Like many a liberal arts graduate, I was voracious reader growing up who almost completely abandoned non-assigned reading for 4 years, an unfortunate development which spilled into the first couple years of working life. Yet, with the work flexibility my job allows, and my self imposed Mon-Tues-Wed early bedtimes, I’ve found myself with the time to knock through more books this year than the past 4 combined. I typically read for 30-60ish minutes before bed each night, and a couple hours per weekend day. Not exactly prolific, but enough to get through over 20 books this year.
The ten best books I read in 2013:
10. The Man Who Loved China, Simon Winchester- Delightful story of an eccentric British scientist who became obsessed with the Chinese language, and the wormhole he followed this passion down. Set during a very turbulent era of China’s history, it is a very accessible and readable account of an amazing life story.
9. Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami- A sweet book that ignited my Murakami binge this fall. Doesn’t approach the weirdness and triumph of his other novels, but a good story and beautifully written.
8. The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon– Brad Stone- Roared through this one on my Kindle in just a few days. As an Amazon Prime addict, this only reaffirmed my faith in the company and it’s leadership to forever pursue what is in my bank account’s best interest (at the expense of perhaps everything else in the retail ecosystem).
7. Bright Lights, Big City, Jay Mcinerney- Downloaded this on a whim (probably as a result of a “New York in the 1980s” Google adventure), and read it in one sitting on a weekend afternoon. A kind of Catcher in the Rye for coked up yuppies, it is visceral, hysterical, and just about as fun as books get.
6. Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us– Michael Moss (OK I cheated- I listened to this on Audible). Was, appropriately, my walking to and from gym listening for several weeks. This book, along with Michael Pollen’s Twitter feed, had almost as much impact on my diet this year as the bagel shop down the street.
5. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera- I read this one in January, and I am fighting to convince myself it’s not already time for a re-read. A novel light on plot development and heavy on philosophical musings which really stuck with me.
4. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain- I really like the comparisons to Catch-22 here. This is a darkly funny and deeply subversive book which explores the chasm between the military and the country it serves. The juxtaposition of the soldiers with the NFL players is unforgettable, and I can’t get the scenes with the Dallas Cowboys owner out of my head. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anybody who has ever winced during a “salute the troops” moment during a televised sporting event (brought to you by Doritos!)
3. Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco, Bryan Burrough and John Helyar- This one dominated my life for a a good month. Amazingly well researched, and even with the minute by minute details of meetings and negotiations between hundreds of Wall St types, you never lose track of what is ultimately a thrilling jacked-up-capitalism narrative. This was definitely the best business book I read all year, and by many accounts, one of the best of all time.
2. A Wild Sheep Chase/Dance Dance Dance, Haruki Murakami- Though Dancex3 is technically the sequel to Sheep Chase, these are two very distinct books which can be enjoyed independently (although I’d recommend going in order if you can). Both are quasi-detective stories, one a search for a mythological sheep, the other for a lost girlfriend, with trademarked Murakami surrealism, ambiguity, and digressions. Both have fairly weak character development, a meandering plot, and inconclusive endings. Yet both were fantastic page turners, laugh out loud funny, and ultimately very relateable. I read these were solid Murakami entry points, and now 5 books in, I’d say that is good advice. I loved both of these equally, and can unequivocally recommend both to any internet strangers who stumble upon this blog.
1. Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami. This novel is metaphorical, philosophical, dreamlike, with “a bewildering overflow of possible meanings“, yet completely and compulsively readable. Although some thematic elements will be familiar to any Murakami reader, the plot is delightfully creative, and the alternating narrative structure keeps the pages turning with wonder and intrigue. The characters are more developed, and often likable, than other Murakami I’ve read, and the plot, however bizarre and requiring a suspension of disbelief, is straightforward and gripping.
I digested the book for a few days after finishing before allowing myself to dive into internet reviews and discussion, having enjoyed online analysis of previous Murakami I had read. Yet I can’t say any were particularly enlightening, or caused me to reevaluate my interpretations. In fact, I think that is my favorite part of this book: no erudite interpretations are needed to fully enjoy this book. Any other writer would probably leave me feeling unintelligent, angry, or apathetic by the end of such a metaphysical mind-bender. Murakami’s writing makes me want to simultaneously turn the pages faster, and slow down to savor the beauty of his words. I can’t wait to read more.