My “top ten” books for 2011
I read voraciously. I keep up with new releases by reserving books at the library and browsing the new release section, but you’ll also often find me digging deep in the racks for some obscure book from ten years ago or reading a beat-up paperback I found in some dusty used book shop.
These are the ten best books I read that were released in 2011. How do I decide that? At the end of the year, I just went through my list of books read in 2011 and marked which ones I want to re-read in the future. I then checked their year of first publication. That left me with ten books published in 2011 that I read and hoped to re-read in the future. Easy enough, right? If I liked it enough to want to re-read it, it’s got to be pretty good.
These are in no particular order, of course. Just the ten best books of 2011, in my opinion.
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
I love reading biographies where the subject winds up seeming like a real person, not just some mythological person that has ascended into the pantheon. Isaacson accomplishes this with Jobs. While he comes off as whip-smart and driven, he also comes off as a deeply flawed person who was able to leverage those flaws into lasting achievements. Isaacson has mastered this type of retelling, as his previous Einstein was similar in the genius/flawed person duality. Here’s the Amazon page for Steve Jobs.
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
I’ve loved Murakami for a very long time, since that night about a decade ago where I stayed up all through the wee hours to finish his The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. As usual, Murakami was able to completely take over my imagination for a month with a novel that seems somewhere between inane and insane if I were to try to describe it. I guess I’ll settle for calling it a quirky love story, but that doesn’t do it justice. Here’s the Amazon page for 1Q84.
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
Memory is a subject that has fascinated me for a long time. My memory seems to be amazing at recalling specific events and facts, but often extremely porous and prone to magical thinking when tying these things together, and I’ve often longed for a powerful short term memory capability. Foer’s book puts all of these items into brilliant context in the way that a truly worthwhile “pop science” book can do, littered with anecdotes and ideas that connect neuroscience to actual daily practice. Here’s the Amazon page for Moonwalking with Einstein.
REAMDE by Neal Stephenson
I picked this up expecting it to be another heavy dose of science-heavy “geek lit” like most of Stephenson’s other novels. Instead, I got a wonderfully engaging thriller including the Russian mafia and Al Qaeda bookended with some interesting ruminations about online gaming. It’s a fat novel (like everything Stephenson has written in the last decade), but it reads like an absolute page-turner, especially once you get past the initial character intros. Here’s the Amazon page for REAMDE.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Ready Player One is one of those novels that you simply stumble upon without expectation or foreknowledge and find yourself swept away by the imagination and creativity of it all. The novel looks at a near-future minor dystopia where a large segment of the population plays an online game in which the game’s creator has hidden something valuable in a swath of late 20th century pop culture references. It’s just a wonderful, fun, and fast-paced tale, full of imagination and ideas. Here’s the Amazon page for Ready Player One.
The Information by James Gleick
The biggest change in our lives over the past decade is the immediate access to an overwhelming abundance of information. Most of us now carry thousands of libraries worth of information in our hip pocket. What does that change about the world? Gleick’s book examines this new world of information access in a thoughtful and thought-provoking manner. Here’s the Amazon page for The Information.
These Guys Have All the Fun by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales
This book was quite fun, actually. It’s a retelling of the growth of ESPN from an idea in someone’s head to a fly-by-night sports and entertainment channel on a few cable systems to the 800 pound gorilla of sports reporting that it is today. The authors turn this story of media growth into a mix of a business bestseller and “Weekend at Bernie’s,” meaning it’s both fascinating and fun. Here’s the Amazon page for These Guys Have All the Fun.
A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin
This will be a controversial pick for some, as it was the fifth entry in the ongoing A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series and has unquestionably split the fanbase. I felt like it was a fantastic return to form after the one middling entry in the series and pushed the narrative (and the intricately imagined world of Westeros) forward wonderfully. The last third or so of this book was some of the best fantasy fiction I’ve read in a while. Here’s the Amazon page for A Dance with Dragons.
Blue Nights by Joan Didion
I was a big fan of Didion’s 2005 book The Year of Magical Thinking, in which she discusses how she dealt with the death of her husband over the year after his passing. This is something of a follow-up, where she simultaneously looks at her own increasing frailty and the pain of losing a child, all while keeping the powerful storytelling and gentle wit of her earlier works. This one grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. Here’s the Amazon page for Blue Nights.
In the Plex by Steven Levy
It’s probably safe to say that Google has had an incredible amount of impact on the world over the last fifteen years, bringing the possibility of instant information access to our fingertips. Levy, a writer of many brilliant books on technology, takes a deep look at Google here and uncovers things both impressive and terrifying. Levy’s tone is upbeat and informative as always, but somehow the subject matter here hit home deeply, perhaps because of Google’s presence in almost all aspects of the online world. Here’s the Amazon page for In the Plex.