Here is a curated collection of the absolute best books I read or reread in 2016. I don't want to waste your time or money with mediocre books, so I've whittled them down to my favourites.
If these are the only books you read in 2017, it will be a year well spent. Trust me. Read them and thank me later.
First, nonfiction. I own copies of half of these, forming the majority of my tiny library. I recommend buying a physical copy so you can annotate and underline key passages. My versions are covered with notes. Yes, that does go against what most of us were taught as kids. Quite frankly, I find that scribbling all over a book makes the reading experience much richer. Ignore the voice of your parents in your head, telling you not to fold the pages or whatever. If it's your copy, do what you want - as long as you read it.
- On the Shortness of Life- Seneca. There's a reason this book remains popular close to 2000 years after being written. It is still relevant and more accessible than many Stoic texts. Seneca is a timeless genius with a remarkable awareness of what matters in life. Realising how little people have changed since the Roman era is somewhat reassuring. People have always procrastinated, worried about the future and been unsure of their own purpose. Reading Seneca always make me feel less alone on bad days.
On Writing - Stephen King. I found an abandoned copy of this in the street a few months ago and am super grateful to whoever left it there. This book is a masterclass in writing well by the best-selling author ever. His advice is simple, useful and not at all pretentious. I also found it refreshing to read about how slow and difficult his path to success was. Here's one of my favorite extracts; 'Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. It's about enriching the lives of who will read your work, and enriching your own life. It's about getting up, getting well and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.'
- The Hidden Pleasures of Life - Theodore Zeldin. Five weeks. That's how long it took me to read this- longer than any other book before. Each page is thick with insights and every sentence is a work of art. Reading more than a few pages in one go is almost impossible. Carry this book with you, dip into passages and unravel it at a slow pace. This is writing to ponder, not to just read.
- Deep Work and So Good They Can't Ignore You - Cal Newport. These two books transformed the way I work. Many of my keys habits/changes - quitting social media, creating an autopilot schedule, single tasking etc - came from Newport's work. Read them both together for maximum benefit.
- The Productivity Project - Chris Bailey. I love it when a blogger I follow gets a book deal, and I pre-ordered this as soon as it was announced. This should be compulsory reading for all students. Bailey spent a year testing out productivity techniques to establish what works. The result is a book which focuses on the management of energy and attention, not time.
- Outliers - Malcolm Gladwell. This is an interesting book, full of fascinating research. I always love the fusion of science, sociology, psychology and other fields in Gladwell's books. I also recommend Tipping Point. He can turn even the dullest sounding topics (Korean etiquette, the spread of HIV, Hush Puppies) into an absorbing narrative. I favor them for long flights or train journeys.
- Poke The Box, We Are All Weird and Stop Stealing Dreams by Seth Godin. I've been on a bit of a Godin rampage of late, working my way through all his books. Choosing one from them would be impossible. One of my rules in life is 'once you decide someone gives good advice, follow all of it.' Seth is one of those people and it's extraordinary how much I've learned from his work. A digital version of SSD is available for free on his website.
Now let's move onto fiction. I don't read as much of this and go for classics most of the time. If a book is still around over half a century after being published, it is certain to be a good one. Most of these are old and all the more valuable as a result.
- On the Road, Dharma Bums and Lonesome Traveller - Jack Kerouac. I don't doubt that Kerouac is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. A librarian told me that copies of his books always seem to get stolen, which is why many places don't stock them. I replied that stealing books is a rather Kerouac-esque thing to do. She was not amused. Borrow or buy these and don't steal them. Each is a glorious portrait of a long-gone era and the way people lived during it. They make me nostalgic for a time I never experienced. A time when one could hop in a car with a few friends, $10 and a bottle of whiskey and drive across America. Expect lots of dialogue and little plot.
Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov. I have read this numerous times before, but I reread it this year so I'm including it. Controversial, yes. Nonetheless, it remains one of my all-time favorite books. I also read Laura, the unfinished manuscript of his final book. Considering how meticulous Nabokov was with his editing, reading a draft is intriguing. Some versions include scans of the original pages- a glimpse of his unusual notecard system for writing.
- Bag of Bones - Stephen King. I guess this could be described as the least 'serious' book on this list. It's an excellent work of horror, creepy, gripping and eerie. Like most of King's books, it is best read in one sitting. Just don't expect to sleep much the night after finishing it. I know I didn't.
- Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys. I'm studying these last two at the moment, meaning I will doubtless end up hating them. For now, Rhys' prequel to Jane Eyre is not leaving my thoughts. It deals with the story of Rochester's mad Creole wife and the early days of their marriage. The whole affair is rum soaked, not quite coherent and borderline supernatural.
- The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde. This is a glorious, unashamed exploration of hedonistic bohemian society. It exists within an unreal world where everyone is rich, beautiful and opulent.
- Nightwood - Djuna Barnes. It's hard to articular quite how different Barnes' writing is, even compared to other modernist texts. This is a heady book where years might pass in a paragraph, yet a single conversation can traverse chapters. Piecing the narrative together takes multiple readings. Even then, the characters seem untethered by the constraints of time or space.