I failed in my book-reading goals for 2019. Not necessarily by not reading a total of 50 books, which I had set out to accomplish, but in not keeping better track of what I read nor taking better notes about what I read. Suffice to say that I hope to begin the new decade renewed in my commitment to reading approximately one book per week (easily attained, as three short books can be read in a week, which buys you three weeks to read a massive tome – here’s looking at you, Knaussgard, as I look forward to tackling volume four of the My Struggle sextet), and to recommit to jotting down a couple of sentences upon completion if only so that I have a vague memory of what each book was about.
It would help my reading, of course, if I cut back on watching so much TV, and by TV, what I mean mostly are Nordic noir crime shows and their multicultural offshoots: French noir, Finnish noir, German noir, UK noir, and, occasionally, American noir. Also “prestige” shows like “Succession” and “The Kominsky Method” and “Big Little Lies” which, if somewhat guilty pleasures, often feature brilliant writing and great performances. On that topic, return to this space soon for my list of movies and TV shows I watched in 2019.
Like you, I also spend an inordinate time reading magazines and essays and opinion pieces and articles in hard copy and especially on the Internet. To try to catalog those would be an exercise in compulsive futility, which also suggests that cutting back on some of that reading – or at least curating it more carefully – might also leave more mental space for reading books, which is of course an entirely different experience from reading short works.
So here’s a list of the books I read in 2019, with an occasional note or two about the experience. These aren’t books that were necessarily published this past year; the only criteria for this list is that I read them in 2019.
It’s not surprising that after reading voluminous political and historical works in 2017 and 2018 – many about Hitler, Stalin, and incipient fascism – I read not a single such work in 2019. Instead I read twice as many novels in 2019 as I did the year before. If this wasn’t prescribed by a mental health professional, it easily could have been, and I urge you to do the same.
Also, this is by no means a list of recommended books or “best” books or my favorite books. Plenty of the books on this list disappointed me, although I have no regrets having spent time reading them. If a book is so dreadful, it should be closed and tossed across the room. I don’t think I did that once this year.
And one final caveat: some of my book-reading is comprised of research for other projects (which explains Olivia Newton-John’s autobiography, for example).
Patti Smith, Year of the Monkey (Knopf)
As I recall, this got mixed reviews when it first came out, with many reviewers feeling it didn’t live up to Patti Smith’s previous works. Don’t believe it – this is by far Patti Smith’s most accomplished work of creative prose, inching her forward to being a kind of American answer to one of her literary heroes, W.G. Sebald (even down to the use of her photographs in the text).
Siri Hustvedt, Memories of the Future (Simon & Schuster)
Akiko Busch, How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency (Penguin Press)
Jenny O’Dell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Melville House)
Esmé Weijun Wang, The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays (Graywolf)
Alexander Chee, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays (Mariner)
Patrick Modiano, Sleep of Memory (Yale University Press)
Olivia Lang, Crudo (WW Norton)
Sarah Moss, Ghost Wall (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman (Grove Press)
Karl Ove Knaussgard, My Struggle: Volume 3 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Nathan Englander, Kaddish.com (Knopf)
Hanne Ørstavik, Love (Archipelago)
Hannah Lillith Assadi, Sonora (Soho Press)
Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Fleishman Is in Trouble (Random House)
Howard Jacobson, J (Hogarth)
Dag Solstad, Professor Andersen’s Night (New Directions)
I stumbled upon this Nordic gem while vacationing in the Azores. Someone had left it behind in the room; I devoured it in a day. Then I learned that Solstad is one of Knaussgard’s favorite writers.
Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin (Vintage)
Deborah Levy, The Man Who Saw Everything (Bloomsbury)
An accident at the Abbey Road zebra crossing puts this surreal tale into motion.
Richard Powers, The Overstory (WW Norton)
Andrea Kleine, Eden (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Jeff Jackson, Destroy All Monsters (FSG Originals)
Edward St. Aubyn, The Complete Patrick Melrose Novels (Picador)
Sam Lipsyte, Hark (Simon & Schuster)
MUSIC and POPULAR CULTURE
Holly George-Warren, Janis (Simon & Schuster)
I reviewed this terrific biography for Chronogram. I went into reading this not a fan of Joplin; I came out with an entirely new appreciation for what she accomplished, for her struggle against inner and outer demons, and for her influential role in the culture at large.
Bill Griffith, Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead (Harry N. Abrams)
Olivia Newton-John, Don’t Stop Believin’ (Gallery)
Karl Ove Knaussgard, So Much Longing in So Little Space: The Art of Edvard Munch (Penguin)
It turns out that Knaussgard studied art in university and he’s a profound thinker and brilliant writer on the subject. The pairing of Knaussgard and Munch is perfect, and you get a complete education about Munch’s life and work. But it doesn’t end there. Knaussgard casts a wider net, so that his book – perfectly pitched for the general reader – also explores Anselm Kiefer, among others.
John Berger, Why Look at Animals? (Penguin Great Ideas)
Peter Wohlleben, The Secret Wisdom of Nature: Trees, Animals, and the Extraordinary Balance of All Living Things (Greystone)
Jonathan Lerner, Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary (OR Books)
A one-time member of the Weather Underground, Jonathan Lerner interweaves his personal story of getting swept up in Sixties radicalism with reflections on the American culture that produced homegrown violence, all wrapped up in a kind of coming-of-age story. Lerner is nothing if not critical about much of the history, but saves his harshest judgments for himself.
Jonathan Safran Foer, We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Skip this one and instead read (or re-read) Foer’s brilliant Eating Animals (Back Bay).
Sarah Susanka, The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live (Picnic Time)
Winifred Gallagher, House Thinking: A Room-by-Room Look at How We Live (Harper Perennial)
Witold Rybczynski, Home: A Short History of an Idea (Penguin)
John Rusk, On Time and On Budget: A Home Renovation Survival Guide (Doubleday)
Morris Carey, Home Remodeling for Dummies (John Wiley & Sons)
Michael Pollan, A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams (Penguin)
Margaret Roach, A Way to Garden (Timber Press)
Christopher Lloyd, The Well-Tempered Garden: New and Revised Edition (Penguin Gardening)
Robin Lane Fox, Thoughtful Gardening (Basic)
ON DECK for 2020
Zadie Smith, Grand Union (Penguin)
Olga Tokarczuk, Flights (Riverhead)
Ben Lerner, The Topeka School (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (Dial Press)
Andrea Long Chu, Females (Verso)
Peter Stamm, The Sweet Indifference of the World (Other Press)
Dana Czapnik, The Falconer (Atria)
Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion (Random House)
Karl Ove Knaussgard, My Struggle: Volume 4 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury)
Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead)
I.B. Singer, Satan in Goray (Farrar Straus)
Works by Sally Rooney, Rachel Cusk, Ben Lerner, W.G. Sebald