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The Year in Reading

In this season of giving, we asked some notably avid readers — who also happen to be poets, musicians, diplomats, filmmakers, novelists, actors and artists — to share the books that accompanied them through 2016.


DEC. 19, 2016


  1. Jeffrey Henson Scales/The New York Times

    Junot Díaz

    Two excellent books accompanied me through the darkness of these last months. The first was Wesley Lowery’s “They Can’t Kill Us All,” a devastating front-line account of the police killings and the young activism that sparked one of the most significant racial justice movements since the 1960s: Black Lives Matter. In his quest to understand how and why this movement sprang up when it did, Lowery seems to have been everywhere and spoken to everyone (his interview of Alicia Garza is especially noteworthy). Lowery more or less pulls the sheet off America, exposing the malign disavowals and horrendous racial structures and logics that make the unjust deaths of young men like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Sean Bell not only possible but inevitable. As a primer for the Black Lives Matter movement and as a meditation on the death-grip that white supremacy has on the American soul, “They Can’t Kill Us All” is essential reading.

    And then there is Julian Voloj and Claudia Ahlering’s superb graphic history “Ghetto Brother,” which on the surface is a biography of Benjy Melendez, the Boricua brother who in the late ’60s founded one of the Bronx’s most notorious gangs: the Ghetto Brothers. But like the borough in which it is set, “Ghetto Brother” contains multitudes: The book is also a history of the multiracial Bronx, of its black and Puerto Rican communities, of its youth gangs, of hip-hop’s rise from the gang truce that Benjy helped to forge, and finally it is the story of Benjy’s awakening to his family’s hidden Jewish faith. Starkly drawn, boldly told, “Ghetto Brother” is a gem.

    Junot Díaz is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”

  2. Angel Valentin for The New York Times

    Mary Oliver

    Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See.” I am sure many readers before me have held this book in their hands and been astonished, and yet I can’t forgo to speak a little of my own praise. Not only for the very moving story itself, but for the writing — I felt as if I were standing in front of the house of language, which had just had a fresh coat of paint. Which is no common thing. There are many characters, more than a few threads to be followed, both of horror and courage. In my mind this book will become an everlasting story.

    Patricia Fargnoli’s “Winter.” Fargnoli has been the poet laureate of New Hampshire and has received a goodly number of additional awards. This present volume, “Winter,” speaks strongly of the years past, events in her life dark or delicious, what is I imagine a matter of age, feeling that they need to be remembered and then put to sleep. The better, then, to live in the present.

    One poem, “Should the Fox Come Again to My Cabin in the Snow,” deserves its own paragraph, it is so clear, cleansing and of the present, so done with all the old baskets of events but still so loving of life, that in some magical way of words it dignifies both the writer and the reader. A rare and beautiful poem that dispels all shadows.

    Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Swerve.” The main subject is the book, actually a poem, known to us as “On the Nature of Things,” by the Roman Lucretius, who believed there are no gods, we are simply very small “things,” atoms, put together temporarily as a person. But no, the main subject is Christianity, the church of the times, that says be glad to suffer in life that you will be welcomed into heaven. But still, no, its subject is the stony canyon of this difference of ideas that leads us so far from civility, told brilliantly and with a thousand details. A busy, fascinating book that no one should miss.

    Mary Oliver’s latest book is the essay collection “Upstream.”

  3. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

    Salman Rushdie

    “Porcelain,” by Moby.

    “Sudden Death,” by Álvaro Enrigue.

    “The Story of My Teeth,” by Valeria Luiselli.

    “The Little Red Chairs,” by Edna O’Brien.

    “The Underground Railroad,” by Colson Whitehead.

    “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze,” by Maaza Mengiste.

    “Zero K,” by Don DeLillo.

    “The Gene,” by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

    “How to See,” by David Salle.

    And (though I haven’t yet read them all) “The Complete Stories,” by Clarice Lispector.

    Salman Rushdie’s most recent novel, “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights,” is now available in paperback.

  4. Malin Fezehai for The New York Times

    Ava DuVernay

    This year, I worked on guiding two books from the page to the screen. In my attempt to craft the adaptations with laser focus and the highest quality, said books are in a painfully small sorority of novels that I read from cover to cover so far in 2016 — a fact I’m not extremely proud of, yet I enjoyed the books immensely when I had the chance to read them. The first was “Queen Sugar,” by Natalie Baszile, a book brimming with the promise and possibility of the New South as seen through the eyes of one brave, black family. I pored over every delicious word for visual connection and layers of meaning. Treasures were found in Baszile’s pages. The next was “A Wrinkle in Time,” by Madeleine L’Engle, a book that shimmers with sensitivity, spirituality, social commentary and science in every line. L’Engle’s legacy looms large and lovely, protectively guiding our heroine Meg through an adventure that transcends time and space. Extraordinary stuff. Adapting the work of two women authors, in two different genres, written in different eras, by women of different races and beliefs, was a thrill and an honor. It’s been a wild and wonderful ride. I only hope I do their stories justice.

    Ava DuVernay is a director whose films include “Selma” and the documentary “13th.”

  5. T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

    Paul Simon

    In a year in which one might consider retreating into a world of literature — if only to escape the ugliness of the presidential campaign — I found it harder to immerse myself in a good book than to turn off the lights and go to bed early. I read less, but still found pleasure in Don DeLillo’s “Zero K” and Billy Collins’s new book of poems, “The Rain in Portugal.” However, the book that provided a powerful — indeed inspirational — experience was Edward O. Wilson’s “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life.”

    I heard Wilson speak 10 years ago at a TED conference. Something he said during his talk concerning our ecological problems stayed with me ever since. Its glistening optimism gave me hope, although I must admit I did little to implement his advice. Paraphrasing what he said: This planet has the potential to be a paradise by the next century if we act now to preserve it. A paradise!

    “Half-Earth,” published earlier this year, is written in more dire times. Wilson still sees an optimistic path to the future, but the potential for a planetary catastrophe, or perhaps even extinction, has increased significantly. Simply put, if we don’t reverse the climate change that is causing sea levels to rise, and droughts and flooding to become chronic, the consequences will cause a collapse of the many ecosystems that are home to all the living creatures and plants necessary for life itself to exist.

    The solution proposed in “Half-Earth” is to divide the planet into spheres; some perfectly suited to mankind and the Anthropocene worldview, while the remaining areas can be kept as wild as nature constructed them. Wilson is not proposing that we approach Earth with a large knife as we would a cantaloupe about to be sliced. He argues eloquently that enough of the Earth’s ecosystems and biodiversity already exist that we can preserve them and still be able to inhabit the rest of the planet in a way that has become the new norm for human beings. Areas like the Amazon River basin, the redwood forests of North America, the Serengeti grasslands, the Congo basin and Antarctica are still pristine and capable of supporting all the species that now live in them. The same approach must be taken with the oceans, which are not polluted beyond repair. Wilson makes the case that we humans must accept the role as Earth’s custodians rather than her master.

    As a species, we are well suited to our former living environment, but not the environment we are creating. The point of no return is fast approaching. Questions of human rights, racism, democracy versus tyranny and sexism are just that: human rights. But there will be no rights, or humans, if we do not preserve and conserve a habitable planet. Still, Wilson is an optimist and believes we can preserve our jewel-like planet if we do the job we must do. “Half-Earth” is compulsory reading if we care about the lives of our children, our children’s children and all of the species alive today. A paradise!

    Paul Simon is a musician.

  6. Robyn Beck/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

    Reading has an urgency for people of color, immigrants and the poor that isn’t there for more privileged groups. For many, reading is a pathway to a better education and therefore a better life, so the stakes are much higher than for those whose pathway to abundant opportunities is already assured. One reason knowledge through reading is more important to people in these groups is because it’s portable. Minorities are always at risk of losing what they’ve built depending on the whims of politics. Despots and zealots and bigots can take away your homes and businesses, but you can start over because you still have your knowledge.

    For that reason, I always valued my reading as highly as I did my basketball skills. In college and in the N.B.A., I read at every opportunity. When age diminished my basketball skills and I retired, I still had everything I’d learned through reading: knowledge of the world and its history, an aptitude for critical thinking and the ability to write.

    I read a lot of books every year, from history to politics to mysteries to poetry. Here are a few of my favorites from this year.

    1) “Charcoal Joe,” by Walter Mosley. Easy Rawlins, one of the few black heroes in contemporary literature, solves mysteries with relentless courage and fierce intelligence.

    2) “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

    Coates’s conclusions about racial disparity in America will resonate deeply within the African-American community for years to come.

    3) “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” by Isabel Wilkerson.

    A thoroughly researched, yet at times intimate, history of the Great Migration and the Second Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the Northeast, West, and Midwest from 1915 to 1970.

    4) “Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth,” by Warsan Shire. This collection of poems by Shire, a Kenyan-born Somali poet, offers a harsh indictment of the effects of war and violence against women. How the women learn to live with these tragedies is humbling, infuriating and ultimately inspiring.

    5) “The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter,” edited by Robert Kimball. Cole Porter was a genius at writing witty, intelligent, whimsical songs that will remain a part of the American culture for centuries to come. Don’t believe me? Read the lyrics to “Night and Day,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “I Get a Kick Out of You.”

    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and the N.B.A.’s all-time leading scorer.

  7. Gordon M. Grant for The New York Times

    Carl Bernstein

    The study in which I am writing this — cluttered impossibly with piles of books and articles relevant to the presidential campaign just ended — is testament to the heavy load of vocational reading I undertook in 2016. Enough said about that.

    Evidence of the really satisfying reading I did this year — as respite and stimulant — is in the stacks of books between a reading chair and a night table in the bedroom. Few were new books. Most I’d grabbed from shelves around the house and reacquainted myself. They were supplemented by works downloaded onto my iPad, the majority recently published. Savoring the actual feel and look of a bound book enhanced the reading experience more than I’d realized. The portability and digitized finding aids in e-books brought their own obvious advantages.

    The works most enjoyed or valued, in no particular order:

    Bound Books

    Three volumes of Raymond Chandler (“The Big Sleep,” “The Simple Art of Murder,” “Trouble Is My Business”).

    Stephen King, “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.”

    Edna O’Brien, “The Little Red Chairs.”

    Paul Hendrickson, “Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost.”

    Paul Hemphill, “Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams.”

    “The Portable Mark Twain,” edited and with an introduction (itself classic) by Bernard DeVoto.

    Joan Didion, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”

    John Updike, “The Collected Stories.”

    Alfred Brendel, “Alfred Brendel on Music: Collected Essays.”

    Harold Holzer, editor, “The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy From 1860 to Now.”

    David France, “How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS.”

    “The Portable Henry James,” edited by Morton Dauwen Zabel.”

    H.L. Mencken, “The Days of H.L. Mencken. Three Volumes in One: ‘Happy Days,’ ‘Newspaper Days,’ ‘Heathen Days.’”


    Lawrence Wright, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.”

    Mary Beard, “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.”

    Ben Macintyre, “A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal.”

    Charles Dickens, “Bleak House.”

    Bruce Springsteen, “Born to Run.”

    Jonathan Franzen, “Purity.”

    Svetlana Alexievich, “Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets.”

    Philip Roth, “The Counterlife.”

    Carl Bernstein’s memoir of his first days in the newspaper business — from age 16 to 21 at The Washington Evening Star — will be published in 2017. He is the author, most recently, of “A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

  8. Gail K. Evenari/National Book Foundation, via Associated Press

    Maxine Hong Kingston

    Here’s a list of the books I read this year, in the approximate order in which I read them.

    “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” by Marie Kondo.

    “The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson,” edited by Brooks Atkinson.

    “The Origin of Species,” by Charles Darwin.

    “Notes of a Son and Brother,” by Henry James.

    “Our Appointment With Life: Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone,” by Thich Nhat Hanh.

    “The World as I See It,” by Albert Einstein.

    “The Vagrants,” by Yiyun Li.

    “The Heart of Haiku,” by Jane Hirshfield.

    “On the Narrow Road to the Deep North,” by Lesley Downer.

    “Encouraging Words: Zen Buddhist Teachings for Western Students,” by Robert Aitken.

    “The Little Red Chairs,” by Edna O’Brien. (Didn’t finish. Stopped at torture scene.)

    “Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart,” by Claire Harman.

    “Our Souls at Night,” by Kent Haruf.

    “In the Beauty of the Lilies,” by John Updike.

    “Natural Opium,” by Diane Johnson.

    “Flyover Lives,” by Diane Johnson.

    “Le Mariage,” by Diane Johnson.

    “Luck of the Draw,” by William Scott Morrison.

    “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression,” by Andrew Solomon.

    “At the Kirks’,” by Mary Gordon.

    “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” by Nora Ephron.

    “The Woman in White,” by Wilkie Collins.

    “If I Can Cook / You Know God Can,” by Ntozake Shange.

    “The Sympathizer,” by Viet Thanh Nguyen. (Skipped some torture scenes.)

    “Nothing Ever Dies,” by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

    “Legacy of a Teapot,” by Barbara Quinn Benom.

    “The Buried Giant,” by Kazuo Ishiguro.

    “The Best American Short Stories 2013,” edited by Elizabeth Strout.

    “My Father’s War,” by Phyllis Meshulam. (Forthcoming.)

    “Thirteen Ways of Looking,” by Colum McCann.

    “All the Pretty Horses,” by Cormac McCarthy. (Didn’t finish. Couldn’t take the suspense.)

    “Finding Beauty in a Broken World,” by Terry Tempest Williams.

    “When Women Were Birds,” by Terry Tempest Williams.

    “The American Heiress,” by Daisy Goodwin.

    “On That Day, Everybody Ate,” by Margaret Trost.

    “Back on the Fire,” by Gary Snyder.

    “Armor and Ashes,” by Miriam Marx.

    “Mainlined,” by Gregory Ross. (Hard-to-find, self-published book.)

    “In Whose Eyes,” by Tran Van Thuy and Le Thanh Dung.

    “Justin Chin: Selected Works,” edited by Jennifer Joseph.

    “Lolas’ House: Survivors of War Time Rape Camps,” by M. Evelina Galang. (Forthcoming. Skipped some torture scenes.)

    “Old School,” by Tobias Wolff.

    “Excursions in the Real World,” by William Trevor. (I was reading this when I heard that he died.)

    “Upstream,” by Mary Oliver.

    “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

    “One World,” by Gail Newman.

    “Well Being,” by Clare Morris. (Hard-to-find, self-published book.)

    Wow! I didn’t realize I read so much.

    Maxine Hong Kingston is the author of “The Woman Warrior,” whose 40th anniversary is this year.

  9. Andrew Renneisen for The New York Times

    James McBride

    I read so much that I group my authors and books into categories like saxophone players. In that regard, 2016 was the year of my “Joe Henderson” writers. Joe Henderson was a wonderfully talented tenor player who died in 2001. Many years ago, when I was a student at Oberlin College in Ohio, some fellow students and I drove over to the University of Pittsburgh to see Henderson give a master class with two other jazz masters. They were each supposed to speak about 20 minutes. The first two lecturers used chalk, a blackboard and diagrams with music notation played by a jazz trio. When it was Henderson’s turn, he strapped on his horn, walked to the front of the room, turned to the trio and barked, “Green Dolphin Street.” The trio struck it up. Henderson soloed on that song for about a half-hour. Every single chorus was different. When the song ended, he left the room. It was the greatest lecture I ever attended.

    These were the “Joe Henderson” writers I read this year. These folks could really throw. No fuss. No jive. Just straight-up sluggers who could knock it out the yard: John A. Williams, “The Man Who Cried I Am”; Jim Harrison, “Brown Dogs”; Michael Herr, “Dispatches”; “The Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist”; and William Shirer, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” To make myself feel better after Shirer’s book, which offers disturbing reflections on our current political imbroglio, I gobbled up a galley of the wonderful young writer Rafe Bartholomew’s forthcoming 2017 memoir, “Two and Two.” It’s about McSorley’s, New York’s oldest saloon. I’ve tipped many a glass at that joint, hoping some of the literary magic of the great writers who once got oiled up there would rub off. It hasn’t.

    James McBride is a writer and musician. His latest book is “Kill ’Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul.”

  10. Andrew Testa for The New York Times

    Hilary Mantel

    For most of this year I’ve had my head stuck in Tudor documents, of vital fascination to me but scant interest to the general reader. I’ve also been writing hard, and at such a time you want the diversion of short stories, rather than to settle with a novel. I’ve enjoyed two collections from Irish writers: the linked narratives of “Prosperity Drive,” by Mary Morrissy, and “Dinosaurs on Other Planets,” a debut by Danielle McLaughlin. It’s been a year of rereading: I’ve revisited Edna O’Brien’s novel from 1970, “A Pagan Place,” and marveled at an idiom that gets into the blood. Did I appreciate its artistry, first time around, or did I think it just flowed onto the page like that? Iris Murdoch’s “The Sea, the Sea,” her Booker Prize-winning novel of 1978, swept me in as it did the first time around, but whereas I thought it powerful and preposterous, I now see that it is also very funny — the richest, I think, of all her novels. In new fiction, I was harrowed and impressed by Ian McGuire’s robust “The North Water,” and touched by the delicacy of Elizabeth Strout’s “My Name Is Lucy Barton”; I mean to read my way through the Strout backlist. Best of all, I reread Elizabeth Bowen’s 1938 novel “The Death of the Heart,” about the innocence and experience of the 16-year-old orphan Portia Quayne: “Illusions are art, for the feeling person, and it is by art that we live, if we do.”

    Hilary Mantel is working on the final novel of her trilogy about the Tudor statesman Thomas Cromwell.

  11. Damon Winter/The New York Times

    John Green

    Nine books I loved reading this year:

    “Parable of the Sower,” by Octavia Butler. This dystopian classic was written in 1993 but feels terrifyingly contemporary.

    “Moonglow,” by Michael Chabon. “Moonglow” left me overwhelmed with the same awe and gratitude I felt as a 16-year-old reading Chabon’s first novel, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.”

    “The Dream of Enlightenment,” by Anthony Gottlieb. Gottlieb outlines the thinking of early modernity’s major philosophers with such clarity that even a novice like me can keep up.

    “The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art.” “Forget the stale, male, pale, Yale textbooks, this is art herstory 101,” the Guerrilla Girls announce in this brilliant and irreverent introduction to female artists.

    “Furthermore,” by Tahereh Mafi. This vividly drawn children’s book about an Alice in a wonderland is, like all the best fairy tales, far richer than it first appears.

    “An Ember in the Ashes,” by Sabaa Tahir. Not since “The Hunger Games” has a series of young adult novels commanded my attention so completely.

    “The Underground Railroad,” by Colson Whitehead. Sometimes the book everyone is talking about really is that good.

    “Another Brooklyn,” by Jacqueline Woodson. This beautiful novel has one of my all-time favorite first sentences: “For a long time, my mother wasn’t dead yet.”

    “I Contain Multitudes,” by Ed Yong. While reading this entertaining introduction to the vast world of microbes, I was shocked to learn the extent to which the self I think of as mine is in fact shaped by the trillions of bacteria colonizing me.

    John Green’s books include “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Looking for Alaska.”

  12. Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

    Elizabeth Banks

    Until Nov. 8, it felt like 2016 could be a banner year for women’s equality in America. Perhaps Roe v. Wade would finally be considered settled law and efforts to defund Planned Parenthood would subside. Perhaps women could simply be relied upon to make their own decisions about their health, bodies and family plans rather than being consistently infantilized by a degrading political system that values control over actual results. As 2017 nears, these hopes feel farther and farther away.

    To best understand what is facing young women today, Peggy Orenstein’s “Girls and Sex” is required reading. This book explores the utter failure of American society to understand women’s sexuality at all. With zero discussion of reproductive rights, it is still clear from this book that women (and the men with whom they mate) need way more guidance if equality is ever to be a reality. The confused, objectified, ignored, Snapchatted 17- to 24-year-old women presented in this book don’t even get a decent orgasm from humanity’s most basic act, forget everything that comes after. And yet … Peggy offers some hope, too.

    Elizabeth Banks is an actress, producer and director.

  13. Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

    Samantha Power

    Not a lot of light reading in what proved a challenging year. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the only country in the world to test a nuclear weapon in the 21st century, carried out two further tests this year. Embroiled in months of negotiations over the Security Council’s response by day, I came home at night to Adam Johnson’s searing account of life in the D.P.R.K. in “The Orphan Master’s Son” and David Halberstam’s classic, “The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War,” a vivid portrait of what has been called the “forgotten war” and an important contemporary reminder of the human consequences of miscalculation.

    Years ago, my friend Richard Holbrooke gave me Clark Clifford’s “Counsel to the President: A Memoir,” which he had helped Clifford write. I wish I had gotten around to reading it before this year, as it is a gripping chronicle of five decades of domestic and foreign policy decision-making in or near the Oval Office, with high drama on the debates over whether to recognize the new state of Israel, how to extricate the United States from the Vietnam War and a host of other questions. I highly recommend it to people interested in government or American history.

    As I complete my tour at the U.N., I find myself the only woman permanent representative among 15 ambassadors on the U.N. Security Council — a strange dynamic in 2016, but one my predecessors Jeane Kirkpatrick (1981-85) and Madeleine Albright (1993-97) dealt with routinely. I devoured Albright’s “Madam Secretary,” a lively and surprisingly (on occasion) humorous look at her journey to becoming the country’s first woman secretary of state, and I tracked down a copy of the out-of-print “The Kirkpatrick Mission: Diplomacy Without Apology,” written by Allan Gerson, Ambassador Kirkpatrick’s legal counsel while she was ably duking it out at the U.N.

    I head into the holidays having just started Michael Lewis’s long-awaited and hugely important “The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds,” which — given the gifts of the writer and the riveting nature of the subject — I expect to gulp down in a weekend. The book tells the tale of an intellectual collaboration and emotionally fraught friendship that generated findings that changed economics, behavioral science, public policy and our individual self-understanding. For those concerned that our society is moving away from data and truth, I expect this book will be an affirmation of science and reason.

    Samantha Power is the United States ambassador to the United Nations.

  14. Hugh Hamrick

    David Sedaris

    Looking over my 2016 reading list, I’ve noticed that the books I most enjoyed were by women. I don’t know that I could put any one of them above another, as they each brought a different kind of pleasure. “Eileen,” by Ottessa Moshfegh, satisfied my insatiable need for creepiness. Goodness, this novel is dark. It left me feeling like something was on me, something like scum, only gratifying.

    The other two novels on my list were about family: “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” by Elizabeth Strout, and “Commonwealth,” by Ann Patchett, who has really outdone herself here. The authors struck two very different chords, and each left me in pieces. As the French say, I had to be picked back up in teaspoons.

    For laughs I reread “Amy Falls Down,” by the very funny Jincy Willett.

    If I may count galleys for books that are soon to come out, I’d like to include “The Rules Do Not Apply,” by Ariel Levy (nonfiction, tragic), and “A Life of Adventure and Delight,” stories by Akhil Sharma (a man!).

    David Sedaris’s latest book, “Theft by Finding: Diaries,” will be published in May.

  15. Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

    Newt Gingrich

    “The Black Widow,” by Daniel Silva, hit me harder than any other book I read in 2016. I have always enjoyed Silva’s novels. His characters are fascinating, beginning with his hero, Gabriel Allon — who is both an art restorer and an Israeli assassin.

    Silva’s books capture the realities of modern Europe, the pervasiveness of the terrorist threat and the complexities of Israeli life, bureaucracy and politics in an engrossing plot. His stories pit Israel’s determined fight for survival, along with the less-focused but larger efforts of the American, British and European intelligence services, against the ferocity and patience of the terror networks.

    I may have been particularly open to the lessons of “The Black Widow” because I began reading it the week after a Tunisian terrorist killed 85 people in Nice, France, by driving a 19-ton cargo truck into a crowd. “The Black Widow” begins by illustrating the war against Jews in modern France. Silva’s story may be fiction, but his description of the plight of Jews in today’s France is frighteningly real. There were more than 4,000 reported attacks on Jews in 2015, more than any time since the Nazis and Vichy France. This is the context in which one of Silva’s characters has moved to Israel because it is a safer place to be Jewish than Paris.

    The story unfolds from there, but as in much of Silva’s work, there are twists and turns and personal touches that keep you glued to the book. Silva has a knack for balancing five or six strands of tension and complexity, providing each page with a new insight or observation. He is a master storyteller.

    I find it very hard to put down any of Daniel Silva’s books and have read a number of them twice. In fact, I will probably reread “The Black Widow” at the Christmas holiday. It is one of his best!

    Newt Gingrich is a former House speaker and the author of “Treason,” a novel.

  16. Autumn de Wilde

    Carrie Brownstein

    I read a lot of books that I loved this year, new and old. The latest by Zadie Smith; a galley of the upcoming George Saunders novel; Rick Perlstein’s “Nixonland”; a collection called “The Fire This Time.” And like many of us, I devoured copious amounts of news and punditry, trying to determine the WHO, HOW and WHY of the election — both pre- and post- — all of it accompanied by a feeling akin to seasickness. So, I’ll be honest, I pulled Brit Bennett’s “The Mothers” off the shelf due to its dazzling mosaic cover, which alone promised an antidote to the grotesque. I wanted beauty.

    In brief, “The Mothers” follows the story of Nadia Turner, a young woman who longs to escape from the California beach town she grows up in. There is her best friend, Aubrey, and a boy they both love, Luke. There is also a church, Upper Room Chapel, featuring a congregation of older women whose eyes keep watch closer than God’s. In different ways, Nadia and Aubrey have each been abandoned by their mothers. And what haunted me most about this novel was the way it made a presence out of absence. It gave nothingness teeth and weaponized shadows. Departures ushered in arrivals.

    Nadia navigates her life from within this void, piecing together a fragmented self. “The Mothers” is a story about our backgrounds — cultural, familial — but also about the backgrounds we place ourselves within and upon: rooms, houses, communities, cities. What bearing does landscape have upon the body? We see ourselves differently when the scenery changes, forced to assess both our shape and our shapelessness, the partiality and the wholeness.

    I thought I was escaping the current political climate, but I wasn’t. Part of what makes “The Mothers” a stunning novel is its exploration of kinship and primary bonds. Our relationship to country is as fraught as our relationship to kin. When faced with abandonment we must find a means to connect and rebuild.

    Carrie Brownstein is a co-creator of the television show “Portlandia,” a member of the band Sleater-Kinney and the author of the memoir “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.”

  17. KT Bruce

    Philip Pullman

    A lot of essays, to begin with. Ferdinand Mount’s new book, “English Voices,” is how an intelligent conservative sees the nature of Englishness, which is a slippery and contradictory thing, much needing elucidation after our recent disastrous vote for isolation and closed frontiers. Teju Cole’s “Known and Strange Things” is the work of someone who can both see and write with vigor and clarity. To see a landscape, a street, an individual through his eyes is like looking through a freshly cleaned window. And I escaped from the present day in the company of Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele, those 300-year-old guides to the London of their day in the original Spectator, with its clubs and assemblies, its tea tables and coffeehouses.

    I can never resist a literary biography, and I enjoyed Jonathan Bate’s “Ted Hughes,” a controversial attempt on the north face of that craggy genius. Hughes can take it; there will be many more. Frances Wilson’s “Guilty Thing” is a vivid life of Thomas De Quincey, the English Opium Eater, with all his irresistible zest and obsession with murder and darkness. Astrid Lindgren’s “A World Gone Mad” is something out of the ordinary: the great Swedish children’s writer observing in a diary the progress of World War II as it affected her Nordic homeland.

    As far as fiction is concerned, Han Kang’s extraordinary “The Vegetarian,” the winner of the Man Booker International Prize, had me horrified and fascinated. Apart from prizewinners, I binged on thrillers. Oliver Harris is a new British writer of great promise (start with “The Hollow Man”), and James Lee Burke is a marvel, a poet of landscape and weather, but I’m currently reading Elmore Leonard with huge pleasure, and Georges Simenon never fails. And he wrote such a lot.

    Philip Pullman’s many novels include the “His Dark Materials” trilogy and, most recently, “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.”

  18. Heidi Ross

    Ann Patchett

    If ever there was a year to turn off the television, throw the phone out the window and pick up a book, this was it. Lucky for us, 2016 was a knockout year in publishing. Some of my favorite writers delivered their best works: Elizabeth Strout (“My Name Is Lucy Barton”), Louise Erdrich (“LaRose”), Michael Chabon (“Moonglow”), Jane Hamilton (“The Excellent Lombards”). Colson Whitehead knocked it out of the park with “The Underground Railroad,” and I also loved Ben Winters’s “Underground Airlines.” Jacqueline Woodson, who can do pretty much anything, gave us the beautiful and soulful “Another Brooklyn.” I read my first book by Rabih Alameddine, “The Angel of History,” and now want to read everything he has written. I just finished Zadie Smith’s “Swing Time” and found it to be both great art and a great read. I would also urge you to read my favorite short story collection of the year, Patrick Ryan’s “The Dream Life of Astronauts.”

    There was a lot of great nonfiction in 2016, but there are four books that I recommend with a sense of urgency. Read these books, give them as gifts, each is essential: Paul Kalanithi’s “When Breath Becomes Air,” Hope Jahren’s “Lab Girl,” Susan Faludi’s “In the Darkroom” and Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted.”

    If you’re in the market for a picture book, you’ll want Jon Klassen’s triumphant conclusion to the hat trilogy, “We Found a Hat.” And please get a copy of Melissa Sweet’s illustrated biography of E.B. White, “Some Writer!” It’s a book for every age, including 53. I loved it.

    Now bring this list to your local independent bookstore and buy some books so that you can ensure the health of a small business in your community while enriching your life through reading. That’s the very definition of a win/win.

    Ann Patchett’s most recent novel is “Commonwealth.”

  19. Ayman Oghanna for The New York Times

    Orhan Pamuk

    I systematically read old novels about peoples, cultures and places that are underrepresented in literature, like Halldor Laxness’s epic novel set among Icelandic farmers, “Independent People.” This year I reread a book that many years ago I had read in Turkish translation, this time in Frances Frenaye’s English translation: Carlo Levi’s great novel about poor Italian villagers in the 1930s, “Christ Stopped at Eboli.” I remembered with surprise that until recently the insides of our minds were quite different than they are today — a problem that is very important if one is writing historical fiction. I also learned a lot from Sven Beckert’s very knowledgeable and stunning “Empire of Cotton,” which I read as preparation for the historical novel I am writing now. “The Fall of the Ottomans,” by Eugene Rogan, is about the sad end of dreams of empire, a subject that was not represented accurately in my high school textbooks back in Istanbul. I admire “Confessions of an English Opium Eater,” and I am interested in everything about De Quincey’s Borgesian intellect, so I welcomed with joy the anecdotes of Frances Wilson’s new “Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey.” I believe strongly that all new art and literature is somehow Dadaist, so I was happy to see that the second volume of “The Age of Collage” is out. Another art book I recommend is “John Derian Picture Book,” which is for those who like to look at images with innocent joy and without worrying about their origins and mystery.

    Orhan Pamuk won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature. His most recent book is “A Strangeness in My Mind.”

  20. Fred Filkorn

    Nell Zink

    I close out this year a sadder and a wiser writer, having started it with a shattered upper arm. Now — a year after falling down in a spa in Berlin — I can even swim. Hooray! Back in January, if I wanted to type, I had to airlift my left hand to the keyboard using my pajama sleeve as a sling. That’s how I finished writing my novel “Nicotine,” a courageous achievement, I.M.H.O.

    In the United States, according to a lawyer friend, I would have been up an easy $175K. In Germany, I was down $300 for copays and P.T. Where American doctors would have hooked me on opioids, Germans made fun of me for expecting a break in the gnarly pain before the six-month mark. In short, you win some, you lose some, wherever you go.

    Reading highlights of 2016: Pierre Bourdieu’s shamefaced “Masculine Domination.” William Styron’s powerful “Confessions of Nat Turner.” “Private Citizens,” by Tony Tulathimutte, a first novel on the self-dismantling of semen-flecked VR youth. Plus two major shockers: “The Golden Notebook,” by Doris Lessing, and “Infinite Jest,” by David Foster Wallace.

    I bought “The Golden Notebook” on a whim, expecting it to be science fiction. It’s not. Read it now if you’re a straight feminist, a writer, or on the left. (It’s set in England, where McCarthyism never happened.) Best novel ever.

    For reasons both obvious and sad, I expected “Infinite Jest” to be literary fiction. It’s not. As the always cogent John Clute has pointed out, the action, however unthinkable as realism, never resolves into dream or metaphor. It’s to be taken literally — the hallmark of the fantastic. If you read with genre in mind, its intellectual puerility resolves into a pretty good grade of Philip K. Dick rip-off. The eponymous basilisk and even the hard-boiled sexism are conventional genre hardware. By genre standards, a thousand pages is a modest trilogy. I’m reading it, with pleasure, at the beach.

    Nell Zink lives near Berlin. She subscribes to Nature and Le Monde Diplomatique.

  21. Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

    Barney Frank

    The dramatic personal stories in the presidential election have obscured another set of challenges to the established order that are not only likely to have a more enduring effect, but also help explain this year’s results. Two pieces of conventional wisdom — one about domestic policy, the other dealing with global issues — have structured our national policy debates for decades. Both are under attack: The domestic wall is collapsing, and the foreign policy side is sagging badly. Two books on my list represent prevailing rules, as practiced by two of their most eminent advocates, and two subject this received wisdom to tough examinations, skeptical of their basic assumptions.

    The domestic side has two interrelated parts: Economic policy should focus on growth, worrying little about income distribution, with a heavy burden on any proposed interference with the market. This describes the life work of Alan Greenspan, admiringly documented by Sebastian Mallaby in “The Man Who Knew.” The counter to this is “The Globalization Paradox,” by Dani Rodrik, who makes the case for rejecting the subordination of domestic economic goals to the demands of the global economy, with largely unrestricted international trade as the prime example. Rodrik argues for interaction between the market and public policy if we are to maximize our well-being.

    On the international side, Henry Kissinger’s “World Order” expounds the dire consequences to ourselves and others of America failing to maintain an assertive, heavily armed worldwide presence. “World Order depends on it,” The Financial Times said in a blurb, echoing the title for reinforcement.

    The rebuttal — substantively, not chronologically — comes from Barry R. Posen’s “Restraint,” which challenges the assumptions — mostly undefended — that underlay the work of the geostrategic thinkers, of whom Kissinger is the dean. Posen does not challenge the accuracy of the scenarios they sketch; but he disputes their relevance, especially to the legitimate national security interests of the United States.

    Barney Frank, a United States representative from 1981 to 2013, is the author of the memoir “Frank.”

  22. Meredith Heuer

    Sarah Koenig

    When I was reporting on Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier who walked off his outpost in Afghanistan and was captured by the Taliban, one of Bergdahl’s former commanders commanded me: “You got to read ‘The Execution of Private Slovik.’”

    Eddie Slovik is the only soldier our government has killed for desertion since the Civil War. The book, from 1954, is by the journalist William Bradford Huie, who wanted to find out how this dead-end kid from Michigan assumed “his singular position in the annals of freedom, … the only authentic, adjudged, actually executed American coward in the Age of Freud.”

    Slovik was the poor, “cussed,” gentle, delinquent son of an American mother and a Polish immigrant father. By the time he was drafted, he loved two things fiercely: his young wife, and their newly furnished apartment. When he got to Europe — first France, then Belgium — he was terrified. And he refused to shoot a gun. His desertion was without guile; he disappeared for one night, returned and handed a cook his confession, which ended in all caps: “AND I’LL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO OUT THEIR.”

    Private Slovik’s death sentence wasn’t severe because his crime was unusual; his sentence was severe because his crime was so common. American soldiers — even officers — were deserting in droves. The United States government decided, rather arbitrarily, to make an example of this one kid. Slovik is where the buck happened to stop.

    Huie’s reporting and writing are bold and funny and wonderfully questioning. It makes me wish for just a second that I lived in the 1950s, when a reporter could earnestly suggest that perhaps there’s some confusion over what the United States can properly demand of a citizen — and vice versa. Huie ends the book with his own caps: “What of DUTY today? And what of AVOIDANCE of duty?”

    Sarah Koenig is the host and a co-creator of the Serial podcast.

  23. Etienne Laurent/European Pressphoto Agency

    Bernard-Henri Lévy

    From Jerusalem to Mosul via New York and Paris, here is what stays with me from a year of reading at the edge of the volcano.

    Friedrich Hölderlin’s “The Death of Empedocles.” When confronted with a volcano, resist!

    Carlo Emilio Gadda’s “Acquainted With Grief,” a book about self-loathing of a type that might ordinarily induce an urge to suicide but in my case had the opposite effect.

    The complete works of Bernard Malamud, because it is just not possible that there is no other way of being Jewish in America than Roth’s.

    At the news of Castro’s death, I was no more tempted to go into mourning with the veterans of the revolution than to dance for joy with the Cubans of Miami. Instead, I started Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s “Infante’s Inferno.”

    François Mitterrand’s “Lettres à Anne” is so good that, as in the case of Sartre’s “Witness to My Life” (the book of his letters to Simone de Beauvoir), one wonders how these people found the time to work.

    Xenophon’s “Anabasis”: Is there anything more romantic and adventurous than this figure of the writer-soldier (and mercenary)?

    John le Carré’s latest: boring, alas — the author as apparatchik of the spy novel!

    The Book of Jonah, indefatigably. Yesterday the Libyan war; today the taking of Nineveh.

    Romain Gary’s “Hissing Tales.” This collection of stories by the consummate Americophile among French writers is the reason the election of Donald Trump took me by surprise.

    Bernard-Henri Lévy, a French philosopher, writer and filmmaker, is the author of the forthcoming “Genius of Judaism.”

  24. Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

    Jill Soloway

    This past year was a rough one for reading because I was so crazy busy working. When working on “Transparent” in the early part of the year, I was reading “Transparent” scripts. Then, I started working on “I Love Dick,” a TV series based on the book “I Love Dick,” by Chris Kraus. As soon as I discovered her I was obsessed and had to read everything she’d written, especially “Torpor” and “Aliens and Anorexia.” I feel like she’s a secret alchemist genius who was kept from all women somehow! Everyone who reads these books asks, “How did I not know about her?” because she unhinges absolutely everything.

    I also binged on all that Eileen Myles had ever written, because I was getting to know her as a person. When I couldn’t have her in proximity, I read her. Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts” changed me. I think that book can actually encourage people to embody their most queer selves.

    When my company, Topple, started selling movies to Amazon, I read “The Nest,” by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, and we optioned it. More work/pleasure/laughter/love reading meant building a more intersectional pipeline at Topple, so reading Shannon Houston’s criticism and Phoebe Robinson’s “You Can’t Touch My Hair” led to us making pilot deals with them too.

    I had the honor of getting early looks at books written by friends that are coming out next year, so that I could send blurbs — both Daphne Merkin’s “This Close to Happy” and Carina Chocano’s “You Play the Girl” just grabbed me and pinned me to the bed.

    I did a panel with bell hooks, so I read as much as I could that she had written, focusing on “All About Love.” Spending time talking to her about love prepared me emotionally to fight to give birth to the coming epoch, after all of this patriarchy and capitalism. She convinced me that there will be a new movement around the corner, and it will be about love. And this was all before the dark day when the earth turned upside down and the planet vomited out this awful new government. I guess I needed her heart and that book more than I ever could have imagined.

    Jill Soloway is the creator of the Amazon series “Transparent.”

  25. Mark Mahaney for The New York Times

    Harold Bloom

    Incessantly I reread “King Lear,” and find what takes my apprehension to its limits. Nature dwindles to nothing. Familial love turns destructive. Intergenerational strife becomes murderous. In this bad autumn I echo Lear: “We cry that we are come unto this great stage of fools.”

    Harold Bloom’s forthcoming book is “Falstaff: Give Me Life.”

  26. Trevor Tondro for the New York Times


    When I began work on my own memoir, as research I went out and read as much autobiographical writing as I could get my hands on. One book really stood out as being exceptionally honest and trenchant and inspiring: “The Journals of John Cheever.” I had grown up obsessed with Cheever’s fiction, but poring over his journals didn’t just inspire my own writing, it also reminded me that he was one of the most remarkable writers our country ever produced.

    Moby is a recording artist and the author of the memoir “Porcelain.”

  27. Hazel Thompson for The New York Times

    Sarah Bakewell

    I began the year by terrifying myself with “It Can’t Happen Here,” Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel about an all-American fascist demagogue who comes to power through mass rallies and intimidation combined with corny, down-home, feel-good slogans. Taken off guard, the liberal intelligentsia and political establishment look on in disbelief. A good story in the “what if?” genre, it left me feeling that this could happen, but probably wouldn’t. That was then. Now, at the end of the year, I find myself rereading Victor Klemperer’s German diaries of 1933-41, “I Will Bear Witness,” in search of some perspective on how such slides into improbability can occur.

    More cheerfully, my most mind-expanding book of the last few months was Ed Yong’s “I Contain Multitudes,” about the communities of microbes that live inside us as they do in almost all species. The elegance and wit of Yong’s writing make this book an inspiration to any nonfiction writer. His vision of living beings as permeable, ever-shifting communities of multifarious life-forms has transformed my sense of what I am. From now on, when I look in the mirror, I never feel truly alone.

    Sarah Bakewell’s “At the Existentialist Café” was one of the Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2016.

  28. Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

    Fareed Zakaria

    In July, after years of efforts, I was given the opportunity to interview Vladimir Putin, in St. Petersburg, a city I had never visited. In prepping for the interview, I remembered that Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” was set in Petersburg. I decided to reread it (or really read it, because I had the vaguest memory of the book from when I was 16). I walked up to Book Sense in the Columbia neighborhood and spent half an hour checking out a few translations before settling on the new Penguin Classics edition, by Oliver Ready. Fifty pages in, I was bowled over, by the novel itself and the utterly brilliant translation, which grabs you by the lapels and doesn’t let go. In the course of my work, I go through mountains of nonfiction to try to understand the world. This summer, I was reminded of the power of a novel to uncover something much deeper about the human spirit. It didn’t help much with the interview though.

    Fareed Zakaria is the host of CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS” and a Washington Post columnist.

  29. Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

    Drew Gilpin Faust

    When Congressman John Lewis applied for a library card as an Alabama teenager in the 1950s, he was told that the library was for white people. This November, he tearfully related this story as he accepted the National Book Award for young people’s literature for the third and final volume of his graphic memoir, “March,” written together with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell.

    The trilogy chronicles Lewis’s life from his childhood on a cotton, corn and peanut farm through his participation and subsequent leadership in most of the signal events of the civil rights movement — from the Freedom Rides to Selma and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Lewis depicts not only the struggle the movement waged against segregation and discrimination but also conflicts within the movement itself as growing militancy and the emergence of Black Power began to challenge strategies of nonviolence to which Lewis remained devoted.

    “We have to tell the story,” Lewis insists. The visual power of a comic book, he recognizes, has the potential to reach a wide audience for whom the civil rights movement is in danger of becoming forgotten history. Far too few Americans alive today can remember — Lewis is the only surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington — how little black lives mattered in our segregated nation at midcentury. And far too few are aware of the sacrifices that Lewis and so many others made in their fight for freedom. “March” can help a new generation understand that the arc of the moral universe doesn’t just bend toward justice; humans must struggle to bend it. To read Lewis’s graphic memoir as 2016 draws to a close is to be reminded that what so many have taken for granted in American life today was hard fought and recently won. “March” calls on all of us to keep our eyes on the prize.

    Drew Gilpin Faust is the university president and Lincoln professor of history at Harvard.

  30. Michael Lionstar

    Anne Tyler

    So far this year, I’ve read 103 books. You can understand why they might be blurring together in my mind by now.

    Eight of them, though, are as distinct to me today as they were while I was reading them, and each for a different reason.

    For language that sounds like music, there’s Sara Baume’s “Spill Simmer Falter Wither,” about a lonely Irish outcast and his one-eyed rescue dog.

    For gripping adventure deepened by real heart: Paulette Jiles’s “News of the World,” the story of an itinerant news reader’s wagon trip with a little girl rescued from Indians.

    For brilliant ingenuity: Ian McEwan’s “Nutshell,” the “Hamlet” plot elegantly retold by a Hamlet still in the womb.

    For a voice that’s quiet but dead-on arresting: Elizabeth Strout’s “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” an account of a hospitalized woman’s five-day visit from her mother.

    For its haunting sense of sorrow: Graham Swift’s “Mothering Sunday,” a description of an English servant girl’s tryst with a young aristocrat on the eve of his wedding.

    For its inimitable heroine: Dianne Warren’s “Liberty Street,” about an appealingly odd and funny young woman growing up in rural Saskatchewan.

    For a beautifully observed study of a hopeless life bravely endured: Brad Watson’s “Miss Jane,” the story of an early-20th-century Mississippi woman with a devastating physical anomaly.

    And for sheer power: Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad,” a harrowing slavery saga magically uplifted by the literal railroad of the title.

    Anne Tyler is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 21 novels, including “A Spool of Blue Thread,” which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

  31. Tabitha Soren

    Michael Lewis

    I just finished, and loved, M.J. Carter’s “The Strangler Vine.” Carter’s historical novels are better known in England than outside it, but I’ll bet that her works will soon find more foreign readers, even as the English seek to distance themselves from foreigners. This one, set in India in the first half of the 19th century, is a crackerjack story about a young man sent on a harrowing quest by the British East India Company. It’s totally engrossing — the sort of story that makes you forget that there are other books stacked next to your bed, waiting to be read. Two works of nonfiction also recently grabbed me. One was “The Age of Wonder,” by Richard Holmes. Holmes’s narrative, about science in the 18th century — before science filed for a divorce from art — appeared several years ago and sat on my night stand, unread, for most of them. I picked it up in a mercenary spirit, thinking it might help me to think about a book of my own I was working on, and wound up loving it for its own sake. The other nonfiction book that I’ve been pushing on people lately is a new biography of Supreme Court justice Louis D. Brandeis, by Jeffery Rosen. Rosen is now the president of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and so counts, I suppose, as a scholar and general legal pooh-bah. But his magazine sketches of Supreme Court justices, which he’s been writing since the early 1990s, don’t read like legal scholarship. They’re totally fresh page-turners that open windows on the souls of people whose decisions exert deep influence on our society. This latest book is just great — and short.

    Michael Lewis’s most recent book is “The Undoing Project.”

  32. Andrew Councill for The New York Times

    Christopher Buckley

    With this disclaimer writ large: I HAVE NO FINANCIAL STAKE IN THIS BOOK, I can say with a straight face and full heart that the best read I’ve had this year is “A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century,” by — wait for it — William F. Buckley Jr., edited by James Rosen.

    It’s a collection of his obituaries and eulogies. That may sound a bit gloomy around the holiday season. I assure you, the book is anything but.

    I’ve read all of the 60-odd books my father produced over the course of his busy life, and I will say — again, with a straight face — that I think this one might just be his best. He was good at a lot of things, my dad. He was a master of the valedictory literary form — the Ave Atque Vale.

    By my count, he knew personally, in cases intimately, some 33 of the 52 people bid farewell to here: Ronald Reagan, Whittaker Chambers, David Niven, Jacqueline Onassis, Alistair Cooke, Truman Capote, E. Howard Hunt, Nan Kempner, Rosalyn Tureck, Milton Friedman, et al. It’s quite a list.

    One section, titled “Nemeses” by the book’s able curator, Mr. Rosen, includes John V. Lindsay, Ayn Rand and Nelson Rockefeller. These farewells inevitably contain more ave than vale, but even here W.F.B.’s grace and largeness of heart never faltered. At a time when politics — especially on the right — has become so sour and rancorous, this book is a tonic.

    Alas that he didn’t outlive Gore Vidal. That’s one W.F.B. obit I’d have — “killed” is probably the wrong word — loved to have read.

    Christopher Buckley’s latest novel, “The Relic Master,” is out in paperback.

  33. Rolf Vennenbernd/Deutsche Presse-Agentur, via Associated Press

    Margaret Atwood

    As many will be emphasizing fiction, history and politics, I chose my books instead from a still-neglected sector. All hail, elemental spirits! You’re making a comeback! “Water Is…,” by Nina Munteanu. We can’t live without it, so maybe we should start respecting it; this beautifully designed book by a limnologist looks at water from 12 different angles, from life and motion and vibration to beauty and prayer. “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries From a Secret World,” by Peter Wohlleben. Maybe Tolkien’s Ents are real after all? Read this and you’ll be wondering. And to go with it, “Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants,” by Richard Mabey. They’re better for you than you think, they hold the waste spaces of the world in place, and you can eat some of them. And, in honor of Ariel, air spirit of “The Tempest”: “Birds and People,” by Mark Cocker. Vast, historical, contemporary, many-levelled: we’ve been inseparable from birds for millenniums. They’re crucial to our imaginative life and our human heritage, and part of our economic realities. Time to pay attention to the nonhuman life around us, without which human life would fail.

    Margaret Atwood’s most recent books are “Hag-Seed” and the graphic novel “Angel Catbird.”

  34. Amy Sussman/Invision, via Associated Press

    Bryan Cranston

    As I was writing my memoir, “A Life in Parts,” I revisited “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” one of the most important books of my youth. I was reminded how Robert Pirsig coupled the relative simplicity of maintaining a motorcycle with complex philosophical thought, and I remembered how the book opened my eyes and mind when I was 20 years old.

    In 1976 I was beginning (what became) a two-year motorcycle trip across the country. I had recently discovered the joy of acting in a college class — virtually torpedoing my plans to become a police officer. Thus, I was in “flight” mode. I didn’t know whether to take what seemed like the safe path or to act. A friend who knew of my plans recommended this book. Seemed appropriate. I might pick up some practical advice for the traveler. What I got was so much more. In retrospect, I was like many kids: brash; convinced I was destined for great things yet without a clue what they might be; self-centered and rather hedonistic — partly due to my age and partly due to the decade. I didn’t know it then, but I was ripe to receive what the book had to offer. I remember being seduced by Pirsig’s visceral description of the landscapes and, conversely, challenged by his discussions of “What is good?”

    Many times I felt the narrator was speaking to me personally: Get your head straight. One of the characters didn’t really want to learn how to repair his motorcycle; he just wanted the bike to work so he could ride. Reward without the work. That was me too. I recognized myself, and knew I had to change. And although I couldn’t articulate it then, the lesson — that work has the power to transform and lift you up — underpins the meritocracy that I fully believe in today.

    At 20, I was learning to breathe and become patient, to appreciate delayed gratification — the Zen of it all. This year, I turned 60, and I was so grateful to revisit the book’s enduring wisdom.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to tune up my motorcycle.

    Bryan Cranston’s latest role is in the movie “Why Him?” He is the author of a recent memoir, “A Life in Parts.”

  35. Gregg Matthews for The New York Times

    Billy Collins

    FICTION: Ever since I left graduate school, I’ve avoided novels that feature the intertwined lives of more than one family. Too many characters is a penalty I call as a referee might call too many players on the field. And if a novel starts out with a diagram of a family tree — especially, the foldout kind — I politely return it to the shelf. But Ann Patchett, whose novels have never let me down starting with “Bel Canto,” is an exception. “Commonwealth” is lively with character interplay, and the chronological jumps, sometimes from one family to another, only display Patchett’s dexterity in plot construction. The shifting centers of consciousness enable us to understand a character from many points of view, an approach that respects the complexity of human nature. But what really keeps me reading Patchett with sustained enthusiasm are her sentences. She writes the kind that I can’t help rereading just to appreciate their syntactic rides and the beauty of their truthfulness. What more could you want from a writer?

    POETRY: Bill Knott’s posthumous selected poems (1960-2014) is titled “I Am Flying Into Myself,” a line from a poem in which he appears to be doing that in sleep and in death when his hands are crossed over his chest. Such startling conceits are a common feature of Knott’s poems. Reading through this volume (which will be published in February), I felt surges of jealousy over the simple brilliance of his comparisons. No modern poet I know shuffles together such tenderness of heart with such wild metaphoric play. Yet for all his inspired strangeness, Knott writes solidly in the tradition of the English lyric, which he knew so intimately. Knott would have appreciated the lovely irony of his own posthumous collection in that he once advised American poets to “declare themselves dead and … write from then on posthumously.” He even published one of his books under the pseudonym Saint Geraud, virgin suicide. I love short poems, and Knott had a penchant for that form. Here is one of his well-known ones:

    The only response
    to a child’s grave is
    to lie down before it and play dead.

    As eccentric in his life as his poems are on the page, Knott has often been considered an acquired taste, but this substantial gathering, carefully edited by Thomas Lux, should secure for Knott an undeniable place on the map of American poetry.

    Billy Collins’s latest book of poems is “The Rain in Portugal.”

  36. Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

    Alexander McCall Smith

    Some years ago I asked a witty friend what he would do when the revolution came. It was a troubled time — a time of industrial strife and strident politics — and he replied, “I’ll go off and plant potatoes.” It was a many-layered reply. Recent times in Europe and North America have not been easy, but if one cannot plant potatoes, then at least one can escape by reading.

    There is something calming about the lives of artists. Some of them are presumably buffeted by crisis. Some — like Caravaggio — might lead rambunctious lives. But for the most part they spend long hours in their studios, absorbed in the world of their vision. It is a very calming exercise to invite oneself into their company. So this, for me, has been the year of reading artistically.

    A highlight was the publication of “A History of Pictures,” by David Hockney and Martin Gayford. This beautiful book is a record of a long conversation between artist and critic, discussing how we transform reality into significant and uplifting images. It is a feast.

    Reading about art is a real antidote to stressful times. I found myself in the world of illuminated manuscripts in Christopher de Hamel’s “Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts.” These are lovely jewels that once again take us away from the conflicts of our own world and into a contemplative and reassuring place of the soul that I visited again in “Bawden, Ravilious and the Artists of Great Bardfield,” edited by Gill Saunders and Malcolm Yorke. And for a bit of seasoning, there was Roger Scruton’s new collection of essays, “Confessions of a Heretic,” which contains the most ringing condemnation of the architectural ugliness of recent times. Scruton, as usual, defends the good-mannered and thoughtful against the antithesis of both these things — a timely message.

    Alexander McCall Smith’s most recent novel in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is “Precious and Grace.”

  37. David B. Torch for The New York Times

    Neko Case

    Two obsessions:

    1) It has often seemed to me that we, as a species, know more about the dinosaurs of the Cretaceous than we do about the lives, habits, hopes and thoughts of our own human women; as in, nearly 53 billion human beings who at one time walked the earth. Women from a mere 200 years ago are mysterious to us; those of ancient history often seem like blurry abstractions and tallies of livestock. History nerds and most everyone else know darn well there was no asteroid-triggered mass female extinction, so “What were we ladies doing this whole time?” is a woozy, panicked question that sits on my chest with the full weight of the Great Pyramid of Gaslighting, strangling my soul out of my holes like ugly toothpaste. It is perhaps the oldest elephant in the room. In ancient history, we are beyond rare, especially in the great “Thinking, Inventing, Ruling, Art-Making and Fighting” category. While this omission is probably common knowledge, it doesn’t make the evidence via non-evidence of our mostly “passenger/slave” role any less twisted. For those of us who can’t reconcile this lack of “expert” evidence, or the notion that someone didn’t “let us” do stuff, with the instinctual, mammal smarts that tell us “We were here!” there is: “The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World,” by Adrienne Mayor. Fluidly written and exhaustively researched, this fascinating book lit up my mind and my sense of humanity, not just with women in it, but under it, above it, flinging out constellations and atoms; carving out grand canyons hand-in-hand with men and beasts and glaciers too.

    2) For everyone wondering how our legal/societal systems were engineered to pit poor black and white Americans against each other after the Civil War, in an effort to keep the money and power in the hands of a few rich whites, look no further than “The Strange Career of Jim Crow,” by C. Vann Woodward. Woodward organizes the plans and deeds of elected officials and powerful racists who were more than happy to boast to the press of their planned manipulations via newspaper articles, propaganda, business documents, etc., into a timeline that makes sense. This book is a great jumping-off point to start learning our unsanitized American history.

    Neko Case’s recent albums include “Middle Cyclone” and “The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You.”

  38. Peter Earl McCollough for The New York Times

    Colm Toibin

    For the first time in more than 20 years I traveled to Israel and the West Bank this year. I went to write a chapter of a book to mark the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War. For background, I read Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land,” which gave me an increased sense of the complexity of the Israeli heritage; Amoz Oz’s marvelous memoir “A Tale of Love and Darkness”; and “The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai,” edited by Robert Alter, a book that underlines the miracle of the creation of Hebrew as a literary language. For a more immediate account of what is happening, I would recommend Ben Ehrenreich’s “The Way to the Spring,” which captures the fierce suffering and frustration on the Palestinian side. I also read two recent books filled with acute observation and sympathy by the veteran Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy: “A Month by the Sea: Encounters in Gaza” and “Between River and Sea: Encounters in Israel and Palestine.” And two books from earlier in the century by the fearless Israeli journalist Amira Hass — “Drinking the Sea at Gaza” and “Reporting From Ramallah” — as well as the deeply shocking “Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies From the Occupied Territories, 2000-2010.” For a more long-term perspective, I thought “Jerusalem: The Biography,” by Simon Sebag Montefiore, exhaustive and brilliant. I went back to David Grossman’s “The Yellow Wind,” published in 1988, which bravely wrestled with the plight of the Palestinians, and also his novel “To the End of the Land,” which is one of the most inspiring books I have read in the past decade. While I was in Ramallah, I met the Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh, whose work I did not previously know. His books — including “Strangers in the House” and “When the Birds Stopped Singing” — were a discovery; he is a great inquiring spirit with a tone that is vivid, ironic, melancholy and wise.

    Colm Toibin’s novel “House of Names” will be published in May.

  39. Vanessa Vick for The New York Times

    Walter Isaacson

    For my next book, I’ve been immersed in reading the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. One theme, of course, is the exhilaration that arises from connecting science to invention. I found that theme played out, in a manner that was resonant for our own times, in Graham Moore’s historical novel “The Last Days of Night.” It’s about the battle over commercializing electricity and the light bulb, involving Edison, Westinghouse, Tesla and the young lawyer Paul Cravath. That period, the 1880s, was an era of exciting new discoveries and technologies, which Moore shows was made possible by a love of the beauty of science. In short, it was an era much like Leonardo’s — and our own.

    My other favorite novel this year was Dave Eggers’s “Heroes of the Frontier.” I have always loved novels of odysseys, whether on a ship, on a raft or on the road. They juxtapose our deeply human desires to engage with the world with our urges to move on and escape — to light out for the territory. Echoing some themes from his journey memoir, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” Eggers has now done a road trip novel in which the movement allows a profound exploration of family, interpersonal dynamics and ways of finding yourself.

    Walter Isaacson is the president of the Aspen Institute. His most recent book is “The Innovators.”

  40. Nina Westervelt for The New York Times

    David Hare

    If I were Carly Simon, I’d be insulted by reviewers who sounded surprised at how well she can write. Good grief, she’s Carly Simon. “Boys in the Trees” is one of three brilliant memoirs I read in succession. Decca Aitkenhead watched the father of her children drown off an apparently placid beach in the West Indies, and describes her experience moment by shocking moment in “All at Sea.” And Tracy Tynan, in “Wear and Tear,” makes you feel how painful it was to be the disfavored daughter of two exhibitionist parents, Elaine Dundy and Kenneth Tynan. The best new novel I read was Barney Norris’s debut, “Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain.” Set in the rural town of Salisbury, and plotted a little like “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” it breathes new life into the great tradition of regional British literature.

    “The Unraveling,” Emma Sky’s firsthand account of the failed attempts to restore postwar Iraq, was sober reading for those who, like me, have let our attention focus more on the wrongs of the American invasion than on its victims. And my great discovery of the year was Nigel Balchin, of whom I knew little. Like Graham Greene and Patricia Highsmith, he reads filmically but films badly. A bewilderingly weird novel about guilt and infidelity, “A Way Through the Wood,” became the movie “Separate Lies” in 2005, but in 1949 Powell and Pressburger made an even bigger mess of “The Small Back Room,” which is about scientific bureaucracy during the Second World War. If that sounds dull, in Balchin’s hands it’s anything but. In print, Balchin is just as good as Greene or Patrick Hamilton.

    David Hare is a playwright and screenwriter.

  41. Todd Heisler/The New York Times

    Frank Stella

    1) “On Growth and Form,” by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson.

    2) McMaster-Carr Catalog 121, New Jersey.

    3) “A Hero of Our Time,” by Mikhail Lermontov.

    4) “Differential Geometry of Curves and Surfaces,” by Manfredo P. do Carmo.

    5) “The Tiger,” by John Vaillant.

    6) “An Abyss Deep Enough: Letters of Heinrich von Kleist,” edited by Philip B. Miller.

    7) “The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas,” by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis.

    8) “Arabian Sands,” by Wilfred Thesiger.

    9) “The Leopard,” by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.

    10) “The Malay Archipelago,” by Alfred Russel Wallace.

    Frank Stella is a contemporary artist who lives and works in New York.

  42. Francis Fukuyama

    Francis Fukuyama

    As a result of the Trump candidacy and our tumultuous election year, I have been reading a series of books on the white working class in the United States. Well before the campaign I had read Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart: The State of White America” and Robert D. Putnam’s “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.” Both of these works drew on similar data to show that economic job loss was only part of the story; there is a much deeper one of social and cultural decline. This year Nicholas Eberstadt published the short, fact-packed book “Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis,” in which he shows that there has been a steady drop in male labor force participation for two generations, leaving men in the prime of their lives no longer working but instead playing video games, watching TV and living off their girlfriends or wives. Katherine J. Cramer’s “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker” traces the huge urban-rural divide that has opened up in her state, a big player in this year’s election when it turned for Trump. The political scientists Marisa Abrajano and Zoltan L. Hajnal have documented how immigration has shaped white consciousness and driven white voters into the arms of the Republican Party over the past decade in “White Backlash: Immigration, Race, and American Politics.” And finally, J.D. Vance’s celebrated “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” underlines how economic decline and cultural decline are two sides of the same tragic coin.

    Francis Fukuyama is a senior fellow at Stanford and Mosbacher director of its Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.

  43. Annie Tritt for The New York Times

    Kamasi Washington

    I spent the first two months of the year recovering from a pretty bad ankle injury. I found myself looking for ways to cheer myself up. So I decided to revisit one of my all-time favorite writers, Mark Twain. I read “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” back to back. And good old Sam Clemens did not disappoint me. It had been years since I had read him. I remembered his work being absolutely hilarious while amazingly powerful when I was younger, and it still is today.

    I was given “The Mysticism of Sound and Music,” by Hazrat Inayat Khan, as a gift. It is a collection of speeches and lectures given by the great Sufi teacher on his beliefs about the power of music, words and sound in general. The ideas presented in this book on the role, purpose and potential of music, thought and sound were profound and inspiring to me — as a human being as well as a musician.

    Herbie Hancock has been one of my biggest heroes in music since I was 11 years old. Reading his autobiography, “Possibilities,” was so fun. He does a great job of describing his many musical innovations and groundbreaking albums. But you also learn about the considerable number of his nonmusical accomplishments.

    Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” is a powerful book about our society’s current racial caste system, which has incarcerated millions of African-Americans and other poor people in the interest of financial gain. If you’ve seen Ava DuVernay’s new documentary, “13th,” then you’ll definitely want to read this book. A truly remarkable work!

    Kamasi Washington is a Los Angeles-based jazz saxophonist and composer. His solo album, “The Epic,” was released in 2015.

  44. Peter W. Ellis

    Joseph J. Ellis

    This past summer I decided to read or reread the memoirs of several black thinkers and writers in order to better understand why all those hopes for a “post-racial America” have proven so naïve. “The Souls of Black Folk,” by W.E.B. Du Bois, still sings for me. But the book that captured my full attention was James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son.”

    In part because he was a novelist, in part because he was a black, gay, patriotic expatriate, Baldwin possessed a natural gift for multiplicity. He invited all of us to suspend our personal certainties by inhabiting another’s skin.

    Like Martin Luther King Jr., he believed that the arc of the moral universe bent toward justice. But Baldwin also believed, as he put it, that “people are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.” That meant that each lurch forward along the arc of racial equality in America generated its own backlash, a reaction with historical roots in some deep pool of prejudice that was always there and always would be. So each progressive chapter — the end of slavery, the end of legal segregation — created resistance to its continuation. Baldwin helped me understand our current post-Obama moment.

    Joseph J. Ellis is the author of “Founding Brothers.”

  45. Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

    Ed Ruscha

    “The Swerve,” by Stephen Greenblatt.

    “Don Quixote,” by Miguel de Cervantes (Edith Grossman’s translation).

    “Los Angeles Stories,” by Ry Cooder.

    “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life,” by William Finnegan.

    “Remainder,” by Tom McCarthy. A rare gem. It reminded me of “The Magic Christian,” by Terry Southern. It’s about a man’s healthy or unhealthy (as you choose to see it) obsession with the outer world that he stumbles across. It turns out to be about a triumphant (as you choose to see it) method of spending lots of money that was never in a million years available except for a completely unexpected event. The use of this money is awe-inspiring.

    Ed Ruscha is an artist and photographer who lives and works in Los Angeles.

  46. Ben Sklar for The New York Times

    Maria Popova

    This year, “A Rap on Race” — James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s fantastic forgotten dialogue about race, gender, identity and the immigrant experience — has proven its sobering timeliness. With tenfold more depth and nuance than we are capable of today, these intellectual titans address questions we continue to confront.

    Bridging science and philosophy, James Gleick’s “Time Travel” is an enthralling literary inquiry into why we’re so troubled by time’s unstoppable forward motion and how we cope with its tyranny. At this particular moment, as we witness the mass appeal of a political time machine seeking to create the illusion of static stability by reverting progress, the book bears undertones of especial poignancy.

    “Cry, Heart, but Never Break” is an unusual Danish children’s picture book about loss and life, treating the perennially difficult subject of mortality with extraordinary subtlety and sensitivity. What emerges is a radiant reminder that there is splendor in surrendering to sadness.

    Neil Gaiman’s collected nonfiction, “The View From the Cheap Seats,” has more than justified the long wait — with his unmistakable fusion of wisdom and warm wit, Gaiman takes on everything from democracy to pornography to why we read.

    In these final weeks, I’ve returned to Rebecca Solnit’s “Hope in the Dark” — a lucid and luminous manifesto for resilience by one of the most lyrical writers of our time.

    Crowning my year was “Black Hole Blues,” by the cosmologist and novelist Janna Levin — the story of the centurylong quest to hear the sound of space-time via gravitational waves, first envisioned by Einstein. Like a Leonard Cohen song, where the lyric arises from the melody and harmonizes it with poetic virtuosity, Levin’s exquisite prose uses this scientific triumph of capturing the cosmic soundtrack to tell a larger, immensely lyrical story of the human spirit, its astonishing ingenuity, and its unfrayable tapestry of flair and foible.

    Maria Popova is the creator and editor of the blog Brain Pickings.

  47. Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

    Judd Apatow

    These are books I bought in 2016 and am still very excited to read, but I am pretty sure I won’t read them this year or next, but I am hopeful that by the end of 2019 I will have read four of them, but the truth is I will probably only read the Phil Collins autobiography and the self-help book by Brené Brown because those are my two main areas of interest: me and Genesis anecdotes. O.K., I will read several chapters of the Springsteen book, but only on planes, and I will finish the Dave Eggers book because he is my favorite author, and the rest will require me getting a major injury leading to a hospital stay in order for me to finish them all before 2020, and I hope that happens because I hear all of them are fantastic — especially Norm Macdonald’s book, which I read the first 10 pages of in the bathroom once and I was laughing really hard. But then I was done and my wife took it out of the bathroom and put it on a shelf and now I don’t know where it is.

    “Born to Run,” by Bruce Springsteen.

    “Testimony,” by Robbie Robertson.

    “Heroes of the Frontier,” by Dave Eggers.

    “Rising Strong,” by Brené Brown.

    “Not Dead Yet: The Memoir,” by Phil Collins.

    “Moonglow,” by Michael Chabon.

    “Today Will Be Different,” by Maria Semple.

    “The Underground Railroad,” by Colson Whitehead.

    “Here I Am,” by Jonathan Safran Foer.

    “Based on a True Story: A Memoir,” by Norm Macdonald.

    Judd Apatow is a director and writer and the author of “Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy.”


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