I was once a notorious bookworm. Nothing could come between me and and my reading time: not sleep, not family get-togethers, not even the Lord’s day. I vividly remember hiding from the youth group leader behind the velveteen curtains of the theatre we hired for church services, risking and eventually bearing her wrath because I desperately wanted to finish the latest Guardians of Time novel. To my younger self, no sacrifice was too great, so long as I got to spend a little longer in whichever fantasy world captivated me that day.
Fast forward to the months following my graduation from university, and you couldn’t get me to read if my life depended on it. My theory-heavy International Relations degree left me feeling burnt out, as though reading was a sport and I’d strained a vital muscle during all those late night study sessions. As a fresh graduate, I couldn’t focus on a book for ten seconds without wondering what was happening on Instagram.
This was a completely understandable response to three years of hard academic graft. For a while I let myself drift in the realm of easy entertainment, finally watching all 6 series of Gossip Girl and binge-watching Safiya Nygaard’s “bad make up science” videos with glee. But after a few months I realised something was missing. In this video content, the camera did the brain work for me, presenting me with a pre-packaged, easily consumable sequence of ideas. Novels, on the other hand, require the reader to turn the words on the page into the mental tapestry of an imagined world – a task demanding much more mental energy, but ultimately providing much greater rewards. I was feeling the absence of those rewards and I was ready to return to my oldest hobby.
In an effort to inspire myself to read more, I signed up to Goodreads. I was excited to discover that this reading community-stroke-book journalling app offers a Reading Challenge feature. It’s straightforward: you set yourself a goal for how many books you want to read in the year and away you go with whatever you fancy reading. It seemed like a perfect motivator to help me to build reading back into my everyday life.
Research suggests it takes anything from 18 to 245 days to form a habit. The Reading Challenge technically lasts 365 days, which would have given me ample time to nail the habit of opening my Kindle app instead of Facebook whenever I waited for the kettle to boil – except that I started the challenge in September, not January. I’d read bits and bobs throughout the year already, but not with any commitment or zeal; I had just over 100 days to make up over half of my goal of 30 books.
Thanks mostly to the audiobooks I devoured on long train journeys to and from Manchester, Coventry, and Birmingham, I accomplished my goal by New Year’s Eve-eve. It was intensely satisfying to see the little automated “congratulations” message that Goodreads flashed up when I clocked in my last book of the 2018, and not just because I’d met my numerical target. I’d also read some bloody cracking books. From learning about the physics of everyday life in Helen Czerski’s “Storm in a Teacup” to losing myself in the vivid fantasy world of Brandon Sanderson’s “Stormlight Archive” series, I thoroughly enjoyed 2018’s bookish offerings. So much so that I wanted to share the highlights with you.
Without further ado, here are my top 5 reads of 2018. These books weren’t necessarily published in 2018, because let’s be honest, I’m not a trendsetter. But I did read and appreciate them in a difficult year, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
5. “Off to Be the Wizard (Magic 2.0 #1)” by Scott Meyer
This romp of a time travel parody is one of the most laugh-out-loud funny books I’ve ever read. It’s a wholly unpretentious novel, self-consciously mocking the very genre it draws so heavily upon, about a computer programmer called Martin who accidentally discovers the file containing the code to the universe. Much hilarity ensues. With 4 similarly entertaining sequels to keep you occupied, the Magic 2.0 series is a great way to break up a more serious reading schedule.
4. “Call Me By Your Name” by André Aciman
In many ways the opposite of Meyer’s light-hearted series, Aciman’s 2007 novel was all the film world could talk about in 2017, not least because of Timothée Chalamet’s stunningly mature portrayal of its conflicted protagonist, Elio. Beautifully written and laced with sun, sexual discovery, and the lazy haze of an academic summer, this is one not to be missed. Listen to the audiobook to enjoy the delight that is Armie Hammer’s dulcet tones telling you to, “call me by your name”…
3. “Eat Up” by Ruby Tandoh
It’s no secret that British society has a disorganised relationship with food. Tandoh challenges with great articulacy the bad science behind fear-mongering health headlines and the prejudices we harbour against everything from MSG to gluten. She even throws in a few simple, affordable recipes along the way. A must-read for anyone looking to heal their relationship with food amidst January’s diet culture frenzy.
2. “Normal People” by Sally Rooney
This is the first book on this list that was actually published in 2018; I waited exactly 3 weeks before snatching it off the shelves, enthralled as I had been by Rooney’s debut novel, “Conversations with Friends“. Rooney’s latest book does not disappoint. A poignant, masterfully written novel about two Irish teenagers from very different walks of life, “Normal People” touches on everything from the trials and tribulations of first love to class privilege to the often invisible effects of domestic violence. I was moved by this novel in many ways and thoroughly recommend it – though bear in mind that it touches on sensitive subjects, from attempted rape to suicide.
1. “Disobedience” by Naomi Alderman
Now a movie with Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, Alderman’s novel about two women negotiating their old romantic flame within an Orthodox Jewish community in North London is stunning. It’s rich with cultural and theological details unique to this tiny part of British society, and Alderman treats her protagonists with enormous compassion. As a queer woman, this was an extremely refreshing portrayal of women loving women – one grounded in and explored through a specific time, place, and understanding of the world. For deeper insight into the story and its inspiration, I recommend reading Alderman’s essay about the book in The Guardian, too.