The Eleven Best Books I Read in 2018
Let’s clarify something immediately: this is not a list of the eleven best books released in 2018. I am astounded by people who can write such lists, as it suggests that one has not only read ten books that came out in 2018 but, also, that one has read enough other books that also came out in 2018 in order to say that the ones on your list are, indeed, the best.
Of course, some people are book critics and so it’s their job to read lots of books and to recommend the best of those books. I am not a book critic. I did read 39 books in the year 2018 and, of those books, I picked ten that I wanted to write a blog post about and call the blog post The Ten Best Books I Read in 2018. Then I read the thirty-eighth book that I read in 2018 and I liked it so much that I had to expand the list to eleven.
The order of this list is not ranked in any order but the order in which I read these books.
Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson (1985)
This is the fourth book I read by Denis Johnson. It’s both one of my favorite books I read in 2018 and my least favorite book by Denis Johnson. I did not like it as much as Johnson’s Jesus’ Son or Train Dreams or Tree of Smoke, so I’m reluctant to recommend it to anyone unless you’ve already read those books. I discovered the book through this GQ list from a few years ago, called “21 Brilliant Books You’ve Never Heard Of”. It was recommended, in this list, by T.C. Boyle, one of my favorite authors, and it makes sense to consider this novel as something that influenced him.
Again, however, I don’t know that I would prioritize this novel as something to read unless you’ve exhausted yourself of other Denis Johnson or if you want to read a post-apocalyptic novel that defies as many tropes as possible.
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (1962)
I discovered this book in a somewhat backward way, learning about the novel (or whatever it is) because of the film Blade Runner 2049. If you’ve seen that film, you’ll recall the scenes in which Ryan Gosling repeats lines about cells interlocking with cells while a robot interrogates him to evaluate his mental health. Or something like that. It’s unclear what’s happening in those scenes, but the lines he recites are from the poem “Pale Fire” within the novel Pale Fire.
Those lines are:
A system of cells interlinked within
Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played
Like several other books on this list—the Italo Calvino in particular—this is a work of metafiction. It’s structured in four parts: a Foreward, a poem called “Pale Fire”, over two hundred pages of Commentary on the poem, and an Index. The poem is by a dead poet named John Shade, while the rest is written by an obsessed biographer and critic named Dr. Charles Kinbote, who may or may not have the right to be telling the story he tells.
I love metafiction. I have a hard time believing I’ll ever write anything that doesn’t qualify as metafiction to some extent. The next major work I publish will certainly be more meta than anything else I’ve written.
Meanwhile, I’ve never read Lolita and I don’t expect to.
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (1927)
I read this because I loved its title. There are other books I want to read, solely for their title, books like Dickens’ Bleak House and Chen Chen’s When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities.
Should you read Death Comes for the Archbishop? I think so. Should you prioritize it above her other novel, My Antonia? I’m not sure, because I haven’t read it.
There’s a theme developing here and it reminds me of the character in 2666 who would read minor books by authors while ignoring their masterpieces. The character who loved Bartleby the Scrivener but had never bothered with Moby-Dick. Is that what I did in 2018? Is that what I’m recognizing now as I revisit what I spent my time reading? Do I have some classics to get to?
The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner (2016)
I like to buy small books at small book stores while traveling. This is one of those, purchased in 2016 after a friend’s wedding in California. When considering buying a book I often open it and read the first page and, if it really grabs me, then I buy it. If it really doesn’t grab me I’ll probably put it back.
This one grabbed me, reading Lerner’s description on the first page of when he attempted to memorize Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” as something of a protest in his English class. I liked the poem he referenced, and his story about it, and could see myself doing something similar, as I believed myself to dislike poetry for a few years, beginning in high school and carrying into my first year in college.
It’s a small book but not exactly a quick one, not with all the ideas it contains. I would not recommend reading it quickly unless you intend to read it twice. One of my favorite ideas circles around the idea of the Poem you sing in the dream versus the poem you sing by the fire.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (2015)
Why did I read this book? Why did anyone? How did we make it to the end? It’s a contemporary masterpiece, yes, but it’s one of the saddest thing I’ve read, from the first page to the last.
Do I recommend it? I don’t know. Do you one to read one of the saddest books imaginable? If so, read it. If not, while I found it to be beautiful, I would say it’s perfectly acceptable to skip this one. It is both one of the best books on this list and the one on the list I’m least likely to recommend to anyone.
An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom by Jonathan Russell Clark (2018)
I first read an excerpt from this book in The Believer, during which the author Jonathan Russell Clark catalogues every novel mentioned within Roberto Bolano’s novel 2666, all written by the elusive author Benno von Archimboldi, a central character in 2666 who does not appear on-page until the novel’s final section.
Did that make sense?
Do not read this unless you’ve read 2666. You’d get nothing out of it without having the context of having read Bolano’s masterpiece. Its both biography of Bolano and a probing analysis of 2666, asking the kinds of compelling questions deserving of masterpieces.
But if you have read 2666 and loved it, like most people who’ve read 2666, then An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom is something of a must-read.
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (1945)
I read three books by Steinbeck in 2018: Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, and The Winter of Our Discontent. This one was my favorite of the three. I had tried and abandoned it once before, a few years ago. This time it worked and it sent me immediately into Of Mice and Men and The Winter of Discontent. And yes, I had managed to make it through high school not having read the one about mice, reading the one about grapes instead.
Again, we seem to be circling around a theme: reading the minor works by the great authors of giant classics.
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin (1968)
I think I read this book as a child but I’m not sure. I remembered a fantasy book that I’d read but I could not remember the details and so I turned to Google trying to find it. I searched for a few things, typing searches like:
fantasy book man fights demon scars on face
young adult fantasy scarred protagonist
young adult fantasy hero with scars on face
And eventually I found it, although even now I’m not sure exactly how because I can’t find it again by repeating these searches. Intriguingly, now, I can find this article while searching, called Finding a Book When You've Forgotten Its Title.
But I did find it, and found a copy, and read it on a vacation to the Pacific Northwest in August. It seemed like an appropriate book to bring on the trip, a fantasy set in a land of water.
This novel inhabits that corner of fantasy that transcends Tolkien fan fiction. So much of fantasy is little more than Middle Earth rearranged. This has nothing to do with Middle Earth and is one of those works deserving of the name high fantasy.
Underground Fugue by Margot Singer (2017)
I read this novel without knowing a thing about its plot. I knew immediately that I would read it because the author, Margot Singer, was one of my favorite professors at Denison University. I knew I would read it from the moment it was released.
I didn’t read reviews, didn’t hesitate to buy it as both a hardcover and e-book. Why this matters—and why I would recommend you also skip the reviews—is that I missed some details that resulted in a major plot point coming as a surprise. It’s a good read, set in the mid-oughts, and also does a good job of exploring the anxieties and realities of life in that time.
I recommend Underground Fugue both because it’s a very good book and because it brings today’s climate into a deeper focus by reminding us of what the mid-2000s were really like.
If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino (1979)
I picked this up at Maegers and Quinn, one of my favorite local bookstores, knowing I should read it because it’s a staple of metafiction but not knowing much more about it. The first paragraph grabbed me and insisted that I buy the book and read it immediately.
This might be one of the my favorite books I’ve ever read. I don’t know it yet, not for sure, but I know I loved it and I’ll be reading more by Italo Calvino.
There, There by Tommy Orange (2018)
Then this book came along, recommended in every list I saw about The Best Books of 2018. I decided to use an Audible credit on it and, quickly, bought a hardcover copy of it as well. This list would have been ten books, a sensible number, but there was no way I was publishing a list of my favorite books of 2018 without this masterpiece being included.
Every Other Book I Read in 2018
I read 28 books that are not on this list. Of those, I liked 26 of them. There are two books that I read in 2018 and think were awful, but that is a blog post for another time.