This book list is a tradition I’ve taken on since 2017, and one of my favourite little rituals over the break between Christmas and New Years. I read far fewer books this year, 40 as compared with 50 in 2018 and 52 in 2017, but I travelled quite a lot, took a writing class, started a new job, etc — life was good, I just read fewer books than I wanted to.
I continue to be inspired by other readers, including Rachel and Emma, who’s book lists I look forward to every year. I mostly choose books that have been recommended to me by friends or contacts, but this year I revisited a few authors that I was familiar with, and I’m glad I did. I think I’m developing a very specific taste for what kind of books (and voices) I like. As always, I also love the recommendations people make in person and on social media. If you also keep a book list, I’d love to see it.
From a quantitative perspective, my split of authors was 49% female authors and 51% of male authors. My fiction / non-fiction breakdown was 44% non-fiction to 56% fiction. Notably, this year I read far fewer books about business (a 2017 habit that I was determined to break), and I continued to love short stories, fiction, and scripts. My non-fiction tended towards relationships and psychology.
My favourite books of 2019: Too Much and Not in the Mood, Normal People, Female Persuasion, Barbarian Days, and The Secret History.
The List, in chronological order:
- Too Much and Not in the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose — This was a recommendation from my friend Emma (Consistently, Emma recommends books that become my most-loved books of the year. You can see the books she read in 2019, here). This playful, stream-of-consciousness, frivolous and at the same time profound book of essays is inspired by a Virginia Woolf diary entry which used the words “too much and not the mood”, what she described as the frustrating process of “cramming in and the cutting out" of words to placate her readers. If you ever find yourself in the creative process wondering if you have something worthwhile to say, you might like this book.
Groping through the dark is, in large part, what writing consists of anyway. Working through and feeling around the shadows of an idea. Getting pricked. Cursing purity. Threshing out. Scuffing up and peeling away. Feral rearranging.
2. Make Time: How to Beat Distraction, Build Energy, and Focus on What Matters Every Day by Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky — I picked this up after seeing Sam Tweet about it. It acted as a catalyst for reflection on where I spend my time, where I get my energy, and how to choose to use technology instead of being enslaved by it.
3. Normal People by Sally Rooney — I spotted this on a NYT book list as it was longlisted for the Man Booker prize but holy wow. I loved it. Pacey, relational, relatable. The novel follows a couple, Connell and Marianne, from high school into college and adulthood, as they perform a constant dance that plays with class, desire, love, and psychology. A total page turner.
4. Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy by Anne Lamott — Like an angel, Anne Lamott books have made her way to me when I needed them most. This is a beautiful reflection on mercy.
Hallelujah that in spite of it all, there is love, there is singing, nature, laughing, mercy.
5. You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian — I was captivated by Kristen Roupenian’s story, ‘Cat Person’ in the New Yorker, so had to get my hands on her short story collection. I liked these short stories but I still loved Cat Person most.
6. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery — My friend Liss recommended this to me. It is a well-loved albeit strange tale of an aviator, downed in the desert, that comes across a strange young person who has travelled from his solitary home on a distant island where he lives alone with a single rose. It reminded me of the Alchemist.
It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes it so important.
7. Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find — and Keep — Love by Amir Levine – It felt like everyone I knew was talking about attachment theory this year. This was interesting to me, particular from the perspective of understanding my own (and partners) patterns of behaviour and how to communicate effectively but I’d only recommend if you’re really interested in relational styles.
Numerous studies show that once we become attached to someone, the two of us form one physiological unit. our partner regulates our blood pressure, our heart rate, our breathing, and the levels of hormones in our blood. We are no longer separate entities.
8. The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker – I spotted this on a New York Times list, a novel about an entire town struck by an epidemic of sleep, where dreamers can’t be woken. Fittingly, I read this after seeing it on a New York Times list when I had glandular fever and could do nothing but sleep for weeks on end. It was an entertaining read, but I was hoping for more of a payoff.
9. How to Date Men When You Hate Men by Blythe Roberson – The title says it all. I’ve never felt so seen. Roberson’s incisive, funny comedic philosophy musings on dating in a patriarchal society while feminist and ambitious made me laugh out loud.
I think about men all the time. About how they, individually (Donald Trump) and as a group, are oppressing me. And about how they, individually (Timothée Chalamet) and as a group, are very hot. And also: how spending so much time thinking about how they, as a group, are hot…is probably oppressing me. Unsure what else to do about it, I’ve written this book.
10. Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty – I read this after the Big Little Lies hype. It was literary popcorn: light, entertaining and hard to put down. A good read while sick.
11. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – A gift from my good friend Kourtney, this autobiography is a memoir about his life as a neurosurgeon, his diagnosis and illness battling stage IV lung cancer. It is a book as much about how we live as about how we die: something we don’t talk often enough about. It made me think, and cry.
There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment.
12. Building Strong Brands by David A. Aaker – I worked on a massive brand architecture project for the NSW government earlier in the year and needed to brush up on the fundamentals, so I picked this up. Warning: it is a dry and academic read but if you’re a brand strategist it is logical and straightforward.
13. Godspeed: A Memoir by Casey Legler – A memoir about addiction, this book resonated with me. As a cross country runner, I saw addiction of a different type — eating disorders — as commonplace and even encouraged. What resonated with me: Legler’s poetic description of isolation and loneliness, and her accurate description of how we systemically turn a blind eye to addiction when an addict’s performance is benefiting us, particularly in sport.
I swim for every chance to get wasted — after every meet, every weekend, every travel trip. This is what I look forward to and what I tell no one: the burn of it down my throat, to my soul curled up in my lungs, the sharpest pain all over it — it seizes and stretches, becoming alive again, and is the only thing that makes sense.
14. Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport – All credit to Jas and Jo on this one. They raved about it and we took it up as our pick at For The People’s bookclub. The biggest thing I took out of it was that connection does not equal conversation. A notification is not a conversation. Knapp and Zeratsky define conversation as two way, using your voice — on the phone or in person. I recommend this book if you’re even a little stressed out by technology and time management.
15. Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel – This was another book I kept hearing people talk about. What I found most thought-provoking about this book was the cultural expectations we have around committed relationships
The grand illusion of committed love is that we think our partners are ours. In truth, their separateness is unassailable, and their mystery is forever ungraspable.
16. Radicalized by Cory Doctorow – I LOVED this book. This was a random library pick but these four science fiction novellas all like episodes of Black Mirror.
17. Brave New Work: Are You Ready to Reinvent Your Organisation? by Aaron Dignan — I really enjoy reading about organisational culture and have been following The Ready, the company Aaron Dignan founded, for a few years. I found thinking about designing culture intentionally really inspiring.
While many of the activities and outputs of organisations are indeed complicated, the organisation itself is complex. Accordingly, organisational culture isn’t a problem to be solved, it’s an emergent phenomenon that we have to cultivate.
18. Help Thanks Wow: Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott – I just love Lamott so much. I know people who find her problematic on a theological front but her irreverence is precisely the reason I love her. This book explores prayers: help, thanks, and wow. I adored it.
Beautiful pre-assembled prayers – like the Merton, the Lord’s Prayer, the Twenty-third Psalm – have saved me more times than I can remember. But they are for special occasions. They are dressier prayers, the good china of prayers, used when I have my wits about me enough (a) to remember that they exist, and (b) to get into a state of trust. This would be approximately seven percent of the time.
So I prayed: “Help me not be such an ass.” (This is actually the fourth great prayer, which perhaps we will address at another time.)
19. Grace [Eventually]: Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott – I was on a . real Anne Lamott roll in April. This is a collection of essays and stories about grace. They are, in Lamott form, absolutely stunning. I laughed out loud, I cried, I reflected. Lamott’s brilliance is in her vulnerability and her voice. What a gift. Dance Class was my very favourite.
“Sometimes grace works like water wings when you feel you are sinking.”
20. Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney – I have come to love Sally Rooney for her smart, witty writing and the depth to which she portrays the inner lives of her characters and the dynamics they create in their relationships.
I thought about all the things I had never told Nick about myself, and I started to feel better then, as if my privacy extended all around me like a barrier protecting my body. I was a very autonomous and independent person with an inner life that nobody else had every touched or perceived.
21. The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts by Gary Chapman – This was a re-read but one worth doing. I’ve found knowing my own love languages and what others are is a really practical way to care for other people, and understand myself better.
22. The Price of Nirvana by Oliver Bussell – It was a total pleasure to be able to read a first draft of a friends novel. This one’s not out in the world yet, but put it on your list – it’s a good one. It reminded me of Memento meets Sliding Doors. It made me think a lot about the paths we choose in life and what it really means to live.
23. Barbarian Days by William Finnegan — Pete lent this to me and I read it while I was sailing. Reading this book was like taking a surfing holiday, but narrated by a journalist with a flair for noticing details and having adventures. I highly recommend it.
“Being adjacent to that much beauty — more than adjacent; immersed in, pierced by it — was the point. The physical risks were footnotes.”
24. Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio — This was one of those books that I picked up while I was researching investing, and thought I should read. Ray Dalio has built Bridgewater (one of the world’s largest hedge funds) as “an idea meritocracy” and describes how, in this book. While it’s a bit of a lengthy book, I really enjoyed his reflections on designing the organisation as a machine.
No matter what work you do, at a high level you are simply setting goals and building machines to help you achieve them. I built the machine that is Bridgewater by constantly comparing its actual outcomes to my mental map of the outcomes to my mental map of the outcomes that it should be producing, and finding ways to improve it.
25. Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle— A gift from Jo, this was a fabulous read. The Sherlock Holmes stories are so well-written and written at such pace that it’s hard to put them down.
26. Eight Dates by John Gottman – I remember reading about Gottman’s “Love Lab” back in Comm theory 101. Gottman’s Love Lab is famous for the researchers accuracy in observing couples and predicting with 90 something percent accuracy which couples would stay together, monitoring everything — blood pressure, physiology, facial expressions, heart rate, etc. I found it fascinating, particularly because what Gottman’s research boils down to is: it’s not the grand gestures that make or break relationships — it’s all of the little things. The little things are the big things.
Ultimately what makes relationships work is the decision to make them work.
A lifetime of love is made up of the small moments and interactions you have with each other. Make them count.
27. Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott – I started this book on Kirstin’s recommendation. I’ve had my fair share of micro-managers, absent managers, and downright bad managers. I’ve also had great ones. This book describes the kind of style I aspire to embody when I work with people. The TLDR: Honesty is kind, but essential when managing people.
28. Change Your Thinking by Sarah Edelman — This is a book that was recommended to me when I was working on beating a habit of procrastinating. It’s classic cognitive behavioural therapy and is a bit dry, but I found it really useful in understanding the links between thoughts, emotions and behaviour.
29. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides – I picked this book up hoping, I think, for something similar to Normal People. It follows three characters at Brown (Eugenides’ alma mater) and is a coming of age story. It left something to be desired as I was hoping it would have more to do with its namesake, the marriage plot: a literary device where the entirety of a plot revolved around achieving the ultimate ‘happy ending’ of a story: marriage. But, it’s much less about sexual politics than a classic angsty, coming of age tale.
30. Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés — I had this recommended when I was doing some work to better connect with my intuition. Dr. Estes deconstructs fairy tales, folk tales, multicultural myths and stories and uses them to paint a picture of the Wild Woman archetype. What resonated most for me was her celebration of the tough, the wise, the soulful and the untamed — exactly what modern society tries to shut down.
Healthy wolves and healthy women share certain psychic characteristics: keen sensing, playful spirit, and a heightened capacity for devotion. Wolves and women are relational by nature, inquiring, possessed of great endurance and strength. They are deeply intuitive, intensely concerned with their young, their mates, and their pack. They are experienced in adapting to constantly changing circumstances; they are fiercely stalwart and very brave.
31. The Secret History by Donna Tarte – I loved this book. It’s weird. It’s wonderful, it’s totally bizarre and I was kept guessing the entire time. Set in an upright, East Coast sandstone university, it is an exploration of what it means – and what it costs – to lose control, through the eyes of an elite, clique-y group of honours students. Controversial: I think this book should have won the Pulitzer over The Goldfinch. I’ll be reading more of Donna Tarte in 2020.
“We don’t like to admit it,” said Julian, “but the idea of losing control is one that fascinates controlled people such as ourselves more than almost anything. All truly civilized people – the ancients no less than us – have civilized themselves through the willful repression of the old, animal self.
32. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – I fell in love with reading when i met some sassy leading ladies in print: Anne of Green Gables, Laura Ingalls of Little House on the Prairie, and Jo from Little Women, so when I heard Greta Gerwig was directing the adaptation I had to revisit this classic, and it was like pulling on a cozy sweater: just as comforting as I remembered.
33. Grand Union by Zadie Smith – I was familiar-ish with Zadie Smith as a writer, but this was the first book I picked up. I loved some of the short stories in this collection, others I could leave. Smith understands and writes eloquently about power, words, and culture. Her sentences are delicious and her observations are incisive.
34. On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King — I picked this up after overheard someone in a writing course I took this year mention it. What I liked this most was his introduction, from writer to the reader, where he recounts his memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer. I loved his advice about shutting out distractions:
“If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades unless it looks out at a blank wall. For any writer, but for the beginning writer in particular, it’s wise to eliminate every possible distraction…when you write, you want to get rid of the world, do you not? Of course you do. When you’re writing, you’re creating your own worlds.”
35. Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin — I adore people watching (airports are the best place for this) and so this book, billed as an anthropological study of Upper East side mothers in New York. I think I loved the idea of this book more than the actual reading of it, but still, it was entertaining.
36. Scramble by Marty Neumeier – We read this as a Future Super book club pick. It’s a “business thriller” (this, as a category, makes me cringe, but let’s set that aside for a moment). I found it a bit hokey but to be fair, reading a story of a company in crisis and then watching someone apply strategy is a much better explanation of how and why to use strategy than a collection of frameworks.
37. Joker (screenplay) by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver– I saw this film and was blown away by the nuance, the music, the acting. It made me want to understand the intent behind the script, and I’m glad I read it. I highly recommend picking up the script of a film that really gets under your skin.
38. Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer – I fell in love with Meg Wolitzer’s writing when I read The Wife last year. She feels what it is to be a woman moving through the world today and captures the many faces of feminism, as varied and as necessary as the women who make up the movement. It’s full of delicious descriptions, witty dialogue, and raw, gut-punching truth.
“Sisterhood,” she said, “is about being together with other women in a cause that allows all women to make the individual choices they want. Because as long as women are separate from one another, organized around competition – like in a children’s game where only one person gets to be the princess – then it will be the rare woman who is not in the end narrowed and limited by our society’s idea of what a woman should be.
39. Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton – Recommended by David Barton at the end of last year, I finally got around to this, this year, and it was a bright and original novel. Dalton, a Walkley award winning journalist, takes pages from his childhood in Brisbane. It flirts with mysticism and feels profound.
40. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate by Naomi Klein — I started this book earlier in the year after starting my job at Future Super, but when Australia’s bushfires started at the end of the year, I doubled down on my commitment to finish it. Klein’s book is the most logical and succinct explanation of the climate crisis that I’ve read yet.
We are left with a stark choice: allow climate disruption to change everything about our world, or change pretty much everything about our economy to avoid that fate.
41. Artemis by Andy Weir — I loved The Martian and have had this book on my list for a while. ‘Heist in space’ is a specific genre but I am all about it. ’Like the Martian, Weir does an incredible job of making life in space seem utterly real.
If you made it this far, it follows that you love books, too. I’m always giving / looking for book recommendations, so if you want to compare notes, please hit me up on Twitter @amandakgordon. Happy reading in 2020!
For Previous Lists
Books I Read in 2018
This list is becoming a bit of a tradition for me. In 2017, I set out to read 52 books over the next 52 weeks. I read…