We Asked Readers:
What was the best book you read in 2018, and why?
Here’s how they responded.
My favorite book of 2018 was Melmoth by Sarah Perry. On its surface, this book is about the narrator’s encounter with a supernatural specter—an immortal witch known as Melmoth, or the witness, who observes people’s worst deeds and then stalks them with the intention of convincing them to follow her on her doomed and lonely quest to traverse the Earth for eternity. However, the brilliance of this book is that it is actually so much more than a horror story.
The storytelling of the book is so effective in that it expertly builds suspense by alluding to events without actually revealing them until the moment is right. This pulls readers in, as the characters are slowly and exquisitely crafted so that the reader connects with them, feeling what they go through while also marveling at their experiences. Further, the novel deals with intense and heavy themes such as guilt, morality, purpose, forgiveness, and courage. It explores the motives and actions of individuals, all the while delving into their thought processes and feelings during monumental life events. In this way, it is a story about humanity. It asks us to look at others, both likable and wretched, through the lens of their past. It asks us to consider not just who the person is, but how they came out on the other side of traumatic experiences. And, finally, it describes painful moments in history while keeping a personal and heartfelt touch.
On to the craft itself. The prose is sublime. Sarah Perry is obviously a very gifted writer, and this combined with her adept storytelling makes for an enthralling read.
Sarah Perry has created a versatile book that will appeal to horror and thriller fans while also providing a quality and well-developed story that fiction and philosophy fans will appreciate.
Daniel K. Williams
My book of the year is Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire by Peter H. Wilson. For years I have searched and finally found a good history of the Holy Roman Empire. The heart of Europe was often derided for its failure to unite as France had done. However, in this book one finds the reasons as to why it was a truly united empire in many respects and why it lasted a thousand years. A government structure does not last a thousand years unless it is built on solid institutions that serve the needs of the people. Its appearance seemed “wrong” in so many ways when historians compared it to a unified state such as France or England, but it served the people just as well if not better than those unified states. It is a good example of how disparate territorial units can operate together for the needs of all.
When it actually emerged as a unitary German state with Bismarck as the midwife, within a century it brought untold misery to the German people who had prospered for a thousand years as the people of the Holy Roman Empire.
Dell Rapids, S.D.
Given the current state of the country, most of my reading this year has been political, including nonfiction on the rise of al-Qaeda and Michiko Kakutani’s incredible meditation on the nature of truth and how it has been perverted in the public discourse. But my favorite book by far was Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Mysterious and meditative, charming and heart-wrenching, this book reminded me of how important it is to empathize with and understand people who are not like me.
Educated: A Memoir is the book that has captured my attention most this year, for the eloquent way that Tara Westover illustrated how she finally escaped the trauma of growing up with abusive family members who brainwashed her and retaliated against her for her refusal to obey their commands.
Marilyn Sears Lindsey
Regarding my favorite book published in 2018, it would be Dara Horn’s Eternal Life. I love fictional stories that are based around real historical events and take a big-picture look at the whole of human civilization. Ms. Horn’s book did this amazingly well, with a refreshing, feminine point of view.
I’d like to share two books that were favorites of mine in 2018: one by an American writer, George Saunders—Lincoln in the Bardo, and the other by an American-born Canadian, Michael Redhill—Bellevue Square. Like many other people, I enjoy a good story with well-developed characters, but I also love the experience and literary excitement of reading something really different, really creative, and something that jostles my own thought patterns. I want my brain to explode a little when novel environments, situations, or ideas are presented in literature.
That happened with both of the above-mentioned books.
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada
Jon Meacham, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. Much needed in the current climate as a reminder of the essential values that have animated this nation.
Harry W. Gilmer
My favorite book of 2018, hands down, was Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Who could have imagined that such a novel approach to history was out there for the pondering, let alone the writing? Harari’s ideas are so original and powerful that I believe they could serve as a new platform for the kinds of history books to come. To miss this book is a huge oversight for anyone looking to understand history through the most thought-provoking lens possible.
Pawleys Island, S.C.
My favorite book of the year has been A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.
It is a warm and witty telling of a personal story of one man and his friends and family that also educated me about a time period and place of which I had limited knowledge. It has larger messages that are both timely and timeless.
Theresa Tejas Zingery
Golden Valley, Minn.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles was published in 2016 but I only read it in 2018. It is the best book I have read in the past five years. Towles writes a novel that is placed in a real setting, pays close attention to real events in the USSR, is filled with distinctive characters, and has a little bit of everything: drama, suspense, tragedy, humor, action, and pathos. It is a long read but I almost hated to see it come to an end.
Silver City, N.M.
My favorite book of 2018 features writing from the 18th century—The Federalist Papers—and that’s largely because in these ignoble times when ignorance rages, it was good to remind myself that we were and are better than what we are putting up with. The Federalist Papers are clear, concise, and to the point, making the best use possible of history and political philosophy. They weren’t starry-eyed, but alert to the dangers that faced the young republic. Everyone should read them.
My favorite book this year was James Carroll’s The Cloister. Set in New York City in the ’50s, it veers between the legendary love story of Heloise and Abelard and their “cloister” in medieval Europe, and the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s monastery-like center for medieval arts, in New York. A third time period is the years of the Holocaust. All three stories come together in a wonderfully rich, theologically profound, and truly moving novel. As a Pittsburgher who just went through the Tree of Life synagogue massacre, I found the novel spoke to me of the long Christian/Jewish conflict and our struggle 800 years later of still not arriving at complete resolution. It’s well worth one’s time.
Rita M. Yeasted
Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck was my favorite book of 2018. It is beautifully crafted, bringing to life the immigration crisis by introducing an East German classical-philology professor in current Germany to African migrants. Every sentence is balanced, the rhythm and pacing are perfect, and it’s full of a longing for the senses of home. It is just right for these days when I, and I bet many others, are feeling dislocated in the world as it is.
New York, N.Y.
The best book I read was Grant by Ron Chernow. It was very long and read like a novel. Grant was a failure to his father, his wife’s family, and his siblings. Grant was a genius in the army in both tactics and strategy, and that brilliance won the war. His character was sublime; but Andrew Johnson, as president, allowed the Confederacy to win the peace regardless of how hard Grant fought both as a general and as president. His largest weakness was his trust in his family, his friends, and colleagues. Sherman, Sheridan, and Lincoln saw him as he was. And that was an incredible and moral man.
Highland Park, Ill.
My favorite book this year was Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way,” is one of the many inspiring quotes by Martin Luther King Jr. This quote encouraged me to get involved and try to make a difference in my little world. I have been moved to do small things that might help to make life better for some people.
Hands down, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou, about the rise and collapse of Theranos in Silicon Valley. I read it in one sitting, finishing at 5:00 a.m. I couldn’t stop, even though I knew the ending: a story of someone pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes right there in plain sight.
The timing of Bad Blood was perfect. A classic “the emperor has no clothes” story with someone finally laying out the truth. People who should have known better stuck with Elizabeth Holmes way too long because they believed her and not the facts. Remind you of anyone?
My favorite book this year is still Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations! It provides the perfect set of recommendations to Donald Trump.
I reread To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and thoroughly enjoyed it. Many social issues remain as current today as when the book was written.
Linda C. Wilson
21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari.
It is among the three most significant books that I have read in the past 10 years. It defines, with elegant reasoning, our path for the future, both human and ecological.
Here are some additional reader recommendations:
Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh
A Forbidden Rumspringa / A Clean Break / A Way Home by Keira Andrews
The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen
The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity by Kwame Anthony Appiah
The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It by Yascha Mounk
Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward
Certain Relevant Passages by Joe Manning
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
There There by Tommy Orange
Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy
The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism by Martin E. P. Seligman