Ranking the 35 best books I read in 2019

Like most people online, I’m always looking for book recommendations. So each year I’ve made it a habit of recapping every book I’ve read. If book recommendations are you thing, here are my book recommendations from 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2018.

On to 2019’s list.

35. Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics – Stephen Greenblatt

A Harvard Professor analyzes the rise of Trump through Shakespeare. It’s somewhat amusing how much of our current climate Shakespeare predicted. Trump basically is Coriolanus. However, it’s the ultimate #Resistance book, and I mean that in the worst way possible.

34. How to Talk to a Widower – Jonathan Tropper

Light and breezy guy-lit. This is Where I Leave You is much better.

33. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch – Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

It’s a cool premise, a satirical look at what happens when afterlife bureaucracy leads to both Heaven and Hell pushing for war, and a demon and angel try to stop it. This is my second Neil Gaiman book, and despite his popularity, I just can’t get into him.

32. The New Science of Retailing: How Analytics are Transforming the Supply Chain and Improving Performance – Marshall Fisher

31. Reengineering Retail: The Future of Selling in a Post Digital World – Doug Stephens

Two books that are basically long advertisements for the authors’ consulting work. New Science gets fairly technical—in the right way. I wrote a more extended review of Reengineering Retail here.

30. Howard Stern Comes Again – Howard Stern

I grew up listening to Stern and think he’s easily the most gifted radio broadcaster in history. However, this book isn’t terribly insightful. What sounds deep and reflective over the air doesn’t always translate to the page.

29. On Power – Robert Caro

28. Working: Researching, Interviewing and Writing – Robert Caro

Robert Caro, America’s best living researcher, and biographer, wrote a mini-memoir and the craft of writing. My only complaint is that I’m kind of obsessed with Caro, and if you search in the right places, you can find most of what’s in here online. A good chunk of it is in On Power.

27. Fall, or Dodge in Hell – Neal Stephenson

There are two books in this 900-page opus. One is about a future world where fake news has destroyed reality. The rich employ personal filters to root out fake news, while poor people are inundated with conspiracy theories. This part is fantastic. The other is about creating a virtual afterlife and a video-game-like war for its future. I found the “real world” portions of this book amazing, but the battle for a virtual immortality fell flat.

26. Underground Airlines – Ben Winters

A bleak but well-paced book set in an alternative reality. The Civil War never happened, slavery still exists in four states, and America is relegated to a pariah-state. A former slave unwittingly uncovers that America’s largest corporation is fully supported by slave labor.

25. Red Card: How the U.S. Blew the Whistle on the World’s Biggest Sports Scandal – Ken Bensinger

The 2015 FIFA corruption case made global headlines but has been mostly forgotten in America. Basically, FIFA is a massive money-laundering scheme, and this book tells the story about how the FBI uncovered it. Bonus – Donald Trump is of course, tangentially involved.

24. One Buck at a Time: An Insider’s Account of How Dollar Tree Remade American Retail – Macon Brock

A surprisingly detailed and well-written account of the founding and expansion of a discount retail empire. I enjoyed the operational details–how many memoirs go into ship-to/sold-to decisions? It does not, however, read very well in 2020 America. There’s basically a 5-page defense of Dollar Tree’s indirect use of child labor.

23. The Walmart Effect: How the World’s Most Powerful Company Really Works and How it’s Transforming the American Economy – Charles Fishman

Written in 2006, the book examines Walmart’s holistic impact on communities, suppliers, and consumers. It details how it uses its market power to crush domestic suppliers and force outsourcing. It’s surprisingly prescient but suffers from being written 10 years too early. Instead of reading the book, I’d check out the original article in Fast Company.

21. The Golden Compass (Graphic Novel) – Stephane Melchior-Durand

20. The Secret Commonwealth – Phillip Pullman

The His Dark Materials series is my favorite fictional series of all time. I read the graphic novel version of The Golden Compass to get ready for HBO’s excellent adaption. The Secret Commonwealth is the latest installment of a series that has long been accused of being anti-church. Pullman somewhat addresses the criticism by building an entire plot around asking the question: What happens when you live your life 100% by rationality?

19. Raise in Captivity: Fictional Nonfiction – Chuck Klosterman

A short story collection by Chuck Klosterman. I would say about 70% of the stories work, which isn’t a bad ratio.

18. The Last Days of August – Jon Ronson

I firmly believe Jon Ronson is one of the best living nonfiction writers. In this podcast series, he focuses his talents on the suicide of adult film star August Ames. He uncovers a complicated situation. Allegations of domestic abuse, online shaming, and ultimately an industry almost as hypocritical as it is controversial.

17. Out on the Wire: Uncovering the Secrets of Radio’s New Masters of Story with Ira Glass – Jessica Abel

A really good “text-book” that helped me create The New Deal Podcast.

16. Hotel Florida: Truth, Death, and the Spanish Civil War– Amanda Vaill

The Spanish Civil war is somewhat forgotten in modern American memory, and it’s a shame because there are too many modern parallels to list. A leftist government was democratically elected in Spain. The conservative and monied interests promptly called it illegitimate and led a civil war for control of the country. The Fascists won and rules for the next 40+ years. Vaill tells the story through the artists and journalists who covered it.

15. Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America – Michael Ruhlman

Grocery is a fantastic book that nicely melds personal narrative into the evolution and future of grocery retailing in America. Unlike Reinventing Retail, which focuses on buzz-words, Ruhlman explains how modern grocers are succeeding in operational and strategic terms.

14. Circe – Madeline Miller

A retelling of the classic Greek myth using modern prose. I haven’t read Miller’s original The Song of Achilles, but it’s on my list for this year.

13. The Stand: Stephen King

I finally got around to reading Stephen King’s magnus-opus. It features over 1000 pages of fantastic character development and the enthralling story of a virus that kills 90+ percent of the world—and the world’s struggle to rebuild. I’m looking forward to the modern television adaption.

12. The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age – Tim Wu

A quick and readable history of modern antitrust thought in America and what it means for today. I wrote a more extensive review here.

11. The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin

This book originated when Jemisin attended a NASA event for science fiction writers. What happens to society when climate change leaves vast geographies barren? She investigates with a blend of magic and ingenious narrative.

10. Replay – Ken Grimwood

Replay, originally published in 1986, was an inspiration for Harold Ramis’ classic comedy Groundhog Day. A man dies and wakes up in his 18-year old body. This repeatedly happens until suddenly the timing shifts. The replays become shorter and shorter. I found the book to be both entertaining and oddly spiritual.

9. Death’s End – Cixin Liu

The conclusions of Liu’s epic Three-Body Problem series doesn’t disappoint. The series, which is considered a foundational work in Chinese science-fiction, imagines a scenario where humans contact a dangerous alien race that needs to invade earth to save its civilization. Parts of the finale dragged, but the ending was one of the most impactful that I can remember reading. Eight months later and I still think about it.

8. The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss

7. The Wise Man’s Fear – Patrick Rothfuss

According to the experts, Rothfuss set out to redefine fantasy literature with his Name of the Wind series. Judging by the first two books, he’s succeeded. Filled with stories-within-stories, reexamined fantasy tropes, lyrical prose, and unreliable narrators, the book reads like an epic poem.

6. Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash Over the New Deal – Eric Rauchway

The general narrative around modern politics is that it’s more divisive than it’s ever been. Unlike the past, Republicans and Democrats have no interest in compromise. Rauchway, a Professor of History, proves this idea wrong. We’ve just forgotten. Winter War looks at the four months between FDR’s election and inauguration. During that time, his predecessor Herbert Hoover tried to force his failed monetary policies onto FDR administration. FDR rejected them outright, and as a result, Hoover declared war on the administration. It’s forgotten now, but Hoover spent the rest of his life delivering fiery speeches on the imminent threat the New Deal posed to America.

5. The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America – Marc Levinson

I often write about how most modern business books are terrible. They’re filled with self-help platitudes without any analytical look at the current structure of the economy. Levinson’s insightful look at A&P is not one of those books. He tells the story about how A&P became the Walmart of the first half of the century, and political backlash that ensued. If you’re interested in modern retail, this book should be at the top of your reading list.

4. Fatherland – Nina Bunjevac

An incredibly moving graphic memoir about a Serbian immigrant’s experience with nationalism and war.

3. All the King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren

It’s considered a classic for a reason. Rumored to be modeled after Huey Long, Robert Penn Warren traces the rise and fall of Willie Stark, a political outsider who becomes Governor of Louisiana. The story offers an insightful look at the forces that drive political and human corruption. I would highly recommend listening to the audiobook. The narration is fantastic.

2. Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America – Christopher Leonard

Kochland is, without a doubt, one of the best business books written in the last twenty years. Leonard, a former AP reporter, spent a decade researching one of the most powerful private corporations in world history. Most reporting on Koch tends to follow ideological lines. The left views them as a creeping menace, while the right reveres them for their political influence. Leonard does neither. Instead, he analyzes the company through a strategic and operational perspective. The result is a clear-eyed picture of Koch’s industrial empire and its corresponding political influence. Koch Industries is a vertically integrated energy company that processes raw materials and then uses the information gleaned from energy markets to trade financial products. I personally abhor the family’s political views, but I can’t help but be in awe of their company. One of the most enlightening bits of information is that the entire empire is built off a market and regulatory inefficiency at a Minnesota oil refinery. The same inefficiency the Koch brothers political network claims to fight against.

1. Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America – Chris Arnade

Very few books fundamentally change your outlook on life. Dignity is one of those books. Chris Arnade is a financer-turned-photographer who became disillusioned with his industry after the 2008-09 financial collapse. He turned to photography. After working at in investment bank in lower Manhattan he would walk towards the poor and forgotten parts of New York—taking pictures and talking with its residents.

He developed a framework to view modern America: The Front Row and Back Row. The Front Row is the overachievers, the ones who sat in the front row of class, got the right credentials and found themselves upwardly mobile in today’s information economy. They tend to migrate towards cities. The other, the back row, are those who didn’t. They either lacked the skills or didn’t value the credentials our new economy required. They were left behind.  

Major politicians have spent the last two decades, arguing that our modern economy requires upskilling and movement. It’s an individual’s choice to be left behind. Sure, manufacturing is moving overseas, but so what? We’ll get cheaper socks, and if you’re a factory worker who lost their job, you should learn to code and move to a city. Do “value-added” work.

The problem with this mindset, and one Arnade articulates exceptionally well, is that it fails to account for the immeasurable aspects of life. What if you can’t move? Or you don’t want to? Social networks are incredibly hard to build as an adult. What if all you want is to put in 8-solid hours a day, provide for your family and support your community? These decisions aren’t cut and dry, and despite the common perception, they can’t be measured in an employment report.

I have a feeling that the last thirty years have been the loneliest thirty years in America’s existence. Churches, unions, and other community groups provided people with a sense of belonging. All are now increasingly irrelevant in American life. They’ve been replaced by a cutthroat competition that devalues the average individual’s contribution.

I think part of my appreciation is that, despite being a member of the front-row with multiple degrees, I spent about 10 months of my mid-twenties unemployed. I worked for a small business that went bankrupt. Obviously, being unemployed sucks because you have no idea how you’re going to pay rent. However, it wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the social stigma attached to it. In America, and especially New York City (where I lived at the time), what you did for a living is a fundamentally part of your identity. I would go to parties and dates and mostly have no identity. It wears at you. You become increasingly isolated. During this time I joined Crossfit. Despite being unemployed I still spend $200 a month on exercise. Why? It gave me a sense of belonging. Meaning. Without it, I’m not sure how I would have coped.

Arnade shows, through photographs and narrative, that this cycle has destroyed entire communities. We’ve managed to individualize a structural problem, and the result is an onslaught of depression and despair. Thirty years ago, rural communities had keystone manufacturers that provided meaning for an area. Now people make minimum wage at Dollar General. Sure, they could move, but where? Who would they watch football with? Where would they go to church? But hey, they can buy cheap socks!

Obama famously said that de-industrialization meant that rural people increasingly clinging to guns and religion. He said it in a somewhat disparaging way. At the time, I agreed with him. I thought that if people are struggling, they should get new skills or better their life—not cling to the past.

Arnade’s book made me re-think this entire paradigm, which is about the biggest compliment you can give a book.

Image via Flickr

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1 Comment Ranking the 35 best books I read in 2019

  1. Pingback: Ranking the 40 books I read in 2020

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