The Best Books I Read in 2015

A hallway line-up of the books I read in 2015--good, bad, and boring. January 2016.

A hallway line-up of the books I read in 2015--good, bad, and boring. January 2016.

Time for my annual review of the best books I read in the year past, following the tradition of my posts in 2013 and 2014. (Have I really had this blog for so long?)

Aside: I read in The New York Times that Bill Gates has this same practice on his blog. What excellent company.

In 2014, I didn’t read as many books as I typically manage in a year, and this year my reading fared even worse. My 2015 total: A measly thirty-six.

Partly, I blame having taken off only one day in the entirety of 2015 (my birthday). As I read a lot while on vacation, a lack of time away from the grind meant a lack of reading time. And as the grind this year felt particularly intense, even day-to-day reading opportunities suffered.

I will say, though, that I enjoyed what I read in 2015 a great deal more than I enjoyed 2014’s selection. Last year, I scratched together a list of quality recommendations. This year, I struggled to pare them down. How did I get a better set of books in 2015? Perhaps I’ve improved at reading between the lines in reviews and not getting too enticed by attractive covers in book store displays. Though I can probably just credit luck.

As with every year, the books I rate as favorites in my end-of-year review caught in my consciousness, made me feel, made me think, and prompted me to start discussions. As I looked at the year’s stack, it surprised me to see how many books I’d recently read that I’d already mostly forgotten. If I can’t remember much about the book only months after I read it, I won’t rank it as a favorite.

Interestingly, despite such a heavy year, I can classify none of my favorite reads as “light.” I read plenty of so-definable books, yet none made the “best” list, even if I’d still recommend them. (So if you want pointers for a less intense read, let me know.)

Here goes the 2015 best-books list:

  • The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion.Didion may have hoped to discover a back way through grief in chronicling the twelve months after her husband died. Alas, this text affirms that no shortcut exists. Didion’s gem of a book—brief, with each page a gut-punch—testifies to grief’s harrowing journey and the scars it leaves. Even so, it assures readers that time assuages pain from even the worst traumas.

  • The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride.At times, this book felt like a slog. A former slave narrates, and his tale provides a painstaking step-by-step accounting of adventures with legendary abolitionist John Brown. Yet the end, even with historical record making the facts predictable, surprised me. The power of this book’s message goes beyond the injustices of slavery into the value and importance of even the most seemingly outlandish quests.

  • The Days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante.In near stream-of-consciousness fashion, Ferrante details a woman’s mental and physical unhinging when her beloved husband confesses his infidelity and wish to leave the marriage. In keeping with the main character’s frantic distress, Ferrante’s novel reads at a fever pace. This resonant story captures perfectly a woman in emotional crisis.

  • Redeployment, by Phil Klay. Each short story in this volume—all snapshots of a military perspective during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—shook me. At each tale's close, I wanted to stop everything and process what I’d read. Yet I couldn’t put the book down—the stories compelled me too much; I felt too hungry for more. I haven’t stopped thinking or talking about Klay’s book, even months later.

  • The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace,by Jeff Hobbs. Hobbs roomed with Peace during their time as undergraduates at Yale; after Peace’s murder in the illegal drug trade, Hobbs wrote this book in an attempt to understand how someone with a route out of a rough life ended up right back in the thick of it. This book explores the complex forces working against changing lives—and it still chews at my consciousness.

I won’t know if any of these texts made my all-time favorites list for years, when I can look back on them from a greater distance and with broader context. But from where I sit, months after closing their covers, I’d go beyond simply recommending to frankly encouraging you to read any—if not all—of them.

Which books did you love most in 2015?