I did a lot of reading while I was on walkabout! Some of it was really good and I would highly recommend. Some of it came highly recommended and didn’t live up to the hype. I’ve divided the books into 4 categories: read-right-now, ought-to-read, read-if-you’re-into-it and skip. I’ll even do little summaries for the first category!
Read Right Now
These books have it all. Delightful prose, fascinating content, a meaningful message. Once you’ve picked it up you’re loathe to put it down, and once you’ve finished you feel a better person for it. There is no reason that one of these shouldn’t be your next read.
Catfish and Mandala, by Andrew Pham
My sister recommended this one to me to get pumped for Vietnam, and she nailed it. Pham’s memoir about bicycling through the country he fled as a child is funny, moving, and strikes deep at the heart of what it means to be an American, an immigrant and an outsider.
Factfulness, by Hans Rosling
Rosling has identified a problem: most western readers, regardless of education or background, consistently overestimate how bad the world is. Whether it’s infant mortality, women’s education or AIDS infection rates, most places are doing much better than you think they are.
To address this problem Rosling presents a different framework for thinking about economic development (4 levels, each with a “dollars per day” level attached) to replace the tired “developing/developed” dichotomy, and presents 10 good habits to help you fight bad instincts and see through misleading data. Yes this book is about economics, but it’s also about you, dear Western reader, calling out your biases and misconceptions and identifying tools to overcome them.
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah (audiobook)
Noah’s autobiography is nothing short of brilliant. Noah is of course a comedian and the work is hilarious, but he’s also a storyteller. It’s the sort of book where you’re not sure whether the tears are from joy or sorrow. Plus he reads the audiobook, and does a tremendous job.
A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles
This one ended up on both Barack Obama’s and Bill Gates’ reading lists, but I was still surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The plot summary didn’t pull me in: a Russian nobleman is sentenced to house arrest in a Moscow hotel after the 1917 revolution. But this isn’t really a plot book. It’s a character study, and Towles uses that character as a lens on one of the most fascinating and fast-changing settings in modern history, all to brilliant effect. A Gentleman in Moscow is witty, charming and tugs at your heartstrings in just the right ways, exactly as a gentleman should.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari (audiobook)
Another B&B book. I’ve tried to summarize this book to a few people and ended up monologuing for half an hour, so we’ll see if I can do better here. Harari looks at humans from the ground up, starting with our basic biology and evolutionary history, and building that up piece by logical piece into how modern society developed. It’s interesting and insightful and quite well-written, and it doesn’t sugar-coat what we are or how we act. Plus the audiobook is read by this British fellow with an absolutely perfect accent for drawing you in and making you feel intellectual.
Ought To Read
These are the ones I enjoyed, and maybe thought were important, but for one reason or another I couldn’t quite give them top honors. Still highly recommended, especially if the seem like your cup of tea.
- Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- I really wanted to put this one in the top category. Coates’ book about the realities of living as a black man in modern racist America is unquestionably something that every American should read, probably twice. It’s well-written, and insightful, and goodness is it relevant. You will definitely be a better person for reading this. The reason I didn’t bump it is because this is not a “read it any time” book. Coates’ book is a downer. It’s brutally honest and kind of bleak, and I believe that if you’re not in a place where you can handle that its impact will be lost. Maybe it will do more harm than good. My recommendation: listen to Trevor Noah’s autobiography first, that will kind of prime the pump, then tackle this.
- Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan
- Arkwright, by Allen Steele
- Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers
- The Raven Tower, by Ann Leckie
- Rolling Rocks Downhill, by Clarke Ching
- The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb (yes all three of them)
- Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when the Stakes are High, by Patterson et al
- Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler
Read If You’re Into It
- The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell
- The Book of M, by Peng Shepherd
- The Cuckoo’s Egg, by Cliff Stoll
- The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie
- Human Acts, by Han Kang
- Monkey, by Wu Cheng-en, translated by Arthur Waley
- Upheaval, by Jared Diamond
- The Design of Everyday Things, by Don Norman