SHORT STORIES SO RICH, THEY’VE GOT THE CALORIC CONTENT OF A DOZEN NOVELS
The Aleph, by Jorge Luis Borges. Here’s what Borges does. First, he shows you a little stone well. Then, nonchalant, he lowers the creaking pail down to the bottom. When it returns, it’s full of blinding white star matter, the stuff of existence. (I was especially pleased to find, while hopping around his collected fictions, that this 1949 volume is as good as his more famous ones from 1941 and 1944. It was like finding a secret Beatles album tucked between Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour.)
Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger. I read Catcher in the Rye a few years too late; it didn’t whallop me the way it did some of my friends. A decade later, this book gave me that whallop, and then some. Salinger’s gaze upon the human psyche is utterly penetrating.
Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro. The best book I read this year?! Her stories have a wild motion to them—anything can happen on any page. Thirty years pass. A letter arrives from a deathbed. A murderer waltzes in the front door. Anything. They end with moments of mercy or devastation, and you never know which is coming. She’s so deft at the shell game, you’re shocked even when the ball is under the cup you picked.
Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri. These rich, full, brief stories play off one another at beautiful angles. “Why isn’t everybody reading this book?!” I cried aloud, until I learned on Wikipedia that everyone is, because it has sold 17 trillion copies.
The Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler. A ground-level view of a society that does not collapse, but merely slides deeper into failure. Wears its themes on its sleeve; hides nothing. Devastating, timeless, timely. Liked it so much I lifted a paragraph to use as the epigraph of my forthcoming book.
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. A time- and character-hopping view of a society that collapses in a single, supernova-like disaster. It plays clever story-within-a-story literary games, but its best assets are its depictions of denial, anxiety, longing—and the role of such emotions in surviving tragedy.
Miracleman: The Golden Age, by Neil Gaiman (writer) and Mark Buckingham (artist). A reverse dystopia: supernatural superheroes have turned earth into a totalitarian paradise. But we’re stuck with our same nagging, hoping, dissatisfied souls. Clever, mournful, beautiful, ironic stuff.
The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin. A planet wracked by environmental disasters; they come so frequently that “apocalypse” is the fifth season. What a civilization does to survive the cruelties of that planet, and what humans do to survive the cruelties of that civilization.
SO SHORT AND LYRICAL, YOU CAN ALMOST HEAR MELODIES
View with a Grain of Sand, by Wislawa Szymborska. Are you among the trillions of Americans who says, “I don’t enjoy poetry—well, except for Billy Collins”? Then meet Szymborska! Her work has the playful, conversational tones of Collins, with the blasts of cosmic insight you’d get from Frost or Dickinson. (Yes, I have now compared her to the only three poets I know.) Also: Nobel winner!
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman. Marvelous, imaginative, with the freshness of bestseller fiction and the ancient feel of folklore. As the title promises, it’s something expansive yet cozy, an infinite thing tucked into a finite place.
Einstein’s Dreams, by Alan Lightman. Each brief chapter offers a vision of a universe where time works differently—flowing in fits and starts, or backwards, or with exaggerated relativistic dilations. It takes only an afternoon to read, but be forewarned that the afternoon will move in fits and starts, or backwards, or with exaggerated relativistic dilations.
WELL-RESEARCHED, ENJOYABLE, TONALLY PERFECT NONFICTION
Gulp, by Mary Roach. The story of human digestion, from plate to toilet—gross, funny, illuminating. Roach is a stylistic genius; her writing is comic, informative, relentlessly interesting. (I furrow my brow in envy.) It’s a tonal miracle made possible by copious and inventive research. She’ll tuck into a footnote a story that could merit a whole chapter.
Cork Dork, by Bianca Bosker. I came as a skeptic to this book on wine. I know my palate’s profound limitations; are other palates so much better? Yes, it turns out. By book’s end, Bosker is blind-tasting wines and placing the grapes to within a few miles of their origin. A fresh, fast-moving exemplar of participatory journalism.
Hello, World, by Hannah Fry. A smart and evenhanded exploration of algorithms, and the role they now play in domains from shopping to driving to criminal justice. I tend to read old backlist stuff; this is the rare book on the list that I’d call “necessary” or “urgent.” The triumph lies not just in Fry’s research (though she does surface brilliant anecdotes to illustrate larger points); it’s also in her intellectual honesty, the way she surveys arguments with a critical and impartial eye.
BOOKS ABOUT BOOKS
Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. I don’t read writing advice for writing advice. I read it as memoir and philosophy, to hear a passionate writer unfold the story of her passion. Lamott’s writing is earthy and immediate, full of metaphor, and super funny.
Object Lessons: Questionnaire, by Evan Kindley. Breezy and deep, conversational and well-researched, full of surprising stories about a question-filled format that I had (somehow!) never thought to question in itself. A slim little volume, it’s part of a series telling histories of quirky objects. (The other I tried was a dud, but this one more than made up for it.)
Syllabus, by Lynda Barry. A graphic artist aims to teach students not just how to draw, but how to create, how to tap into veins of vision and imagination and spontaneity. I’ve always known my art could use more, uh, skill; now I know it could use more fearless improvisation, too.
JAW-DROPPING GRAPHIC NOVELS
Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzucchelli. Bad title, great book. It’s a quiet graphic novel about an architecture professor; he’s a sympathetic, self-involved antihero, so the book works as a Me-Too-era exploration of masculinity. But the real genius is in the visuals, which use color, form, and composition in a thousand evocative ways I’d never seen before.
Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel. Before reading this, I knew Bechdel mostly as the originator of the “Bechdel test.” I now view that achievement as belonging on page 19 of her CV, the first 18 pages of which ought to be breathless praise for this graphic memoir about her childhood and her father. Deep, nuanced, funny, dark, heart-wrenching. One of the best memoirs I’ve read, in any medium.
Here, by Richard McGuire. Each page depicts a moment in the history of a particular place. One page: a couple dancing in the 1920s. Next page: their grandchildren playing on the floor in the 1960s. Next page: an unpopulated forest in the 1300s. No narrative. Just a bizarre and transporting experience.
HUMORISTS AT THE TOP OF THEIR GAME
Calypso, by David Sedaris. He has competitors among his own generation (Dave Barry, Bill Bryson) and among mine (Alexandra Petri, Daniel Ortberg), but for my money Sedaris is our greatest living humorist. Less sardonic and biting than his older work, these new essays are gentle, sad, inward-facing. He now writes not as a cash-strapped underdog, but as a beloved celebrity seeking healthy family relationships. His sharp prose still makes these stories sing.
My Life and Hard Times, by James Thurber. Oh my word. This book is so funny. Childhood stories from one of the great American storytellers. Thurber’s best case for belonging in the same sentence as Twain.
Orlando, by Virginia Woolf. Okay, Woolf is not a humorist; she’s one of the language’s finest novelists. But this odd book—about a royal person who lives for three centuries, changing sexes partway through—is genuinely funny, as well as deeply insightful about time. Her prose, as always, is a cut above; for my money, only Nabokov can hold a candle to it.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, by Ryan North (writer) and Erica Henderson (artist). An unlikely Marvel superhero comic about a deeply quirky superhero. The most fun book on this list, hands-down. I’m a longtime North fan; his writing has a delicious and singular voice. It’s full of linguistic play, which is not to say puns; rather, he plays language like an instrument, varying registers and conversational rhythms.
MY QUOTIENT OF WITTY BRITISH PROSE
The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis. A series of letters from a chief devil (named Screwtape) to his junior nephew (named Wormwood), offering advice on how to tempt a particular mortal into hell. Included in my edition was a small essay, in the same style, which Lewis wrote later, and which was an awful, didactic mess of reactionary politics—which just made me appreciate more the light comic touch and genuine wisdom of the original letters.
Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh. I received this one as a gift… in, uh, 2005. Carried it from apartment to apartment until 2018. Worth the wait! A deserved classic.
Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton. A book advocating Christianity. (For Chesterton, this means traditional gender roles, as well as a curt dismissal of Buddhism.) Though I don’t share his worldview, I admire Chesterton’s gift for parallel formulations (the book’s most persuasive feature is its quotability) and the vitality of his writing. He argues that we must aim to see old things with fresh eyes, to cherish every red apple as if surprised by its redness.
SOUL-CRUSHING AND BEAUTIFUL
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby. In his 40s, Bauby suffered a sudden stroke which left him unable to speak or move. He dictated this book to a nurse, one letter at a time, through blinks of his eye. It makes you cherish each artful sentence—you hesitate to skim past a line whose composition was so painstaking! Bauby documents his hospital life, as well as his flights of imagination beyond it. These are, not coincidentally, the two things books offer us: testimony, and escape.
For the Time Being, by Annie Dillard. Perhaps the most ambitious book on this list? Seven chapters, each consisting of the same sections: “Birth,” “Sand,” “China,” “Clouds,” “Numbers,” “Israel,” “Thinker,” “Evil,” and “Now.” It’s a book about mortality, about the problem of evil, about how to make sense of this brief interval of sorrow, coming between the long night before birth and the even longer one after death. In a word: heavy.
Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood. Having read Atwood’s dystopic sci-fi novels, I didn’t think her historical fiction could offer anything as bleak and devastating. Wrong! This book, about a girl institutionalized for committing murder, meditates on innocence, death, sanity, and femininity, in ways rival A Handmaid’s Tale for ability to invoke despair. A disorienting read. When I took a step back, it felt like a blistering social critique; but while reading, the pain was too personal to feel polemical.
SCI-FI CLASSICS THAT TOTALLY HOLD UP
Kindred, by Octavia Butler. A black woman is transported from the 1970s back to antebellum America, called upon to save the life of her ancestor—a slaveowner. A masterclass in storytelling. Usually, when it comes to themes, I find “overt” a synonym for “graceless.” Not so here.
Foundation, by Isaac Asimov. In the opening chapter, a genius mathematician foresees the collapse of the galactic empire, and puts an historic plan into motion. The interlinked stories that follow each embody a strange riddle. Each presents a brilliant hero solving a difficult problem; but each must simultaneously argue that the hero was merely playing out the invisible, inevitable plan foreseen by his mathematical forefather. Somehow, Asimov pulls off the trick.
Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke. A visit from powerful aliens touches off a century of radical advancement for the human species. The book is a strange blend of utopia and dystopia, intellectually rigorous and full of chilling, memorable images.
IN WHICH I MADE FEEBLE ATTEMPTS TO UNDERSTAND THE UNIVERSE
Seven Brief Lessons in Physics, by Carlo Rovelli. Brief indeed! The book barely cracks 80 pages, but there’s something delightful in a sleek little book about the totality of existence. Rovelli is a lyrical writer, skilled at invoking awe.
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, by Neil de Grasse Tyson. I enjoyed this pleasurable collection of old essays, similar in scope and style to Rovelli’s, but alas: all things Tyson are now a cultural flashpoint and a vexing riddle. Three women attest that he behaved inappropriately: a recent, well-documented case of unwanted touching; a second case in which an employee says he crossed lines, with actions whose interpretation Tyson contests but whose particulars he corroborates; and an older, much more serious, much harder to verify allegation of rape. What to make of this? Is it our duty now to adjudicate claims against any celebrity whose work we admire? Do we “convict” Tyson of the lesser charges? Do we “acquit” him of the greater one? If so, what are fair and fitting consequences for such actions? Is reputational damage too much, not enough, or somehow both at once? Where evidence is absent, can we believe the stories of the wronged while withholding judgment on the accused? Or are these impulses as contradictory as they seem? Does the nature of the accused’s work matter—do we deal more severely with a politician or a film actor than with an inspirational popularizer of science—or is it hypocrisy even to ask this? May we hold out hope for a legal process, or is the court of public opinion the only one that will ever try such cases? Your answers, reader, are at least as good as mine.
Lost in Math, by Sabine Hossenfelder. I wrote up my thoughts in a blog post.
Einstein, by Walter Isaacson. I planned to read only a few sections, as research for a chapter on Einstein’s cosmology. I wound up enjoying all 600 pages, which include well-written popular science, telling biographical details (he mailed his dirty laundry to his girlfriend!), and lots of tasty quotes from the century’s most quotable scientist.