Best Books of 2018
This year, Run Spot Run has had the pleasure of reviewing ninety books ranging from high literature to historical nonfiction to comics and graphic novels. It’s an honor to share our opinions and help guide wayward readers towards a book they might have missed, or, in some cases, away from a title better left untouched. As the year winds down, we wanted to present you with our Top 5 books of the year, consisting of a single selection from each of our critics.
Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, The Overstory is a powerful, intricately organized literary novel that interweaves the stories of nine disparate characters who have one thing in common – trees. Each of their lives has meaningfully intersected with the lives of trees, a statement I’m guessing Richard Powers would say is true of us all, the question being whether or not we recognize it. During the novel, one of the characters makes the observation that “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” Powers’ superpower (Can I say that?) is melding science with story, and here he does it to change our understanding of the natural world and our place in it. Weeks after closing the covers on this novel, I find myself viewing trees differently than I had – paying attention to them, touching them, learning their names, and recognizing, as I pass a tree in town or on a hiking trail, that they aren’t merely furniture in the unfolding drama of my life, but living beings with agency. This is a very good story.
In Washington Black (which was also shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize) Esi Edugyan imbues a Victorian-era storytelling sensibility into an American origin story. The saga of the slave George Washington Black, a “disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas,” is positively Dickensian in its prose and structure. It is a hopeful, life-affirming and often quirky bildungsroman, a joyous and rapturous adventure of a sort that feels all too absent in contemporary literature. Washington Black is transportive fiction at its finest; it is the kind of story that if it were serialized in the nineteenth century, rapt readers would wait at the docks for the next installment’s delivery. I’m giving this book to multiple people this holiday season — it’s a perfect, memorable and meaningful journey. I also quickly added Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues to my to-be-read pile and am eager to check it out. I think she’s an author to watch.
Much like libraries themselves, it’s easy to get lost in the twists and turns Susan Orlean’s tale about the fire that destroyed a million books in Los Angeles’ Central Library takes. Ostensibly, the story is about a massive fire, but in Orlean’s skilled hands, it’s also a page-turning forensic crime story, a profile of a kid trying to make it in Hollywood, an examination of the role of librarians as social workers, a peek behind the scenes of an important institution, and, ultimately, a beautiful elegy to her mother. Orlean’s warm, masterful storytelling in The Library Book is narrative nonfiction at its best, and the feelings it brings up are all of the reasons why we read.
Never before has it been this easy to select the year’s top entry. Since reading The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky back in March, I have mentioned it in several conversations whenever the topic of books comes up. The story is a life-spanning illustration of a person who cultivates lofty artistic goals but never quite gets around to them. Depending on the angle from which you approach the novel, you could read it as a wake-up call to get going on those aspirations you’ve been postponing, or, you could just as plausibly read it as a celebration of the infinite joys to be had in embracing the decision to settle down. Rich with observational humor and insight, Chomsky is very simply a book that everyone needs to know about. I was fortunate enough to meet Casale during her book tour. She cares about the art and craft of writing as much as one possibly could.
A “best book” should speak to the reader in some visceral, elemental way. It can be the beauty of the language, the intricacy of the plot, or the emotions that book conjures. That book may change one’s thinking or reinforce long-held beliefs. The book that most resonated with me in 2018 was The Best Cook in the World by Rick Bragg. Bragg is a very fine wordsmith who is not afraid to let the vernacular of his ancestry and youth (and, truth be told, the vernacular of today) spill onto the page. Hear him talk about a book then read his memoirist works and you can hear his voice. His books about his family continue the great storytelling tradition of the South. He is simply, in a very polished and erudite manner, holding a conversation with his readers in the shade of the front porch, perhaps with a jug of whiskey or a jar of well water.
Happy holidays to all, and thank you for reading. We will be back in January for another great year.