Opinion | I read 88 books last year … here are the best five

By Anna Fischer, Staff Columnist

We’re all aware of the phenomenon I like to call High School Ruined Reading For Everyone.” I promise that I’m working on a more concise and catchy name, but for now, I think this gets the point across pretty well.

If you’re anything like me, you devoured books in your childhood and pre-teen years — the YA dystopian era of “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent,” the escapist fantasies of “Harry Potter” and “Percy Jackson” and — most embarrassingly — cliche Wattpad fanfiction. But, the second I turned 14 and began getting told what to read and how to read, my fervor for it left me.

Granted, high school English classes didn’t make me hate reading all together — I did go on to become an English literature major, after all — but, I found that I stopped reading for pleasure during my time in high school. So, last year I made it my New Year’s resolution to start reading for pleasure again.

I read 88 books last year. Yes, for fun. That’s more than a book a week, and it quite honestly changed my life. Before I rediscovered my love for reading, my screen time on my phone reached as high as four to six hours a day. Due to apps such as TikTok and Instagram, my attention span was the shortest that it has ever been, and I struggled to focus on my school work or any task that lasted longer than 60 seconds.

Reading has innumerable benefits. Engaging with stories frequently helps to develop your emotional and intellectual intelligence. Reading can help reduce stress levels and if you switch your nightly phone time for reading time instead, reading can also help to improve your sleep schedule. Last year, I became the healthiest version of myself, and reading had a lot to do with it. I reduced my screen time significantly, improved my interpersonal relationships and felt intellectually stimulated both in school and in my free time.

I know that getting back into reading can be a daunting task. You certainly don’t have to read 88 books this year — that may be a little overkill. But, even just reading for 10 to 20 minutes a day can help you reap all of the benefits.

Half the battle is knowing where to start. So, here are the five best books I read last year — narrowing it down to just five was nearly impossible — and a short attempt on my part to get you to read them. Hopefully, you can find something that inspires you.

  1. Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

This book is by far one of the best contemporary novels I’ve ever read. I read it three times in 2021 and loved it more each and every time. The historical fiction novel follows the story of young Willie Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son. But, he’s a ghost. Willie Lincoln — the historical one, not the ghost one — died in 1862 from typhoid fever when he was only 12 years old.

In this magical novel, Saunders brings the ghost of Little Willie to life as he makes friends with other peculiar ghosts in the graveyard where his body is buried. A strange cast of characters — a ghost with many eyes, one with a permanently enlarged “member” and a self-righteous pastor — all attempt to convince Willie that he needs to let go of his short life in order to move on. But he can’t because his father comes to hold his body one last time, and Willie is convinced he’ll return to bring him home. A work of experimental fiction in both form and content, “Lincoln in the Bardo” is incredulously funny, strange and heartbreaking all at once.

  1. One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

A work of intense magical realism, “One Hundred Years of Solitude” follows a single family in the fictional town of Macondo over the span of you guessed it one hundred years. Each character is distinctive and complex, and you find yourself sucked into the family relations and devouring each storyline like it’s your own Thanksgiving family gossip.

The language itself is hauntingly beautiful and Garcia Marquez allows each magical aspect of this new world to exist without explanation, letting the reader decipher the laws of magic for themselves. But, make sure you utilize the family tree if you decide to indulge yourself in this phenomenal work of fiction — there are at least 19 characters named Aureliano, and five or so named Jose Arcadio. Though, for all its nuances and complexities, “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is engaging, beautiful and certain to keep you reaching for it until you’ve finished all 400 pages without even noticing.

  1. Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee

I’m slightly cheating by including this on my list — I did read this book for my Intro to Modern Korean Literature class. However, it was so phenomenal that it felt like I was reading it for pleasure.

“Pachinko” has won several awards since its publication in 2017 and rightfully so. An epic journey examining the life of a multi-generational Korean family as they struggle to find their place in Japan in the early 20th century where racism and discrimination against Koreans runs rampant. Delicately addressing topics of racism and family turmoil,  “Pachinko” is 600 pages of pure art.

The intricacies of family are imbued with the struggles that life as a foreigner entails and each chapter will leave you alternating between crying, laughing and crying even more, but this time from joy. There are so many wins and losses, so many successes and drawbacks, “Pachinko” depicts real life nothing romanticized or tradegizied.

  1. House of Leaves” by Mark Z. Danielewski

I figured I had to include some kind of horror novel for those of you who are far braver than me, so here we go. I’m including this book on my list for more variety and because it was the strangest book I read this year.

“House of Leaves” is less of a novel and more of a puzzle. It’s a story within a story within a story about a house that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Sometimes words are written in circles, some pages are completely blank except for a single word and one page is just sheet music. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to branch out from the typical novel format.

It’s an intricate mystery and achieves an eerie feeling not just through content, but through form as well. It’s dense — 700 pages dense — but I tore through it in less than a week because of how compellingly original it was.

  1. East of Eden” by John Steinbeck

As an English Literature major, I am legally obligated to include at least one piece of classic American literature in this list. But, I’ll be honest with you — this was my favorite book of the year. Many of you may see the name John Steinbeck and turn your cheek after being forced to read “Of Mice and Men” in high school, but “East of Eden” is a masterpiece.

It follows several families in the Salinas Valley in California during the turn of the century. An epic tale spanning a lifetime, each character is filled with charm and wisdom. Samuel is an old, ingenious and wise Irishman who loves his wife and his children dearly. Lee is a servant in the Valley who is incredibly intelligent and philosophical and serves to disparage every negative stereotype about Chinese people in the early 1900s. Adam Trask is just a man, but a real and raw example of humanity.

It’s from this novel that my favorite literary character of all time is born — Cathy, a young sociopathic and quite possibly evil woman who is, nonetheless, incredibly complex. This novel has my heart. I hope every single one of you read this book at least once in your life.

Well, I am horrifically over my word count, so I’ll make this conclusion short but sweet. Each and every one of the books that I read this year filled me with happiness, sadness and longing to keep reading. I hope that everyone can reclaim their love of reading. I hope I never lose it again.

Anna Fischer writes about female empowerment, literature and art. She’s really into bagels. Write to her at [email protected].