The older I get, the more of a blur each year becomes. Constantly, I find myself having thoughts along the lines of either, “Wow, I can’t believe it’s already been a year!” or “It’s only been a year? That feels like ages ago!” With my brain becoming less capable of accurately tracking the passage of time, I find it increasingly valuable to have moments when I pause and reflect on the past.
With that in mind, these are the best books I read in 2018. They aren’t the best books released in 2018, just the ones I picked up this year and got the most out of. If you’re interested, a complete list of what I read along with a short review of each one can be found on my Goodreads page.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and Pinball, 1973 by Haruki Murakami
I read a bunch of Murakami this year, but these are the two that my thoughts have returned to the most frequently.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is something of a memoir — a quiet, almost childlike reflection of Murakami’s successes and failures, his strengths and weaknesses, and the loss of his youth and the acceptance of his mortality, all through the lens of his hobby of running.
Running is wise, poignant, beautiful, and inspirational. It’s an easy book to recommend, no matter your age, your feelings about Murakami as an author, or your thoughts on running. In some ways, this book makes me want to spend an evening in a dive bar talking about life over drinks with Murakami. In other ways, it makes me feel like I already have.
Pinball, 1973 is one Murakami’s first novels, and if we’re being honest, I didn’t think I would like it all that much. I picked it up because I wanted to read the Rat Series and was determined to start at the beginning. I enjoyed Hear the Wind Sing, the first book in the series, but it read like a first novel. For whatever reason, though, Pinball spoke to me. I don’t think it necessarily belongs in the top tier of Murakami’s work, but it is among my personal favorites.
Like much of his writing, Pinball is mostly a meandering character study, but if you’re willing to ride that slow train and enjoy the scenery, there’s plenty to fall in love with. The climax of the novel, if you can even call it that, is strange and haunting and wonderful. I read the book in a few days back in August, and I still think about it.
I did end up reading the rest of the Rat series, which in addition to Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 includes A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance. Much to my surprise, I found Pinball to be the most charming and memorable of the bunch.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
A devastating but beautiful book about how trauma and injustice of the past are felt in the present.
I love the way Ward uses ghosts as both a literal presence in the novel and a metaphor for the horrors of the past haunting future generations, and the characters are all incredibly well developed and (mostly) sympathetic. Even when they were engaging in something awful, I found myself more disappointed in them than angry, in the same way you might feel when you see a loved one making a choice you know will negatively impact their life.
This book received a lot of hype last year, and it was all well deserved. I loved this novel.
Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter
Much has been said in recent years about the addictive nature of technology, but this pop-science book made me pause and think about my own technology usage in a way that nothing else had up until that point.
It’s not perfectly written, and I think some of his talking points get a little muddled when he writes about education, but generally speaking this is a convincing argument that tech companies, especially social media companies, aggressively pander to some of our most base instincts to keep us coming back for more. Obsessive technology use isn’t like addiction, it is addiction.
I’ve always been interested in technology, and it’s not like this book made me throw away my computer or smartphone, but it did make me re-evaluate how I use it. Because of Alter, I deleted my social media accounts that suck the most time and improved my life the least. I changed where I put my phone when I sleep, and I started making an effort to spend less time staring at screens by myself for hours on end.
My relationship with technology isn’t suddenly flawless by any means, and some social media has proven harder to give up than others, but my life has improved this year thanks to the changes that this book inspired. Irresistible wasn’t the most entertaining books I read this year, but it was one of the most impactful.
Scythe and Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman
I’m beginning a new career next month, but for approximately the last four years I’ve taught English in public high schools. During that time, I’ve made an effort to read teen and YA fiction to be more equipped to make book recommendations to my students and talk to them about what they’ve read. While I do think there is a lot of good writing out there for young adults, I usually don’t feel like I don’t get quite as much out of YA as I do adult novels.
A few times a year, though, a book surprises me and surpasses what I consider good for a teen novel into the realm of just good. This year, Scythe and its sequel Thunderhead were those books.
Shusterman’s writing is inventive, clever, disturbing, and thought provoking in a way few novels written for that age group are. Treating his audience with respect and assuming they’re smart enough to keep up has paid off big for him, too — he’s consistently been one of the hottest names in teen fiction since at least Unwind, which released over a decade ago.
While Scythe and Thunderhead do indulge in a few of the more played out teen fiction tropes, the well written characters, incredible world-building, and wild philosophy of the books more than make up for it and make them easy to recommend to just about anyone interested in Sci-Fi or Dystopian fiction, regardless of age.
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
This novel worked for me because of how much I cared about every character. They feel like real, flawed, relatable people, and I could not help but devour page after page, wanting to get to know them all as much as possible. Wolitzer understands humanity on a level that left me in awe of her.
Wolitzer’s magical writing dances around the reader, effortlessly sliding forwards and backwards in time to add context and mystery. It is impressive and hypnotizing without feeling overly showy. There is a delicate subtlety to it all that allows the big moments to land more effectively than they in the hands of a less capable writer.
Big picture, the story is about growing up, falling in and out of live, the ups and downs of family, loss, betrayal, friendship (specifically friendship among women), getting old and making uncomfortable compromises. It would be wrong to not at least mention the importance of the feminism movement in the book. It is always present — in a way it is the setting itself — the connective tissue between most of the major characters.
The Female Persuasion is the best book I read this year, and Meg Wolitzer my most treasured literary discovery. After finishing Persuasion I immediately buried myself in The Interestings, and later in the year tore through The Wife. The only reason I haven’t picked up even more of her novels is because I don’t want to run out of new things by her to lose myself in. Wolitzer is the rarest of writers — I don’t just enjoy reading her work, but instead feel genuinely privileged to be alive to experience it.
While the above are my favorites of the year, they weren’t the only great books I had the pleasure to read. Norm Macdonald’s Based on a True Story was a hilarious meta-novel that fans of his humor will love, The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain is a classic that deserves its place among the great noir stories, J.K. Rowling’s Lethal White is her most ambitious Cormoran Strike story yet, Liu Cixin’s mind expanding Ball Lightning was the best Sci-Fi I read all year, and Tara Westover’s devastating and inspirational Educated haunted me well after I turned the last page.
I read some great books in 2018 — here’s hoping I’ll be just as lucky next year.