Goodreads tells me I read 72 books this year. Though I didn’t read as many as last year, with a baby on the way I’ve been trying to read abundantly while I can, for both quality and quantity. Here are the books published in 2018 that I enjoyed the most. (See previous best-of book lists.)
1. Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City by Sam Anderson (review)
You might have heard good things about this book. I’m here to tell you all of them are true. The pleasure I felt from the first page on is a feeling I chase with all my reading. Your mileage may vary, of course, but this kaleidoscopic story of Oklahoma City is more than just a rote retelling of a city’s history. Anderson wraps the OKC Thunder, tornadoes, Timothy McVeigh, city planning, a truly insane founding process, Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, and much more into a cohesive, sure-handed, wry, and enlightening narrative.
Radar data, like starlight, is information about the past: it tells you about the distant object it bounced off seconds or minutes before. This can tell you a lot—that conditions are perfect for a big storm, that something is in the air—but it can’t actually look at the storm for you. For that, you still need people. Storm chasers provided the stations with what they call “ground truth.”
2. Circe by Madeline Miller
My highest-ever ranking of a novel, and it damn near took the first spot. A retelling of the story of Circe, daughter of the sun god Helios, this isn’t something I’d normally read, but the rave reviews made me give it a try. Boy am I glad I didn’t let my woeful lack of knowledge on Greek mythology stop me. I found Miller’s prose to be so rich and empathetic, powerful yet tender. Read half of it on audiobook and friggin’ loved Perdita Weeks’ narration. I just started reading The Odyssey for the first time; I sense it will be that much richer having gone through this odyssey.
Only that: we are here. This is what it means to swim in the tide, to walk the earth and feel it touch your feet. This is what it means to be alive.
3. Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America by Craig Childs
Archaeology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, imagination—all come into play in this meaty and winding travelogue around North America to investigate notable Ice Age locations. Made me immensely grateful for our (not so) distant human ancestors.
We have all but forgotten how to inhabit this kind of fear. We gave up spears and skins and the weather on us day and night for cup holders and cell phones and doors that close behind us. What, I wonder, was lost?
4. Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine by Alan Lightman
Picked this up on a whim and luckily was in the right mood for its meditative style and mix of mind-expanding ruminations on astrophysics, God, philosophy, nature, and the meaning of life. Do not read if you don’t want your worldview—or really, galaxyview—bent like spacetime.
[Earth is] a large family of noisy and feeling animals—the living, throbbing kingdom of life on our planet, of which we are a part. A kingdom that consecrates life and its possibilities even as each of its individuals passes away. A kingdom that dreams of unity and permanence even as the world fractures and fades. A kingdom redesigning itself, as we humans now do. All is in flux and has always been so. … Flux is beyond sadness and joy. Flux and impermanence and uncertainty seem to be simply what is.
5. Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results by James Clear
Learned about this when I stumbled upon the author’s Twitter, which proved to be quite the hotbed of interesting replies about people’s habits. The book does a great job laying out practical tools and ways of thinking about behavior, especially in how conceptions of identity and systems influence it far more than emotions and willpower.
You get what you repeat.
6. How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan (review)
From the author of The Botany of Desire, one of my favorite narrative nonfiction books, comes this new revelatory exploration of practical and transformative uses of psychedelics. Probably because I’ve never done psychedelics, I was eager to learn about them from a reputable and investigative source with an open mind like Pollan. He explores the history of psychedelics, how they were used in clinical trials in the 1950s before Timothy Leary and the damned dirty hippies ruined them for everyone (my words), and how modern science is discovering their powerful affects on the brain and mental health.
Psychedelic experiences are notoriously hard to render in words; to try is necessarily to do violence to what has been seen and felt, which is in some fundamental way pre- or post-linguistic or, as students of mysticism say, ineffable. Emotions arrive in all their newborn nakedness, unprotected from the harsh light of scrutiny and, especially, the pitiless glare of irony. Platitudes that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Hallmark card glow with the force of revealed truth.
7. The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together by Adam Nayman
A big and beautiful book of essays on the works of America’s most reliably excellent filmmakers. Nayman covers every Coen film from Blood Simple to Hail, Caesar! and includes interviews with frequent collaborators. It made me appreciate the Coen Cinematic Universe much more.
8. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Richly drawn characters in modern Atlanta dealing with a false imprisonment and how it upends life’s expected narratives. I think this is the second Oprah’s Book Club selection I’ve read while it was still reigning—the first being The Underground Railroad—so I’m 2 for 2 so far.
9. Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson
Wouldn’t you know it, all I wanted to do after reading this was rewatch 2001: A Space Odyssey.
10. Am I There Yet? The Loop-de-Loop, Zigzagging Journey to Adulthood by Mari Andrew
Discovered Mari Andrew on Instagram. She packs so much insight, emotional intelligence, and artistry into deceptively simple illustrations, and has a great eye for the little things in life and how to turn them into art.
Honorable mentions:Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most by Steven Johnson, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Word of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King, The Library Book by Susan Orlean
Favorite non-2018 books I read this year
On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan
A Life In Parts by Bryan Cranston
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World by Rob Sheffield
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura IngallsWilder is about 150 pages too long, and spends a lot more time with Laura’s daughter Rose than I expected or desired. But the first third of the book, with the Ingalls family and Laura as a young adult, was quite illuminating. (Great Scott am I glad I don’t live on the prairie in the late 1800s!)
The Little House novels and TV show were, shall we say, not quite accurate. But they certainly contain a grain of truth, as Fraser writes about the Ingalls family’s time in Kansas in 1870-71:
In a brief and concentrated span of time, the Ingallses had experienced virtually everything that would come to be seen as quintessentially Western: encounters with wolves and Indians, angry disputes over open range, prairie fires, neighbors coming to their aid. Although they would retreat for a time to Wisconsin, an enduring impression had been made, one that would strengthen over the years as the family moved. From the open doorway of a tiny log cabin, Laura had watched as a parade of Western iconography passed by. It was as if the spirit of manifest destiny had been imprinted in her memory, leaving a series of stereoscopic images, each more dramatic than the one before, each intensely experienced and utterly unique, yet emblematic of all western settlement. The family spent little more than a year on the Kansas prairie, but it shaped her temperament and outlook for the rest of her life. That year made her who she was.
Another quote rang relevant to today. Powell, a Civil War hero and the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, warned that the West (today’s Great Plains states) was too arid for farming and spelled bankruptcy for farmers. He advocated cooperative irrigation and grazing schemes, but “bonanza farms” promoted by Big Business at the time offered get-rick-quick fantasies that were much more alluring:
Fundamentally, the question was whether national decisions of significant economic import, affecting thousands of citizens, would be governed by Enlightenment science or by huckster fantasy. The outcome was immediately clear to anyone reading the newspapers: fantasy won. In a campaign comparable to modern-day corporate denial of climate change, big business and the legislators in its pocket brushed Powell’s analysis aside. Railroads were not about to capitulate to the geologist’s limited vision, and his plans as director of the U.S. Geological Survey to limit western settlement would be undermined by intense political attacks. James B. Power, land agent for the Northern Pacific—who had earlier admitted that Dakota was a “barren desert”—dismissed Powell as an elite intellectual, lacking the experience of “practical men.” “No reliance can be placed upon any of his statements as to the agricultural value of any country,” Power said. For good measure, he called the geologist “an ass.”
This sign is posted in the parking lot outside my work. Why “NO TV’s”? A while ago someone left an old TV next to what they thought was a dumpster for trash but is actually a dumpster for paper recycling. But only people who had seen the TV there before it got picked up will understand the odd specificity of the sign.
I’m in the middle of David McCullough’s Truman, a 1,000-page biography (not including the end-matter). Given its girth I figured I’d have to take a break at some point. Sure enough, page 500 rolls around and I get a notification that Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is finally ready for me at the library. So I start that one and immediately love it.
Then I remember I have two forthcoming books I need to review for Booklist with fast-approaching deadlines. So now I’m in a book while reading another book, which itself is a break from another book.
Great profile of “golden-throated” audiobook narrator Grover Gardner and the booming audiobook industry:
Gardner’s advice to aspiring narrators is to take a digital recorder and a book, sit in a quiet room, and read aloud for an hour without stopping. “Then tell me if you still want to do it. The answer is often ‘no,’ ” he says. “If you had to break down all the components of what goes into quality audiobook narration, it’s staggering. All the things you’re juggling in your head, in the body, in your throat and your voice.
I never recognize audiobook narrators, but I always respect their art.
Watch out, world: we’ve got ourselves a 90-year-old hot take!
In the June 1928 issue of The American Mercury, a periodical edited by the famous journalist H.L. Mencken, there’s an article by Fletcher Pratt called “A Glance At The Public Libraries”. I stumbled upon the issue while processing material at the Frances Willard House Museum. It was there because of the article about Willard in the same issue, but the library article was what first caught my eye.
Pratt, a writer of science fiction and history, worked at Buffalo Public Library for a time and used that experience to write this sardonic, dismissive, sexist contrarian take on the public libraries of that time.
Why read it at all? First, as a historical artifact, it provides valuable context from a different era. Second, even though it’s almost 100 years old and, to modern minds, retrograde in its view of library workers and their work, I think it’s important to read contrarian perspectives on issues close to one’s heart and mind. Librarianship is my career and one I love, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore criticisms of it.
It’s also just plain funny, in a tongue-in-cheek, insult comic kind of way. Pratt goes Don Rickles on the profession in a way only someone familiar with it could pull off.
So let’s consider what Fletcher Pratt tells us about how public libraries have changed since 1928 and in what ways they remain the same, if at all. I recommend reading the whole thing to get the full experience. But let’s take a look at some of my favorite parts:
Every public library in the United States now places restrictions on the use of fiction.
Librarians, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. Restricting fiction seems laughable now, given how popular and dominant it is in the book and library worlds.
American librarians, in fact, have become obsessed with the idea that the national literature will go to the dogs unless they persuade their customers to read something beside fiction. Indignant papers in the library journals and long discussions at librarians meetings are given over to the great question of how to keep the public from reading what it likes and how to induce it to read the moldering stacks of books it doesn’t care about.
That’s what I mean about funny.
Three classes of books—travel, biography and history—are held in orthodox library circles to be the best antidote to this depraved fondness for works of the imagination. To these the best shelves are given, for them the special bulletins are printed, and on them the lady attendant spends the best efforts of her cajolery to make her percentage of nonfiction circulation high.
A favorite device for increasing circulation painlessly is to require every reader who uses a reference book to fill out a slip for it.… Another potent scheme is to take books into the schools; a third is to offer vacation libraries of twenty-five or fifty books for the summer. Are they read? Who cares? It makes circulation, and circulation, in the librarian’s mind, is the summum bonum.
Here is where things get a little more familiar to us moderns. Circulation remains the summum bonum of the profession, however much local value and subject matter still factor into collection development. If a book doesn’t circulate, it won’t last long in a space-limited library.
Nothing is more curious to the outside observer than the typical librarians’ preoccupation with the infinitely little. Recently, for example, an angry controversy raged through the library world as to whether Radio or Wireless should be the heading under which books on the subject were classified. … In the library where the writer once worked hours of discussion at a staff meeting were given over to the absorbing question as to whether it was better to hold a book in the left hand and insert the charge slip with the right, or vice versa.
Book in left, charge slip in right. Wanna fight about it?
This tireless energy over trivialities argues that small minds are at work, and sure enough, there is a certain lack of intelligence among librarians. The reason is not far to see; intelligence follows the cornucopia, and library work is probably the worst paid of all intellectual vocations.
In our defense, tedious discussions about trivialities are hardly exclusive to libraries. But if you’re mad about Pratt asserting a lack of intelligence among librarians, you’re definitely not gonna like his reasoning:
Since girls first discovered that it could furnish them with pin-money while they waited for someone to love them, library work has been a prime favorite with the female of the species. It involves little labor, and that of a highly genteel character; it demands no great mental ability and it places the husband-hunter who enters it on public exhibition, where she can look over and be looked over by all the nubile males of the district under the most refined auspices.
I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest Pratt would not have fared well in the #MeToo era. Next he tackles library school:
In no case does the course extend beyond two years, and the pedagogues have had to drag in such subjects as the History and Philosophy of Printing to make it last that long. Before the schools got under way the libraries trained rather better staffs than they have now on a month’s lectures with practical experience. The truth is that there is very little to teach; any literate person can learn all there is to a library system in a few weeks. Consequently the library schools have to drill their future B.S.’s and M.A.’s in the beautifully vague principles of “library economy,” and to impress them with the importance of such details as inserting the charging slip with the right hand, or lettering the title on a thin book in the proper direction.
I’ll save the discussion about the pros and cons of library school for another post. But “beautifully vague principles” mixed with arcane details is pretty spot-on—and why I love libraries so much. He then tips his cap to Andrew Carnegie, patron saint of library buildings:
There are never enough branches to go round, but the head librarians, pushed from below by their staffs and from above by aldermen anxious for pork, do their best, and so new branches are added apace. The fund established by the obliging Mr. Carnegie makes it easy; all the city has to do is furnish the books; the Carnegie fund will put up the imitation Greek temple and even the funerary vegetation around it.
Finally, Pratt touts the Newark library as the “highest peak” of effectiveness, unlike that of its neighbor:
Right across the Hudson is the great New York Public, in any one of whose vaulted corridors Newark’s whole collection would be lost. The contrast of striking. In the New Jersey institution one watchman is at the door and a whole corps of eager assistants stand ready to help the visitor; in the marble monument to the Astors one may count a dozen policemen in neat horizon blue idling about to enforce the library rules, while one poor boy struggles vainly with requests for information.
Here’s the deal: I started trying to find books in each of the above 10-spots but was having trouble finding 3 that weren’t straight up dictionaries or the usual dry if practical phrase books for each of the sections’ languages. And then I didn’t post on TMHTD for a while out of benign neglect, so then I decided, Why don’t I just lump all these disparate languages together into one post so I can catch up and offend people all over the world? The end.
So yeah, we’re hopping on a redeye to fly over all these beautiful countries and their beautiful, complicated, storied languages, but hey, look out the window! There’s Barcelona and Rome and Athens and whatever the capital of Romania is!
You thinking what I’m thinking? I hope so. Like it or not that’s what I think of when trying to speak fake French. That guttural huh huh huh is probably what the French hate the most about the French stereotype, though I don’t know any French people so I’m just gonna assume that’s true without confirming like a good cultured-enough American. #patriotism
I kid. I’d love to visit France one day, and if I do get that chance I’d likely bone up on the language beforehand using these books:
Based on the material available in this section, I’d venture to say that while Germanic languages aren’t the prettiest ones out there, they are often the most interesting. There’s the umlaut-loving Swedish, the melting-pot Afrikaans, the Tolkien-like Icelandic… I’ll never have enough time to learn them all, but were I to undergo a superhero origin story, I hope my heroic alter ego would be a polyglot.