The Best (and Weirdest) of the Last 300 Books I’ve Read
24 Exceptional Titles from My Reading Record
Recently I reached an anniversary—the 14th anniversary of when I started keeping track of every book I’ve read. I started writing down all the books I read back in August of 2008, when I was 17 years old, so I have effectively kept a record of every book Iʼve read during my entire adult life.
During those 14 years, I finished exactly 300 books. (A book doesnʼt go into the record unless Iʼve read the whole thing, cover to cover, so many other books I’ve skimmed or read parts of don’t count.) A total of 300 books finished over exactly 5,114 days means that I read one book every 17 days, on average, or just over 21 books per year.
I wonʼt write at length about my reading habits, but suffice it to say that Iʼve had my ups and downs with making time for books, and the number I read per year declined during the first several years of my teaching career. Nevertheless, Iʼm very glad I stayed consistent in keeping a record of all the books I finished: Itʼs given me motivation to keep reading at as steady a rate as I can, and the ability to reflect on my reading without fear of forgetting any books (although I do still forget their content, even if I’ve record their titles). This year I also started using StoryGraph, which is great for providing more detailed analysis of my reading, keeping lists of books I own and want to read, and making recommendations for me. (I believe itʼs good to use an alternative to Goodreads, which is owned by Amazon.)
Now feels like a perfect time to pause and reflect on the last 300 books Iʼve read, and I thought I could even name some “awards” for the ones I believe were most exceptional. I didnʼt want to get carried away with giving awards in too many categories, so the three categories are as follows: Weirdest Book, Best Work of Non-Fiction, and Best Work of Fiction. Each category will have eight nominees, and nominees are listed in the order I read them.
Letʼs get started!
Nominations for Weirdest Book
By “weirdest,” I mean I wanted to think of the books Iʼve read that were the most surprising and unique, in either good or bad ways (but mostly good). All of these books are ones I enjoyed, but each one contained some “weird” elements that made the reading experience particularly unique. My “weird” may not be the same as someone elseʼs, but I still expect most people would find these nominees noteworthy and interesting.
And the nominees are:
Flatland, Edwin A. Abbott
Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), Ciaran Carson, translator
La Leçon (The Lesson), Eugène Ionesco
Red: A Haida Manga, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas
Raven Stole the Moon, Garth Stein
Ishmael, Daniel Quinn
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon
My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk
And the Award for Weirdest Book Goes to…
Flatland, by Edwin A. Abbott.
All of the nominees are weird in their own unique ways, and I strongly recommend taking a look at all of them. However, it was probably always going to be difficult for the other nominees to compete against Flatland, which is a Victorian novella set in a world of two-dimensional geometry. It’s possible I have a bias against books framed by mathematical concepts, since Flatland is the only such book I’ve ever read. Nonetheless, I think pretty much anyone would agree that it’s weird! I especially recommend it if you or someone you love will be taking a geometry course, or if you’re just looking for a “novel” way to understand dimensions.
Nominations for Best Work of Non-Fiction
This award has to be the closest to my heart, since I read far more non-fiction than fiction. However, I decided to save the Best Work of Fiction award for last, since I figure fiction receives more attention from most people. I am a history teacher, so most of the non-fiction I read is history-related. However, you may see some surprises here that are not strictly history books. Since I do read so much non-fiction, every one of these nominees is quite special: In order to make the list, the books needed to be superbly well-written, possess few flaws in my eyes (if any), and have played a pivotal role in giving me a new perspective or shedding new light on a subject I found incredibly interesting and important.
And the nominees are:
King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild
The Golden Spruce, John Vaillant
The Discovery of France, Graham Robb
Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization, Stephen Kotkin
The Collected What If?: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, Robert Crowley, editor
Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900, Alfred W. Crosby
Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, Pekka Hämäläinen (Read my review!)
Paying the Land, Joe Sacco
And the Award for Best Work of Non-Fiction Goes to…
Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization, by Stephen Kotkin
I’ve even surprised myself with the winner for this award. It might seem logical that if non-fiction books are my favorite, and Magnetic Mountain is my choice as the best non-fiction I’ve read in the last 14 years, then Magnetic Mountain must be my favorite book. I don’t think I would say that, though. Rather, Stephen Kotkin’s work on Stalinism is the book that stands out from all my favorite non-fiction as the work without any weaknesses. There are books I have more fond memories of, and books that taught me more information that I find more important to my life. In the case of Magnetic Mountain, however, the historical insights this book provides and its ability to transport a reader into the past are unparalleled. I’ve never read its equal.
Nominations for Best Work of Fiction
The final award! As I mentioned, I donʼt read as much fiction as non-fiction, but that also means Iʼm usually very choosy about the works of fiction I do read. At least three of the nominees were recommended to me by my wife, so I have to thank her for her impeccable recommendations. (She is a far more voracious reader than I am, especially of fiction, so she only recommends the very best—or best-suited—for me.) My favorite elements in fiction may not be the same as yours, but I hope you’ll find this list interesting nonetheless.
And the nominees are:
The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein
A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin
Serena, Ron Rash
Legend of a Suicide, David Vann (Read my review of Vann’s work!)
Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi (Read my review!)
Pachinko, Min Jin Lee
And the Award for Best Work of Fiction Goes to…
Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi
This award should not be a surprise if you’ve read my review of Gyasi’s work. Clearly, the nominees included some very different types of books, and it was difficult to compare them. In this case, however, historical fiction is my favorite type of fiction, and Homegoing is my favorite work of historical fiction, so that logic brings this book its award. You should absolutely read my review of Homegoing to fully understand how I feel about it, but in short—it fulfills everything I hope for most in a work of fiction. I would not necessarily say it is my favorite work of fiction ever, as there is serious competition from books I read over 14 years ago (and sorely need to read again). Nevertheless, I expect it will remain a book that I will strongly recommend to anyone for many, many years to come.
I hope you enjoyed my retrospective on the weirdest and best of the 300 books Iʼve read in the last 14 years. Please leave a comment mentioning any of the books I listed that youʼve read, and whether you agree with my nominations and awards. Or, feel free to give me recommendations for future reading!