2015 in Books, and a 5th year update on quantified reading

123 books later, my favorite books from 2015, and some thoughts about 5 years of quantified reading.

Mid-way through my first year of graduate school, I decided to start tracking the books I read. In the 5 years since then, I’ve found this tracking process to be incredibly rewarding— it’s wonderful to be able to go back in time to a few years ago, and look up exactly what I was reading, and through that, to remember what I was thinking about and interesting in at the time.

Every year since then, I’ve also compiled a list of my favorite books from the year. This year’s is below, and I hope you enjoy reading it, and find a few interesting books from it.

Note: Looking back at my lists from 2014 and 2013, I find that my tastes are surprisingly stable, I wouldn’t change any book on those lists. Should you be curious, you can find a link to the spreadsheet I use to track my reading here. In last year’s post, I focused more on the numerical aspects of what I’d learned from tracking my reading — that part of the story remains largely unchanged, 2015 is almost exactly identical to 2014 in terms of book sources, formats, etc. (aka, it’s an almost exclusively Kindle world for me), so I’m not writing too much about the numbers this year (though skip to the end for updated graphs).

Non-Fiction

A pretty great year for non-fiction, most of what I read was published in 2015, though I did reach back to some classics that I hadn’t yet had the chance to read. In terms of overall quality, I’d probably rank my 2015 haul above 2014, though 2013 remains my personal high-water mark in terms of the quality of the non-fiction I read that year. In recognition of this quality, I’ve listed my favorite 15 (instead of 10) non-fiction books from the year below.

A Note on Covers: Even though book covers are now a diminishing influence on whether a book is picked up or read, I do still love looking back every year at the diversity of creative styles that go into creating distinctive covers. On purely aesthetic grounds, ‘H is for Hawk’ probably has my favorite cover of the year — it perfectly captures the atmosphere of the book, and is immediately arresting. ‘On the Move’, which has on its cover a wonderfully virile photograph of a young Oliver Sacks is a close second.

Do No Harm, by Henry Marsh

Probably the most powerful book I read this year, Marsh conveys with fantastic clarity and honesty the ethical, personal, and technical challenges posed by contemporary neurosurgery, where it is often possible to keep someone technically alive, even if they have greatly diminished quality of life. The closest parallel is probably Atul Gawande’s Complications, though Do No Harm is a little broader in scope, and (to me at least) is stylistically superior.

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

It’s probably a toss-up between this book and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me as to which book appeared on more year-end lists. The praise is entirely warranted — H is for Hawk is powerful stuff, meditative, revealing, intimate, at times deeply sad. It’s a wonderful book to read, ideally outside, on a wind-swept hill.

Country Driving, by Peter Hessler

This book sent me off on a pretty deep Hessler dive — I think it’s fair to say I’ll now read most anything he writes, from this book, which uses a series of (often hilarious) road trips to explore China circa 2001, to his more recent work for the New Yorker set in Egypt, where he explores the stories of local garbagemen or Chinese lingerie dealers.

On the Move, by Oliver Sacks

A wonderful memoir by an incredible man — ideally read in concert with listening to Sacks’s final episode with Radiolab. Self-recommending, though best read after you’ve read some of Sacks’s other books.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This is probably the most exhaustively reviewed book of 2015, so there’s little I can add, except to recommend that you read it in parallel with Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, and also listen to the Longform podcast’s excellent interview with TNC as well.

Ex Libris, by Anne Fadiman

A wonderfully warm series of essays about the reading life. Anyone who’s ever curled up with a book on a couch and not wanted to move for a long, long time will love this collection.

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

A very timely biography of Alexander von Humboldt that traces his influence on the development of modern science. What I like most about this book is that it manages to convey the degree to which the development of modern scientific practice has been a contingent process, with an individual’s ideas spreading onward, influencing future generations in entirely unpredictable ways. I’d also recommend Wulf’s interview on The Diane Rehm Show, which is a good complement to the book.

Empire of Cotton, by Sven Beckert

The word magisterial tends to be overused in book reviews, but it’s quite appropriate here — Beckert does a superb job of telling the history of cotton from a truly global perspective, tracing the degree to which this crop has affected global trade, foreign policy, and culture. Again, a great interview with Beckert on the Diane Rehm Show.

The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright

It was a strange feeling to read this book in 2015, with new ISIS-inflicted horrors being reported every day, however, it remains a fantastic history of the events that lead to the formation of Al-Qaeda, and the eventual 9/11 terror attacks. For a contemporary perspective, after reading this, listen to the always excellent Longform podcast interview Rukmini Callimachi who has, in a series of stories, been doing for ISIS what Wright and others did for Al-Qaeda.

Skyfaring, by Mark Vanhoenacker

A lighter, more reflective book than many of the others on this list, this is a lovely work of writing by a commercial long-haul pilot about the strange process by which we are propelled through the air — something we all take for granted these days.

The Soul of a New Machine, by Tracy Kidder

A fascinating examination of the early days of the commercial computer industry — it’s amazing reading this and realizing how far we’ve come, and yet, how similar the culture of today’s tech companies is in some ways to those of the 1970s and 80s.

Destiny and Power, by Jon Meacham

An excellent authorized biography of George H.W. Bush. What stands out here is Meacham’s attention to the way in which the Bush family structure and legacy motivated Bush 41 — it’s timely reading in this Presidential cycle as a reminder of how politics used to be. Ideally paired with McKay Coppins’ fantastic The Wilderness, which has some of the best writing about the back-stories of those running this year in the Republican primaries.

Weather Experiment, by Peter Moore

One of the reasons I love reading books about the history of science is that they can remind you that scientific progress is not linear or uniform. It’s amazing, in reading this book, to realize how relatively recent our contemporary understanding of the weather is, and the degree to which accurate weather forecasting is a fundamentally modern process.

The Song Machine, by John Searbrook

A close fight between this book and Stephen Witt’s How Music Got Free, but this is slightly better — a fascinating exploration of how contemporary popular music is made, and a book that will definitely change how you listen to the radio.

Command and Control by Eric Schlosser

A frightening, cautionary book that delves into the history of how American nuclear weapons have been secured and thought about over the past decades. You’ll come away feeling amazed that an accidental explosion has never occurred in our history — we’ve certainly come very close.

I read lots of great non-fiction that didn’t make this top-15 list. Probably first among the rest was Melvin Urofsky’s authoritative history of Dissent on the Supreme Court, which the most interesting legal book I read this year.


Fiction

This list of my 10 favorite novels from the year is heavily weighted towards science fiction/fantasy, as that’s most of the fiction that I read, but it also includes two very different historical fiction novels set in India. Overall, a decent year in fiction, though I must confess that I find my tastes tilting much more to non-fiction than they have in previous years (I was nearly at 50:50 this past year, in stark contrast to 2014, when >75% of what I read was fiction).

A Note on Covers: I would definitely take the non-fiction covers over the fiction covers this year. Few of these are particularly distinctive, and some of them (Aurora, Luna, The Fifth Season) are positively cliche. I’d have to say that Flood of Fire, The Water Knife, and Dark Star are my favorite fiction covers from this list, probably in that order.

The Just City, by Jo Walton

Jo Walton remains one of my favorite fantasy writers, and The Just City is a perfect example of why. A carefully realized imagination of a society governing itself according to Plato’s Republic, this book (and its sequels) are a fantastic exploration of the meaning of consent that functions in the richest tradition of philosophical speculative fiction.

Dark Star, by Oliver Langmead

One of the most surprising books I read this year, a science fiction noir epic poem. It shouldn’t work, but it does, and work very well at that. Probably the most stylistically ambitious work of fiction I read this year.

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin

Probably Jemisin’s best novel so far, this is a fantastic first book in what I’m sure will be a very interesting series. Jemisin writes some of the most ambitious and humane fantasy out there — this was probably my favorite work of epic fantasy that came out this year.

Flood of Fire, by Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, which ends with this book, is some of the best historical fiction that’s been published in this decade. Set during the Opium Wars, and with a vast scope that includes colonial India, Hong Kong, Canton, and Macau, these are absolutely exceptional works of careful historical fiction — I’ll particularly call out their use of language, Ghosh captures historical Anglo-Indian and Chinese pidgin perfectly.

Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

At times frustrating, but an important book, that will I think significantly affect the way in which science fiction deals with the concept of Generation Ships. KSR’s books always stand out for the realistic way in which they deal with technical challenges (Red Mars being perhaps the best example). I thought about whether to put Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves on the list instead, but ultimately felt that Aurora was the more important book — KSR’s swimming against the science fiction optimism tide, and though I don’t fully agree with his stance, it’s a noble endeavor.

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty Eight Days, by Salman Rushdie

What I liked most about this book is that, after a long time, I felt that Rushdie was finally having fun writing again. It’s full of linguistic puns, sly humor, and Rushdie’s characteristic fun with South Asian and Arab mythology.

The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi

Easier to read than Bacigalipui’s last big novel The Wind-Up Girl, but still a very well-drawn dystopic imagination of a drought-parched American Southwest a few years from now. Excellent near-future fiction.

The Way Things Were, by Aatish Taseer

A fantastic exploration of how History is embedded (and misused) in contemporary India, this is the most interesting book by a young South-Asian author I’ve read in a while. Highly recommended (and particularly so if you’re interested in Sanskrit or Indian politics).

Luna, by Ian McDonald

I’ve enjoyed most of McDonald’s science fiction — The Dervish House and River of Gods stand out, so it was great to see another new book from him this year. Luna is a fun piece of moon-colonization SF, mind-candy, but of the best sort.

Three Moments of an Explosion, by China Mieville

I think Mieville and the short story go very well together. There’s just enough space for him to stretch out and have some fun with some weird ideas — and Mieville does that better than most anyone else, but not enough space that he gets caught up in ponderousness (Exhibit A: Iron Council). Three Moments of an Explosion is memorable, and quite consistently good (as is Gaiman’s Trigger Warning, which would be on this list if Mieville wasn’t).

I also read all of the Vorkosigan Saga in 2015, and as a Science Fiction series, I’d be happy to include it here, however, I didn’t think that any particular book in that series deserved to make it onto the top 10 list by itself, as the pleasures of that series are mostly in the whole, rather than in the individual book.


A Quantified 2015

Five years of tracking reading later, I remain convinced that the benefits are more in the process, and in the underlying book-list, rather than in any deep secrets that can be gleaned from the data.

The story in 2015 remains largely as it was in previous years, a relatively quick beginning to the year, a plateau around Feburary/March, and then bursty sections throughout the rest of the year, typically paired with travel, or long weekends. The December march happened this year, as it does every Thanksgiving/Christmas season — those remain the times of year when I read the most. Most troubling in 2015 were two long periods in February/May when I read hardly anything for weeks at a time, I’m hoping to avoid a recurrence of that in 2016.

Overall statistics

  • Books read: 123
  • Pages: 46,449
  • Median size: 384 pages
  • Average number of days taken to complete a book: 2.56 (median: 2)
  • Book source: Amazon (100%)
  • Book type: Kindle (121), Hardcover (1), Paperback (1)
  • Fiction: 66 books
  • Non-Fiction: 57 books
  • 78 of the books I read were by male authors, 44 by female authors. The discrepancy is entirely driven by non-fiction. In fiction, I read more books by female authors (34), than by male authors (31). I’ll be prioritizing female non-fiction authors in 2016 to see if I can get closer to parity there.