To clarify: these aren’t necessarily books that were published in 2019, rather books I read in 2019 that I think should be read by everyone else.
When I was in middle and high school, I never read fewer than 6 books at a time. As an English major, I spent the majority of my four years of college reading. After that, life sort of got in the way, and I’m embarrassed to say between 2014-2017, I may have read 5 books. In 2018, I rediscovered my GoodReads account and, halfway through the year, challenged myself to read more. Not even a specific number of books, just more in general. And I managed to clock in 32.
At the beginning of this year, I used that momentum to challenge myself to read even more: 52 books in one year. One book a week. In true “me” fashion (read: “by the skin of my teeth”), and thanks to the help of e-books, audiobooks, and a new library card, I officially reached 52 books read in 2019 last night when I finished Ache. by Lillian Olson.
Side note (SN): Yes, this blog and blogger do recognize e-books and audiobooks as real books that count as books actually read.
In 2020, the challenge is to double that: 104 books. One nonfiction and one fiction or poetry book a week. We’ll see how it goes, but with the way things are trending and the habits I’m trying to form, I have high hopes.
For now though, these are 9 of the books I read this year that you should definitely read. The must reads, if you will.
Listed in the order I read them, we’ll kick things off with:
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
Okay, I’m kind of cheating on my very first entry. But this is my list, and I’ll adjust the rules as I see fit.
I did not read Nothing to Envy in 2019. I read it in 2018. One of the first books I read in 2019, however, was The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot. Nothing to Envy and Aquariums are both deep-dives into the rise of Kim Jong-il in North Korea and how it became the country it is today. Both are told through the stories of people who lived through his regime and escaped it. As informative (and horrifying) as they both are, I felt Nothing to Envy gave a much more in-depth look at the country’s entire regime over the past 60 years, whereas Aquariums focused primarily on the author’s family at a specific point in the country’s recent history.
Having read both, I would still definitely recommend reading both. While they’re similar stories, there isn’t much repetition between the two. And, given North Korea’s current state, I believe it’s important to hear as many stories as possible about how they/we got here. But if I had to put one in front of the other, it’d be Nothing to Envy.
Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment by Tal Ben-Shahar
I used to think the song “Happier” by Marshmello (ft. Bastille) always made me cry because I’d first heard it while watching that gosh dang music video about a girl and her dog. It’s entirely too relatable, and I’m already prone to cry at any story involving a dog.
(SN: just tried to watch that video again and nope. Can’t do it.)
The real reason the song always made me cry during its Top 40 heydays last year is because I was severely depressed – like, in a dangerously low level of depression – and all I wanted was to be happier. This story’s not really super relevant to this blurb except to point out that I am happier since reading Happier.
Happier, which has nothing to do with the song of the same name, is the self-help book version of Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar’s positive psychology course, most (if not all) of which can be viewed in lecture form on YouTube. And I only call it a “self-help book” because of technicalities. More than a pep talk with anecdotes (which is what I’ve found most self-help books to be), Happier is rooted in the same positive psychology Dr. Ben-Shahar teaches, and he uses that approach to help the reader create a fundamentally happier life experience, rather than a superficially happier one.
I don’t know, it’s what’s stuck with me the most. The tenets of positive psychology, probably more than anything, have been what help manage my depression most and best. So, this book is a must-read in my…book…
Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington
If we’re ever going to be any better, we not only have to face what we’ve done wrong, but own up to it; apologize for it; and learn from it. Yes, that includes doctors and those working in the healthcare system.
Most everyone knows about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment – and this book does go into some detail about that. But do you now about the painful, invasive, and dehumanizing experiments enslaved women were forced to undergo in the name of gynecological research in colonial America? Did you know that the rise in popularity of eugenics (a pseudoscience) led to the justification of experimental exploitation and poor medical treatment of black Americans, the ramifications of which are still present today?
Medical Apartheid sheds a light on the dark, corrupt, and often downright cruel history of how we’ve studied medicine and administered treatments throughout America’s own history. And, honestly, I feel like it should be required reading for us living in this country, especially those with ties to the healthcare system.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
I don’t necessarily think quiet or introverted people need to read this. Of course, if you’re a quiet or introverted person who needs validation, go right ahead, because there is plenty of that in there.
The western world is built for the extroverts and the talkers. This book doesn’t seek to diminish or change that. Arguments are made for the benefits a world built for introverts bring; but we’ve swung the pendulum too far one way to hope for anything but balance in the near future. What this book does do is present a good explanation to help understand how and why quiet or introverted people interact with the world the way we do. For the most part, we already understand that. But what would make the world more introvert- and quiet-people-friendly is getting the extroverts and the talkers to understand our interactions with the world and the people in it.
Something else that the book addresses I think we could all benefit from hearing more: not all introverts are quiet and not all quiet people are introverts. Not all extroverts are loud or talkative and not all talkative or loud people are extroverts. Definitely read Quiet if you have trouble distinguishing that.
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith
Part philosophy, part biology, all super interesting.
Other Minds focuses on cephalopods (squids, cuttlefish, and octopuses – SN: did you know “octopus” can be pluralized as octopuses, octopi, or octopodes? And that’s not even close to the most interesting thing about them!), how they’ve evolved, and what their minds can teach us about, well, everything.
As humans, I think we have a bit of a tendency to get hung up on ourselves and forget that a) we’re technically animals and b) we share a planet with other animals, many of which are more like us than we’d like to think and some of which may even be smarter than us. Other Minds helps remind the reader of both of those facts, and I think that’s something we could all use every now and again.
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
If you wanna know the book that made me cry the hardest this year, look up a couple of lines. Or to your right at the picture.
In the Time of the Butterflies is a fictionalized version of the true story of the Mirabal sisters, known as “las mariposas” or “the butterflies,” historical figures and underground agents for the rebellion against the Trujillo dictatorship in the mid-20th century Dominican Republic. It’s the story of their lives – and their assassination. More than freedom fighters, they were women with hopes and dreams; they loved, they laughed. They were daughters and became mothers, and the fictional lens Alvarez tells their story through allows the reader to grow to know and love them beyond the brave work they did for their country and its people.
In the Time of Butterflies not only shows the true strength of the Mirabals, but of all those who fight back against injustice, especially in times of adversary. Their story deserves to be known, and their strength deserves to be spread far and wide.
Am I There Yet?: The Loop-de-loop, Zigzagging Journey to Adulthood by Mari Andrew
If you don’t read this book, at least promise me you’ll follow Mari Andrew on Instagram? Her drawings and musings on life, love, adulthood, artistry, living with illness (both physical and mental), and growth are such treats for the soul.
A series of personal essays, Am I There Yet? expands on much of what can be found on Andrew’s Instagram, and it’s in these expansions that the nuances that make her advice resonate really get to shine. At the end of the book, I not only felt I knew the artist better, I felt I knew myself better too.
As an almost 30-year-old, navigating the world (for the most part) on my own, I cannot recommend this book enough for anyone else in my boat.
The Little French Bistro by Nina George
I just loved this book so much. It had to be on the list. From a little inn and bistro in a little town in the south of France comes a story about a lost life regained. What do you do when you’re in your 50s (or in my case, your late 20s) and realize your life hasn’t been what you expected or even necessarily wanted? What do you do when it seems like the only way out is drowning in the Seine?
(SN: content warning for a suicide attempt by the main character at the beginning.)
Unlike other stories about reinventing yourself after years of becoming someone you’re not or worse, someone you hate, this novel (to me) doesn’t insinuate that a vacation will fix all your troubles. In fact, that’s a lesson the main character learns time and again. The novel does, however, instill hope (and a few sage pieces of wisdom) that there’s no such thing as a dead end road in the journey of your life. And no matter who, what, when, or where you are, you can always steer yourself in a better direction if you need.
The Diviners Series by Libba Bray
This year I learned how much I missed Libba Bray’s writing. True, I read Beauty Queens in 2018, but that was a one-off book, and I needed a deep dive into Libba Bray’s stories. (Okay, and mind. The woman’s a glass-eyed genius.)
The Diviners series did not disappoint. Quite the opposite. Obviously. It’s on this list.
A Great and Terrible Beauty first introduced me to Libba Bray way back in high school, and I still revisit that trilogy every now and then. But growth demands new stories, and The Diviners was somehow once again (How do you do it Libba?! *shakes fist at sky*) just the story I needed to hear at this point in my life. These were just the characters I needed to reveal the bad habits, hang-ups, and stagnation I’d become so used to in myself, as well as the ones to reveal where my true strengths and passion lie. Sure, it’s a young adult novel, but I’d argue in the grand scheme of things, 29 is still a young(er) adult. And there’s much to be gained from the lessons we aim to impart with the up and coming generations.
So, maybe this last recommendation is a little less ALL MUST READ and more, I think most people would enjoy this story about a group of diviners in 1920s New York City fighting ghosts, but understand if it’s not your thing. It is my thing though, and that’s something I’m trying to work on more in the coming year. Owning my things, that is. And so to speak.
Also the final book in the series (The King of Crows) is set to come out in February 2020 and you want to be all caught up, don’t you?