9 for ’19

The best? Maybe, maybe not. Some of the most impactful nonfiction reads of the year, according to Grant:

The Unhabitable Earth: Life After Warming

Neither a ponderous science tome or a weepy ode to Mother Earth, David Wallace-Wells offers a devastating, very sharp, and relatively concise summary of “OK, this is how badly we’re screwed.” Mileage may vary, however: to me, the critiques that it was either too fear-mongering or that it ignored the plight of animals and plants too much don’t hold a lot of water.

Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America

Tommy Tomlinson’s bracingly honest and deeply human memoir of life as an obese person is affecting and relatable. Knowing of Tomlinson’s signature rasp, I was pleasantly surprised by the audiobook version. His performance imbued the book with so much more personality. I’d recommend the Longform Podcast episode as a good synopsis and window into the book. I’d also heartily recommend Longform in general–it introduced me to many of the books in this list.

They Will Have to Die Now

ISIS and Middle East war correspondent narratives are increasingly plentiful, but James Verini deftly manages the scope of the story by using Mosul as a focal point. He makes himself a seamless part of the story without trying to become the story, and colours the absurdities of the situation with a wry sense of humour. 

Mastermind: Drugs. Empire. Murder. Betrayal.

A fascinating tale of a talented nerd slowly descending into supervillainy, with increasingly elaborate schemes involving everything from Somalian fishing compounds to North Korean submarine drug smuggling. Evan Ratliff does a superb job of weaving himself and his reporting into the tale without in any way diminishing the role of Le Roux or the agents hunting him.

Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion

I’m generally averse to essay collections and to non-fiction books that raise a lot of questions without some kind of prescriptive answer, but Jia Tolentino’s essays on digital culture, capitalism, and the Millennials are entertaining and very incisive. Even the pieces that were of less interest to me didn’t feel like misfires or weird tangents. I didn’t absolutely adore the book, but the hype was warranted.

Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation

A fantastic, intimate portrait of the alt-right/online conservative celebrities and a well-earned rebuke of the Silicon Valley libertarians that facilitated their rise. I kept being surprised at how much access the alt-right figures gave author Andrew Marantz, and at times, how some of them felt more human than I expected. It’s not a sympathetic view of these people, but it is empathetic and in good faith.

As Marantz has said in interviews, this isn’t a prescriptive book–he doesn’t have all the answers, but he is still insightful and sharp.

Places and Names

Although stories of America’s Middle Eastern wars can sadly tend to blend together, Elliot Ackerman’s book stands out for its crisp writing and the unique conceit of a soldier who fought in Iraq returning to the same battlefields as a journalist in the ISIS era. The book doesn’t overstay its welcome, and he saves much of the combat prose for a riveting final stretch.

This Land is Our Land

An enjoyable and occasionally rousing or confrontational book that would do a lot of people, particularly on the right, good to read.

I feel a bit more socialist than Suketu Mehta, and as a Canadian, I feel like things aren’t quite as rosy here as statistics have led him to believe, but those are ideological differences rather than flaws in his logic. Some of his points don’t feel new, and some of them are perhaps a bit repetitive, but he makes many compelling arguments. To me, the weakest part of the book (caveat: read the audiobook) was the long and meandering epilogue.

Medallion Status

I’ve always sort of liked Hodgman more as a person than I’ve liked his work per se, and “Medallion Status”, much like “Vacationland”, feels like the ideal use of his talents–yet everything that came before was kind of necessary to get him to here. I’m not sure if his style and storytelling has evolved much since “Vacationland”, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s a great reflection on celebrity and fixations on status and privilege.

The audiobook narration is absolutely brilliant. Like Hodgman’s “Vacationland” and David Mitchell’s “BackStory”, there’s something especially captivating about a wry, very intelligent, quirky speaker telling their own story. Hodgman gives it his all, and the result is fantastic and, at times, touching. I’m not sure if “Medallion Status” would be anywhere near as enjoyable in print.

Honourable Mentions

  • Digital Minimalism: In a year of many interesting books plumbing into digital culture, Cal Newport’s latest book stands out as the closest to a prescriptive, how-to manual. I have sadly failed to implement many of his suggestions, but most feel spot on.
  • Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet: One of those books where the author’s enthusiasm is infectious. Will Hunt loves stuff underground (subway tunnels, catacombs, hidden temples…) and you probably will, too. I also read Vince Beiser’s The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization (2018) this year, and really enjoyed it for many of the same reasons.
  • Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World: It’s from 2018, but Anand Ghiraharadas’ book was possibly the most powerful I read this year.