Contrary to what I want to believe 2015 is nearing an end and that means it is time to create my annual list of recommended books. If 2014 was my personal apocalypse, 2015 was the most demanding, unpredictable, and rewarding year of my life. Reading-wise I found myself diving head first into the civil rights movement and graphic novels, only to circle back to sports, entrepreneurship and science fiction. Hopefully you find something on this list worth reading; I know I did. If reading recommendations are your thing, check out last year’s The Best 38 Books I read in 2014 and The Best 27 Articles I Read in 2014.
Avoid unless you are super interested
34. The Gunslinger – Stephen King
Considered by King to be his magnum opus, I was expecting to love this western, science fantasy, horror hybrid. Instead, I struggled to finish the 200-some page introduction to the 8-book series. I’m definitely not going to read more, but given that 11/22/63 is one of my favorite books of all time, I will probably give the series another look as the inevitable movie adaption is released.
33. A Brief History of Memphis – G. Wayne Dowdy
Memphis is an historical city whose place is often forgotten in American history. The book does a pretty good job of showing the city’s evolution and the impact of race on the area. Slavery allowed a commodity-based economy to flourish along the Mississippi River and racial division kept wages low after the Civil War; but then something interesting happened: Black culture—black music specifically—began to define not only the city, but the world. I’d highly recommend this book if you’re visiting. Plus there are plenty of funny side stories, like the disgruntled ex-mayor who literally crashed a barge of animal shit into the harbor after a lost election.
Side Note: I read this book because I was visiting Memphis. While there I stumbled into the real life Clayton Bigsby. Yes. A black, white-supremacist. He was protesting in front of a park with a bunch of other future Trump voters about…something—I don’t remember. I asked him if he realized how insane the situation was and before he could give a coherent sentence the rest of the group interrupted. We talked for a few minutes (by that I mean they screamed nonsense at me) and it ended with the group concluding that I was “Yankee Scum”.
32. True Professionalism: The Courage to Care About Your People, Your Clients, and Your Career – David Meister
Neither of these two books are bad, but I can’t really give you a reason to read either unless you are interested in the topic. True Professionalism gives practical advice about building a lasting career in the professional service industry. Empire of Sin is an attempt to write Devil in the White City for the dirtiest city in America, New Orleans. Unfortunately, it is written by a guy who simply refuses to take an artistic liberty with the source material.
30. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History – Elizabeth Kolbert
Spoiler Alert: We are in the midst the sixth great extinction in the earth’s history. Unlike past extinction events, which took thousands of years and were entirely natural, this one is 100% man-made at a lightning quick pace. If we don’t develop better economic, ecological, and technological systems we’re screwed. There, I saved you 300 pages of reading. Kolbert is a great writer, if you’re interested but don’t want to read an entire book’s worth, I’d recommend browsing her New Yorker archives.
29. Silver Screen Fiend: Learning about Life from an Addiction to Film – Patton Oswalt
If you can find the book on sale, buy it for the story about Oswalt staging Jerry Lewis’s holocaust movie about a clown in a concentration camp. If not, save your money and google “The Day the Clown Died.”
Novels that are pretty good, but read the Amazon description
28. Ready Player One – Ernest Cline
27. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
26. The Three-Body Problem – Liu Cixin
25. The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky
24. Brilliance – Marcus Sakey
23. A Better World – Marcus Sakey
Good but not Great
22. Death of a King – Tavis Smiley and David Ritz
Martin Luther King’s labor activism seems to have been whitewashed to history, but this book concentrates on his post 1963 work. It begins with the Riverside speech (where he called the US Government the biggest obstacle to world peace) and ends with his assassination in Memphis—where he was organizing for a public union wage and safety increase.
21. A Tea People’s History – Alex Pareene
20. Goodell vs. Obama: The Battle for the Future of the NFL – PFT Commenter
19. The Rude Guide to Mitt – Alex Pareene
These three books are short e-books written by two of the best younger writers/satirists around. PFT Commenter is Stephen Colbert for football and Alex Pareene is the best of the political “hot-take” writer working today.
18. The Coloring Book: A Comedian Solves Race Relations in America – Colin Quinn
Most people probably know him from Amy Schumer’s dad in Trainwreck, but Collin Quinn is without a doubt one of the best and smartest stand-up comedians working today. This memoir/social book is a solid introduction to his material. Or you could watch his Netflix special on the Constitution and follow his fantastically trolling Twitter.
Thoughtful and personal
17. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood – Marjane Satrapi
Daughter to devote communists, Satrapi wrote a beautiful and haunting graphic novel memoir about growing up during the Iranian Revolution. Typical teenager growing pains are set against the hostile take over of a country by religious fantatics. The closest book I can compare it to is The Diary of Anne Frank.
16. Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel
In this 2014 National Book award finalist, 99% of the world’s population is wiped out by a super-flu. Those who survived are left to re-build society; mile by mile, brick by brick. Cults form. Scavenging becomes a way of existence. Life carries on. It’s an unusual apocalypse book because it isn’t centered around survival, but the impact art has on the world and rebuilding society.
15. Lost At Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries – Jon Ronson
14. So You’ve Been Publically Shamed – Jon Ronson
As last year’s list proves Jon Ronson is one of my favorite writers working today. Lost at Sea is a collection of his long-form magazine features. I’d recommend starting with Amber Waves of Green, where Ronson spends a week with people across six different US income levels ($200 a week immigrant to a $625,000 a week storage baron).
So You’ve Been Publically Shamed is his latest book that details how social media has indirectly created and enabled a surveillance mechanism that the STASI would find remarkable. The excerpt published in the NY Times Magazine was the most viewed newspaper piece of the year.
13. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life – Walter Isaacson
I bought this book for 99 cents at Half Priced Books and it might be the best $1.00 I’ve spent in my life. Walter Isaacson is perhaps America’s best living biographer and he paints an industrialist, idealistic, and pragmatic (some may say corrupt) portrait of a true American original.
12. A Fighting Chance – Elizabeth Warren
It boggles my mind that any individual on the left or the right could disparage Elizabeth Warren. A single mother, born to a poor family, earned a law degree, became a Professor at Harvard, then the foremost expert on consumer bankruptcy, and now a Senator. It’s a political memoir and the prerequisite “my family as the American dream” stuff is in there, but what sets this work apart is Warren’s simple explanations for her financial service advocacy. Her defense of consumer rights is considered “socialism” by her critics, but a simple assessment of the facts reveals it is actually a full-throated defense of capitalism—capitalism for both sides.
11. Modern Romance – Asasi Ansari and Eric Klinenberg
A leading sociologist teams up with a mega-comedian to write perhaps the most entertaining thesis ever written. The book is structured like a typical social science paper (hypothesis, survey method, results) but manages to read like a pop-psychology book (which it is). Ansari and Klinenberg look at how the internet has changed dating—for the good and the bad. Some of advice is obvious (who would have thought guys should send short, funny, and profile specific opening messages?), but I found the parts on the evolution of relationships incredibly interesting. If you’re single, I’d highly recommend it; if you’re taken I’d recommend it.
Books I would absolutely recommend
10. Next: The Future Just Happened – Michael Lewis
Michael Lewis is the best non-fiction writer alive. The fact that a book he wrote in 2001 on technology holds up today is proof of that.
9. The Life and Times of the Stopwatch Gang – Josh Dean
8. American Hippopotamus – Jon Mooallem
7. Operation Red Falcon – Ronen Bergman
These three non-fiction Atavist features were some of my favorite writing of the year. Operation Red Falcon tells how an Israeli spy rose to the top of the Mossad and almost started WW3…because he wanted too. Stopwatch Gang reads like a low-income Oceans Eleven—because that’s exactly what it is. American Hippopotamus explains how the US government contemplated importing Hippos into the Mississippi delta for food. All three are fantastic.
6. Sweet and Low: A Family Story – Rich Cohen
Rich Cohen could write about paint dry and I’d read it. This time he writes about his family. It just so happens that his grandfather invented Sweet and Low, made hundreds of millions, got involved with organized crime, and excluded his Cohen’s mom from the will. Sound interesting? It is.
5. Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates
From the moment it was published Ta-Nehisi Coates’s treatise on race attracted every single award imaginable and changed the discourse of society. It deserved every accolade it received, including the National Book Award. Coates articulated arguments and points that I never imagined. In 2014 I spent a semester teaching at an “at-risk” high school outside of Milwaukee and this book made me reconsider my entire experience. I found myself pausing every ten minutes to contemplate what Coates had written. I don’t think you can pay a work of contemplative non-fiction a bigger compliment.
4. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President – Candice Millard
Alexander Graham Bell was an inventor who shaped the world and put fear into America’s allies and adversaries (the French were convinced he had a magic lightning weapon). James Garfield was a man born to an Ohio widow in abject poverty who became President of America. Charles Guiteau was a psychopath who got kicked out of an 1860s free-love commune and believed he should be the US Ambassador to France. All three intersect for a fantastic non-fiction narrative that reads like a drama.
I have to admit; I love Jalen Rose. I grew up adoring Michigan’s Fab Five. Part of this was because they were young and brash—and I was a white kid whose parents let him listen to rap music. The other part is that I was obsessed with basketball and my small town library had two books on hoop: Fab Five and one on Jim Valvano’s corrupt NC State teams. Rose’s memoir doesn’t disappoint. Unlike most athlete biographies it doesn’t gloss over the socio-economic factors that made him who he is. It is equal parts an memoir from one of the most influential basketball players in history and a first hand account of the fall of industrial Detroit.
2. The Cartel – Don Winslow
If I had to pick a single policy that has had the greatest negative impact on American life, I’d choose the “war on drugs.” After thirty years trillions of dollars are down the drain, millions of people are incarcerated, and millions more Mexicans are dead or displaced. This could be defensible in an inane ends justify the means way if there was any evidence the war worked. But there isn’t.
Don Winslow’s fantastic The Cartel manages to combine graduate level geo-political theory and policy with the backbone of a classic action thriller. He turns the American drug war into a Game of Thrones style epic where no one can be trusted and only the powerful survive. Its authenticity is unmatched because Winslow based the book on real events, but created composite characters to tell his narrative. I couldn’t recommend this book more
1. The March: Book One – John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell
Under the guidance of Andrew Aydin, Civil Rights icon John Lewis and comic book artist Nate Powell produced a graphic novel that is quite simply the best book I read this year. It is the true story of a sharecropper turned icon combined with a history of the civil rights movement–told in the style of a super hero origin story. According to Lewis, the book was created to inspire future non-violent activists the same way Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story did generations ago. It accomplished more. It created an accessible and honest description of the hard work and truths that shaped America.