As the year comes to a close, it’s time for us to take a look at the past 12 months to see what we can learn for the next year. Around the office, we decided to share the best books we read in 2018 and why we think you should read them in 2019. Whether you’re looking for a new piece of fiction, works of poetry, or thought-provoking nonfiction, we think you’ll enjoy adding a few of our favorite books to your 2019 to-read list.
The Martian by Andy Weir
This past year, I fell into a sci-fi rabbit hole. I devoured countless books that playfully toy with ideas of humanity, push the limits of technology, and craft exciting adventures. But between the adventures of Old Man’s War and the tales of MaddAddam, one particular novel stood out above the rest. I’ll admit that I love fantastical, unrealistic sci-fi novels—but, surprisingly, one of the things I loved the most about The Martian was how uncomfortably realistic it was. I never expected to drink up pages upon pages of scientifically reasoned solutions to realistic problems that arose. And it’s impossible not to fall in love with the snappy, hilarious writing. The plot moves quickly, despite the fact that protagonist Watney does very little in the way of adventuring. It’s a simple story about a man using all his wits to survive, but don’t worry—the novel is packed with twists and turns, lovable characters, and more than enough moments to keep you at the edge of your seat. I blew through this novel in about a week, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for an exciting, original sci-fi novel—especially if they’re tired of your run-of-the-mill “White Dude Fights Aliens” stories.
— Kate, Marketing Coordinator
New and Collected Poems, 1952-1992 by Geoffrey Hill
Geoffrey Hill’s New and Collected Poems, 1952-1992 is the best book of poetry I read this year—and contains a handful of the greatest poems I’ve ever read. This volume gathers Hill’s first five books, which together represent his strongest writing. For modern readers, Hill’s poems may appear to come from a distant, even ancient, world. Indeed, his work is steeped in the traditions of English poetry and history, drawing upon the masters of Renaissance verse and ignoring the latest vogues. However, Hill was a modernist, and so each of his poems bears the mark of an experimental mind at work. There is no context which renders his poems anything less than deeply strange and chilling. In Mercian Hymns, a personal exploration of Hill’s childhood in Mercia burrows down into a meditation on the landscape’s violent past. In “Funeral Music,” a sequence of elegiac sonnets about the Hundred Years’ War transforms into a haunting lament for the human condition. Unfortunately, Hill passed away in 2016. What remains is his work is perhaps the richest contribution to English poetry in the last century. In our age of glib political bluster and “Instagram poetry,” I can think of no better balm than Geoffrey Hill.
— Zack, Associate Editor
The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant
My current obsession is authors Will and Ariel Durant, two of this century’s most prolific historians and pure joys to read. This year I read The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant, a work which reminds me that the past is not so unlike the present and that the problems of humanity now are the same problems humanity has always faced. The Story of Philosophy tells the story of fifteen Western philosophers, from Plato to Dewey, explaining the ideas of each through the lenses of their personal experiences and cultures. Of each, my favorite is Spinoza, a Jewish philosopher who envisioned a god beyond that of his youth. For that, he and his progeny were literally cursed by his peers and his people, forcing him, as an exile, to seek refuge among the Dutch. While I disagree with Spinoza’s metaphysics, Durant so masterfully presents a paramount human that I cannot but fall in love with his ethos: tolerance and benevolence that leaves humans free to express convictions peacefully. The Story of Philosophy stimulates the mind with both rich ideas and eloquent prose as it brings great ideas and great thinkers to the layman. It has earned its place well on my list of favorite books.
— Nicholas, Senior Developer
Why Poetry by Matthew Zapruder
One of the best books I read this year was Matthew Zapruder’s Why Poetry. As a poet, I found this an invaluable resource for helping me continue to define my own idea of what poetry is—but I think there’s something here, too, for people who have been scared away from poetry by the way it’s often taught: as some kind of code, something that “means” another thing that we have to excavate. Zapruder takes care to dismantle this common notion; instead, he speaks to reading poems as an experience that creates a certain “poetic state of mind”: a “dreamlike, associative” awareness that is, at heart, a means of somehow communicating what can’t quite be said. “A poem is like a person,” he writes, “The more you know someone, the more you realize there is always something more to know and understand. . . . This is why we come back to certain poems, as we do to places or people, to experience and reexperience, to see ourselves for who we truly are, and to continue to be changed.”
— Emma, Editorial Intern
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
In her 2014 collection, The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison explores and advocates for the practice of empathy through essays ranging from unflinching analysis of her own heartbreak to meditations on the suffering of others—and how close we can ever really get to honestly saying “I feel you.” This is an often unsettling but always deeply humane book, one whose pages I filled with sticky notes to mark passages I didn’t want to forget. (I found myself jotting down whole sections of Jamison’s “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.”) One of the most striking things to me was Jamison’s insistence on empathy as an intentional, and perhaps even radical, way of approaching the world. As she writes in the title essay, which recounts with surprising poetry her former job as a medical actor, “Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves.” I’d recommend The Empathy Exams to anyone curious about the possible uses, limits, and rewards of attempting to inhabit that choice.
— Jules, Editor
Circe by Madeline Miller
The sea witch Circe, probably best known for (hilariously) turning Odysseus’s men into pigs, takes on new life in this feminist reimagining of one of the most interesting figures in Greek mythology. Exiled by the gods for her witchcraft and “mortal” tendencies, Circe is forced to navigate a dangerous world of Olympians, Titans, and mortal heroes by herself. In doing so, Circe comes to terms with her own power while also shaping the stories of many of the most famous figures in Greek mythology, including Odysseus, Medea, Daedalus, and the Minotaur. Engaging and wonderfully written, this novel explores larger themes like family, self-doubt, identity, and fate through a nuanced and unexpectedly relatable protagonist. Though she’s an immortal goddess, Circe’s insecurities and inner struggles are all too human, and this story about the awesome power of the gods ends with some truly beautiful reflections on what it means to be mortal. Go read it—you won’t be disappointed!
— Caroline, Managing Editor
Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson
This year I read Jeanette Winterson’s Lighthousekeeping, which I heartily recommend for its lyrical prose, unique narrative voice, and enduring thematic content. It’s a story about light and dark, love and loss, and the dangers of pride and isolation. Winterson’s engaging, complex narrative is replete with symbols and allusions that create a memorable, intricate tale about the transformative power of storytelling.
After her mother’s death, Silver and her dog, DogJim, are taken in by Pew, the ancient, blind lighthouse keeper of Cape Wrath. Adrift in her own world of darkness, Silver takes solace in the stories that Pew tells her, which center around a man named Babel Dark, a 19th-century clergyman leading two lives, in an effort to chart a new course through her own life. As Silver grows up and learns to tell her own story, we recognize that the tale of Babel Dark—his public and private lives, his pride and isolation—raises questions about hypocrisy, purity, and public perception.
Pew’s stories take us through longing, passion, betrayal, place, and time, all in service to a simple question: What makes life worthwhile? I’ll let you find out the book’s answer, but here’s a tip: Read this when it’s raining.
— Wesley, Managing Editor