In 2018, I read 105 books. For me, this number is less about the books themselves and more about the hours resting they signal.
Two years ago, I set a rule for myself to read two books a week as a means of combatting my tendency to overwork every day of the week. After entreaties from virtually everyone in my life to “do nothing,” I started to think about what that meant.
I don’t actually believe that doing nothing is possible until you die. Thinking, breathing, loafing, and streaming, for example, are all technically activities. We just happen to be less mindful about them.
Instead, it occurred to me that what others were encouraging was a commitment to relaxation. So of course, I looked up the definition for relaxation, and I found it to mean, “the state of being free from tension and anxiety.”
I reflected on instances when I truly felt free from tension and anxiety. Sleep often felt tense, as did streaming content or scrolling through social media on my phone. The only time I felt fully relaxed consistently was while reading. However, I often prioritized other tasks on my to-do list over reading. So, I made reading part of my to-do list with my two books rule.
Since I started this practice, I’ve been asked to share what I read on Goodreads or email out my annual reading list. I like to keep my reading fairly analog; I only read physical books, and I record extensive notes and reflections on them in my research journal. Finally, I thought I’d just publish the list itself so people could pick and choose the titles that interested them.
After reading my friend Mike Shannon’s post on his 2018 reading list, though, I decided to highlight the books that most impacted me, while also still publishing the list. That’s what I’ve featured here.
I’ve written extensively about why The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle is my favorite business book, not just from 2018, but period. In short, Coyle writes a narratively compelling story that illustrates how to build one of the trickiest, slipperiest, and most intangible elements of a business: culture. The examples are unique, illustrative, and applicable. The psychological research is evidence-based and well-considered. The profile on Danny Meyer and Union Square Café was enough to make be pick up Meyer’s own worthy book, Setting the Table.
Never in my life have I enjoyed biographies. I like the subjectivity that comes with memoir. Plus I often myself mired in details featured in biographies that don’t matter to me in while searching for the ones I do care about (likely salacious and highly questionable ones).
However, after reading the works of Edna St. Vincent Millay, I was curious enough to pick up Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford. I read this 500-page tome in two days. Milford reconstructs a complex world where Millay was both a feminist icon and fierce critic of women personally, an empowered artist and an addict consumed by her dependencies, and a free spirit incapable of romantic commitment who nevertheless married a man she deeply relied on for emotional and psychological support. It’s sympathetic and indicting all at once, and it’s written with stark historical accuracy.
It’s almost impossible to name a winner in this category given the incredible contemporary fiction that has surged in the last two years. I could easily name Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, The Idiot by Elif Batuman, or Less by Andrew Sean Greer.
However, no work of fiction seemed to push experimental limits, so aptly depict layers of devastation, and represent so many voices often never rendered fully in fiction more than Tommy Orange’s There There. Whether you’ve wondered what it’s like for Native Americans who’ve urbanized today and how their experiences have differed across generations or not, it’s a gripping story that cycles to an equal parts tragic and hopeful crisis point.
I’m ending on memoir because Educated by Tara Westover wasn’t just my favorite in this category, but the best book I read in all of 2018. Westover takes her childhood — one filled with brutal and shocking anecdotes from a survivalist Mormon family in Idaho who rejected doctors, stocked bunkers, subjected one another to tremendous physical abuse, and denied the Holocaust — and frames it in terms of her journey in education.
She never presents an unbalanced picture of either. Just as her family shows moments of tenderness, warmth, and togetherness, the education that offers her a path out of a very bad life situation and awakens her to self-knowledge demands she gives up much of what matters most to her.
*Indicates a re-read of a previously read book.