Much like, I’m assuming, many of you, every year I aspire to read more and every year I do not, in fact, read more. I used to. I used to read a lot. Every day, all the time, I plowed through book after book. Then I started doing all these adult things like “working” and “having friends” and “drinking coffee just to stay awake, not because I like coffee” and much of the reading went by the wayside. In an effort to spur on my pathetic reading efforts, in 2016 I signed up for Audible and went all-in on audiobooks. And hey, it worked! I read 23 books this year, more than double what I got through in 2015. To be fair, by “read 23 books” I really mean I “listened to 22 books and read one book with my eyes” but still, I’m marking 2016 down as a win for reading. In looking back at everything I read this year, I thought I might share some of the highlights and then it turned into a full list and well…here we are. Of these 23 books (including one trilogy that I combined into one book for the sake of this list), I would confidently recommend at least 16 of them so I’d say my batting average for the year was pretty solid. Happy reading!
21. “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel” – Robert Heinlein, 1958
I grew up reading Heinlein’s brand of science fiction and some of his works remain personal favorites to this time. “Spacesuit” hasn’t aged well and the pulpiness of the story combined with a truly terrible reading made it a chore to get through.
20. “The Dog Stars” – Peter Heller, 2012
I am a known sucker for post-apocalyptic fare (see many times below) and this one, about a man and his dog trying to find meaning in a world decimated by flu, had a lot of promise. It also had perhaps 150 extra pages that could’ve been cut out entirely without any loss to the narrative. Had I been reading instead of listening, I would’ve skimmed “Dog Stars” quite a lot, I’m afraid.
19. “Erasing Hell” – Francis Chan, 2011
An interesting concept from one of my favorite theologians, I have tried reading “Erasing Hell” at least three times before and finally finished it through the magic of audiobooks. For me, it was less compelling than most of Chan’s other works and ultimately didn’t bring just a whole lot of new perspective to the table.
18. “Lock In” – John Scalzi, 2014
A prolific sci-fi writer, Scalzi launched a new series with this book and I think it could make for an interesting universe. It’s a quick, easy read but without much originality or ambition. The audiobook is narrated by Will Wheaton, however, so that doesn’t hurt.
17. “The Girl on the Train” – Paula Hawkins, 2015
This isn’t really my sort of book if we’re being honest but its cultural pull was undeniable and the movie adaptation looked promising (though that promise never came to fruition). I found “Girl on the Train” to be a solid beach/airplane read, nothing more and nothing less.
16. “Wool (Omnibus)” – Hugh Howey, 2012
Originally a self-published short story, “Wool” spawned into a large five book series (and now a further series of related stories and books) about a colony of humans living underground in a post-apocalyptic future. Part sci-fi, part murder mystery, “Wool” has some excellent passages surrounded by a bit of filler that could’ve been tightened up.
15. “Boys Among Men” – Jonathan Abrams, 2016
Strangely, this is the only sports-related book I read this year. Focusing exclusively on the group of basketball players who jumped directly from high school to the NBA between 1995 and 2005, Abrams brings a ton of insight to the lives of these gifted players before, during, and after their respective runs at the NBA. The book itself is very well-written and researched but suffers in these rankings because the audiobook version is literally the worst reading I have ever heard in my entire life.
14. “Jesus Prom” – Jon Weece, 2014
I got to hear Weece speak early in the year and was blown away by his practical approach to the Gospel and ministry as a whole. He touched on much of what was contained within this book and thus, my reading was less powerful than I think it would’ve been had it all been new to me.
13. “Station Eleven” – Emily St. John Mandel, 2014
Item three of four on my personal post-apocalyptic reading list this year (I need help, I know), “Station Eleven” avoids the sci-fi element you usually get in this sort of book and instead goes for a more classic literature course. Most of the book centers on a troupe of traveling players who traverse the Great Lakes territory performing Shakespeare plays in a world brought low by plague. Not all of the B-story works but for the most part, “Station Eleven” is an excellent, original entry into the genre.
12. “American Gods” – Neil Gaiman, 2001
I’ve been aware of Gaiman’s works for a very long time but only recently began reading them because apparently I am an idiot. A blend of the American road trip and Norse mythology, “American Gods” is a beautifully crafted book and features a fantastic audiobook.
11. “TV The Book” – Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, 2016
Sepinwall has long been my TV leader; I may not agree with everything he writes or says but I ALWAYS take heed. For this book, he and Zoller Seitz ranked the 100 best American TV shows of all-time. Of course I take issue with some of their rankings (as would any self-respecting TV fan) but it is their presentation and the scientific approach they took to creating their rankings that make “TV The Book” such a great read.
10. “Red Rising” Trilogy – Pierce Brown, 2014-2016
I tried hard not to get sucked into reading any long series this year because, more often than not, these books disappoint but my Completeism prevents me from walking away until I’ve finished the whole series. This series (comprised of “Red Rising”, “Golden Son”, and “Morning Star”), however, kept me highly engrossed and ended on a high note instead of an ill-conceived whimper. “Red Rising” begins as a well-written version of “The Hunger Games” in space and then grows from there. It is extremely engrossing with outstanding characters that make it easy to gloss over the weaker portions.
9. “Neverwhere” – Neil Gaiman, 1996
I started reading “Neverwhere” early in the year, got busy with work and decided to start it all over via audiobook. Gaiman’s voice is almost as compelling as his writing and the world creation for this book is phenomenal. Again, I am an idiot for having never read this before.
8. “The Daily Show: An Oral History” – Chris Smith, 2016
I’ve never been a religious Daily Show viewer but found this book to be insightful and extremely interesting nonetheless. So many brilliant people, from Steve Carell to Samantha Bee to Jon Stewart himself, came through the show during Stewart’s reign and here you get a real insider look at the creative process as well as the political side of the show.
7. “The Girl with All the Gifts” – MR Carey, 2014
The third and final post-apocalyptic entry on this list, “The Girl with All the Gifts” is by far the bleakest of the genre I read this year but unquestionably the best. Carey introduces the main character with subtle and natural mystery to suck you in beautifully, making the twist (which I won’t give away here, obviously) all the more cutting. That this twist comes early in the book and the story only becomes more engrossing is a true testament to Carey’s skill.
6. “Born Standing Up” – Steve Martin, 2007
One of my all-time favorite performers, Martin’s autobiography centers only upon his early years as a stand-up performer, ending right after his ascension to movie star in the early 80’s. Martin’s narration of his unrefined bits from the late 60’s is funnier than just about any movie or TV show I saw this year. This is an easy read and gives great insight into the mind of a comedic genius.
5. “The War For Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy” – Bill Carter, 2010
I’ve had this one sitting on my shelf for years but only just made time to take it in. As a card-carrying member of Team Coco, Jay Leno’s betrayal of my Late Night hero has long been a source of great discontent in my life. Carter, though, doesn’t provide fan service with this book and never takes a side, reporting only the facts of the case, as it were, with little flair. If anything, I came out a little more sympathetic toward Leno which I never would’ve thought possible.
4. “Your Favorite Band is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life” – Steven Hyden
A well-respected music critic, Hyden brought a very interesting approach to his latest book by delving into some of music’s greatest rivalries. Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam. Britney vs. Christina. The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones. Each chapter explores a different rivalry in great detail intermixed with personal anecdotes that never once play as gratuitous or distracting. Hyden fairly explores both sides of each rivalry and rather than declaring a winner and a loser, more often than not he simply states the virtues of both parties and leaves the judging to the reader.
3. “A Monster Calls” – Patrick Ness, 2011
Woo, boy. I’m not sure I’ve ever had such an emotional reaction to a book and certainly not in a way that caught me by surprise like this one did. The story, about a pre-teen who is visited each night by a monster who may or may not be a friend, seemed like pretty innocent fantasy at first glance but quickly turned into a much deeper, sobering affair. I may have sobbed uncontrollably.
2. “The Hike” – Drew Magary, 2016
This is one of the funniest, most affecting pieces of fantasy I have ever read and immediately takes a prominent place on the short list of books I will gladly re-read over and over again in the future. I described “The Hike” as “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” meets “Alice in Wonderland” and if that doesn’t sell you, I’m not sure how I could, other than to tell you that there is a talking crab and he is bitingly hilarious. What else could you possibly ask for?
1. “The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song from Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed” – Shea Serrano, 2015
I read a lot of really, really good books this year, some of which I will probably revisit with more frequency than “The Rap Year Book.” But without any question, this is the most original and beautifully structured book I read this year (and maybe ever). Even if you’re not a rap/hip-hop fan (I would consider myself only a passing listener at best), Serrano’s creativity bleeds through every page of the book and his passion is contagious. The illustrations (by local artist Arturo Torres) are fantastic and they work magnificently with Serrano’s carefully crafted words to bring each song to life in unique ways. This book is hilarious, it is insightful, and it is stylistically inspiring. If nothing else, I’m not sure I’ve ever had more fun reading a book and I think Serrano would approve of that endorsement.