It’s common in December to see lists of “best of the year” for books and films. I read 20 to 30 books a year but rarely do I read books published in the current year. I don’t have anything against new books, I certainly buy many of them, but I’m drawn to books that have been around awhile and still interest me. Perhaps these books ask deeper questions and provide deeper answers? Or maybe I’m merely trying to combat the cultural pull towards neophillia and the rejection of things purely because of their age.
Since most people read only a handful of books a year it’s silly not to include books simply because of when they were published. Odds are high that even if you check out the NYTimes best books of 2013, you still haven’t read most of the books they recommended from 2012, or 2005, or 1905.
With this in mind, here are the three best books I read in 2013, regardless of when they were published:
The Great Big Book of Horrible Things, by Matthew White (2011) - It sounds like a children’s book, but it’s far from it. With great style and flair White takes an unconventional approach to explaining the history of civilization. He uses the worst atrocities, from genocides to wars, to explore the history of the World. My world history has always been spotty and I found this book to be a tour de force, making a laundry list of facts and events I’d never understood comprehendible and fascinating. The lists of his rankings of the worst atrocities, and their most frequent causes (religious wars? politics?) are worth the price of admission alone (my full review).
We Learn Nothing, by Tim Krieder (2013) – This collection of essays, with a few illustrations, does what all writers wish they could do: invite just about any reader into an intelligent, conversational exploration of some universal themes like friendship, belief and identity. It’s the kind of book you can give to just about any adult and they’ll respond with stories of their own and new questions about various notions they’ve held close, but unexplored until now. (my full review)
Brave New World, by Aldus Huxley (1931). I am a big fan of dystopian novels, and although I’ve read 1984 many times I’d never read Huxley. I was surprised to learn Brave New World predated 1984, first published in the 1930s, more than a decade before Orwell’s book. It was a true surprise how bold and prescient Huxley was, even though I knew many elements of the story through literary osmosis. And although the structure of BNW can be challenging at times, I’ve found myself thinking about it often since I read it (Related: this fantastic comic comparing the predictions of 1984 with BNW)