Top 3 books of 2019

by Eszter Hargittai on December 22, 2019

I almost never make New Year’s resolutions, but I did in January 2019: read a book a week for 2019. This weekend I finished my reading challenge with Jose Antonio Vargas’s Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen (I recommend it!). While book reading has always been a part of my life, as an academic who reads a lot for work (mostly in journal article form), book reading for fun hasn’t always fit in. I wanted it to be more prominent in my everydays and I’m glad that I achieved that. I only counted books that I read from cover to cover, there are certainly others I browsed and read parts of, but they didn’t count for my challenge. I included very different genres as my interests are eclectic, but the most prominent was memoirs and biographies (I am not a huge fiction fan so there were only a few of those on my list). Here, I want to share my top three overall favorites; another three that you are unlikely to have heard of, but that I found very much worth reading; three that were the most disappointing; and three art books I enjoyed. While I have an insane “would like to read” list already, I very much welcome your recommendations for 2020 (when I’ll even have a semester of sabbatical in the Fall so I definitely plan to get at least as much reading in).

Overall top 3

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War by Lynne Olson – A fascinating story told in an incredibly engaging manner about the young woman, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, who led the largest French resistance network during WWII. This book is now among my all-time favorite books.

Educated by Tara Westover – You’ve probably heard of this book, it’s been very popular, and deservedly so. The author was raised in a very religious family in Idaho that did not believe in public education. The family dynamics are insane and intense. It’s often a tougher read than I expected due to the difficulties she faced beyond what you may imagine going in.

Evicted by Matthew Desmond – Based on the author’s sociology dissertation, this is an important story about major housing challenges in poor urban America. The research is first-rate, the writing excellent. (If I want to get academic, I’ll note my one critique: a lack of discussion of what role digital media may have played in people’s lives. The absense of this in the book is jarring to someone like me who studies the use of information technologies. Jeff Lane’s the Digital Street addresses that angle as does the work of Will Marler, a graduate student at Northwestern whose dissertation I am advising, but not specifically about housing challenges. I would have liked to see some of this in Evicted.) An refreshing aspect of the book is that it offers concrete policy recommendations at the end.

Top 3 you probably haven’t heard of

Reading Behind Bars by Jill Grunenwald – The author reflects on her time as a prison librarian. The book provides an informative glimpse into life in a minimum-security prison through the eyes of a staff member who interacted with much of the prison population.

Watch Me Play by TL Taylor – This is very much an academic book meaning that the writing is more dense than the others I list here, but I thought it was well-researched and learned a lot from it so I wanted to include it. I co-authored a book review about it if you’d like to learn more about my take on it.

Sticking It Out by Patti Niemi – I happened upon this book at an independent book store in Palo Alto. It’s the story of how a female percussionist of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra ended up with that coveted job. The author describes her initial foray into playing the drums, her extremely intense years at Julliard, and then the grueling path to getting a tenured position in an orchestra. As an academic who is familiar with competitive job markets, I was fascinated by this glimpse into another world that is even more cut-throat and no more welcoming to women.

Top 3 disappointments

Normal People by Sally Rooney – My first thought after reading this book was: “Ugh, those are hours of my life I’m never getting back.” The only reason I stuck it out to the end was that I had hoped for something redeeming to happen. It never did. I found the book trite and am baffled by how it has received so much critical acclaim. If you read it and loved it (or even liked it), please share why.

Maid by Stephanie Land – I had big hopes for this book especially after having gotten so much out of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. And I get it, it should count for something that someone had to live this life rather than going into it as a choice like Ehrenreich had. But Land does not do a good job of telling a convincing story. There are inconsistencies and I also felt like she was telling the bad side of every story and relationship (while it seems that at least some good sides existed). Overall, it went on way too long and became extremely repetitive by the end. There is no question that it can be extremely difficult for the poor in the US, but Land’s story is not the way to get people to understand and sympathize.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson – I like the general focus of not being too concerned about trivial matters (and even matters that you may not deem trivial at first). The first part of the book is good at highlighting that we should give thought to what we decide we care about. But the second part of the book quickly devolved into a rather sad relationship advice book. The author doesn’t have authority on the subject and the many statements he makes. This part mostly reads like the author trying to justify to himself and the world why he is in his marriage. I cannot fathom why he has such a following online (I had never heard about him before seeing the book, but then realized he probably got the book deal due to his online popularity).

Bonus: Three art books I enjoyed

101 Things to Learn in Art School by Kit White – Some great food for thought for anyone who makes art, the illustrations (pencil drawings by the author) are an important part of the book.

I Spy Colors in Art by Lucy Micklethwait – Cute, geared toward children, I wish something like this existed more geared toward adults. Anyone know of any?

Kunstgeschichte als Brotbelag by Marie Sophie Hingst – The book features pictures collected on Instagram about art works on bread, it’s charming and I am delighted to have a hard copy.

Here are some other books I read this year that I am happy recommend:

Notorious RBG by Irin Carmon, Shana Knizhnik, Ping Zhu
The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me and Why Not Me by Mindy Kaling
Bossypants by Tina Fey
The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths
A Friend That I Can Do For by Anne Ford

What have been your favorites? Why? What should I avoid? Why?



Displaced Person 12.22.19 at 10:03 pm

I have the feeling that you do not read much US history and politics, and no theology. Fools having to rush in, I nonetheless recommend: White Flight by Kevin M. Kruse (about the desegregation of Atlanta, and the extended lessons for America from it), Anointed With Oil by Darren Dochuk (about the deep and unknown history of mutual support and influence of the “wildcat” oil industry (as opposed to the Rockefeller’s and Standard Oil) and fundamentalist religion (now evangelicalism). With Kruse’s book One Nation Under God, the three recommended above go a long way towards explaining the present crisis in America.

Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus by Robert Capon is a great book that I keep returning to.


Eszter Hargittai 12.22.19 at 10:36 pm

Thank you! I am open to any and all recommendations although as I noted, I’m not much of a fiction fan and am quick to abandon if it doesn’t grab me within the first few pages (I’m more patient with other forms). I didn’t used to read much history, but between Madame Fourcade’s Secret War and The Woman Who Smashed Code, I am now more open to it. Mind you, the latter does include some US history especially during WWII. I also found it helpful for learning a tiny bit about Latin America and WWII.

Any thoughts on how Anointed with Oil connects with (or not) Rachel Maddow’s Blowout? I already have the latter on my list.


DocAmazing 12.23.19 at 1:00 am

Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland by Jonathan Metzl MD is eye-opening, and more than fair to the people it surveys.


Alan White 12.23.19 at 4:24 am

Eszter, I completely agree on Educated. Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday is a terrific book, just for its neck-breaking take on authorial voice if nothing else; Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow is quite satisfying as story and historical whirlwind tour of the 20th century. Thanks so much for your recommendations!


Matt 12.23.19 at 8:48 am

Very interesting, Eszter. Can you say a bit more about what you would have liked to hear about digital media in Evicted? I haven’t read the book, though I have read a fair amount about it and think I have the general idea. No doubt because of my own ignorance, I’m not sure what you would have liked to see, but I’d be very interested to hear a bit more.


Doug T 12.23.19 at 12:31 pm

My biggest discovery this year was Svetlana Alexeivich. She won the Nobel Prize in 2015, so she isn’t really unknown, but I was not familiar with her. Her oral histories are incredibly powerful. The Unwomanly Face of War, about Soviet women in WWII, is the best of the ones I’ve read so far.

I’d also recommend the novella The Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg. Her style is great–very spare, but still communicating remarkable psychological insight from a telling detail. This book starts with a wife shooting her husband and then jumps back to explore how they ended up at that point.


steven t johnson 12.23.19 at 5:42 pm

The Unwomanly Face of War struck me very much as telling us that the Communists victimized Soviet women by putting them into the army, or even worse, in combat. I think the interviews aimed to get responses along this line and near as I can tell the selections from them aimed at this. And I got no sense that she considered the women heroic at all, much less that they didn’t get their due respect.


Tom Slee 12.23.19 at 9:16 pm

Thanks for these lists. Here are my books of the year (published this year, read this year). Taken from a, sadly, pretty small sample:

Top novel: The Heavens by Sandra Newman. Historical science fiction with a literary slant.

Top non-fiction (tie): I’m mainly reading “technology and society”. Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans by Melanie Mitchell. Explains how deep learning works clearly and accessibly but with some detail. The Ethical Algorithm by Michael Kearns and Aaron Roth: fairness in machine learning, shows the possibilities and limitations of technical approaches. Honourable mention to Uberland by Alex Rosenblat, who spent many hours talking to Uber drivers, but I read it last December.

Top entertainment: Read / listened to most of Tara French’s Dublin Murder Squad mysteries and wish there were more.


billcinsd 12.24.19 at 12:46 am


You might try “Outwitting the Gestapo by Lucie Aubrac

This is Lucie’s harrowing account of her participation in the Resistance: of the months when, though pregnant, she planned and took part in raids to free comrades- including her husband, under Nazi death sentence- from the prisons of Klaus Barbie, the infamous ‘Butcher of Lyon.’


Eszter Hargittai 12.24.19 at 3:08 pm

Thanks for the recommendations! I already own Outwitting the Gestapo and Uberland, both are on my to-read list. I’ve added others people have mentioned here, I definitely need to carve out more time for reading to keep up with all these awesome-sounding readings.

Matt, as far as I recall – but correct me if I’m wrong, I read Desmond’s book back in the Spring – part of the theme is that the people in hardship are often rather isolated. Since phones connect people, I would have liked to know to what extent the people featured used them to try to address some of their challenges. Did they use them to reach family, to look for jobs, to look for housing, to get support in one way or another, whether through direct contact or by being part of communities. Both Lane and Marler document that phones are very important in this way and so it seemed curious that it wasn’t worth a mention in Evicted.

Tom, yes, I also read many tech & society books as it’s my work domain. (I organize a book club at the University of Zurich where all our books are tech & society at some level.) Many books have been written about algorithms and AI, but few that are based on empirical work. Have you read several and these stood out or are these the only ones you’ve read on the topic? I am happy to look at a couple more, but I’m really interested in readings that do more than contemplate the possible implications based on anecdotal evidence. I’ll check out these two you mentioned.


LFC 12.24.19 at 3:27 pm

Corey R’s book on Clarence Thomas manages to present Thomas’s views in his own words, connect the views to the life, and point out his various inconsistencies as well as his persistent themes/obsessions (I’ve read it except for the Epilogue, which is the last few pages, but will get to that soon). Read some other books this year too but thought a reaction to this one might be of particular interest to some CT readers.


Bill Benzon 12.24.19 at 4:38 pm

I can recommend The Human Swarm by Mark Moffett. Here’s my Amazon review:

The Human Swarm is an excellent, eminently readable book, about the nature of human society. Drawing on his wide experience as a naturalist, which includes years of fieldwork (about social insects, ants in particular), Moffett has surveyed a wide literature on human and non-human society and produced a useful synthesis of the literature. While written for general readers, this book will repay academic specialists of various disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.

It is at heart a work of natural philosophy, an old term not in much use anymore. Moffett is interested in what constitutes society: our do we differentiate between insiders and outsiders? To do so he surveys the animal world and the follows the distinction in the evolution of human societies from hunter-gatherer groups to the current day. Though Moffett has the skills and credentials of an academic specialist, he has written the kind of book specialists are discouraged from writing (by the nature of the academic reward system). That is all the more reason why those specialists must join interested “civilians” in reading The Human Swarm. For it is in books like this that many narrow specialized understandings are combined an synthesized into a more comprehensive understanding, in this case, understanding of the critically important issue of social identity.

[And if you really want to read the specialized literature Moffett has provided a 46 page bibliography.]

I’ve been blogging my way through the book here and will be posting a review at 3 Quarks Daily in the new year.


Ronan(rf) 12.24.19 at 6:05 pm

I’m not 100% sure I read it this year, but Ivan Krastev’s “after Europe” was very good and the best thing I’ve read on populism and Europe’s current political predicament.
Ariel Levy ‘s memoir “the rules do not apply” , which I bought mostly on the strength of a few of her new yorker articles, was probably top of the pile.
Tim Mackintosh Smith’s “Arabs:a 3,000 year history” although a bit long and overwritten was pretty good.

LFC, you might be interested in Bear Braumoeller’s new book “only the dead” (which is basically a sustained critique of the Pinker decline of war argument)


J. Bogart 12.24.19 at 6:27 pm

No poetry on your list. Perhaps add John Ashberry translation of Rimbaud Illuminations. Or Crow With No Mouth, Ikkyu.


Chris Bertram 12.24.19 at 7:17 pm

My top book that actually came out in 2019 was Ali Smith’s Spring, and I’m looking forward to Summer in 2020. I went on quite an Ali Smith binge this year and I tentatively declare The Accidental the best of them. Smith’s thing is the disruptive presence, the stranger who suddenly appears and turns everyone’s life upside down.

The best book I read all year was Marilynne Robinson’s Home, the best in the trilogy of which it forms part (though people might reasonably disagree and think Gilead better).

The book that gave me most immediate pleasure was Bernadine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman about a septuagenarian Antiguan immigrant in London, whose sexuality is a secret from his family, and especially from his wife. Hilariously funny, poignant, really well-observed. I’m hoping her Booker-winning Girl, Woman, Other will appear among Christmas presents tomorrow.


Tom Slee 12.24.19 at 9:38 pm

Two corrections from my list above.

1. It’s Tana French, not Tara French.

2. I somehow missed Emily Gruendelsberger’s On the Clock even though it’s my book of the year. I think if you’re looking to a successor to Nickel and Dimed for the digital world, this is it. She was a laid-off journalist who spent time working in an Amazon warehouse fulfillment center, a call center, and a McDonald’s, and to my ear avoids most of the problems of possible “tourism”.

Thanks to others for their recommendations. In particular I’ve wondered about but for some reason never read Ali Smith, and will give her a try.

@Eszter: I’ve read quite a few and these two stood out to me because they are written by machine learning practitioners, who bring that expertise and talk about what they know, but all three authors are aware of the limitations of a purely technical approach to the topics they write about. I don’t know if that qualifies them as “empirical”, but they are certainly more than anecdotal. They were the right books for me – YMMV!


Matt 12.24.19 at 10:41 pm

Thanks, Eszter – that’s helpful. I appreciate it.


Dave Maier 12.25.19 at 2:46 am

I often don’t get to books in the year they come out, but this year I read two of the ten books recommended to us as the best of 2019 by the New York Times Book Review, and I can second that recommendation here: first, Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl, which was just wild. I didn’t know that much about Chernobyl, so I had no idea what they had to do to deal with it (or, for that matter, what exactly happened in the first place). Amazing.

I also liked the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, which I can now see to have taken some dramatic liberties, so I guess I’m glad I saw it first. I’d still recommend it; the dark-ambient soundtrack is just perfect, for one thing, and the acting is first-rate.

The second book is Ted Chiang’s Exhalation, a collection of science fiction stories which manage to be both philosophically sophisticated and moving at the same time (kind of like the film Arrival, which was based on another story of his, not collected here).

Most of what I read this year was released earlier, but I did want to recommend, for those into that sort of thing, the work of N. K. Jemisin, whose two trilogies (Broken Earth and Inheritance) were both excellent. Although now that I think about it, maybe The Stone Sky (Broken Earth v.3) was this year.

Thanks to everyone for their recs. Keep em coming!


Eszter Hargittai 12.25.19 at 12:54 pm

Apologies if my post was misleading and suggested I was necessarily referencing books published in 2019, I wasn’t. I just meant it’s when I had read these books (my #1 was published this year though as were a few others I mention). And no need to restrict yourself to recommending books either published or read this year. Great list so far, please keep adding!


LFC 12.25.19 at 3:33 pm

Thanks for the recommendation, Ronan, and nice to see you back here in the comments. (May send you a line via email if I still have your address.)


notGoodenough 12.25.19 at 3:58 pm

If I may be a bit presumptuous and offer my own suggestions – on the off chance you haven’t come across them before, may I suggest Bad Science and Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre. I found these a pretty good look at the actual problems with research (not the ones conspiracy theorists like to dream up) and promulgation of scientific and not-so-scientific claims. Accessible and entertaining (in a mildly horrifying way), I like to recommend these to everyone and anyone (even people who are well versed already, as it makes for a good reference).

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York was a pretty entertaining look at the birth of forensic toxicology, and while The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness is a bit pop-sci I did enjoy the many anecdotes regarding these remarkable creatures (though, I must confess, I find most species remarkable in their own ways).

And finally, as someone who makes no pretence regarding their love of bad jokes and rhyming verse, I very much enjoyed several of Pam Ayres’ works (my favourite being Surgically Enhanced for sentimental and personal reasons).

There are so many more I’ve forgotten, and will probably wake up at 4am annoyed at myself for not mentioning, but perhaps this is enough to start with!


dh 12.25.19 at 9:04 pm


I’m glad Bill O’Reilly made enough money for Holt so that Holt could make themselves look bipolitical and throw Corey Robin a few bucks.


eg 12.26.19 at 3:54 am

Philip Pilkington’s “The Reformation in Economics: A Deconstruction and Reconstruction of Economic Theory”

Michael Hudson’s “…And Forgive Them Their Debts”

Adam Tooze’s “Crashed”


Santosh Shevade 12.26.19 at 3:22 pm

Thanks for sharing and opening the thread! I read Adam Johnson’s short story collection-Fortune Smiles and many of them will stay with me for years to come. As someone who likes walking, I also enjoyed Robert McFarlane’s meditative ‘The Old Ways-A journey on foot’


PatinIowa 12.26.19 at 9:12 pm

An enthusiastic second for the N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth above at 18. Also, Larissa Lai’s “Salt Fish Girl” is a wild ride, well worth taking.

Both of Ibraim Kendi’s books on US racism were well-done I thought. “How to Be an Antiracist,” which came out in the fall, is great to read with students.

I read Audre Lorde’s “The Cancer Journals” for the first time this year.

I’m a huge fan of Sharon Olds. “Odes” does not disappoint.


eg 12.27.19 at 3:36 am

Just finished today, Richard Vague’s “A Brief History of Doom: Two Hundred Years of Financial Crises”

Interesting analysis of financial crises identifying private debt expansion (via reckless lending) as the culprit — NOT sovereign debts.

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