I’m actually not sure which books were the best published in 2019, but below is a roundup of the best books I read or listened to in 2019. Most weren’t published this year. They are still great books.
I keep track of the books I read in a book report journal, which I write in by hand. It’s not searchable, but it does wonders for helping me crystallize what I’ve read, and I’ve been doing this religiously since 2004.
Here are some of the highlights in barely any particular order. We can also connect on Goodreads to compare notes.
The Old Drift
by Namwali Serpell
I read this because of a review of it from Salman Rushdie, one of my favorite authors (whose new book, Quichotte, I also listened to this year, but it wasn’t his best). This audiobook was perhaps the first I listened to twice in a row just to process the whole story, and then I read some passages on the Kindle and realized I missed even more. This multi-layered saga of intertwining families in Zimbabwe over a century is so rich, so beautiful, and so complex. Also, Sarah Jessica Parker liked my review on Goodreads, so that was a first.
The Count of Monte Cristo
by Alexandre Dumas
I read this several years ago but wanted to again, so this time, I listened to it. Clocking in at nearly 47 hours in the John Lee recording (at 1x speed, at least), I couldn’t want to keep tuning in, even knowing some of what was coming next. It is practically perfect and satisfying storytelling.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
by Mark Twain
I hadn’t read this since I was in high school. I didn’t previously appreciate just how daring Twain was with his characters and how vivid he was conjuring each character’s essence through his or her dialogue. Also, if you’re into Twain or want to be more into Twain, listen to any of Nick Offerman’s Twain recordings on Audible. They are so much fun.
Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, and Flood of Fire
by Amitav Ghosh
This trilogy follows the fate of those sailing from India to Mauritius on the Ibis, a ship whose owners trade in opium and indentured servants. It then expands to follow some of them and their family members across India, China, and beyond. It is a haunting tale of imperialist trade, and the joy of reading it now is that you can read all three consecutively.
A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II
by Sonia Purnell
Virginia Hall was an American with a wooden leg who happened to outrun and outsmart almost all the Nazis she encountered and happened to keep the flames of French resistance burning during World War II’s darkest hours. What a hero, and what an inspiration. We should name elementary schools and airports named after her.
The Radical King
Edited by Cornel West
I listened to this around Martin Luther King Jr. Day and got a little bit more woke to the resonance of Dr. King Jr.’s words read by LeVar Burton, Wanda Sykes, Leslie Odom Jr., and others.
Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World
by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope
This story seems unreal, and it’s another tale of terrific journalism tracking down one of the world’s biggest con artists, Malaysia’s Jho Low.
The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy
by Paige Williams
It’s sort of like Billion Dollar Whale but with dinosaurs and a less elusive protagonist. Given dinosaurs are more exciting than derivatives, it’s hard to pick which book is better. Also, this book has cameos by Nicolas Cage while Whale has DiCaprio.
by Cal Newport
What I thought could have been a blog post stretched out to book-length wound up being one of the more influential books I read this year and inspired several columns.
The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution
by Peter Hessler
A favorite author of mine for his work on China, Hessler is a marvel at combining investigative journalism with deep humanity and empathy. Read any of his work, including is New Yorker articles, and you’ll see it right away.
Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America
by Jared Cohen
A book I learned about after watching him speak at Techonomy, it’s insane how many times America has changed presidents mid-term or has been on the verge of doing so due to assassination, injury, or illness. We are still not prepared for such changes.
Designated Hebrew: The Ron Blomberg Story
by Ron Blomberg
Somehow, growing up, I missed that professional baseball’s first designated hitter was Jewish; maybe it’s because Blomberg played for the Yankees, and I was a Mets fan (more likely: my dad didn’t know either). This concise autobiography is a treat for anyone who loves the game.
Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators
by Ronan Farrow
This book, narrated by the author, is one of my favorites I’ve listened to, and I’m not even finished yet as I write this. I could only read so much news about the Harvey Weinstein scandal as it happened (and continues to unfold, with the settlement), but this story is more about the power of journalism, and it helps that Farrow comes off as so manic, driven, and maybe a little bit nuts in all the right ways.
These Truths: A History of the United States
by Jill Lepore
What makes America America? Well, slavery is part of it. Reading Oxford History’s “The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789)” as I did this year, you’d think slavery and racism were minor inconveniences for a subset of the population (Native Americans were given short shrift too, as usual). Lepore’s book, full of love for the US, doesn’t flinch from its biggest missteps and controversies.
Ego, Authority, Failure: Using Emotional Intelligence Like a Hostage Negotiator to Succeed as a Leader.
by Derek Gaunt
I loved “Never Split the Difference” by Chris Voss, and this was basically the sequel. It is almost as good as the original, and a welcome refresher for what Voss covered.
Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day
by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky
Make more time in your day and Kondo out the time clutter. I dare you not to find a few tips you embrace here.
The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
by James Gleick
It’s a wonky book on the evolution of information, but very readable and timely.
The Willpower Instinct
by Kelly McGonigal
This should climb the sales charts again over the holidays. Some of my favorite sections were about why self-compassion is so much more effective a strategy than self-criticism, and how mindfulness can effectively overcome many of the worst temptations. If you prefer to think of this as a psychology book instead of a self-help book to motivate you to read it, do whatever works.
I had a hard time picking favorites among friends’ books I read this year. But here are some other terrific reads to check out:
–Built to Suck by Joe Jaffe
–The Disruption Mindset by Charlene Li
–Indistractable by Nir Eyal
–Savvy by Shiv Singh
Which of these have you read, and what’s at the top of your list this year? I’m curious to hear. And as you wrap the year, I’m curious what you’re making of yourself.
This column was originally published in the newsletter. While I share the introductory column here, other updates such as jobs, events, and commentary on news are exclusively available to subscribers. Sign up now to make sure you receive it.