Talking about the best books of any given year is easy enough. Or at least I imagine—I’d never be able to do it. For that I rely on those with the patience, resources, and time to seek out the latest literary achievements, year by year, so the rest of us can avoid the slog altogether.
With all those resources behind me, I don’t imagine it’d be hard to identify the best of the year. Yet just like the rest of us, I’m forced to stick to a handful I’ve carefully weighed against a hundred thousand other, potentially better options. Sometimes they’re good. Other times not so much.
This past year I found myself free of school for what seems like the first time in my life. Despite spending the first third of 2016 buried in textbooks and scholarly databases, I still managed to do more pleasure reading in these last eight months than I have since 2011 (when I first began tracking my stats via Goodreads).
In total, I read 32 books, over 10,000 pages, and absolutely loved myself for it. Not all were new releases, and some were less enjoyable than others. But overall I’m grateful to have read some profoundly amazing works. Not to mention I’ve come away a better person for it.
I’m a firm believer in the ability of art to change a person. Not only in the way they think and see the world, but in the way they act, the way they treat others, how they react to the world around them. And in a lot of ways, I’ve changed significantly as a person since starting this post-graduation quest.
So no, I’m not going to write about the “best,” although some of these have been labeled as such in years past. Rather, here are the books that changed me the most in 2016:
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
On it’s surface, McCarthy’s most recent novel (now aging past it’s 10th anniversary) examines the emptiness of suffering in a material world. Cannibals horde humans like cattle in their basement; a father teaches his son how to fire a gun in the direction of his own head; together they starve and wither on the road.
A close reading, however, reveals the exact opposite. Interspersed throughout their travels are glimpses of intense light—intimate moments between the father and son, acts of grace extended to those they meet, and the ultimate restoration of a broken relationship. (I’ve covered this argument at length elsewhere, for those still unconvinced).
With The Road, McCarthy depicts the transcendent nature of suffering, how it leads humanity toward something much higher than itself. It may not always be as clear cut as that, as an explanation for suffering never is. And the journey may be extraordinarily difficult. But the tale depicted by McCarthy is nevertheless breathtaking for how it balances beauty and terror.
My own circumstances differed wildly from those in the book. When I first read The Road, I was finishing my final year of undergrad. I was running low on energy and determination. And along came this novel—one of nothing but sheer determination. It reinvigorated me in a lot of ways, and I wonder how different those last few months would have looked without it.
It’s a book that I’ve thought back to countless times since finishing it, and it’s one that I imagine I’ll revisit for many years to come.
(C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain should get an honorable mention credit here, as it also helped to conceptualize the sacredness of suffering in ways that complemented my reading of The Road.)
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Unlike The Road, I don’t believe I’ll revisit Infinite Jest—probably ever. Read over a two month period, this book took tremendous devotion to even sit down and face some days. Its massive length was a serious project to tackle, and I can’t really see myself taking it on a second time.
That said, I am profoundly glad to have read this book. To say Wallace’s magnum opus is about any one thing is ridiculous, but its 1100+ pages (including endnotes) cover such themes as addiction, entertainment, family, and so much more. Is massive length aside, it’s hard even start with this book’s effects on me.
Perhaps my favorite moment comes when Marathe, a member of a Canadian terrorist cell known as the AFR, has a serious discussion with a drunk romantic. He tells her about a period of aimlessness in his early twenties. Rather than fight the advances of Germany in WWI, he roams the Swiss countryside: “I see no point and do no work and belong to nothing; I am alone.”
Then one day he becomes a hero. He wanders the hills thinking of suicide, when he sees a woman stuck on the Provincial Autoroute, a truck barreling toward her. He races to save her. The woman, born with physical mutations that left her without a skull, later becomes Marathe’s wife—but not because of any eye-catching, knee-weakening romantic phenomenon.
The woman suffers numerous injuries from the incident (“troubles of the digestive tracking,” “frequency of coma,” “cerebro-and-spinal fluids which dribbled at all times from her distending oral cavity”). Yet right when Marathe turns to leave her, he feels the same emptiness as before. He decides that choice is better than no-choice, though this may appear antithetical to what we call happiness or freedom. He chooses to stay with her and care for her, eventually choosing to marry her.
As Marathe says in his flawless French dialect, “No, but this choice, Katherine: I made it. It chains me, but the chains are of my choice. The other chains: no. The others were the chains of not choosing.” No matter what we fill our time with, we’re giving ourselves to something. Maybe it’s a choice; maybe not. But we’re all addicts. We all worship something. We all have chains. It just matters whether they’re chains of our own choosing.
Infinite Jest has influenced me a lot, but if there’s one I could most easily pinpoint, it’s being more thoughtful in what I give myself to, how I use my time, and what I choose to focus on. That alone has changed me in many ways.
Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
It’s difficult to come away from a book like Here I Am without feeling like you’ve gone through something intensely personal. The novel tells the story of a family slowly unraveling from each other, while a conflict in the Middle East shows the world at large to be unraveling as well. It’s a novel about the painfulness of intimacy, about struggling to keep oneself open and honest in a relationship. And spoiler: the dog dies. In other words, it will wreck you.
As Foer’s first novel in over 10 years, there was obviously a lot riding on its success. Gone are some of the quirks that turned people off in the past—the playful use of typography, full-page images, a flipbook in the back. There is still a great deal of “cutesy” dialogue that critics seem to despise, and Foer’s sense of humor is awkward and embarrassing as ever. But the novel is a little more serious than his past works, a little less fantastical, and at times feels much more grounded.
Of course, Foer has experienced a great deal himself over the past 10 years. His main character, Jacob, writes for a show that never sees the light of day. He wins the National Jewish Book Award. He gets divorced. Elements like these mirror Foer’s personal life to a tee, making the novel undeniably autobiographical in places. This can make it feel uncreative, but also extraordinarily intimate (and a little uncomfortable).
But that’s just the point. He writes, “Alone, one can live perfectly. But not a life.” It may be a struggle to maintain relationships, but that struggle is what it’s all about. Foer draws this struggle in biblical proportions, comparing it to Jacob wrestling the angel: “What we don’t wrestle we let go of. Love isn’t the absence of struggle. Love is struggle.”
Here I Am may have changed my thinking, but it also influenced me toward action—trying to be more open, more vulnerable in my relationships, doing what is difficult instead of what is comfortable. For that alone, I’m grateful to Foer for daring to write this strange, beautiful novel.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
To be fair, I read Gilead for the first time in 2015. But having recently picked up the other two books in Robinson’s trilogy (Home and Lila), I felt it appropriate to revisit John Ames and the small town of Gilead before returning to the others. It turns out, I didn’t know how much I needed it.
I read this book just a few days after the election. It was the end of a tiring season for all of us, regardless of whose side you were on. In the midst of so much bile and negativity, I spent the majority of the election cycle feeling pretty tired. Spend too much time focusing on this sort of thing, and you start develop a deep cynicism that touches everything, in and out of politics.
Thankfully, Marilynne Robinson is not one for cynicism. I’ve never read anything that was so finely in tune with the beauty of existence—with the wonder of life in and of itself. It brought me a lot of peace and provided me with the grace to (I hope) keep level-headed in my interactions that difficult week.
Gilead is written as a letter from a dying father to his young son. Often, this letter delves into philosophical and religious ponderings, making it feel more an extended essay than anything. It’s the sort of book you’ll want to highlight extensively. At the same time, it’s not going to preach at you: “Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.”
Instead, Robinson just relishes in all things, big and little, and finds joy in them. It’s one of my all-time favorite novels, one that I expect to read again and again for years to come.
The Mad Men Carousel by Matt Zoller Seitz
The last one on this list may seem slightly out of left field, but it’s had just as much impact on me as the others. Matt Zoller Seitz dissects every episode spanning Mad Men‘s seven-season run with such clarity and precision, it’s essential reading for any fans of the show. And seeing as Mad Men is likely my all-time favorite show, The Mad Men Carousel was a perfect fit for me.
But how exactly did a book like this “change” me? To start, I spent the first half of 2016 rewatching the show with my now-fiance, while reading each successive chapter in the book. It served as a great conversation-starter for us and led to some fun debates. That alone was worth it.
Furthermore, how often do you get to pick through an entire show and get that deep of an analysis? The book served as an in-depth study not just of the show, but taught me some serious lessons art in general. It deepened my perspective of what a great work can be, even rivaling some of my English courses from college. (If you doubt that, let me direct you to an entire college course dedicated to the show).
Overall, the book inspired me to look even closer at my favorite works and examine every possible layer, getting as close to the core as possible. It’s given me a better eye for absorbing great art and actively engaging with it on every level. And as difficult as the show can be, I can see myself watching a third time, if only because of this book.
– – – – –
What are some books you read this year that influenced you? Let’s hear it in the comments!