My Year in Review: Books

As 2017 draws to a close and I review the books I read this year, I thought I’d share some of the highlights.

As usual, I read less than I would would have hoped. Like many, I would benefit from spending less time in the thralls of electronic media and more with the printed word (I read physical books). In addition to staring at my phone and computer too often during non-work hours, the advent of Wifi on domestic flights has lured me away from reading on the plane. Not good.

But such is the stuff that New Year’s resolutions are made of! So as we move forward into 2018, let me share some highlights from my reading in 2017.

In all, I read about 33 books this past year. I say “about” since I read a number of short stories which I count as one book. Without further ado, here are eleven that stood out:

When Breath Becomes Air  – Paul Kalanithi
This is a beautiful, powerful memoir of a brilliant young neurosurgeon and, it should be said, philosopher, as he wages a losing battle with cancer.

Stories of Your Life and Others – Ted Chiang
This collection of short stories includes the story that launched the movie Arrival, starring Amy Adams. As is so often said, the book is better than the movie.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City – Matthew Desmond
A landmark book that should give all of us pause. This book was set in Milwaukee, the largest city in my own state, making it difficult to dismiss as some problem in a distant place. This book has received a number of awards, including the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, and like Hillbilly Elegy (further below in this list) borders on “required reading” in my estimation.

An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back – Elisabeth Rosenthal
Over the past few years I have developed a masochistic urge to read about healthcare policy. This book does a great job of pointing out the perverse incentives that need to be addressed in order for true healthcare “reform” to be established. It is very readable, filled with patient anecdotes, and provides readers with helpful guides to be smart healthcare consumers.

For Whom The Bells Tolls – Ernest Hemingway
Every now and again I revisit a classic. I loved Corey Stoll’s hilarious send-up of Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris a few years ago, and it’s hard not to hear his voice when you read this great book set during the Spanish Civil War. As Stoll’s version of Hemingway would have said, it’s brave and true.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis – J.D. Vance
A number of the books in this list, such as this one and Evicted, were celebrated books of 2016, not 2017, so you can see that I’m slow to grab some of these books (usually because I’m busy with other ones). In the words of someone I know, this book took on the air of assigned reading by those trying to make sense of the 2016 Presidential election. Although some books might get over-hyped, this book was one that lived up to it’s considerable hype. Powerful.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood – Trevor Noah
Noah’s book is a powerful memoir from the Daily Show host about being a half black/half white kid growing up as apartheid shaped the world around him. Trevor is deeper than simply being a “comedian” (although he is that) – he has a rare eye for seeing contradictions and grace in the world around him.

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life – Richard Rohr
This is a book about the second half of life and what makes for a good journey. In the first half of life, we are focused on creating our identity and in need of external validation. The second half is an opportunity to deepen our spiritual lives and be more authentic. When I’m reading, I sometimes dog-ear pages that have content that strikes me, and occassionally mark up a page with underlines or notes. This book was my most dog-eared and marked up book for 2017.

Paul’s Case – Willa Cather
Published in 1905, this is one of the short stories I referenced earlier. Many of the short stories I read this year were from an anthology that I still have – I am not making this up – from high school. The book is in terrible physical shape with a torn cover and pages that are separating from the binding. It had been used by previous students when I first got it, and my adolescent self makes a few appearances in the margins with distracted, off-topic doodles.  I grabbed it off the shelf this year and read some favorite stories  – “Everything that Rises Must Converge” by Flannery O’Connor, “The Bet” by Anton Chekov, and “The Rocking Horse Winner” by D.H. Lawrence.  But “Paul’s Case” felt more new to me than the others, likely because I haven’t read it for many years. It was poignant, and while the story reflects a different time it also speaks to challenges some young people face today. I highly recommend any of these stories.

Japanese Garden Notes: A Visual Guide to Elements and Design – Mark Peter Keane
I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Japan a few times during my career, and have been interested in the aesthetics of Japanese culture. This book was almost a form of contemplation for me, with elegant layout design and incredible pictures.

Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World – Tim Ferriss
I’ve always enjoyed those little segments you might see in a business periodical where an accomplished leader reveals what they learned from a major blunder, or some life advice they were shaped by, or what books they love, etc. This book is for people who like to deconstruct the practices of successful leaders and enjoy some very personal – and instructive – anecdotes in the process. Don’t be freaked out by it’s size – it’s an easy read and plus, you can skip people who don’t interest you.

That’s eleven of 33, which is probably enough. Perhaps one or two of these will grab your interest.

Remember the old adage: “Leaders are Readers”. In an era of constant change, taking a break from the emails and blog posts (like this one) is way to recharge your batteries, gain new perspectives, and grow.

Good luck!