This year was a big year for me, both personally and professionally, but also one of the most difficult.
Here’s a pro tip of life advice: know that when following up something insanely successful, no matter how well your next thing does, it will never feel like it was enough.
I launched Everything Is Fucked: A Book About Hope on May 15th. A lot went into it. In fact, I probably overdid it on many dimensions because of my insecurity with following up on The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck.
My editor once told me that good writing can be summed up in one phrase, “Stop trying so hard.” He said the role of an editor is to tell the author when they’re overdoing it. I probably overdid it in places.
It’s a more challenging book—probably more challenging than it needed to be. In hindsight, I think I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder. After the success of Subtle Art, I felt this weird itch to prove that I could write a much more intellectual book than just a run-of-the-mill, fun self-help stuff. I still think the book turned out great, but looking back, I probably could have chilled a bit on some of the sections.
When it came to launching the thing, I also went a bit overboard. I did 27 speaking events in six different countries. In hindsight, that was probably about 10-12 too many. I physically and mentally destroyed myself traveling. And while speaking and meeting fans were really cool, it probably wasn’t worth doing as many events as I did.
All that effort and stress looks somewhat silly in hindsight because what I eventually discovered was that my expectations were so warped, I was going to feel disappointment no matter what happened. The book sold over half a million copies in six months, spent 14 weeks on the NYTimes Bestseller list (including debuting at #1). It was #1 in six different countries. Yet, because of the size of the shadow cast by Subtle Art, it all somehow felt meager and unworthy. I had a mini-breakdown in early June and then quickly managed to get over myself. I feel fine about it now. I’m a young author. I will have 20-30 books in my career. Just learn from this one and move on.
Going into 2020, I feel better than I have in a long time—mentally, emotionally and physically. I’ve got an Audible Original Audiobook about relationships coming out in a few months, and work on Will Smith’s autobiography continues to go well (even if it’s slow). Look for that in 2021.
In the meantime, I’ve redoubled my efforts to the website. You’ve probably noticed me being more active around here lately. That’s because for the first time since 2017, I actually have time to dedicate to it. It feels good to be back. No matter what I do and how successful it is, this is still my home.
My Favorite Books of 2019
But the books… Every year, I list each book I read that year. I write reviews for my favorites and give 1-2 sentences summarizing how I felt about all of the others. You can also find the round-ups for my reading in 2018 and 2017.
This year I read 62 books. 56 were nonfiction and six were fiction. Of the 56 nonfiction, a whopping 22 were either biographies or memoirs. I focused on these because I’m currently working on Will Smith’s autobiography/memoir. In total, I read 19,054 pages (far fewer than the past two years), averaging 52 pages per day, and 307 pages per book. I also started and abandoned nine other books (which, you’ll remember, I encourage you to do).
I am pleased to announce that, after having been bothered for years by readers, I made an effort this year to read more female authors. In 2019, a full half of the books I read were written by women. Yes, even here we can find equality.
What I learned from the effort was… well, not much actually. A good book is still a good book. And a bad book is still a bad one.
Anyway, I’m glad I put the effort in, but it didn’t really offer any large realizations. However, I did update my reading recommendation list with more female authors—something I’ve been yelled at to do for years now.
OK, on with it. My top five books that I read in 2019 were the following: This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom by Martin Hägglund, Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang, Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo and The Second Mountain by David Brooks
Full reviews of all 62 books can be found below:
1. This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom
Full disclosure: I hated the last third of this book. I thought it was terrible. But the first two-thirds were so beautiful and profound, I couldn’t help but admit that this was my favorite read of the year. The 35-page introduction was probably worth the price by itself.
This is a philosophy book. Philosophy tends to be either a) an absolute chore to get through, often hardly making sense, or b) one of the best reading experiences of your life (there’s a reason my favorite book the last three years have always been philosophy books). This Life is, at times, breathtaking in its simplicity and depth.
The book attempts to create a secular basis of morality, something philosophers have done for millennia. The starting point is simple: we all die. This is possibly the only subjective truth we all share. And it’s from our knowledge of our own death that makes life feel scarce and valuable. Therefore, all meaning in life stems from the knowledge of our own death. Hägglund then spends most of the book making an array of arguments extending from this realization—how religious beliefs of an eternal life are at the root of all unethical behaviors; how the freedom to choose one’s own meaning is the hardest yet most important use of one’s mind; how the desire to escape death inevitably forces us to avoid what gives us meaning in life.
Then, about 220 pages in, the book gets political. Hell, it goes beyond political—it becomes unabashedly Marxist. While I have no problem airing out intelligent discussions about Marxism, Hägglund tries to argue that Marxism is the logical extension of the moral framework he set up in the first two-thirds of the book. In my mind, it simply doesn’t work. The feeling of an author stepping out of his area of expertise is tangible while reading. He seems lost in some sections, desperately clawing to square his political beliefs with his philosophical beliefs. As a result, many of the statements about economics, means of production, growth and so on are naive at best, and plain wrong at worst.
Despite that, I wholly recommend the first 200 pages of this book. They are fantastically written and explained. They are deep and life-affirming without being religious. They are, hands down, my best reading experience of 2019.
2. Exhalation: Stories
I don’t read much sci-fi. But when I do, it’s the best sci-fi.
Ted Chiang is best-known for writing the short story that later became the Oscar-nominated film Arrival. His stories are known for being unconventional, subtle, and deeply thoughtful. This new collection of stories did not disappoint.
Most sci-fi geeks-out about the science of the thing. It’s all about how a warp drive could potentially be possible and how that would affect planetary politics and so on. It’s science first. Fiction second.
Chiang is the opposite. His stories are strictly driven by character arcs and stories. The off-beat science is just the backdrop that lets us get to know these characters in completely unique and unexpected ways. There’s a story that follows the arc of passionate AI pet owners as the progress of technology renders their AI pet software obsolete. There’s a story demonstrating the ethical quagmire of being able to speak to yourself in alternate dimensions. There are time travel mishaps. And the title story, “Exhalation”, is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read.
If you like science fiction in even the slightest, then I highly recommended Exhalation.
3. Three Women
On the surface, Three Women is a simple book: life stories of three women and their sexual experiences, told from their point of view. But within a few paragraphs, each story bursts with complexity as Taddeo expertly exposes you to each woman’s multivariate humanity—their desires, their shames, their beliefs, their hopes.
This is one of those books that will likely reflect many of your beliefs about sex and gender back at you. Obviously, like anyone, these women each go through difficult and upsetting experiences around sex and love. As women, some of their experiences are quite awful and come at the hands of predatory men. But at no point does the book shove the “men are evil” or other political tropes down your throat. It’s a more honest look at the attitudes and experiences that women have and the circumstances that generate them.
But mostly, the writing is just lush and gorgeous. I had no idea reading the thoughts and experiences of an average high school girl could be so riveting. If the goal of this book was to help readers empathize with these women by bringing us into their minds and showing us the world as they see it, then mission accomplished.
4. Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Katherine Boo is an American journalist who spent years living and interacting with people in the slums near the airport in Mumbai, India. This book is their story—the story of the underbelly of society and how they see and experience the world.
A beautifully written and humane approach to some of the ugliest and most disgusting parts of modern life, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is devoid of judgment, condescension or soapboxes. It’s simply a portrayal of a group of humans living, laughing, loving and fighting each other in one of the most repugnant places on earth. Like India itself, this book can break your heart and uplift you on the same page.
5. The Second Mountain
Simple premise, elegant and interesting read. Brooks builds the book around a metaphor of two mountains. The first mountain is the climb of professional achievement. Most of us spend much of our lives climbing that mountain. Then, he argues, once we’re sufficiently high enough on the first mountain to see beyond it, we have the perspective to see a second, larger mountain. This is the mountain of personal meaning. This second mountain is a much steeper and more difficult climb. It’s a climb no one can help you with—it must be done alone. And interestingly, it often requires a descent into a dark valley before the second climb can commence.
Essentially, The Second Mountain is a book about finding meaning in a comfortable, plush modern life. It discusses many of the themes that I talk about in my new book: how much of our material success can distract us from cultivating meaning and purpose in our lives. This is my favorite of Brooks’ books and one of the clearest and most insightful self-help books I’ve ever read. This is what self-help should be—intelligent, well-researched, personal, and beautiful.
Other Notable Books
Some other books that I enjoyed a lot and are worth mentioning:
Circe by Madeleine Miller – My favorite fiction book of 2019. A great spin on Greek mythology. It’s a self-discovery book… except the character discovering herself is a literal goddess and it takes place over the course of centuries.
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah – Of all the memoirs I read, this one was probably my favorite. Incredible life. Great story. Wonderful writing.
Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala – Absolutely jaw-dropping in its horror and pain. Sonali was with her family on the beach in Sri Lanka during the tsunami of 2004. The tsunami took the lives of her husband, her children and her parents. But she survived. The book is the story of her recovery from this unimaginable trauma.
Shoe Dog by Phil Knight – Another great memoir. A must-read for any business owner or entrepreneur.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby – OK, yet another incredible memoir (you can see a theme here). In the mid-90s, Bauby suffered a stroke and fell into a coma. During the coma, he became conscious and suffered “locked-in syndrome” which is when someone “wakes up” in their coma and is conscious, but is unable to move. Eventually, family members figured out that he was conscious, and with the help of his daughter, he devised a lettering system to communicate by moving his left eyelid. This entire book was written through a slow, painstaking process of a completely paralyzed man moving his left eyelid in various sequences. And somehow, the prose manages to be beautiful. Another fascinating read into one man’s unimaginable pain.
Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker – A flawed but really useful book. I discussed the issues in my email newsletter, but basically some of the data here is exaggerated, it appears. Regardless, it gave me a great respect for sleep and I’ve since quit caffeine and put way more emphasis on my sleep habits. As a result, I’m feeling much healthier and more productive.
The Mosquito by Timothy Winegard – Another flawed non-fiction book. This time, history is overstated. But still, I loved this book. It’s a book that describes the significant impact malaria and other mosquito-borne illnesses have had throughout history. They’ve greatly affected every war going back to Alexander the Great (who apparently probably died early from malaria). Mosquitos affected the colonization of the New World and Africa. They affected the British control of India and the opium wars in China. They affected the American Revolution. Seriously… mosquitoes affected everything. Very fun book.
The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir – The book that defined the modern feminist movement. I decided, since my focus this year was on women authors, why not go to Mama Bear herself? To be honest, I was surprised how much I enjoyed parts of this. Granted, it’s 830 pages and long stretches of it are outdated, so there was a lot of skimming involved, but still, when De Beauvoir is on, she’s on. It’s hard to recommend this book to anyone who isn’t serious about studying feminist thought and philosophy. But what I found most fascinating is that, although completely radical for her time, if De Beauvoir lived and wrote today, she would be considered too moderate and/or conservative for most of today’s leftist movements. Much of what passes for gender theory today would be unrecognizable to her.
Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell – Though controversial when released, I thought this was Gladwell’s best book. Historically, Gladwell’s formula was to take fun and useful ideas, dress them up in cool narratives and write them so well that you forgot you were reading them. This book is no different, minus one little change. The “fun and useful ideas” were replaced with some of the most contentious and upsetting issues in current society: torture, campus rape, police violence, suicide, etc. Kudos to Gladwell for wading into such difficult territory and, for the most part, treating all sides respectfully. And kudos to him for teaching such difficult and important lessons.
Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday – Another “best” here. Of Ryan’s three self-help books, I thought this was his best. Which is funny, because when he initially told me he was working on a book about “stillness” I kind of thought to myself, “Uh oh, is he running out of ideas or something?” It just didn’t sound fun and sexy.
But the book was great, the best out of all of his stoicism books, in my opinion. I think writing Conspiracy last year improved his storytelling chops, and the advice here is deeper and more nuanced than his previous books. If you liked his previous work, then this is highly recommended.
Indistractible by Nir Eyal – Another friend’s book. This book is notable for two reasons. 1) Nir and I co-write together here in New York—so much of this book was written in the same room and at the same time while I wrote my book and I gave many notes on an early draft. And 2) it’s a topic that I have been focusing on a lot this year in my own thinking. It’s hard to know how much we influenced each other, but undoubtedly, spending many mornings talking about these subjects and looking at each other’s work influenced my thinking. I’ve become particularly focused on technology and media and how we manage our relationships with them. A lot of that is due to Nir’s influence.
Aaanndd… Every Other Book I Read This Year
Becoming by Michelle Obama – Former first lady. Well written. Some really interesting parts. Some not-so-interesting parts. What else is there to say?
Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins – Goggins is an absurd human being — and I mean that in the best way possible. His story is quite crazy, and he might be quite crazy. But a powerful memoir, if anything, for simply showing that our limits are far further than we tend to think.
The Conscious Mind by David Chalmers – Classic philosophy book on consciousness where Chalmers proposes his famous theory of “the hard problem of consciousness” as well as his argument about “philosophical zombies.” I struggled to get through it, one because it’s hard as fuck to read, but two, because I just don’t buy his argument. It’s an argument famous within philosophy for being one of those things that either feels intuitively true or intuitively false. For me, it feels false.
Breathe by Darrell Foster – Darrell’s self-published autobiography. Darrell is Will Smith’s former trainer and close personal friend. Read this for research purposes.
I Will Teach You to Be Rich (2nd Edition) by Ramit Sethi – I read the first edition ten years ago. Still probably the best book on personal finance I’ve read.
Dreyer’s English by Ben Dreyer – Lot of hoopla in the publishing industry when this came out, as it was the first “definitive” writing/grammar/usage book in a long time. I struggled through it as I found the author’s condescension and satisfaction with his own cleverness to be tiring. But there were some interesting tidbits.
Bad Blood by Jon Carreyrou – Great story of the Theranos debacle. Not the best-written book in the world, but the story is so “holy shit” that it’s hard to put down.
Living 30 Days with a SEAL by Jesse Itzler – Read this mostly out of curiosity because the Navy Seal in this was David Goggins, author of the book above. Hilarious at times. Fun and easy read. Similar utility as Goggins’ book though — realization that we’re capable of so much more than we think.
On Freedom by Cass Sunstein – Interesting applications of Nobel-Prize winner Cass Sunstein’s “nudge” theories to the idea of personal freedom. It’s clear here that Sunstein is rebutting many of his critics. He argues that nudging people grants more freedom and personal agency and not less. Makes sense to me. A quick but academic read.
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande – Another book that there was a lot of fanfare but I didn’t totally “get.” The primary point—that much of what we’ve gained in longevity has been at the cost of a very poor quality of life—is important and something I had been exposed to a number of times. I was already convinced of the author’s arguments going into it, particularly about euthanasia, so I didn’t find it nearly as controversial as many people probably would.
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr – Karr wrote one of the most celebrated memoirs of the 20th century and teaches memoir writing professionally. Heading into working on Will’s book, I grabbed this in hopes it’d be helpful. Instead, I found it to be meandering and self-indulgent at times. One thing I found this year was that there are two different styles of memoirs. The first style is, “This is what happened.” The second style is, “This is how it felt.” I love the former and loathe the latter. Mary Karr seems to be firmly entrenched in the latter camp.
Upheaval by Jared Diamond – Half-baked theories, at best. I like a lot of Diamond’s work, but sometimes it feels like he’s grasping at straws. I only finished this because it summarized the history of a number of countries that was interesting to learn about.
Educated by Tara Westover – Probably the most celebrated memoir of the past couple years. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very good and a great story. But much like Hillbilly Elegy a few years ago, I was left wondering, “What’s everyone going on about?” Maybe it’s because I grew up in Texas around a bunch of religious loons, too, but I think what strikes most people as incredible and unthinkable in this book, I just see as sad and common.
Why Are Prices so Damn High? by Alex Tabarrok and Eric Helland – Self-published ebook by two economists arguing that the growth in cost of education and health care across the world is due to something called the Baumol Effect. Interesting argument. Very academic. It seems there’s something to their theory, although it seems unlikely the Baumol Effect explains everything. It’s free, if you care to read it.
The Great Successor by Anna Fifield – Biography of Kim Jong Un, or at least as much as we know about him. Fascinating read.
Conscious by Annaka Harris – Short and small book summarizing the current philosophical debate around consciousness, what it is, why we have it, can it be reproduced, and so on. Great primer. Well written.
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert – I love Gilbert, but I struggled to get through this one and skimmed through some chapters. I felt like a lot of the appeal was the sassy tone of the narrator. If you’re into the style, then the book could be a fun time. For me, it started to get old after a hundred pages or so.
Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt – Maybe Arendt’s most famous work and my favorite of the three books I read of hers this year. It’s a profile of Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the holocaust and his trial in Israel about ten years later. Arendt proposes her famous “banality of evil” thesis—i.e., that evil mostly happens due to boring, daily ignorance, rather than some masterminded hate-filled plan. Great read.
The History of Philosophy by AC Grayling – I loved this. Great summaries of the thoughts of every significant philosopher… ever. Plato, Aristotle, and my homeboy Kant get the longest treatments. But almost every entry is worth reading.
Range by David Epstein – Lot of fanfare around this one in the non-fiction world this year. It was well organized and well-written. I enjoyed it, although funnily, I didn’t see how much of it is related to the book’s thesis. More accurate title would probably be “counterintuitive conclusions to becoming more successful.” But hey, that’s not as catchy.
Between Past and Future by Hannah Arendt – I struggled to get through this and skipped some chunks of it. See my criticism of Arendt’s philosophical work below.
Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson – Founder of EFT, famous relationship therapy practice. I was familiar with EFT but bought the book just because I felt like I should read it and hadn’t yet. It’s good.
Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein – Seminal philosophical work by Wittgenstein. I get the appeal. I get why it was a big deal in the mid-20th century (back when the idea that everything could be quantified and measured was all the rage). Also get why Wittgenstein later disavowed it and called it naive. It was a nice little mental gym workout.
Existentialism is a Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre – Great primer to existentialist philosophy. Anyone who wants to know what existentialism is, this should be the first thing they read.
A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir – Memoir of Beauvoir’s mother dying and the aftermath. Touching. Beautiful. Very honest.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens – Probably the most successful fiction book of the year. Going to be honest, I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. I found the story to be hardly believable. And, I don’t know, something about southern accents in books just rubs me the wrong way. Yeah, I got baggage, what do you want?
Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant – Half memoir of Sandberg discussing her husband’s sudden and tragic death, and half career/professional advice for dealing with setbacks and adversity. Ironically, I thought the memoir about the husband’s death was by far the most interesting and useful part of the book. Not that the advice was bad, but it just felt hollow and lifeless in comparison to such an emotionally charged event. This could have and probably should have been two separate books.
A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami – I was in Japan and wanted to read some Japanese fiction. Murakami is one strange dude. Fun read though.
Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark – Was recommended this because of my AI chapter at the end of my new book. A lot of it was stuff I was familiar with. Sometimes I felt the author wandered into trying to explain too much. Probably needed to be edited more. My favorite parts were actually the short science fiction vignettes. I was kind of bummed he didn’t follow through on them until the end. But if you want a nice introduction to AI and the moral issues surrounding it, then this isn’t a bad place to start.
The Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir – I struggled to find Beauvoir’s point in this one. Which is a shame because I was really looking forward to it. I greatly enjoyed her other work I read this year, and I generally love ethical philosophy.
Feeding Your Demons by Tsultrim Allione – Fun self help book based on an obscure Buddhist practice. Very Negative Self Help-y.
Conscience by Patrica Churchland – A summary of the science behind where our sense of morality comes from. Much of this was rehash for me, but it was well-organized and well-written. Good starting point for those who care.
I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron – Hilarious short book written by the screenwriter and director Nora Ephron towards the end of her life. It’s kind of about aging, kind of about Hollywood and making movies, kind of about her life being a female journalist in the 1960s. Is it weird that I kind of had a crush on her by the end? I know she’s old enough to be my mother, but there’s a real joy that comes out in her writing.
Big Business: A Love Letter by Tyler Cowen – Cowen takes the contrarian position of arguing why a) corporations are great, and b) they deserve all the money they have. Not always convincing, but it’s convincing enough that it definitely softened my political views a bit. Definitely an important read in this day and age.
Permanent Record by Edward Snowden – Huge disappointment. The first half of the book is a tedious and overly-long description of a very average white middle-class childhood and adolescence. The second half is pretty much all of the stuff you’ve heard him say in interviews a dozen times, plus some technical details. Felt like a cash grab to me. As time goes on, I become less and less sympathetic towards this guy.
The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca by Emily Wilson – Interesting biography of one of the most interesting ancient philosophers. Seneca was not just a great writer and thinker in his time, but he was the advisor to emperors. He enjoyed great political power, wealth, and influence. Odd for a philosopher who wrote that we shouldn’t pursue any of those things. Wilson doesn’t solve this paradox of Seneca’s life and work. She just lays it all out for you and lets you decide for yourself.
Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke – Not written that well but these ideas are so important, I feel like everyone should be aware of them. Studying poker and playing it seriously for a year in my 20s was one of the most important educational experiences I’ve ever had in my life. The style of thinking I learned from poker applies to everything. Poker made me a better thinker and a better person. That may sound extreme, but other poker players will understand. If this was written really well, it’d probably be one of my most often recommended books.
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche – Short, simple read. Uses anecdotes from being a professional woman in Nigeria and in the US to make the simple argument that the gains we’ve made in women’s rights are a good thing. And should continue. Easy argument. Easy book.
Man’s Search for Himself by Rollo May – My first discovery of May, somehow this late in my life. Enjoyable experience in that I saw a lot of my own ideas reflected back to me, which is always nice.
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood – Incredible writer but… well, if I’m being blunt, I think she tries too hard. I get it, you’re quirky and funny. I also get it, your writing is brilliant and prose is gorgeous. But 200 pages in, nothing happened. Lockwood’s brilliant language seems a means to conceal herself, not reveal herself… which is ironic, since this is supposedly a tell-all about her early adult life.
The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal – Great research in this book. You’ll probably see some of it show up on the site in the coming year.
The Man Who Solved the Market by Greg Zuckerman – Biography of Jim Simons and the formation of Renaissance Technologies, the most successful hedge fund in known history. Interesting read if you’re into finance at all.
The Life of the Mind by Hannah Arendt – OK, I loved Arendt’s political writing but really struggled to get through her philosophical writing. I don’t want to presume too much, but she relies on referencing so much that I lose track of what her ideas actually are. I plowed through this book and the other one above because I kept assuming that I must be missing the thread here. It took me about 400 pages to finally admit that I just think she’s a convoluted thinker when it comes to philosophy. Reading this book, I feel like I learned far more about the beliefs of Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, and Heidegger than what Arendt believed.
The Will to Meaning by Viktor Frankl – About once a year, I have the experience of stumbling across someone who wrote about what I thought was my original and brilliant idea — and they wrote about it in a much better way than I ever could. This book was that experience for me this year. A lot of the thinking I’ve been doing around meaning, hope and reason in Everything is Fucked: A Book About Hope is, in many ways, summarized and explained better in this book.
Looking For More Books to Read?
The School is a collection of 6 brand-new video courses each with a pretty printable workbook, plus 3 bonus courses, ebooks on my favorite topics, commentaries on all my books, and a “library” of best books to read. Oh, did I mention I also do a live monthly webinar with members where I’ll answer all your questions and talk about tacos?
I also have an all-time recommended reading list which non-members can access. You’re welcome.