-> Reviews -> Favorite books I read in 2019

Posted 2019-12-05.

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Essentialism has more strongly impacted my decision-making process than anything else I've read in a long time. It's primarily motivational, not educational, but for me it was very motivational indeed.

Range is a very different sort of book, covering a plethora of fascinating studies relating to the best ways of pursuing skill and success. I've found myself bringing it up over and over again in conversations during the past couple months. Since I wrote a longer post on how it and Essentialism relate to my life, I'll refrain from saying more about them here.

Tara Westover's memoir shows how abuse can severely confuse and entrap a person. She is indoctrinated from childhood with a belief system that encourages deep mistrust of almost everyone outside her close-knit family. Yet that family hurts her. Her father endangers the children, confident of divine protection. Her brother psychologically and physically abuses her, and her parents deny it. Little effort is expended on her education; any dreams other than being a wife and mother are discouraged.

Breaking free of the mental chains that keep dragging her back into dangerous situations is a long, painful journey for her - but an inspiring and instructive one to read.

If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now. What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon: it was me.

Sean Carroll is a theoretical physicist who also runs the excellent Mindscape podcast. In The Big Picture, he covers a broad swath of scientific and philosophical topics. The discussions of quantum mechanics were the most valuable parts to me, but I also think this book is an admirably clear and cohesive attempt at providing a full naturalistic worldview. (I disagree with some of its major conclusions, though.)

I wrote a longer review discussing several of the topics covered in the book.


I don't know whether Blood Meridian is the most depressing work of fiction ever written, but it's certainly the most depressing one I've ever read. When I first picked it up a few years ago, the unrelenting bleakness was simply too much for me. Thankfully, a friend's high praise convinced me to give it another shot.

What I love about this novel is the strange and elegant prose: it's loaded with delightfully improbable strings of words like "a trestle whereon stood a glass carboy of clear mescal". Apparently McCarthy "visited all the locales of the book and even learned Spanish to further his research"; the result is a book that immerses you in its disturbing world very effectively.

The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent...

Ted Chiang is a master of taking one core idea - a possible technology, or a way the universe could have been different - and thoroughly thinking through how it could affect our lives. Most of the stories in his second collection, Exhalation, follow that pattern. What if we could communicate with parallel universes? What if we could remember every event from our lives with perfect accuracy? What if artificial intelligence developed from virtual pets?

Some of the shorter entries in this collection are forgettable, but the longer stories (especially in the second half of the book) are fantastic.

Right now each of us is a private oral culture. We rewrite our pasts to suit our needs and support the story we tell about ourselves.

Diaspora is a novel about geometry. And sentient software. And the vastness of reality. It's the sort of book that makes me almost giddy with excitement about how cool the future could be. And also the sort of book that makes me want to spend more time studying math.

The only way to grasp a mathematical concept was to see it in a multitude of different contexts, think through dozens of specific examples, and find at least two or three metaphors to power intuitive speculations. Curvature means the angles of a triangle might not add up to 180 degrees. Curvature means you have to stretch or shrink a plane non-uniformly to make it wrap a surface. Curvature means no room for parallel lines – or room for far more than Euclid ever dreamed of. Understanding an idea meant entangling it so thoroughly with all the other symbols in your mind that it changed the way you thought about everything.

The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake both set themselves apart from weaker dystopian novels via excellent prose and careful attention to the complexity of human nature.

The tulip is not a reason for disbelief in the hanged man, or vice versa. Each thing is valid and really there. It is through a field of such valid objects that I must pick my way, every day and in every way.

Obviously, I'm way behind the times on these two. What finally convinced me to prioritize reading some Margaret Atwood books was not the Handmaid's Tale TV show (which I still haven't seen), but hearing her interviewed on Tyler Cowen's podcast.

I've had a collection of John Green's novels on my shelf for years, but hadn't gotten around to finishing Paper Towns for some reason. I wondered if I would still think as highly of him as I used to, or if these YA books would now seem immature to me.

It's the former: I still think he's brilliant. This story, about the challenge of really seeing and connecting with other people, is built on many of the same tropes as his other novels - quirkily-named teenagers grapple with existential issues and sometimes talk like literature professors - but his clever and thoughtful writing continues to make them work well.

You know your problem, Quentin? You keep expecting people not to be themselves.


Giant Days is about college students in the UK. It's adorable.

Sydney Padua has clearly done a great deal of research on Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage, and the whole intellectual world in which they lived. Thrilling Adventures is packed with interesting history, amusing tidbits, and rabbit holes explored in depth to satisfy the nerdiest part of your heart. How many other graphic novels would include a full-page illustrated footnote explaining the inner workings of a 1949 water-based financial computer? Too few.

I came across Radiator Days while wandering through the library. Truthfully, if I'd realized it was by the same author as French Milk (an illustrated travel diary), I might not have picked it up - the latter wasn't bad, but didn't click with me personally. Radiator Days is more focused on day-to-day life, with more emotional resonance for me and lots of cute panels.