Books (along with music) tend to shape how I remember a year. Thinking about the stories or lessons learned in their pages will immediately throw me back to where I was at with family/life/career while reading them.
Somehow I managed over 40 books this year (a record for me), the majority read digitally — and mostly on an iPhone in the middle of the night.
The opportunities to read came courtesy of some lengthy bouts of insomnia, coupled with a sleep-challenged toddler. And while the damage to my eyes and my right thumb may be irreversible, I wouldn’t go back and exchange those many reading hours for sleep.
I didn’t get a chance to read much literary fiction, sadly. It’s not entirely helpful when you already can’t sleep to throw some complex character journeys into an overactive mind. I managed six fiction books in total, all of which were published in 2017 — and a couple after coming across them on Instagram of all places. The classics will have to wait.
So the list of highlights from the year are majority non-fiction, and mostly autobiographies. I don’t intentionally seek these out, they tend to be books or ideas I hear about in podcasts, newspapers, magazines or online that get me interested. I often know little to nothing about the authors or the stories told before opening them, which is fitting, given they’re also ‘read in the dark’.
I’m also happy to say I covered a good number of the books our readers recommended in our end-of-year poll recently. Others are now on my virtual bedside table pile.
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, William Finnegan
I loved this book so much this year I read it twice. Once at the beginning, and again in June when I wanted to again capture what it’d feel like to be so invested in a hobby that you spend a huge chunk of your life travelling to pursue it. This is not just a surfing memoir, but a story of adventure and danger and pushing yourself beyond your self-perceived capacity, with the reward often only being a single surfing moment that nobody else will ever see. Finnegan’s a New Yorker writer who appears (although he rarely mentions) to have been developing his craft as a journalist and writer at the same time that he was pursuing the world’s best surf breaks. His many different descriptions of waves are spellbinding and had me looking at the ocean’s movements in new and wonderful ways. I’ll continue to dip in and out of some of my favourite passages. I may even buy the hard copy. This was (surprisingly) my book of the year.
Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport
I started following Cal Newport after reading his So Good They Can’t Ignore You a few years ago, when I enjoyed his no-nonsense approach to improving your work. This book looks at the value of ‘deep work’, sharing the benefits and the techniques of focussing on challenging tasks for distraction-free periods. There is definitely something in his argument that the ‘deep work’ skill will be a defining trait of those seeking to achieve extraordinary results in the future. Convinced, I’ve started shaping my work days differently after reading this book, in order to schedule ‘deep work’ time.
The Good Girl Stripped Bare, Tracey Spicer
A funny, entertaining, but also very human and insightful read. I read this over a couple of months, finding comfort in some of the familiar terrain Tracey covers — not just for women in media, but for any woman navigating the work world from a young age, and then going on to consider how family and relationships will fit in.
Unbreakable, Jelena Dokic and Jess Halloran
Remember Jelena Dokic’s ‘Dad from Hell?’ What a joke that became as we watched the story unfold in the media. But we missed the real story, one of Dokic’s resilience, and her desire to just play tennis free from emotional and physical abuse. I was shocked and disturbed to read this, and found her accounts of the ongoing humiliation and torture she experienced challenging and difficult to get through. The fact that such abuse could continue within the highest levels of what is a very public sport was a horrible reminder of how much more we’re missing behind closed doors. I hope to see more of Dokic now, especially on the speaker’s circuit, sharing her story and highlighting how she got through it.
Conversations With Friends, Sally Rooney
This was one of only six fiction books I read this year, and a late entrant into the 2017 list as I read the final line just after Christmas. After reading it, I Googled the author’s name to see she’s only 26. Overachiever. Her youth makes sense given the writing style and the curious (although often self indulging) conversations that occur. This was an easy page-turner. And I already miss the characters, although didn’t necessarily like them.
The Vanity Fair Diaries, Tina Brown
This is Tina Brown’s account of her eight years at Vanity Fair, and it’s a lot of fun. Her time at the helm covered from 1983 to 1992, a much more glorious period for magazines. While she’s got plenty of bragging rights, she still reveals periods that indicate a confidence gap, especially being a pioneering female editor in what was very much a male-dominated world. The book’s a great account for anyone obsessed with the inner workings of magazines, as well those seeking a historical look at media. It’s also a great look at the eighties, especially via some of Brown’s epic and honest descriptions of some of the names that defined the decade
Principles, Ray Dalio
I can’t really relate to a billionaire hedge fund manager with four kids and a wife at home. But there was something in his ‘principles’ for work and life worth reading about. He describes these principles (others might call them rules) as “ways of successfully dealing with reality to get what you want”. Dalio has some extreme ideas for building a successful workplace, that have been put into practice at the investment firm he founded, Bridgewater Associates. I liked his consistent approach to life and management that he appears to have to carried for decades. From a business perspective, his ‘idea meritocracy’ that encourages everyone to share their honest opinions — and then disagree on them accordingly — is intriguing. I knew nothing about Dalio before reading this book, and can see why newspaper descriptions of him as a ‘cult leader’ may be fitting, I’m also curious to explore more about how women succeed in his world. Still, everyone from Bill Gates to Arianna Huffington is recommending this book.
Wellmania: Misadventures in the search for wellness, Brigid Delaney
This book documents the search that many of us do for wellness, or some kind of spiritual awakening, or for thinness. Brigid Delaney takes on a number of challenges, documenting her progress while also learning first-hand just how ridiculous and expensive the wellness industry can get, as well as our willingness to go along with it. Brigid shares in sickening detail one of the most extreme fasting detoxes I’ve ever heard of, before going on to try other ‘wellness’ options like retreats, hot yoga and meditation.