2019 was a pretty good year for me for reading. Here are the highlights.
If you know me, you know that I like to read, or at least that I like to say that I do. This is a pretty recent development in my life though.
For most of my life I had trouble with reading. I remember in the 2nd grade being made to use a bookmark to guide my reading down a page because I wasn’t able to move from line to line. I would just loop over the same couple of lines over and over again. The bookmark helped a bit, but I found the act of sitting still and focusing intensely on reading to be exhausting.
Aside from the occasional book series (Eragon was one of my favorites), I didn’t read all that much, and I didn’t need to read much either. From what I recall, the Indian education system doesn’t place much emphasis on reading comprehension or critical writing.
I had an unpleasant surprise waiting for me when I started High School in America. One of my first assignments in freshman honors English was to read Lord of the Flies in a week and write an essay about it. I hadn’t read a book in a very long time and was never taught how to write a proper essay. I scrambled to read the book within the week, could barely focus on what was going on at the surface level, and scraped together an essay that I promptly received an F on.
That experience reinforced the idea that maybe I was just innately bad at reading comprehension. I didn’t make a huge effort to change that, and from then on I shied away from taking advanced English classes. Even in the regular English classes I tried getting out of reading when I could by using Sparknotes, and when I absolutely had to read I never scratched past surface level details in what I was reading.
Going into my senior year of high school, taking the SAT and applying to colleges, I started to realize that I couldn’t really wing it anymore when it came to reading. If not now, then it would catch up with me soon enough. I wanted to be good at reading, but I also wanted to enjoy it.
In 2018, I resolved to read a book a month and I finished the year by reading 13 books. Some were better than others, but at least I could definitively say that I had read 13 books for fun. The process was long and at times really challenging, but I came out of it a much better reader. I got a sense of the kind of books I like to read and eventually really enjoyed the process of reading. I actually still use a bookmark to read when I’m not on my kindle, 7 year old me would be surprised.
Books this year
I have a really bad memory when it comes to book plots. I also don’t want to spoil too much. So I’ll just give you a vague run down of the books that I read this year.
This book was really captivating from the moment I picked it up. It is an autobiography of a woman who grew up in an ultra-Mormon doomsday-prepper family. She wasn’t allowed to go to school and had to do almost everything herself to make it to college. I was really struck by how different Tara Westover’s experience is from my or any traditional college student’s experience. It’s very humbling and made me more conscious about my privilege as one of these students. Very inspiring and I highly recommend it.
This is a book to nerd out to if you are interested in Linguistics. Each chapter is dedicated to a different European language and dives deep into some unique aspect or mechanism of the language. I learned from this book that I’m not as into Linguistics as I thought I was, but still a cool read nonetheless.
This one is an autobiography of a jewish prisoner of war in Nazi Germany. The first half of the book details his experience surviving through the war as a prisoner and the second is a more general philosophy of life and suffering. I don’t recall the exact tenets of his philosophy, you’ll have to read it yourself, but the book did leave a considerable impression on me. I found it particularly helpful and applicable to my own life when I was going through a tough time. It’s a short and meaningful read.
This was recommended to me by my parents and I really wanted to like it as much as they did but I didn’t care too much for it (sorry guys). It’s an autobiography of a middle aged white American dude who devotes his life to zen and meditation and his struggle through the process. I’m not really into meditation or spiritual things at this point in my life so I couldn’t really relate to it. Note to self: reread this in 10 years.
I love Bill Bryson, he’s one of my favorite authors. This book’s title really does not lie though. I wasn’t prepared to read as much as I did about the history of science as I did. It is pretty long and got a little dry towards the middle. If you’re looking for something comprehensive to read about the history of science, this is your book.
I was honestly shocked at how much I could relate to the main character in this book. It is a fictional account of the life of a son of immigrant parents from India who move to the US. The book develops over the son’s life from when he is born to about his 40s. I found myself closely relating to his experiences from childhood through college, and then wondering if I would go down the same path as him in the future as the book progressed. Please read this If you’re an American Indian, I can’t recommend it enough.
I read this book having already watched the movie, but I didn’t actually remember any of the movie at all. I was thoroughly shocked with how the story turned out and it did a really great job of being a captivating thriller novel. It was a really unique and entertaining read. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll leave it at that.
This is a book about war told from the point of view of a WW2 veteran. The book has a really interesting take on mental illness, time, and death. The book doesn’t take place in chronological order, so it can be pretty confusing at times, but it does really add to the story. There are also aliens. It makes more sense if you just read it though.
Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon in training who was diagnosed with lung cancer and died from the disease. This book is his autobiography and an account of his final years of life. His messages about death and the relationship between doctor and patient are very powerful. If you’re considering working in medicine or are curious about death, I think that this is a really important read.
This book is a very detailed account of the rise and fall of pharmaceutical company Theranos. I had first heard about Theranos through a podcast and was shocked, the story of how this company began and rose to fame was just really absurd. The book is even better. It has an incredible level of detail and narration from one of the investigative journalists who first broke the story for the Wall Street Journal.
This is one of those books that everyone seemed to have read except for me, so I decided to finally read it. Orwell did a great job of painting a really vividly grim totalitarian society. The writing was also surprisingly easy to follow considering it was written in 1949. I’m less afraid to read books that weren’t written in the last 10 years now. There was a good bit of political theory in the middle of the book that I didn’t care too much for, but other than that the book was really captivating. It’s kind of a sad and depressing book but totally worth reading.
Speaking of depressing books, Things Fall Apart is a novel about the life and traditions in an African tribe and how religious missions and colonialism impact the tribe and its surrounding communities. It’s not a long read and I greatly appreciated the rich cultural narrative that Chinua Achebe paints. I’d like to read more African novels in the future.
Retrospective & Future Plans
I explored more fiction this year (5 books compared to just one book last year). When I started reading more, I felt that reading would only be worth my time if I read non-fiction. I could learn more about the world and things that actually happened instead of some author’s imagined series of events. I was pleasantly surprised this year when I found reading fiction to be significantly easier than reading non-fiction, and that I could actually relax while reading a fiction novel. A longstanding goal of mine is to stop watching YouTube recreationally, and reading fiction was a great placeholder for the time spent watching YouTube. I haven’t fully kicked the habit, but I’m hoping that I’ll be done with YouTube by reading more fiction in 2020.
7 out of the 12 books that I read this year didn’t end on a happy note. While I like to feel warm and fuzzy inside after finishing a book with a happy ending, reading the ones with sad or depressing endings left strong impressions on me. After reading a depressing book I would be introspective for a lot longer. I’d be more observant of my surroundings and could relate a lot of the things in my life or in the world to the themes in the book that I just read. Depressing books help change your worldview, or at least make you more conscious of the world around you.
In the future I want to try to read some more classic literature, the stuff that has scared me away the most but that I’ve heard is very rewarding to read. I want to start by reading some of the classic English literature books assigned in High School, whether I have read them before or not. Now that I can read them at my own pace and without having to worry about a grade, I might learn more from them now than I did in the past.
Reading books that are out of my comfort zone expands my worldview and gets me hooked on genres and authors that I never thought I’d like. I feel like I’ve grown a lot in the relatively short period of time that I’ve picked reading up. It makes me wonder if I would still be going down the career path that I am today had I started reading like this earlier.
Feel free to reach out to me with book suggestions or to discuss any of the books I’ve read!