January is almost over, so I’d better post this before it’s too late! I’ve long wanted to do a “Best Books I’ve Read” post, but in past years, I’ve hesitated because, since my reading taste is so varied, it makes it difficult to compare books to one another. Still, as an avid reader, I want to recommend my favorites, especially since many of the books I enjoyed last year are less well-known than those you might find on other, similar lists.
Overall, I read 65 books last year, which was more than I read in 2021, though I read slightly fewer pages. Many of those books were 19th central novels, as I was doing researching for a major writing project. Related to the same project, I also reread all of the original Sherlock Holmes series, and, because of the Netflix adaptation, I reread the entire Sandman comics series as well. Many of the Holmes and Gaiman books would have made the list if this was the first time I was reading them, but I decided not to include them below. Also, while I thoroughly enjoyed each of these chunks of my reading list, it meant that I didn’t get to read as many contemporary books or books about writing craft/the creative life as I usually do. I intend to read more of these in the coming year, as well as to read more diverse authors, more poetry, and more non-fiction in the coming year.
I’ve divided the best books I’ve read into categories below to help you find what you’re most interested in reading.
Best Book I Read Last Year Overall: Fables, by Robert Louis Stevenson
This lesser-known Stevenson book is a collection of short fables, which while they play off of traditional fables and fairy tales, are subversive in their intent. These stories, which vary in length, criticize people who blindly follow societal and religious conventions, flipping the traditional purpose of the instructive fairytale on its head. They are also read really modern for a book written so long ago, with some stories, like “The Person’s of the Tale” where characters from Treasure Island debate morality during a “break” between two chapters, bordering on the post-modern. The stories, as you might imagine from a master like Stevenson, are beautifully written, and I found the anti-groupthink message particularly relevant given the current social and political climate. There is also, an excellent podcast, Evening Under Lamplight, where Robert Louis Abrahamson reads and discusses each of the fables. He covers Stevenson in season 3, and if you are a fan of audiobooks, this may be the best way to consume Stevenson’s Fables.
Best Poetry Book I Read Last Year: Baseball Haiku: The Best Haiku Ever Written About the Game, edited by Cor Van Den Heuvel and Nathan Tamura.
I picked this one up on whim from a free giveaway table, in the snow, outside of a baseball card shop in Cooperstown. The store was about to close for the season, and was giving stuff away. This book includes a selection of both Japanese and American Haiku about baseball, including Jack Kerouac’s first haiku (super cool) and haiku by many historical Japanese masters. The poetry is excellent, but what really sets the book apart is Van Den Heuvel’s introduction which is, by far, the best introduction to haiku I’ve read. I learned so much both about the technical craft aspects of writing haiku and about the history of haiku in each country from his essay, and the information and analysis he provided enhanced my enjoyment of the poetry that followed.
Best Novel I Read This Year For The First Time: Daniel Deronda, by George Elliot
I read this book as part of my above-mentioned research. I was searching for a compelling female character from the second half of the 19th Century who survived until the end of her book (harder than it sounds, btw), and this book features two of them (no spoilers). Though I went into it for research purposes, I ended up really enjoying this book. It’s a big book, which we might expect from Elliot, and unlike her other books, it is set close to the time period in which she wrote. It reminded me of a Jane Austen book, but one which featured a double plot with a twist, similar to a Charles Dickens novel. If that’s your type of thing, you should check it out. It is also one of only two “classic” British books with a fair and sympathetic depiction of Jewish people, which I appreciated as a person of Jewish descent (the other being Ivanhoe). More so than other book in the canon, it gets the Jewish parts rights. The research into Jewish history and culture is impressive and accurate, which only added to my enjoyment.
Best Independent/Small Press Book: Dark Black, by Sam Weller
The first thing you will notice about this book is how beautifully it’s put together. Each of the gothic horror short stories is accompanied by a hauntingly exquisite black and white illustration. Beyond the presentation, the stories work. They are deceptively sparse, but linger long after they’ve been read. Weller is Ray Bradbury’s biographer, and clearly, he learned something from the great master’s early, gothic work.
Best Comic/Graphic Novel (Non-Reread Division): Barbalien–Red Planet, by Lemire, Brombil et al.
While this book is part of the Black Hammer universe, Barbalien is basically a self-contained story which you can read without having read the rest of the Black Hammer books. It is an original take on a superhero comic, and deals with the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. It deals with weighty issues like persecution against the gay community without being preachy, and somehow tells an entertaining story while dealing with a big, dark societal issues. The art is retro as well, right down to the number of panels on each page, which fits the story well. I always try to read at least one book from the New York Public Library’s Best Books of the previous year. (I started 2023 with the ambitiously original My Volcano, by John Elizabeth Stintzi), and Barbalien was a worthy selection on the 2021 list.
Best Non-Fiction Book: Dinosaurs in the Attic, by Douglas J. Preston
I’ve been going to the American Museum of Natural History essentially since I was born. I know the museum like the back of my hand, and still enjoy going there. I picked up this book in the gift shop the first time I took my kids back to museum after the pandemic. It is essentially a narrative history of the museum’s founding and early history, and it not only taught me about the museum’s past, but made the experience of going to the museum after I read even more enjoyable. The sections about dinosaurs and gems are particularly good, but I also enjoyed the smaller anecdotes, such as the story of the chimpanzee whose stuffed body sits near the third floor bathroom outside of where one of the current temporary exhibition galleries lets out. That monkey used to run around the museum offices and ride its tricycle through the city!
Book That Helped My Writing Craft The Most: Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth, edited by Catherine Mcllwaine
The books which help my writing most aren’t always books about writing. A couple of years back, it was a book of interviews with the painter Joan Miro. This year it’s an exhibition catalog.
I often purchase the exhibition catalog when I particularly enjoy a show at a museum. Often, these books, while they are good reminders of the show, are, ultimately, disappointing, as something is lost in terms of scale and texture when the art is translated from the wall to the printed page. This is not an issue in this book, however, as the Bodleian traveling Tolkien exhibition this book is based on consists of largely of Tolkien’s manuscripts, letters, and ephemera. Tolkein’s watercolors and drawings also translate well to this format because they are generally on a smaller scale and do not rely on texture and brushstrokes as much as, say, a Van Gogh or a Jackson Pollack. Thus, this was one of the best exhibition guides I’ve read.
The reason it is on this list, however, is because of the scholarly and biographical articles which are included in this volume. Tolkien is my favorite writer, and the reason started writing myself, but I still learned a lot about his life and about his group The Inklings while reading this book. Moreover, there were articles which directly affected the way I approach my craft. These articles explored Tolkien’s use of language. I wrote about one of them here.
Well, that’s my list. What were some of your favorite books you read last year? Let me know in the comments.