For what it’s worth, here are the ten books I most enjoyed, learned from, dug to the max in the past year. Only one is new, but they’re all in print if you’re interested. I’m listing them alphabetically by author’s last name, not ranking them 1-10.
Lynda Barry – How to Draw Comics. How does a guide to making comics double as a tool for spiritual growth? Check out this line: “We might call what we are doing when we use images in this way a form of dreaming.” By the way, Barry doesn’t care if you think you can draw. She prefers students who gave up drawing as children. That’s where the magic lies!
Bill Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything. I read whatever Bryson writes, but this is his best one, I think. Each chapter a compact, reader-friendly history of scientific discovery (with head-shaking anecdotes about the wacky discoverers themselves), ranging from the macro marvels of astronomy to the micro level guesses of atomic physics.
Ted Hughes – Poetry in the Making. Like Barry’s book, a primer on imagining differently, in the great English poet Hughes’ case, in order to build poems. The book was intended as a tool for middle school teachers, but its appreciation of the rigor, attentiveness, humor, and compassion that goes into writing a poem offers lessons for us all.
Mark Hyman – 10-Day Detox Diet: The Blood Sugar Solution. Ironic that I write this while slamming one of my wife Chris’ yummy Christmas cookies, but I do so having lost fifteen pounds by following the guidelines in this sensible guide to healthy eating. The book’s also a convincing screed against the sugar industry that we now know has sucked most of us into a deadly addiction. The other books on this list expanded my horizons. This one shrank my waistband.
Gerda Lerner – A Death of One’s Own. Hard to blurb this book, which has touched and shaken me more than anything else read this year. Gifted by a friend who is facing her own deadly cancer, this is a deeply felt day-by-day testament to the tumor-driven dying of the author’s husband. I think it’s a capital-G Great book, singing love, marriage, worry, wonder, and yes, the certainty awaiting us all.
J.R. Moehringer – Sutton. The author of a poignant memoir The Tender Bar and that ace biography of Andre Agassi, Open (both well worth reading) brings a noir sensibility and hard-boiled style to this fictionalized biography of the world’s most famous bank robber Willie Sutton. Mr. Scorsese, please, make a film of it!
Toni Morrison – The Bluest Eye. A tremor in the Force this year with her death, sending me to this debut novel I’d missed. Amazing that right at the start it was all there – her pitch-perfect plainsong, her spiraling dives into complex psychology, her ability to frame explosive critiques of our screwed up world in the troubles of a single family. In 2020, I’m planning to take them all in order, one by one.
Michele Obama – Becoming. I bought this for Chris for her birthday last year, in audio book form as read by the author, and we’ve shared it among friends ever since. We all know that voice: succinct, loving, sharp-eyed, decent, and self-aware. I’m not a huge fan of listening to books, but this one you have to hear.
Walker Percy – The Last Gentleman & The Second Coming. One of the unsung pleasures of living in your 7th decade is that of re-reading. These two novels published decades apart concern the same spacey protagonist, an everyman adrift in the pretty illusion that we call life. As a youngster, the first spoke to me more. (Hard for youngsters to care much about the worries of the old, I guess.) But now, reading them together, Percy’s wily tracing of the way one’s rubbery soul resists its own lessons across a lifetime turned the two novels into one instructive (and even funny) meditation.
Esme Weijun Wang – The Collected Schizophrenias. Most of us have seen the damage an unbalanced mind can do; Wang shares her own story, that of a brilliant student reduced to hiding in a closet beset by monsters, living always in the shadow of lurking psychosis. She shares what she has learned about mental illness, too, and it’s clear we don’t know much. We have labels, we have categories, we have brain-modulating medications, but also people everywhere hiding in closets beset by monsters.
Colson Whitehead – The Intuitionist. Whitehead’s big book this year was Nickel Boys, but I found his first at Goodwill and thought I might start there. An audacious mash-up of Ellison and Delillo, this young man straight out of Harvard weaves a sustained metaphor about racism and social striving into a detective story involving elevator inspectors. After this, in 2020 (just like with Morrison), I’m planning to read straight through Whitehead’s oeuvre. I mean, wow.
Oops! That’s twelve (thirteen if you count the two Percy’s separately). So, sue me. Please also note that I have not mentioned the wonderful books by my friends that came out this year, having written about them in previous posts. What have you enjoyed reading in 2019? Please share in a comment if you will. And happy holiday reading to all!