The best books I read in 2019
Every month, I recommend three books that changed the way I see the world. Every year, I review each missive and select my absolute favorites. I discovered so many gems that choosing between them was excruciating, so I hope you enjoy this list of the twelve best books I read in 2019:
The Overstory by Richard Powers is a story about people who love trees, trees who might just love people, and humanity's complex, troubled, and occasionally transcendent relationship with nature. Powers reveals the inner world of his diverse cast of characters with candor and compassion, and his gorgeous prose is studded with gems of insight into this strange and beautiful journey we call life.
Zero History by William Gibson follows a recovering addict, an ex-rockstar, a media mogul, and a host of enigmatic, compelling characters through an adventure that runs the gamut from fashion labels whose secrecy is the source of their popularity to shadowy powerbrokers who meddle with history as a form of public art. Gibson nails the zeitgeist by bringing a science fictional lens to bear on the contemporary world, yielding a novel so densely packed with ideas that it will refract your thinking.
Art Matters by Neil Gaiman is an inspiring manifesto on creativity from of my very favorite writers (I've recommended his novels Coraline and The Ocean at the End of the Lane in previous missives). Gorgeously illustrated by Chris Ridell, this little book will replenish your creative energy, set off an avalanche of new ideas, and show you how imagination can change the world. Whenever writers ask for advice, I respond with a list of resources and this just went to the top of it.
The Moon by Oliver Morton is a masterpiece of science journalism that has forever changed the way I see its eponymous subject. Morton mines fields as diverse as aerospace, history, astrobiology, mythology, geology, and science fiction in pursuit of lessons the moon can teach us about space exploration, the universe, and ourselves. The idea-to-page ratio is stunning and the story synthesizes decades of rigorous and enthusiastic research and reporting. The Moon is more than a book, it is a mirror that reflects life in the Anthropocene.
The Forest by Riccardo Bozzi is a gorgeously illustrated book about the grand adventure that is each of our voyages from cradle to grave. This extraordinary feat of visual storytelling that took me on a journey of imagination that challenged me to update my assumptions about what a book can be. I will be gifting it often.
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir is a wildly imaginative, masterfully executed adventure following a gang of necromancers and their warrior attendants as they compete to earn the favor of an immortal emperor in a crumbling palace built atop of the ruins of a far-flung planet. This book is dangerously high dose of pure story, and I tore through it with unabashed relish.
The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander shares the paradigm-shifting life lessons of a veteran therapist and celebrated conductor. Reading it challenged me to question deeply held assumptions and reframe my worldview. This book is a gift to the world—and makes a great gift for absolutely anyone. (With both authors narrating and integrated clips of referenced classical music, the audiobook is in a league of its own.)
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone is a mind-expanding, heart-wrenching tale of dastardly intrigue and burgeoning romance that follows two supremely competent secret agents traveling through time to bend the arc of history toward their respective masters' incompatible political ends. Their story is a shining example of Amal's lovely definition of literature in the acknowledgements: "Books are letters in bottles, cast into the waves of time, from one person trying to save the world to another."
The Book Business by Mike Shatzkin and Robert Paris Riger is a concise, comprehensive guide to the publishing industry based on many decades of insider experience. An absolute must-read for aspiring or experienced authors, editors, publishers, analysts, reviewers, or bookworms curious about the story behind their favorite stories.
Anything You Want by Derek Sivers is an insightful and inspiring account of the author's journey from circus performer to founder and CEO of CD Baby—the largest online distributor for independent music that made $70 million for musicians before Derek sold the company and donated the proceeds to support music education. This powerful memoir distills his lessons learned into a concise, compelling philosophy for living a creative life.
Light by M. John Harrison is a tour de force of mind-expanding science fiction that follows three strange characters through present day London and far flung galaxies centuries hence. Harrison reads like a theoretical physicist trying his hand at space opera. Complex, recursive, and profoundly weird, this novel reaches beyond the frayed edge of reason to grasp at the ineffable.
Barbarian Days by William Finnegan is a memoir that follows the dangerous, sublime thread that surfing wove through the author's deeply examined life. It is a story of dark and redemptive obsession rendered in luminous prose that capture the seductive power of waves whose terrible beauty is ephemeral, but—as this extraordinary book proves—no longer ineffable.
Bonus recommendation: If you appreciate what I read, you might like what I write. I had a new novel and a category-defying internet art project come out this year. I poured everything I have to give into them and I'd love to hear what you think.
Breach is a globe-trotting, near-future thriller about spies and hackers grappling over what it might mean for a tech platform to become sovereign and democratic. If you're curious about how technology is changing our lives and world, you're in for a wild ride. In the words of Eva Hagberg, “Peper has once again accomplished the extraordinary, rendering our own world more searingly visible through the carefully articulated use of an imaginary future, and producing an entirely plausible fictional universe with its own logics, rules, and legends. Deeply plotted and bracingly narrated, Breach is at once a joy to read, a puzzle to consider, and a cultural mystery to solve. Peper’s fiction is the medicine we need.” I wrote about the creative process behind the book here.
True Blue is a tale of persecution and self-discovery set in a world where your future is determined by the color of your eyes. It's story about being true to yourself even when the world turns against you, standing up instead of standing by, and finding the courage to stop caring what other people think. With a grant from David Cohen, designer Peter Nowell, illustrator Phoebe Morris, and I challenged ourselves to reimagine what online storytelling could be and built a custom site from the ground up to bring the story to life—winning a W³ Award for our design innovations. I wrote about the creative process behind the project here.
If you enjoy this newsletter and want to support it, tell your friends or become a member. I love sharing amazing stories that explore the intersection of technology and culture. The goal of this newsletter is to recommend books, both fiction and nonfiction, that crackle and fizz with big ideas, keep us turning pages deep into the night, challenge our assumptions, help us find meaning in a changing world, and make us think, feel, and ask hard questions. In an age of digital abundance, quality is the new scarcity. The right book at the right time can change your life.
I also pull back the curtain on my creative process. When I'm not reading books, I'm writing them. If you're interested, you can find my books right here. They've earned praise from the New York Times Book Review, Businessweek, Popular Science, Boing Boing, TechCrunch, io9, and Ars Technica. I'd love to hear what you think if you give them a read.
Eliot Peper is the author of Breach, Borderless, Bandwidth, Cumulus, Neon Fever Dream, True Blue, and the Uncommon Series. Subscribe to his blog here.
"The Analog series from Eliot Peper is simply terrific science fiction from the (very) near future—I loved all three."
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