My Top Books of 2018
Another year is ending, so let’s do this again: here are the best books I read in 2018. I used to confine myself to telling you about just 12 books every year, but that seems arbitrary. It forces me to knock some worthy contenders out for no reason. So this year I have 14 books to showcase. These were the best of the 65 I ended up reading in 2018.
Remember, though: which books we love is very much a personal matter. My winners might be your losers; what I think is a classic might be a dreary drag to you. So this is not a list of books I recommend that you read; these are just my personal favourites from the past twelve months.
Let’s start with NON-FICTION. 2018 threw up some seriously serious tomes:
Homo Deus By Yuval Noah Harari
Homo Deus is this author’s second book. His first, Sapiens, was on this list last year; his third, released recently, will undoubtedly be on it next year. That’s because Yuval does something I value greatly: he makes me think and rethink and unthink. This book is a warning: that humans may merge with machines to create a new ruling class of super-beings governing a newly useless majority who no longer have any productive purpose on earth, because robots and algorithms may eventually do all our work much better than we can. What ghastly world would emerge? This is the work of a sober historian, remember; not the wild imaginings of a drugged-up science-fiction author. Read it and ask yourself: if a highly intelligent algorithm will soon know me better than I know myself; what will my work be?
The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee
The Gene is about our blueprint: the code that drives the form, the function, and the fate of our lives. Do our genes decide everything? This is a comprehensive history of the human gene – how it was discovered, the people who uncovered it, and what it means for all of us. I don’t know that there is a more important subject humans need to understand. It is a rigorous work, one that will demand your time and effort; but it is a gripping study, written extremely well. Dr Mukherjee is a leading authority on genetics, but he is also a gifted writer. If you feel evolution, race, gender, disease and fate are things you need to understand more deeply, then look no further. Pick this up. But do some weight training first…
Alive At Work by Daniel Cable
For me, this was the most important business book of the year. I have advised and argued for years that we are getting the humans-in-the-workplace thing horribly wrong; if you want to get the best out of people, first understand them as people, not resources. This is the central proposition of my own leadership programme. In Dan Cable’s book, I found scientific validation for my premise: that most people are not actually alive at work; they are merely transacting, exchanging labour for compensation. They come alive elsewhere. The human brain has an in-built need to explore, to seek, to solve. If that instinct is killed – and it is, in most organisations – then we get unthinking, unfeeling work. If you are a leader who wants more than that from your people, read this path-breaking book. It is a story about the head, written with heart.
The Four by Scott Galloway
The new rulers of the planet may soon be the super-corporations. Professor Galloway gives us a very entertaining, very informative take on what is being done to all of us by ‘The Four’ – Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook. We are being manipulated into giving away all our private data, into buying stuff we don’t need, into killing all their competitors, into electing the previously unelectable. This book was written in 2017, and it’s already prescient. I was left torn: sometimes clapping for the genius behind these megacorps; at other times wriggling uncomfortably as their manipulations of our emotional needs is laid bare. Books like these, which strip the halo off the new breed of business overlords, help us retain a healthy suspicion of their true effects on our lives.
The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle
The Culture Code is about teams: what makes them win or lose; what ingredients are necessary for their success; why some excel while most fail. Daniel Coyle studies sports teams, military teams and business teams to try and sift out the answer to the question: what makes the difference? If you want a book that shows you what winning cultures look like, this is the one. Again, I resonate: I have been trying to teach the power of culture, behaviour and relationships to leaders for a long time. This study has powerful insights and guidance on how to shape behaviour and results in your own team.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Every year as I read the new, I also try to go back to the old. To the ancients, the classics, the timeless. There is a great treasury there, for most wisdom is not new. Marcus Aurelius was that rare creature, the philosopher-leader. He wielded enormous power, but he saw through it all. In these meditations, written to himself, he reminds us all of our limitations; that we are mere mortals; that we are just a jumble of atoms; that greatness comes from first understanding our irrelevance. What is it we seek in our brief lives: fame, riches, power? All will run through our fingers like dust in the end. He offers multiple insights on how to live well. One of my favourites: ‘Take it that you have died today, and your life’s story is ended; and henceforth regard what further time is given to you as an uncovenanted surplus, and live it out in harmony with nature.’ There is much peace to be found in these meditations, written nearly two millennia ago.
And now let’s talk FICTION, those works of the imagination that reveal so much about reality when penned by the best authors.
Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah
I have been reading Abdulrazak’s novels since Chan at Nairobi’s Bookstop showed me the magical By The Sea. All of Gurnah’s books seem to be variants on his own life: a childhood in Zanzibar; turmoil caused by bloody revolution; exile and awakening in a cold and unfriendly Britain. Some of the books after By The Sea felt repetitive; this one was an affirmation of talent. It is about the cruel power men wield over the fate of women; about betrayals and heartbreak; about love and compassion. Our protagonist’s father left his mother suddenly and inexplicably. What caused the rift? We only find out decades later, but meanwhile we undergo a spellbinding journey of confusion and discovery, next to warm oceans and cold ones. This is literature at its best.
Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo
I was wholly lost in this book for days, in its people and their problems, in their conversations and dilemmas. A great novel does that; it captivates you and you only return to your own world when it’s done with you, rubbing your eyes. This young Nigerian author shows so much promise here, making you alternate between laughing out loud at the quirks of her people, lovingly depicted, and feeling the catch in your throat as the distress mounts. A childless couple recount the story of their unravelling marriage in alternating chapters in their own voices; and this method allows the author to pull the rug out from under our feet very deftly. Behind the family scenes, Nigeria’s history of failed governments and military coups plays out dramatically. A moving, absorbing book.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
This is a top author on top form. The topic is the stuff of our daily headlines, and the questions are the ones we all wonder about. What turns people into jihadists and terrorists, and what happens to the lives of their families? The subject matter is grim, but the book is wise and knowing. We need many more writers with this power to help us understand where hate begins and how it is fuelled, and what might help us lead people away from it. It is written with much human insight about families and how they can break. The ending will knock you back and stay in your head for days.
Lullaby by Leïla Slimani
The babies are killed by the nanny. No, I didn’t just spoil the book for you; the author does that on the first page; and the publisher even puts it on the cover! A disturbing book about a young working couple in Paris – and the readers who will find it hardest to pick this book up are those in exactly the same situation. This is no attention-seeking thriller, though; it is a profound book that reminds us to look at the human being at all times, not just the employee or the work. When a life unspools, even the worst taboos can be broken. A sobering tale about power and social class that won the Prix Goncourt.
The Infatuations by Javier Marias
This future Nobel prize winner (yes) is at his best here. This book is a ‘psychological thriller.’ Most books with that label are dross (I read a few this year, sadly); this, however, is art. For me, this book was a powerful reaffirmation: suspenseful, plot-driven books can also be deep renditions of the human condition. A man is killed. His wife is distraught. His best friend is very supportive. An observer gets sucked in. What’s going on here? You will be gripped by the story; and yet the story is just a device to show us the meaning of love, obsession and mania.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
David Mitchell is one of the true originals out there. He explodes books rather than writes them – and the resulting pyrotechnics are something to behold. This book has six stories, all nested together into a whole. Each tale is told in a different voice; at a different time in history (and the future); and in utterly different settings. They all overlap – but how? Only Mitchell can pull this off – and does. As he shows you all his tricks, you find yourself learning something meaningful – about fate and free will; about the flaws and wonders of humanity; about bodies and souls. How this is all done while spinning riveting, hilarious stories like a juggler’s plates – well, see for yourself.
An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
I have read all of Ishiguro’s books. I plan to read them all again. He is a one-off. His style is very much his own. This was his second book, from way back. I read it again and felt the awe all over again. No fireworks or complicated plot devices here: just an elderly Japanese painter reminiscing about his country’s past, the terrible war that nearly destroyed it, and his own role in his country’s history. The entire book is just a series of conversations between the painter and his family members and acquaintances. You have to look between the lines; wonder what the narrator is not saying; read into the silences. The past is troubled; memories are flawed; the truth is an illusion. A stand-out example of the gentle, allusive novel.
Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbagh
This strangely titled novella is barely more than a hundred pages long. I read it in one sitting – and felt like I had been immersed in an epic family drama for weeks. Now that takes some doing. The author writes in his native Kannada, and is barely known outside India. This slim volume achieved huge critical acclaim, and you will see why. It is a remarkable sweep through the economic elevation of a family and the effects of their newly gained wealth. If you ever wonder how ordinary people become corrupted so thoroughly, look no further. This masterpiece shows how easy it is to justify anything. Shall I end with its beginning? ‘Vincent is a waiter at Coffee House. It’s called just that – Coffee House.’ And just like that – you’re in. If you love literature, I doubt very much you’ll put this one down until the final page is turned.