One thing that happens as you read more books: you learn to predict which books you will or won’t enjoy just by reading the first few paragraphs or the blurb on the back cover.
This is no magical feat. You will simply know yourself better: the topics you truly have an interest in, the investigative approach you appreciate, the type of characters that intrigue, the style of prose that keeps you hooked.
As someone who reads a lot, I’m pretty good at telling which books I’ll like before I read them. But on rare occasions, a book will delight me far more than I expected it to.
Here are five of those books, in no particular order.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again
The first time I read this book was in 2010 and it was the book that convinced me that I wanted to be a writer. Before then, I had been running some middling ecommerce sites while I blogged and coached dating/relationships on the side. But for whatever reason, the endless ingenuity of David Foster Wallace’s essays clicked that, “I want to do this for the rest of my life” feeling into place in my mind and I’ve never looked back.
I hadn’t read these essays since then. I think being home so much this year as well as finally having time off from writing books gave me a lot of time for introspection. Coming off the back of two bestsellers, it felt fitting to return to the writing that inspired me in the first place.
Reading Wallace is like going on vacation with a really, really smart brain for a few hours. Everything seems a bit brighter and more connected. Yet, at times, it becomes mentally exhausting.
Wallace has a tone that is completely his own. Also, he’s probably the most insightful cultural commentator of the 90s and early 00s. A simple piece about him going on a luxury cruise runs 60 pages and includes riffs on everything from the infantilization of the American Dream to the geopolitical ramifications of the restaurant’s wait staff. Reading this again was just as joyful as it was eleven years ago. But it also made me wish so much that he was alive today. We need his commentary. We need his brain.
3 Ideas That Might Change Your Life
Very Important People
Mears is a former fashion model and partygoer who is now a professor of sociology at Boston University. She returns to the peculiar party environments of her early years to study them from the perspective of a sociologist—documenting the behaviors, rituals, and practices in the high-end nightclub scene and all of the ridiculousness that comes with it.
In this world of “very important people,” female beauty is a kind of currency collected by nightclub establishments and then traded for wealthy men’s actual currency—money. It’s a bizarro world where everyone is glamorous and nobody’s happy. I was riveted throughout. Although I never partied in the “elite” circles that she writes of, I had enough of a taste of the scene in my younger years to know the shallowness of what she writes is true. A fascinating read for anyone who has been unfortunate enough to have an addiction to partying and spending way too much money trying to impress others.
If this book hadn’t won literally every award that could be won (including the Pulitzer), I probably would have passed it up. But when something is that acclaimed, I always feel some sort of responsibility to at least give it a look.
Well, shit, this is an absolutely fascinating book about trees. Not only did I learn so much that I didn’t know about botany and forests, but a wonderful array of characters (whose lives revolve around trees) come together and produce a memorable story. The writing is fantastic, as well.
I don’t know how to make a book about trees sound sexy. In fact, I can’t. But give it a chance. You’ll be surprised.
The Immortality Key
Between this book and Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, psychedelics have become en vogue—a cool thing to talk about among the online intelligentsia. I enjoyed both books immensely. Whereas Pollan is more concerned with the therapeutic and medical benefits of psychedelics, Muraresku is arguing for their cultural, historical, and religious significance.
It’s funny, when I was a teenager and taking a lot of drugs, I remember reading on online forums theories that early Christianity and Greek and Roman paganism revolved around hallucinogens. At the time, I thought it was just potheads being stupid potheads. But Muraresku spent ten years investigating this idea. This book is the result.
The excitement of the book is two-fold: first, the batshit insane idea that early Christianity and ancient Greek and Roman societies revolved around psychedelics, and second, the fact that Muraresku is the first to fully explore this mostly new scholarly territory. As a result, the book feels part-scandal, part Dan Brown caper as Muraresku runs all over Europe, investigating catacombs and Vatican archives and obscure archaeological sites in Turkey and Greece. A delightful read.
… and I have to say, I buy it. I think the ancients used to trip balls. Makes sense to me.
It’s not rare for me to finish a really good book in one or two days. But it has been years since I’ve had that, “literally cannot put this down” experience. Piranesi gave me that experience this year.
Fair warning: the first fifty pages or so are slow and weird. They are a bit of a grind to get through. But if you stick it out, you will be rewarded with one of the most inventive, exciting, and interesting plots I’ve come across in a while. Part mystery, part fantasy, part mythology, part craziness, Piranesi was a perfect escape from a pandemic-ravaged world. The vivid fantasy and the setting of the book grabbed me and didn’t let go until the last page.