My Book Recommendations (And Those to Avoid) from 2019

Over the course of 2019, I challenged myself to read more, because I wanted to grow as a creative individual and a professional, and, more broadly, I wanted to consume more books so I could improve my writing. I was at a decent pace in the beginning of the year, but it wasn’t until the second half of 2019 when I read Cal Newport’s, “Digital Minimalism,” that I kicked my reading into high gear. For example, after reading “Digital Minimalism,” I finished 38 books since August. (Learn more about about Newport’s book recommendation here: Cal Newport and Digital Minimalism.) Throughout all that reading, I came across some books that I absolutely loved and wanted to recommend, and I also came across a couple that I thought were terrible. Here are some of my book recommendations that helped me take steps to becoming a better creative and writer in 2019–and some that I should have avoided.

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Book Recommendation: The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa

When I was perusing the books at my favorite local bookstore, The Book Catapult, I came across a novel by Yoko Ogawa called “The Memory Police.” To be honest, I was struck by the cover and the title, and I wasn’t really sure what I was getting except that the bookseller said people were comparing it to Orwell’s “1984,” and it was some sort of Dystopian world. Isn’t every dystopian world compared to Orwell? To be frank with you, I’m a bit over dystopias, and I was reluctant to purchase the book. So I didn’t buy it initially.

But I found myself thinking about the book over the next couple weeks, dying to understand who the memory police were and know more about this world. So, I went back and bought the book, and it turned out to be one of the best I’ve read in the last three years. To describe the book’s influences, even though it’s incredibly unique, is simple: It’s a cross between Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” and Orwell’s “1984” with the haunting and literary quality of the language and tone of Kazuo Ishiguro. Even more simply: It’s the story of becoming forgotten.

It reminded me so much of Bradbury because the people who live on the “island” in the book are handicapped by an authority that maintains power through controlling cultural memory. Suddenly, objects go missing–books, boats, music boxes–even though some are everyday objects and others are right in front of the people, and the Memory Police have to reinforce that loss: to ensure that the things that go missing stay forgotten. It reminded me a lot of the firefighters in 451, ensuring that the history and ghosts of a culture stay forgotten by burning their pages and words. It reminded me of “1984” because there is a sneaky love story that is incredibly romantic and forbidden at the center of the plot. It also reminded me of Ishiguro because of the constant theme of memory and haunting lines like this:

“But no matter how tightly we held each other on the bed, we could not escape the fact that the distance between us continued to grow. No part of our two bodies–his so perfectly symmetrical, strong, and alive and mine so sickly thin and lifeless–seemed in accord. Yet he never stopped trying to draw me as close to him as possible.”

Don’t Recommend this Book: The Institute by Stephen King

This part pains me to write, as I’m a huge Stephen King fan, but I was extremely disappointed with “The Institute.” The premise sounds like classic Stephen King:

In the middle of the night… intruders silently murder Luke Ellis’s parents and load him into a black SUV… Luke will wake up at The Institute, in a room that looks just like his own, except there’s no window. And outside his door are other doors, behind which are other kids with special talents—telekinesis and telepathy—who got to this place the same way Luke did.

All the elements are there: murder, mystery, telekinesis. It’s all lined up to be a classic King book. Same themes: He’s always been interested in telekinesis and telepathy, all the way back to “Carrie” and “The Shining.” These “sixth senses” are ideas that also serve as plot devices he’s used so many times it’s impossible to think about them as just narrative tropes; they are more likely consistent questions or arguments about the limits of the human mind. I was so intrigued to read about a school or a prison where people like Carrie had been kidnapped for experiments. So much could go wrong.

Well, I saw that world, but the book felt rushed, haphazardly constructed, and for the first time, I actually wondered if King cared about this book. Did he actually put the time needed to craft a novel of his caliber? Did he go through a drafting process? Was he forced to rush this book out to meet a quota?

Book Recommendation: Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

While “The Memory Police” might have been my favorite book, Cal Newport’s “Digital Minimalism” was by far the most impactful. I’ve been a fan of Newport since I read “Deep Work,” and his work has proved to be immensely useful to me in my life. Basically, Cal Newport looks at how technology, while useful in many aspects of our life, has distracted us from what matters most. He tries to show how tech companies use the same behavioral tactics from casinos that force us to think we can beat the house and spend all our money–except these tactics are used to keep us on social platforms or devices so we can consume more and more ads.

Yes, it’s not a new idea that technology and social media are cheapening our existence, but what is new about this book is how Newport breaks down how companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple have developed products that deliberately use cognitive and behavioral sciences to make us addicted to “using.” Here is an example. Newport illustrates how the scrolling function on a phone–where a person is endlessly swiping through social media or a news feed–was deliberately designed to provide the same dopamine kick that a slot machine has at a casino. Our minds become hardwired to crave that experience. As soon as I read his logic, every time I found myself scrolling through my feed on a Twitter, I realized that I was being unconsciously coerced to scroll, looking for that next nugget of information or tweet or news article that would make me feel like I found something of value. I was pulling the lever on the slot machine and hoping to find three cherries, but all I was doing was wasting my time.

Despite what some of you already may be thinking, Newport doesn’t hate technology. He just wants us to become aware of the behavioral tactics tech and social media companies use to make us addicts, and ask ourselves, “How do I use technology to support what I truly find valuable?”

Don’t Recommend: The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas

When I saw “The Psychology of Time Travel” in my local bookstore, The Book Catapult, it was like I had caught a lover’s glance from across the room. My eyes locked on the cover, the title, the design of the typeface as if it had been embroidered directly on the book. I had such high hopes for this book, especially since the premise is so intriguing. Basically, four women invent time travel in 1967, but one of them has a nervous breakdown, which jeopardizes the whole thing. So, the founding women kick the one woman out.

“Fifty years later, time travel is a big business…But when Bee receives a mysterious newspaper clipping from the future reporting the murder of an unidentified woman, Ruby becomes obsessed: could it be Bee? Who would want her dead? And most importantly of all: can her murder be stopped?”

Truth be told, I didn’t understand the plot from the synopsis either. But I was intrigued by time travel and psychology. You could sign me up for any book like that. I had high hopes, especially since the New York Times called this book “Astonishing.”

On the other hand, once I started reading the book, it was incredibly confusing to follow. The book is about time travel, so, as a reader, I expect there to be some break in the continuum of narrative time, but what I found was that the narrative and the pacing of the book felt cumbersome, confused, and disjointed, as if the author pulled a Burroughs and just decided to cut it up and try and piece it back together without truly thinking about the logic of the story. (Of course, I’m oversimplifying Burroughs.)

While this book sounds awesome, I really thought the author should have taken the book into the drafting period and ironed out some of the structural issues. I would have put the book down at about the 50 page mark if I hadn’t made a promise to finish all books in 2019.

Book Recommendation: Churgoers by Patrick Coleman

I discovered Patrick Coleman’s “Churgoers” at a literary event at The Book Catapult in South Park, San Diego. He was reading from his debut novel, which is what he called a riff on Raymond Chandler. I felt compelled to put him in this blog post because he is a tremendous talent and local to San Diego. If his intention was to echo the great Raymond Chandler, then he certainly accomplished it, but he brought a couple new licks of his own by making the main character struggle with ideas of religion.

But what I liked about the book was that Coleman’s main character possessed a quality that many great character’s have: obsession. He was obsessed with finding a woman who didn’t want to be found, even though he knew it would destroy his own life and dredge him through a world of his own past. I like these types of characters because they are moved by a destructive force that is conscious, but they can’t stop it from taking over their life. Like a zombie who was eating brains but still aware that they were once a human. This obsession forces them to step into dangerous situations even when they know they shouldn’t. They are compelled to find destruction the same way an addict wants to score. I find these characters incredibly sympathetic and difficult to write, which Coleman pulls off well.

I’m excited about the books I will read in 2020.

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