Every New Years, I make a resolution to read more books. And in the past 3 years I’ve been doing it, I’m proud to say that I’ve met those goals each time, passing the finish line while letting my other well-intentioned resolutions fall into obscurity (I have not stepped into a gym in 2 years, and my retainer is actually disintegrating as we speak).
In 2017, I aimed to read 30 books and ended up with 32! Mostly nonfiction, with some YA and sci-fi sprinkled in. Last year’s reading spanned a wide range of topics, from institutional racism to alien adventures to the inner mechanisms of the Oval Office. I’m trying to read more widely, with an eye toward better understanding and empathizing with people different than me.
In the back half of the year, I read a lot more self-help books and memoirs than I normally do. I feel a tinge of shame for not reading stuff that’s more “serious” and intellectually challenging, but these past 6 months have been rough. Like, feeling-like-a-loser, questioning-your-entire-life, sitting-listlessly-on-the-couch-while-watching-the-best-years-of-your-life-tick-by rough. Sometimes you need to indulge in stuff that doesn’t require anything from you, and if that means reading another Marie Kondo book, then so be it.
Below I’ve listed all the books I read this year and sprinkled in some ~premium editorial commentary~. I denoted my favorite books of the year with asterisks.
Also, shout out to the Chicago Public Library for furnishing almost every book listed below. Get yourself a library card!
Watchmen by Alan Moore *** – Like many of you, I’ve seen and enjoyed the Zack Snyder adaptation of this. But holy shit, I still couldn’t put it down. I think about this novel all the time.
Life, The Universe, and Everything by Douglas Adams – Weirdly disappointing. It has a lot of the same familiar beats as the previous Hitchhiker books, but not the heart or the humor.
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers – Many reviewers accurately compare this to Waiting for Godot. It’s a “moment in time” kind of book about a businessman trying to close a business deal in Saudi Arabia, but to no avail. It’s also a really boring book. It had some interesting reflections on globalism, but I found myself skimming through it. It took a while for me to unpack my thoughts on this book (despite the meh-experience while reading it), and I realized that it was because Dave Eggers is a “serious” literary author, and disliking a “serious” literary book perhaps meant that I didn’t get it. I got it — I just didn’t like it.
The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald – First time I’d revisited Fitzgerald since high school. This book was more of a slow-burn than a sweeping narrative like Gatbsy. Fascinating characters. This has been on my list for years, and it didn’t disappoint.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick – Going to say I really enjoyed this book and its ideas, while also caveating that Phillip K. Dick is not good at ending stories. I read this book before watching Blade Runner and ended up not liking Blade Runner. Go figure.
The Man in the High Castle by Phillip K. Dick – Same point as above. I haven’t seen the Amazon show though.
Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka – I knew the plot going in, but still a very sad story.
I Hate Everyone But You by Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin – I came into this book knowing that the characters were essentially stand-ins for both Gaby and Allison, but still loved it and thought it was so clever and relatable. Yes, it maybe suffers from the YA trope of characters being too smart for their age, but that has never bothered me (also, like, please have some faith in young people?). I loved how mental illness and LGBTQ+ identities were treated within the book.
Turtles All The Way Down by John Green *** – The plot as a whole was kind of under-whelming, but I’ve never read a YA book about mental illness as good as this one. It was instantly relatable, gracious to all of its characters, and I keep thinking about this line from the very first chapter: “You think you’re the painter, but you’re the canvas.”
And We’re Off by Dana Schwartz – Whimsical, light-hearted, and familiar to anyone with a mom. The premise reminded me of 13 Little Blue Envelopes, but its self-awareness and focus on the mother/daughter relationship made it distinct enough. I got into this book because Dana is hilarious on Twitter and seems like a person I would totally be friends with.
The Twelve Days of Dash & Lily by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan – This sequel just didn’t cut it. I’ve read Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares every Christmas for like 6 years, but I didn’t think it was necessary to continue the story.
Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall – Unique story about competitive running and the Tarahumara people, but it went on for way too long and I got the sense that the author sensationalized a lot of details from historical events he wasn’t present for. Also, what’s with the entire chapter about the benefits of barefoot running?
The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation by Natalie Y. Moore *** – In Chicago, I live and work in very white, very yuppie neighborhoods. And every time the South Side is mentioned, someone grimaces. They say it’s not safe, they say you’ll get shot, as if the entire swath below The Loop is unilaterally a warzone. I don’t think anyone I work with goes down there. I honestly can’t say I’m better, as someone who’s only been to, like, Hyde Park and Bridgeport. This book changed the way I thought about the South Side, diving into the racial injustices that have torn some of its communities apart. The news loves to talk about the gun violence in the city, but doesn’t stop to consider the environmental factors that have contributed to such a climate. I also appreciated that this was written by a South Side native, so she was able to talk about her own experiences growing up and what activists are doing on the ground-level.
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly – I watched the movie and immediately bought this book at Barnes & Noble. Engaging, though not strictly necessary if you’ve seen the film.
The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter–And How to Make the Most of Them Now by Meg Jay – Super smart. Necessary for anyone who has viewed their twenties as a stage of prolonged adolescence. I say this with no judgment, because everyone is kind of a hot mess at this age, at some point.
Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim – Until reading this book, I didn’t fully understand the extent to which the North Korean people were oppressed and forced into an alternate reality. And even though this is only microcosm of North Korean life (wealthy sons at a private school), I still found it fascinating and helpful in adding context to current events.
The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency by Chris Whipple *** – Well-researched, engaging, and easy to follow. Non-partisan too! I think it’s necessary reading for anyone who’s interested in politics and wants a closer look behind the curtain.
The Curated Closet: A Simple System for Discovering Your Personal Style and Building Your Dream Wardrobe by Anuschka Rees *** – This is not a well-publicized fact about me, but I love reading fashion blogs, seeing people’s #OOTDs, and putting together outfits. Style is important to me and something I actively try to improve. I read this book at the beginning of 2017, and while I didn’t completely follow the workbook challenges, it actually did help me pinpoint my style and focus my spending on items that mattered.
Broke Millennial: Stop Scraping By And Get Your Financial Life Together by Erin Lowry – Great beginner’s guide for anyone who considers themselves “not good with money.” Full of practical advice on money management, loans, credit cards, etc. If you’ve found “adulting” and managing your finances to be a struggle, read this book.
Gracious: A Practical Primer on Charm, Tact, and Unsinkable Strength by Kelly Williams Brown – Adored her previous book, but I found myself speeding through this one out of boredom.
Better Than Before: Mastering The Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin – Going to start this out by saying that yes, it may be true that Gretchen Rubin is privileged, mega-wealthy, obsessive, and all the things that anonymous Amazon reviewers say about her– but honestly, she’s the best. I took pages worth of notes from this book and found it to be a nice jolt of motivation in an otherwise-unpleasant season for me. I’ve also read The Happiness Project from her and will probably be picking up her new book, The Four Tendencies (which was inspired by ideas from this book). Also, her obsessive nature reminds me of myself, so take that for what you will.
How to Get Dressed: A Costume Designer’s Secrets for Making your Clothes Look, Fit, and Feel Amazing by Alison Freer – I mentioned above that I consume a lot of fashion-related content. There’s a ton of insider tips here that I’d never heard before, and I feel like that’s saying something. Also, she preaches about the enormous value of a steamer, and while I haven’t gone out and bought a steamer yet….maybe I will.
Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up by Marie Kondo – The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up kind of changed my life. How I maintain and value my possessions now, along with how I buy things, is directly a result of reading Marie Kondo’s book two years ago (more on this in a later post? Question mark?). This sequel is a nice continuation of her philosophy; if you can think of the first book as the strategy part, this is the tactics part, where you learn how to fold clothes (illustrations included), organize everything in your house, and maintain items that are useful but don’t “spark joy.”
How to Speak Cat: A Guide to Decoding Cat Language (National Geographic) by Aline Alexander Newman and Gary Weitzman, D.V.M. – My cat sitter gave this to me. I don’t know what that says about my animal parenting skills or the state of my cat. Also, this is an actual kids’ book.
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood & Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi *** – A very specific genre I am now obsessed with is graphic novel memoirs. Persepolis is stunning, insightful, heart-breaking, and inspiring.
Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick – I didn’t really expect much out of this book, but Anna Kendrick was so honest and hilarious in this. If it turns out this was ghostwritten by a random, I will be heartbroken.
Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?: And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House by Alyssa Mastromonaco – A memoir from former deputy chief of staff to President Obama. Loved this inside look into the White House. She’s also a frequent guest on Pod Save America, in case you’re a Friend of the Pod.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay *** – I love Roxane Gay, and now I want to read all of her other books.
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley – Another graphic novel memoir. Very quirky and nostalgic. At the end of each chapter, she includes an illustrated recipe. I now have an extensive list of foods I want to make.
Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life & Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Amy Krouse Rosenthal *** – If I had to pick my absolute favorite book of the year, it’d be Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. Full of heart-warming, sometimes mundane, anecdotes about life. I think I read this in one sitting at a coffee shop, and I left it feeling full of life and appreciation. Amy passed away from cancer in early 2017 (read her viral Modern Love essay), and I wish I’d read her books earlier so I could’ve had the chance to meet her. Her children’s books are also adorable, but you didn’t hear that from me. :)
This year, I plan on reading 40 books, which is a number I haven’t hit since I was a kid. I want to read more literary fiction and more travel memoirs. Also, I say this every year, but maybe I’ll finally get to The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Lolita.
What are some of the best books you read last year? Leave your recommendations in the comments!