I attempted to read more books in 2018 – and it paid off! I read several enjoyable books this year. Here were my favorites.
Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel)
Station Eleven was a pleasant surprise. I was skeptical of it from the synopses I read, but this ended up being the most genuine-feeling science fiction novel I’ve read in a while. It’s a dark, somber read interspersed with lighter themes set in a post-apocalyptic setting. Don’t expect “hard sci-fi”. Station Eleven struck me as a quite human take on science fiction. It’s an enjoyable read with a plot that ties itself up nicely.
Remembrance of Earth’s Past Trilogy (Liu Cixin)
In contrast to Station Eleven, the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy is more “hard sci-fi”. I read Three Body Problem (the first in the trilogy) a couple years ago but had trouble getting started with The Dark Forest. This year, I made a second attempt — and it stuck. I pretty quickly tore through both The Dark Forest and Death’s End.
I would highly recommend Three Body Problem and, if you enjoyed that, The Dark Forest is a great sequel. I enjoyed reading Death’s End to finish the overarching story, but it meanders towards the end and wasn’t as satisfying a book in its own right as the first two entries to the series.
Liu Cixin’s imagination is wild; there are a couple reveals in Three Body Problem and The Dark Forest that almost force you to put the book down and think for a while. This series deserves the praise and popularity it’s received recently.
Breakfast of Champions (Kurt Vonnegut)
I read a couple Vonnegut books this year. Slaughterhouse Five remains one of my favorite books of all time. Breakfast of Champions isn’t transcendent, but it was a fun read that hit me at a good time. Vonnegut’s dripping satire, crudeness, and not-so-subtle political commentary have, to put it politely, a time and a place. If you’re in the wrong mindset, his writing falls flat. But, at the right time, his satire is searing and sublime, making for an intensely satisfying read. Without spoiling anything, there is a brilliant breaking of the Fourth Wall in Breakfast of Champions that was poignant.
This book changed my mind. I remember being recommended this book during a talk by Travis Oliphant early in the year. I think the most valuable insight from this book is that it encourages readers (especially liberal, Western readers) to expand the bases of morality from just “harm” (i.e. actions are permissible provided that they do not cause suffering in others) to “harm”, “liberty”, “fairness”, “loyalty”, “authority”, and “sanctity”. The book does this while explaining the evolutionary foundations for these pillars of morality. Haidt also argues for an “intuition-first, reasoning-second” model of how people formulate moral arguments. I don’t agree with everything Haidt proposes in this book, but I think the value of this book is that the reader is given an expanded mental tool-set for thinking critically about moral systems — especially systems differ significantly from their own.
As a side note, I’d recommend the listening to the audiobook of The Righteous Mind — as it’s narrated by the author.
Practical Ethics (Peter Singer)
Now 25 years after publishing, Practical Ethics is still a great dive into Singer’s ethical theories. I read (and enjoyed) his collection of essays, Ethics in the Real World, last year. Practical Ethics dives deeper into a selection of salient ethical topics (animal agriculture, abortion/contraception, euthanasia, global poverty, and environmentalism). It’s approachable, yet still provides a good amount of depth for those who’ve already had experience thinking about ethics. In particular, the book starts by addressing the question “What is ethics?” and ends by discussing “Why live morally?”. While I wish that more attention was given to constructing an overarching ethical framework, I found Singer’s treatment of extant ethical dilemmas to be worth reading.
Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Nassim Nicholas Taleb)
I enjoyed Antifragile, though I didn’t find it as revolutionary a read as others have. Taleb’s philosophy is interesting, but I think some of his talks are better vehicles than his books (which I found to be slightly long-winded and dogmatic).
Annihilation (Jeff VanderMeer)
At every bookstore I visited this year, Annihilation was prominently displayed on the “best sellers” table. I finally gave it a read while traveling and consumed it in almost a single sitting. Annihilation succeeds at creating a rich, atmospheric world in its short 200-page duration.
Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door (Rick Steves)
I did some traveling through Europe this year. Rick Steves’ travel guide was a valuable resource for planning and embarking on an enjoyable trip.
I maintain a full list of all the books I’ve read here. I don’t keep track of the medium through which I consumed each book, although anecdotally I read more paper books and listened to fewer audiobooks this year than in the past.
My library also makes a lot of eBooks available freely. In the past, the UX of loaning and reading eBooks through the library was pretty poor. However, this year I discovered the Libby app, which is easy to use. It handles cross-device syncing well and manages your loans/holds transparently. The only knock against the library system is that their selection isn’t as good as Amazon’s — but “free” is a compelling price. 😄
Notably missing from this list are any technical books. I’m still chewing (slowly) through SICP and I hope to invest more time in reading technical books in 2019. 😛
Book covers from GoodReads.