As another year draws to a close, I thought I'd continue my tradition of pulling together some of my favourite reads of the year into a list, partly as a memory aid, and partly as others seem to find lists of books particularly interesting. I've also provided links to the books on Amazon.
Here's my favourite books from this year, in no particular order:
Travels with Charley - J. Steinbeck, 1962
A couple of years ago, I read Steinbeck's 'magnum opus', East of Eden. I was taken by a feeling of authenticity of the characters in that book, and the simple but sharp style of his writing. Since then, a few of his books have found their way onto my reading list, with this year's list including Travels with Charley, an account of a trip Steinbeck took across the US in the 1960 (just prior to the election of JFK) in a customised camper van named Rocinante. He was seemingly motivated by wanderlust, and a desire to see how America had changed in the years since he had left the west coast and moved on to an easier, more affluent lifestyle on the east coast.
His trip brings him into, while it's probably best not to take the account too literally, it's still a brilliant vignette of a changing US, with some important (and prescient) observations about the US, its history and its future. In a year like this, with political upheaval, social change and geographic isolation at the forefront of many of our minds, this book really resonated with me. (Amazon)
Siddhartha - H. Hesse, 1922
I don't recall how this book found it's way onto my reading list, but I'm thankful it did. It is a book written by Herman Hesse, a German author active in the first half of the 20th century, and who held Buddhist and Indian spirituality in high regard.
The book follows the life story of a man in search of self discovery and ultimately enlightenment, Siddhartha, from his days as a young man living with his father, a local Brahmin, through his travels as an ascetic monk, his encounter with the Buddha, and finally into his twilight years as a quiet ferryman living by a great river. It's a wonderful description of the process of self-discovery and what it means to be authentic and to live well. A life-affirming book, if ever there was one, and therefore a much needed ray of light in an otherwise dark year. (Amazon)
Letters from a Stoic - Seneca, ~65AD
A few years ago, I read Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, and I've been picking it up on a regular basis ever since. It also started a fascination with Stoicism, and Seneca – now regarded as a great communicator of Stoic ideals – quickly appeared on my radar. As the name suggests, this book is a collection of letters written (ostensibly) to Lucilius, a personal friend, in the first century.
By it's nature, it's a loose collection of lessons, meditations, observations, so it's easy to consume piecemeal, too. As with Mediations, it's a rewarding read, providing insight into Stoic philosophy, as well as the lives of Romans before their decline. This now sits alongside Meditations as a pick-me-up. (Amazon)
Dune - F. Herbert, 1965
To my shame as a sci-fi fan, I had never read Dune prior to this year. I figured with the (now delayed) release of the Dune movie looming, I should get it read. I'm glad I did. It's pretty close to being the perfect sci-fi book: a novel setting, an epic story, and – somehow – a sense of authenticity.
The story follows the journey of Paul Atreides, a young nobleman in the feudal society of Dune as he relocates along with his family and their attendants to a new home on the desert world of Arakis – or Dune, as it's colloquially referred to by the society in the book. After an unexpected betrayal, the young Paul is exiled to the inhospitable badlands away from civilisation. From there, the book explores the cultures of the planet, themes of self-discovery and maturation, loss and many other things besides, all in vivid and unique world.
If you're a fan of sci-fi, it is pretty much a must read.
Dead Souls - N. Gogol, 1842
The world of Russian literature has been a blind spot in my reading: prior to this book, I had never read any of the classics from the Russian 'golden age'. I thought I'd start at the beginning with Dead Souls, one of the first novels of this age. The edition I have (linked below) includes Book 1 and the remaining fragments of Book 2 (Gogol, displeased with the perceived quality of the second book sought to burn it, though enough remnants survive to produce a truncated version of the second book).
The story follows a character by the name of Chichikov, something of a con-man as he attempts to acquire the 'Dead Souls' of the title - the rights of to serfs who have died but are yet to be registered as such with the state, and are therefore 'valid property' until the next census records their deaths. By doing so, he hopes to mortgage these souls in return for 'real' cash.
However, the plot itself isn't the star of this book, but rather the characters and the setting. Gogol – even translated Gogol – has a knack for creating vivid characters in only a few words. His descriptions of provincial Russia, of its hamlets, forests and plains are similarly striking. The second half, Book 2, strikes a very different tone, and while still showing off Gogol's talent for crafting scenes, lacks something of the first book. It's somehow more conventional. That said, this is a great book, and seemingly a great place to begin my dive into Russian literature. (Amazon)
I've been fortunate to read several excellent books this year. On any other day, any of these other books could well have made my top 5. Here they are:
- The Dispossessed, U. K. Le Guin - A novel revolving around the juxtaposition of two ideologically isolated and distinct cultures coming into contact. It is a book interested in deep questions of political and social philosophy. An excellent book, written in Le Guin's crisp, clean style.
- The Iliad, Homer (J. Lattimore translation) - Arguably the most important book in Western culture, this book recounts the pivotal events of the closing days of the Trojan War. I loved this translation. I only did not include it in my top 5 as I felt having the same book in two of these lists might be a bit excessive.
- Grapes of Wrath, J. Steinbeck - I was torn between this and Travels with Charley for my top 5. In many ways, this is the better book. However, Travels with Charley somehow clicked with the context and my feelings this year, and thus pipped it to the post. However, this rich, wonderfully written book about a displaced family of farmers during The Great Depression is regularly and deservedly listed as one of those 'must read books'.
- Slaughterhouse Five, K. Vonnegut - A bizarre but wonderful book about Billy Pilgrim, a time-travelling World War II veteran. The narrative is non-linear in time, with Pilgrim hopping to various points within his own chronology, ultimately culminating in Pilgrim's experience of the devastating firebombing of Dresden in the closing weeks of the war. It's an odd book, but it makes an important point.
- One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, K. Kesey - A classic novel exploring the lives of voluntarily committed patients on a psychiatric ward in some time in the early part of the second half of the 20th Century. It's a cutting description of coercion, manipulation, power and, ultimately, freedom. I've added it to my read-again list.
2021 reading list
Here's some of the books I'm most looking forward to reading (or finishing, in the case of one of them) in 2021:
- The Beginning of Infinity, D. Deutsch
- Steve Jobs, W. Isaacson
- Cosmos, C. Sagan
- Steppenwolf, H. Hesse
- Anna Karenina, L. Tolstoy
- Gödel, Escher, Bach, D. R. Hofstadter
- Creative Selection, K. Kocienda
- Why We Can't Wait, M. L. King