I read more than ever this year. 16,230 pages!! That’s counting the 50 books I finished, not the half dozen that still have bookmarks in them. The exaggerated title is an homage to the original reading challenge I completed back in 2016. I’ve been thinking a lot about this saga and I have decided that my reading a new book every week has ended with the decade.
There is a sense of enlightenment that I feel when reflecting on the 200+ books I’ve completed since my senior year of college. I’m content. I’ve seen a lot despite the fact that my bedroom curtains are always closed and I never peer out the window on airplanes. But I am starting to see less of a point in spending so much time reading and reviewing. When considering the great works I read this year, such as Don Quixote, I now admit that there is indeed a literary equivalent of watching Netflix. In 2020, I’m planning on exclusively reading classics and there’s no way I will be able to fit 52 into 365 days.
Another thing that’s been on my mind is that, for whatever credit I get for being an avid reader, I’m still a consumer. Consuming is easy. I’ve read over 50,000 pages in a relatively short span of time. I’ve decided that I would rather write things of my own. I would much rather be a prolific creator than a voracious consumer. In 2020, I’ll pursue challenges that are actually challenging.
Here’s my year in review:
Books About Food
I also ate a lot in 2019. I have befriended my fair share of delivery drivers and have housed more double entrees than you would believe. Regardless of what my Yelp profile might suggest, writing about food is really, really hard. Luckily, some people have figured it out.
Mark Schatzker’s Steak chronicles his voyage around the world in search of the tastiest piece of beef. At one point, he even raises his own cows. Since I moved to Chicago, I’ve found myself spending an inordinate amount of money at steakhouses. Schatzher’s book, along with Pat LaFreida’s Meat: Everything You Need To Know, helped me better understand and appreciate the animal that I consume the most.
Michael Ruhlman’s Grocery was one of my favorite books from 2017. I later picked up The Making of a Chef, written twenty years earlier, and only realized it was by the same guy after I was a hundred pages in. The premise of the book is that he enrolls at the Culinary Institute of America and asks not to be treated unlike other students. If you spend as much time eating as I do, eventually you get to the point where you need to go deeper. I needed this–and Ruhlman’s writing was just as brilliant twenty years ago.
The showstopper in this category was actually the first book I read in 2019: Blue Trout and Black Truffles (the peregrinations of an Epicure) by the late Joseph Wechsberg. It was mentioned offhandedly in the story about the founding of Alinea. What appealed to me most was the culturally-significant writings about central European cuisine before WWII (the author received asylum in the United States when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia). It also contains witty yet textbook-quality explanations of truffles, foie gras, and champagne. I really treasure this one. I think you will too.
The Popular Books
Bad Blood was insane and I’m surprised that WeWork was the only high profile blowup that followed Theranos. This is the type of book that prefaces a major crash or withdrawal of money from startups in general. When it came down to it, a lot of the company’s hype was due to a blindly-trusting-but-extremely-powerful bunch of early investors (mainly one or two people) who never properly vetted the company and stayed on board even when things were obviously fraudulent.
Billion Dollar Whale was another homerun from the Wall Street Journal’s crew. These guys are pumping out some awesome stuff.
Sapiens probably wins book of the year for me because it’s… perfect? I see it as the laboratory-guided final form of Guns, Germs, and Steel. (Note: I just wrote that sentence and then looked it up and noticed that the author does indeed credit Guns, Germs, and Steel as the main inspiration for the project). But for me, it was more of a historical self-reflective catharsis than it was something I analyzed at a serious, intellectual level. Humankind will feel the same way about this book as I do when I read about Poland–reading Sapiens is like reading about your own family history in the old country.
How to Turn Down a Billion Dollars (The Snapchat Story) SHOULD HAVE BEEN NAMED GHOSTED.
Ryan Holiday’s Conspiracy was an awesome book. I understand that you either love the guy or you hate the guy. I really enjoy his writing and never fully understand the criticism he gets.
There have been some excellent sports books published over the last few years. Few stack up to Mike Tyson’s Undisputed Truth, and none compare to Mike Tyson’s Undisputed Truth when you’re traveling to Las Vegas to watch a boxing match. I described this as “the most absurd book I’ve ever read” and I still describe this as the most absurd book I’ve ever read. This is why Tyson gets his own section. It is a unique pleasure to supplement his recounting of fights with Youtube clips of the fights, most of which are available.
Each year, I try to read one divisive book. These don’t bubble up very often since public discourse in America isn’t healthy right now and even the Wall Street Journal comments section is heavily moderated. But the point is that I don’t want an author to pay lip service to the middle ground. I want it all out there and I want it to be supported by facts and figures. I want to read things that will “disgust” some people, because then I know I’ll be forced to critically evaluate my own beliefs as well.
I found out about it through a backchannel–one of the co-authors is a lawyer who wrote the definitive piece on the Duke Lacrosse Rape Scandal. As far as non-fiction goes, both that book and this one have been among the most memorable and informative I have read over the last few years.
A common 2020-flavored question will be “Tim, do you care so much about this topic because you are a racist?” My connection to the topic is that I attended a selective private college that was among the worst affected by the “cascade effect” originated by one of the authors. This was obvious because a lot of students who were admitted with “diversity” as a defining part of their profile ended up getting brutalized by the engineering curriculum. Not only does this caused a lot of angst among the student body, but a lot of students would have had better life outcomes by going to less-selective schools.
There are a lot of ways we could make higher education better. At the confluence of several different high-profile scandals from 2019, now is the time to read this book.
Many notable books have film adaptations. Though filmmaking is its own art, it’s really easy to shine shit when you have an eight-figure budget. We don’t appreciate how outrageously appealing books have to be in order to get picked up by major studios. Since I don’t really watch movies and seldom have a basis of comparison, it’s hard for me to ever talk this and I find analysis pointless past a few sentences.
I think the only audiobook I listened to this year was The Devil Wears Prada and it was fucking awesome. I went on to read the author’s latest novel When Life Gives You Lululemons (set in the same world) and I appreciated that as well, though I don’t think I was the intended audience.
Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff was a candidate for my favorite book of the year. I hope his work continues to excite people for a very long time.
Jaws wasn’t a great book to read at the beach and it also wasn’t a great book. My father and I are in agreement on this one.
Wise Guy is Goodfellas. If I’m remembering correctly, the book and the movie were a package deal that ends up benefitting both. Reading the book was just as thrilling as the flick. Yes, I’ve seen this movie.
I Heard You Paint Houses, which inspired the Scorsese-directed the Irishman, hasn’t aged particularly well. It’s true crime to the point of being sad and depressing. It just wasn’t for me. No disrespect to Jimmy Hoffa but I really don’t think people care anymore.
The Paper Chase was a quick read. An interesting portrait of law school. I don’t think I’m ever going to law school.
It took me two years to finish Bret Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction. It’s American-Psycho-esque, and Patrick Bateman’s brother is a main character. It’s a lot more subtle than Psycho and, though I enjoyed it once I got back into the flow of things, it is saying something that I could spend so long away from the book and realize any details I forgot were no longer important. Maybe that’s the point.
On the Road, which is much better known as a book than a movie, is an American classic. Fringe theory: Neal Cassady’s character in real life inspired Michael Richards’ portrayal of Kramer in Seinfeld.
I’m thankful that I got into the habit of reading books and, later, writing reviews. Having such a calming and solitary pastime has meant a lot to me. Not only have I introduced people to great books, but along the way, I inspired a small group to become readers. It helped me hone my writing skills and develop an advanced ability to process, analyze, and appreciate the written word.
Three years ago, I asked my mom to take a picture of me in front of the family bookshelf. I set out to legitimize my presence as a book reviewer. In 2019, I finally “popped” on Goodreads, seeing some of my reviews become the most “liked” along with my following growing by a significant amount. I gained confidence in my writing style. With confidence, I write that I no longer consider book reviews to be a good avenue for advancing my creative ambitions.
I think that every artist, broadly speaking, holds out the fantasy that someone will discover his obscure work and offer him a chance to exhibit it to a wider audience or even monetize it. All this said, I did receive one offer to interview after being noticed on Goodreads–to be a programmer for a tech company in New York. I also was sent a free book once.
If you ever read anything else I write, I hope you will find it to be less derivative and secondary. Thanks for following along.