In 2019, I read 67 books.
Which, yes, I know, is a lot of books.
I’ve always been a naturally fast reader, but my secret (to those who ask) is that I simply prioritize reading in my daily routine. As I mentioned in my first blog post of 2019, you’d be surprised by how much you can read if you get creative and identify areas in which you waste time (like mindlessly scrolling though social media).
Anyway, I’ve decided to compile a list of the Top Ten Books I read in 2019, or – more precisely – the “ten books I’m still thinking about and am most likely to recommend to other people.”
I’m a sucker for year-end lists, and if the interest is there, I may start posting more about what I’m reading on a month-to-month basis. I hope you find something interesting, and I look forward to hearing about your favorite reads of 2019 in the comments below!
10. Digital Minimalism – Cal Newport
Digital Minimalism is a brutal read. Packed with eye-opening statistics and practical application, Cal Newport explores how tech companies and Silicon Valley are opening billions of dollars to capture your attention by exploiting your psychological vulnerabilities and hijacking your brain functions in order to turn a profit.
You’ve probably heard a lot of this stuff before (there are dozens of TED Talks about this very topic), but Digital Minimalism sets itself apart by presenting practical steps forward to help readers take control of their lives. The second half of Digital Minimalism is where the book really shines as Newport deconstructs the vapid benefits of social media while simultaneously offering a new vision of a life well-lived that emphasizes community, connection, and craft.
9. City of Thieves – David Benioff
An intimate, poignant, and (sometimes) harrowing journey centered around two characters during the siege of Leningrad in World War II, City of Thieves follows two Russian soldiers who are given a near-impossible task: Find a dozen eggs to be used for a Russian colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake. They have five days. If they fail to obtain the eggs in the starving city, they’ll be executed.
City of Thieves is a small story set against a very large backdrop (one of the most brutal campaigns of WWII), but the narrative takes on a near-mythic quality. There’s a quest, an unattainable object, trials and setbacks of various stripes, and a journey home. But the heart of the novel is the relationship that develops between two young men as they both try to come to terms with a war in which both sides are savagely and unrelentingly devoted to the cause.
8. Mating in Captivity – Esther Perel
Let’s talk about sex. No, really. Mating in Captivity is the best book on desire and sex in marriage I’ve ever read. Author Esther Perel, a relational psychotherapist, offers brazen and provocative insight into the ways in which our need for relational stability and security robs our marital sexuality of erotic intensity.
Making in Captivity will definitely make you uncomfortable (especially if you were raised in evangelical purity culture in which married sex was the goal), but Perel’s frank prose and fly-on-the-wall style of writing – each chapter focuses on real couples she’s counseled – make the book unputdownable. If you’re married, thinking about getting married, or in a long-term relationship and simply want to get better at talking about and having sex with your significant other, then this book is a must read.
7. Dangerous Territory – Amy Peterson
In Dangerous Territory, writer and professor Amy Peterson describes her time working as a missionary under the guise of being an “English teacher” in an unnamed East Asian country in her early twenties. I intentionally didn’t read a lot of religious book this year (I found myself unable to retain much from anything I read in the genre), but Peterson’s missionary memoir is a tour-de-force aimed at one the one institution Christians aren’t suppose to question of criticize.
Dangerous Territory is an enlightening and thought-provoking look at the modern missions movement, its lack of spiritual spiritual and fiscal accountability, and the methods that have been used to “market” the lifestyle to young people. Along the way, Peterson breaks down the origins of the “missionary myth,” the dangers of short-term missions work, and the reasons why the mission field is filled with so many young women.
6. Watchmen – Alan Moore and David Gibbons
Full Disclosure: I’ve never read a comic book – I didn’t grow up with them, and the reading style confuses my brain. However, Watchmen is the only graphic novel to crack TIME Magazine’s 100 Best English-Language Novels – and it’s cultural impact is undeniable.
Watchmen imagines an alternate history in which the comic book craze of the 1940s inspired ordinary people to dress up as “costumed heroes” to fight crime. Fast forward a few decades: We won the Vietnam War. Richard Nixon is entering his 4th term. The U.S. sits on the brink of nuclear Armageddon. “Masked Vigilantes” are banned. And a vast conspiracy to doom (or save?) humankind is afoot.
Though written more than thirty years ago, Watchmen has never been more relevant in our current socio-political climate and pop cultural obsession with superheroes (and HBO’s “sequel/remix” limited series was the best thing I watched on TV this year).
5. God Save Texas – Lawrence Wright
This year, my wife and I left Texas to move too Colorado. And Lawrence Wright’s God Save Texas *almost* made me sorry we did. Part memoir, cultural history, and social commentary, God Save Texas is a beautiful ode to the Lone Star State in all of it’s glorious contradictions.
From its bloody beginnings as an independent republic to 2018 election of Donal Trump, Lawrence Wright (best known for his investigative masterworks on Scientology and Al-Qaeda) unpacks Texas gun culture, the oil boom (and subsequent collapse), the border crisis, crazy Texas politics, Matthew McConaughey, the music scene, and the founding of the four largest cities in the state – Dallas, Austin, Houston, and San Antonio.
Beautifully written, hilarious, infuriating, compelling, and inspiring, Wright’s love letter to Texas will undoubtedly spark conversation and appreciation for the most polarizing state in the country.
4. The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – Stuart Turton
At the remote Blackheath Estate, dozens of guests are invited to a masquerade ball by the Hardcastle family. At 11 P.M., Evelyn Hardcastle will be murdered by one of the guests. But which one? And why? On the morning of the ball, Bishop awakes at the Blackheath Estate in a body that is not his own. He’s given a macabre task by a menacing figure – discover the identity and motive of Evelyn’s murderer. But there’s a catch: Every time Bishop falls asleep (or dies), the day restarts and he awakes in the body of a different guest.
Imagine the board game CLUE crossed with the time-loop narrative of Groundhog Day and the best of Agatha Christie’s plotting and you’ll have some idea of what The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle has to offer. Fun, shocking, and fiendishly clever, this is a whodunit like nothing you’ve ever read.
3. Becoming – Michelle Obama
Regardless of what you think of the Obama Administration, it’s undeniable that Barack and Michelle illustrated one of the most endearing public marriages emblematic of “traditional family values” in recent memory.
Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming isn’t the liberal catnip it’s often dismissed as by partisan critics. Tracing her life from the south side of Chicago to the West Wing of the White House, Becoming is a fascinating look at race, marriage, politics, celebrity, and family in the modern era.
My favorite parts of Becoming were the slice-of-life anecdotes about living as the wife of the President. What was it like to plan and execute date night with a full Secret Service security detail? To have every outfit and word dissected by the media? To have the man who would succeed her husband as President accuse him of not being born in America? To be in the White House when Osama was finally taken down or when the Supreme Court lifted the gay marriage ban?
By the end of Becoming, you undoubtedly feel nostalgic for a simpler and more respectful era of politics – and then be shocked when you remember it wasn’t that long ago.
2. The River – Peter Heller
The River is a deceptively simple story: Two college-age best friends head down a river in Northern Canada on a multi-day canoe trip. On one particularly foggy morning, they hear a couple arguing from the river bank. The next day, a man paddles up behind them. But he is alone. And he claims his wife is missing. And he has a gun.
And thus ignites a dazzling mystery and survival story set in one of the most isolated corners of North America. Author Peter Heller is far and away my favorite outdoor novelist, and he’s one of hell of a writer. The River is a powerful ode to friendship, adventure, resilience, and the outdoors. I read this masterpiece in two sittings – it’s just that good.
1. Stories of Your Life and Others/Exhalation – Ted Chiang
When describing Ted Chiang’s short story collections, words fail. And maybe that’s the point. Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others is a masterful collection of short stories built around mind-blowing concepts related to mathematics, theology, and linguistics.
While the title story is the most famous story in the book (it inspired the incredible 2016 science-fiction film Arrival), there are more gems waiting to be uncovered in this wondrous book.
In “Hell Is The Absence of God,” Chiang imagine a world in which Heaven and Hell are observable realities and angels make dramatic (and sometimes catastrophic) entrances into our plain of existence – though people still struggle with questions about faith, purpose, and destiny. In “Tower of Babylon,” Chiang recounts the building of the Tower of Babel from the perspective of a worker, but employs actual Babylonian cosmology (a solid vault that houses the floodgates of heaven) to dramatic effect. And in “Liking What You See,” a private company markets a new product to solve Lookism – discrimination and favoritism motivated by attractiveness – in the most uncomfortable application of technology this side of Black Mirror. And that’s only a taste of the nine stories you’ll find in Stories of Your Life and Others.
And Chiang’s second collection of short stories – Exhalation – is just as good (if not better) than his first. “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” is an Arabian Nights-styled tale about a merchant in the Middle East who tempts his customers with a portal to visit their future selves. “Omphalos” imagines a world in which Six-Day Creationism is confirmed as scientific fact. And “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” explores the consequences of a new technology that lets you communicate to versions of yourself from parallel realities.
However, the crown jewel of the collection is “The Lifecyle of Software Objects,” a novella about an online community trying to keep their A.I. pets happy as technological advances slowly render them irrelevant.
Chiang writes less than one short story per year, and the care he places in each piece is unmissable. Do yourself a favor and pick up one or both of these books up – you’re in the hands of a master storyteller.
Final Note: For those of you who want more content like this, I highly recommend getting a Goodreads account to track your own reading and leave reviews and recommendations. If you follow me, you can also read my full reviews for every book I read this year. And, honestly, if we spent more time on Goodreads than we do on Instagram or Facebook, the world would probably be a better place.