The Best Books I Read in 2015


This year was my biggest yet. 150 books in total and 15 days still to go.

Of those, 29 were fiction and the remaining 121 non-fiction. I’m not really happy with that disparity, but more on that below. Five of the books this year were in Arabic, including two novels. Readers of this blog will know that I’ve been steadily working my way up to the level where I’m comfortable reading Abdul Rahman Munif’s Cities of Salt trilogy in the original. I’m not quite there yet, but getting there. The five books in 2015 is a start. Watch this space.

Goodreads tells me that my 150 books total to some 32,686 pages. That’s almost 90 pages every day given a 365-day year, but I was away studying Arabic for two months so actually it’s more like 107 pages per day. Look at the dip in my Beeminder graph where I read nothing:

49 of the books I read were written by women. One-third is better than last year’s 1:9 ratio, but still not many as I’d have liked. (Last year I wrote that I’d be happy with one-third.)

Last year I upped my goal from 100 to 150 for 2015 and on one hand I’m glad I did that. I’ve long felt that the more I read, the more I expose myself to. On the other hand, my two-months-where-I’m-only-allowed-to-speak-Arabic gave me a solid disadvantage going in. I felt the pressure, and I felt that I rushed through some books that I’d maybe have liked to savour more. So next year I’m going back to 100. It’s only a mild challenge to ensure that I read a hundred, but it’s enough that I’ll get exposed to new things.

I’m also going to make sure that 50% of what I read is fiction. I liked the way I tried to do this towards the end of the year, and I realise I miss reading fiction. Or perhaps a lot of the non-fiction I read these days has a ‘samey’ quality to it. I also realised that I have a lot of books in my library (digital or physical) already, so I’m not going to spend any money on books in 2016. (The only way I can read a book that was published in 2016 is if someone buys it for me, or if I get a gift card as a present etc). If you catch me buying any books, feel free to scold me.

As for the things I really enjoyed this past year, you’ve heard me praise Jonathan Brown’s Misquoting Mohammad already. I’ll stick with what I originally wrote for Pacific Standard:

“Misquoting Muhammad is a book I wish I had the money to buy for all my friends and colleagues, because he presents readers with a guide to Islamic thought that portrays it not as a fixed entity but as a complex product of utterly human machinations… Ultimately, Brown teaches a simple, if vital, lesson: Authenticity is elusive in religion, and those who claim it tend not to be searching for the truth but grasping for power.”

Seriously. Go read that book.

The Paris conference has just concluded. World leaders are taking a moment to bask in their self-reflected satisfaction at the agreement they produced. I don’t know enough to be able to offer a substantive critique, but I’m highly doubtful that anyone actually took the kinds of hard decisions to go against financial or national interests. Two things have offered a kind of salve to my pessimism about the environment. Paul Kingsnorth’s Dark Mountain Project offers a bracingly dark vision of our future, but one that meshes with what my gut tells me might be a useful path to go down. Roy Scranton’s short book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of Civilisation, has two core messages: “We’re fucked” and “Prepare to die”. Scranton suggests that we embrace philosophy as a way to respond to the crisis – the crisis of humanity’s extinction, no less. If nothing else, Scranton gets you to ponder your future death, and that’s never a bad way to spend one’s afternoon.

As co-host of a podcast that is at least nominally about doing better work, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention two books related to this theme. Ed Catmull’s Creativity Inc. was a surprisingly deep read, offering thoughts on developing ideas, managing teams and growing as a leader. As it turns out, the team pushing out films at Pixar have spent a lot of time thinking about what does and doesn’t work when it comes to collaborating together on creative projects. If you have to do that, I’d strongly recommend you give this a read.

Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel) is now the book I give to people starting out on a new course of study or reading. I wish I’d read it year ago myself. The authors explain how to study, how to learn things for long-term retention, and how to tweak the school experience to encourage retention. The authors strive to make examples practical and applicable. Spaced-repetition software is never mentioned in the book – in fact technology really isn’t the focus – but it’s possible to read it as a love letter to Anki. (Read more of my full review/summary here).

The exchange of letters between Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee felt like something I wasn’t meant to read. The latter is high up there in the pantheon of my favourite writers and Here and Now was a true pleasure to read. If you don’t care for either of the correspondents, though, this book may fall flat.

As a society, we think too little about death and dying and what it means to become old. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End is about the care that we give to people at the ends of their lives. (He also encourages us to think about what that might look like for our own lives). The practice and profession of medicine is slanted a certain way, but Atul Gawande shows fairly clearly how that isn’t necessarily beneficial. Short, but hits hard.

As my only fiction pick for this year, Shandana Minhas’ Survival Tips for Lunatics is a delightful romp through Pakistan. This is a children’s book on the surface, but appropriate for ‘adults’ who have a sense of fun and are willing to follow Minhas on her crazy journey. Some great characters in this book (including, but not limited to, a bear, a velociraptor and a sparrow). The plot is simple (two children get left behind on a camping trip and have to get back to their parents, via Baluchistan and a Pakistani military border post/facility on Afghan soil) but the adventures are many. Strongly recommended by anyone who is bored by the usual books given and read to pre-teen children.

Let me know if you enjoyed any of these over on Twitter or on Goodreads. And happy reading for the coming year!