Before it gets too deep into 2020, and this new decade swallows me like a whale ingesting krill, I want to take a moment to tell you about books I enjoyed this past year.
All of these books are certified 100% great and you should read them so we can chat about them, like a little two-person online book club.
(Note that my attention span favors books which are (1) written with a distinctive voice, (2) intellectually dense, and (3) short. Your tastes and mileage may vary.)
I read a lot of books about math, for the purpose of
stealing the authors’ ideas and, eventually, their identities drawing inspiration.
The Weil Conjectures, by Karen Olsson. Beautiful, subtle reflections on the elusive nature of modern mathematics. Composed from an outsider’s vantage, yet with an insider’s ear and finesse.
Humble Pi, by Matt Parker. Riveting, wide-ranging exploration of mathematical mistakes. Includes clever “mistakes” of its own – e.g., the pages are numbered in reverse.
Euler’s Gem, by David Richeson. Dave’s two books – this one on topology, and his new one on impossible problems such as squaring the circle – are superb. His selection and presentation of mathematical ideas is exquisite: an unmatched combination of accessibility and depth.
Tales of Impossibility, by David Richeson. My back-cover blurb: “The story of a mathematical treasure hunt, and a treasure chest in its own right.”
What Is the Name of This Book? by Raymond Smullyan. A classic collection of great puzzles, including those about knaves who always lie, and knights who never do. I especially loved the pages of anecdotes, jokes, and stray thoughts.
Infinite Powers, by Steven Strogatz. In contrast to my book on calculus – a silly, literary, personal affair – Strogatz’s is epic and sweeping. It weaves together historical storytelling and surprising accounts of modern applications.
Mathematics for Human Flourishing, by Francis Su. My back-cover blurb: “Francis Su believes that math can make us better humans—and he leads by example. Every page is a work of generosity and compassion. Plus, the puzzles will haunt you for weeks.”
Sci-Fi Short Stories
My pleasure reading. A good one gives a quick, stimulating burst of “whoa.” The four authors below – some of my absolute favorite writers – deliver fireworks.
Exhalation, by Ted Chiang. The most carefully crafted and rigorously imagined sci-fi in the business. The final story, on parallel universes, is worth the price of admission.
How Long ’til Black Future Month?, by N.K. Jemisin. A collection of extraordinary diversity, from distant-planet exploration to a prose-poem meditation on NYC to a spy caper set in an alternate, high-tech 1800’s New Orleans.
Changing Planes, by Ursula Le Guin. Stimulating, funny thought experiments about imaginary civilizations. Silent people; perpetually migrating people; people with wings…
Sorry Please Thank You, by Charles Yu. Witty and wildly imaginative meditations on relationships, meaning, and capitalism.
Gorgeous & Heartbreaking
I guess sometimes I want to be sad? I read all of these before my daughter was born. Having an infant now, I don’t lack for strong emotions in my diet.
Night, by Elie Wiesel. This Holocaust memoir was required reading for 9th graders at the first school where I taught. Ten years later, I’m finally caught up.
Alex: The Life of a Child, by Frank Deford. I love Deford’s sportswriting; this is a memoir about his daughter, who died of cystic fibrosis. Sat on my shelf for years; had to read it before my own daughter came along, lest it wreck me even more than it did.
The Best We Could Do, by Thi Bui. Graphic memoir of a family’s journey from Vietnam. Full of hurt and compassion, with colors so beautiful they register as music. One of the best books I read all year.
Literary & Comic
Not coincidentally, those are adjectives you might use to describe my 2019 book, Change is the Only Constant.
The Lonesome Bodybuilder, by Yukiko Motoya. Short stories; a Japanese sort of magical realism. One of the strangest books I read this year.
Romeo And/Or Juliet, by Ryan North. A choose-your-own-path version of Shakespeare’s classic. North is one of my favorite humorists, and he explores every corner and permutation of his delightful premise.
Love Dishonor Marry Die Cherish Perish, by David Rakoff. A short novel written entirely in verse – and what struck me, given the sardonic edge of Rakoff’s essays, entirely in earnest.
Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger. Two linked novellas. I still don’t understand why Catcher in the Rye gets all the glory; Salinger’s other stories are deeper, funnier, and more virtuosic.
Tenth of December, by George Saunders. Incisive, witty short stories, ranging from pedestrian to sci-fi fantastical. Saunders has a keen and devastating eye for the flattering lies that we tell ourselves.
To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis. A time travel romp through Victorian England. Leisurely yet propulsive, full of fun moments. To say nothing of the dog!
Illustrated & Ingenious
These books, for me, push the bounds on what books can be and do. All three are full of serious, interesting ideas – and all three are playful in presentation.
The Dialogues, by Clifford Johnson. The author, a physics professor, drew this series of cartoon dialogues about science himself. Clearly a multi-talented fellow.
How To, by Randall Munroe. I write in Munroe’s shadow, and it’s a big, beautiful shadow. This book shows off his chops not just as a humorist, but a researcher; he has a nose for the quirky and fascinating.
Basketball (and other things), by Shea Serrano. I wound up giving this as a gift to every basketball fan I know. A mixture of meticulous argumentation and delicious pop culture lunacy.
Modern & Insightful
Usually I read stuff that’s years or decades old, but in 2019 I actually read some modern nonfiction about modern concerns that might be relevant to a modern person! Go me!
Because Internet, by Gretchen McCulloch. Whereas oral speech has always had formal and informal registers, writing had only the former. Until the internet. This bestseller thoughtfully unpacks how we write online.
Hacking Life, by Joseph M. Reagle, Jr. An affectionate but unflinching critique of the form of self-help known as “life hacks,” and its obsession with optimization.
How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm, by Mei-Ling Hopgood. Every chapter, more or less: “Here’s a question about child-rearing. Here’s a society that does it totally differently than the US. And guess what? Both have their ups and downs.” Formulaic but immensely reassuring for the new parent.
Bringing Up Bebe, by Pamela Druckerman. Polar opposite of Hopgood’s book; celebrating the Parisian style of child-rearing as lower-effort and superior. Probably right on food; maybe insightful on discipline; dubious elsewhere, but well-written.
Literature for and About Teenage Girls
I went on a brief kick of this stuff, and it’s great! Good job, teen girls! I mean, not that you wrote these books, but you created the market demand for them, which is the highest form of virtue in a capitalist society!
The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. Tear-jerking mega-bestseller. I borrowed it from a friend because I fell in love with Green’s podcast, The Anthropocene Reviewed, which I recommend fanatically.
Catfishing on Catnet, by Naomi Kritzer. Charming YA thriller, based on a Hugo-winning short story about an AI that gains sentience… and demands cat pictures.
Grace and the Fever, by Zan Romanoff. After years of obsessing over a boy band, what if you got to meet them? Half the joy is sheer wish fulfillment; the other half is the surprisingly delicate character study of our guarded narrator.