- Ken Ilgunas
Best Books I Read in 2018
The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel (2017)
The book is a comedy, tragedy, and mystery, but also a paean to solitude, to the contentment that comes from being alone, and to the simple joy of melting into the natural world. One of the underlying messages of the book, which I'm on board with, is that there's nothing crazy or wrong or even weird about wanting to be alone. For many, it's a luxury. For some, a necessity.
“‘That silence intimidates puzzles me. Silence is to me normal, comfortable.’ Later he added, ‘I will admit to feeling a little contempt for those who can’t keep quiet.'”
Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber (2018)
This is a seriously good book about bullshit jobs, useless work, and how the pervading meaninglessness that comes from such work leaves scars on the soul of both the individual and his/her society. “It’s not just an assault on the person’s sense of self-importance but also a direct attack on the very foundations of the sense that one even is a self. A human being unable to have a meaningful impact on the world ceases to exist.”
How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan (2018)
I’d never given a passing thought to psychedelics, so I picked up this book with the sole purpose of broadening myself in typical random liberal arts fashion (while also knowing that Pollan would be a competent guide), and by the end I was eager to give psychedelics a try and captivated with previously unknown-to-me subjects, like the fascinating theories and research on consciousness.
“Reading Robin’s paper helped me better understand what I was looking for when I decided to explore psychedelics: to give my own snow globe a vigorous shaking, see if I could renovate my everyday mental life by introducing a greater measure of entropy, and uncertainty, into it. Getting older might render the world more predictable (in every sense), yet it also lightens the burden of responsibility, creating a new space for experiment. Mine had been to see if it wasn’t too late to skip out of some of the deeper grooves of habit that the been-theres and done-thats of long experience had inscribed on my mind.”
Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford (2009)
This is one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years. I thought this would be merely a call to reclaim the manual arts, but it is so much more: a polemic against consumerist culture, against planned obsolesce and the need for “esoteric screwdrivers,” and against how office work creates “vague feelings of unreality, diminished autonomy, and a fragmented sense of self that [are] especially acute among the professional classes.”
“Frugality may be only a thin economic rationalization for a movement that really answers to a deeper need: We want to feel that our world is intelligible, so we can be responsible for it. This seems to require that the provenance of our things be brought closer to home. Many people are trying to recover a field of vision that is basically human in scale, and extricate themselves from dependence on the obscure forces of a global economy.”
10 Lessons to Transform your Marriage by John and Julie Schwartz Gottman (2006)
I have passing interests in all-things psychology (and I feel like I wouldn’t have been a bad couples therapist if I’d taken a different career path), so I oftentimes read relationship self-help books when in or out of relationships, largely because the subject fascinates me, and partly because practical lessons learned can be put to good use. I’ve probably gone through at least a dozen such books, and this is the only one I’d wholeheartedly recommend. This book isn’t just for improving communication with your romantic partner; it’s for helping you talk to and understand all the people around you.
Bear by Marian Engel (1975)
I’m thinking about writing an essay about the bear in the North American imagination, so how could I not read this award-winning Canadian novel about a woman’s sexual relationship with a pet black bear? It was a hugely enjoyable and page-turning read, and I adored Engel’s spare prose.
“Once and only once, she experimented with calling him ‘Trelawny’ but the name did not inspire him and she realized she was wrong: this was no parasitical collector of memoirs, this was no pirate, this was an enormous, living creature larger and older and wiser than time, a creature that was for the moment her creature, but that another could return to his own world, his own wisdom.”
Best Books by Friends
This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm by Ted Genoways (2017)
This book was written about my friends in Nebraska by an author whose dogs I once dog-sat for. Regardless of the various personal connections, I legitimately thought that this was a “best book.” Somehow Genoways manages to make a lot of technical details (you will learn a lot about modern farming) really engaging, and it unexpectedly becomes a real page-turner. It also made me nostalgic for my old life in Nebraska and time spent on the Plains. I thought my friends depicted came across as real people who’ve had to make tough decisions, and who are also lovable, sympathetic figures who care dearly for the land and their way of life.
Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road by Kate Harris (2018)
This book is about an epic cycling journey along the Silk Road, with meditations on borders, boundaries, and biking like mad. The writing is exceptional.
“We’re so used to thinking of nations as self-evident, maps as trusted authorities, the boundaries veining them blue-blooded and sure. In places like Tibet, though, the land itself gives those lines the slip. Borders might go bump in the night because they’re reinforced by guardrails, but also because they exist in only the most suggestive, ghost-like ways. At least that’s how I sense them on the Aksai Chin–as a kind of haunting presence on horizons otherwise fenceless and patrolled only by wind. What if borders at their most basic are just desires written onto lands and lives, trying to foist permanences on the fact of flux?”
The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better after 50 by Jonathan Rauch (2018)
I admire the way Rauch blends memoir with interviews and research. Because of the blending, it's a very readable and persuasive book that has me concerned about plummeting to my happiness trough at age 46 (the typical age for Americans, which, for me, is just 11 years away). This all makes me reflect on how the next decade might play out. Will knowledge of this sort of imaginary slump (that has a lot to do with neurotic and self-loathing comparisons with peers and personal expectations) help me avoid it? I am not immune to slumps and mini depressions, so I'd say this is a possible path. Or not, I don't know. Maybe the unusual life I've so far led has placed me on an anomalous trajectory? Either way, this book is a fascinating look at human nature.
“But then what if, where life satisfaction is concerned (remember, we’re talking about the inner, subjective world, not about what’s actually happening to you), next year brings another disappointment? Things are pretty good, but you’re not as content as you expected to be. Then the same thing happens the next year. And the next. And the next and the next and the next. After a while, it dawns on you that disappointment seems to be a permanent feature of life. This has a couple of effects. On the one hand, your expectations for future satisfaction fall—pretty quickly, as the graph shows. So the hard work of realigning your happiness expectations is being done. But meanwhile, until the realignment happens, you’re being hit from two directions at once. ‘On the one hand,’ Schwandt told me, ‘you feel all this disappointment about your past. And then also your expectations evaporate about the future. So in midlife you’re feeling miserable about the past and the future at the same time.'”