I’ve just finished the last book I’ll get through in 2016, William MacAskill’s Doing Good Better, prompting me to consider my favorite reads of the year. All four were non-fiction, reflecting the bias of my overall reading list rather than any malaise in the world of novel writing.
Only six of the twenty-one books I read in 2016 were fiction, and if I had to pick a favorite it would be Lisa Owens’ debut, Not Working, in which she gently skewers the aspirations of millennials to find meaningful careers. Said skewering transfers exceptionally well to older generations, who shall remain nameless, too.
Onward to my non-fiction list then, starting with MacAskill’s Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference. I didn’t plan my reading list this way, but Doing Good Better is a lovely companion piece to Not Working—a sort of left-brain to its right.
MacAskill is a millennial himself, who also happens to be an Associate Professor in Philosophy at Oxford University, and has used this book to set out a rigorous framework for how we might do the most good. Along the way he considers charitable giving, consumer choices, and career choices—turns out following your passion is horrible advice. What MacAskill is talking about is how to save lives, and if this sounds like a preposterous, do-gooder goal, well, you may have become as cynical as I am. Read this book. It helps.
Earlier this autumn I read The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, a book about the author’s relationship with a person, the artist Harry Dodge, who identifies as neither female nor male, and motherhood—two topics that have little personal resonance for me. In that sense alone, Nelson’s book was “good for me,” a self-imposed dose of getting outside my own comfort zone. But to attribute that as the major merit of the work is to sell Nelson way short. The book is structurally unique (no chapters) with writing in turns fiercely intimate and academic. My faculty with language prevents me from explaining further; Nelson’s does not.
My last two favorites of the year were way more illustrative of my usual fare. First was Anna Funder’s excellent Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, a wondrous piece of journalism with a bit of personal stuff thrown in. I started reading it because I was living in Berlin, but it turned out to be way more prescient for what would happen in American politics later in the year. Twenty-seven years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this book needs to be required reading for Americans on the psychological and criminal ruin that happens when you have a ruling kleptocracy where people are intimidated into tattling on each other.
Finally, there’s The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries by Jessa Crispin. On the surface, it’s another woman-on-the-verge-takes-a-big-trip memoir. And what’s wrong with that? I love these kind of books, and Crispin is the imperfect, very real, very smart guide on this grand tour of Europe and its artists (which includes men, despite the title). This is Eat, Pray, Love written by the anti-Liz Gilbert.
So, voila! There you have it, my best of 2016 in books. I’m still pondering what to read in 2017, but the shortlist for January includes A.S. Byatt’s Peacock & Vine, Robert Moor’s On Trails, Rachel Cusk’s Transit, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. Oh and Maria Semple’s Today Will Be Different, and Olivia Lang’s The Lonely City, and Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City (I’m sensing a theme here). Or maybe Sarah Einstein’s Mot or Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus or Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things. And, oh god, I forgot Alan Bennett has a new set of diaries. The specter of 2017 looms large but at least I’ll have something to read.