What Reading Means to Me (And the Top 10 Books I Read in 2016)

Library Hall, Prague

Last December, I set myself the goal of reading 52 books in 2016. It was a tough challenge to meet — roughly one book per week, and on top of the law school work I already had. But thanks to weekly trains I took from New Haven to Manhattan, and an unhealthy number of hours I spent in the air (Israel, UAE, Turkey, China, Singapore, and Japan were the countries I visited this year), I managed to cross the finish line. Slogging through 52 books of varying lengths was mentally and intellectually taxing, but I’m a believer in Franz Kafka’s maxim that the books we read should wound us, stab us, break us and reconstruct us; they should be axes “for the frozen sea inside us.” According to Goodreads — a superb and underrated social media platform — 16,500 pages read in 2016 exist somewhere in my mind right now.

I wasn’t always a reader. For most of my childhood, I rarely read and didn’t care much for books. This indifference to reading owed, in part, to the fact that reading was never encouraged either at home or at school. Neither of my parents are very bookish people: My father, whose judgment and analysis of politics is more cutting than any paid commentator on television or radio I have heard, has always been a consummate reader of newspapers, ploughing through two or three physical papers from cover to cover before he does anything else in the morning. When I was younger, he would cut out articles from the Toronto Star and set them before me. ‘Read this!’ he would instruct, ‘I’m going to test you on it later.’ Of course, I treated such forced intellectual labor as punishment, but my love of journalism probably began in those impressionable early years. My mother, for her part, reads and re-reads just one book: The Qur’an. She had me and my brothers finish the Qur’an in Arabic when we were children, and so I have as my unique talent the ability to recite classical Arabic from the seventh century. (I read the Qur’an for the first time in English this year — the Oxford World Translation is by far the most readable.) But novels and works of non-fiction only made me shrug as a child. Reading — and writing — were what other people did.

More troubling, as I look back on my schooling, was the fact that reading for its own sake was not encouraged in either middle school or high school. I am not sure why this is the case. School — public school at least — puts education through an industrial factory system that at each stage desiccates the magic out of learning. By the time the politicians, the school board members, the city councilors, and the principals are all done crafting the curriculum kids will learn, any excitement that naturally exists within the material has been purged. I was lucky enough to have teachers who made Shakespeare interesting and who brought the drama of World War Two to life, but they were exceptions to the rule.

Children cannot be bullshitted: Their boredom is not a sign of laziness or apathy but the direct consequence of a mechanized education system that attempts to drill learning into their brains. Rather than inspiring and motivating them to learn, a system that should be passing on knowledge and wisdom to youth teaches them instead that learning is tedious and dull. The damage this does to the youngest minds in our democracy is incalculable. It is no wonder then that most adults do not read books — it is not because they are dumb but because the excitement to be gleaned in the life of the mind was converted into a rote exercise when they were kids, similar to laying bricks or chewing stones.

For me, reading became exhilarating somewhere around twelfth grade and I am fairly certain that the book that flipped me was The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Anyone who has read this book knows exactly what I am talking about. In fact, anyone who has read Malcolm’s autobiography knows the exact scene I am referring to. In prison, Malcolm begins to read the dictionary. Astounded by the number of words he does not know, he starts copying out each page, word-by-word, and at the end of the day, he reads the page back to himself. As his vocabulary increases, the future civil rights leader begins taking out books from the prison’s library, and gradually, his consciousness begins to expand, as does his understanding of himself and the world. “Months passed,” Malcolm wrote, “without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.” So many of us believe ourselves to be free when we actually live in our own prisons; Malcolm was in prison yet he found an inner freedom that no one could take from him.

Reading is what made me want to write. It gave me the tools to express in words what I had long felt in my heart. Reading allowed me, a brown boy from a suburb no one’s heard of, to experience different ways of being, to understand history, to bear witness to the world with clear eyes. I remember getting to college and seeing all the kids around me who went to elite prep schools and thinking to myself, These people can talk better than I can write. The act of reading became a method of survival: If I could continue to imbibe knowledge and continue to sharpen my pen, I thought, perhaps I wouldn’t be the academic failure I had been most of my life. Hungry for answers, I chased after every question that troubled me, spent hours underlining passages, marking up margins, accumulating late fees. Books became drugs, dopes, escapes from the terror of everyday life. The hours and nights blurred into each other; a dim, constrained, straitjacketed world was suddenly bursting with possibilities. I look back on those college days now and see a boy struggling not to “find himself” but to create himself, to enlighten his mind out of its mental poverty. To escape Plato’s cave. To become free.

At a time when the president-elect of the United States doesn’t seem to have read a serious book in his entire life, and when Twitter and Facebook are replacing deep emotional and intellectual engagement, I worry that the act of reading will be relegated to the luxurious pastime of the elite. A democracy requires its citizens to be educated, to make informed decisions about policies that will impact future generations. It also requires giving the other side the benefit of the doubt. What reading does is it teaches intellectual humility. It reminds us that the more we know, the more we realize how little we actually understand. This was Socrates’ definition of education: I know that I am ignorant, and that is all. It is a conclusion that takes time to reach, but it is a powerful recognition indeed. Most of us are so afraid, so insecure, so worried about being wrong, that asking ourselves and others difficult questions are performances, not genuine attempts to discover truth.

“I am actually not at all a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, not a thinker,” Freud wrote in a letter to a friend. “I am by temperament nothing but a conquistador — an adventurer, if you want it translated — with all the curiosity, daring, and tenacity characteristic of a man of this sort.”

I hope that one day when I am frail and old, that I’ll have shelves filled with books I collected from various corners of the world and read in different stages of life, and that I’ll be able to pass them on to my children and grandchildren, helping to build one more bridge between the past and the future, allowing beautiful young minds to annex the wisdom of those who came before them, and I hope that they will see the sages of yesterday — be they Muhammad or Marx, Hemingway or Ellison, Arendt or Sontag — as their own kin. The gift of study is one that only blossoms with time.

Without further ado, here are the top ten books I read this year. The full 52 are at the bottom, with an asterisk next to re-reads, which I’ve excluded from the top ten.

10. Walter Lippman and the American Century by Ronald Steel.

This is the story of Walter Lippmann, one of the greatest journalists of the twentieth century. He was the first to popularize the terms “cold war” and “stereotype,” was a founding editor of The New Republic, and his 1922 book, Public Opinion, is still the definitive work on the perceptions and beliefs (often irrational) of the public-at-large. Ronald Steel, who won the Pulitzer Prize for this work, catalogs Lippmann’s rise from a Harvard undergraduate to an author in early twenties praised by Teddy Roosevelt, to renowned journalist and adviser to presidents. As with every great biography, this is also a work of history, and it tells the story of the ‘American Century’ (a term coined by Henry Luce, the publisher of Time and Life) through the eyes of one of its most perceptive chroniclers.

9. White Noise by Don Delillo

He thinks he’s happy but it’s just a nerve cell in his brain that’s getting too much stimulation or too little stimulation.

Don Delillo is the American prophet of fiction. Published in 1985, White Noise is the definitive account of the postmodern age and the rise of technology. The protagonist is the head of the Department of Hitler Studies who is trying to escape death. Ironic, absurd conversations abound, touching on the ubiquity of The Image in our pixelated era, as when the protagonist and his friend visit The Most Photographed Barn in America. The tourists who flock to The Barn are not there to see it, but to see the totem that The Barn has become, to photograph it, to flock to it with the masses. DeLillo’s bending of reality, and his depiction of a world where what is real and what is simulated are no longer distinguishable, are particularly salient at a time when politics has become reality TV.

8. The Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos.

This is the must-read book on China. Osnos, a reporter for the New Yorker, tells the story of this ancient civilization exploding onto the world stage. The book is filled with interesting anecdotes and mini-profiles of various Chinese officials, dissidents, intellectuals, artists, and businessmen. It is also filled with fascinating facts. In 1978, average Chinese income was $200; in 2014: $6,000. At one point this past decade, China was building the square foot equivalent of a Rome every two weeks. It is estimated that corruption costs China 3% of this GDP. In 2012, the 70 richest members of China’s national legislature had a net worth of almost $90 billion — ten times more than the combined net worth of the entire US Congress. Read this before making your trip to China, or just to familiarize yourself with a rising power that will define geopolitics and international economics for years to come.

7. Shame by Salman Rushdie

Between shame and shamelessness lies the axis upon which we turn; meteorological conditions at both these poles are of the most extreme, ferocious type. Shamelessness, shame: the roots of violence.

Rushdie, along with DeLillo and Toni Morrison, is one of the greatest living writers. His breakthrough novel, Midnight’s Children, created a new genre in the post-colonial novel, one that told the story of South Asia in a language that was not written principally for Westerners. Shame was the follow-up, a tale set in a country that is “not quite Pakistan.” But narrative is not the reason to read Shame; language is. Rushdie is a virtuoso, creating a symphony with sentences, a modern-day Nabokov who, in this novel at least, is operating on a higher plane where paragraphs become music.

6. The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell

The greatest happiness comes with the most complete possession of one’s faculties. It is in these moments when the mind is most active and the fewest things are forgotten that the most intense joys are experienced. The happiness that is genuinely satisfying is accompanied by the fullest exercise of our faculties, and the fullest realization of the world in which we live.

Simply put, we are living through a depressive age. Opiates are killing more people than ever, people are isolated and lonely, depression has become a pandemic. The mental health crisis affects us all, and what’s more, unlike physical injuries, it is largely hidden. The question that we must all ask now is this: Why is it that professional success and material progress have not made us happy? Robin Williams, one of the most successful actors in Hollywood, a man who made the whole world laugh, committed suicide. Countless celebrities who “had it all” on the outside, have been found dead in lavish hotel rooms with needles in their arms.

Bertrand Russell seeks to lay out the ingredients needed to create a happy life. I could write at length about Russell’s prescriptions, but at its core, Russell says that to be happy we must lose our vanity (which is just a polished form of extreme selfishness), focus on external things, devote ourselves to meaningful work, give and receive affection and love freely, and have both the conscious and subconscious mind in harmony. This last bit cannot be overstressed: If one’s internal state is out of focus or disoriented or darkened, no amount of money, sex, riches, fame, or status will make one happy. The Conquest of Happiness belongs on every shelf, especially for those days/weeks/months where we find ourselves in a rut.

5. The Quiet American, by Graham Greene.

That was my first instinct — to protect him. It never occurred to me that there was a greater need to protect myself. Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.

On its surface, this novel is a story of French and American imperialism in Vietnam, but beneath the surface, it is really a story of innocence — and the damage that good intentions can do. An American official (with a mysterious background) named Pyle, an archetypal do-gooder, is in Vietnam bringing with him all kinds of lofty ideas about Democracy and Freedom. He meets Fowler, a British journalist, and falls in love with Phoung, a Vietnamese girl. A love triangle ensues, leading all three characters down the dark, invisible holes produced by war and violence.

4. Black Boy by Richard Wright

Our too-young and too-new America, lusty because it is lonely, aggressive because it is afraid, insists upon seeing the world in terms of good and bad, the holy and the evil, the high and the low, the white and the black; our America is frightened of fact, of history, of processes, of necessity. It hugs the easy way of damning those whom it cannot understand, of excluding those who look different, and it salves its conscience with a self-draped cloak of righteousness

Richard Wright is tragically forgotten today by far too many readers and writers. If James Baldwin was the sharp essayist who would cut down every racist myth with his words, and if Ralph Ellison was the jazz musician riffing extemporaneously on the human condition in Invisible Man and in his essays, Wright was the craftsman and storyteller who paved the way for them both. Black Boy is his beautiful, arresting, moving memoir of a black man recounting his coming-of-age in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee, his move to Chicago, and his eventual membership in the Communist Party. This is the story of a human being coming to terms with an inhuman condition, living in an inhumane time, and facing that most insidious of ideologies: white supremacy and Jim Crow.

3. Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl

But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.

Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist who was sent to Auschwitz during World War II. He did not ask for this life — who would? — but life had thrown him into a concentration camp, and Frankl used the experience to understand how people coped when they reached the depths of misery and misfortune. It’s a short read, but one major takeaway was this: Those who had given up hope, those who had failed to fight on, were the ones who perished first. The prisoners of the Nazi death camps told jokes, argued about politics, and thought of their loved ones — the Nazis wanted to extinguish their inner freedoms, and those prisoners who let this happen, died shortly thereafter. Remember, Frankl tells us, regardless of what life throws at us, there is one choice we always have, one choice no one can take from us: our attitude towards the world.

2. In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman

What autonomy of choice do you have if your preferences are so obviously conditioned by your social milieu? Where is your autonomy if what you choose is what you are bred to have chosen?

This is not a novel, although on the cover it says it is. It is not a work of non-fiction, either. This book contains multitudes. One fine day in London, the nameless narrator of the novel, an investment banker whose marriage is falling apart and who is about to live through the worst financial crisis in decades, is visited by an old friend, ragged and haggard, a nomad named Zafar. Born in rural Bangladesh (like the author), Zafar has a story to tell, and he takes you, the reader, on a journey from London to New York to Kabul to Islamabad to Dubai to Harvard to Oxford and many more places. The two friends sit down for a conversation that covers their differing social classes, their experiences in the Ivy League, mathematics, love, history, maps, the benign intentions of the UN and US in Afghanistan, financial markets, derivatives, and so much more. But one of them (or both) have secrets they are keeping from the other.

  1. The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig

Even from the abyss of horror in which we try to feel our way today, half-blind, our hearts distraught and shattered, I look up again and again to the ancient constellations that shone on my childhood, comforting myself with the inherited confidence that, some day, this relapse will appear only an interval in the eternal rhythm of progress onward and upward.

Stefan Zweig was one of the most renowned writers of the twentieth century, so much so that when he died in 1942, his death was reported on the front page of the world’s newspapers. (Wes Anderson’s Oscar-nominated film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, was inspired by Zweig’s writings.) This is the memoir of a man who lived through “the golden age of security” in the Hapsburg Empire, only to see all the progress in literacy and material wealth and science and rationalism thrown away, and mankind sink into the primitive barbarism of Nazism and fascism and communism. It’s a nostalgic narrative of a time-that-was, and a potent reminder of how fragile all our progress is, how quickly mankind’s inner demons can emerge to destroy all that we’ve accomplished. The day after Zweig sent The World of Yesterday to his publisher, he and his wife committed suicide. As the storms of nationalism begin to spread, this book, finished before the end of World War Two, powerfully speaks to our times.

All 52 books, in chronological order:

  1. And yet… (essays), by Christopher Hitchens
  2. For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
  3. What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, by Bernard Lewis
  4. In the Light of What We Know, by Zia Haider Rahman
  5. From Deep State to Islamic State, by Patrick Cockburn
  6. America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy, by Francis Fukuyama
  7. When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi
  8. Shame, by Salman Rushdie
  9. The World America Made, by Robert Kagan
  10. To Jerusalem and Back, by Saul Bellow
  11. Notebooks: 1951–1959, by Albert Camus
  12. The Age of the Warrior: Selected Essays, by Robert Fisk
  13. Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century, by Daniel Oppenheimer
  14. After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split, by Lezley Hazelton
  15. Mr. Sammler’s Planet, by Saul Bellow
  16. Black Boy, by Richard Wright
  17. The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard
  18. The Bhagavad Gita
  19. The Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell
  20. The Qur’an (Oxford World Translation)
  21. Lolita*, by Vladimir Nabokov
  22. China in Ten Words, by Yua Hua
  23. The Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, by Evan Osnos
  24. The Trial, by Franz Kafka
  25. Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow
  26. Hamilton: The Revolution, by Lin-Manuel Miranda
  27. The Sellout, by Paul Beatty
  28. The Fall*, by Albert Camus
  29. The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, by James Baldwin
  30. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, by Michael Sandel
  31. Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, by Christopher Hitchens
  32. Invisible Man*, by Ralph Ellison
  33. The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow
  34. The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright
  35. The Ego is the Enemy, by Ryan Holliday
  36. Mortality*, by Christopher Hitchens
  37. Letters from a Stoic*, by Seneca
  38. This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff
  39. Civilization and Its Discontents, by Sigmund Freud
  40. No One Left to Life to: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton, by Christopher Hitchens
  41. The Court and the World, by Stephen Breyer
  42. Truman, by Davis McCollough
  43. White Noise, by Don Delillo
  44. Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl
  45. Family Life*, by Akhil Sharma
  46. Walter Lippmann and the American Century, by Ronald Steel
  47. Dispatches for the New York Tribune: Selected Journalism, by Karl Marx
  48. The Great Gatsby*, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  49. The Sense of an Ending*, Julian Barnes
  50. In Cold Blood, Truman Capote
  51. The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
  52. The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig