Happy New Year, Friends!
I hope that the start to your year has been a joy! And if not, that things turn sunshiney and bright soon!
I successfully completed my 2019 reading challenge!
And boy does 30 books in a year feel good.
I’ve heard a lot skepticism about New Year’s resolutions and goal-setting this year, but personally, I’m a fan (see my first post from a few years ago on resolution-making). The most common objection I’ve heard is that short-term resolutions miss the point that improvements are lifelong, not momentary. In other words, naysayers claim that a life well-lived is one of consistency and discipline, not merely of patting oneself on the back for a resolution that’s been checked off the proverbial checklist.
But I think this objection misses the point. The purpose of a resolution is not usually one and done. Resolutions, so often invoked at the New Year, are a chance to set new habits (or renew old ones) that should lead to the cultivation of discipline as a lifelong practice.
That is — or rather, should be — their purpose.
That’s why, in 2020, given the pace of my life, I’m committing to reading 30 books again.
I’ve got big plans for this year and reading isn’t the only one of them. I fell back in love with reading in 2019 and I want to stay in love with reading in 2020.
Maybe you want to fall back in love with reading, too!
If you’re eager to start your own reading challenge, maybe it’s 30 books, or more, or less, I want to give you a few book recommendations to jump-start your 2020. These were my three favorite books I read last year, with two more as honorable mentions/bonus books.
1. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi. An auto-biography, When Breath Becomes Air, drops you into the life of up-and-coming neurosurgeon, Paul Kalinithi, who receives an unexpected diagnosis of terminal cancer in his early 30s. It takes you on a journey exploring the meaning of life and death as Kalinithi grapples with these concepts during his final days. It is about the eternal and the present simultaneously and its beautiful prose calls you to contemplate the meaning of your own life and death. Easily in my top three books I’ve ever read.
2. A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer duBois. After observing the slow, painful disintegration and eventual death of her father at the hands of Huntington’s disease, main protagonist, Russian-American academic Irina, discovers that she will unquestionably suffer the same fate as her father. After his passing, she searches for any link to her father’s life when he was healthy and thriving and discovers a letter written by her father to famed Russian-chess-player-turned-politician, Aleksandr Besetov. Irina and Aleksandr’s lives become inextricably linked across oceans and later in-person after Irina determines to meet him. Through beautiful and unexpected parallels to the actual game of chess, duBois does a masterful job tying two seemingly disparate lives together in a narrative of striving, suffering, and set-backs that, in the end, will leave you wanting more.
3. Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. A fascinating book written well before its time, Postman argues that the medium through which we receive information matters. People getting information from TV process it differently than if they were reading it in a pamphlet or book or listening to an old school debate between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. He contends that people should not treat TV as anything more than it is — entertainment — and that any attempts to do otherwise is detrimental to thoughtful intellectual discourse. His arguments have implications for the modern technological age and are worth considering more deeply especially as our lives increasingly intersect with the media around us.
4. Human Acts by Han Gang. This book is written from the perspective of multiple participants in South Korea’s democracy protests in Gwangju during the 1980s. The book itself is a written work of art that demonstrates incredible empathy and the ability to see conflict from all sides — even from the perspective of those who gave their last full measure of devotion as part of the protests. I found it especially enlightening to read at the time that I did — right before protests erupted in Hong Kong. Those working with me at the time know that this work influenced some of my thinking on modern events.
5. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I don’t know whether I’m compelled to include this book on the list because it was so long and therefore it took up so much of my headspace or because I was actually intrigued by the story. Maybe both?
If you choose to read it, prepare to enter some dark headspace as you experience a boy processing his life after experiencing multiple heart-rending tragedies. Tartt uses a painting, the Goldfinch, as a masterful plot device for the many terrors the main character undergoes. I’ve heard many say that Goldfinch is already a classic. And perhaps I agree, but if it is, it is undoubtedly a modern one that fails to draw any clear conclusion on right from wrong in a cohesive manner. I’m not sure that it meets the standard of great literature because of this, but it certainly does pose some worthwhile questions, and at least for me, led me to enter a headspace I am not used to dwelling in. Hence, it’s inclusion on this list.
(A cautionary note: Do not read if you’re in a dark place. I could see how it could lead to a spiral of depression if you’re in the wrong emotional state to start with.)
I certainly hope that these recommendations lead you to start your own personal challenge. No matter how big or how small, it is always worthwhile to get back into reading. If you do decide to join me in a reading challenge of your own, drop a comment below, so I can offer encouragement to you throughout the year to stick with whatever marvelous plan you devise.