It could feel like the most important stories this year were being published on the front page of the newspaper, loaded into chyrons on CNN or tapped into Twitter. But whether it was by accident or each author’s long-range design, in a year I read more books than any other, the central feature that united my favorites was how urgently or elegantly each title seemed to connect to — or shed light on — the weird and alarming world beyond their pages.
I found insight and direction, for example, in Tommy Orange’s “There There,” my pick for the year’s best novel, written by a young Native American man from Oakland. Not only is the book artful and voice-driven, listing its attributes — and the problems it tackles — you might feel you have assembled a rough draft for a really excellent special issue of the New York Times Magazine.
Then there was “Heavy,” the unforgettably passionate memoir of having a black male body in America by Kiese Laymon, who acknowledges in the opening chapters that he wanted to write a more personal book, one for him alone, but the world around him required a bigger, more universal exploration. I think as well of “A Terrible Country,” the best novel I read this year that wasn’t set in America. When he began the book, Keith Gessen might not have known that the story — about an American graduate student returning to his mother country of Russia to care for his grandma — would turn out to be such a touching portrait of sacrifice and love. But more important, the book also offers a sly but canny portrait of the way an unglued kleptocracy, like Russia, can suppress and encourage the good hidden in all of us.
Earlier this year, I cracked “Small Fry,” a memoir by Lisa Brennan-Jobs. I remembered the controversy surrounding Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography of her late father, Steve Jobs. More so, I had been floored and often reread the gorgeous and stirring New York Times remembrance by Jobs’ half-sister, Mona Simpson, which among many other gifts shared the great man’s final, rousing words: “Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow.”
What could “Small Fry” offer? I was struck immediately by the beautiful and restrained violence of the author’s memories. “You know who I am,” Steve Jobs asks the author; she was just 3 years old. “I’m one of the most important people you will ever know.” I dug deeper, amazed by her startling transitions, diamond sharp images and brutally efficient short chapters. I came to see how Brennan-Jobs hadn’t written anything like a “celebrity memoir,” but an ambitious and artful project — a book that for its style alone might have, in any other time, argued its spot among the year’s best.
But this was 2018. And style could feel like icing on a content cake.
“I’m one of the most important people you will ever know.”
One of the two themes that made “Small Fry” so important was the way it explored and added texture to the phenomenon of income inequality, which was tearing apart communities from the Bay Area to Wisconsin. Imagine wearing clothes that don’t fit, or that your single mother is struggling to put food on the table. Then, achingly close, just on the other side of town, your father lives in a mansion and appears on the cover of Time magazine.
Brennan-Jobs writes also about how Steve Jobs would show up to take his daughter — who he didn’t fully admit was his own — roller-skating, only to find something she did less than satisfactorily; disgusted, he’d disappear again. It wasn’t until her teens that he formally admits paternity; her needs, and his whim, illustrated for me the fickle and random cruelty of poverty, the way the wealthy don’t realize their comfort and ease, and the way not having money can make your world seem small and paranoid and final.
The second way “Small Fry” felt so insightful was the intimate portrait it offered, not just of some random wealthy man but one of our most beloved tech overlords. These men — and it’s pretty much all men — have engineered the devices and platforms and code that have permanently altered the way we live. The matter of how they actually conduct themselves day by day isn’t just a matter of star-struck curiosity but a key window into the very structure and consequences of the worlds they’ve helped create.
In Jobs-land, you might picture sleek counter tops and elegant meals and trips to Hawaii — and there’s some of that — but there’s also the way the man is brilliant and relentless, with a focus and zeal for excellence that makes him seem a monster to the people who need him most. For instance, he refuses to install heat in his drafty house and won’t buy a couch for the living room. When he finally gives Lisa a computer — at this point she’s moved in with her father, an arrangement he agreed to only if she focused on him and pledged not to see her mother — she plugs in the CPU and presses the power button. Nothing happens. The man who’s designed some of the most adored devices of all time simply says to his daughter, “I don’t know,” and walks away. The computer disappears and is never replaced, leaving Brennan-Jobs not only crushed, but baffled.
Yet another example of Jobs’ monomaniacal focus on his own needs, and the casual way he changes his mind when it suits him, is the way he finally admits that the first Jobs-designed computer was indeed named for Lisa. She’d always wondered, and hoped. But it’s only at Bono’s villa, in the South of France, when the Apple founder casually responds to the rock star’s query — sure, it was for her — that a gal, just like the rest of us, realizes she was the inspiration all along.
The year could feel so dark and bewildering — from the catastrophic loss of additional sea ice to yet more mass shootings in America — but in books as good as the ones we’ve mentioned, a savvy reader could begin to see a way forward, or at least a reason to read even more excellent titles in 2019.
Nathan Deuel is the author of “Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East.”