Six years later, I picked up Speaker for the Dead.
It broke my heart.
Then mended it.
But also different.
He is dangerous, he is beautiful, I could drown in his understanding.
I sometimes think that science fiction is the only genre that can truly answer what it means to be human, to have empathy, and to show compassion.
Once you understand what people really want, you can’t hate them anymore. You can fear them, but you can’t hate them, because you can always find the same desires in your own heart.
¹ In his wonderful part-memoir, part-writing how-to On Writing. It’s № 11 on my top-books-of-2019 list.