Although I didn’t read as many books as I wanted to this year, the ones I did read were total gamechangers. A good book should challenge your beliefs and inspire you to do better, and these books certainly achieved that. So without further ado, here are my top 5 reads of 2019, in no particular order:
Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport
“In our current moment, smartphones have reshaped people’s experience of the world by providing an always-present connection to a humming matrix of chatter and distraction. These changes crept up on us and happened fast, before we had a chance to step back and ask what we really wanted out of the rapid advances of the past decade.
“The source of our unease becomes visible only when confronting the thicker reality of how these technologies have expanded beyond the minor roles for which we initially adopted them.
It’s not about usefulness. It’s about autonomy.”
- Smartphones are “slot machines” that steal shards of our lives, disrupt our base need for solitude, and negatively impact the way our species communicates and connects.
- Digital minimalists evaluate all technologies for usefulness according to their values and set strict operating procedures specifying when and how technologies are used.
- Practice: take a 30-day break from optional technologies to rediscover “high quality” activities and leisure that serve your values, then reintroduce those technologies and set operating procedures.
Like most everyone else, my phone is glued to my hand during all waking hours, and I’m tired. I’ll catch myself checking Twitter out of pure habit before reminding myself, “There’s nothing here for me.” If you’re experiencing a similar struggle, you need to read this book.
I envy Newport for never having a social media account, but I commend his gentle approach to those addicted to the internet and social media. He fully acknowledges that “attention economy conglomerates” design these technologies so we’ll “use [them] in particular ways and for long periods of time.” And then, he offers us a way out.
As for me, I’m working on my digital declutter. I’ve yet to take Newport’s suggested 30-day break from optional technologies (which I’m starting in January), and I still struggle with scrolling mindlessly. But I did eliminate the biggest time-waster of the bunch — Facebook — so I’ve made some decent progress. My next steps are to create weekly and seasonal leisure plans to achieve my goals: read more, paint, craft, and practice my sewing skills.
21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Dr. Yuval Harari
“In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power.”
Wow. A revolutionary opening for a revolutionary book.
Of Dr. Harari’s three books, this one is my favorite. Sapiens reflects on where we, as a species, have been, Homo Deus predicts where we’re going, and 21 Lessons examines where we are right now.
Harari quells many of the anxieties plaguing the human race while also viewing them realistically. First, he examines current events and issues: technological advancement, politics, human rights, capitalism. Then, he proposes potential responses: what can we do to “safeguard human liberty and equality?” He then discusses post-truth and “the age of bewilderment,” in which uncertainty reigns supreme and we’re unsure of where we’re going and what we need to get there.
Debates over matters like these, Harari rightfully acknowledges, cannot continue for long. “Philosophy, religion and science are running out of time. […] The looming ecological crisis, the growing threat of weapons of mass destruction, and the rise of new disruptive technologies will not allow it.”
The book ends with a powerful chapter on meditation and the need for self-awareness in a world that prioritizes fictional stories and artificial intelligence over human consciousness. “We had better understand our minds before the algorithms make up our minds for us.”
Auraria, Tim Westover
“The Great and Harmless and Invincible Terrapin sobbed. ‘I look out of my cave and I see the dry river and I hear no roar and I am reminded of the terrible sadness long, long ago, when all were thirsty and quiet. […] I have too many memories, too many stories.’
“’You enjoy telling them,” said Holtzclaw. ‘You would go on for hours if I let you.’
“’It is necessary to tell them! Long ago, there were more stories, but they have been forgotten. They were not told, and they went away into the earth. Too few knew them and they withered, like seeds that are scattered too thinly across the field. They cannot take root. The weeds of lesser stories choke them.’”
A few months ago, I saw a tweet about Tim Westover’s new book, The Winter Sisters (my current read). I’d never heard of him, but I’ll admit I judged The Winter Sisters by its stunning cover. So I decided to look him up and found Auraria — and I’m so glad I did.
Auraria is a glittering example of magic realism. As someone who’s writing Southern fiction, I adore the way Westover weaved Southern landmarks and folklore — the story of Princess Trahlyta, the real Georgia ghost town of Auraria — into this deftly spun yarn.
While some parts of the story let me down slightly, the overarching narrative and sophisticated style of prose made for a real page-turner I’ll undoubtedly re-read over and over again.
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
“For humans — trapped in biology — there was no mercy: we lived a while, we fussed around for a bit and died, we rotted in the ground like garbage. Time destroyed us all soon enough. But to destroy, or lose, a deathless thing — to break bonds stronger than the temporal — was a metaphysical uncoupling all its own, a startling new flavor of despair.”
I picked up Donna Tartt’s world-famous bestseller in a thrift shop for €2. It was one of those books I’d been umming and ahhing over each time I went to the library but ultimately left on the shelf, intimidated by its density.
I read it on my trip to Scotland and found myself utterly immersed, reading hundreds of pages at a time. Though some sections dragged on — especially the particulars of the restoration business — I never felt put-off, because Tartt is an incredibly talented writer. While I think she really went the extra mile in her research and some parts were a bit heavy-handed on the philosophy, I felt the main thread of the story was strong and original. That said, it’s a love-it-or-hate-it kind of read; there’s no in-between.
Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert
“He said, ‘Groceries, you need to learn how to select your thoughts just the same way you select what clothes you’re gonna wear every day. This is a power you can cultivate. If you want to control things in your life so bad, work on your mind. That’s the only thing you should be trying to control. Drop everything else but that. Because if you can’t learn to master your thinking, you’re in deep trouble forever.’
“…What Richard is talking about is instead admitting to the existence of negative thoughts, understanding where they came from and why they arrived, and then — with great forgiveness for fortitude — dismissing them. […] It’s a sacrifice to let them go, of course. It’s a loss of old habits, comforting old grudges and familiar vignettes. Of course, this all takes practice and effort. It’s not a teaching you can hear once and then expect to master immediately. It’s constant vigilance and I want to do it. I need to do it, for my strength. Devo farmi le ossa is how they say it in Italian. ‘I need to make my bones.’”
While on holiday in Florida, I bought this book at a thrift store for a true bargain of 28 cents. Best 28 cents I ever spent.
I’ll come out and say it: I don’t really like Elizabeth Gilbert as a person. After reading this book and looking up some of her interviews, I don’t agree with some of the choices she’s made in her personal life. Yet I realize that judgment is unfair, considering her status as an award-winning author means those personal choices are on display for the world to see.
Even though at times it felt like “rich white woman goes gallivanting around the world to find herself,” I adored this book, particularly her writing style. Gilbert has some solid ideas on mindfulness and life in general.
I read, re-read, and re-read the above passage at least a dozen times. Some of the nuggets of wisdom contained within made it into my creativity contract and my philosophy on life in general. Gilbert is a champion of self-love, and in that respect, I want to be like her when I grow up.
Notable reads of 2019
- How to Be a Productivity Ninja, Graham Alcott
- Bossypants, Tina Fey
- Unexplained: Supernatural Stories for Uncertain Times, Richard MacLean Smith
- The Winter Sisters, Tim Westover
- Happiness and How It Happens, The Happy Buddha
- The Last Wish, Andrzej Sapkowski (re-read in honor of The Witcher Netflix series)
Looking forward to
- Build Your Best Writing Life, Kristen Kieffer
- How the World Thinks, Julian Baggini
- Work, Thich Nhat Hanh
- Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull & Amy Wallace
- Ducks, Newburyport, Lucy Ellmann