My top books of 2019
Here are the best books I read in 2019. I read a lot more books this year – at the time of writing it looks like I’ll clock 80 books. My regular target is 50 per year, so this is unusual. But it does mean I had a lot more good books to choose from, so this year I have placed 21 excellent books in my ‘best reads’ list..
Remember, though: which books we love is very much a personal matter. 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 FICTION. I enjoyed the following titles most of all in 2019:
Convenience Store Woman By Sayaka Murata
I loved this odd little book about an unusual woman who can’t fit into the spaces that society creates. She is happy to work in a convenience store, but the norms say she should find something better, find a husband even. The deadpan writing style belies a work of great meaning about non-conformism and of the importance of being yourself.
The Dragonfly Sea by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
This is just magnificent writing. Yvonne is almost peerless in how she creates sentences that throw up so much poetic meaning within a complex and intricate novel. Her new novel is about a Kenyan girl’s life journey from Pate Island to China and back. It is powerful and complex, and will demand your full attention. If you love literature and love the sea, this one is for you.
West by Carys Davies
This unusual fable about an odyssey in America’s Wild West era showed what writing can do to transport us to places and times we have never experienced in person. A grieving widower sets off to look for a bizarre creature in the uncharted territory out west, leaving behind his young daughter. Lyrical and deft writing that holds us in its thrall.
The Shining by Stephen King
I watched the movie as a boy in 1980, and didn’t bother with the book. In 2019, I rectified that mistake. This eerie novel about a family trapped in a remote snowbound hotel is a classic. It is a slow-burn read in which the feeling of dread accumulates as an alcoholic father unravels and turns on his family. A book that will make you shiver – even in warm climes – and pull up the blanket and wonder what that sound outside was…
Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
This very clever book has three parts. Part one is about the affair between a world-famous elderly novelist and a young woman who adores his work. Part two is about an Iraqi-American man detained at Heathrow airport. Part three is a transcript of a radio interview that reveals the connection between parts one and two, told to us so blithely that if you blink you’ll miss it…I’ll say no more.
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
This was a re-read. The History of Love came out years ago, and I revisited it because I remembered its totemic catch-phrase, ‘And Yet.’ Two words that become a complete sentence, asking us to wait before we judge, to look for the other side of the argument, to let life reveal itself. A wise, wise book about loss and renewal, about lives uprooted and reclaimed. A life-affirming work of great accomplishment.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
This one held me in its grip for days. It is truly mesmerising. An American scientist who has gone to find a missing colleague disappears in the deep Amazon and is reported dead. A third scientist takes up the challenge to find out what’s really going on in the jungle that’s still untouched by modern life. This is a beautifully written story about two strong women that that grabs you by the collar and won’t let go. It doesn’t entirely avoid the tropes of its predecessors that are also about rogue westerners amongst primitive cultures, but it is nonetheless a profound work about civilisation, exploitation and progress. You will feel you yourself are lost in that dense, tropical wilderness with its weird creatures and unknown perils…
No One Writes to the Colonel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
How did I miss this one? Thank you Twitter for pointing it out. An masterwork from the last century, this short novel by the master himself is about an elderly colonel and his wife who keep waiting for his pension to arrive. A sharply evocative tale about dignity in poverty, with a last sentence that confounds every reader. It will do the same to you. And then you’ll think about what it means…
Exhalation by Ted Chiang
I first became aware of Ted Chiang after watching a profound and thought-provoking film, Arrival. To my surprise, this complex tale was based on a short story. Indeed, Ted Chiang only writes short fiction. His 2019 collection, Exhalation, showcases this author at the peak of his powers. A deep and original collection of science-fiction tales, about the nature of time and the paradoxes of alternate universes. Truly original, never showy.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
If I had to pick some all-time writers who have had the greatest impact on me, Kazuo would head the list. His gentle prose disguises a true original, one who can write about memory and self-deception in ways few others could pull off. His 2015 work The Buried Giant was ten years in the making, and is a bold feat of imagination, a fable from the England of 1,500 years ago. In the aftermath of war, Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple who can’t remember things – and neither can their countrymen. They suffer from ‘the mist’ that obfuscates memory. They set off on a hazardous journey to find their son, uncovering many truths about trauma and memory along the way. A sublime work of allegory.
My NON-FICTION shelf also gathered some riches this year. Here are the best of the bunch:
Essentialism by Greg McKeown
One of the books that really made me think about my life a few years ago makes another appearance. It was well worth re-reading. It drives home a truth that I, as a lifelong strategist, have always upheld: less is more. Essentialism urges us to focus on what really matters in our lives by being disciplined in pursuing less. It has lessons and insights aplenty, and will make you want to cut out all that’s unnecessary in your life, so that the essential can come to the fore.
How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci
I have always been attracted to stoicism as a philosophy of life, but this is something different: a wise and erudite translation of old thinking for a new world. Our likeable companion brings the ancient ways of living a good life into modern times, and gives us much to think about and much to apply. I will be picking it up again soon.
Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas
I try to read at least one angry book every year. When a thinking person is worked up, the rest of us should pay attention whether we agree or not. Mr Giridharadas has found fame in his relentless assaults against the culture of modern billionaires who claim to be changing the world while amassing unprecedented riches. We’re all being played, he warns, while a new tech-driven elite concentrates even more wealth and power at the top. What galls him the most is the fake philanthropy – the idea that the new super-rich are good for the world because they give away so much. Make them pay fair wages and let them stop dodging their taxes first, says the author. You may or may not agree, but you should read this.
Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
I run a leadership programme and so I read a lot of books about leadership. This was the best of the bunch in 2019. Leadership keeps failing, points out the author, and yet we don’t change the way we select leaders. We are continually seduced by the loud, the confident, the charismatic. We vote for them and clap for them. They generally do nothing for us, but we repeat the cycle. It’s time to reboot leadership, and stop believing in narcissists and self-absorbed loudmouths. This is a necessary and important book for those of us seeking to change the way people are led.
Nine Lies About Work by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall
This excellent in-your-face book about work and workplaces packed a real punch. It picks up common management tropes that we consider to be obvious truths (‘the best plan wins’, ‘the best people are well-rounded’, ‘people need feedback’) and debunks them, persuasively and powerfully. Prepare to have all your assumptions about people at work challenged. I learned a great deal about employees, culture and performance.
Personality by Daniel Nettle
The study of human personality contains much pseudo-science and snake oil, so it was a pleasure to read a book by an actual scientist who has made it his life’s work. Professor Nettle takes us through the personality framework that actually stands up to scrutiny: the ‘big-five’ model. This shows how most humans occupy the spectrum of five lifelong traits, and what that means. This is an accessible and readable introduction to a very important subject: what makes us who we are, and what we can do about it.
Novacene by James Lovelock
A hundred-page book by a hundred-year-old man – much applause. James Lovelock is the eminent originator of the Gaia Hypothesis, and this is probably his last book. It is a wise and gentle perambulation through the effect humans have had on their planet, and how that will change in the coming epoch when artificial intelligence will dominate and eventually take over from the human brain. The new creatures to come, electronic as well as organic, will not be our children, but they may change everything. The great scientist asks us not to be afraid, and to hand over power to new intelligent beings gracefully.
The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek
Simon Sinek writes for the optimists and those not content with the ordinary. Here he asks us to move on from thinking of business as a finite game – one with known players and rules, and an end-point – and think infinite – a game without end. In the latter, the point is not to win, but to keep playing. This is an excellent work that makes us think about creating bigger deals by playing long, by creating organisations that have meaning and keep moving, rather than the momentary exploitations so many us labour in.
21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari
The unique professor of history has featured in my last two annual lists, and so it is entirely expected that his latest work would take pride of place this year as well. It is impossible not to be provoked to think by this Israeli historian. His new book is a collection of thoughts rather than a single thesis, but is no less impactful for it. We are given fresh insights on the many challenges we face in 21C, including nationalism, terrorism, immigration, climate change, technological disruption and many more. A real big-picture thinker who can put original insights across with vivid language.
How Democracy Ends by David Runciman
Democracy is in trouble, you may have noticed. It is being manipulated and distorted with ease. Demagogues and charlatans are ascending to power through the ballot. This authoritative book by a professor of politics at Cambridge tells us what might be coming, and warns that there won’t be any easy answers. Representative democracy has only been properly present for a few decades, after all. It can be supplanted. Trump isn’t the problem; he’s merely a symptom. The many alternatives to the democracy we are used to may be unpalatable, but we may have to start tasting some scary-looking stuff.
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
A book that makes you contemplate the very basics of life is always worth reading – even if it is unsettling. This book is sub-titled ‘Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End.’ We are living longer, aided by science, but is that a good thing? This is an excellent book, written by a doctor who wields a pen with as much skill as a scalpel, and which makes us all think about how we wish to die – and to make some decisions in this regard.
BRING ON 2020 – AND HAPPY READING.