Every October, I look at the books I’ve read in the past year and post my favorites. Since my last post, I have read 35 books totaling 13,898 pages. I enjoy both fiction and non-fiction, usually reading a roughly even split, though this year was a little skewed towards fiction. Here are the books that rose to the top!
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I work as a Software Engineer by day, and my path to that profession can be directly traced back to my older brother and I learning how to make computer games as kids. If I ever needed more reasons to not want to get into the video game industry professionally, then this book certainly delivered! I knew that the environment behind the creation of most commercial video games is full of crunch and unhealthy work hours, and Blood, Sweat and Pixels gives a fascinating look into the craziness that happens behind the scenes to bring these games to life. Each chapter peeks behind the curtain of another game and details the experiences of those involved in creating it. A very enjoyable read, and one that has me happy to keep my game-making as more of a hobby.
Since I was a kid, I have been interested in puzzles, and tangentially, codes. I remember making up simple substitution codes as early as second grade, and later on a full symbolic language that condensed english words into single characters. Pair that playful code-making with my interest in programming and education in Computer Science, and it is clear that I am the target audience for The Code Book. Throughout history, humans have faced a simple problem: how do I send a message to someone, but have that message be indecipherable if is intercepted by an unwanted recipient? This sets the stage for code-makers versus code-breakers, and and different points in history one or the other has had the upper hand. From early simple ciphers to the German Enigma machine in World War II to modern internet security, The Code Book walks you through the evolution of codes and each breakthrough that shifted the tables. An outstanding read, perhaps my favorite on this list.
I have a complicated relationship with Stephen King. Ever since reading the excellent On Writing where he gives insights into his writing process, I have found his writing style very compelling and gripping. However, 90+% of his books lean more to the horror/disturbing side of the spectrum, crossing my the line of what I personally enjoy in a fictional story. This leaves me trying to find that remaining 10% that captures what I love about his writing while trying to avoid the overly gritty parts that I don’t. The Dark Tower series seems to teeter right on that line, but manages to mostly stay on the side of the fence that I love. It is really fresh and original coming from other fantasy tropes, and I feel more invested in the characters than other fantasy I have read, for reasons that can be hard to pin down (I’ll attribute it to King just being an excellent storyteller). The first book in the series is good, but feels like exposition and setup, whereas The Drawing of the Three immediately amps things up and had me on the edge of my seat — in fact, I read the whole book in less than a week, and it’s been a while since a fictional story has gripped me like that from beginning to end. Very much looking forward to seeing where the rest of the series goes (I am currently reading book 4).
Speaking of fantasy series, here we have the #1 most popular young adult fantasy series of all time: Harry Potter. I read the Harry Potter series as a kid almost 15 years ago, but this past year I decided to revisit them and see how they held up for me. And I really enjoyed them! It is impossible to separate the nostalgia they have from reading them as a kid, but I can’t deny that they are just fast and fun reads. It’s probably not “cool” to include Harry Potter on a list like this given that it is so ridiculously popular, but I call books as I see them: I’m not going to rate something highly just because it “should be” or vice versa. There’s a reason these books captured the interest of so many kids and adults a like over the years — and yes, the books are better than the movies. 🙂
The Martian is a very interesting niche of “science fiction,” where the emphasis is really heavy on “science.” The bulk of the book is written from the perspective of an astronaut writing in his logbook as he tries to survive on Mars, and a lot of these logs are highly technical descriptions of what he is doing and why. Andy Weir is probably one of only a few authors that can make this work, as he truly knows his stuff and can weave real science into his plot in a way that is believable and reasonably accurate. All of that is the backdrop for what is ultimately a great survival story, and everyone likes a good story about someone surviving against all odds. I currently have Project Hail Mary, another highly regarded novel by Andy Weir, on my bookshelf, so I am looking forward to reading that this year.
Over the past couple years, I have been reading through all the books in Brandon Sanderson’s “Cosmere” universe, in order of date of publication. Oathbringer is the penultimate book on that list (for now, Sanderson is a machine and more will be out soon), leaving just Rhythm of War on my to-read shelf. Oathbringer continues the epic Stormlight Archive and manages to be even longer than either of the first two books in the series. I am to the point where I feel like I know exactly what I am going to get with Sanderson. He has yet to blow me away in a way that bumps into my 9/10 or 10/10 range (to be fair, hardly any fictional books have so far), but he delivers 8/10s really consistently for me, and I consider 8/10s to be great books. I think Oathbringer is perhaps slightly my least favorite of the three books so far, but they all fall into a very similar space for me. It is going to be a little strange to make the switch from hammering out Sanderson books to waiting for the books to be released, but I am definitely along for the ride at this point.
Money is a tool, and most people would generally agree with the adage that “money can’t buy happiness.” Yet our society’s behavior does not reflect that understanding, with most people continuing on the treadmill with the belief that something they don’t have yet is going to help them reach that elusive “happiness.” I have enjoyed a number of books that look at the psychology of humans and why we are so bad at predicting what will make us happy (Stumbling on Happiness is a good example), and I also have enjoyed a lot of personal finance books that focus on how to approach money in a way that truly supports the things important to you, rather than chasing after a more expensive lifestyle. The Psychology of Money ends up being a perfect intersection between these interests, and I found it really resonating with my own beliefs that I’ve developed about money, while adding a lot of insight and more concrete reasoning to those beliefs. I know most people won’t be as naturally interested in these topics as I am, but it is hard not to believe that almost any adult that makes decisions with money would benefit from reading this book.
The Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs has sat on my to-read shelf for a long time now, and I’m not sure why: I really enjoy biographies, and Steve Jobs is a fascinating character with strong ties in the histories of personal computers (a topic I really enjoy), as well as a strong connection to the history of Pixar (which is also very interesting). I finally started it on a summer road trip, and I couldn’t put it down. The history of Apple and Jobs life is just so fascinating, and Isaacson did a great job of laying it out in a way that captures what made Jobs special without over-glorifying or glossing over his flaws. I was definitely primed for this one given my personal interests, but Steve Jobs is probably one of the best biographies I’ve ever read.
Looking over this list, it was a strong year of reading! I enjoy seeing these books on my personal bookshelf, paging through them to reminisce on their content, and letting friends borrow them on my recommendation. I’ve got a handful of books on my to-read shelf, and look forward to seeing which books make the cut next year.