[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
Every year, I write a blog about the best books I read that year. Some of these books were ones I'd planned on reading, but most came to me the way a new song comes to you: by happenstance. Recommendations from friends, advertisements online, podcasts, or good, old fashioned perusing. The way we receive information is scattered at best, and finding a quality read can feel daunting in a world that is overrun by entertainment. We only have so much mental capacity, after all, and so much time to spend on any given thing, but I'm under the deep impression that reading books is usually not a waste of time. There is much to learn, and books are one of the best ways to learn something new, understand a new perspective, and travel outside of ourselves for a bit.
With that, here are some of my favorite reads this year.
This book came to me shortly after I bought my own motorcycle, and I was almost immediately floored. So many things to underline. So many breathtaking, profound passages to ruminate on and revisit. It is a powerful, moving, and penetrating examination of how we live and a meditation on how to live better. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance follows a loose timeline of a summer motorcycle trip across America's Northwest, undertaken by Pirsig and his young son, Chris. Pirsig inhabits himself, and an alter ego, flirts with self-love and self-loathing, and takes a deep dive into some of life's fundamental questions, like what is quality, exactly? I will probably read Zen again in 20 years and find it equally, if not more, satisfying.
I heard about Mastery on a podcast (The Skinny Confidential Him and Her Show), and was immediately glad I ordered my own copy. Robert Greene is an incredible writer and breaks down the stages to becoming a master in any field: learn the secrets of the field you have chosen, submit to a rigorous apprenticeship, absorb the hidden knowledge possessed by those with years of experience, surge past competitors to surpass them in brilliance, and explode established patterns from within. My favorite poetry professor used to tell us that we can't break the rules of poetry or language until we learn them and use them well. I didn't know it then, but he was teaching us a secret to mastery. Greene includes some of histories favorite experts, including Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Leonardo da Vinci and more. He also wrote The 48 Laws of Power, The Art of Seduction, and The 33 Strategies of War. 10/10 recommend.
Fahrenheit 451 is an oldie but a goodie that is now an HBO Max film starring Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon. Check it out! This was not my first (or probably my last) time reaching Fahrenheit 451. Set in a bleak, dystopian future, the implications of government control and overreach are eerily relevant to today. The protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman whose job is to destroy printed books along with the houses in which they are hidden. He doesn't question his job until the day he meets an eccentric young girl named Clarisse. This is a classic novel that's easy to read, relevant, and only a little bit disturbing.
4. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
The Goldfinch was my favorite read of 2020. When it came in the mail, I was a bit shocked by the thickness of the book (it's nearly 1,000 pages), but the story was so intriguing it was addicting. I couldn't put it down. The Goldfinch follows the story of Theo Decker, a 13 year-old New Yorker who survives a bombing that kills his mother. The novel takes us all the way to Theo's adulthood, explores friendship, the seedy world of stolen art, drugs, romance, and self-invention. It's a Pulitzer Prize winner that was made into a movie in 2019 (watch it here). It's cliche to say, but the book is 1,000 times better than the movie. Donna Tartt is a master wordsmith who rarely does interviews, but check out her discussion with Charlie Rose here.
I first found Sarah Kay on Youtube, giving a Ted Talk and performing her breakout poem, "B." No Matter the Wreckage is her debut collection of poetry featuring work from the first decade of her career, illustrated in collaboration with Sophia Janowitz. Kay celebrates family, love, travel, and unlikely romance between inanimate objects ("The Toothbrush to the Bicycle Tire"). Both fresh and wise, Kay's poetry allows readers to join her on the journey of discovering herself and the world around her. It is an honest and powerful collection, and one I return to when I have a hankering for poetry I know will inspire me.
Rebecca Solnit is one of my favorite feminist authors. She is incredibly smart, cutting, witty, and just really fucking spot on when it comes to sexism. Whose Story is This? questions who gets to shape the narrative of our times. Who writes history and who is believed? The fundamental power of telling ones story and writing history has been historically withheld from women, people of color, non-binary persons, or those without financial status. White people and white men in particular have a hard time letting others hold space to tell their own stories, a phenomenon Solnit examines closely in this fiery collection of essays.
Women who Run With the Wolves is one of my favorite books in the history of books. Dr. Estes is a writer and Jungian psychoanalyst who is powerful beyond words. She writes, "Within every woman there lives a powerful force, filled with good instincts, passionate creativity, and ageless knowing. She is the Wild Woman, who represents the instinctual nature of women. But she is an endangered species. For though the gifts of wildish nature belong to us at birth, society’s attempt to “civilize” us into rigid roles has muffled the deep, life-giving messages of our own souls." Dr. Estes unfolds intercultural myths, fairy tales, folklore, and stories (my favorite is the story of Bluebeard) to show the reader how to embrace her wildish self. Dr. Estés has created a new lexicon for describing the female psyche as fertile, life-giving, and strong beyond measure.
If you've ever taken psychedelics or wondered about taking psychedelics or if you are psychedelic, this book is for you. Micahel Pollan has made a name for himself writing books about food and nutrition, such as The Omnivore's Dilemma, The Botany of Desire, and In Defense of Food. He started researching LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms), and found a host of positive outcomes, such as relief from depression, addiction, and anxiety. Pollan recounts his personal experience with psilocybin as well as distills decades of pertinent research. How to Change Your Mind is equal parts science, memoir, history, and medicine. How to Change Your Mind is also a New York Times bestseller and New York Times Book Review 10 Best Books of 2018
One of my friends loaned me this book because he thought "I'd find it interesting," which says something about me as a person as well as about him as a friend. Unfuck Your Brain is a straightforward, kitchy guide to coping with mental health issues. Harper breaks down how and why our brains get addicted to things, have melt downs or panic attacks, or seem to stop working in the worst possible moments. It's a book made appealing to the masses through curse words and vague attempts at humor, both of which are tiresome and make the book somewhat unappealing. But she also explains what's going on in our brains and breaks down how to retrain your brain to respond how you want it to. During the never-ending COVID pandemic, this book is especially pertinent.
Steven Pressfield's The War of Art is one of those books I'll return to often in my life as a creative type. It is a guide to inspire, support, and admonish those who struggle to express their creativity or who find excuses to bury their creative instincts. He identifies "resistance" as the enemy of creation, and distills how to overcome resistance over the long run to eventually create something masterful. Overcoming resistance is applicable to most things in life, not just creative work. This book is a must read for anyone trying to accomplish anything.
I submitted some of my poetry to a press called Sundress Publications and they sent me Arabilis, which I read in a day and which felt incredibly lovely. My favorite poem in this collection is called "Invasive Species," in which the speaker tries to save a frog from the door well of her car, only to break it's leg by accident. It is a book of poetry that is aggressively honest, exploring pain, confusion, and joy interminably. Presented through the lens of a person of color adopted into a white family, this collection simultaneously "acknowledges the senselessness of life and demands an explanation for it." Woah. I promise, you won't be disappointed.
Who hasn't heard of David Goggins? He's become a cultural icon, and not because he wanted or tried to be one. I actually listened to Can't Hurt Me, and I suggest you do as well. Goggins and his ghost writer stop the reading to chat interminably, producing an audio book that listens more like a podcast. It's a memoir, but a really fucking cogent one. Goggins had a terrible childhood, enduring abuse, poverty, and prejudice. He gathered mental fortitude to transform his life, lose an incredible amount of weight, join the armed forces, and later become and ultra endurance athlete. Outside magazine named Goggins him The Fittest (Real) Man in America, and he's completed prestigious races such as Badwater 135, Moab 240, and Hurt 100. Can't Hurt Me is an inspiring guide to pushing past pain and fear to reach your full potential.
First Amendment expert Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt came together to write a book exploring how three ideas have undermined American childhood and education: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; always trust your feelings; and life is a battle between good people and evil people. These three "Great Untruths" contradict basic psychological principles about well-being and ancient wisdom from many cultures. Lukianoff and Haidt blame these three untruths for the culture of "safetyism" that plagues young people and stunts our social, emotional, and intellectual development. In short, it makes us easily offended and entitled. They also touch on social media, helicopter parenting, and the coporatizaiton of universities. The Coddling of the American Mind was first published as an article in the Atlantic, and the book has since become a New York Times bestseller, Bloomburg best book of 2018, and a finalist for the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award in Nonfiction
One thing I love, but rarely talk about, is Native American literature and history. I don't talk about my love for it because it does not seem to be something I can claim. I appreciate it for reasons I hope make sense: the deep connection to land and the natural world. The stoicism and wisdom. The grit and inherent fortitude of native populations. The corresponding hardships they endured. Most of all, the beauty of their cultures and traditions. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee came to me through the recommendation of a friend, who was surprised that I hadn't yet read it. I will say nothing about it now, but I can't wait to discover what lies between the pages.
P.S. What's a blog about books without a little shameless plug?! My recent book of poetry, "I Like It Cuz It's Pink," is available for purchase everywhere here.