In 2018 I was once again tied up with a lot of reading for research, so I had less time for reading on other topics, especially for non-fiction. On the plus side, lots of time spent on trains and airplanes allowed for enjoying a fair amount of novels. As with previous posts, this list reflects books I read in the past year, not necessarily books released in that period.
The Tangled Tree, David Quammen — David Quammen is one of a handful of authors whose books I’ll pre-order as soon as I hear they’re coming out. He’s one of the best science and nature writers and constantly finds new ways to illuminate evolutionary biology. His latest, on horizontal gene transfer, is no exception. Hands down the best non-fiction I read this year.
I Contain Multitudes, Ed Yong — This was on my to-read list for a while and after reading The Tangled Tree it seemed like an apt thematic follow-up. It touches on some similar themes, but takes a broader look at the microbiotic life all around and inside us.
Night of the Animals, Bill Broun — I loved this novel and its memorable, unlikely protagonist, an elderly drug-addled man who speaks to animals and plots to free them from the London Zoo. It’s suffused with a re-enchantment of nature in the midst of a bizarre, apocalyptic near future, and I’ve never read anything else quite like it.
The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño — I visited Mexico City for the first time this year and consulted Tyler Cowen’s travel tips, where he recommended this as the classic Mexican novel. (Whenever I visit somewhere new, I try to read a novel set there.) A great accompaniment for wandering around the city, and while I’ll probably tackle more Bolano in the future, I’ll likely wait a bit before digging into 2666.
Umami, Laia Jufresa — My other Mexico City pick, an immersive, funny, and delightful story of neighboring families whose lives intersect in shared mews.
The Changeling, Victor Lavalle — Technically I read this in 2017, beginning it on one of the last days of the year and finding myself completely unable to put it down. Genre-bending, compelling, and probably gut-wrenching to read in parts for parents.
Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker — This is definitely lesser Pinker and it comes across as glib and overly simplified in parts. Yet Pinker’s still worth reading, and in a year that was awfully rough on liberalism it’s a useful reminder that many things truly getting better.
Cigarette Wars, Cassandra Tate — The progressive temperance crusade against cigarettes is far less remembered than the fight for alcohol Prohibition, but from 1890 to 1930 fifteen states in the US had enacted some kind of ban on cigarettes. This is a thorough, balanced look at that forgotten movement and why it eventually failed.
In the All-Night Cafe, Stuart David — This memoir of the founding year of Belle and Sebastian is as charming as one would hope a book about Belle and Sebastian to be, and it’s a relatable, wistful meditation on what it’s like to allow one’s own creative endeavors to be overshadowed by another.
A History of Pictures, David Hockney and Martin Gayford — This was as far from my usual topics of interest as any book I read this year, but it’s thoroughly engaging and a pleasure to read, especially with the full-color illustrations throughout.