When social distancing stopped being the exclusive domain of introverts and curmudgeons, I resolved to catch up on Orwell and Austen and all those books piling up on my nightstand.
Only to find myself consuming too much Cabernet Sauvignon, liking every other Facebook post, and binging on Tiger King instead.
It can be a frustrating time to be alive. But it does not have to be. As long as you do not imitate my sorry ways and read something worthwhile. But like what, you may wonder? Let me present to you a non-scientific list of the best books I’ve read last year. This is four months late but probably never more timely.
As was the case last year when I wrote about the best books I read in 2018, I have selected five non-fiction books because:
- Non-fiction is better – and stranger – than fiction. Don’t believe me? Read the Washington Post.
- This is 5tern.com.
- Even numbers may be orderly but odd numbers are, well, odd in the most interesting way.
- You do not have time for 7.
- IDK. I wanted five reasons for selecting five non-fiction books but am hopelessly stuck at four.
Anyway, in no particular order, here goes:
Kirk Goldsberry’s book is a gorgeously written and illustrated ode to the most beautiful game known to mankind. Full of pithy sentences and frame-worthy infographics, the trained cartographer brings granular clarity to modern basketball by integrating and mapping shot charts to show how it’s evolved over time, for better and worse, to eliminate the mid-range shot.
If you want to understand how Mitchell Robinson, Trae Young, and Luka Doncic are the future of basketball, and why Karl Malone’s pick-and-pop, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook, and Michael Jordan’s fadeaway jumper are historical relics unlikely to be replicated, Goldsberry is your man.
Whether you are an occasional fan or a diehard obsessive, his visual and verbal depictions are candy for the eyes, catnip for the mind, and worth checking out.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark
Michelle McNamara was obsessed with serial murderers. Which is just an interesting way of saying she was obsessed with justice. And the best part? She administered it by sleuthing psychopaths from her laptop and giving unsolved mysteries unexpected endings.
Do not say you were not forewarned, though: this is not a book conducive to sleeping or working. I couldn’t do either when I opened the book. Finishing up a day later, I remember staying in the bathtub for an extra beat when I was supposed to be grading papers, staring at that tiny black spot on the ceiling, not wanting to get out and get with life.
“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark,” you threatened a victim once.
Open the door. Show us your face.
Walk into the light.
McNamara’s depictions of evil terrify; her clarity and compassion mesmerize; her search for light and right inspires.
Read. The. Book.
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
With a 912 page biography of Frederick Douglass that didn’t feel half that long, David Blight does a masterful job of capturing Douglass as who he was – a human being and a fascinating, self-made, towering genius.
What to the Slave is the 4th of July.
Douglass was born into chains but “prayed with [his] legs” by escaping, traded bread for education, shined a searing light at the “gross injustice and cruelty” of slavery through writing, speaking, and organizing, and supported women’s suffrage en route to becoming the most photographed American in the 19th century. Which is why the Obamas are reportedly working on making a NetFlix movie based on this book.
Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
Not to imitate my 7th grade English teacher, but read the book before you watch the movie.
King of the World
When I looked at the posters of Muhammad Ali on my dorm wall when I was an undergraduate student and imagined his boxing fights and his battles outside the ring, it was always in black and white. He fought boxers and won. He refused to go to Vietnam and won. He punched and changed the world.
But David Remnick’s lyrical narrative of Cassius Clay’s early years brings color to his journey – to the 1950s and the 1960s in which he grew up, and to the Muhammad Ali we remember today.
So many characters and moments are vivid in my imagination, several months after reading the book. The blistering stare and punching power of Sonny Liston. The soft eyes and wisdom of Floyd Patterson. The greatness of James Baldwin. The intellect of Malcolm X and his tragic friendship with Ali. The public enmity and private allegiance between Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. The curious exhortations of Elijah Muhammad. The unrepentant racism and petty meanness of sportswriters, political leaders, business owners, and so many ordinary (banal!) people.
And Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.? Muhammad Ali who shocked and changed the world? He was a fascinating human being, full of convictions and contradictions. He was tolerant and judgmental, insightful and dogmatic, charismatic and austere, an integrationist and a separationist, disciplined and impulsive, progressive and old-fashioned, all at once.
Today, “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” emblazoned on that famous photograph of Ali standing over Liston is no longer a black & white poster in my head. Thanks to King of the World, it is an intensely hued illustration of how an energetic human being rhymed, gloved, and paved his way through a tumultuous age to make it his own.
Man’s Search for Meaning
Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning has been described as one of the 10 most influential books in America and one of the 25 books that we’ve gotta read before we die.
But know what? We should read about Frankl’s internment at a concentration camp and his form of psychotherapy – logotherapy – long before we die.
In the book, he connects the particular with the general, anecdote with theory with extraordinary simplicity to illuminate how meaning is the fundamental quest for human beings.
Several (i.e., five) takeaways:
- Contrary to popular opinion, it is healthy to strive and struggle. Absent this tension, meaning is unlikely to be at its most meaningful.
- Suffering is unique. Not in that nobody else suffers because everybody suffers. But unique in the sense that while there are millions of snowflakes, there are no identical snowflakes. It is incumbent on us to find special meaning in our pain, to make it a vehicle to something more lasting, whether it be dignity, discovery, or discipline.
- Accepting personal responsibility is the path to well-being. It is not about blaming ourselves but about choosing the right mindset, which is entirely up to us. Even in the most atrocious of settings in the face of some of the most sinister plans ever known to mankind, Frankl points out that nobody can take away somebody’s ability “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
- Good and evil are rooted in personal choices, more so than group affiliations. As Frankl observes, there were decent Nazis and indecent prisoners at the concentration camp, leading him to conclude that there was no pure race but two races of people: the indecent and the decent.
- The future is more important than the past; others than the self. In contrast with Freud, for instance, who favors psychoanalysis to focus on the self to uncover dreams and unload anguish, Frankl makes a profound case that it is often more helpful to stop navel-gazing and to focus on what has yet to come.
So, what next? One is personal and the other professional. From now on, I will try to remind myself that it is my responsibility to choose how I wish to respond to a situation and find meaning, no matter how trivial or onerous.
The other is to cultivate the search for meaning in my students. Frankl cites a Johns Hopkins study which found that over 80 percent of college students were more concerned about finding their purpose in life than making money. Over 70 years later today, a cursory review of public opinion polls show a similar percentage in our youth. Not to mention the highest occurrence of anxiety and depression in any generation ever.
The least I can do, as a professor, is to encourage them to find meaning by creating work, experiencing something or somebody, or choosing our attitude by which to face hardship that cannot be avoided.
And by recommending them to read this book.
What about you? Have you read these books? If so, what did you think? Do you have a book to recommend for 2020? If so, hit me up and let me know.
Until more soon, stay well and stay the fuck at home, curmudgeon or not.