Some great books for the new year

One of the better things to come out of this year was some extra time to read. This year, I got an Audible membership and was able to fit “reading” books on long drives. That, plus my pre-pandemic excursions to Powell’s bookstore in Portland meant I was well-supplied. I gamefied my reading by tracking it on a Spreadsheet, giving myself “points” for each book finished.

I was telling my mom about the spreadsheet on the a video call the other day. She was making dinner at home, while I talked about how I was calculating how long each book took to read.

“There’s a website called howlongtoread.com, and it gives you the average time it takes to read that book.”

“Mhm.”

“Because I’m not going to actually time it, right? And they have data on practically every single book. It’s calculated from the word count of the book and assumes 300 words per minute.”

“Sounds fast.”

“Because it’s not just right to say ‘I read fifty books this year’, if all fifty books were really small.”

“True.”

“This way, I can track not only how many books I read, but how many hours I spent reading, too, which is really what we’re after, right?”

She raised her eyebrow. “Is that really what we’re after?”

I backtracked, realizing I hadn’t meant to add that last bit.

“I think,” she continued, “it might be more important to consider what you get out of reading instead of counting the amount of books — or hours — you’ve read.”

Just then, something sizzled on her side.

“Got to go,” she said. Before hanging up, she added, “I know that’s hard to measure, but no use reading crap, you know?”

So, as fun as it was to read a larger-than-usual volume of books this year, more than the reading count (or the how-long-to-read count), is how books make us feel.

I hope nobody has to read a crappy book this next year. Here are some great books I read this past year to help you choose.

  1. Normal People, by Sally Rooney

I read this book in just two days. When I finished, I looked it up online, and to my surprise, it was a popular, well-liked book from a celebrated young author.

While I completely agreed with the praise for the novel, it was also a little sad to realize how many people felt the same way I did, because to me the story felt strangely personal. In the story — about an intense, complicated relationship between two people spanning a few years — I recognized myself in the characters. It felt like the author knew what it was like to be me, and put my feelings into words. Surfacing from such an experience to find that millions of other people felt the same way was a mixed bag, but it’s made me even more confident in recommending this book. I could not put this book down when I was reading it, and when it was over, I felt like I just had a long, personal conversation with a close friend.

Highly recommend. 7 hours to read.

Here’s a quote:

“The conversations that follow are gratifying for Connell, often taking unexpected turns and prompting him to express ideas he had never consciously formulated before. They talk about the novels he’s reading, the research she studies, the precise historical moment that they are currently living in, the difficulty of observing such a moment in process. At times he has the sensation that he and Marianne are like figure-skaters, improvising their discussions so adeptly and in such perfect synchronisation that it suprises them both. She tosses herself gracefully into the air, and each time, without knowing how he’s going to do it, he catches her.”

2. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan

It’s hard for a Pulitzer Prize winner to be considered “under the radar”, but William Finnegan’s autobiography “Surfing Days” is probably the book on this list most people have not heard of before — to their disadvantage.

Sprawling and epic, Finnegan’s autobiography tells the story of his life through the lens of surfing. The book chronicles his Finnegan’s childhood in California and Hawaii, then his adventures as a young adult, travelling around the world searching for the “perfect wave”. He eventually becomes a teacher, a writer, a war correspondent, but each of these parts of his life are only backdrops to the main story — his passion for surfing.

Within a couple of chapters, it’s apparent that Finnegan is a talented writer. Reading this masterful journalist write about something he is so passionate about was like hearing an expert violinist play the violin. His tone, while calm, nevertheless expresses deep appreciation and understanding of what he’s writing about. Many times in the book, I had to stop reading just take a breath, sitting still in awe of what I’d just read. More than his descriptions of exotic locations or his exciting life story, it’s Finnegan’s sharp observations of people — their motivations and hopes, the significance we attach to little things, the strangeness of life itself — that make the book vivid and colorful. To be honest, I’d happily read it again.

“In a recent interview, he compared himself to surfers: “What are they doing this for? It’s just pure. You’re alone. That wave is so much bigger and stronger than you. You’re always outnumbered. They always can crush you. And yet you’re going to accept that and turn it into a little, brief, meaningless art form.”

3. The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys” was another fast read (5 hrs, for the curious). Yet this small red book feels longer than it is. The novel begins with a gruesome discovery inspired by true events — student archeologists in Florida uncover a mass grave of bodies in the ruins of a former juvenile detention school. Over 50 bodies of young boys are found on the grounds of the now-closed Nickel Academy, and an investigation is launched. In New York, a man decides he is going to fly down to Florida and tell his story, as he was once a resident of the Nickel Academy.

I appreciate this book the more I think about it. Despite the dark subject matter, the book comes off as earnest, not cynical. Once I finished reading it, I thought it was Shawshank Redemption meets To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s sharp and powerful and complicated, and it’s hard to compartmentalize all the things it makes you feel. Despite, I thought it was an unforgettable read, and I think you’ll get what I mean if you read it, too.

“The boys could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place. Doctors who cured diseases or perform brain surgery, inventing shit that saves lives. Run for president. All those lost geniuses — sure not all of them were geniuses, Chickie Pete for example was not solving special relativity — but they had been denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary. Hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, never figuring out how to be normal.”

4. A Promised Land, by Barack Obama

It’s hard to separate admiration of an autobiography from admiration of the author — I admit I am pretty biased on this one. In fact, I was doubly biased, because I got to hear Barack Obama himself narrate this book to me on Audible (I’m not sponsored btw). His low baritone voice kept me company on many long drives this winter, and it’s considerable length (at 30 hours, it was one of the longest books I’ve ever read/heard) was more an asset than a liability. Part of me wanted it to go on forever.

It’s no surprise that the former President is a great communicator, but this book is not a lecture about abstract political ideas or justifications for his political decisions. Instead, the autobiography is an intimate, day-by-day account of President Obama’s first term in office (just the first — there’s a second book coming to chronicle 2012 onwards).

When Barack Obama won the US Presidency in 2008, I was just 13 years old. But even then, he had a strong impact on me and my growing political consciousness. However, like many of my peers, we knew him as a figure, at times even a pop culture icon, not as an individual. Reading this book, I got to see him as a person, as a regular guy. He spoke about the loneliness of the Presidency, of how his decisions put stresses on his family, and how he doubted himself at times, feeling that a more charismatic President might’ve done more for America than he was able to. I also saw how down to earth he was, how he understood that forces greater than him had shaped his stellar political journey. To someone who thinks interviews with the former President end too soon, this 30-hour talk with him was finally close to being enough.

“But there comes a point in the speech where I find my cadence… It’s the kind of moment I’d come to recognize in subsequent years, on certain magic nights. There’s a physical feeling, a current of emotion that passes back and forth between you and the crowd, as if your lives and theirs are suddenly spliced together; you can see them whole. You’ve tapped into some collective spirit, a thing we all know and wish for — a sense of connection that overrides our differences and replaces them with a giant swell of possibility — and like all things that matter most, you know the moment is fleeting and that soon the spell will be broken.”

Honorable mentions:

Just Mercy, by Bryan Stephenson; Wind, Sand, and Stars, by Antoinne de Saint-Exupery; Deep Work, by Cal Newport; Greenlights, by Matthew McCounaghey

Hope you get some time to read something you’re passionate about this year. Happy trails!

Double Major, Engineering and Literature, spends his free time flirting with ice cream sandwiches, taking pictures, and writing about himself in third person.

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