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The Best Books of 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 06, 2018

Best Books 2018

2018 was the year that tsundoku entered our cultural vocabulary. It’s a Japanese word that doesn’t translate cleanly into English but it basically means you buy books and let them pile up unread. The end-of-the-year book lists coming out right now won’t help any of us with our tsundoku problems, but there are worse things in life than having too many books around. I took at look at a bunch of these lists and picked out some of the best book recommendations for 2018 from book editors, voracious readers, and retailers. Let’s dig in.

The NY Times published three different lists: The 10 Best Books of 2018 (as chosen by the editors of the Times Book Review), the 100 Notable Books of 2018, and the Times Critics’ Top Books of 2018. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh and David Blight’s Frederick Douglass both appear on these lists and I’ve seen them on many other lists as well.

I am delighted to see Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ memoir Small Fry on the Times’ top 10 list as well. I’m gonna have more to say about this in an upcoming post, but in an era where we’re re-evaluating the importance of the personal conduct and personalities of the people running massive tech and media companies, this book did not get the attention it deserved, particularly in the tech press.

Tyler Cowen, who samples upwards of 1800 books every year, has led me to many of my favorite reads over the years. He has two lists this year: the best non-fiction books of 2018 and the best fiction of 2018. His top fiction pick overall is Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, which I have been banging on about for several months as well. Another of his fiction picks is Circe by Madeline Miller, which is another contemporary reinterpretation of Greek mythology from the perspective of a woman. I’m 3/4s of the way through Circe right now and I might like it even more than The Odyssey. Among the nonfiction picks, I can testify to the greatness of Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet (my review is here and the book’s topic also featured in Avengers: Infinity War) and am most interested in checking out W. J. Rorabaugh’s Prohibition: A Concise History, having watched the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary on it earlier this year.

Amazon’s editors selected Tara Westover’s Educated as their top book of the year. Also on the list is Tommy Orange’s There There, which appears on many other lists as well. Amazon’s This Year in Books is also worth a look…it is definitely not the critic’s view of what we read: the most-sold fiction book was Ready Player One and the most-sold nonfiction book was Michael Wolf’s book about Trump, Fire and Fury.

NPR’s 2018 Book Concierge contains hundreds of books in more than two dozen categories. The Rather Short filter appeals to me and I found on there Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk and Denis Johnson’s The Largess of the Sea Maiden.

Barbara Kiser, books columnist for Nature, picked The Best Science Books of 2018. I noticed one of her selections on a few other lists as well: The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen.

Eater calls Anita Lo’s Solo: A Modern Cookbook for a Party of One the best cookbook of the year. And from Book Riot’s The 25 Best Cookbooks of 2018 To Get You In The Kitchen, here’s Snoop Dogg’s cookbook From Crook to Cook. Bow wow wow, yummy yum.

For The Guardian’s Best Books of 2018, a group of authors including Hilary Mantel, Chris Ware, and Yuval Noah Harari share their top picks of the year. Mantel, the author of an excellent pair of books on Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) recommends Diarmaid MacCulloch’s biography of Cromwell, who was Henry the VIII’s chief minister, a key figure of the English Reformation. Harari recommends Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics, which also features on a number of other lists. Oh, and Yotam Ottolenghi highlights Lateral Cooking by Niki Segnit, a cookbook “designed to help creative cooks develop their own recipes”.

The National Book Award for fiction went to The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, the nonfiction award went to The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke by Jeffrey Stewart, and the poetry award went to Justin Phillip Reed’s Indecency. Check out the other winners and runners-up here. The Man Booker Prize went to Anna Burns for her novel Milkman.

Bill Gates’ 2018 list is pretty eclectic, with books about meditation and military AI. A more standard pick for him is 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari.

Update: Bloomberg asked “dozens of business leaders” about the best book they read this year. The top result was The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. Most of the list is nonfiction (only three novels were chosen), which is a shame. Last month when Erika Hall asked: “If you could make tech CEOs read one book, what is it?”, I answered:

Something — anything! — fictional. Something as far away from Science Tells You How To Business Better by Dr. M.B.A. Smith as you can get.