My Year in Books 2019

TL;DR This is my rundown of my reading year – not on a book by book basis, but a few thoughts and recommendations.

In 2019, I read a total of 30 books, which is about par for the course for me, a little more than last year, but nowhere near the 60+ books that all CEOs supposedly reads a year, if you believe all those speed-reading apps.

I’ve mixed and matched classic novels with work related books and other non-fiction and fiction titles. I didn’t leave any books unfinished, which is a good sign in some ways, but maybe also tells me that I didn’t push myself enough in terms of going outside of my literary comfort zone.

One of the books I had really looked forward to reading, and finally got around this year, was Gabriel Wyner’s “Fluent Forever”. I’m really into learning languages, but have always found that language classes, save for a very, very few that are prohibitively expensive, are a waste of time. So I was curious what Wyner’s approach was. I was pleasently surprised by how much his approach looked like the approach to general learning that was outlined in one of my favorite reads from last year, “Make It Stick” by Brown et al.

I also finished the Civil War Trilogy that I started last year. Where “Gods and Generals” that I read last year covered the build-up to the Civil War and the battles leading up to Gettysburg, the second one, “The Killer Angels” focused entirely on Gettysburg, and the third book, “The Last Full Measure” gave the account of the protracted final years of the war. Together, they offer a very complete history of the American Civil War, why it happened, and what was at stake. Focus is largely on the military leaders, so not too much on the suffering and victories seen from the average soldiers’ points of view, and if you’re not relatively familiar with the history, all the names can get a little confusing. A note if you’re looking to buy these books: they are a trilogy, but somewhat confusingly, the second book in the series is not written by the same author as the first and third book, and it was published first. Many years before the others, in fact. The explanation is that Michael Shaarah wrote “The Killer Angels” in 1974 as a stand alone book. In 2000, his son, Michael Shaarah, wrote and published “Gods and Generals” as a prequel his father’s book, and after that “The Last Full Measure” as a sequel.

One of the best books I read this year was “The Code Book” by Simon Singh. A history of codes and ciphers (including the difference between the two), it goes over man’s work to hide messages from prying eyes, from tattooing a message on a bald head and letting the hair grow, over Le Grande Chifre and the Enigma machine, to quantum computing. And manages to do it all in a manner approachable to everyone with an interest in the subject and a minimum of mathematical knowledge.

Another favorite was “You Are Now Less Dumb” by David McRaney, a book on the bias we humans succumb to, where they come from, and how to (try to) beat them. The introduction is one of the most mindblowing things I’ve read this year. The book itself is great, though the format does get a bit repetitious. And in spite of the subtitle’s promise to show you how to “outsmart yourself”, it spends most of it’s time showing you how you fool yourself. But a very enlightening read nonetheless.

I also read a few non-fiction books, and the best one was by a friend of mine who debuted as a novelist a few years ago (a little embarrassed that this was the first book of hers I read). “The Curfew Circle” by Nina Dreyer takes place in Ireland during the Irish war for independence, and follows a group of mediums in a Dublin paranormal salon who start trying to solve murders. I love Dublin, and this book really taps into the air of mystery that I’ve always felt that the city has, and the way that the paranormal elements are written are some of the best I’ve ever read. Big recommendation on this one.

I finished off the year with two behemoths. During a visit to my wife’s parents, I came across a couple of books on the history of the Middle East, Eugen Rogan’s “The Fall of the Ottomans; The Great War in the Middle East” and “The Arabs; A History”. I’ve traveled extensively in the Middle East, and have learnt some of the language and what culture aspects I’ve been able to pick up, but I’ve wanted to learn more about the region for a long time. So I borrowed both books and plowed through them. They are really great, though expect “proper” history books, with little to no dramatization and storytelling. “Arabs” covers Middle East history from the 1500s to today (I found myself wishing he had gone back a bit further, to cover the birth of Islam, as this becomes pivotal later), with relatively more of the book dedicated to the more modern history of the region. It passes rather lightly over World War I, as this is covered in detail in the other book, “The Fall of the Ottomans”. Here, we get the internal and external challenges to the Ottoman empire, the fateful (but historically completely understandable) allegiance with Nazi Germany, the famous battles, and ultimately, the breaking up of the Empire and what came after. Considerable time is spent on the diplomatic catastrophe that British Middle East politics in the latter part of the war, including the McMahon-correspondence, the Damascus Declaration, Sykes-Picot, and the Balfour Declaration. The aftermath, with particular focus on the Israel-Palestine conflict, and it’s effects on the entire region, is explored in “The Arabs”.

Ideally, the two books should be read in an intersecting way, starting the “The Arabs” up to the outbreak of World War I, then switching to “The Fall of the Ottomans” before returning to “The Arabs” for the decades following the war.

The books combined give a fascinating insight into Arab and Middle Eastern history, and show clearly how everything that happens, happens in a context of history; what came before shapes what is. We are not living in “a new age”, but simply in the most recent part of history.

I finished off the year lightly, by reading the newest edition of the annual book from one of my favorite podcasts, No Such Thing As A Fish, “The Book of The Year 2019”. A fun and easy read, highlighting some of the weirder things that have happened in 2019. Like the fact that the world’s biggest Noah’s Ark replica endured water damage due to rain.

So those are my highlights of 2019. On to 2020.

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