I thought about waiting until 2014 is actually over before posting about my best reads this year, but I figured if there is a late-comer in the next few weeks, nothing prevents me from revising my list. It would have to be a really fantastic late-comer, but anything is possible.
Note that I called this my best reads of 2014. I did this because many of the books I read this year were not published in 2014. I want it to be clear that these mark the books that I most enjoyed reading this year, even if they weren’t published this year. Call me quirky.
Indeed, calling these “reads” is a little disingenuous, too, as most of these were audio book, and I listened to them. I have come, reluctantly, to accept that reading and listening are two different activities, but for the sake of simplicity, they produce the same result within me, and so I use the phrases interchangeably, much to the dismay of many. Again, call me quirky.
To date, I have read 36 books so far this year. That is down from last year, but there were a couple of really long book this year and that makes up for some of it. 20 of those 36 books (56%) were nonfiction. 6 of the 36 books were re-reads of books I’d already read. Here then, are my best reads of 2014.
6. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
I’d never read anything by John Irving before, and wracking my brain, I can’t think of what it was that made me decide to tackle A Prayer for Owen Meany. But I thought it was fantastic, and this is one example where an audiobook almost certainly gives added dimension to the printed page, for Joe Barrett’s impression of Owen Meany’s unusual voice was pitch-perfect. Indeed, because of Joe Barrett’s excellent narration of this book, I sought out other books that Barrett has narrated.
5. The Martian by Andy Weir
This book was a hard science fiction-fan’s playground. What happens when an astronaut is accidentally left-behind on the Martian surface? How long can he survive? Turns out, a pretty long time. This novel was the exception to the rule that technical description in a science fiction novel can be boring and get the way. I listened to much of this book on the long drive home from our summer vacation in Maine, and that meant that Kelly–who is anything but a hard science fiction fan–listened to it a well. She got caught up in it for while. Eventually, she drifted to sleep, lulled by the highway, but when she awakened, the very first thing she asked me was, “Did he make off the planet?”
4. Great Baseball Writing: Sports Illustrated 1954-2004 edited by Rob Fleder
If the human lifespan ever stretched out to the point where multiple careers were possible in a single lifetime, I think I’d turn my attention to becoming a sportswriter, and specifically, a baseball writer. The long pieces in this collection appeared throughout a 50-year span of Sports Illustrated, giving a picture of the game, and its participants (to say nothing of the times in which they played) in a way that only baseball sportswriters can capture
3. The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson
I grew up on the border of the digital age, straddling that divide that Gartner has callously called “digital native” vs. “digital immigrant.” So Isaacson’s book spoke to me in ways that other technology books have not. I burned with the same kind of passion about the potentials of technology that many of the inventors, hackers, geniuses, and geeks referred in this book also burned. Reading about the evolution of the digital age was a fascinating, and also enlightening. I have yet to come across a better overview of the period than what Isaacson has provided here.
2. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Volumes 1-3 by William Manchester and Paul Reid
Until a few days ago, this would have been my number one best read of the year. Spanning 3 volumes–more than 120 hours in audiobook form–The Last Lion is the most in-depth biography I have ever read. And I loved every minute of it. Despite being biography, it moved me to tears when I read of the loss of Churchill’s daughter. It moved me to laughter on many occasions, when Churchill made some famous quip or other. Observing Churchill’s work ethic through Manchester’s eyes made me feel lazy by comparison. Spending a winter in London under siege by the German Blitz had me on the edge of my seat. The Last Lion has set the bar high for all biographies that come after it.
1. Fallen Leaves: Last Words on Love, Life, War, and God by Will Durant
And then, just a few days ago, Fallen Leaves was published. I am big admirer of Will and Ariel Durant. I have read the first three volumes of their remarkable Story of Civilization and have been in awe of Durant’s skill with a pen. In the Civilization books, Durant’s voice makes history accessible, but his opinions are kept at a minimum. Then came Fallen Leaves. Durant referred to the title of the book in four separate interviews between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s, but the book was never published. Indeed, it seemed to be lost for 30 years, until it was discovered in an attic not long ago.
In Fallen Leaves, we finally get Will Durant’s opinion on the vast areas of life that he covered in his histories. It is a short book, but filled with fascinating insights by a man who, at the time of the writing, had spent 95 years on Earth forming opinions. While I don’t agree with all of his ideas, and while some of his opinions are old fashioned, he presents the humbly. I found some of his remarks on the study of history fascinating. I found his thoughts on what would make for a good education even more fascinating. The book captivated me, charmed me, and made me want to continue on with the 7 remaining books in the Story of Civilization series that I have not yet read.
Fallen Leaves is a book that I am certain I will return to again, and again.
Only two of the six books are fiction. And only one of those is science fiction. The truth is, I haven’t been reading much science fiction lately. I’m not up on what books are hot this year, except for a few by people who I know personally, and even then, I am behind on that reading. These things come and go in phases, and I’ve learned not to stress about it, but to go where my desire takes me. One of the great things about reading is that there is always another book out there, one that is new to the individual reading it for the first time. Not all of the books are great, but I seek them out and continue reading them in the hope of finding gems, like ones above.