Favorite Books of 2018

Previously: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 This year I read 108 books. You can view them on Goodreads. Each year I blog about my favorite books, an idea I got from the incomparable Aaron Swartz.

Why did I fall short of the 131 books I read in 2016 or the 135 I read in 2015? Three reasons... Firstly, for scheduling reasons, I'm blogging this a month early like last year. Secondly, the number of books I read is a counter indicator of my productivity, and I had a whole mess of work deadlines this year. And finally, podcasts… There are so, so many good podcasts to listen to…

Regardless, I read some incredible books this year. Without further ado, here are my...

Top 10 Favorite Books Read in 2018

1) The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. With so many negative headlines in the news nowadays, it felt good to read something so overwhelmingly positive. Matt Ridley is optimistic about everything. He presents the data and statistics to demonstrate that global averages for life-expectancy, poverty rates, health, crime, hunger, and infectious diseases, are rosier than they’ve ever been in history. He quotes from Malthusian pessimists who have been predicted global apocalypse for centuries. He ties human evolution itself to trade, specialization, and the exchange of ideas. He believes that the more humans interact and share ideas, the more innovation and prosperity humanity will achieve. Thus, he sees the internet not as a social calamity but as an enormous cause for optimism, accelerating human achievement.

2) Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. Rules of Civility is masterful prose. What craftsmanship, each paragraph brimming with insight. Towles is a literary giant, one of the greatest living writers.

3) Educated by Tara Westover. Tara Westover’s true story of growing up in a Mormon survivalist family in the Idaho mountains. She endures tremendous abuse and physical danger and somehow manages to escape, eventually earning a degree from Harvard. I could not put this book down.

4) Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. Another extraordinary book from the author of Hamilton. Chernow confronts Washington’s slave-holding head-on but still manages to paint a portrait of a man of rare virtue and bravery. It is safe to say that without Washington’s leadership, there would be no America. His life is an extraordinary tale, from his incredible rise as a young man to his gentlemanly conduct, his courage in battle, and his strength in the face of myriad health issues. He defeated the endless assaults of his detractors (like that scoundrel Jefferson) simply by keeping his head above the fray and never stooping to their level. An inspiring book.

5) The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. A colorful and incredibly well-researched account of World War One. The author’s strength is in developing a three-dimensional cast of characters and all their tangled alliances. I couldn't actually follow her battle scenes. Still, she paints a vivid portrait of a devastating period in human history. I could never understand the cause of World War One when I was in school, but now I feel like I can explain it pretty handily if given thirty minutes and several cups of coffee.

6) First They Killed My Father by Luong Ung. This is a riveting autobiography of Luong Ung surviving the Cambodian genocide. In fairness, I kept thinking that much of this book may be embellished since she seems to have an eidetic memory of events that happened to her as a kindergartner. Nevertheless, this book is an absolute page-turner. It’s extremely well-written and a sobering primer on the war crimes of the Khmer Rouge.

7) The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston. This is an astonishing true-crime tale about a serial killer in Italy who has never been caught. When the author begins investigating the corrupt and incompetent Florence police department, the police make him and his writing partner their primary suspects. A pretty incredible tale that will make you feel better about the relative competence of the American criminal justice system.

8) The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. This book tackles the important topic of what the internet is doing to our brains. Admittedly, it’s a bit prolix, but maybe that’s just the internet shrinking my attention span. The author’s take is not all doom and gloom. Granted, the internet has demonstrably shortened our attention spans while lowering our reading comprehension, but the author makes the case that we have the neuroplasticity to rewire our minds if we choose.

9) Contact by Carl Sagan. A fun read about aliens finally making contact with earth through SETI. The plot plays out in a very logical way. I didn’t love the cynical ending, but the book was a fun and memorable read overall.

10) The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson. Controversial former London mayor Boris Johnson does an admirable job of conveying just how dark Britain's prospects were by 1940. Hitler controlled Europe. America was isolationist. England stood alone against the Reich. And Churchill, at the helm, was surrounded by politicians eager for England to sign a treaty with the Nazis. Johnson makes the case that but for Churchill, England would have capitulated to the Nazis and the course of world history would have been profoundly different. Johnson also lauds Churchill’s clear-sighted appraisal of Stalin and his foresight in anticipating the cold war. The book is not trying to be academic, nor is it presented chronologically. It is more an encomium for Churchill and, in that, it is very successful. It is also a tacit bulwark to the Great Man Theory that has been challenged by thinkers like Tolstoy in War and Peace. And in that regard, I think it is successful as well.