My best books of 2019

Unusually for me, most of my favourite books this year have been non-fiction, and it’s true that I’ve read a lot more of this kind of book in 2019. It’s probably due to a reorientation towards studying again, meaning that I have to spend most of my free time reading books that are mostly informative rather than imaginative. It’s also because I’ve started to embrace audiobooks – but only non-fiction ones – so that gives me more flexibility about my reading habits. That doesn’t mean these books haven’t deeply touched me though.

I’ve tried to pick books published in the last year or so, but much of the fiction I read is from previous eras.

So, in no particular order…

  • The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace Wells (2019)

I will always associate this book with the wonderful two weeks I spent back at what I consider my second home, Shakespeare and Company, in May. I was listening to it as an audiobook while having illuminating discussions with the staff and fellow tumbleweeds there about the climate crisis, and as I was starting to think more about studying Environmental Humanities come autumn. It’s truly one of the scariest books you will ever read – and while its alarmist messaging may make you want to dismiss it, Wallace-Wells himself is so sceptical and careful in his weighing up of the facts that he beats you to it, leaving no room for denial or false hopes of plan(et) Bs. It had my heart and my mind racing and I still feel its impact coursing through me and driving my actions on climate change.

  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (2019)

Recommended to me by a colleague who had just been to South Africa, I was astounded by how entertaining and colourful Trevor Noah’s memoir is. And again, it was all the more powerful for the fact that I encountered it as an audiobook, read by the author himself. Noah’s talent for accents adds an indispensable layer to the experience of going through this book – he is a comedian after all, and a very good one.

I had already been impressed by Noah’s nuanced understanding of and genuine interest in feminism in an interview with him I heard on Death, Sex, and Money podcast, and it all made sense after reading Born a Crime: the person who really shines through is Noah’s mother who brought him up (and decided to conceive him) more or less single-handedly – a defiant, strong-willed, tough person with a wicked sense of humour who really knows what she wants. If you are interested in South Africa and want to learn about what it was like to grow up with mixed heritage under apartheid, this is the book for you. I’ve now got tickets to see Trevor Noah live next year, and I can’t wait!

  • The Re-Origin of Species: A Second Chance for Extinct Animals by Torill Kornfeldt (2018)

This book was a combination of so many of my interests that I had very high expectations, and therefore could have been disappointed – but not at all. It’s an absolutely fascinating walk through the world of ‘de-extinction’, where hopeful scientists are trying to recreate species such as the passenger pigeon, the Pyrenean ibex, and, perhaps most famously, the woolly mammoth. Doing so is harder than it looks in Jurassic Park (1993) – reading this book taught me a fair bit about DNA sequencing, but perhaps the most revealing sections demonstrate the emotional investment made in bringing animals back to life. It’s a lot less about pure scientific boundary-pushing, and a lot more about redemption, than I would have thought. See also: Recovering Lost Species in the Modern Age: Histories of Longing and Belonging by Dolly Jørgensen (2019).

  • Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino (2019)

I’ve followed Jia Tolentino’s work for a long time, ever since she published a harrowing Q&A with a woman who had had a late-term abortion. I was always impressed by the quality of her writing and the subjects she chose to write about. Despite being only 30, she has already worked at the New Yorker for three years and I was so excited to find out she was publishing a book. Tolentino has been compared to Joan Didion, whose essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) is one of my favourite chronicles of the 1960s. And with good reason – both have a way of writing that is piercing, incisive without being judgemental. Trick Mirror is extremely good, ranging between such topics as how the internet is changing our behaviour and the phenomenon of “athleisure”, to the murky ubiquity of rape, and why marriage isn’t for her (one of the best essays).

  • Three Women by Lisa Taddeo (2019)

I listened to this as an audiobook while working at the Edinburgh International Book Festival over the summer. It was so good that I couldn’t wait to get started on listening to it every afternoon and evening as I walked the 25 minutes to start my shift. Interweaving the stories of the eponymous three women’s romantic lives, it can feel like listening to a good friend confiding their predicament. The extent of Taddeo’s research is impressive – she spent a decade “embedding” herself in the lives and social environments of the three women she bases her book on – and it pays off: emotional depth and complexity encapsulate these years of conversation and follow-up. I’d like to see more of this kind of writing. It felt like an almost revelatory format.

  • Pig: Tales From an Organic Farm by Helen Browning (2018)

Also a book I picked up at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Pig is an utterly charming window into the world of organic farming in Britain. As a longtime vegetarian whose grandparents are sheep farmers, I already felt some complicated intrigue about this book and hoped it would be insightful. I ended up loving it – Helen Browning, the head of the Soil Association, takes readers on a year-in-the-life of one set of pigs on her organic farm. From their piglet days to the slaughterhouse, you see how difficult farming is in general, but also the extra pressures of organic farming. The backdrop of Brexit Britain and its attendant opportunities (and costs) for farmers are handled by Browning’s wit and good-natured prose, even as she battles against the difficulties that come with trying to run a competitive and ethical agricultural business.

In terms of her attitude towards pigs, she is kind yet unsentimental; I recognise it from the way my own grandparents talk about their animals. In short, they love them – but they also love to eat them. There’s a kind of purity to this attitude, one I can respect far more than the average consumer of meat who doesn’t take a second to consider where it comes from, and the true cost – environmental and moral – of getting it onto their plate. I enjoyed Pigs so much, in fact, that I even signed up to be a member of the Soil Association. Now if that’s not an endorsement…

  • Underland by Robert Macfarlane (2019)

Wow. This book has rightly featured on many favourites lists, and Macfarlane is a stunning writer – travel writing can be a bit dull, but his ability to describe a scene is spellbinding. Of course, this is really much more than travel writing, for he delves into the histories of the places he visits and couples that with thoughtful musings on the present day. Filled with such buzzwords as “Anthropocene” that excite environmental humanities students like me, it’s hard to think of a book more perfectly timed for my studies. Although the prose can be a little portentous at times, I am so glad I finally read some of Macfarlane’s work and I will definitely be reading more. the stories of going underground beneath The chapters on the Paris catacombs, cave paintings in Norway, and underground deep cave networks in Italy are particularly good. In an odd coincidence that delighted me, I was in Bath with two friends at Christmas and spotted a mural of the Underland cover art on one of the streets there. I’m not sure who did it or whether it was the original – but I like to think Robert Macfarlane has seen it too.

Notable mentions

  • Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt (2019) – the latest offering from my favourite contemporary American fiction writer, a beautiful reflection on being a young woman in New York and how memory changes with age.
  • 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari (2018) – everything he touches turns to gold, and I loved this book almost as much as Sapiens (2011). With his signature blend of clean, humorous, pragmatic analysis steeped in his lifestyle of meditation and veganism, Harari is like a wise prophet atop a hill, looking out over it all.
  • Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (2009 / 2018) – I first became aware of Tokarczuk thanks to International Booker Prize-winning Flights (2007 / 2018), which was one of my favourite books last year. This is perhaps even better, a hilarious work of pseudo-crime fiction with a splash of feminist-vegetarian activism. It’s hard to think of a book that could have spoken to me more…

Either way, I’ve been reading in some pretty amazing places this year. So amazing that I can’t really believe it was all in the year 2019.

There was Ethiopia…

…followed by Melbourne …

… then there was Kefalonia…

and Sweden…

… and Edinburgh …

…As well as many other places along the way. So, it’s been a good year for reading (and travelling) 🙂

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