The 10 Best Things I Read This Year: Nathan Maharaj

Kobo's Head Bookseller on the books and articles that left a mark in ‘16

Posted By Nathan Maharaj November 24, 2016
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Even as Kobo’s head bookseller it can be tough to keep on top of the latest and greatest books. At some point years ago I fell behind and despaired of ever catching up. So when I talk about the best things I read in the past year, it’s really a personal history, not an exhaustive list closely related to the publishing calendar.

Please don’t tell my boss.

Sometimes my lateness to trends is entirely deliberate. For instance, I’m pacing myself to one book per year with Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. I read My Brilliant Friend last summer, and this summer I read the second in the series, The Story of a New Name. I like having these books to look forward to, and I’m open to ideas for what series I should start in the summer of 2019.

Saga feels like it was made for me, which is such a rare and amazing feeling to have about a book.

2016 is the year I think I can say I finally came to love graphic novels. I absolutely devoured every issue of Saga by Brian K. Vaughan (illustrated by Fiona Staples -- a Canadian!). It’s a glorious interplanetary story of interracial love and war (heads up: this is not a comic book for kids), but the thing that keeps me coming back is how easy it is as a parent to relate to the two main characters, Marko and Alana. Saga feels like it was made for me, which is such a rare and amazing feeling to have about a book.

The other graphic novel series I got into was Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction (also illustrated by a Canadian -- Chip Zdarsky). Despite the title, it’s less graphic than Saga -- but this still isn’t kids stuff, obviously. I don’t want to spoil it at all because it’s a real delight when you discover where the title comes from (whatever you’re thinking is way, way worse than what the book’s actually about) so I just recommend picking this up if you’re the type of person whose favourite part of a superhero movie is the witty banter.

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As much as I enjoyed it, it’s a hard book to recommend; if Infinite Jest is for you, you’ll know.

It’s an old joke in literary circles that if you’ve read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest you have to say so as soon as possible after meeting someone. It’s a book I’ve been aware of seemingly forever (this year marked 20 years since its publication) but until this year I’d never gathered the will to crack it, which has been kind of embarrassing as readers of the book who know what I do for a living often just assume I’ve read it. It took me 2 months to finish--footnotes and all--and it was worth it. I almost quit a couple of times (the subplot about the French Canadian terrorists is probably a lot funnier to Americans who don’t actually know any French Canadians--and the less said about its handling of wheelchairs and “transvestism” the better) but a couple of spectacularly funny and harrowing scenes kept me hanging on. As much as I enjoyed it, it’s a hard book to recommend; if Infinite Jest is for you, you’ll know.

Non-fiction is a huge part of my reading diet, and one of the things I enjoyed most this year was a very short book by Fareed Zakaria called In Defense of a Liberal Education. As a humanities graduate who's done alright career-wise and works with lots of other people in similar circumstances, this book spoke to me. Citing a number of prominent cases drawn from contemporary business (including Apple, Amazon, and Facebook) as well as politics, the book articulates the value of spending one's early adulthood building a nuanced and informed perspective on the world and one's place in it by reading books--and, critically, writing about them.

“Though I’m seldom at the leading edge on books, I’m completely addicted to reading articles from all over the web on Pocket. Every device I own, including my Kobo eReaders, are logged into Pocket and loaded with things to read.

The closest I got to reading something hot off the press this year was Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. He’s a brilliant novelist, and this book really shows the scope of his talent. It seems like he’s taken “the slavery novel” as a genre, and then twisted it just enough to make you sit up and pay attention and see history in a fresh way. I’m glad I didn’t wait to pick this up.

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Though I’m seldom at the leading edge on books, I’m completely addicted to reading articles from all over the web on Pocket. Every device I own, including my Kobo eReaders, are logged into Pocket and loaded with things to read.

This article about the curators behind the music streaming services that have taken over the music business reminds me a lot of my own team’s work, which made it an interesting read. Buzzfeed’s been doing some great reporting, including pieces like this weaving together business and culture.

I love finding fresh, challenging ways to look at things I take for granted, like how we organize books.

Wait But Why is a really fun, nerdy blog that often publishes pieces as long as short books. This one plays out the thought experiment of how humanity would create an iPhone if we suddenly found ourselves with no technology developed in the last 200 000 years.

I love the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates, and this piece on the unlikely celebrity of Nina Simone is wonderful.

Early this year we added a number of subcategories to help our readers to discover the diversity of our catalogue. I read this beautiful, thoughtful piece months after our work was done and it made me think a lot about how difficult it is to find oneself and one’s creative work the subject of classification systems not in your control. I love finding fresh, challenging ways to look at things I take for granted, like how we organize books.

Aside from another Ferrante book, I have nothing planned for 2017 yet. And that’s exciting.

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