If it isn’t obvious by now, I like to read. Every time I pick up a new book, my heart and mind fill with possibility.
I’m a firm believer that the written word has the power to speak to us, to move and inspire us in ways we can never imagine. And it doesn’t take much. Sometimes it’s just a paragraph or a passage or even just a sentence that can pack enough punch to stir us into thought and action. All we need to do is to allow the magic to happen. By reading.
What I read this year
It is that time of the year… to reflect on, among other things, what I read, didn’t read, and, in some cases, listened to.
Here’s what was different this year. I felt like I finally found the permission to leave way more books unfinished than I usually allow myself to because I now realize that I’m not solely responsible for an author’s feelings. Liking, or loving, a book is a subjective matter. I now ease my conscience by telling myself that every book I left unfinished is possibly on someone’s else top ten list.
So, without further ado, here are my top ten reads for the year listed in the chronological order I read them. I’m surprised to see so many memoirs here, especially because they aren’t usually a genre I gravitate towards. But this just goes to show you that good storytelling is all that matters—real or imaginary.
1. The way of the runner: A journey into the fabled world of Japanese running by Adharanand Finn
It’s not surprising to find a book on running in my January reads. Like the countless many who get a gym membership as a New Year begins, I usually start the new year looking for that magic running wisdom that will finally transform me from a tortoise into a hare. Suffice to say, my efforts have never been successful. Not because the books don’t carry running wisdom, but to improve my running stats through reading is like attempting to build the Taj Mahal just by dreaming about it.
Back to the book. I will preface by saying I’ll read anything written by Adharanand Finn. Gladly. Finn’s earlier book, The rise of the ultrarunners made my 2020 top ten books and I can say I’m equally in love with “The way of the runner.” The best part is that this book isn’t just about running. It’s a cultural exploration of contemporary Japan and why the Japanese people are running-obsessed. Cultural perspectives told through stories are beautiful and especially so when the words are from a gifted writer and runner.
2. Born a Crime: Trevor Noah
I’ll be honest. When Trevor Noah’s autobiographical Born a Crime was published in 2016, I wasn’t too excited to read it. The thought of reading another celebrity memoir did not enamor me. But after a string of serious (and depressing) reads early in the year, I figured my soul could use a little comedy track.
And so, I listened to the audio version of Born a Crime narrated by Noah himself. The book introduced me to aspects of African culture and history that I’m ashamed to admit I was clueless about.
Born a crime convinced me of something I always believed was true: the best way to teach history is through personal stories. And there are few that are more entertaining, shocking, moving, or have more twists and turns than Trevor Noah’s own life story.
3. Crying in H Mart: Michelle Zauner
Zauner’s book was released in 2021 with a lot of critical acclaim. I heard the buzz when the book was released, but since I’m not naturally attracted to heart-rending, sappy stories, I stayed away from the book. But then I remembered how I read (and loved) Pachinko by Min Jee Lee in 2021 and so I opened my mind to reading about another cross-cultural story.
Crying in H Mart is without a doubt the hardest and most soulful book I read all year. It is not easy to read about love, loss and grief and yet I found this book unputdownable. It speaks volume to the author’s creative genius in being able to transmit a profoundly personal and cultural story into one that resonates so deeply.
4. This is your mind on plants: Michael Pollan
Michael Pollan is an American treasure and I don’t use that term lightly. There aren’t many authors who can take really complex subjects and cut through the noise in ways Pollan does. There is a reason “This is your mind on plants” isn’t just one of my favorite reads of the year, it made the list of NPR’s best books of the year.
The book challenges conventional thinking on the relationships we have as humans to plants and our definition of what a “drug” is. It makes us question our beliefs and opinions on the subjects of reality, transcendence and truth.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking. You are tempted to watch the Netflix show that followed the book, but here’s my recommendation: Watch the show, if you must, but do yourself a huge favor. Please read the book.
5. The year of magical thinking: Joan Didion
Almost a year ago, we lost one of America’s pioneering new journalism essayists, Joan Didion. I’d read some of her essays in magazines but had never really explored the depth of her writing. Inspired by tributes paid to her in an obituary, I picked up “The year of magical thinking”, a deeply personal exploration of love, loss, relationships, parenting and life itself.
Written with brutal honesty and overflowing with wisdom, Didion’s book is a wonderful tribute to the beauty of life itself. I’d like to think I’m a better, less-judgmental person just from having read the book.
6. How to do nothing: Jenny Odell
Well, there were two reasons I picked this book up. One, it made many bestseller lists, including the NY Times and President Obama’s. So, I figured there must be something to it. But mainly, I was intrigued by the title and really wanted “permission” to do nothing, because I was afraid of burning out if I didn’t stop the perennial busyness.
The book did not disappoint. The writer is based out of San Francisco and this book stands in sharp contrast to the attention-seeking economy that the Silicon Valley culture has perpetrated. The best part of the book is that instead of regurgitating the stereotypical advice such as going on regular digital detoxes (only to return to the pings and thrills of social media), the book takes a fresh and holistic approach on how to slow down and what it means to be really alive.
7. Life Force: Tony Robbins
I read this book not so much for the writing but to open my eyes to the longevity movement that seems to be gaining momentum in popular media. It seems like the rich people, after conquering consumer market share and selling us all the products they can, are trying to do two things: colonize Mars and also find ways to extend our (their?) lifespans. And they are deadly (pun-intended) serious about it.
The book should come with warnings. It has product placements galore. It’s like an ad for all the ventures that Robbins and his friends are invested in. That said, if you can get past the obvious shilling, the book introduces us to concepts in medicine that almost seem like they come from Star Trek. Agreed, some of these are pie-in-the-sky concepts, but I think it’s also time to reevaluate some of the outdated conversations we have with our physicians at our annual physicals.
8. Greenlights: Matthew McConaughey
Yes, really. Another celebrity memoir. Again, I happened upon Greenlights by chance. I got the Audible version of this book as a gift and on one desperate morning long run, I felt adventurous enough to press play on the book. And I was surprised. Pleasantly.
Greenlights is a beautifully written memoir and the audio version, narrated by the author himself, with his hugely popular characteristic drawl made this an entertaining and pleasurable book to listen to. The book is an inspiring memoir, with almost a self-help quality to it and at the same time, isn’t overly prescriptive. The author describes a world that is about as far away from anything I have ever experienced and to me that alone was worth the listen.
9. Bittersweet: Susan Cain
I have read Susan Cain’s hugely popular 2013 book Quiet. To say that I’m a fan would be understating the obvious. So, when I found out that Cain would be releasing Bittersweet, I couldn’t be more excited.
And the book doesn’t disappoint. The book has everything in it—deeply personal stories, to textbook-like definitions of psychological states and personality traits. And it does what every non-fiction book worth its salt should do: makes you think and wonder.
10. The end of solitude: William Deresiewicz
I have a lot of pet peeves. Yes, I’m high-maintenance like that. But one peeve that peeves me more than normal, is just how recklessly society uses the phrase “thought-leader” to describe people. Reading (or likely, skimming) something on the internet and then assembling a word salad to regurgitate what was read, does not make someone a thought-leader.
True thought-leaders like Deresiewicz, the author of The end of solitude, take their time (sometimes years) to steep themselves in thought before voicing their opinions. I was floored when I read Deresiewicz’s 2014 book Excellent Sheep. And now, years later, having just read The end of solitude, my respect for the author only continues to grow.
Every single book I have listed above describes to me a world that is completely different from the one I inhabit. And, as far as I am concerned, that is the essence of reading—to safely explore other realities that are so different from our own, which, in turn, allows us to understand and appreciate other perspectives. That is what helps build empathy and, ultimately, character.
In the end, we’ll all become stories. Margaret Atwood.