I did this last year and liked doing it so here it is for 2013. I read 109 books this year, more than any previous year as far as I know. I try to read as widely as possible, which means I don’t read so much recent stuff so I apologize if you’re looking for a “best books of 2013” post. I can’t help you there.
- The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Singer was my big discovered author of the year. He’s a total master and I definitely plan to read more of him in the future. Unlike most “collected stories” volumes, the stories in this one were selected by Singer himself, who had a hand in all of the translations into English. If you want to try him out I recommend starting with the first story in the volume, Gimpel the Fool, translated by Bernard Malamud.
- Moby-Dick; or, the Whale by Herman Melville
It took my awhile, but wow this book is riveting. If you get in the groove, it really doesn’t let go.
- Suicide by Edouard Leve
A beautiful, small memoir-thing ruminating on the suicide of a close friend. More perceptive than most books many times its size. I recently picked up Leve’s companion book Autoportrait.
- D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri & Edgar d’Aulaire
- D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths by Ingri & Edgar d’Aulaire
Excellent telling of the Greek and Norse myths with great illustrations.
- The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
Set in North Korea, with all the hilarious insanity and sadness that comes with it.
- The Inferno by Dante Alighieri, translated by John Ciardi
So good I read it twice. Ciardi’s translation was clear and still poetic. His annotations gave a useful account of all the literary and historical references.
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Fun story. I feel like I often affiliate with works of art that are considered pedestrian in their time but are later reevaluated as classics. I feel the same way about The Night of the Hunter.
- This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski
Devastating short story collection that tells stories about almost typical events at concentration camps. I’ve never seen the scale of the Holocaust illuminated so intimately.
- The Aeneid by Virgil
It’s the Aeneid.
- Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams
After reading and loving Stoner last year, I had to read more John Williams. Butcher’s Crossing is a very different book and still great. It also made me realize that I need to read more westerns.
- Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson
It doesn’t entirely make sense, but the parts that do make sense are a fun challenge to read.
- Without Feathers by Woody Allen
Really funny. I was actually surprised by how much Allen recycled jokes from his movies, though, particularly Love and Death. The scenarios are all original as far as I can tell, though.
- Atonement by Ian McEwan
Literary fiction at its best.
- Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower
Excellent short story collection. I kind of want to be Wells Towers now, he’s an amazing writer. Check out some of his journalism online, too, it’s equally excellent. He’s written a lot for GQ.
- Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin
A white journalist undergoes a medical procedure to appeal black… in the early 1960s. He travels the south and writes about his experience. Perspective-altering stuff.
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Alias Grace didn’t really click with me, but now I understand why Atwood has her fans.
- Cotton Tenants: Three Families by James Agee
A prototype of We Must Now Praise Famous Men. Perceptive account of cotton tenants in the mid-1950s and the type of poverty/education cycle that still persists today.
- Something Like an Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa
It’s fortunate to have a great director like Akira Kurosawa write about his life. It’s a celebrity memoir worth reading. I only wish it was longer - he only writes about his career up until Rashomon in 1950.
- American Pastoral by Philip Roth
I need to read more Philip Roth. I haven’t been able to shake his observations about American ambition, success, and failures of the two since I read this novel this summer.
- My Brother’s Book by Maurice Sendak
A brief, gorgeous, and touching elegy.
- Reflections on the Guillotine by Albert Camus
In case you aren’t already against the death penalty, check out this long essay.
- Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
One of the best short story collections I’ve ever read. There’s, of course, Rashomon and In the Bamboo Grove which formed the basis for Kurosawa’s Rashomon, but wow there are so many more haunting masterpieces. Hell Screen is one of my favorite short stories I think, and the memoirlike pieces, particularly Spinning Gears and The Life of a Stupid Man I’ll definitely return to in the future. It’s also translated by Jay Rubin, who’s translated a lot of Murakami (Murakami also writes and introduction to the collection) who does a really good job of being very clear and who adds helpful notes when necessary.
- Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron
An even more personal account of depression than Leve’s Suicide.
- Bushido: The Way of the Samurai by Tsunetomo Yamamoto
"Self-help" before that was even a phrase. A short book with all the life advice you’ll ever need.
- The Tempest by William Shakespeare
- King Lear by William Shakespeare
- Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
- Richard III by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare. I think it’s telling, though, that The Merchant of Venice, which I didn’t like as much as these plays, will stay with me the most.
- No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
For some reason McCarthy fans consider this one of his lesser works because of its alliance with genre. I don’t think McCarthy agrees.
- The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches by Matsuo Basho
Great, simple poems woven into a cool travel memoir.
- Clandestine in Chile: The Adventures of Miguel Littin by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Told in first-person yet written by Marquez, a fascinating piece of journalism about filmmaker-activist Miquel Littin, who snuck into Chile, his home country that exiled him, to make a film. Would make a good companion piece with Costa-Gavras’ film Missing.
- The Catch and Other War Stories by Kenzaburō Ōe, Tamiki Hara, Fumiko Hayashi, Haruo Umezaki and Shōichi Saeki
I stumbled upon this out-of-print short story collection almost by accident. It should go back into print. A few great short stories about WWII from the Japanese perspective.
- Store of the Worlds by Robert Sheckley
I wish there was more sci-fi like this. It’s more like a bunch of fun thought experiments wrapped in high-concept plots.
- Nature Stories by Jules Renard
A bunch of super short (some no more than a couple of sentences) stories about animals on a farm and stuff. Not that heavy but really beautiful.
- The Royal Game/Chess Story by Stefan Zweig
I read two translations with each title, not realizing they were the same book when I took them out of the library. It was an interesting experiment. I didn’t realize how different they could be.
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
A re-read. Still great.
- It Chooses You by Miranda July
Interesting companion piece to July’s movie The Future.
- The Wedding of Zein by Tayeb Salih
Short story collection by what some consider the best Sudanese writer in the past century or so. Salih does an astonishing job of bringing the setting to life. The title story is weirdly comparable to Gimpel the Fool by Isaac Bashevis Singer.
- The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
One day I’ll actually read Faust. This will have to serve as my Goethe street cred for now.
- Blindness by Jose Saramago
Okay I’m cheating because I actually read this in 2012, but I finished it like a day after I wrote my best-of post for that year so here it is.
And here are some other excellent books and standalone short stories I read in 2013 that are also great:
To Build a Fire by Jack London, Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies—and What They Have Done For Us by David Thomson, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick, A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor, Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, After the Quake by Haruki Murakami, The Slave by Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde, Yentl: A Play by Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer, Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges, The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau, The Tale of the Unknown Island by Jose Saramago, Enon by Paul Harding, The Wanting Seed by Anthony Burgess, The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith/JK Rowling, Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow, Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi, We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen, Nine Stories and Three Stories by JD Salinger, Inferno by Dan Brown, The American Scholar by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Of Walking in Ice: Munich-Paris, 11/23 to 12/14, 1974 by Werner Herzog, All That Is by James Salter, Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, Novels in Three Lines by Felix Feneon, The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, Adverbs by Daniel Handler, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain,
I’m not going to pretend I read enough books from 2012 to create a best-of list for that. Instead, here are the best books I read this year.
- The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
I have no idea how Murakami manages to have such magnetic writing and such profound and strange plots, but he’s fantastic at it.
- The Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka, translated by Donna Freed
I read all of Kafka’s novels in high school but never got around to his short stories until now. They’re brilliant, of course, fascinating and mindfucking to read. It’s a shame that I’ve finished all of his fiction… time to move on to his journals!
- What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander
Englander’s short story collection actually is from this year, and it’s as funny as it is dark and Jewish.
- How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
This book improved my life.
- All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, 1948 by Yoram Kaniuk, and Jarhead by Anthrony Swofford
I’m grouping these four together because they’re all brilliant war memoirs, intelligently and critically-written. All of them fictionalize events in order to produce truth, and to diminish the events of one’s own life with fiction takes some serious humbleness.
- The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
I’ve actually read this for the first time years ago, of course, but rediscovered it on its 50th anniversary this year. Truly one of the most intelligent, meaningful children’s books ever written. A profound classic that thoroughly deserves its place in the canon that is has now.
- Dubliners by James Joyce
Much easier to read than I anticipated, Joyce’s short story collection is as beautiful as it is haunting.The Dead, the coda novella, is particularly excellent.
- Traveler of the Century by Andres Neuman
An astounding novel of ideas and romance,Traveler of the Centuryis large but worth it. This book really tuned in my interest to world literature.
- The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson
I have this habit of reading books with weather opposite to the time of year. I readThe Long Ships, a Scandanavian, 11th-century-set Viking novel in July while in Israel. It’s about the adventures of Red Orm, a boy who runs away from home to become a swashbuckling viking. It’s awesome.
- The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
I read this one in December. It was published a year after Jansson’s mother passed away, and it’s about a young girl living on an island with her grandmother and father, learning about life and people. Quiet and moving.
- The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
A bestseller a few decades ago,The Dud Avocadowas resurrected from being out of print by the New York Review of Books. It’s one of those wealthy-whitepeople-having-problems-with-romance novels, and the characters are well-developed and funny.
- A Death in the Family by James Agee
I’ve been a huge fan of Agee’s screenplays and film criticism, but never got around to A Death in the Family until this year. It’s his only novel, published after his unfairly early death at the age of only 45. It won the Pulitzer in 1958, though, and deservedly - it’s a moving, beautiful book about family, religion, and American life.
- Cain by Jose Saramago
It’s great to have discovered Saramago this year.Cainwas his last book - a novella about the Biblical character and his time-travelling adventures. An angry and complicated look at G-d, no other book made me think more this year. I’m currently reading Saramago’s Blindness, which I suspect would make this list if I finished it by the end of this year.
- Stoner by John Williams
One of those perpetually overlooked books,Stoneris about a man who decides to become an English professor. The book follows his journey through academia, failed romances, friendships, and everything else essential in a life. No other book so successfully depicts the virtues of a small life.
(Repost, but we couldn’t help ourselves.)
— Haruki Murakami, “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle”
— "The Magicians" by Lev Grossman
— "Zeitoun" by Dave Eggers