I intentionally tried to read fewer books in 2019.
I realized in 2018, after reading 60 books, that reading was getting less fun. I felt that reading was getting in the way of me doing what I deemed to be more creative endeavors.
You know that feeling when you get a book and think, “This is going to answer a fundamental question I have in my life”, and you’re ultimately disappointed because it doesn’t meet those high expectations? I felt like I was using reading as a scapegoat for doing the creative work I needed to do to get out of a job I started to increasingly dislike. I wasn’t going to be able to move out of that job by reading more books.
So in 2019, my reading strategy shifted a bit. I decided to read less books and specifically focus on reading more non-fiction over fiction. I reinstated my New Yorker subscription for the first time in over 10 years (I had a subscription in undergrad) and tried to read more articles. I continued my n+1 subscription and tried to read more articles over books.
By the end of the year, I had became so thirsty for reading fiction again that I read almost only fiction for 2 months. I fundamentally feel that fiction helps you become a stronger writer in ways that non-fiction doesn’t and helps you develop empathy for life circumstances outside of your experience. I realized I needed to read fiction to feel better about where I was.
This list is my favorite reads of 2019. In the end, I read 52 books, but I also read more articles this year, and I spent (for better or worse) more time on Twitter and wanted to share some of my favorite content I saw there too. So, this is a hodgepod mix of written content — in the end, I don’t think any one form factor of writing is inherently better than another, so I like the idea of putting everything in the same list.
The Topeka School (2019)
Ben Lerner (Fiction)
My friend invited me to a talk at Pioneerworks between Ben Lerner and Sally Rooney. I knew Sally Rooney from reading and enjoying Normal People, but I hadn’t heard of Ben Lerner before this talk. The talk was way over my head — I felt like without an MFA or graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I wasn’t sure how much anyone could directly get out of it. But I was intrigued enough to read his new novel, which came with the ticket to the event. It took me a while to get to because this book is the third in a series around a central character named Adam Gordon based on Ben Lerner (auto-fiction), and I read the first two novels (Leaving the Atotcha Station and 10:04) beforehand. But they really can be read completely independently.
The Topeka School is truly one of the greatest pieces of fiction I have ever read. It felt like the type of book that is an instant American classic, something high school students might read alongside Catcher in the Rye or Sophie’s Choice. The last time I felt this was reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, a 2014 Booker Prize winner.
The Topeka School fundamentally revolves around the power and manipulation of language, ranging from high school extemporaneous speaking + debate (I did debate in high school so I could relate) to fake news and political rhetoric. The writing is incredible, and the perspectives flow together so masterfully. You should absolute read this.
We thought if we had a language for our feelings we might transcend them.
Against Creativity (2018)
Oli Mould (Nonfiction — Philosophy, Politics)
This book has fundamentally altered the way I think about the relationship between creative practices and oppressive capitalist structures. It gave me a vocabulary to talk about current problems in “creative” industries, such as:
Domicide: The blurring of boundaries between work & home. “Working from home is a process in which the former colonizes and in effect destroys the latter.”
Austerity: The reduction of funding to public institutions like museums and libraries, forcing them to be “creative” and consequently spreading them far too thin to be effective.
(entire thread about this book on Twitter here). If you have a “creative” job, this is a must read.
The Travelers (2019)
Regina Porter (Fiction)
A novel structured as short stories that ultimately come together in a beautiful, wondrous way. It tells the story of being black and being white in the United States from the 1970s to present day. I didn’t know what to expect from this book; it received some press but not universal acclaim. I think it is super underrated — it left me shocked and crying on multiple occasions.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019)
Ocean Vuong (Fiction)
What convinced me to read this book was the testimonial from Ben Lerner on the backcover, who I l learned is Ocean Vuong’s mentor from his time as a student at Brooklyn College. There are striking similarities between the two; they are both poets turned novelists, and they touch upon some eerily similar themes around language, and as of this year, they are both MacArthur Genius grant winners. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is extremely raw and will honestly fuck you up, in the most beautiful way. Also, watch this talk he gave at The Strand!! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjTiLodYG3Y
“To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.”
The Beastie Boys Book (2018)
Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz (Nonfiction)
The first time I ever heard the Beastie Boys was when I was in China for a family vacation when I was 13 and saw the Intergalactic music video. Because I was in Asia and the filming takes place in a Japanese train station, I thought it was an Asian thing. Then when I went back to the states, I was like, people listen to this?
I’m not a mega Beastie Boys fan, but this book is so illuminating. It talks as much about the formation of the band as the climate of NYC at the time, especially around Alphabet City, Greenwich Village, and even Brooklyn Heights, and the city’s relationship to music. There are recipes, lyrical breakdowns, playlists, and essays. Really fun and eye-opening read for any music fan.
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (2019)
David Epstein (Nonfiction — Business?)
I hate Malcolm Gladwell, but I loved this book 😂 (a jab at the testimonial from cover, if it’s not clear — in actuality I don’t “hate” Gladwell but do not trust his oversimplification of scientific studies).
This book warns of the dangers of over-specialization, particularly locking yourself into a career path very early on in life. Instead, it argues for a more generalist approach, where you pick up lots of different skills and constantly reflect on what is of value to you from new experiences.
The breadth of examples given in this thoroughly researched book are inspiring. Clearly, I am biased, as I consider myself to be a Generalist, but reading about everything from Nintendo and “withered-technology” to legal implications of specialization was surprising and enlightening:
“Cardiac patients are less likely to die if they are admitted during a national cardiology meeting, when thousands of cardiologists [are] away”
Leaving the Atocha Station (2011)
Ben Lerner (Fiction)
Not that much happens in the book, but the observational humor is genius-level, and the writing is immaculate. It put into words so many awkward emotions I felt, for example:
I felt much better now, that is, I felt next to nothing
The Unpassing (2019)
Chia-Chia Lin (Fiction)
A more somber read about a Taiwanese family living in the Alaska wilderness and the mysteries surrounding a child’s death. A uniquely told American immigrant story.
I wanted to tell them they would find no explanation on me. I had already searched for it.
Ben Lerner (Fiction)
I just loved all Ben Lerner I read this year. This covers Adam Gordon at a slightly older stage of his life, when he is trying to impregnate his best friend while managing life in NYC. The Park Slope Coop scene is one of my favorites. A surprisingly hilarious book, and so smart.
Normal People (2018)
Sally Rooney (Fiction)
Takes a bit to get into, but an extremely powerful novel about the relationship between two people who cut across class and race.
You learn nothing very profound about yourself simply by being bullied; but by bullying someone else you learn something you can never forget.
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone (2019)
Lori Gottelieb (Non-Fiction — Psychology)
I started therapy this year and really enjoyed this psychologist’s take on her own winding journey to becoming a therapist, her experience seeking out a therapist for her own relationship challenges, and her practice with select patients dealing with various traumas.
People often mistake numbness for nothingness, but numbness isn’t the absence of feelings; it’s a response to being overwhelmed by too many feelings.
Once More We Saw Stars (2019)
Jason Greene (Non-Fiction — Memoir)
A devastating memoir about recovering from the loss of a child, written by Pitchfork contributor & music-writer Jason Greene.
The more you photograph, the more you permit yourself to forget.
One! Hundred! Demons! (2005)
Lynda Barry (Graphic Novel)
I saw a joint Lynda Barry and Chris Ware talk year and it was easily one of the most inspiring talks I’ve ever been to in my life. It made me a Lynda Barry convert (I didn’t know much about her before the talk, since I was there mostly for Chris Ware). This graphic novel is equally hilarious and heartbreaking.
The Master Switch (2011)
Tim Wu (Fiction-Science and Technology)
This is an essential read for anyone interested information and warns against the increasing privatization of communication technologies necessary for human expression.
In an information industry the cost of monopoly must not be measured in dollars alone, but also in its effect on the economy of ideas and images, the restraint of which can ultimately amount to censorship.
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000)
Chris Ware (Graphic Novel)
I finally got around to reading Chris Ware, which I know most people acknowledge as being a living genius. The range of visual styles represented in this book is awe-inspiring and jaw-droppingly gorgeous. I loved learning, from the talk I attended with him and Lynda Barry, that he doesn’t write a script in advance, which is shocking considering the fluidity of this novel.
Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language (2019)
Gretchen McCulloch (Non-fiction — Technology)
For anyone that’s a fan of Internet slang. Comprehensively covers how acronyms evolved from the early days of personal computing and how they are influenced by the limitations and capabilities of technologies we use.
Trick Mirror (2019)
Jia Tolentino (Non-Fiction)
A collection of mostly strong essays from New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino — especially compelling were the ones on identity on the internet (The I in the Internet) and sexual abuse on campus (We Come from Old Virginia).
In real life, you can walk around living life and be visible to other people. But you can’t just walk around and be visible on the internet — for anyone to see you, you have to act. You have to communicate in order to maintain an internet presence.
Adult heroines commit suicide for different reasons than teenage heroines do. Where the teenagers have been drained of all desire, the adults are so full of desire that it kills them.
The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and The Horse (2019)
Charlie Mackesy (Children’s Book)
A moving illustrated children’s book that has a ton of subtext about the struggles of life and friendship.
Oh No (2019)
Alex Norris (Comic)
I love the oh no comics, and this anthology is both funny and sweet.
The Dream Machine (2018)
M. Mitchell Wardrop (Non-fiction — Technology)
To be honest, this book is extremely long and not particularly well written. It took me ages to get through. But it does thoroughly discuss the history of personal computing in a way that makes it a great reference.
Media Lab to the MoMA: A Complicated Reality of Dreams Coming True
Jie Qi (MIT Media Lab Medium)
Don’t Worry, These Gangly-armed Cartoons Are Here to Protect You From Big Tech (AIGA)
Design Critiques at Figma
Noah Levin (Figma Blog)
Rick Steves Wants to Set You Free
Sam Anderson (NYTimes Magainze)
Remove Richard Stallman
Selam G. (Medium)
The Grocery Store Where Produce Meets Politics
Alexandra Schwartz (New Yorker) https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/11/25/the-grocery-store-where-produce-meets-politics
A Town For People With Chronic-Fatigue Syndrome
Mike Mariani (New Yorker)
How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation
Anne Helen Petersen (BuzzFeed News)
Prepping for Parole
Jennifer Gonnerman (New Yorker)
Hate Can’t be Hacked
Jasmine Sun (The Stanford Daily)
Is Amazon Unstoppable?
Charles Duhigg (New Yorker) https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/10/21/is-amazon-unstoppable
Four Years in Startups
Anna Wiener (New Yorker) https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/09/30/four-years-in-startups
How TikTok Holds Our Attention
Jia Tolentino (New Yorker) https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/09/30/how-tiktok-holds-our-attention
Silicon Valley’s Crisis of Conscience
Andrew Marantz (New Yorker)
How Photos of Your Kids Are Powering Surveillance Technology
Kashmir Hill and Aaron Krolik (NYTimes) https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/10/11/technology/flickr-facial-recognition.html
Can a Burger Help Solve Climate Change?
Tad Friend (New Yorker)
Chinese Restaurants Are Closing. That’s a Good Thing, the Owners Say.
Amelia Nierenberg and Quoctrung Bui (NYTimes)
The Heir to a Tofu Dynasty Finally Learns to Make Tofu
Aaron Reiss (NYTimes)
Translation of a New York Times’ Real Estate Article for Those Living Without a Trust Fund
Marco Kaye (McSweeneys) https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/translation-of-a-new-york-times-real-estate-article-for-those-living-without-a-trust-fund
On the First-World Campaign Trail
Larry David (New Yorker)
I am a Patagonia Vest Warrior Who Conquers Digital Mounts of Excel Spreadsheets
Brisa Sylvestre (McSweeneys)
I know technically not writing, but where else am I going to put this list?!