My year in books

Posted on Sun 31 December 2017 in life

At the beginning of 2017, I made a resolution: I would read 17 books for pleasure over the course of the year. Now, this might seem like very few to my mother who claims to read a new book every two days on her Kindle. And it might seem like very many for my friends in law school who read so much from dense textbooks that the thought of reading a lone novel strikes them with agony. But it was a good target for me.

I also tweeted after each completed book both as a measure of public accountability and as the beginning of conversations. With just a couple days to spare, I've completed my 17th and last book of 2017: The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood (James Gleick). The challenge has been met. I've really enjoyed getting back into the habit of reading. Over time, I hope to continue to reach for books instead of my Twitter feed during my downtime as much as possible.

Consider challenging yourself to read 18 books in 2018!

Best of the best

Here are my favorite 5 books of the year. These would be "reviews" if I had remembered to write down my thoughts for each book soon after I had finished it. For those that I recall only now, I humbly offer various stream-of-consciousness context and memories.

  1. The Namesake (Jhumpa Lahiri)

    I remember quite fondly the days from my childhood when I would get so engrossed with a book that I would have to stay up all night until I had finished it. These books were often page-turning fantasy novels by my favorite authors, like the Harry Potter and Discworld series.

    I picked up The Namesake at the Harvard Book Store summer warehouse sale. It was the last book I added to my "shopping cart" (stack in the crook of my left arm) but it made the cut because in the first few pages, it is revealed that Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli live in Central Square in Cambridge, only a few blocks away from my apartment last year, and the former is an engineering student at MIT.

    It was when I was visiting Grant Aarons in London in early September that I started to read The Namesake. Beginning at 10 p.m. one lazy night, I kept reading even after we all went off to our beds. Finally, about 4:30 a.m., I turned the last page and closed the book. I was exhausted from my marathon but invigorated by the story. The humanity of the characters is striking. Check it out.

  2. Fates and Furies (Lauren Groff)

    A fantastic piece of writing thoughtfully sent my way the lovely Alex Gaspard. On its face, this seems like a straightforward story of a fraught relationship between a young couple. But we peer deep into the hearts of protagonists Lotto and Mathilde, and glimpse the many, many levels of any relationship.

    It's hard to describe, but suffice it to say that President Obama said "he liked Fates and Furies more than anything else he'd read in 2015" (back in a bygone era in which presidents read books).

  3. 438 Days: An Extraordinary True Tale of Survival at Sea (Jonathan Franklin)

    So... Salvador Alvarenga floated on his small, disabled boat from the west coast of Mexico all the way across the vast Pacific to a remote part of the Marshall Islands. His journey lasted 438 days (apparent).

    I had heard about this survival story and knew I must read the corresponding book. To get a sense of the extremeness of this story, you must read it for yourself. But here are some tidbits. Fighting dehydration, Salvador plucks large sea turtles off the surface of the ocean with his bare hands, then drinks their blood and eats their eyeballs. He catches sea birds by standing motionless until they alight on his head, then grabs them and snaps their necks, eating every part of the bird including feathers. He is kept alive by his memories of tortillas, which he dreams of every night.

  4. The New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander)

    Michelle Alexander makes an extremely powerful and compelling case for the existence of a new caste system in America. Lower class black and brown people are imprisoned by the millions as part of the War on Drugs. The imprisonment is just the start — the "felon" label in the US enables legalized discrimination in housing, employment, federal benefits, and other areas. If one has a gram of marijuana (or crack) on their person, an entire system is in place to ensure that they are then under the explicit or implicit control of the criminal justice system for the rest of their entire lives.

    Meanwhile, this year, efforts to end marijuana prohibition have made significant progress through the implementation of legalization efforts in California, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Maine. But at the same time, I regularly see tweets contrasting news coverage and treatment under the criminal justice system for new white "marijuana entrepreneurs" and people of color. It is a calamity to watch while marijuana prohibition slowly fades into the night: white and wealthy people and corporations are beginning to rapidly cash in on this industry while black and brown people convicted for simple possession in the past languish in prisons or as members of a permanent legal undercaste for the rest of their lives. I now believe that future efforts for legalization should be coupled with explicit proposals to address those who have already been affected by the New Jim Crow system. I am not familiar with all the legal issues, so I can only speculate on what these proposals would look like — perhaps convictions could be expunged and voting rights restored for people convicted of nonviolent marijuana-related crimes. (Yes, anything related to federal crimes would have to happen at the federal level, and most of the momentum towards ending marijuana prohibition is at the state level.)

  5. The Rachel Papers (Martin Amis)

    Thanks to Jon Hofman for lending this book to me, which turned out to be quite an intriguing and enjoyable read. I don't have that much to write here except to reproduce one of my favorite character descriptions ever:

    "Henry, I now saw, was a very tall, Anglo-Jewish-looking man, with a forehead the size of a buttock and fat, glistening lips. He wore a trendily cut grey suit, and matching shirt and tie. To look at him, you'd think he was posh and stupid. In actuality, he was common and stupid, having obviously trained his loud pompous voice to affect an upper-class accent while in his twenties (a fixture probably contemporaneous with 'Seth -'). Thirty years on, he had just as obviously forgotten it. Luckily he was too smug to notice his twanging 'eows' and 'ois'. Old Harry had a strange figure, but quite symmetrical really. From ankle to knee he was thin. From knee to thigh he was fat. From thigh to waist he was very fat. From From waist to ribs he was very very fat. From ribs to shoulder he was very fat. He had a fat neck. His face, apart from his watermelon lips, was thin."

Honorable mentions: If On A Winter's Night A Traveller (Italo Calvino), The Circle (Dave Eggers), The Commanders (Bob Woodward).

The full list

The full list includes 11 fiction and 6 non-fiction. It sources books from the back of my bookshelf, the Harvard Bookstore summer warehouse sale, the collections of various friends, and other misc. sources. Most of these books were not written this year — perhaps next year I'll focus on buying 2018 books to be able to join the conversation more contemporaneously.

  1. The New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander)
  2. The Circle (Dave Eggers)
  3. Alone Together (Sherry Turkle)
  4. Fates and Furies (Lauren Groff)
  5. American Gods (Neil Gaiman)
  6. Everyone Loves You Back (Louie Cronin)
  7. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Philip K. Dick)
  8. If On A Winter's Night A Traveller (Italo Calvino)
  9. The Underground Railroad (Colson Whitehead)
  10. The Namesake (Jhumpa Lahiri)
  11. The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays (Oscar Wilde)
  12. Bleeding Edge (Thomas Pynchon)
  13. The Commanders (Bob Woodward)
  14. 438 Days (Jonathan Franklin)
  15. The Rachel Papers (Martin Amis)
  16. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (Michael Sandel)
  17. The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood (James Gleick)

On to 2018!