Whenever I do town halls or Q&A sessions, some of the most frequent questions are about the books that influenced me, which ones I’m reading now, and why. Seems like this would be a great time to discuss the most impactful books I read in 2019.
One note: I found myself reading far less last year. I became a podcast junkie and swapped out a huge portion of my daily self-development time to listen to podcasts versus reading. (One result of that is you’ll find less books on personal growth.) In years past, I would often read 60 to 80 books. In 2019 the number was probably only 15 to 20. From such a small sample it would be arrogant and ludicrous to call this list the best books of the year. But each book listed here is a fierce page-turner you won’t be able to put down.
Garrett M. Graff
You’ve never read a book like this in your life. And hopefully you’ll never read another. (Said with only the utmost respect.) The book is an oral history of September 11, 2001, told through the voices of real people as they lived through history and heartbreak. You live the day through the eyes of the firefighter searching through the rubble for his wife who worked in the tower, the in-flight phone operator who fulfills her promise to deliver the last words of a passenger to their family, and weeping generals who couldn’t rush into the Pentagon to save their colleagues. It’s a searing, heartbreaking, and profound look into the eyes of humanity. You can’t read it and end up as the same person you were before you picked it up.
This is the behind-the-scenes account of Ronan’s investigative journalism into the sexual assault accusations against Harvey Weinstein. Ronan is a brilliant writer and I enjoyed his last book about foreign policy. But that didn’t prepare me for Catch and Kill. To say the book is shocking doesn’t begin to do it justice. There were numerous times I literally screamed out loud as I read it. It reads as brisk as any John Grisham novel or Ludlum spy thriller, but this time the spies, lies, and villains are real. (And a lot eviler.) The extent of enabling and protection Weinstein enjoyed, and the abuse and shame the victims endured will enrage you. The machinations of NBC and their parent company to keep this reporting from coming to light will give you serious pause and alarm. But above all, it’s a book that will rivet you, from the beginning through each incredible plot twist to the end.
Steve is a writer’s writer; the greatest living American writer. Everything he composes, whether fiction, non-fiction, or grocery lists is mad genius. This book is no exception. Steve flexes his storytelling chops, weaving a serial killer, Rabbinical scholar, anthropologist, homicide detectives, and a secret society of 36 righteous men into an apocalyptic thriller. If Agatha Christie and Robert Ludlum had a child together, that child would write this book. #ProTip: Just send your credit card info to Jeff Bezos and authorize him to auto-ship everything Steve writes.
Yuval Noah Harari
Harari is another author that hooked me with his previous book (Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind). He’s just one of those authors that as you read him, you’re thinking, “This guy is so much smarter than I am.” But you don’t hate him for it; you love him. He is the rare critical thinker who is also a truly gifted writer. Technically this book came out in 2018, but I didn’t get to it until last year. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is a provocative, profound look at the future, from robots to politics, artificial intelligence to religion, and war to immigration. A big picture view from a big thinker.
To say this book received critical acclaim is like saying Jupiter is a big rock. Pretty sure it was on every literary “best books of 2019” list in the free world. And deservedly so. Vuong’s writing takes you on psychedelic acid trip, similar to how every writer must feel when they read Kerouac’s On the Road. It’s billed as a novel, a letter from a son to his mother who can’t read. You’ll worry and wonder how autobiographical it is, you’ll marvel at the turns of phrase, and you’ll know you’re experiencing one of the most unique and insightful writing voices of a generation.
This essentially is Ryan’s third book in a trilogy about stoicism. While the first two are great reads, they’re not required to appreciate the final volume. Definitely his best work to date. This is a book about inner peace and Ryan explores not just the great Stoic minds, but other prodigious achievers such as Winston Churchill and Japanese home run champ Sadaharu Oh. Maybe it just hit me at the right time as I’m going through my fourth midlife crisis, but this book spoke deeply to my soul.
It doesn’t matter if your default setting is that Snowden is a patriot or a traitor, you should read this book. It’s a revealing look into the scary abuses of government, the corruption of politics, and how society is too busy posting food pix on Instagram to give a fuck. Similar to Catch and Kill, it’s a real-life story that reads like a spy novel and will leave you gobsmacked.
Of course, the aforementioned Flea is the bassist and founding member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And it blows up every stereotype and trope there is about books from hard-partying rock stars. It’s part coming-of-age story, part love letter to rock ‘n roll, and complete literary brilliance. If you were given the manuscript without the cover and asked whether it was written by a rock star or someone who won a Nobel Prize in literature, you would guess the latter.
Caroline de Posada
This wasn’t a New York Times bestseller. The author isn’t famous and doesn’t have a PR team or an agent. She’s the daughter of the late Joachim de Posada, a friend of mine (who did write a bunch of bestsellers). At Joachim’s memorial, Caroline shared that she wanted to continue his legacy by writing a book. I promised that if she was serious, I would help her in the process. The writing ability in her first draft was astounding. It took me at least nine or ten books until I found my writer’s voice. Caroline had hers from the first paragraph she wrote. It’s an inspiring true story, based on a trip with her family. If you’re looking for something uplifting, or just love discovering a fresh writing voice, check out this book.
What’s missing? What were your best reads in 2019? Love to see your recommendations below.