Following my yearly tradition – this is a quick round up of some of the best books I read in 2018. For previous roundups, see 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and to see all books I read this year, see Goodreads.
In 2014, I decided to read only books by women - 50, to be exact. Since then, I’ve been more flexible with my reading habits, but still tried to be intentional about hearing and learning from people with diverse experiences to my own.
This year, for the first time since 2014, I stopped keeping track of how many books I was reading by whom on a week-by-week basis (partly in annoyance at the glitchy Goodreads app, partly to reduce my self-quantification!), and instead, picked up whatever took my fancy, or whatever was gifted my way. At the end of the year, I looked over what I’d read, and discovered that I read 40 books, of which:
- 72% were by people of colour
- 88% were by women or non-binary people
These seem like pretty arbitrary quantifications of ‘diversity’ - so to add another axis, in 2019, I’d like to read more books in translation. If you have recommendations, I’m all ears!
From these 40, I picked out a few favourites below.
My Top Five
For me, the sign of a good book is that I find myself telling people about it during or after reading – which definitely applies to the below five. I ended up gifting a few of these further and recommending them to many people, too.
My top five books of 2018 were:
- Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, by Angela Saini
- Emergent Strategy, by adrienne marie brown
- Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge
- Tender, by Sofia Samatar
- Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor
Inferior covered a broader range of topics than I could’ve imagined, and boiled them down to incredibly accessible and easy to follow arguments, even when they were complex scientific notions. Saini covers arguments in a fair way, but in a way that makes it clear which is the most logical or rational approach. It filled me with astonishment, rage, and then perhaps naive astonishment again that there are so, so many ways that science (or rather - male scientists) misunderstood the way the world works because of sexism or misogynistic approaches to their work. Highly recommended, particularly for women who have felt that scientific or medical approaches don’t meet their needs (or, for men who want to understand why we’re so angry about this…)
Emergent Strategy is a book that has been recommended to me many times over the past couple of years, and I wish I’d listened sooner! Working in a non-profit organisation, one that tries to fight for social justice, it made me think a lot about what I do, how I do it and why I do it in a much broader sense than my usual day-to-day reflections. In particular, it made me want to work more on environmental justice issues, and to be more critical of projects or initiatives that are not achieving their purported goals, holding myself accountable for wasting resources.
Finally on the non-fiction front, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race was just fantastic. As a Brit, I was almost embarrassed that some of the topics covered were new to me, and I ended up recommending it broadly to other people with ties to the UK who told me similar things. The book came at a particularly relevant political moment, and I’m so glad it’s there to help us all learn from the country’s history. It was also a book which by way of its stunning design and title, prompted some diverse and fascinating responses from people.
On the fiction front, there were two books that stood out for me in different ways. The first, Tender, is a collection of short science fiction/fantasy stories that I received as a gift. As is almost always the case, there were some of mixed quality, but the vast majority were beautifully written and took my breath away. Each story is wholly unique and all are incredibly creative. I’m grateful to have received the book, as I hadn’t heard of her before and will definitely be looking her up more in the future.
Secondly, Akata Witch is a young adult novel by one of my favourite scifi/fantasy writers, Nnedi Okorafor, which I devoured. I read more young adult novels this year than previous ones - honestly, to begin with mostly in preparation for discussions I moderated with authors in the ‘young adult’ section of the International Literature Festival in Berlin - but I came to appreciate the art of a good young adult book this year particularly. As an adult, they make for refreshing, relatively quick reading, and the good ones have really stayed with me.
Honourable Mentions: Fiction
I was gifted The End We Start From, by Megan Hunter, this year, and it was an unexpectedly beautiful and gripping read. I knew next to nothing about it before starting reading, and though it was written in an unusual, sparse way, for me it hit a perfect balance of weaving the story, and leaving space for my own imagination to fill in gaps.
I thoroughly enjoyed a few more science fiction/fantasy/magical realism stories this year, including Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi. I was lucky enough to moderate a discussion with Akwaeke in September as a side event to the Literature Festival in Berlin, which is just a wonderful way of getting to know the story behind the book. The book is hard-hitting and refreshingly creative in its storytelling.
The third in Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series came out this year – The Will to Battle - and given how much I enjoyed the whole series, I couldn’t not mention it here. They are without a doubt the most complex worlds I’ve come across in a long time, but the investment in taking your time as a reader to understand what’s going on is wholly worth it. I honestly can’t imagine how much time it took for Palmer to build this world, let alone follow it through three intricate but gripping books.
Honorable Mentions: Non-Fiction
Love and Courage: A Story of Insubordination. I picked this up at a conference in 2017, and was glad I finally got round to reading it. It’s a stunning memoir of the life of Pregs Govender, an activist and politician from South Africa. The book combines her own personal struggles with some country-changing debates – essentially, it’s a book about power, micro and macro. It reminded me slightly of another one of my favourite books by another South African author, Antje Krog’s Country of My Skull (also highly recommended!).
The final two I think fall within the genre of ‘microhistories’. Firstly: Respectable: The Experience of Class, by Lynsey Hanley - a book which I didn’t realise I’d been looking for, but which answered so many of my questions. One thing that’s struck me over and over again since leaving the UK for Germany nearly 8 years ago has been how different performances of class are in each country. This book dives into class in the UK in a hugely accessible combination of personal experience (the author grew up in a working-class family before becoming an academic) - and theoretical, also managing to bring in sociological theories and work on the topic of class.
Finally, Built: The Hidden Stories Behind our Structures, by Roma Agrawal, was truly fascinating. Again, it’s a combination of personal experience with theoretical expertise, and makes for a really readable and accessible book. The author, an engineer herself, manages to explain complex topics in small, digestible chapters.